Sports may be among the most powerful
human expressions in all history,"
Gerald Early writes in the opening essay
of this issue, and perhaps more than sex, to which it relates in all
kinds of complicated and not-so-complicated ways, sport elaborates
in its rituals what it means to be human: the play, the risk, the
trials, the collective impulse to games, the thrill of physicality,
the necessity of strategy; defeat, victory, defeat again, pain, transcendence
and, most of all, the certainty that nothing is certain--that everything
can change and be changed.
But if sport is a powerful expression, it is also
expression of power.
Any Olympics tells
us this. In economic terms, what we might call the gross national
sports product is at least $350 billion, six times what it was a decade
ago. In terms of popular culture, probably nothing enters public consciousness
on such a scale. Some 133 million Americans watched the Super Bowl
this year, wildly outdistancing the 47 million who re-elected Bill
There is an old chestnut on the left that sports are nothing but cheap
amusements to divert the people from their problems. To which one
may ask, What's wrong with a little diversion? For most people, life
is hard, leisure a luxury, and the physical arts are no less valid
than any other. Denigration of sport merely recapitulates the modern
devaluation of the physical -- for, after all, if sports are an art,
they are also an extravagant, often brutal form of work.
More to the point, as a cultural product, sport represents less an
abdication from serious things than an arena in which these have always
been enacted and contested. As far back as the sixteenth century,
English kings proscribed the games ofthe people as a sacrilege or
a distraction from the more useful practice of war skills. In the
nineteenth century, when modern sports were organized, baseball and
football were gentlemen's games, their hours of play and ticket prices
set not to entrap but to exclude the rabble, whose access to these
coincided with the growing power of labor and the fight for the eight-hour
day. (In this sense, as "eight hours for what we will" becomes
ever more elusive and sporting arenas more pricey, we find ourselves
regressing to that earlier time.)
Much is made of Jackie Robinson's braking the color line in baseball,
but behind that were years of agitation by black newspapers, black
organizations and the Communist Party. Some of the first mass protests
and sit-ins of the civil rights movement, in 1940-41, involved sports.
Black men were not only kept out of baseball; they were subject to
exclusion or restriction in pro football, from 1933 to 1961, and so
on even to horse racing. None of those bans were lifted without a
fight, just as the explosion of women's sports would be unthinkable
without women's liberation; the openness of Martina Navratilova and
other athletes, without gay liberation.
Likewise today, the siphoning of money from communities into the pockets
of sports owners and stars will not be reversed, and their fortunes
will not be redistributed down to the local playground, without a
Special Issue - Sports: A View from Left Field
August 10, 1998.