On Sportsball, Capitalism, and Stuff

I follow Chris Kluwe on Twitter (@ChrisWarcraft) because his tweets are frequently fun and often insightful on a number of subjects. For those who don’t know, Mr. Kluwe is, among other things, an athlete; he was the punter for the Minnesota Vikings (and a very good one) for several years, and was famous, or perhaps notorious, for his outspoken support of marriage equality. Following him, I sometimes pick up information that is usually not on my radar, mostly about professional sports and how it interacts with the rest of society. Some of the stuff, as you might expect, is kind of ugly. So we have Chris Kluwe receiving a death threat because someone thinks he might embarrass the Minnesota Vikings, and this comes right on the heels of the NFL cheerleaders lawsuit, and of the revelation of the naked greed of the World Cup, with the brutal oppression of the Brazilian workers that was a part of it.

The thing about being a socialist and thinking about professional sports, is that it just isn’t as simple as you might expect. I mean, it’s really easy to be dismissive: “It’s just about the money,” one might say, which on some levels is certainly true. Or one might make simplistic remarks about “bread and circuses” and such. And certainly, there is no shortage of things in the relationship between capitalism and sports that make one grit one’s teeth–what has happened to college sports is a good indicator. When child molestation is covered up and permitted to continue because (at least in my opinion) revealing it could hurt income, you know things have reached new heights, or rather depths.

But there’s more going on here.

First of all, remember that for many of those we euphemistically call “inner city youth,” professional sports provide some hope of escape, and is, in my opinion, a better choice than entering the military to shoot down “inner city youth” who happen to live in a different timezone. Moreover, the decay of capitalism is providing us with more and more broken and shattered towns where unemployment is the main occupation and the local professional, college, or even high school football team is the only thing to cheer about, which I mean in a frighteningly literal way. You can, of course, make snotty judgmental remarks about their priorities, but, if you do, I’ll make snotty judgmental remarks about you. Sorry, it isn’t that simple. The massive obsession with football that infuses places like College Station, Texas reeks of unhealthiness; but finding a similar attitude toward their local high school team in some of the small, broken Texas towns is moving to anyone with the empathy of a stone.

Also, in my opinion, there is much to admire in an accomplished athlete: the discipline, the learning of complex and nuanced skills. In general, it is inspiring to see someone who has trained his or her body into a fine instrument in the same way one cannot help but admire a classically trained singer. And in watching sports, particularly team sports, it can be engaging on many levels to watch the clash of strategy. Also, in team sports, there can be a thrill and a fascination to seeing the individual simultaneously sublimate him- or herself to the needs of the team, while also rising to new personal heights. My point is, while no one expects everyone to enjoy watching every sport, or, indeed, any sport, to be dismissive of all sports is no more virtuous than to be dismissive of anything else in which human beings passionately engage (yes, this from the guy who, for several years, took great pride in never watching TV; not watching TV is fine, being proud of not watching TV is just silly).

And then there’s the hypocrisy built into the news coverage of sporting events. Over and over, as sport becomes more and more about the money, the message is more and more, “winning is all that matters.” Even on the high school level (hell, even on the grade school level), it is rare to find a place where the term “sportsmanship” is actually used. And yet, when an Olympic athlete or a baseball or basketball player–usually a working class kid who is desperately trying to escape his condition–is accused of using steroids or shaving points, the same talking heads who were just telling us that winning is the only thing that matters are now full of self-righteous indignation about “the integrity of the game” and all fingers point at that player as if shocked and appalled that anyone could do such a thing. Should players follow the rules? Of course. But can we please do without the hypocritical bullshit? It just leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

So, with all of that in mind, here are a couple of brief stories that point to some things about professional sports–particularly Minnesota sports–that have informed my attitude.

1. My heroes in Minnesota sports are Bud “when you reach the endzone act like you’ve been there before” Grant, and Tom “what the hell, babe, it’s only a game” Kelly–two guys who were famous for strategy, for a scientific approach to their game, and for not blowing up under provocation. To me, they were not only very good at what they did, but they were good in a way that, if I may, fit in with the feel of what I like about Minnesota. Bad call by the umpire? “Ya, sure, well, I saw that one different donchaknow.” Trailing by three touchdowns at half time? “Let’s shift a few blocking assignments now, youbetcha.” As a Minnesotan, you kind of have to love it.

2. There was a thing that happened several years ago that expressed to me why I wanted to identify myself with my local sportsball team. I watched two football games in a row on a Sunday afternoon, and there were two almost identical incidents where a player was hit so hard he was knocked out. In the first game (I don’t recall the teams) the player who’d hit him jumped and strutted and cheered himself. In the second game, the Vikings player who had made the hit stopped cold, looked at the opposite team’s bench, and signaled them to say, “Hey, this man is hurt, get out here now.” To me, it felt like that expressed the different cultures of the teams. Whether there is any justification for me to identify with a given team merely because I live where they play home games, I don’t know; but at that moment I wanted to identify with them, to say, “Yes, that is us.”

Things have changed. The greed inherent in the new stadiums that are all about the corporate boxes, the sacrificing of game integrity for TV revenue, the intolerance of anyone or anything that might interfere with profit, were all there thirty years ago; but now it is right in your face, and that is a difference. It is the difference between, yes, the US has had “black ops” murders of non-combatants without trial for at least 75 years, but now it is being publicly justified, and that is a difference. It tells us something about naked force and naked greed. When they stop hiding it, there’s a reason, and it matters. Those who hear about Obama’s drone assassinations and go, “that’s just business as usual,” are missing the point. It isn’t. The open and public contempt for democracy by the ruling class is new, and it is scary.

The changes in professional sports reflect this; they’re part of the same process. Yes, I remember how every time players talk about striking, all the talk is about how much the players make, and the subject of what the owners make never comes up; that part is old hat. (Although I’m still waiting to hear someone talk about “overpaid cheerleaders.” Heh.) But there are new things here, and we can learn from them. The drive for profit to the point of no longer even hiding it, is new. The stadiums we pay for that profit the owners, the callous disregard of the health (short- and long-term) of athletes, the enforcing of social backwardness for fear of losing TV viewership are worse than they have been, and paying attention to these changes is enlightening, and that is a good thing, even though it is much harder for me to get excited about the Twins and the Vikings than it used to be, and that’s kind of sad.

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22 thoughts on “On Sportsball, Capitalism, and Stuff”

  1. To the extent that the Germans were gracious winners in Brazil, and to the extent some of the privileged Brazilian fans in the stadium even cheered the Germans after a while (ironically, but still) there’s some sense that sport crosses boundaries and serves in some weak small way to unify humanity.

    But then again, that ludicrous expenditure and grotesque flaunting of wealth for the World Cup in a society where so few have anything at all… sickening really. The situation in Qatar is if anything even worse.

    So I agree, mixed feelings indeed about sports in general and about any commercialized sport in particular. And of course the Olympics are even worse than FIFA as regards corruption and commercialization. And the NCAA! At least our pro leagues like the NFL, reprehensible as they may be in many ways, are relatively speaking honest about the money, where it comes from, and where it goes.

  2. This is cool.

    Growing up in Minneapolis in the 80s & 90s, while I never cared about sports, I was always *passionately* invested in the Minnesota Twins. That team, those personalities, enthralled me. Kirby Puckett was my first role model (before certain things came to light, let’s leave that aside); my first ever job as a kid was selling Kirby Puckett candy bars because it was the early 90s and that was a thing.

    And I learned things from sports, despite being the least athletic kid in the universe, as far as I could tell, literally the last pick on the kickball team. The Twins taught me that no matter how many runs you’re down in the seventh inning, the game ain’t over yet. They taught me how to pursue what you do well, and express it with grace and joy as you do. They taught me about community and teamwork and stubbornness, about the thrill of victory and the perseverance necessary in defeat. They had fantastic, colorful personalities, or so it seemed from the attention the announcers lavished on them – Puckett & Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Chuck Knoblauch, Chili Davis and Shane Mack and Rick Aguilera – and years later, Jacque Jones, who always had dedicated fans chanting his name in a way that somehow made the game much more entertaining. Those guys, to me, were the Knights of the Round Table, years before I first read Arthurian legend.

    Anyway, that might be getting a little far afield, but this post reminded me that although I often sneer at sportsball, you’re absolutely right that it’s more complicated than that, and there’s still much to love.

  3. Miramon: Agree on all counts. And the importance of sport (sometimes) crossing boundaries and permitting those from different cultures to make human connections is something I should have mentioned.

  4. And I also can’t say enough good things about whoever the Hell it was doing the announcing at Twins games for WCCO in that era. The way he’d roll the names as he announced them, the genuine excitement in his voice when a ball was in the air and the crispness when he was recapping later

  5. I am, for the record, adding sportsball teams to the things to nationalize rather than eradicate after the revolution.

  6. You be made of smart, Cousin. So hey, wanna go see the Saints play one of these days? I haven’t been since we moved back.

  7. Steven, you brought up something that has bothered me. The trend of attacking the other team’s players to cause injury. With coaches giving orders to “take out” a specific player. Some seem to see it as war, vs a sport or even a profession.

    Saints are a good choice.

  8. David: taking out your opponents through injury is as old as formalized competition. If this sounds like war… well… it is. Formal team sports have their roots in the concept of champions for a city, and are proxies for war. Many ancient/traditional games have their roots in warfare concepts (capturing territory, controlling resources), or were taken very seriously (Mayan basketball anyone?).

    What’s new is that looking down upon games-by-attrition is a public “thing”. For a while, people actually believed that this sort of behavior didn’t go on… and perhaps it didn’t. For a while. But again, the whole concept of “destroy the other team” is old, old, old.

    Even in the modern era, you need only look back at turn-of-the-century sports stars like Ty Cobb. In addition to being a seething racist, he was infamous for sliding into bases with cleats at knee-level. Yet for some reason he is still idolized by many. Or football greats of the 60s: Lyle Alzado and Jack Tatum, who scored their successes in stretcher-counts. I suppose that time dims the perception of “unsportsmanlike behavior”, leaving only the ostensible accomplishments of the game behind.

    As for linking capitalism to sports corruption… that’s an oversimplification, I think. The elite of any society, of any government form, of any era, have always wanted to associate themselves with whatever sports were popular with the society in question. Chariot racing, jousting, Formula One… it doesn’t matter. Money follows sports, regardless of the form of the society that gave rise to the wealth of the individual. Capitalist societies are no exception, and neither are socialist or totalitarian societies.

  9. People spend some of their resources on things they enjoy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

    HALO 4 made a profit of $220 million in 24 hours. Because there are people who like to play first-person shooters. If somebody wants to disapprove of team sports, is there any way not to disapprove of this sort of thing as well? I’m pretty sure some of the players like to think about the revolution starting so they have an excuse to shoot at random revolutionaries….

    Games make a lot of money. Sometimes the people who run them do unethical things hoping to make more money. We can try to discourage that. But I don’t see that the games are all that bad in themselves. I’m not much interested myself, but it looks mostly harmless at worst.

  10. Excellent post, as always. I made a transition in my view of sports in the US to something similar to what you express in the last few years. I’m saddened by the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, but I realize now that the people that use it are pitiable but not deserving of contempt or condemnation – for most of the people using performance-enhancing drugs for a sport, a successful professional sports career is their best shot at escaping a life of poverty. That includes people trying to get into professional sports but even extends to kids attempting to get an athletic scholarship to college.

    And like you said, for many people rooting for the local team is the highlight of their existence. So the fanatical devotion that appears silly at first glance is just an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

    Off topic, or maybe not off topic, I read an interesting blog post a few months back from someone who’s involved in a political lobbying group. He pointed out that highly educated academics tend to want to help the average person but hold professional sports in contempt or at least have little personal interest in them. So these people are often blind to why the average person likes his or her sports teams, and conversely the average person interacts with highly educated academics, and finds that one of their favorite discussion topics isn’t available as a common ground between them. The writer made an effort to understand why so many people like following professional sports, and cultivated the habit of following a few professional teams. ( To be clear, neither the writer I’m describing nor I mean the term “average person” as a pejorative. ) I suppose it’s coldly calculating to make yourself interested in something just for the sake of communication, but it makes sense to me. The most ethical way to persuade someone to your views is to work towards mutual understanding and mutual respect.

  11. One of the things I love about sports is its power to create and change narratives. Little things happen over the course of a season or the course of years and stories unfold and collapse in ways that have real emotional power for me and for so many others.

    I think about the night I bribed an internet cafe worker to stay late so I could watch Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS while I was in Venice. The Red Sox lost in heroically awful fashion and I stomped home through the fog at 3 AM, drunk, angry. The victories of the next year, the come-back, the sweep, these stories unfolding before my eyes with one act of athleticism after another

    And yet, of course, the story doesn’t matter at all. There are powerful narratives unfolding in Gaza right now, for sure, with each day and move changing histories. And people are dying. Sports is both so important to the self and generally so irrelevant, and that’s why I love it.

  12. There’s one pro sportsball team (is it Green Bay?) that’s owned by its city instead of by some capitalist owner. While I’m not sure I think that’s really the job of city governments, they don’t have the problem of the team threatening to move to Los Angeles* or Santa Clara if they don’t cough up another billion dollars for a new stadium.

    (*Sure, the closest I’ve lived to Brooklyn was New Jersey, and the Dodgers left shortly after I was born, but they’re still bums. Santa Clara’s a town of 100,000 people about an hour south of San Francisco, which ended up paying about half the cost of the new 49ers stadium, and it’s not like they’ll even give all the locals free tickets in return for their tax money. The Oakland A’s periodically threaten to move to San Jose also.)

  13. Yeah, it’s Green Bay. I’ve always kind of liked that. I mean, you can’t remotely call it socialist, but I sort of like it anyway.

  14. Excellent points, and thank you for making them. I am occasionally of the dismissive line of thinking, but have come to appreciate that it does provide both a community building effort and a way out of some situations. My nephew has become heavily involved in the 10-12 age division of the community football team the Harlem Jets, and the program is quite serious. I was initially questioning the focus until someone helped me understand that when dealing with underfunded schools, overcrowded classrooms and the idiosyncracies of the local school system, it is a real path out of limited-option situations for some kids.

  15. There is ALWAYS another side, and it’s very rare when that other side doesn’t have some completely valid points to it. Usually “truth” (which is a conclusion rather than a fact) is arrived at not by testing facts… each side inevitably has at least some facts in its side… but on the relative weighting of those facts.

    “Dzur are more complex than I’d thought.” “Vlad, EVERYBODY is–” well, you know the rest.

  16. Dear Steven,

    this being my first comment on your blog,
    (after sporadically reading it off and on for several years,
    usually when my mood is down and i don’t have a copy
    of one your books handy to read, i come here because
    i feel at home in your writing)
    so let me say a few things first,

    first and foremost,
    i wanted you to know that you are my favorite author,

    my other 2 being Roger Zelazny (no surprise),
    and Michael Moorcock,
    hmm, i could speak volumes on this,
    but i do think that largely should suffice for now,

    though let me add that the first book
    of yours (20+ years ago) that i ever read was:
    “Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille”
    (and i only bought and read it because
    pursuing my local bookstore (in NYC),
    i spied the Roger Zelazny words of praise,
    and since he was, at the time, my favorite
    author, well, that was enough for me,
    i bought it that day and read it that night,
    a book i believe you once wrote that you felt
    was not your finest, and, you mentioned
    being surprised whenever someone
    compliments you on it,
    well, here is a compliment,

    i freakin’ loved it,
    and it was actually that very book
    of yours that sold me on you,

    now, i love both scifi and fantasy,
    but i love fantasy more, and so it goes,

    anyway, i loved that character Feng,
    i loved the story,
    and i especially loved this phrase:
    “Do the Job!”

    which leads me to the topic of this thread,

    i am a 40+ year student/instructor of
    several ancient Martial Art/Warrior systems,
    Shaolin, Aikido, and Ninpo… being the three
    primary ones, though i have trained in about
    a dozen others over the years, and further,
    i have been sort’a writing a book on the
    subject over the past 25 years or so,
    to put it bluntly, i am a bit of a walking
    encyclopedia when it comes to this subject,
    and i am rather prolific,

    in any case, to the point i wanted to make,

    you see,
    i am the youngest of 3 brothers,
    and my two older brothers
    (2+ yrs older, 7+ yrs older)
    were serious athletes heavily
    into sports, and they were stars,
    my eldest bro was always the Quarterback,
    and we have old super8 footage of him
    running some amazing plays,
    and then he was a brilliant skater,
    and so he was a star hockey player
    in college, gravitating towards goaly,
    and my middle brother was brilliant
    as well,

    in any case, i grew in Queens, NYC,
    about 1 mile from Shea Stadium,

    and i played most sports,
    and i did well enough,

    but Martial Arts was always my passion,
    and as mentioned above, been training
    consistently for 40+ years, my entire life,
    except when i am injured, of course,

    and so that is and always has been my
    “internal” cultural perspective,
    ie: very eastern,

    i enjoy western sports, know them well,
    and can play most of them relatively well,
    i can hold my own,

    but fighting is my thing,
    but i don’t mean the competition Sport side,
    i mean the ancient combat warrior side,
    yes, i have had several students who
    compete in the UFC, and are into the
    whole MMA stuff, and i did some minor
    competition when i was a teenager back
    in NYC, so i am well familiar with that side,
    but competition is not what it is about
    for me,

    the warrior tradition/discipline is what it
    is about for me,

    for me it is about the lore, the teachings,
    the principles, the lessons,
    the science, the art,

    it is about the technical finesse and
    the meditative focus of it,

    and it is also about humanity,
    awakening and cultivating our humanity,
    the founder of Aikido wrote:
    “We study war in the name of peace.”
    — Morihei Ueshiba —

    the warrior tradition is, i assert,
    a tradition that dates back to the
    very birth of humanity’s civilization,

    dating from the most primitive
    of days, around the campfire,

    and i would offer that,
    the actual physical movements themselves
    does inform our psyche and thoughts,
    it is a “mind-body-spirit” tradition,

    but it is not just in the physical technique,
    but also, in the stories told,
    for it is in the telling of stories
    that culture and civilization itself is
    passed/preserved from generation
    to generation,

    we learn from our past generations’ life journeys,

    and if we imagine what those primitive days
    were like for kids, exploring the woods and
    the land, etc… those games, leading towards
    or shadowing / complementing the learning
    of hunting and fighting skills, which is how
    i see these modern sports games,

    now, let us be clear and draw a distinction,
    the “spectator sport” side of these
    commercialized sports is not a sport,
    it is an entertainment,

    personally, i find being a spectator boring,

    i do enjoy watching a good fight,
    my purpose though is to study the
    fighting techniques, however most
    of what i see today, i’ve both seen
    and trained in, so much of what i
    see in that “arena” is somewhat
    boring for me, to be candid,

    in any case, having said all of that (to paint
    a textured picture and give you the cultural
    context of) my main point, and my main
    point is this:

    Sports is, as far as I’m concerned,
    a watered down distant descendant
    of an ancient tribal warrior tradition,
    and though I am sure I am not the
    first to say this, because i would
    imagine that most people sort of
    know this, and yet, it is not mentioned
    or discussed much, nor the ramifications

    sports obviously gives the population
    a opiate-like “pressure release valve”
    for their pent-up “energy”

    the Rollerball movie,
    (original 1975 w/James Caan)
    explored this cultural notion some,

    the deeper cultural relevance being,
    in the Warrior arts we cultivate
    a way of life that is forged in
    an ancient tradition whose
    sole original intent was the
    very survival of the tribe,

    bear in mind,
    there were potential enemy tribes around,
    so it was not so much about competing
    with your fellow tribesman,
    although i am sure there was some
    of this, as people were vying for leadership,
    but the primary goal had to always be
    the protection and survival of the
    tribe, because if that was not the
    primary goal, then that tribe probably
    wouldn’t survive,

    but then, of course, during peaceful times
    in “civilized” cities, those fighting arts
    morphed into a contrived “make-believe”
    war, that which we call “competition”
    or sports, which took the place of the
    warring tribal way of life,

    modern sports are a shadow of this
    ancient tribal tradition, and with that
    being said, i assert,

    to the extent that a modern athlete
    displays a true principle forged in the
    preservation and survival of the tribe,
    then that athlete’s “performance” will
    in some (subtle or obvious) way
    provide a lesson reminding us
    of our tribal primal roots,
    and is important to humanity,
    i believe,

    all money financial aspects aside,
    I don’t do Martial Arts for money,
    I am an IT Database Developer by trade,
    an inventor, hmm, a topic for another time,
    and not unrelated to a conversation i would
    love to one day have with you about politics
    and socialism and capitalism, etc.


    sorry if my unorthodox writing style is
    hard to follow, it’s easier for me to write
    this way, in sort of a stream-of-consciousness

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