Can Sports be Intellectual?

There’s a scene in the documentary Manufacturing Consent in which Noam Chomsky makes some offhand critiques about sports. I first saw this film in high school, when I was an avid athlete. Chomsky’s comments are rather tangential to main topic of the documentary – filtering, control, and “propaganda models” in the American news media – but they are one of the things I remember the most about the film. Years later, I’d estimate they had a profound effect on my views.

The thrust of his critique concerns sport’s societal function in “building up submission to authority” and “training in irrational jingoism.” Chomsky argues that athletes are inculcated with a devotion to hierarchical systems of leadership, while spectators develop a form of hero-worship, and both are instilled with a fetish for (often violent) competition. This ultimately primes people to willingly attach themselves to imagined communities that aren’t actually concerned with their well-being, and comply with (if not fanatically defend) the power systems served by them. The political value (and societal danger) of this kind of social psychology is readily apparent.

He also asserts that the spectators of sport, who vastly out-populate the participants, become embroiled in the minutiae of “sports analysis.” They devote an enormous amount of intellectual resources to remembering obscure trivia, analysing statistics, and debating tactics and strategies, from specific plays to the management of entire sports organizations. This mental energy could be better directed at pressing societal concerns, but sports ultimately serve to deflect attention and interest from real issues, which again contributes to public acquiescence to power systems .

On the whole, I think these critiques remain valid. And since I originally encountered them, I have found myself returning to the dilemma they bear out: Is it possible to be an “intellectual” (whatever that means) who cares about and participates in sports?

I’ll start with the assumption that there are functions and benefits of sport beyond social control and distraction. Can we extricate these? Obviously people can get exercise, experience the pleasure of physical exertion, and play fun games without bolstering pseudo-tribalism or authoritarian power structures. But this might require at least a small amount of reflexivity, and it might be easier or harder depending on the activity. Most team sports are inherently authority driven, by design and practice.

As a participant, the insidious effects of sports might be tempered by laying out a set of social agreements and contributing to a respectful and self-aware sporting culture. Coaches do not have to be megalomaniacs, athletes do not need to be egomaniacs, and those on the opposite team do not need to be regarded as enemies to be dominated and humiliated. Leadership does not need to descend into authoritarianism. “Sportsmanship,” despite being a gendered anachronism, seems like a worthy ideal. Plausibly, the problems with sports are not inevitable, but lie in the extremes.

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But beyond these abstractions, there is the issue that sports are, by and large, just as Chomsky describes them. Even if healthy and positive sporting cultures are theoretically possible, in practice most exhibit all sorts of problems. Hyper-competitiveness is rife; fanatical devotion to sport teams is widespread; and the majority of sports analysis is inane and consumes a disproportionate amount of mental energy and media resources. What could it mean to participate in a culture that presents so many concerns, but not contribute to it?

Even if you cheer for “your team” with a tongue-and-cheekness where you realise it’s all a bit ridiculous spectacle – that nothing of any import changes if they win or lose, and that in the end it’s all about money, not civic pride or whatever other misplaced ideal might motivate fans – many if not most team supporters delve pretty deep into the “irrational jingoism” Chomsky warns of. Even if you participate in a sport respectfully and place limits on your competitiveness, others won’t subscribe to your niceties; they might even prey on them. Even if you realise that half a dozen 24-hour cable sports channels each with several hours a day of sports news and “analysis” demonstrates a set of problematic social priorities, most consumers of sports entertainment revel in it. Thus, even reflexive participation appears to merely bolster problematic sports cultures.

Chomsky may be wrong, however, about the causal effects of sports. While he argues that sports “contribute to authoritarian attitudes,” and “engage a lot of intelligence and keep people away from other things,” they may instead be symptomatic. That is to say, politics (even “democratic” politics) tends towards authoritarianism, so it should be no surprise that sports reflect this. Historically, sports were a form of warfare practice; sports reflected war, not the other way around. The fact that major newspapers have a daily sports section is not the cause of the absence of a daily science section, it is rather a reflection of broader lack of concern with important issues demanding serious thought and analysis. Sports do, of course, fulfill their functions very well. So, more accurately, their relationship to society seems to work both ways; they both reflect and bolster authority, and they both fulfill a desire for distraction as well as distract.

And it is precisely their effectiveness in these regards that makes sports so disconcerting. They seem to have a propensity that other human pursuits do not. Why is sports “analysis” so idiotic? Why does fandom lead to violent hooliganism? Why are many athletes one-dimensional caricatures? I think, quite simply, because sports do not demand intellectual seriousness. It may be tacked-on, but sports can carry on happily – they likely even thrive – without it. It’s hard to imagine that science, or philosophy, or even art (though lots of “art” is inane and frivolous and distracting) serving the same functions as sports.

But again, it’s hard to parse out sports from broader societal contexts. Athletics are too often framed as an alternative to intellectual pursuits, rather than complementary. While schooling systems – where most humans first encounter sports – nominally try to integrate athletics into a well-rounded personal development, these same systems promote the view that you are a type of person – an athlete or an intellectual, a jock or a nerd – instead of a person with many interests. But this too is culturally dependent. The American system exemplifies this mentality, with its professional sports recruitment beginning essentially in elementary school, and an entire developmental system dedicated at taking children and teenagers and turning them into athletes, and nothing else. Conversely, Europeans tend to have different outlooks on sports; athletics are part of being a well-rounded individual (take Dirk Nowitzki or Mats Sundin as examples).

This view, I think gives a better answer to the question: Asking if sports can be intellectual might be like asking if fun can be intellectual. Part of the reason I like participating in sports is that it’s not the same kind of thing as writing a thesis. Games require thought and intelligence, to be sure, but of a particular kind. But the acts of sport are appealing precisely because they are visceral, not cerebral. The human body thrives on exercise and physicality. So yes, sports can be “intellectualised,” in that it can be contextualised in healthy and positive sport cultures, reflected on in terms of broader societal functions, and integrated into a considerate worldview and lifestyle. Indeed, precisely because sports are so prone to serving dubious ends, they must be.


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