Earlier this month James McClean played all 90 minutes for Sunderland in their match against Everton. Within hours death threats appeared on Twitter directed at the 23 year old Ulsterman. His crime was to choose not to wear a shirt emblazoned with a poppy. I have no idea why he made this choice. Maybe he is, as his accusers assert, the personification of evil who despises the armed forces. Maybe he’s sick of the hypocrisy of politicians who use the poppy to justify whatever mad murderous military mayhem they’re perpetuating across the globe. Maybe McClean, who grew up in Derry, has already seen too much of the British state. What I do know is that his decision was met with tweeted outrage. “he deserves to be shot dead + body dragged past the cenotaph” wrote one considered and informed observer. And in his next match McClean was booed by sections of the crowd when he came on as a substitute.
Fast forward to this week and witness how Tottenham supporters were brutally attacked in a Rome bar. Reports seem to be unclear as to whether the assailants were Lazio or Roma fans, but their connections to the far-right Ultras don’t seem to be in doubt. As they attacked the Spurs fans, including stabbing one in the groin, they shouted “Jews” repeatedly. At the match between Tottenham and Lazio sections of the Italian club's fans were cited for continuous anti-Semitic chanting.
For the detractors of modern sports these examples are yet more evidence that the games we play and watch are socially and morally corrosive. It is a criticism levelled by people on both the left and right. Recently I’ve been researching left-wing attitudes on sport for a book on the 2012 Olympics. Almost without exception the writers most quoted as representative of the left – Brohm, Rigauer, Chomsky – are voices critical of sport to the point of disdain. Consider, for instance, this quotation from Theodor Adorno:
“Sport is ambiguous. On the one hand, it can have an anti-barbaric and anti-sadistic effect by means of fair play, a spirit of chivalry, and consideration for the weak. On the other hand, in many of its varieties and practices it can promote aggression, brutality, and sadism, above all in people who do not expose themselves to the exertion and discipline required by sports but instead merely watch: that is, those who regularly shout from the sidelines.”
Formally Adorno’s claim that sport is ambiguous is correct. But this has the feeling of a statement where caveats are deployed early doors so as not to interfere with the main message: sport is bad. For Adorno sports are, on balance, harmful social phenomena, and although their worst aspects may be offset by certain conventions, they damage the players and debase the spectators. And the context in which these words appear is fascinating. They are taken from Adorno’s Education after Auschwitz, an essay which examines the ways in which a repeat of the Holocaust might be avoided in an era when the prospects for revolutionary change seemed dire. The fact that Adorno, in the middle of a discussion of the worst atrocity in human history, takes time for such an aside reveals much about his attitude to sport.
He does at least attempt to make a reasonably nuanced argument. Compare that to the recent work by Marc Perelman, a French intellectual writing in the shadow of Jean-Marie Brohm. Everything you need to know about Perelman’s book can be discerned from its title – Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague. Whatever valid insights he may have about capitalism’s pernicious effects on sport are negated by the patronising tone he takes with working class people who watch sport. We are, according to Perelman, under the influence of a new “opiate of the masses”, leaving us as “people who can never live fulfilling lives, being in the grip of that enslaving power known as sport.” Perelman recasts sports as the single greatest Jedi-mind trick of the bourgeoisie (and is despatched with gusto in this review). If you have an interest in re-constituted mechanical Althusserianism you should get this book. Otherwise save yourself a tenner, and enjoy this critique provided by my partner who looked at the title and said, “Oooh, someone got picked last at school.”
Any genuine attempt to understand the contradictions of sport and its spectators simply cannot start from the premise that we’ve all been conned. Nor can it contend that sport turns its fans and followers into mindless, aggressive automatons. Apart from the fact that this is demonstrably untrue, there is a danger of echoing the collective stigmatising of working class sports fans all too common on the right. In the 1980s, before the tragedy of Hillsborough, Thatcher’s government looked to force identity cards on all football fans, while the Sunday Times described the game as “a slum game played by slum people”. Football fans were seen as that quintessential ruling class fear – a mob.
But the reality of spectating is more ambiguous. Yes, the terraces can house people who are racist, sexist and homophobic but they can also be sites of resistance to that bigotry. They can be an arena of humour, companionship and fun. Sports fans can gather in a stadium and treat George Osborne to the kind of contemptuous reception he deserves. They can arrive as the supporters of one team yet still glory at the performance of the opposition, just as Pompey fans did with Thierry Henry as he mesmerised spectators and defenders alike during Arsenal’s visit to Fratton Park a few years ago. In the early 1990s, as a dismal England cricket team were put to the sword by Sri Lanka, many a fan came to cheer for the underdog, won over by their mixture of joy and carefree, playful abandon. The standing ovation that greeted Fabrice Muamba at White Heart Lane recently was a reminder that even us football fans understand that some things are not as important as life and death. In Egypt the Ultras were on the frontline of the revolution, physically confronting SCAF.
And occasionally sport can be an arena of solidarity. The weekend following the release of a report into Hillsborough, exonerating Liverpool fans and exposing a massive police cover-up, fans across the country sang You’ll Never Walk Alone before their matches. This week during the game between Liverpool and the Swiss team Young Boys, the travelling fans paused from their constant ebullient singing to hold aloft a sign that read “IN MEMORY OF HILLSBOROUGH”.
None of this proves that sport is inherently good or bad. What it does is highlight that it is contradictory. Any serious assessment needs to take note of such a fact, because hyperbolic, one-dimensional critiques of sports are nothing short of a global plague.