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Sociology of Sport
International Review for the
DOI: 10.1177/101269028702200303
1987; 22; 171 International Review for the Sociology of Sport
John J. Sewart
The Commodification of Sport
http://irs.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/22/3/171
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The
Commodification of
Sport
JOHN
J. SEWART
Department
of
Sociology, University
of Santa
Clara,
Santa
Clara,
CA
95053,
U.S.A.
Abstract
This
paper
examines a series of
changes experienced
within
sport
as it
undergoes
a
process
of
commodification. It is
argued
that this
process
constitutes a
degradation
of athletic
activity.
The
interpretations
of such
changes
are examined in
light
of the debate over mass
culture
and the
popular
arts. This
controversy
has centered on whether the nature of
modern
sport
has become debauched as it is subsumed to the
logic
of the
marketplace.
It is
suggested
that
puerility
has come to dominate
sport
as modern culture becomes
standardised
and administered as a
commodity. Sport
is thus viewed in terms of the tensions
between
its
emancipatory potential
and its function as a
commodity
for social
consumption.
Introduction: The Social
Hegemony
of the
Commodity
Form in
Sport
&dquo;The men of
early
times,&dquo;
thought
Plato,
&dquo;were better than we and nearer to the
Gods.&dquo;
Similarly,
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
asked,
&dquo;Where have
you gone,
Joe Di
Maggio?&dquo;
These concerns are
expressed by many
critics
today
in
regard
to
the character of modern
sport
in American
society.
The current situation is
contrasted with a
vaguely
defined &dquo;Golden
Age&dquo;
of
sport
not contaminated
by
the
crass commercialization and sensationalization that characterizes modern
professional sport. Today
we find
exploding
scoreboards,
nickel beer
night,
market-induced rule
changes governing
the
playing
of
sport,
directives issued to
fans on multimillion dollar electronic video screens
instructing
them when to
cheer,
the
fixing
of
competitions, gratutitous
fan and
player
violence,
the cult of
the
star,
the cult of
winning,
extreme
specialization
of athletic
talent,
and
dangerous
medical
practices.
This
paper
will:
(1) present empirical
evidence of
the
corruption
of
sport,
and
(2) critically
assess the central theoretical issues
raised in the consideration of the nature and character of modern
sport.
In order to
accomplish
these
tasks,
I will
single
out the
significant
elements of
the
debate which has centered around the
problem
of art versus entertainment.
As it
applies
to
sport,
the debate over mass culture and
popular
arts centers
around the
problem
of
manipulation
versus
personal
enrichment and
development.
This discussion is a
necessary
first
step
toward
providing
a broader
base for the
study
of
perhaps
the most
popular
of
popular
cultures in
contemporary
American
society - professional sport.
It is
suggested
that the
corruption
and dehumanization of
sport
is a result of both the commodification of
athletic
activity
and the social character and consciousness of
sporting
fans/
consumers. It is further
suggested
that this
process
is best understood from the
theoretical
vantage point
of the instrumental rationalization and concomitant
consumerization of the life world. Before
discussing
these
points
it is
necessary
to
examine what is valuable in
sport
and what has been lost and dehumanized in the
process
of commodification.
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172
Sport
is a social
phenomenon
related to the
intersubjective
moral order.
As
opposed
to the utilitarian and technical dimensions of
life,
sport
has
been
identified as a
moral, aesthetic,
and dramatic
phenomenon
as well as a
medium
of
individual self-fulfillment
(Huizinga
1955;
Weiss
1969;
James
1963).
As a
moral
phenomenon, sport
is oriented to the dimension of
interpersonal
bonding.
Childrens
games
are considered
by
G. H. Mead
(1932),
Jean
Piaget (1934),
and
Lawrence
Kholberg (1969)
to be the crucible of social
development
and
the
constitution of the social
self through symbolic
interaction. Since
intersubjectivity
and
symbolic
communication are at the center of
culture,
sport
has
long
been
valorized as an
important
medium
enabling
social actors to
&dquo;practice&dquo;
and &dquo;learn&dquo;
a sense of fair
play, justice,
conflict and
dispute
resolution, sublimating egoistic
desires to
group
needs,
as well as
generating sociability, solidarity
and
communal
effort. In this context social behavior is
shaped by
norms and values informed
by
intersubjective
communication rather than norms and values of a
purely
instrumental and technical nature. In
short,
sport
is seen as
providing
a
context
where
authenticity
and self and
society may
be realized.
This idealized vision of
sport
is
severely
deficient insofar as it reduces
sport
to a
separate reality
whose
meanings, metaphoric qualities,
and
regulating
structures
are disembodied from its material context.
However,
this
paper
takes these
idealized values as
providing
a
potential
basis for
redeeming
those
very
ideals
which have been
corrupted
in modern
society.
The
analysis suggested
here
examines the contradictions and discontinuities between
sport
and their
socioeconomic context rather than the continuities. This
requires
an immanent
critique;
i.e.,
an examination of the
norms, values,
and ideals of
sport
as
they
are
&dquo;supposed
to be&dquo; and their actual
practice
in
society.
Immanent criticism
evaluates
sport according
to its own standards
(described
above)
and confronts it
with the
consequences
as
actually practiced
in a commodified form.- The
point
of
such an
analysis
directs us to a critical evaluation of those social conditions which
block the realization of
sports emancipatory
and liberative values.
The
starting point
of such an
analysis
is an examination of the extent to which
the structure and
practice
of
sport
are
increasingly shaped by
a market
rationality.
As shown in the
following
sections,
when
sport
becomes a
commodity governed
by
market
principles
there is little or no
regard
for its intrinsic content or form.
This is not to
say
that
sport
was once
pure
and
pristine,
uncontaminated
by any
concern for market success. Several observers have
shown, however,
that until
the twentieth
century profit
was
sought
after for the most
part only
indirectly
(E.g., Crepeau
1980;
Vincent
1981).
What is new
today
is the direct and
undisguised primacy
of the
profit
motive.
Accordingly,
the direction of
changes
within
sport
is
thoroughly
and
precisely
calculated with the market
(especially
the
market for electronic
media)
as the normative touchstone. As will be
shown,
traditional
meanings
and
practices
are foreclosed and
replaced by
a
puerile
and
Barnumesque
ethic of
display,
titillation,
and
theatricality.
The social
hegemony
of the
commodity
form is
apparent
as the
practice
of
sport
is
shaped
and dominated
by
the values and instrumentalities of a market ethic. As
will be
shown,
the idealized model of
sport, along
with its traditional ritualistic
meanings, metaphysical
aura,
and skill
democracy,
is
destroyed
as
sport
becomes
just
another item to be trafficed as a
commodity.
The
following
three sections
of
this
paper
examines the various
ways
in which a market
mentality
has intruded
into and
subsequently
debauched various
sports.
The commodification of
sport
is
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173
evidenced
in the
following
arenas:
(1) changes
in
rules,
format and
scheduling; (2)
the
abandonment
of the ethic of skill
democracy (its
not who
you
know but what
you do);
and
(3)
the inclination to
spectacle
and
theatricality.
After
considering
these
three
arenas,
the
paper
assesses various theoretical
interpretations
of these
intrusions.
Changes
in
Rules, Format,
and
Scheduling
According
to Howard Cosell
(1973:343)
television executives view
sport
as
merely
entertainment and will exert tremendous
pressure upon
the
governing
bodies
of
sport
in order to attract ever
larger advertizing
revenues. This translates
into
changing
the rules of the
game
which
profoundly
alter the character of
competition, scheduling changes (e.g., playing
World Series
games
in the
snow),
absurdly long playing
seasons,
more
playoff games,
bowls and
tournaments,
etc.
Although
the association between television and
sport begins
with the
inception
of
broadcasting,
television was
relatively unimportant
until the end of the 1950s
(Horowitz 1977).
The owners of
professional
and
intercollegiate sport
increasingly began
to look to television as the
major
source of revenue. For
example,
the
growth
in broadcast revenues from 1956 to 1976 increased over 1000
percent
(from
$10
million to over
$112
million).
Some more recent
figures
indicate the financial
dependency
of
sport upon
the television
industry:
in
1982,
the National Football
league signed
a television contract for
$2.1
billion over five
years;
in
1984,
NBC and ABC
paid
between them over
$1.1
billion for the
rights
to broadcast
major league
baseball;
ABC
paid
$225
million to broadcast the 1984
Summer
Olympics;
in
1983,
ABC
paid
the National
Collegiate
Athletic
Association
$238.5
million for the
rights
to televise
college
football - each team
competing
in a telecast receives
$550,000.
The fact that
sport
has become
heavily
dependent
on the commercial broadcast media is evidenced in the comments of
Brian
Bruns,
director of
broadcasting
for
major league
baseball: &dquo;Our
people
are
leaving
behind
bats, balls,
and
gloves
and are
starting
to
worry
about
satellites,
transponders,
and cable&dquo;
(Huffman 1984).
During
the
early
1970s
professional
football was criticized as a
&dquo;boring&dquo; game
due to the lack of
high scoring games.
Stadia across the
country
became
only
partially
filled and television
rating dropped
to an all-time low. The National
Football
League
Rules Committee
responded
with a series of rule
changes
and
technical innovations which
cumulatively
increased the
games scoring
and
heightened
the action for the television audience:
1)
goal posts
were moved to the back of the end zones which would cut down on
&dquo;boring
field
goal kicking&dquo;,
2)
the ball was returned to the line of
scrimmage,
or out to the 20
yard
line after a missed
field
goal;
3)
on
kickoffs,
the ball was moved from the 40 to 35
yard
line to
prevent
kickers from
kicking
the ball out of the end
zone;;
4)
on
punts, only
the end men are
permitted
to release downfield before the ball is kicked
- thus
increasing
the returners chances for a successful
run-back;
5)
a sudden death
period
is added to break ties in
regular
season
games;
6)
the head
slap (striking
an
opponent
above the
shoulders)
was made
illegal during
the
initial
charge
of a defensive lineman - thus
increasing
the
advantage
of the offensive
unit;
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174
7)
the defense is limited to one chuck or hit on
potential pass
receivers - this contact
has
to
take
place
within 5
yards
of the line of
scrimmage;
8) pass
blockers on the offensive unit are
pcrmitted
to use extended arms and
open hands;
9)
inbounds markers were
progressivcly
moved from where the ball carrier was
downed
(even
if 1/2 inch from the
sidelines)
to five
feet, to
sixty
feet,
to
seventy
feet nine
inches,
Thus evolved the current hash marks - which follow the vertical lines of the
goal posts-
that allow the
quarterback
and kicker to be
virtually
in the middle of the field at
all
times;
10) many penalties
were reduced from fifteen to ten and five
yards;
11)
half time was reduced from
twenty
to fifteen minutes -
increasing
the
programs
saleability
to
sponsors;
12)
increase of the
player
limit;
13)
the two-minute
warning
and additional time outs were introduced to allow for
more
commercial time. Television
required
that fourteen time outs in 3-4-3-4
per quarter
sequence
be taken for commercials and referees
began carrying
electronic
beepers
to
receive a
signal
to
put
the ball back in
play
after a
commercial;
14) rescheduling
of
games
on
Mondays, Thursdays
and
Saturdays
for a wider
television
audience. Since the turn of the
century
held that
high
schools
played
football on
Friday
night, colleges play
on
Saturday
afternoon,
and
professionals play
on
Sunday
afternoon;

15)
in
1976,
the
Superbowl
was
played
for the first time in the
evening
in order to
get higher
Nielsen
ratings;
16)
numerous
packaging
devices were introduced
by
television networks to make the
game
more
entertaining-microphones
on officials so that fans could understand
penalty
calls
instead of
learning
the
complex system
of hand
signals,
directional
microphones,
slow-
motion and
stop-motion videotape,
instant
replays
and isolated
cameras,
split
screens,
blimp
cameras,
close-ups
of cheerleaders and fans. These innovations were
designed
to
fill so-called dead time. The result has been a reversal where
many
fans
prefer
the
recorded
replays
to the live action.
The result of the above
changes
is a
radically
altered
game
of football which
attracts
huge
television audiences.
4
Similar
changes
can be identified in other
sports - changes
which seek to
increase action and
scoring.
Professional basketball has
recently implemented
the abolition of the zone
defense,
a three
point
shot,
and the
twenty
four second
clock. Professional baseball has witnessed the
lowering
of the
height
of the
pitchers
mound which reduces the
velocity
of the baseball and thus assists the
batter;
a
larger
strike zone to
encourage
more
hitting;
fewer
warmup pitches
for
relievers;
a livelier
ball;
the
limiting
of
managers trips
to the mound to talk with
the
pitcher;
a
designated
hitter;
umpires
who
keep games moving
at a faster
pace:
more
night games;
and artificial
playing
surfaces.
The effort to attract
large
audiences also
degrades
the
quality
of
play
in a
variety
of
ways.
For
example,
several baseball
parks
have moved the fences in
closer to home
plate
in order to increase homerun
output.
A debauched version
of sideshow baseball became
especially
evident
during
the 1982 baseball season
when the Oakland As
Rickey
Henderson was in
quest
of Lou Brocks base-
stealing
record. His baseball efforts defied
strategy
in
many
situations when he
would not
stay put
at first base in order to chalk
up
another steal. He
was,
amidst
tremendous media
fanfare,
trying
to break the record. Side-show ball became
especially apparent
on
August
24,
1982 in a
game
with the Detroit
Tigers.
Henderson had stolen bases 116 and 117 in the first
inning (the
record at this time
was
118).
A
sports
writer for the San Francisco Chronicle documents the events
which followed:
-
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175
~
&dquo;When
Henderson
singled
to left in the
eigth, magic
number 118 was
only
90
feet away. Unfortunately,
so was Fred
(Chicken) Stanley,
who had walked to lead
off
the
inning.
He was
standing
on second base and
Rickey
was all dressed
up
with
nowhere
to steal.
Suddenly, Stanley
was
caught
in a rundown between second and
third
bases. He did not run hard. When Lou Whitaker
tagged
him
out,
Stanley
jogged
briskly
off the
field,
and when he reached the
dugout,
his teammates
welcomed
him with warm handshakes. How convenient!
Despite [As manager]
Martins
denials,
Stanley
was
picked
off on
purpose -
which means that he and
Martin
cheapened
baseball ...
They
werent the
only guilty
ones.
Stanley
had
gotten
on first base when
Tiger pitcher Jerry Udjur
walked him on four
straight
balls.
None of the
pitches
was close. It is hard to
imagine
that
Udjur
needed to be
careful
with
Chicken,
who came into the
game batting
a
measly.
189. It is obvious
that
Tiger manager Sparky
Anderson ordered
Udjur
to
put Stanley
on base to
prevent
Henderson from
tying
the record
against
Detroit.&dquo;
(Cohn 1982)
A similar instance of
degradation
was also evident in the 1980 National
Football
League
season when the
Philadelphia Eagles
Harold Carmichael set a
record
of
pass catching
in 123 consecutive
games.
In the eleventh week of the
season
(game
number
124)
Carmichael was shut out until the fourth
quarter
when
the
Eagles
ran a
special pattern
to
keep
the streak alive. In the twelveth week of
the season,
the
Eagles
made certain that did not
happen again by opening
the first
play
of the
game
with a
strategically
unsound two
yard completion.
This
type
of
debauchery
also leads to the
fixing
of
games. Throughout
the
years
exathletes,
coaches and trainers
periodically
reveal instances of
fixing.
The most recent
allegation
came from All-Pro Bubba Smith with
regard
to the 1969
Super
Bowl III
when the New York Jets defeated his Baltimore ColtS.5
The
manipulation
of
sport
is not limited to
professional
athletics. The Los
Angeles Olympic Organizing
Committee
(LAOOC)
has scheduled the marathon
to
begin
as close to
prime
television time as
possible -
5:30
p.m.
PST.~ This is
when heat and
smog
have built
up
and
usually envelop
Los
Angeles.
To make
matters
worse,
marathoners will have to run the last 45 minutes of the 1984
Olympics
in the heart of the downtowns heat and
smog
because the
LAOOC,
under
pressure
from
ABC-TV,
wants to have them finish at the L.A.
Coliseum,
site of the 1932 Games. Australias Rob de
Castella,
who has run the worlds
second fastest marathon
(2:08:18),
was incensed when
learning
of the 5:30
starting
time: &dquo;I am
very disappointed
to have to run the best marathon in the
world under adverse conditions. The
temperature
will be
extremely high,
and
well be in dire straits. The race should be run
early
in the
morning
or later at
night,
or at a course near the ocean which is cooler and freer of
smog&dquo; (McCoy
1984).
Four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill
Rodgers
has
suggested
that the
marathon be held elsewhere: &dquo;I think it would be a
good
idea to hold the
marathon in San Francisco ... but it wouldnt be
good
for TV. Athletes in
America have
zero,
absolutely
zero clout ... Given ABCs commitment to
money, they
wont
change&dquo; (Broughton 1983).
This situation has been
succinctly
summarized
by
Steve Scott,
runner of the second fastest time in the
history
of the
mile race: &dquo;The
Olympics
are
just
a
staging ground
for someones commercial
interests. The Games are no
longer
an event to
bring
the best athletes
together ...
theyre
a TV
extravaganza
to sell McDonalds and Xerox&dquo;
(Cohn 1984).
In the mid-1960s ABC-TV
began showing
documentaries on
surfing.
These
programs
attained
sufficiently high
audience
ratings
so that network executives
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176
attempted
to televize/market
surfing competitions.
However,
this
required
that
the
competitions
had to be held on a
specific
site at a
prearranged
time and
date.
Regardless
of surf and weather
conditions,
surfers were instructed to
begin
surfing
on cue from television
producers.
The market orientation of
commercial
television violated the traditional
participatory
and democratic norms and
rules
of
surfing competitions
which were
normally
scheduled over a weeks
period.
Each
morning
surfers would
gather
at the beach and vote on whether
they
felt
the
conditions were
appropriate
for the contest to
begin.
If the vote was
negative,
they
would meet for another vote in the
early
afternoon. This
process
would
be
repeated
until the
competitors
reached a consensus. If a
good
surf had not
come
up during
the
seven-day period,
the contest would be cancelled. In the face of
capitulating
to market
demands,
many
world class surfers withdrew from
these
&dquo;staged&dquo; competitions
in order to
preserve
the creative and
self-expressive
dimensions of the
sport/art
form of
surfing (Scott 1971).
The Abandonment of the Ethic of Skill
Democracy
Sport
has
long
been
singled
out as one of the few
spheres
of social life where
rational meritocratic values are
truly operational.
The most consistent
characteristic of
sport
is that an individuals status is
objectively
measured in
terms of
performance
or merit
according
to an
agreed upon
set of norms.
Subjective
factors,
family
connections,
or
political
influence are of no
consequence
on the
playing
field or in the arena: one can hit or catch a ball or not.
Commercialization and commodification have
steadily
eroded the ethic of skill
democracy.
The
replacement
of meritocratic
principles by
market
principles
and the canons
of entertainment is evident in the
sport
of tennis. For
example: players
often tank
matches so that
they
can
quit
a tournament and
speed
off to another tournament
which offers more
money; players
accomodate to network
broadcasting
demands
for
certainty
in &dquo;air time&dquo; -
i.e.,
players
will
split
the first two sets and
play
an
&dquo;honest&dquo; third to ensure
filling
a time slot and thus
guaranteeing
ad revenue for
the television
networks;
players
will make advance
arrangements
to
evenly split
prize money regardless
of the outcome of the
match;
and
preferential
treatment
in
officiating
is accorded to
big-name players by
match
umpires
who are under
heavy pressure
from tournament directors to treat them well.
Things
have
become so bad in tournament tennis that M. M.
Happer
III,
administrator of
tennis Pro
Council,
says
&dquo;I think all exhibition matches are fixed&dquo;
(Mewshaw
(1983:228).
In a series of interview conducted
by
a
sports journalist,
these
practices
are defended
by
athletes and tennis administrators in the name of tennis
being
entertainment
(Mewshaw 1983). Exactly
the
problem.~
7
The
quest
for
profit
and its destructive
impact upon
the ethic of skill
democracy
is
especially
evident in the
sport
of
professional boxing.
The
scheduling
of
opponents
is
ideally
determined
by
an
objective
selection of the
challenger
with the best record.
However,
in the
quest
to
sign
lucrative contracts
with the television
networks,
the two
boxing
associations
(the
World
Boxing
Council and the World
Boxing Association) unabashedly manipulate
their
rankings
of boxers
regardless
of
skill,
experience,
or
competence.
Because a title
holder has name
recognition
and can command lucrative
contracts,
the choice of
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177
opponents
often involves
bypassing
ranked contenders for unknown and
unproven
boxers who have financial
backing.
In order to
get
a title
shot,
a boxer
must
be rated in the
top
10 contenders in his
respective weight
division.
However,
to
get
into the
top
10
ratings
of the WBC or WBA it is not
necessary
to beat
anybody,
merely
to know the
right people
and
grease
the
right palms.
For
example:
after
signing
a multi-million dollar
package
with NBC-TV for a
two
fight package
with
Heavyweight Champ Larry
Holmes - his
opponents being
the
unranked Scott Frank and Marvis Frazier - the
following
events ensued. At
the
time of the
signing,
Frank and Frazier were both absent from the
top
10 list.
However,
the rules
required
that these
fighters
be rated
by
the time of the
fights
(September
and November
1983)
if Holmes was to meet the titleholders
obligation
to defend his title a minimum number of times
per year.
Frank
(20-0-
1),
a
fighter
whose
only fight against
a rated
fighter
turned
up
a
draw,
suddenly
appeared
in the
top
10
ratings
of the WBA and WBC.
Similarly,
Frazier received
his
rating
in time for the
fight.
A
particularly striking example
of athletic skill
being
subsumed to non-athletic criteria is the case of boxer John
Mugabe
who
knocked out
Gary
Guiden in
July
of 1983 to increase his record to 16-0
(all
knockouts).
Before the
fight, Mugabe
was ranked number 11 in the WBC and
WBA
ratings.
After the
fight,
Guiden is number 6 with the
WBA;
Mugabe (the
winner of his match with
Guiden)
has
dropped
off the charts.
Another
example
from
boxing
is found in Pete Rademachers certification to
fight Floyd
Patterson for the
heavyweight
crown in 1957 without benefit of a
single previous professional fight.
As Pattersons
manager
at the
time,
Gus
DAmato,
argued:
&dquo;Professional
boxing
is like the
theater,
a business. Its to make
money
and it
doesnt have to be a contest if the
public
decides to see it. I maintain that a
fight
is
put
on to make
money.
Its no business of
any
commission - who are
only
there to
see that the rules and
regulations
are carried
out,
to see that the
fighters
are
physically
and
medically
fit,
that no fraud exists and that the
public
is not
misinformed&dquo;
(Fiske 1983).
The
sport
of
golf
has also
undergone
similar
changes
where match
play
has been
replaced by
medal
play.
Until television
began setting
the criteria of
performance,
most tournaments were decided
by
match
play.
This meant that
by
the time television cameras came to watch the final
action,
the
Sneads,
Palmers
and other stars of that
generation
could have been eliminated
(if they
failed to
perform
adequately)
and two &dquo;unknowns&dquo; would
play
for the title. Television
ratings,
of
course,
would
drop accordingly.
Medal
play always guarantees
&dquo;the
stars&dquo; a
position
in the final
competitions - regardless
of their
performance.
That the name of the
game
is the box office and Nielsen
ratings -
rather than
performance -
was
especially
obvious in the selection for the 1983
college
football
post-season
bowl
games.
The Southern Methodist
University (SMU) Mustangs,
with an
outstanding
9-1 record
against top-ranked opponents (and
a 30-2-1 record
over the
past
three
years),
were not tendered an invitation to
any
of four
major
bowls
(Sugar,
Cotton,
Orange,
or
Fiesta).
While SMU was
passed
over,
name
recognition
teams with mediocre records such as Notre Dame received
invitations. The
reason,
as an executive vice
president
of Entertainment and
Sports
Programming
Network
noted,
is that SMU lacks
&dquo;marquee
value&dquo;
(Sports
Illustrated
1983).
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178
In
spite
of isolated
protests
from
sportswirters
concerned with ethical
standards
of fairness and
meritocracy, sport
is
increasingly
dominated
by
market
concerns.
Just as the old saw holds for the
occupational
world,
&dquo;its not what
you know, but
who
you
know&dquo;,
so it now holds for the athletic world. The modern
sporting
public fatalistically accepts
this situation.
However,
things
have not
always
been
this
way.
In
1928,
for
example,
the Boston Braves constructed new bleachers
in
left and center fields in order to shorten the distance
required
for the
newly
acquired Rogers Hornsby
to hit home runs. One columnist called this action
&dquo;one
of the
cheapest things
ever done in the National
League&dquo;.
A similar
outcry
erupted among
the fans in Boston. After this
outcry
the Braves
repented
and
announced
they
would move the bleachers back
(Crepeau 1980:44).
The
modern
fan views such events
quite differently.
For
example,
a fans
response
to the
base-
stealing debauchery (described
on
p.
7
above)
is indicative of the
consumerist
attitude toward
sport
as
spectacle:
&dquo;Whats all the fuss about Fred
Stanley
getting
picked
off base on
purpose ...
Baseball is entertainment ... I went to the As
game
to see a record broken ... I dont care how it
happens&dquo; (S.
F. Chronicle
Spotting
Green
1982).8
The Inclination to
Spectacle
and
Theatricality
The
logic
of the market is dominant insofar as the commercial media selects
between
sports
for those which make
good
entertainment as well as
selecting
within a
particular
event for those moments which make for maximum viewer
interest. Attention is
given
to the
dramatic,
the
spectacular,
and the theatrical -
the thrills and
spills,
the knockout
punch,
the
winning
hit,
the brawls in the stands
and on the field.
Accordingly, sport
caters and
shapes
itself to the interest of &dquo;he
who
pays
the
piper&dquo;.
The commercial reconstruction of
sport
into a
spectacle
and
the
consequent debauching
and trivialization are examined in the
following
examples.
Instead of athletic contests which
happen
to be broadcast on television.
the
process
of commodification has
given
us television events which
happen
to
involve athletes.
With the
rapid expansion
of
pay
television and the
proliferation
of baseball
throughout
North America on the broadcast
media,
baseball has been
shaped
to
the needs and
advantage
of the broadcast
industry.
Baseball was able to
overcome its
slump
in
popularity during
the 1970s not
by enriching
the skill level
of the
sport,
but
through
the
application
of
marketing techniques.
As Bowie
Kuhn,
the former commisioner of baseball
put
it: &dquo;the reason baseball has done
so well is weve learned to market the
product
better and were
going
to do an
even better
job
at
marketing
than we are
doing
now&dquo;
(Kuhn 1983:17).9
Ebbets
Field,
the Polo
Grounds,
and
Sportsmans
Park have been
replaced
by
&dquo;entertainment centers&dquo;
featuring: paid
cheerleaders and mascots
(Krazy
George,
The San
Diego Chicken)
who make their entrance in
helicopters
or
parachutes; giant
&dquo;Diamond Vision&dquo; video screens
showing replays,
the
speed
of
balls thrown
by
the
pitcherz3-D
soft
porn images
of
players,
advertisements and
commercial
lyrics
and
jingles;
wall-mounted television at concession stands and
in
bathrooms. In
addition,
rock music and Las
Vegas sytle
cheerleaders have
replaced
the time-honored
park organist
as between
inning pasttime.
Live rock
bands
(instead
of baseball
players) perform
as the second
&dquo;game&dquo;
of baseball and
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179
rock
&dquo;double-headers&dquo;. The
umpires
traditional
game-beginning
invocation of
&dquo;Play
Ball&dquo; has been
replaced by
human cannonballs shot from center field into a
net
at the
pitchers
mound.
College
football is also
adopting
a
sport-cum-live-entertainment &dquo;line-up&dquo;
in
order
to market its
product.
For
example,
the 1983 Wake Forest football schedule
included fireworks,
Bob
Hope,
the Dallas
Cowboy
Cheerleaders,
The Four
Tops,
The
Temptations, Tanya
Tucker,
and Firefall.
The North American Soccer
League (NASL),
established in
1968,
has
continually struggled
for survival in the
sport marketplace. Accordingly,
this
sport
has been
subjected
to the associated
processes
of commercialization and
theatricality.
Unable to attract American
fans,
the owners of soccer have tried to
&dquo;spice-up&dquo;
the
game.
The
major
obstacle to
corporatization
has come from the
inability
of the
sport
to
capture
the television audience. This is a result of the
sport
not
being
suited for television. There are no time-outs in soccer and if the ball
goes
out of
bounds,
it is
immediately
thrown back into action. There is no
&dquo;stop
and
go&dquo;
action as there is in
football,
baseball and basketball. In
addition,
soccer
is a
skillful,
defensively
oriented,
low-scoring game.
Soccer matches can
go
several minutes without an offensive
attempt
to
acquire
a score - scores of 1-0 or
2-1 are
very
common. To make
things
worse,
the code of
sportsmanship among
soccer
players
is
deeply
rooted and
strictly
followed. As a
result,
violence is
relatively
rare in matches.
This,
of
course,
makes for a &dquo;dull&dquo;
sport.
In order to add some &dquo;excitement&dquo; to the
game,
the NASL
tampered
with the
world soccer code
by eliminating
tie
games
with - what was marketed in
typically
American
style - a
&dquo;Shoot Out&dquo;. The Shoot Out was devised to be added after the
overtime
periods.
The NASL declared that American
spectators
needed the
added &dquo;thrill&dquo; of a Matt Dillon
type
show-down at
high
noon
(1982
Soccer
Encyclopedia: 508-512).
Other alterations of the
sport
included
moving
the off-
sides line from the 50
yard
line to an
arbitrary
line 35
yards
from the
goal.
There
are also
many proposals
to widen the
goal
in order to increase
scoring.
In its
struggle
to market a
traditionally &dquo;foreign&dquo; sport,
the NASL has
adopted
a wide
variety
of
promotional techniques.
Under the terms of the 1981 collective
bargaining agreement
between the NASL
Players
Association and the NASL it is
stipulated
that each club can
require
a
player
to make 48
promotional
appearances per
season. In
1983,
the NASL issued a
280-page PlayerAppearance
Manual with detailed
image-making
devices
instructing
teams as to how to best
market their
player/commodities.
A favorite
marketing strategy,
devised
by
the
Tampa Bay
Rowdies and
adopted by
the
league,
enrolls
players
in classes
instructing
them how to deliver a
winning speech
and
bring
in members of the
Toastmasters International to
critique
the
players
efforts. The manual also
makes reference to a
professional agency
that offers instruction in how to comfort
oneself
during
the
&dquo;impromptu&dquo;
interview. So much for Knute Rocknes
inspirational speeches
and Lou
Gerighs
emotional farewall to baseball at Yankee
Stadium. Such
practices
mark the
complete penetration
of
corporate image
makers into the
formerly
non-utilitarian world of
sport.
Although
the above
changes
have been made in the
NASL,
the
League
has lost
millions of dollars on the
premise
that American fans will learn the subtleties of
the outdoor
game.
The
strategy
taken
up by
these frustrated
corporate moguls
was to invent &dquo;the
sport
of the 80s&dquo; - indoor soccer. This
game
is
extremely simple
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180
to understand.
Played
with a
bright orange
ball,
on a
compressed pitch
the size
of
a
hockey
rink
(200
feet
long),
the
game pits
six
players
on a side and the idea is to
kick the ball into a 12
by
61/2 foot
goal.
There are time
outs,
penalty
boxes, and
unlimited substitutions. Athletes enter the field of
play
like rock stars: the
lights
go
off and a
spotlight
is trained on each
player
as he is introduced and
emerges
through
a
fog
fueled
by dry
ice while the entire arena shakes to the
&dquo;Eye
of
the
Tiger&dquo;
blasted over the
public
address
system
at a
deafening
volume. There is a
lot
of
physical
contact,
the
pace
of the
game
is
extremely
fast and
scoring
is
high.
The
end result is a staccato mix of
speeding crashing
bodies and
ricocheting bright
orange
balls. As one
goalie
in the
Major
Indoor Soccer
League put
it,
&dquo;the
game
is
like a human
pin-ball
machine&dquo;
(S.
F. Chronicle
Sporting
Green,
Feb.
4, 1983).
In the effort to carve out a new
market,
a tremendous
emphasis
has been
placed
on commercialized sex. The executive Vice-President of the
Chicago Sting
noted
the
change
in
emphasis
from soccer to indoor soccer: &dquo;I used to
say
there were 3
Ss:
speed, scoring,
and skill. Now I
say
show, sex,
and suburbs&dquo;
(sports
Illustrated,
February
28,
1983).
A
radio.spot
for the
Pittsburg Spirit says:
&dquo;Hot
legs,
hot
time,
hot
action - just
too hot to
handle;
weve
got
20
guys
in shorts who
go
all
night&dquo;.
The
Major
Indoor
League
is the first
sport
to come into existence with the
unmediated view to market itself as
any
other new
commodity
in the
marketplace.
The audience is
carefully targeted,
the show
professionally
choreographed,
and the entire
image
marketed
according
to the
technique
of
scientific
management.
In New
York,
the PA announcer
constantly
advises the
women in attendance as to which bar
they
can visit after the
game
to meet
players.
Players
in the MISL are
encouraged
to coat their
legs
with
baby
oil before a
game
to make them
glisten.&dquo;
A
cologne
manufacturer
sponsors
a &dquo;10~/z&dquo;
competition,
wherein female fans are asked to rate the
players sexuality.
Sex,
not skillful
sport,
sells.
According
to
Godfrey Ingram,
a
player
on the Golden
Bay
Earthquakes,
&dquo;Youve
got
have more skills to
play
outdoor soccer. You can
get
away
with deficiencies
playing
indoors.
Outdoors,
for
example, youve go
to be
able to score from 18-20
yards away; youve got
to be able to
pass long
balls and
short balls. You dont
get
that indoors. All
goals
are from about five
yards.
You
see a little
square
in front of
you
and
try
to hit it. With
outdoor,
you
have to
place
it,
look for the corners of the
goal
and
try
to beat the
keeper.
That involves a hell
of a lot more skill than
getting
10
yards away
from a little
goal
and
just blasting
away&dquo; (Fitzgerald 1984:69).
It is
interesting
to note that while there has been a
decline in athletic
skill,
attendance has doubled in the five
years
since the
league
was founded. 12 The market
approach
to &dquo;the
sport
of the 80s&dquo; has been summed
up by
a
player
owned
by
an
agribusiness
firm: &dquo;The Ralston Purina
Companv
treated us as
though
we were a division of
green
beans and
puppy
chow&dquo;
(The
Sporting
News,
November
28, 1983).
The
quest
for
spectacle
and
theatricality
has worked
against
an authentic
presentation
of
many
dimensions of the
newly-found
interest in womens
athleticism. For
example,
in
1979,
Grete Waitz set a world record in the New
York
City
Marathon
(2:27:33).
While one
might expect
to see considerable media

coverage
of this
spectacular
event - since it was
being
covered live - the dictates
of
the Nielsen
ratings
resulted in a total
neglect
of Waitzs athletic skills. Instead.
&dquo;the live
coverage
ended without so much as a
syllable
about Waitz. The network
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181
signed
off at 2:27:00 into the race. Astute tube watchers were able to view a world
record
being
set
during
the
closing
credits&dquo;
(Niedermann 1980:54). Thus,
supreme
athletic excellence does not
qualify
as
deserving
of the
eye
of the
spectacle
unless it sells.
This lack of
coverage
is due not
only
to traditional male
supremicist
views
regarding
the
inferiority
of womens athleticism
but,
in
addition,
to the
inability
of
sweaty, haggard-looking
athletes
finishing
such a
gruelling
event to attract an
audience.
This
type
of visual
imagery
does not attract the television audience and
advertising
monies as the
socially &dquo;acceptable&dquo;
womens
sports
such as ice
skating, swimming, diving,
tennis,
gymnastics
and
golf.
Broadcast executives are
much
more interested in
close-ups
of women swimmers and divers in wet
bathing
suits,
Jane Fonda
performing leg splits,
and
pixie-like gymnasts pelvic
movements
than the world class
displays
of
aggressive
and
powerful physicality
of
women.
Accordingly,
women athletes who
participate
in
traditionally
unacceptable sports
which involve
aggression
and
power
are
neglected.
Womens
team and contact
sports
such as
rugby,
softball, crew,
volleyball,
field
hockey,
and basketball -
sports
with
long
traditions and
large followings -
are
neglected by
athletic
entrepreneurs
because of their mass
unmarketability.
While
many regular
season
competitions
of womens
sporting leagues
are
neglected,
women athletes are reduced to side-show freaks when
they &dquo;compete&dquo;
in made-for-TV counterfeit
sporting
events
(such
as &dquo;Women
Superstars&dquo;
and the
&dquo;Challenge
of the
Sexes&dquo;)
which have little or no relation to the athletic skills that
they seriously compete
in. The
largest
attention
given
to womens
sport
has been
the 1973 tennis &dquo;match&dquo; between the world class
29-years-old
Billie Jean
King
and
the semi-retired
55-year-old Bobby Riggs. Hyped
as a &dquo;battle of the
sexes&dquo;,
this 3-
million-dollar
&dquo;competition&dquo;
was
promoted
and broadcast as a circus event. In
the
process,
the full
range
of womens athleticism is
neglected
and the
integrity
of
athletic skill is reduced to that which is commodifiable and sold as entertainment.
The
logical
conclusion of the market inclination to
spectacle
and
theatricality
is
the creation of
&dquo;competition&dquo;
of television in the form of &dquo;trash
sport&dquo;.
An
example
of trash
sport
is found in
motorcycle
collision distance
jumping
tournaments. This
&dquo;sport&dquo;
entails
driving
a
motorcyle
into a row of
parked
cars.
The
object
is to see how
many parked
cars &dquo;athletes&dquo; can clear before
they
(hopefully)
tumble onto a mat. To add to the
excitement,
all contestants wear
burning
flares attached to their
pants. Recently,
the ante has been
upped
for this
sport -
due to
flagging
fan interest -
by clearing
buses,
instead of
cars,
for
distance. Fans can also attend the Annual World
Belly Flop
and Cannonball
Diving Championships.
A
perennial
winner in this
competition
is a 423
pound
&dquo;athlete&dquo; who sets himself on fire as he dives into the water.
Or,
fans can watch
&dquo;athletes&dquo;
try
to
pummel
themselves unconscious with their own fists in Knock
Yourself Out
competitions.
The
supreme
trash
sport competition
is found in All-Star
Big-Time
Professional
Wrestling.
This
sport
is
populated by
&dquo;athletes such as Skull
Murphy,
Gorilla
Monsoon,
Abdullah the
Butcher,
Killer
Kowalski,
Dick the
Bruiser,
The
Destroyer,
The
Mongolian Stomper,
and Dr. X. These athletes
compete
in a wide
variety
of
competitions including
Texas
Bull-Rope
Matches,
Strap
Matches,
Indian Death
Matches,
Chain
Matches,
22-Man Battle
Royals,
Roman Gladiator
Matches, and,
of
course,
Steel
Cage
Matches. The
premier
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182
competition,
however,
is the Sicilian Stretcher Death Match which has
the
following
&dquo;rules&dquo;: No
count-out;
no
pin
falls;
no holds
barred;
no
referee; no
rules;
no
surrender;
doctor cannot
stop
bout;
loser must be carried
out;
loser
must
leave town.
A distortion of the liberal ideals of individual
growth
and creative
expression
takes
place
when
sport
becomes
part
of a
system
of entertainment. As a
reflection
of the
single
most
powerful
force in American
society -
viz.,
the market
principle
-
the
meaning
of athletic skill is confined and reduced to that of
providing
entertainment for
money.
This state of affairs is
directly responsible
for the
wide
variety
of abuses and scandals that have
periodically erupted
into
media/public
consciousness since athletics became a matter of
big
business. The list of these
abuses and
corruptions
is
virtually
endless: the fix of the 1919 World Series
between the
Chicago
White Sox and Cincinatti
Reds;
the
pointshaving
scandals
that
continually
surface in the world of
intercollegiate
basketball since the
famous
1951 scandal
involving Brooklyn College
and
Long
Island
University
in New
York
City;
altered
transcripts, bribery,
and death threats
involving
the
college
recruitment of
high
school
athletes;
the mafia-like control of
intercollegiate sport
programs
exercised
by
alumni;
the
dangerous experimentation
with
performance-assisting drugs
and
experimental
medical
procedures;
the
frequent
allegations
of &dquo;fix&dquo; heard in the world of
professional sport;
the bestial-like
behavior of
fans;
and the
emphasis placed
on
&dquo;winning
at
any
cost&dquo; and the
decline of the traditional canons of
sportsmanship.
What we are
witnessing
is the reduction of athletic
skill,
competition
and
contest to a commodified
spectacle
sold in the market for mass entertainment.
The
only guiding principle
becomes the
highest
rate of return on ones
investment. This instrumental orientation of
todays entrepreneurs
of
sport
stands in
sharp
contrast with the
player-orientation
to
sport
as evidenced in the
statement of the
original
creators of the
sport
of basketball. In the first
Introduction to the Basket Ball
Cooperating
Committee Rule Book of 1898
is
stated: &dquo;The function of the rules committee is not
only
to consider and
adopt
rules that
ideally
shall be the best for the
sport,
but the rules committee
must,
by
carefully weighing
the evidence and
acquaintance
with the
field,
formulate that
which
represents
the best
judgment
off the
players
of the
country;
for the
games
are not the
product
of the makers of the rules&dquo;
(Gulick
1898:
5).
The
process
of commodification is not limited to
sport
and athletics. No social
practice
is immune from the corrosive
impact
of commodification. The
accompanying
abuses
repeatedly
documented in the world of
professional sport
have also
penetrated
the world of ballet: extreme
pressures
to
perform
when
injured; rampant
anorexia nervosa and bulimia as a result of the
stringent weight
requirements;
economic
exploitation; widespread
use of
dangerous
performance-assisting drugs; fiercely
competitive
environments inhabited
by
young
child
performers; permanent physical
disabilities inflicted
by
the athletic
regimen
that chews
up
bodies;
and intense
pressure
to conform to the
company
directors
discipline.
The commercialization of ballet
brought
on in recent
years
by
a boom at the box office has
heightened
the market
pressures leading
to the
above-mentioned abuses. With the increased
corporate
control of ballet
companies
in
major performing
arts centers across the
nation,
ballet is
repeatedly
subordinated to a market
mentality.
As
Eugene
Loveland,
president
of the Board
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183
of
the
Houston
Ballet,
and a former
vice-president
of Shell Oil
Company
and
president
of his own oil
company
noted: &dquo;I wanted to know what we were
selling.
If
what we wanted was to be the
strongest regional company,
I knew that we had
to
stay
in the black. Because
you
cant succeed without
money.
I looked at this as
I
would
at
any
new business ... What we needed was to
develop
a
product;
thats
what
sells ... So I saw it as a
company,
a
manufacturing organization,
a sales
organization,
and a finance
organization ...
To
develop
our
product
we needed a
manufacturing
unit with a head of
manufacturing being
an artistic director ... and
to sell
and finance our
product
we need a
marketing
unit&dquo;
(Gordon 1983:197-8).
This
unabashedly
commercial
approach
to human
beings
and their creative
expressions
(whether
ballet or
football)
as
&dquo;products&dquo;
which need to be
&dquo;manufactured&dquo;,
&dquo;developed&dquo;,
and &dquo;marketed&dquo;
inevitably
results in a
debauchery
of both artists and the art or athletes and athletics.
Commodified
Sport: Capitalist Ideology,
Vox
Populi,
or Dehumanization?
What are we to make of the nature and character of
sport
as described above?
This section of the
paper
will consider three theoretical
positions regarding
the
emergence
of commodified
sport : (1)
the Marxist
critique
of
sport
as a derivative
of class
relations;
(2)
the
popular
cultural
&dquo;clap-o-meter&dquo; approach
to
sport;
and
(3)
a critical
theory
of
sport.
It is
argued
that critical
theory
best illuminates the
nature and
trajectory
of
changes
observed in
sport.
The Marxist
problematic
has been
explored
in studies of
sport by
Brohm
(1978), Rigauer (1981),
and Hoch
(1972).
In these
analyses sport
is
subjected
to a
materialist
critique
where the
ideology
of
bourgeois
social and economic relations
is
exposed
and
demystified.
The reader learns how
sport glorifies
meritocratic
standards of
hierachy,
emulates militaristic modes of
discipline,
as well as all the
other values of the
capitalist jungle: virility,
sexual
athleticism,
physical
dominance,
the
superman,
muscle
worship,
fascistic male
chauvinism, racism,
sexism,
and
ageism.
In addition to
sport being
a
capitalist Gulag,
its socio-
political meanings
serve
important ideological-reproductive
functions for state
monopoly capitalism.
Insofar as the Marxist
critique thoroughly explores
the
linkages
and
embeddedness of
sport
within
capitalist
social
processes
it has
provided
a useful
corrective to naive and romanticized accounts of
sport.
However,
this
type
of
Marxist
sociologizing -
the reduction of
sport
to a derivative of
specific
socio-
economic conditions - would
deny any positive
role to
sport.
Such an
interpretation
of Marxs work is
inadequate
in
light
of his
approach
to classical
art: &dquo;The
difficulty
is in not in
grasping
the idea that Greek art and
epos
are bound
up
with certain forms of social
development.
It lies rather in
understanding why
they
still constitute for us a source of aesthetic
enjoyment
and in certain
respects
prevail
as the standard and model
beyond
attainment&dquo;
(Marx 1971:45).
In other
words,
the
analyst
must eschew historicism in order to
non-reductively analyze
the
permanent
aesthetic
enjoyment
afforded
by sport.
What is valuable does not
merely appear
and
disappear
with
changing
historical circumstances.
Not all Marxist commentators have reduced
sport
to a
monolithic,
unified set of
ideologies.
Instead of
identifying sport
as the site where fundamental class and
at Stanford University on March 17, 2009 http://irs.sagepub.com Downloaded from
184
ideological
are
defused,
some
analysts
from within the Marxist tradition
have
perceived
a subversive social content to various form of
sport
found in
working
class culture
(Willis
1978, 1981;
Lipsitz
1982;
Goodmann
1979;
Aronowitz
1973;
Hargreaves 1982). Sports
which
originate
out of
working
class communities
are
seen as forms of
utopian
resistance to the
oppressive
social conditions:
e.g.,
roller
derby, professional wrestling,
low riders vertical car
jumping, boxing, body-
building, power-lifting, strength
exhibitions,
tractor-pulls,
stock car
racing,
and
demolition derbies.
Reinforcing group solidarity, indigenous working
class
sport
thus
preserves
social
collectivity,
anti-utilitarian,
and
pre-industrial
values,
as
well as
providing
a
critique
of the
day-to-day
demands of the
workplace.
3
This valorization of non-commercialized forms of
sport
is useful insofar as it
provides
a
point
of
comparison
in order to better understand the mechanisms
by
which commercialized
sport
functions as well as
providing
a critical touchstone
for the
analysis
of dehumanized athletic
practices.
However,
where these Marxist
critics hear
grinding
and
grating
in the
machinery
of
sport
which
merely requires
oil and new
parts,
the critical theoretical
perspective
offered in this
paper argues
that the hum of the
machinery
itself is offensive.
In contrast to the Marxist
analysis,
the
popular
culturist
argues
that mass
commodified
sport
is
merely
an
expression
of &dquo;the
people&dquo; -
vox
popesli
(Guttmann
1978, 1980, 1981;
Rollings 1975).
The
sports
fan and
participant
are
merely
drummers
marching
to their own inner drumbeat.
Accordingly,
when
confronted with the
allegations
of dehumanization and
debauchery,
the
popular
culturists
response
is to
reject
this thesis on
&dquo;empirical grounds&dquo;.
If we wish to
resolve the riddle of
dehumanization,
according
to the
popular
culturists,
all we
must do is ask the
participants
and fan themselves whether or not
they
are
dehumanized. After extensive research
&dquo;using
the most
sophisticated
psychological techniques
and other devices from the
toolship
of modern
psychology&dquo;,
a noted
popular
culturist
(Guttmann 1981:xxiv)
concludes that
athletes and fans are not dehumanized because
they say they
are not. Case
settled.
This
analysis pivots
on a
methodological
individualism which claims that all
explanations
of social
phenomena
are
ultimately phrased
in statements about
individual
behavior,
not as statements about social totalities.
Narrowly defining
&dquo;the
proper study&dquo;
of
sport
to what is
empirically
ascertainable,
the
methodological position ignores
the
negative
dimensions of commodified
sport.
The
unquestioned presupposition
is that tastes and forms in
sport
are mere
reflections of the values of
people -
never
asking
where these tastes come from or
how
they
are
acquired.
The
analysis
of the social
meaning
of
sport
is thus reduced
to the measurement of
participant
or observer attitudes
(Peterson 1977; Wilensky
1964).
It is not that statistical
analysis
is a
priori
incorrect.
Rather,
the statistical
analysis
of
subjective experience
mandates a more exhaustive examination.
The alternative
position
advocated in this
paper, drawing upon
the
analysis
of
modernity by
the Frankfurt School of critical
theory (Horkheimer
& Adorno
1972), critically
evaluates
sport
in relation to the character of mass
society
which
fails to meet the human needs of
relatedness,
identity,
and rootedness. When
confronted with the
reality
of
sensationalism,
spectacle,
and the
predominance
of
a market
mentality
in
sport,
critical
theory highlights
the extent to which
sport
has
lost its
previous autonomy (as represented
in the idealized version described
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185
above).
This
autonomy
was rooted in a social
position
where
spurt
was free from
the
immediate
context of use and
exchange.
In the
process
of
being
subsumed to
commodity exchange
and instrumental
rationalization,
sport
thus looses its
autonomy.
Whereas
sport
had
previously presented
a
partial critique
of
modernity by
virtue of its non-utilitarian form and
content,
in its
new,
commodified
and
degraded
version,
sport
serves to
reproduce
the modern world.
This
is not to
deny
the extent to which
sport
has
always played
a
legitimating
role
in
society. By
contrast,
however,
modern commercialized
sport
has lost its
(potential)
critical function. It has become
increasingly
&dquo;functionalized&dquo; for the
existing
social order and is valorized
by
that order
precisely
for its role as
entertainment,
distraction and diversion. Under commodified conditions the
form of
sport
is determined
by
its value in
exchange.
That the
meaning
of
sport
is altered
by
the medium of
commodity exchange
is
evident
in the
&dquo;regression
of
viewing&dquo; sport.
Technical standards of
intelligibility
held
by knowledgeable
fans are diminished when
sport attempts
to obtain the
widest market
possible -
i.e.,
appealing
and uninformed
eyes.
Given the current
mode of
exchange
and distribution of
sport, sport
is
adjusted
to attain the
greatest
market. Such
&dquo;regression&dquo;
or &dquo;standardization&dquo; shifts the
reception
of
sport away
from a totalistic
understanding
to atomized modes of
viewing.
The modern
fan,
ripped
from the wholeness of athletic
culture,
seeks
only
stimulation and
sensation.
14
The commercialized form of
sport, although operating
as if it is
freely
chosen
by
the
consumer,
determines the
way
in which
sport
is received and
viewed
by
the fan. As Adorno noted in his
study
of
music,
&dquo;the
composition
hears
for the listener&dquo;
(1941:22).
Against
critical
theorys critique
of commodified
sport, many argue
that the
public
should determine the nature and character of
sport
in American
society
(Gans 1974).
On the surface this seems to be sound democratic
theory.
However,
the authentic fulfillment of democratic
theory requires
that:
(1) popular
taste and
judgement
be informed and
unconstrained;
(2)
there must be a means
by
which
such
judgement
be voiced and
implemented. Obviously
there is a
great disparity
between
theory
and
practice
in
present-day
democratic
society.
The claim that
the
sports industry only gives
the
public
what it wants is a
dangerous
and
misleading
half-truth.
In
point
of fact the
sporting public
is
by
and
large totally ignorant
of what it
might
be
getting
if the
profit
interests of
owners,
professional sporting
organizations,
and the electronic media were different from what
they presently
are. The human
palate
is sensitive to a
virtually
inexhaustable
variety
of tastes in
sport.
But it is
only
as we
sample
different fares that we are
capable
of
exercising
preferences
and
making discriminatory judgements among
them.
Today
we find a
system
in which the formulation, refinement,
and dissemination of tastes is under
a virtual
monopoly
of commercial and
corporate
interests. The
publics
taste in
thus
shaped
with these commercial and
corporate
interests in
mind; secondarily,
if at
all,
is
sports
interest taken into account. Unaware of what
they might
be
tasting,
it is
hardly surprising
the most of the
public expresses
a desire for what
they get.
And if one is
dissatisfied,
what are ones
options?
In
sum,
the
publics
verdict rests on insufficient, distorted,
and
manipulated
evidence. If we are to
understand the nature of mass
sport,
the remarks made
by
Goethe must be
considered:
Formerly
there was one
taste,
now there are
many
tastes. But tell
me,
where are these tastes tasted?
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186
For the critical theorist it is not a matter of
letting
the market decide the fate
of
sport.
It is ironic that those who criticize the critics of commodified
sport
in
the
name of anti-elitism and
democracy
take
up
a
position
which constitutes
the
degradation
of true democratic life. If we take the naive democratic view
that
what
people
are interested in is all that concerns us and all that
ought
to
concern
us,
then we are
accepting
the values that have been
inculcated,
either
by
accident
or,
more
often,
deliberately by
vested interests. These tastes are often the
only
ones
people
have had
any
chance to
develop. They
are
unconsciously acquired
habits rather than autonomous choices. For the critics of the mass commodified
sport
thesis,
democracy
is thus reduced to the definition of economic success in
the market.
Applied
to
sport,
this means that the worth or value of a
particular
sport
is measurable
only according
to market criteria.
Democracy
entails the liberation of the creative
possibilities
of all individuals.
Similarly, sport - as
a manifestation of the
play
element in human
activity - means
the liberation of creative
potentialities.
The
operative
words in this context are
&dquo;creative&dquo; and &dquo;all&dquo; individuals - the
meanings
of which are
profoundly
anti-
elitist in their
import.
The
critique
of commodified
sport
offered here is the heir to
the democratic tradition and the
opponend
of elitism. The concern is with the
extent to which the
emancipatory potentialities
of
sport
are
compromised
and
cheapened by
commodification. It is
only
a false sense of
piety
and
political
correctness which makes it taboo to
contemptuously
refer to mass cultural forms
as &dquo;debauched&dquo;.
The
critique
of commodified
sport
offered in this
paper objects
not
merely
to its
content,
but to its
tones,
atmosphere,
manners and attidudes which constitute the
degradation
of autonomous and non-utilitarian values.
Sport
is
accordingly
depicted
as a
representation
of the mental set of mass
society -
a
society
of
domination and
manipulation (Montagu
& Matson
1983).
As Erich Fromm
observed: &dquo;If a man works without
genuine
relatedness to what he is
doing,
if he
buys
and consumes commodities in an abstractified and alienated
way,
how can
he make use of his leisure time in an active and
meaningful way?
He
always
remains the
passive
and alienated consumer. He consumes ball
games, moving
pictures, newspapers,
and
magazines,
books, lectures,
natural
scenery,
social
gatherings ...
he wants to take in all there is to be had ...
Actually,
he is not free
to
enjoy
his
leisure;
his leisure-time
consumption
is determined
by industry
...
entertainment is an
industry
like
any
other,
the customer is made to
buy
fun as he
is made to
buy
dresses and shoes&dquo;
(Fromm 1955:136-7).
The
point
of view
contained in Fromms
critique
is the furthest
thing possible
from a
position
of
snobbish elitism. It is instead a resistance to the modern world which defines
everything
in functional or utilitarian terms.
The
starting point
of this
analysis
is the
proposition
that all of modern culture
becomes
part
of modern
industry.
Marx noted this
process
in his discussion of the
enormous transformative
power
of the market: &dquo;All that is
holy
is
profaned ...
The
bourgeoisie
has
stripped
of its halo
every activity
hitherto honored and
looked
up
to with reverent awe. It has transformed the
doctor,
the
lawyer,
the
priest,
the
poet,
the man of
science,
into its
paid wage
laborers&dquo;
(Marx
1978:476).
Marx
goes
on to discuss the economic situation of intellectual and artists and
notes that
they
are able to &dquo;live
only
so
long
as
they
find
work,
and ... find work
only
so
long
as their labor increases
capital.
These
workers,
who must sell
at Stanford University on March 17, 2009 http://irs.sagepub.com Downloaded from
187
themselves
piecemeal,
are a
commodity
like
every
other article of commerce ...&dquo;
(Marx
1978:479). Similarly,
athletes can throw
passes,
execute
sky
hooks,
and hit
home
runs
only
if someone with
capital
will
pay
them. In a market
society
this
means
that no one will
pay
them unless it
pays
to
pay
them. This means that
athletic
skill and
creativity
is evaluated and selected not for its intrinsic
qualities
but
instead &dquo;like
every
other article of commerce&dquo;. In the
process
of
subsuming
sport
to the
logic
of commodities &dquo;what will
happen,&dquo;
as Berman has noted in
another context,
&dquo;is that creative
processes
and
products
will be used and
transformed
in
ways
that will dumfound or
horrify
their creators. But the creators
will
be
powerless
to
resist,
because
they
must sell their labor
power
in order to
live&dquo;
(Berman 1982:117).
To
argue against
commodified forms of
sport
is not a desire to turn back to a
society
of cultural
priests
who defined culture. Nor is it a
point
of view which
considers mass
sport
some sort of toxic
gas.
But it does
recognize
that there is a
danger
in a cult of nihilism where
&dquo;anything goes&dquo;
and all needs are reduces to the
same level. While
any
mass cultural form is to some extent an
expression
of
peoples
needs,
it is
potentially tyrannically
collectivist to
accept any
and all forms
of culture as
expressions
of
equal
worth,
significance
and value. Without
harkening
back to an era of sensus communis - an
impossibility given
that there
are no
homogeneous
communities of taste or
anything
else - the
critique
of mass
commodified
sport
is an effort to
distinguish
between that which is facile and
shallow and that which is
profound
and
significant.
The failure to address this
issue has resulted in an attitude of bafflement when most
analysts
confront the
issue of
changes
in the form of
sport.
While this
paper
does not
pretend
to offer
any
definitive resolution of these
queries,
it
points
to the
necessity
of
critically
assessing sport withing
the socio-cultural context of a
society
of
industrially
designed uniformity.
The thesis taken
up
here is not one of total
manipulation
and delusion. The
manipulative
intentions of the
designers
of culture can never be total in their
effects. There remains a subversive
potential
within the non-utilitarian dimension
of
sport
that enable it to be
(potentially)
the &dquo;antidote to its own lie&dquo;
(Adorno
1981-2:202).
There is a limitation to the
process
of reification &dquo;because human
beings,
as
subjects,
still constitute the limit of reification ... Mass culture has to
renew its hold over them in an endless series of
repititions;
the
hopeless
effort of
repitition
is the
only
trace of
hope
that the
repitition may
be
futile,
that human
beings
cannot be
totally manipulated&dquo; (Adorno, ibid.). Rejecting
the thesis of
monolithic
control,
the
possibility
remains of
recovering
the
emancipatory
potential
of
sport.
This
potential
is located within the absolute
practical
uselessness of
sport.
As Ernst Bloch once
remarked,
even
false,
crippled
needs
are needs and contain a kernel of
dream,
hope
and concrete
utopia.
The
goal
of a
critical
theory
of
sport
is to transform these needs into
pressures
for
changing
everyday
life.
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188
Notes
1
This vision of
sport
has found its fullest
expression
in the work of Novak
(1976),
Huizinga
(1955)
and Weiss
(1969).
These authors have identified the
following phenomena as
intrinsic to the structure of
sport:
individual excellence and
perfection; equality;
liberty,
law; fairness;
the
struggle
of the human
spirit
to
persevere
in the face of
adversity;
a
demonstration of the
power
of individual and collective will over natural
fate; dramatic
spectacle; beauty;
tactile
values;
and movement. In other
words,
sport
embodies
a
metaphysic
of human
empowerment:
"athletes are excellence in human form" as well as a
constructive adventure in
"self-perfection" (Weiss 1969:17,35).
2
For a
thorough
discussion of the notion of immanent
critique,
see Adornos discussion in
Prisms
(1981:31-4).
3
This
change
also had the effect of
increasing
the force of
impact
of
opposing players
hitting
one another since
they
have five extra
yards
to
gain
momentum.
4
The
owner-appointed
and controlled
governing
bodies
argue
that such
changes
and
innovations have been introduced for the benefit of
player safety.
But as former All-Pro
player
Jack Tatum
(1980)
has
pointed
out,
the
really dangerous aspects
of the
game
are
left
untouched:
e.g.,
zone
defenses,
the
quick
slant
passing play, blitzing,
steel-hard
helmets.
dangerous
medical
practices,
artificial
playing
surfaces,
and a win-at-all-costs ethic.
5
Comments made in a television interview on
September 26, 1983. According
to Smith: "If
you
remember,
if the AFL didnt establish
credibility by
the end of three
years,
the
merger
was null and void. And if
you
remember,
Kansas
City got
blown out in the first
game,
Oakland
got
blown out in the
second,
and we were the third
game" (San
Francisco
Chronicle,
September
27,
1983).
6
Ironically,
women marathoners
get
a break as a result of the sexism of the networks and
the LAOOC. That is to
say,
the women marathoners start at 8 a.m. and will be finished
long
before the heat and
smog
build
up.
7
This sort of
corruption goes unreported
and unnoticed because
press coverage
is
conducted
by reporters
who are
essentially agents
for the
sponsors
and tournament
directors. Not limited to the world of tennis, writers or broadcasters who criticize the
conduct of their
respective sport
will
suddenly
find themselves banned or unwelcome in
team club
houses,
practice
sessions,
locker
rooms,
training
rooms, hotels,
have interviews
denied or "unavailable",
or find no
space
available on team buses and
planes.
This,
of
course,
spells
the end of
any
career in
sports broadcasting or journalism.
8
However,
things
could be otherwise. The sole
exception
to the commercial dominance of
sport
is found in the Masters Golf Tournament. The Masters is broadcast without
gimmickry, hyperbole,
reference to
money,
crowd
size,
loud voices or
promotions
for CBS-
TVs next broadcast. This state of affairs is due to the
following
factors:
(1)
the
stringent
insistence of the tournament
organizers
to
keep
commercialism out of the
picture; (2)
a
very
meagre
contract with
CBS-TV;
and
(3)
an almost
guaranteed viewing
audience
(small
but
affluent)
who CBS can
easily
sell to advertizers.
9
Many sports
writers
interpreted
Kuhns forced
resignation by
the 26
corporate
owners of
baseball clubs as a matter of Kuhns
underdeveloped
business sense.
10
The international
governing body
of soccer
(FIFA) keeps
commercialization in check
by
refusing
to allow
any player
to
participate
in the
prestigious
and lucrative World
Cup
and
other international matches if he
plays
in a
league
not sanctioned
by
the FIFA.
11
MISL crowds are 50% or more women whereas in other
professional sports
the crowds
are 25-30% women.
12
The
Leagues average
attendance
per game
is
9,000
which
compares favorably
with
its
mature indoor
rivals,
the National Basketball Association
(10,953)
and the National
Hockey League (12,751).
13
The Marxist valorization of
working
class
sport
is
due,
in
part,
to a close identification
with and
(implicit) longing
to return to folk
sport
because of its autonomous class basis and
its
possession
of collectivist characteristics.
During
the 1960s
many
leftist
analyses
of
sport
attempted
to theorize
youth
subcultures as a new
revolutionary
force
(Rowntree
&
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189
Rowntree 1968).
This
position gained currency
in Britain where soccer riots
instigated by
working
class
youth
were seen in the
light
of a traditional class
analysis
which
conceptualized
these
riots as "class resistance"
(Hall et
al., 1976;
Hebdige 1979).
A theoretical
parallel
is
found
in recent East
European
cultural
analysis
which wishes to resurrect folk culture as a
model
of non-alienated social relations
(Marothy 1974).
14
The
shift in the
reception
of
sport
is evidenced in the
changed
nature of fan violence in
recent
years.
Whereas fan violence has
always
been
part
of athletic
competitions,
such
violence
was
always
associated with rabid fan identification with the home team. Incidents
were
usually triggered by
a contested
piece
of
officiating (especially
in
important
competitions, playoffs, etc.)
or
by competitions
between traditional rivals
(e.g.,
N.Y.
Yankees
vs.
Brooklyn Dodgers
or San Francisco teams vs. Los
Angeles teams).
More
recently
the
sporting
world has witnessed
gratuitous
acts of mass fan violence such as the
cleveland
Indian Nickel Beer
Night
and the
Chicago
White Sox Disco
Night.
An interview
with
a
20-year-old
N.Y. Yankee fan indicates this
changed
attidude: "Ive waited a
long
time
for this
game ...
Those monuments
[honoring Gehrig, Higgins
and
Ruth]
mean
nothing
to
me.
Im here to see it
happen
for
myself
and
get
down ... Its
gonna happen:
kick ass
if we
win,
kick ass
if
we lose "
(Greenberg 1977:26).
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191
Le
sport
comme bien de consommation
Rsllm
Cette
etude examine une s6rie de
changements
suite
auxquels
le
sport
a 6volud a un bien de
consommation.
Il est
all6gu6 que
ce
processus repr6sente
une
degradation
de Iactivit6
athi6tique.
Linterpr6tation
de tels
changements
est examine sous
Iaspect
de la discusison
sur
la culture de masse et lart
populaire.
Dans cette
controverse,
il
sagit
de la
question
si la
nature
du
sport
moderne a d6bauch6
depuis quil
est
assujetti A
la
logique
du march6. La
puerilite
et
limpubert6
dominent le
sport
de
plus
en
plus
comme lart modeme aussi est
standardis6
et administrd comme un bien. Ainsi le
sport
est
regarde
dans la contrari6t6 entre
son
potential dmancipatoire
et sa fonction comme un article de consommation sociale.
Sport
als Ware
Zusammenfassung
Dieser
Beitrag
untersucht eine Reihe von
Veranderungen,
die den
Sport
immer mehr zur
Ware werden lief3en. Es wird
behauptet,
dieser ProzeB stelle eine
Degradierung
athleti-
scher Aktivitdt dar. Die
Interpretation
solcher
Verdnderungen
wird vor dem
Hintergrund
der Diskussion fber Massenkultur und
popul5re
Kunst untersucht. Bei dieser Kontroverse
geht
es um die
Frage,
ob die Natur des modernen
Sports
verdorben
wurde,
seit er der
Logik
des Marktes unterworfen wird. Puerilitdt und Unreife beherrschen zunehmend den
Sport,
wie auch die moderne Kultur standardisiert und wie eine Ware verwaltet wird. So wird der
Sport
im
Spannungsfeld
zwischen seinem
emanzipatorischen
Potential und seiner Funktion
als sozialer Konsumartikel betrachtet.
La Comercializaci6n del
Deporte
Resumen
Este
aporte
examina una serie de transformaciones
que
Ilevaron a una comercializacion del
deporte
cada vez
mayor.
Se afirma
que
este
proceso respresenta
una
degradaci6n
de la
actividad atletica. La
interpretaci6n
de tales transformaciones se examina ante el trasfondo
de la discusi6n sobre cultura de masas
y
arte
popular.
Esta controversia se centra en
que
si la
naturaleza del
deporte
moderno se ha echado a
perder
desde
que
es sometido a la
16gica
de
mercado. Puerilidad e inmadurez dominan cada vez mas en el
deporte
al
igual que
la cultura
moderna es estandarizada
y
administrada como una mercancia.
Asi, el
deporte
se mira en
terminos de las tensiones entre su
potencial emancipatorio y
su funci6n como articulo de
consumo social.
at Stanford University on March 17, 2009 http://irs.sagepub.com Downloaded from
192
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