While reading through Umberto Eco’s Travels In Hyperreality I came across an essay called “Sports Chatter,” written in 1969, which struck me by the wording of the first paragraph:
There is one thing that – even if it were considered essential – no student movement or urban revolt or global protest or what have you would ever be able to do. And that is to occupy the football field on a Sunday.
In light of OccupyWallSt and all the demonstrations in the same spirit across the country, it’s worth noting that this holds true. We have Thanksgiving coming up soon, and while I usually have my head buried in books or working on various projects, a trip to St. Louis last week reminded me that the rest of the country is gearing up to consume football media along with a turkey dinner. Imagine if people sat down to the TV after Thanksgiving to watch a game and saw instead a bunch of protesters occupying the field?
The very idea sounds ironic and absurd; try saying it in public and people will laugh in your face. Propose it seriously and you will be shunned as a provocateur. Not for the obvious reason, which is that, while a horde of students can fling Molotov cocktails on the jeeps of any police force, and at most (because of the laws, the necessity of national unity, the prestige of the state), no more than forty students will be killed; an attack on a sports field would surely cause the massacre of the attackers, indiscriminate, total slaughter carried out by self-respecting citizens aghast at the outrage…
Sports activity is dominated by the idea of “waste.” In principle, every sports act is a wast of energy: if I fling a stone for the sheer pleasure of flinging it – not for any utilitarian end – I have wasted calories accumulated through the swallowing of food, earned by work.
Eco takes a few steps back from his humor to talk about the necessity of “play” but how observed sports is voyeurism. There’s a lot else there, it’s a great essay and I’d encourage anyone to read it, but the point is, Eco’s distaste for the realm of professional sports and the spectacle of that media is clear. It’s not quite the full blown disdain that Chomsky is often cited for:
…there are other media too whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion. There’s the real mass media-the kinds that are aimed at, you know, Joe Six Pack — that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people’s brains.
This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League…
…it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
Chomsky goes so far as to call it “the building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority,” “group cohesion behind leadership elements” and “training in irrational jingoism.” Which all bears reflection – sports teach players “there is no I in team” and how to “take one for the team” and so on. When I was young, I used to read these historical short stories in a compilation series, with little pieces on people like Alphonse Bertillon, Jonas Salk, and other “greats” of history. One of the stories was about Ty Cobb (before he was famous), and how his coach insisted he bunt a ball. He ignored, got two strikes before a home run, and then the coach kicked him off the team. Sports movies, stories and experiences are all about functional narratives for working with others (my favorite being The Natural, Percival’s adventure rewritten for baseball).
Of course, sports have an intricate connection with academics in the US, part of the foundation-university relations-alumni complex. I wrote a pretty polemic and naive piece about this at Missouri State over two years ago. Colleges often devote large sums of money to sports programs (at the expense of other departments, leading to lower salaries and higher tuition) because they believe it is more economical to attract funding through impressive physical (versus scholastic) performance. Granted, students involved with these programs are required to maintain certain academic standards, and universities often devote extra time and opportunities to ensure the athletes meet those standards. But they are also often afforded privileges, which we all know about, which range from the classroom (where they may be frequently absent), to the dormroom (where they spend the night instead of a jail cell for sexual assaults). And the coaches have their own structure of privilege as well – Penn State’s fiasco shows us that things are usually handled internally before someone decides whether or not to go to the police.
Ok, that’s a lot of rambling about universities and sports in general. Sports are a big money industry, and this is reflected in the media pretty clearly. Sports films can be seen to parallel war movies, with these heteronormative, hyper-masculine images of “troops” marching out to battle, engaging in epic struggles, facing grotesque and unhuman foes. Warrior athletes could provide that “irrational jingoism” that Chomsky talks about, and America eats it up. Sports is inconceivably a multi-billion dollar industry, from franchises to equipment to advertising and so on. America is obsessed with sports, a business where millionaires spend their lives either training and being celebrities with a few hours devoted to a game several times a week during a season. It’s part of our culture, and with social inequality being a key concern of Occupy events and demonstrations, sports are worth some criticism. True, the thought of sports + politics might boggle the mind, but demonstrators don’t have to be the ones to raise the issue. It would be interesting to hear what pro athletes, being in the 1%, have to say about these issues, as they are the last truly populist heroes of our times.
Back to the university, I find it interesting to remember Chomsky’s 1969 essay, “The Function Of The University In A Time Of Crisis” in a time of, well, crisis. Written with regards to the New Left (which met its demise through a combination of its own undoing and the continually marginalizing, integrating forces of society), Chomsky says
The university will be able to make its contribution to a free society only to the extent that it overcomes the temptation to conform unthinkingly to the prevailing ideology and to the existing patterns of power and privilege.
In its relation to society, a free university should be expected to be, in a sense, “subversive.” We take for granted that creative work in any field will challenge prevailing orthodoxy. A physicist who refines yesterday’s experiment, an engineer who merely seeks to improve existing devices, or an artist who limits himself to styles and techniques that have been thoroughly explored is rightly regarded as deficient in creative imagination. Exciting work in science, technology, scholarship, or the arts will probe the frontiers of understanding and try to create alternatives to the conventional assumptions.
Occupy protests moved to college campuses recently, leading to incidents like the grotesque abuse of power at UC Davis. Protesters occupied the common area and were punished for it by campus police (Bob Ostertag, a professor there wrote an excellent article regarding the militarization of police which had a hand in this). People are already debating their feelings on OWS and related demonstrations. If anything, it is helping to alter the political discourse in this country, once again, and allow cultural critiques breathe by their practice by the masses. But are we ready to occupy the football fields? I doubt it. If we did, I’m certain Eco and Chomsky will be amused by those efforts and the ensuing chaos.