Sport and capitalism -- Would Gramsci go to the footy?

Image removed.
Labor PM Bob Hawke laud's tycoon Alan Bond's victory in the 1983 America's Cup.

No Pain, No Gain? Sport and Australian Culture
By Dr Jim McKay
Prentice Hall, 1991. 189 pages.

Review by Phil Shannon

Sport tells lies. According to Jim McKay, sport is a social prop to the domination of capitalist ideas and values. Fundamental to the maintenance of this dominance are the mass media, which ``selectively articulate capitalist rationality, masculine hegemony, Eurocentric racism, militaristic nationalism and liberal values'' -- a toxic mix of ideological viruses.

One particularly insidious liberal value, reiterated in sport and symbolically reinforced in sporting metaphors about politics and economics, is that ``talent will prevail over privilege'' (as a melbourne Age editorial put it concerning Western Australian tycoon Alan Bond's 1983 America's Cup victory). In a capitalist society, according to this logic, ``freedom'' allows anyone, whether black, female or working class, to rise above their environment through personal effort. In this self-raising flour theory of society, those who don't succeed in life have only themselves to blame for not trying hard enough.

Upward social mobility through sport, says McKay, does of course occur, but the successes are ``individual exceptions to Australia's class structure''. The mass media's presentation of these upwardly mobile individuals is a process of ``the extraordinary being transformed into the normal''. The media chorus also remains mute on the short-term career of sports stars, whose success is often prematurely limited by injury, as the sports ladder of opportunity turns into a snake, tumbling today's heroes down to the social ruck from whence they came.

There are other lies and evasions promulgated by sport. Women's sport, for example, is marginalised or discredited in the media, aiding the marginalisation of women in other areas of life. If a woman is successful in sport, her woman-ness, not her athleticism, is stressed. Successful sportswomen are portrayed as sexual ``objects of the male gaze in sport'', and ``feminine'' (i.e., decorative, passive and maternal at heart).


There is a subtle racism involved in ascribing the success of Aborigines in boxing, US blacks in sprinting or the West Indians in cricket to ``natural ability''. There is also media silence on the poor, and mostly illusory, compensation that sport offers in the face of the political and economic inequality which underlies racial inequality.

On the ideological class battlefield, sport is used to promote a mythical cross-class togetherness. The master illusionist of consensus, Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, preached and practiced the old strategy of ``sport and war bringing Australians together''.

During Bond's America's Cup win, Hawke's patriotic drivellings attempted ``to make sectional interests the concerns of everyone'' as if, writes McKay with some sarcasm, ``Aborigines, women and the four million Australians living off welfare benefits'' should barrack for the greedy hucksters and profiteers of Australian capitalism.

These examples of the enmeshing of sport and ideology are testimony to the success of capitalism in invading the sports field. This process started when large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation of rural societies like Australia brought with it some leisure time (otherwise factory workers would have dropped dead where they stood).

Leisure was threatening to the capitalists because it contained ``elements that undermined the efficient and productive values of capitalist hegemony''. Subversive elements such as ``spontaneity, intrinsic rewards'', a non-competitive and non-acquisitive orientation and `` freedom'' might sour workers' attitude to their lot in life and (quel horreur!) foster dissent.

Commodification of leisure

By gradually turning sport into a market, capitalism has held off this threat, with sport becoming ``incorporated into the commercial and competitive logic of capitalism'' and goals such as ``efficiency, productivity, performance and winning'' becoming dominant. Sport, ``once a pastime and mode of conviviality and communal identification'', says McKay, ``has become a serious profession and part of big business''.

That our current ``commonsense'' notions about sport rest on the importance of winning, conquest and the social Darwinism of ``success in society going to tough, masculine competition in a fairly run race'' is a triumph of capitalist cultural hegemony. Demystifying and debunking sport, analysing its political and social context, are elementary for socialists, says McKay. But he is exasperated that, when he tries to encourage a ``reflective or critical'' attitude to sport in his phys. ed. students, this mostly precipitates ``incredulity, discomfort and outright hostility''.

For McKay, this reaction increases the importance of ``cultural politics'', the linking of ``the personal with the political through a critique of everyday life''. He believes that socialists cannot afford to ``restrict politics to purely economic issues'' because to do so is to abandon sport as a key symbol to the Right and thus hamper the socialist political struggle.


McKay's position is based on the Gramscian tradition of a ``war of position'' -- holding the line for progressive ideas. An important strategy, but McKay's dismissal of revolutionary politics (or as he condescendingly puts it -- ``proletarian Samsons breaking their chains in revolutionary effort'') is actually not very Gramscian at all. Gramsci was a barricades revolutionary as much as a ``Western Marxist'', with flexible strategies for coping in a reformist liberal democracy.

If the ``realistic revolutionaries'' (of the ``Gramscian'' kind) don't say much on the politics of class struggle, it's because they haven't that much to offer. Cultural politics can, for them, be a refuge. On the other hand, for revolutionaries to dismiss sport as ``bread and circuses for the masses'' is, as McKay says, understandable but unwarranted. It is also rarely the case anyhow, apart from some Althusserians and Frankfurt-schoolers.

Although McKay spends most of his book panning sport, he does argue a positive case for freeing the ``aesthetic, sensuous and democratic elements'' of sport from its capitalist warders as ``a small but important part of a larger pluralist socialist project of democratising culture and expanding human freedom''.

Footy without the sexism, violence and commercial hoopla. It'll take a socialist revolution (and then some) to realise it, but then fun and games will really be fun and games.

[This article first appeared in Australia's leading socialist newspaper, Green Left Weekly, issue 34 (1991).]