Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History

One of the unexpected joys of maintaining a blog about sport is that, occasionally, people send me books. About sport. For free. The catch is that authors and publishers expect me to review them, no doubt in the hope that a positive piece will prompt you, my legion of followers (yes, both of you), to go out and spend your hard-earned cash on a copy of your own. I must admit that, up until this point, I have been more than a little tardy in my reviews – mostly because I’m still overwhelmed at getting books. About sport. For free.

It’s meant that I haven’t written about titles that do truly deserve both praise and a wide readership. For instance I would heartily recommend David Renton’s Lives; Running, a thoughtful, subtle and sometimes poignant exploration of the relationship between life, running and ‘politics’ with a small ‘p’. Dave Zirin’s last book, Game Over, is an indispensable volume exploring a world in which there is an inevitable collision between sports and politics (this time with a capital ‘P’). As Mark Perryman remarks elsewhere on the blog, “The writing style provides a template for how to mix politics and sport yet keep the reader engaged whose interests leans more towards one or the other. Simply unmissable.” I would add to these David Conn’s wonderful Richer than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, a work combining the best qualities of a top-notch journalist with the voice of a true football fan. For those who want to understand the success of United’s “noisy neighbours” and the way the people’s game has become a plaything for the rich this is an essential read.

Yet I’m more than willing to temporarily shed my lethargy in order to review the latest work to drop through the letterbox - Tony Collins’ Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History. Collins is Professor of History at De Montfort University and Director at their International Centre for Sports History and Culture. For two decades he has been producing original and insightful works of sports history, most notably the excellent Rugby’s Great Split and A Social History of English Rugby Union. More importantly Collins writes authoritatively and interestingly from the left, his works infused with working class voices and a sensitivity to questions of oppression and disadvantage. All of which is underpinned by an acute understanding, and unrelenting critique, of how capitalism has shaped the games we choose to play and watch.

When I first met Tony at a sports historians conference – yes, they do exist and yes, they can be as dull as they sound – he told me of how colleagues had rather disdainfully informed him that Marxism could not explain the development of modern sport. Sport in Capitalist Society is his reply, one that claims “far from the purity of sport being ‘corrupted’ by capitalism, modern sport is as much a product of capitalism as the factory, the stock exchange and unemployment line.” It is by necessity an ambitious piece, taking the birth of modern sports in eighteenth century Britain as its starting point, tracing their development via the impact of imperialism, the worker sport movement and the rise of global media, before concluding by posing the question “what future for sport?”

Along the way Collins devotes chapters to issues surrounding both sexism and racism in sport – thus avoiding the usual academic accusation that those of us writing from the left have no interest in social divisions other than class. Particularly interesting is Collins’ exploration of the way in which the success of Soviet female athletes at Olympic Games during the Cold War formed the context for both the moral panic around the use of performance enhancing drugs and what Collins calls “gender paranoia”. The West – and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – explained the women’s performances in one of two ways: either as the result of steroid abuse or because they were men. Thus in 1966 compulsory gynaecological tests were introduced for female Olympic athletes:
“The IOC’s ignorance was matched only by its insensitivity, which meant that women with an unusual genetic make-up or biological disorder who ‘failed’ the test were publically humiliated and often confronted with evidence of a medical condition of which they were previously unaware. Not a single man posing as a woman was ever unmasked by a sex-test.”
It may seem an unfair criticism given that he deals with nigh-on three hundred years of history with an analysis that stretches across the entire globe, but it is disappointing that Collins does not find more room for a discussion of sports and sexuality – “homosexuality” is indexed twice; “homophobia” not at all. It is an omission all the more striking given what has happened post-publication, with the recent announcement by Thomas Hitzlsperger, as well as British diver Tom Daley, footballer Robbie Rodgers and basketball player Jason Collins coming out as gay, not to mention the continuing controversy over the forthcoming Sochi Winter Olympics and the attitude of the Russian government to the LGBTQ community. I would also be keen to read more of Collins’ thoughts on disability sport and the Paralympics.

Although a whole host of other writers, not least Collins himself, have produced books which chart the rise of certain individual sports or specific historical periods, few have attempted works of similar historical scope. There are of course exceptions and one may point to Richard Holt’s pioneering Sport and the British, or Derek Birley’s Sport and the Making of Britain. Collins’ work certainly possesses the same encyclopaedic feel of these texts (a wealth of footnotes, some 569 in total, punctuate the book’s 129 pages) Yet Sport in Capitalist Society offers something lacking from other books, namely an over-arching narrative capable of explaining the development of sport in Britain and its subsequent spread around the world.

Historians and theorists have long pondered the causal factors which might explain the codification of games during the 1700s, though none have produced systematic nor, in my opinion, particularly convincing accounts. In his book From Ritual to Record, Allen Guttmann advances the notion that modern sports were a corollary of the “advancement of science” before borrowing notions from Weberian sociology to conclude that “Sports are an alternative to and, simultaneously, a reflection of the modern age … they are the rationalization of the Romantic.” Despite its liberal idealism Guttmann’s is an argument with some merit, although the author offers little with which to substantiate his claim. 

Richard Holt, in the aforementioned Sport and the British, deploys the German sociologist Norbert Elias’ idea of the ‘civilizing process’ to explain the death of traditional games and recreations. The theory asserts that society has, over centuries, experienced (in Holt’s words) “a long-term shift in the threshold of shame and embarrassment”. Sports were not immune from this “subtle and diffuse cultural shift” which led to, among other things, the use of cutlery, the washing of clothes and “not urinating or picking your nose in front of others”. Certainly some traditional pastimes did come under attack for their cruelty and barbarity, most notably activities such as cock-fighting and bull-baiting. What the civilization thesis fails to explain, however, is how and why some social classes remained relatively immune to the changes in cultural values. The upper classes certainly did not refrain from fox hunting or grouse shooting. The nascent working class did not abandon blood sports; they were banned as a result of a campaign originating in the middle class. The context in which to understand the death of traditional games is the privatization of common land and the concomitant subordination of the rural to the urban. It still baffles me that a historian of Holt’s stature, in a work of genuine quality, should omit any mention of enclosures.

Competitive, physical games did of course exist prior to the eighteenth century but, as Collins points out, “the idea of commonly agreed, national, written laws governing the playing of sport did not exist.” By the 1750s, however, “a fundamental and qualitative shift in the nature of the three most prominent British sports – horse racing, boxing and cricket – was taking place.” Why then does this shift occur? Collins answers unequivocally: “The introduction of codes of rules [in sport] that were accepted by all players and for all major contests were a direct consequence of the commercial development of sport.”

Perhaps one sees this most forcefully in the first codified laws for boxing, Broughton’s Rules (1743). Of the seven rules, three outlined what constituted victory, while another stipulated how prize money was to be distributed. They therefore represented an attempt to facilitate gambling as much as to define the boundaries of competition. The rules of any given sport could be changed to make contests more exciting or simplified in order to attract more spectators. The laws of supply and demand, and the primacy of the cash nexus, therefore exerted considerable influence over the process of codification.

However there is a slight problem here. If one looks at the history of cricket then it certainly fits this schema for the majority of its existence. But the initial drive to codification seems to have been the result of upper class members of London sports clubs attempting to shape the games they enjoyed playing themselves. To suggest this is the result of commercialism seems, to me at least, to stretch the historical evidence. I have long thought that the development and theorisation of the state, for instance, provided the ideological context to codification. The rich and the titled were organising their own play along similar lines to the way in which they were organising society. And, after all, nationally agreed sets of rules do rather presuppose the existence of the modern nation state. But this is nothing more than a minor quibble.

Sport has long been in need of a rigorous, historical materialist analysis. On those occasions when people on the left have written about sports – I’m thinking especially of Jean-Marie Brohm’s Sport - A Prison of Time and Marc Perelman’s recent Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague­ – the results have been one-dimensional, dreadfully mechanical caricatures of what I would consider genuine Marxism. Invariably they are characterised by a tendency to prioritise assertion over evidence and both take a distinctly patronising attitude towards working class sports fans. Thankfully Collins avoids the twin pitfalls of these works, instead constructing a detailed and nuanced narrative chronicling and explaining the rise and evolution of modern sport.

Moreover he demonstrates time and again that sport is itself an arena in which social struggles can manifest themselves. Whereas Brohm and Perelman see sport purely as the modern opiate of the masses, Collins reminds us that sport is contested – the debates in post-revolutionary Russia during the 1920s, the clenched fist salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the demonstrations and protests of people living in the nations and cities chosen to host the Olympic and FIFA World Cup mega-events. And while he never loses sight of sport’s “essential conservatism” he makes no apology for being a fan, even if the future is uncertain:
“As to the future, it is impossible to know how a society that has freed itself from capitalism will play or watch sport. Like many other forms of culture that have emerged out of capitalism, sport is unlikely to lose its appeal, even in a society where unceasing competition has been replaced by cooperation. Its ability to offer the emotional experience of triumph and tragedy to participants and spectators is too potent. But, at the very least, we can hope that in a society in which art, culture and humanity itself have been freed from the exploitation, bigotry and oppression of capitalism, sport may play a positive role in helping men and women to reach the fullest extent of their mental and physical potential.”
It would be easy to conclude by stating this book is a must for any student of sports history. It would be easy because it’s true. The all-encompassing scope, accessible style and flashes of humour and wit make Sport in Capitalist Society an ideal work for those seeking to comprehend the trajectory of modern sports. Yet this would be to vastly underestimate the importance of the book. Collins has produced a convincing account of the history of sports, from their birth to their current corporatized incarnation, from a Marxist perspective. To my knowledge that makes this book one of a kind.