In Defense of Sports
n one of his final essays for Newsweek, Christopher Hitchens argued that sport breeds conflict and brings out the worst in human nature. By then an apostate to the Left, on this topic the late essayist clung to his roots; progressives have long been suspicious of sport.
That many radicals aren’t watching football every Monday night is hardly surprising. Modern sport took shape under capitalism and embodies many of its values: competition, empiricism, chauvinism, hierarchy and discipline. “Win at all costs” is the mantra of our most revered coaches. The play clock mirrors the frenzied dance of industrial society. Preparation for games revolves around repetitive training, not unlike the fluid motion that powers the assembly line. With the rise of “sabermetrics,” team owners can quantify and evaluate performance solely from numbers and algorithms—long the dream of a ruling class drawn to the cold calculus of scientific management schemes. Former NBA All-Star Allen Iverson’s drives to the hoop weren’t as good as we thought, the statisticians tell us. Beauty does not matter, only efficiency.
None of these qualms are wrong. They’re just missing something—the ecstasy so many get from watching sports, a joy that can’t be reduced to “false consciousness.” Beyond betraying an ascetic disdain for something a large part of humanity finds pleasure in, too many progressives see sports ahistorically, unable to envision them in a different context.
With roots in English public schools and other unsavory places, organized sport was originally an elite phenomenon, but the early working class made no such errors. Taking advantage of the free time guaranteed by the eight-hour day, workers began to democratize games like soccer and rugby. Before long, major social democratic parties across Europe were using sporting clubs and festivals to construct working-class identity and promote solidarity.