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John Passant

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June 2010



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Sport: the new opium of the people?

Sports is not just about conservative nationalism. They’re about the thrill of joining together with fellow human beings in enjoyment and excitement argues Dave Zirin.

TERRY EAGLETON has been one of the great minds of the European left, seemingly since Cromwell. But in his recent piece on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free Web site, “Football: A Dear Friend to Capitalism,” his absence of understanding on the relationship between sport and modern society demands a response.

Eagleton writes: “If every right-wing think tank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labor, the solution in each case would be the same: football.”

He goes on to say that “for the most part, football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine.” And finally he hammers home: “Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished.”

This message is an old trope for the left and so musty that reading Eagleton’s column seemed to kick up dust from my computer screen. Those of us who love sport must also be hoodwinked. We must be bamboozled. Are we just addicts permanently distracted from what “really matters” as we engage in a pastime with no redeeming value? This is elitist hogwash.

We don’t love sports because we’re like babies suckling at the teat of constant distraction. We love them because they’re exciting, interesting and, at their best, rise to the level of art. Maybe Lionel Messi or Mia Hamm are actually brilliant artists who capture people’s best instincts because they are inspired.

By rejecting football, Eagleton also rejects what is both human and remarkable in physical feats of competition. We can stand in awe of the pyramids while understanding the slave labor and misery that comprised its construction. We can stir our soul with gospel music even while we understand that its existence owes itself to pain as much as hope. Similarly, amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother professional sport, there is also an art that can take your breath away.

But like all art, sport at its essence–what attracts us to it in the first place–holds within it a view of human potential unshackled–of what we could all be in a society that didn’t grind us into dust. Yes, far too many of us watch instead of play. But that’s not the fault of sports. For our current society is but a fleeting epoch in history. But sports span the ages, and to reject them is to reject our very history as a species.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WE NOW know that as soon as human beings could clothe and feed themselves, they played. Sports is as human an act as music, dance or organizing resistance. While sports may in a vacuum have no “significance,” the passion we invest in them transforms it. Sports morph into something well beyond escape or a vessel for backward ideas and become a meaningful part in the fabric of our lives. Just as sports such as football reflect our society, they also reflect struggle.

Therefore, when we think about the Black freedom struggle, our mind’s eye sees Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. The story of the modern women’s movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King’s defeat of the male chauvinist Bobby Riggs.

It explains why the Algerian football team was motivated to outplay England after watching Pontecorvo’s anti-imperialist classic The Battle of Algiers.

And of course, one of the most stirring sights of our sports in the last century: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black-gloved podium salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Sports are, at the end of the day, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to bash someone over the head or you can use it to construct something beautiful. It’s in the way that you use it. It can be brutal. It can be ugly. But it also has an unbelievable potential to bring us together, to provide health, fun, enjoyment and, of course, pulse-racing excitement.

Eagleton, who has written extensively about Karl Marx, would do well to remember his maxim: “Nothing human is alien to me.” This latest polemic is more about Eagleton’s alienation than our own.

First published at Comment Is Free Web site and re-published in Socialist Worker in the US

Dave Zirin is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States, as well as two collections of his sports writings, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. He is a columnist for; his writings are also featured at his Edge of Sports Web site.



Comment from Shane H
Time June 28, 2010 at 9:22 pm

I’d have to think this thru more carefully but glancing at both articles this seems an extraordinary response. As Marxists we seek a world beyond the alienation and exploitation that creates religion – we seek to transcend the conditions that make it necessary.

The argument that sport is a secular version of the same thing (which I think is Eagleton’s point) can’t be met by saying that sport is exciting, interesting and artistic. Would be accept religion because of its stained glass windows and glorious cathedrals? Zirin seems to accept this.

Sport inspires or is a part of important social struggles but surely religion is too. It inspired Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Surely the argument that “sport is a hammer” it depends how its used – can equally be made of religion. The argument is then one of weighing up the pros/cons of sport or religion – which is a fine argument but not a Marxist one. Sport is a capitalist industry that promotes individualism, nationalism and sexism – how do we balance this against its supposed portrayal of the ‘triumph of the human spirit’. How do we balance our pleasure at watching the World Cup against the colossal waste of money by the South African government which could presumably have been spent on social services – but that’s not the fault of “sport”. for eg

This reads like a believers defence of their religion not a Marxist argument (ditto for the cheap shot that Eagleton is an alienated intellectual (while Zirin is what? unalienated man of the people).

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