The Interpretation of Sports (2 of 2)

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Thu Jun 27 23:55:31 MDT 1996


Here is the second part of my posting on sport.  I was interested in Adam's
comments about the football riots and the use of nationalism. Perhaps we
will take this up after this posting.


Marxist approaches to sport could I think be divided into two main camps.
First there is the school which sees sport as a distraction from the class
struggle and there is a second school which denies the autonomy of sport and
attempts to point the relationship between the realm of sport and the wider

Sports fans themselves tend to argue that sport is separate and indeed they
often react violently when this insistence is denied as in the protests over
the racist South African teams of the Apartheid era.  The Springbok tour of
Australia in 1971 was particularly violent in this regard as was the later
tour of New Zealand.

Now I want to suggest in this post that we should try and explore the sports
fan's insistence on the autonomy of sport, that we try and account for it
and then work out what this tells us about society in general.

To do this I want to apply the model Freud developed in his Interpretation
of Dreams.  Freud, as comrades will recall, distinguished  between the
latent dream thoughts and the manifest dream.  The latent dream thoughts
were worked into the manifest dream by a series of mechanisms.  These were

*"condensation"* which refers to the process by which several elements in
the latent dream thoughts could be represented by a single item in the dream;

*"displacement"* which is the process whereby that which is important in the
dream thoughts becomes trivial in the dream;


*symbolism* where an element in the dream stands for something else i.e.
where a cigar is not a cigar.

Now these mechanisms are in place primarily to repress or censor the content
of the dream thoughts, to control their manifestation in the dream.

How then does all this relate to the interpretation of sports? Well I would
like to suggest that we think of sport as the parallel of the manifest
dream, and the trials and tribulations of life, i.e. politics/ the class
struggle, as the equivalent of the latent dream thoughts.

So according to this scenario, the sports fan is entering the dream when he
(1) (sic) watches a sport.  Many of the things that are important outside
sport are being condensed into an element in the sport. So for example the
industries that lie behind, underpin and produce the moment of display are
not recognised by the spectator.

Above all however the process of displacement is taking place. What is
important in everyday life has become trivial in the sports and the elements
within sport which have assumed enormous importance are extraordinarily
trifling in the real world. Think here of the phenomenon of sporting
records. In cricket for instance people still talk of how in 1948, in his
last innings, Don Bradman failed to get the four runs that he needed to give
him a career average of 100. Who cares?  The answer is- countless thousands.

What though of the process of censorship?  Freud placed enormous emphasis as
everyone knows on the phenomenon of repression.  What is being repressed in
sports?  The class struggle of course and it is this that accounts for the
hostility many Marxists feel towards sport.

There are several ideological mechanisms for preserving the autonomy of
sport. The most significant one is surely the notion of sportsmanship which
in itself is, I believe, a faint echo of the pre-capitalist concept of
chivalry. Like all such ideologies, sportsmanship lives in perpetual tension
with the desire to win at all costs.  The capitalist slogan of "There can be
only one" sits uneasily with the idea that the important thing is to
participate in the sport and not necessarily to win..

What is interesting here though is to look at those moments when the process
of censorship fails, when politics, especially in its crude form as money,
bursts into the realm of sport.

My favorite moments are unfortunately drawn from sports which most people on
this list know little about, rugby and cricket. But the World Series of 1919
(?) and the recent baseball strike, the Italian soccer scandal of the 80s
are all I suspect interesting examples. The current worry over the excessive
intrusion of advertising into sport, especially Olympic sport, is another
instance of the same phenomenon.

What happens here is that the censor is overwhelmed and matters from the
real world erupt into the dream. I would call this a case of somnus
interruptus or incomplete dreaming. The result is disillusioned and angry
fans who are driven to seek another site for their dreaming.

However let us take the other and perhaps more interesting case of a surfeit
of dreaming. Here a current example is the recent soccer match between
Germany and England.  That may even have made some ripples in the land of
the free and the brave.

In the run up to the game the tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror, produced
computerised photos of English players dressed in WW2 helmets accompanied by
headlines promising war.  This received universal condemnation from within
the dream factory i.e. the world of sport. Normally the dream factory
encourages nationalistic identification but there is a fine line of control
here which the Mirror transgressed and significantly the Daily Mirror had to
retreat with an editorial apology. This was I would argue a case of
resistance to Nationalism coming form *above* and not below.  But no doubt
Adam will have more  to say here.

The very real political tensions between England and Germany, such as the
struggle for control of the EU and the recent conflict over the export of
British Beef, were excessively displaced. The English fans booed the German
national anthem.  The German fans responded by Mooing the British dirge "God
Save the Queen" and chanting "You all have mad cow disease".

After the game when the English fans spilled out onto the streets,  they
were still in the dream but this time it was a nightmare and they rioted.
The Russian who was stabbed five times just in case he was a German was a
victim of the success of the dream factory- the sports industry, not a sign
of its failure.

The media now are vying with each other in the rush to condemn the sports
fans.  These are now stigmatised "as hooligans and thugs".  They are of
course the creation of the dream factory, which like all capitalist
enterprises is the old sow that eats her farrow.

The actions of the fans are of course deeply pathological, psychotic even.
Moreover they are highly indicative of a society which by continually
postponing the rendezvous with history and the transition from capitalism to
socialism is giving rise to ever more instances of unspeakable barbarism.


When I began these posts my original intention was a somewhat light hearted
aplogia pro vita mea, a defence against Kevin & Co, of my own sports
fanaticism, but like all writing the end product is sometimes well beyond
the best laid schemes of the creator. Sport is indeed the opiate of the
masses and there is it seems no solution in such cases but the radical
transformation of society.

Having said that tonite (Friday) will find me with a bottle  of red in front
of the tele watching the footy, while my sons condemn me for being a traitor
to my political principles. Ah the contradictions of the dialectic.




(1) I use the masculine pronoun here not as the universal pronoun but to
indicate a recognition that most of the phenomena associated with mass
spectators sports that I wish to describe are the province of the male.
This observation itself of course requires further investigation.

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