[Marxism] Basketball Players of the World, Unite!

Tony Tracy tony at tao.ca
Thu Mar 10 13:43:43 MST 2005

This spoofy article by US Marxist Bertell Ollman that appeared in the  
LA Times on Saturday makes some nice points about capitalism:

Basketball Players of the World, Unite!
• A revolutionary perspective on the utopian possibilities of hoops.

  By Bertell Ollman

(Bertell Ollman is a professor in the department of politics at New  
York University. More of his writing appears at  

  March 7, 2005

  The rules of basketball have changed often over the years, so I hope  
no one will object if I offer a few modest revisions to make this  
wonderful game even better:

  First, I would charge a fee not only to watch the game but to play in  
it. And the more one pays, the longer one gets to stay in the game.

  Second, there should be a price paid for each shot taken, and the  
easier the shot, the more it should cost.

  Third, as for fouls, one should be able to pay the referees, so that  
they never call any fouls on you (or walking or double-dribble  
violations for that matter).

  Fourth — and maybe most important — there is no good reason that the  
baskets should be the same height for both teams. It should be possible  
for the team that pays more to have its basket lowered, and for double  
that amount to have the basket the other team is shooting at raised.

  Under current rules, players who are taller and better coordinated and  
can run faster and jump higher have all the advantages. My rules would  
exchange the advantages enjoyed by these people for other advantages  
that would benefit a different group, one that has been poorly served  
by basketball as now played: the rich. Under my rules, the rich would  
possess all the "talent" and — more in keeping with what occurs in the  
rest of society — never lose a game.

  "Whoa," I can hear some readers saying. "How is this going to make  
basketball a better game?" Well, that depends, doesn't it, on what you  
think the game is all about. Sure, one of the main purposes is fun.  
But, like all games, basketball also provides people with a simplified  
model of how society works and — implicitly and often explicitly — how  
to get ahead in such a society.

  It does this through its rules and through what people do and  
experience when following (or watching others follow) these rules, and  
through the assumptions that the game encourages people to make  
regarding the relevance of these experiences for the rest of life.  
Basketball, then, is as much about education as it is about fun.

  The new rules I have suggested would change the game's lessons  
dramatically. People who played or watched my version of the game would  
no longer expect speed, agility, persistence, teamwork or fair play to  
bring them success in life, but would instead learn that in our  
society, it is dollars that count. Playing basketball by my rules would  
help prepare young people for life in capitalist society, rather than  
miseducating them about what the future holds.

  At this point, some readers are probably thinking that if basketball  
is such bad education maybe we should get rid of it altogether. I would  
be inclined to agree if I didn't detect another equally important but  
wholly positive aspect of the game.

  What do both players and spectators enjoy most about basketball? I  
don't think it is the slam-dunk or even the occasional circus shot.  
Rather, it is the extraordinary teamwork, the times when the ball moves  
around among three, four and even five players, whose movements are  
perfectly coordinated, and the prize is an uncontested shot at the  
basket. Each player's skills, court sense and timing are on display,  
but it "works" only when the movements of each individual are  
transformed into the movement of a group. There are few occasions in  
life when such intense cooperation is possible, and its fruits so  
immediate and evident. For players and viewers alike, it is a utopian  
moment, when they catch a glimpse of something wonderful, an ideal of  
community, that disappears as quickly as it appeared.

  According to this interpretation of its broader meaning, basketball is  
not so much a distorted education of what society is like but a utopian  
ideal of what it should be like. In truth, basketball contains both of  
these moments, which are in an uneasy contradiction with each other,  
just as each is in striking contradiction with the laws and customs of  
the society in which the game is played.

  The first suggests that we should change the rules to make basketball  
more like life, while the other — viewing the sport as a utopian ideal  
— calls for trying to make life more like basketball.

  The choice before us, then, would appear to be whether to keep society  
as it is and revise (as I tried above) the rules of basketball (which  
would probably make the game a little less fun to play) or to keep  
basketball as it is and radically alter our society (which would retain  
or even increase all the fun). What cannot be chosen — not if we wish  
to be consistent and not if we wish to avoid constant frustration — is  
simply leaving things as they are.

  The cooperation that we idealize in basketball is essential to any  
functioning democracy. We in the United States have a democracy of  
sorts (although it is quite limited in scope and seriously flawed, as  
evidenced by the vote counting in Florida and Ohio and the obscene  
influence of big money in our elections). But work, education, culture,  
health, housing and communications are other important areas of our  
lives, and in every one of them a few people over whom we have no  
control simply tell us what to do. Rather than democracy, something  
akin to feudal relations rule over our social interactions in all these  
areas. Are we missing something? You bet we are.

  The comedian and political activist Dick Gregory said, "If democracy  
is such a good thing, let's have more of it." But what kind of society  
is it that extends democracy into all walks of life? According to  
Norman Thomas, a Protestant minister and onetime leader of the American  
Socialist Party, that's the best possible definition of "socialism."  
Could it be that the deepest and most hidden meaning of basketball, one  
that underlies and helps explain its contradictory functions as  
miseducation and utopian ideal, is — socialism?

  If so, our goal should be to make life as interesting, as fair, as  
cooperative and as much fun as basketball, whose rules and mode of play  
would then serve as excellent education for life in such a society. Our  
motto? "Basketball players of the world, unite; you have nothing to  
lose but your coaches, your bosses and your landlords."



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