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Essays, Justice, Quick Takes

The Super Bowl? (Part 2 of a dialogue about religion, sports, and capitalism)


I agree with your first critique of my position of sports as religion and your argument that it really points to the religion of capitalism. I particularly enjoyed this line: “The excitement harnessed during a football, basketball, or especially baseball game is that every game is a set of familiar, yet original situations; while the plays remain the same, the unfamiliar progression provide the illusion of uncharted territory. Is this not the centerpiece of an exhaustive capitalist economy where ingenuity is always prized over eliminating rather than creating larger areas of margin?” I could not agree more with this statement, but I think that we are forced, by necessity of resisting capitalism, to not stop our analysis there. It seems to me that, in line with the thinking of John Holloway, activities like work, leisure time, religion, etc. all have a dialectic that points beyond to a better way of doing things, while at the same time these things contain forms of resistance and oppression. For instance, a friend of mine plays basketball after work. We can view this activity through the lens of capitalist critique: he plays basketball to quell his anxieties and refill his body for the next day of labor, following some Althusser-esque, structuralist critique that all things are ultimately absorbed into the relation of capital. At the same time, embedded in this activity is a free relation of human beings, engaged in an, albeit competitive activity, apart from money, the relations of capital, systems of oppression and labor, purely for the sake of enjoyment. The activity then is a vision of a different way of relating. While these small activities seem paltry in resisting the behemoth of global capitalism, I would argue that practices like these are the cracks in capitalism (Holloway, 2007), openings that point to a different order of relations. Whether or not these activities represent resistance to capitalism, these practices do at least point a more communal set of relations. The presence of both of these elements in practices suggests to me that sports can be something to be utilized for resistance to capitalism. Admittedly, however, this means that we need more ideological interpretation of practices and activities, critiquing the harmful features of sports and affirming the parts that point to and further liberation.



Indeed, we must not stop the analysis yet. My claim is that Sport proper is only a ghost; today, commercial media is Sport. I am sympathetic with the distinction between the act of ‘playfrom an activity’s purely utilitarian function. But my inclination is to see the aspect of ‘play’ as a utilitarian function. This is not to say that I believe that ‘play’ to be merely a method for quelling anxieties or refreshing a body for yet another day of labor. I see ‘play’ as a means of expressing a desire beyond the capabilities of the activity itself; in a way, ‘play’ is the emphatic attempt to transcend, albeit self-imposed, regulations (i.e. the rules of a game). Play may be the ultimate expression of leisure…but what is leisure in a culture where one is free to choose how one gets what one wants, but never what one gets to want?

Enter commercial media (consisting of anything from shoes to chicken wings): commercial media intervenes between the activity and the citizen. In ancient Greece the gods were deeply embedded (as they are today) into the concept of sports – religion, politics, and culture not belonging to such brittle categories as today. However, a major difference from today is that Sport was mediated to the people by the polis. The opposite is true today: the government provides something like social security rather than free gyms or public baths. Greek individuals acquired a sense of their original humanity through the activity of sport: sacrifices to Zeus and military“cease-fires” during competition and, importantly, the necessity of performing potentially deadly activities nude.

What we see at work in Sport today is a remnant of the myth of what Sport once meant. This is why Sport today stops short of the events to which they allude; if a player dies it is a regrettable atrocity that someone will work to prevent for future players; if a fan comes shirtless and painted to a bitterly cold football game, they are celebrated as the justifier and the Jester: their presence  deflates conflicting messages, assuring the audience that Sport doesn’t actually equal personhood/community, and that the safest position is suppress that knowledge: because how else could Sport continue in the capitalist religion that it makes manifest?

As in capitalism, where one free to choose the how but never the what of desire, the media’s role in Sport reinforces the notion that difference is okay as long as difference one attempts to achieve is not a difference at all. Here, difference is portrayed what the viewer unfortunately already is. The difference that matters is the difference that fosters conformity. This is illustrated perfectly in VW’s and Mercedes-Benz’ pre-released Superbowl commercial. In the former, a stereo-typically white office worker speaks in an equally stereo-typical Jamaican accent to temporarily corral coworkers out of the existential alienation induced by the fluorescent lights, cubicles, etc. In the latter, the humorously and conventionally attractive Kate Upton blows soapy bubbles off her dripping wet hands in slow motion as she watches young football players wash her car. CNN.com featured stories commenting on the commercials’degrading and offensive nature but ultimately shrugged off the controversy by praising the cultural value and risk taken in expanding the ‘politically correct’. While Sport does have a subversive element – namely, the challenge of living the same in order to develop difference – commercial media has coopted the language but perverted its message: chase difference in order to ultimately remain the same.

The point that I am leading to is this: Sport, today, cannot contain the mythic force that it is imagined to have. The commercial media reinforces the mythic force in order to allow Sport to continue without having to involve violent or communal ends. Because commercial media, and not the polis, mediates between the individuals and the activity any subversive activity contained in sports is, by nature, directed at commercial media. If this is the case, commercial media has actually eclipsed Sport as the location from whence a community derives its identity. What appears to be a flaw is actually a realized potentiality. Therefore, the “cracks” in capitalism aren’t actually cracks at all – they are capitalism. What can be seen as redemptive in Sport is actually a dialectically redemptive/conservative element of commercial media. While games may be fun, the more interesting subversive opportunity is found in the most difficult opponent: where the spirit of Sport lives today.


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