Professional sports. Not so sporting?
Play up, play up, and play the game! — Rudyard Kipling
When the One Great Scorer comes to write beside your name, He writes not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.
Sport and Life
If you have never heard someone compare life to a game, you are fortunate. It is a favourite analogy of shallow thinkers.
I dislike most professional sports as we understand that concept in our culture, and I especially dislike the trend to identify Canadians by “our game” of hockey. With the winter Olympics at hand, and the mania and manufactured enthusiasm that come with that event, it is time to consider what capitalism and economic injustice have done to mutate sport into corporate power.
Mandela and Justice
The media and the talking heads and political “elites” all over the world are in a frenzy over the biggest news story they can all agree on, the wonderful meaning of Mandela’s life.
You have to mistrust such extremely rare consensus on one man and his significance for world history. I very much doubt he would appreciate all the ways he is being used as a symbol.
Do a little background research on Mandela, his long fight, his politics and his deeper analysis of why poverty exists in Africa. It’s not what the media will hand you in easy sound bites and headlines.
Like Gandhi, Mandela brought down an empire of injustice. Did he really do it all without anger and without instilling fear into powerful people? That seems to be what our masters in control of “messaging” want to believe. Peace and justice in his words, no violent acts, and a beautiful transformation of one part of the world was brought into flower.
What does this have to do with sport? — you may be asking by now.
How to turn people into symbols
Champions are heroes, and heroes can motivate people to copy them. Their stories are teaching tools. The stories are about power and success.
Power is not kept by the powerful without them working hard to shape the minds of the people they direct, and the use of heroic narrative keeps the ruled population in a fair state of contentment and makes it unlikely they will resist the powerful who rule them. Resistance is what Mandela did, and his success might be a bad example to those of us who ask inconvenient questions about the injustice of how wealth is shared in this world. The One Percent, as the Occupy folks call our masters, would not want us to copy Mandela very closely. It would seriously challenge their wealth if we were all Mandelas.
So his story becomes boiled down to very simple cartoon imagery. Good Madiba, bad Apartheid system; the world rallies to the good, and the bad have to give up power to the rule of the majority.
How is injustice overcome by non-violence?
Sport offers a story quite unlike Mandela’s, because his struggle was with real armed forces, police, courts, prisons, and a system of dividing people by colour into two “different paths of development.” Apartheid was a legal system. It worked as long as it did by using forms of law to keep poverty fenced away from whites, and keep blacks on the losers’ side of that fence. How is it that our First Nations in Canada are in dire poverty so often? It is not legal for them to be objects of racism, that is certain. Yet Natives are suffering for their race, in our system of market capitalism.
World opinion did a lot to defeat apartheid. (I personally participated in several anti-apartheid demos in Canada, one at the gates of Expo ’86 when Maggie Thatcher attended.) The unfairness of a colour bar was too blatant.
Star Athletes and the Dream of Upward Mobility
In a competitive game, talent alone matters. All humans have equal rights, our global culture now agrees, but we are not all identically gifted. “The level playing field” model of social justice now prevails. We all get a chance to run the race, and the winners are those with superb physical gifts for running fast; this is the analogy for upward mobility in our free market society.
The enormous salaries paid to athletes are comparable to the top salaries of CEO’s and owners of corporations. These elite men and women, whether players of hockey, football, or cricket, or executives of high finance and stock-market operation, got to the top because they are so very talented. We agree to reward them for their greatness because we appreciate the work they do, to entertain us or to grow our economy and employ us and give us paycheques.
The unreality factor
It matters a very great deal to people how their favourite team is performing. The catharsis of cheering for a team which wins the championship appears to exalt people of very low station in life.
A loss in the Stanley Cup can send Vancouverites, for example, into the streets to riot. Our riots are not at all like the violence once rampant in South Africa under apartheid, where rioting had political and social-justice motivation. We burn police cars for the joy of it, not to alter our social order or economic inequality. I know I prefer the Africans’ reasons for violence to our own.
Why it matters so much to fans to have a winning team, why fans spend irrational amounts of money on team merchandise (running up credit-card debt) and why they are the base of the economy that pays players billions of dollars per season in total, is quite beyond my comprehension.
It is absolutely clear that sport spectacle is of mammoth importance to the psyches of masses of people in rich democratic nations like Canada, the USA and Britain. I cannot understand it. I do not feel good when I perceive this truth about sport, commerce and what people do.
But I know it is so and that it serves some need in the consciousness of humans. Therefore this popular love of sport and the (to me) obscene enrichment of players and team owners is, as so much else, a reflection of what it means to be a human being.
If this is who we are, my judgment of that has no purpose. I want, more than anything in my thinking life, to allow the facts of human being to rest easy in my mind. I am weary of fighting natural process.
Finally, the developing analysis by Adrian Barnes on the subject of leaders seems worthy of a comment. It appears to me that Adrian is crediting “information,” and the miracles of technology that carry data to humans everywhere that cyberspace extends, with a power they do not have.
I can say that several times in history a new technology has been heralded in the same manner he heralds the internet, cell phones, satellites and the global web community. “A better world is at hand”: Literacy. The printing press. Railways. Telegraphy. Radio. Movies and so on and on.
It is not data that makes our world. It is not tools. It is the human minds who apply the data and the tools that matter most.
What kind of being is it, this human, who has this opportunity to use the inventions and the “knowledge” now so widespread across our planet?
That is the question that matters. Giving godlike powers to animals of very circumscribed spiritual capacity will not transform the world into a higher, better place.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of The Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.