The concept of “sport” involves two principal roles, one is participatory: a physical activity to develop and improve physical skills, sometimes in a competitive fashion, often with health benefits related to attaining physical optimization. But it also has a non-participatory entertainment aspect, one geared to spectators in general but more frequently to spectators who develop an affinity for a particular person or corporate entity, “corporate” in the sense of entity-continuity notwithstanding changes in its composition. For example, despite the fact that Babe Ruth died long ago, the Yankees are still the Yankees. Well, … almost.
The latter variant has interesting psychosocial dynamics with cultural implications that reflect social trends in the interrelationships between the spectators; between the spectators and the participants; between the spectators, the participants and those in charge of training and managing the participants; and, finally, between all of the foregoing and ownership.
Spectators tend to assume two very different roles: passive spectators who cheer on “their” team in a non-critical manner, no matter its performance; and, active, more-involved and more critical spectators, usually much more knowledgeable and frequently having formerly, at one level or another, been active participants. The two groups have become increasingly polarized as our society has become less cohesive, with the cheer-leading spectators becoming bitterly critical of what they deem to be fair-weather fans, and the more active, critical fans, those who demand quality performance from the teams or players they support, deeming the cheer-leader types idiotic know-nothings. Sports managers and owners at every level prefer the cheer-leading fan variant, especially those willing to spend on viewing sporting events in person or by subscription, but, in addition, purchasing related branded merchandise. Some teams apparently go so far as to pay individuals and business involved in the new phenomenon of social media, to use fictional cheer-leader fans (trolls) to purportedly criticize the critical fans as traitors, something, to some extent, also done in the past through less honest sports journalists.
The issue of sports polarization is especially problematic with sports involving children where the “competitive” factor is bitterly debated among parents, some of whom (the “woke”) believe that sports should be fun for all, without winners, or even scores; and, fanatical parents who intervene, at times physically, frequently embarrassing their own children, living out their own frustrated sports fantasies, in quest for victory at any price. Balance involving competition and development of life and social skills, those once revered concepts of good sportsmanship, seem all too frequently unattainable today. That, unfortunately, merely reflects trends throughout our diverse social institutions, trends all too often manipulated as a means of maintaining control through polarization and involving issues such as abortion, gun control, political correctness, censorship, etc.
Sports have become a business with massive profits to both teams and players at its highest levels, as well as to broadcast media; ludicrous profits and ludicrous salaries when judged on the basis of comparative social contributions and on the basis of the growing disparity between the wealthiest among us and the rest, especially those who receive the lowest compensation for the most difficult and tedious jobs. The foregoing is true of professional sports, but unfortunately, has also afflicted amateur sports in academic institutions where college football coaches sometimes earn up to ten times what the college president or any academic professor or researcher is paid.
Sports have also become a useful tool for political control, deflecting dissatisfaction with poor political and economic performance, broken promises and inequity, into strong emotional responses to sporting events and activities, redirecting justifiable social anger towards competing sports spectators, whether those who support other teams or those who criticize the performance of teams and players they themselves support. It is how we “blow off steam”; psychic energy needed to power necessary societal change, leaving us either satiated, exhausted or both, and bitter towards umpires, referees, coaches, players and other fans, instead of against those we most need to replace: our political, media and economic “leaders”.
Sports have evolved from their earliest roles, when they involved non-partisan appreciation of excellence, dexterity and physical abilities (such as in the ancient Olympics), into a social phenomenon much more like the violent partisan events that existed during the Roman imperial period, events centered on chariot racing, where almost the entirety of the population was divided among violent supporters of Greens and Blues, such division flowing into political groupings as well.
International sports can be a unifying force domestically while a divisive force internationally. For example soccer’s world cup and the modern variant of the Olympic games, international spectacles where international political rivalries now regularly intervene to exclude more capable athletes and teams from competing based on factors totally unrelated to sports, factors such as economic and political rivalries among groups of allied nations.
Notwithstanding the foregoing I am an avid sports enthusiast, perhaps an addict of sorts. I love sports as an active participant (when possible), but as a spectator as well (admittedly of the more critical variant). And that’s the case notwithstanding all of the deficiencies, abuses and dangers associated with modern sports that I acknowledge exist. That’s the case with most of us, although the majority have no idea concerning many of the issues raised in this introspective article.
In short, it seems that as humans, there is nothing we cannot pervert into a polarizing factor, into something to divide us and set us off against each other, into something that can be used to manipulate and control us. Even something as magnificent as the sports we purport to love.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2023; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo (“Bill”) Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also a citizen). Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He is currently the publisher of the Inannite Review, available at Substack.com. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). However, he is also fascinated by mythology, religion, physics, astronomy and mathematics, especially with matters related to quanta and cosmogony. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and much of his writing is available through his blog at https://guillermocalvo.com/.