The Discipline of Spectator Sports

21 03 2007


As we recover from the dismal performances of India and Pakistan in the on-going cricket World Cup, it may be a good time for everyone to take another look at the role spectator sports play in our lives today. It is well known that cricket, the unassailable king among sports in the Subcontinent, rides on and sustains a multi-billion economy, provides super profits to those who own and administer its performances, and gives our people a distraction from the unhappy grind of their daily lives.

But cricket also plays a crucial role in disciplining its citizens into malleable political agents and thus becomes a crucial pillar in sustaining the oppressive political practice of our countries. Cricket is a passion among people in our countries. Every open space and not-so-open space, back-alley and rooftop is used to play cricket by millions of boys and young men. But cricket is also the spectator sport par excellence in our countries. And here I am concerned about the function cricket as a spectator sport plays in our polity. My understanding of the politics of spectator sports has been deeply influenced by Umberto Eco’s writings on the same topic, which are published as part of his collection of essays titled, Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality. I would recommend that everyone read it.

To understand the implications of spectator sports, a distinction needs to be made with participative sports, between sport which is practiced by the person and sport which is only viewed and consumed.

Sport practiced is good. It contributes to building health and developing the personality of those who play. It hones one’s skills and helps people bond with each other in camaraderie. Spectator sport, on the other hand, is all about thousands (or hundreds of thousands and in this age of mass media, millions) of people watching – ‘spectating’ – other people play. It does lead to expenditure of energy and emotions by those who watch, but by its very nature it is voyeuristic, passive and sterile. Though it is premised on strong group affiliations and engenders fierce emotions, spectator sport does not allow those consuming it to actually impact the game in any way. Therefore, it is like pornography – one derives pleasure from passive viewership and not from the actual act.

Spectator sport by its very nature is competitive.

This does not mean that there is no competition in participative sports – one does compete with the other players and tries to excel in the game. But competition is the very foundation, the raison de etre, of spectator sports. This competition, which is nominally based on the competition among the players involved in the actual playing, is about competition between the supporters who have no participation in the actual game. The competition of one group of players against another group is transformed into a competition between their supporters, where the latter takes on precedence. Therefore, you have competition between Arsenal and Chelsea supporters or you have Pakistani supporters versus Indian supporters. The fact that a Pakistani supporting India or vice-versa is indicative of a person’s “liberal” outlook and support for one’s team is indicative of patriotism – just goes to show the massive political load that spectator sport carries.

While there is something deeply absurd about this competition between team supporters, it is even more absurd when you have national teams. How can 11 men, howsoever good they may be in their sporting skills, ‘represent’ a nation and become symbols of that nationalism? Where is the link between excelling in a sport skill and the constitution of nationhood?

The argument against spectator sports is that with their basic characteristic of public competition between two sets of people, spectator sport is actually a ‘simulacra for real competition and contest in the public sphere’, or in other words, a simulacra for ‘politics’. It’s not that there is politics in sports, but that spectator sports simulate an important feature of democratic politics – public competition – and thereby become a replacement for real political engagement.

Class divided nations, both democracies and tyrannies, by their very structure, need spectator sports for survival since they divert the energy of the people from real political contests into the simulacra of public contests. But this particular political function of spectator sports is further entrenched by what Eco calls sports ‘chatter’. Sports chatter is people talking and forming opinions about sports played by other men (and women).

Each action is analysed, discussed, opinions formed and traded just like public activity should be in politics. No newspaper or TV news channel can survive if it does not devote a large chunk of its ‘news’ to spectator sports. The formation of views and analysis for those who are not participating in the actual play is central to the entire charade of spectator sport. So now we can identify three levels. One, the actual game between a set of people who compete to see who is better skilled in that particular game; two, the viewing of this play by people who derive pleasure from their passive viewing; three, the production of opinions and analysis on the actions of actual players. There is often a fourth level, when people (spectators) form opinions and debate the opinions of others on the game played by yet others.

Eco argues that this is an exact replica of the structure of political engagement. But in political activity, one engages with real issues unlike in sports, where the actions, one way or another, are merely play!

Further, spectators – the people of politics – invest spectator sports with their emotions and their sense of well-being. Watching his favourite batsman hitting a six or a bowler taking a wicket provides real pleasure to the voyeur of spectator sport. People bond with those who support ‘their’ teams and in the context of cricket in the Subcontinent, it provides a basis for our nationalism. We can be rightists or leftists, but there can be no heretic in the community of cricket fans. You can be agnostic, but heretics cannot survive!

This is what makes the political function of spectator sports so dangerous for democratic politics. The touchstone of democratic practice is public critique. And critique is itself based on reason and arguments based on this reason. This is not possible for a sport. Therefore, one has total loyalty for one’s team, and when the team is identified with, is a representation of, the nation, this lack of critique becomes that much more significant.

When the nation presents itself to the citizen as a political idea, there is a possibility of critique. But when that citizen is converted into a spectator and the nation presents itself as the national sports team, all possibility of critique is forfeited. One has to either accept it unconditionally or secede.

That is why spectator sports are such an effective safety valve for modern bourgeois (and wannabe bourgeois) societies. It disciplines the critical citizen into a voyeuristic subject of the nation.


Published in The Post, 21 March, 2007.



3 responses

21 03 2007

A few comment onthe views that you have made in the “spectator-sport” article.

You have said eloquently that in a environment constrained by near-jingoism, effective critique is not possible. I disagree on this. The Indian cricket structure , with its regionalistic basis (players drawn off zones constructed off states) provides enough wherewithal for enough critique. However whether this critique is reasoned is what is the problem. Note, that in formal democracies such as ours, reasoned critique sometimes is absent in the political sphere too. A pattern of identity-mongering in the political level is followed in the regional-linguistic sense in Indian cricket. A similar analogy exists in West Indies cricket too. Remember, “No Cummins, No Goings”?

Next, there is too much of a difference between different spectator sports to pull them together and club them in the same category.

Au contraire, I would argue that the nature of contestation, following and even composition of teams draw more from their nation’s own respective political-economic systems.

Thus for e.g., individual owned teams in the United States where players are commodities nearly function like firms, with the spectators acting as custodians or primary stock holders. The way the sport is played is also reflective of the predominant political culture. Hence the dependence on the prima donna quarterback or the Point Guard/Center or the blue chip pitcher.

Soccer, especially European, on the other hand, reflected team effort, coalesced-team activity before, basically thus being a “socialist” sport but notice the rise of commercial club football coinciding with the rise of Thatcherite neoliberalism. Again within the club football itself, there are internal distinctions. The performance oriented, money driven Premiership buttressed by working class support is different from regional-bond driven La Liga.

In Japan, on the other hand, Baseball is nearly the work-ethic-driven-team-oriented efficiency loaded sport reflecting a form of Weberian Rationality that drives Japanese capitalism too. Quite different from how its played out in the US.

Umm..Perhaps I am digressing. The main point that I am making is that there exists a dialectical relationship between the politico-economic system and the way spectator sport is perceived and played.

I have to mention thought that reading an article on spectator sport in this sense was refreshing and Umberto Eco’s book is going to be a must-read for me now.

19 04 2010
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21 02 2017
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