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Sport As Socio-political Microcosm More Than Just A Game

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Sports and politics-despite conservative sport freaks admonitions not to “mix" the two-have always been intertwined. In sport, as elsewhere, the only question is whose politics will predominate, and to what degree.

The first professional team in American the Cincinnati Redstockings baseball club of the early 1870's-was player-controlled; the players decided who they would play, when and where, and how revenue from the games would be divided. There was also a Players League in the 1880's composed of nearly all the top baseball players of the time. Formed by lie athletes themselves as a response to the monopolistic practices of the National League, the circuit was short-lived. Like Allende's Chile, it folded when bank loans and the empathetic press coverage needed to Iaunch the experiment were not forthcoming.

This summer, the top players in America's new national pastime - pro football - went out on strike. Unlike the 1970 National Football League Players Association walkout, this year's action did not come about primarily over money. It was over so-called "freedom issues." The players struck for, among other things, the right to sell their services to whichever team they chose.

In the 1970's, as in the 1870's, the issues are essentially these: the desire of player/participants for relative autonomy and dignity in sport, versus that of owner/managers fro maximum profit and control.

That century of continuity has been buoyed by numerous actions in recent years: individual lawsuits against the sporting establishment, en masse boycotts by athletes, the insistence of women that they be allowed to participate in previously male sports, a spate of books by former athletes documenting and protesting the militaristic regimentation of the sport. The commonality in these otherwise diverse actions is the willingness of their participants to view sports in a broad social context-as something more than just a game.



One person who has been doing just that, systematically and in depth, for the past decade is Harry Edwards, a sociologist at UC, Berkeley.

Edwards, a large (6'3"), articulate man who played basketball and captained the track team as a student at San Jose State, gained widespread attention-if not popular approval-when he organized a boycott of the Olympic Games by black athletes in 1968. That action was capped when sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave black-gloved "power" salutes on the victory stand during the playing of the US national anthem. And were banned from further Olympic competition for mixing sport and politics.

Edwards today has the air of a person who's seen too much pornography to retain an interest in sex. "I lost interest in sport when I stripped off my basketball uniform at San Jose State in ' 1964," he says. "I haven't thrown a ball or attended a contest for pleasure since. I'm interested in society, not sport."

The pornography metaphor is not a facetious one. In the minds of organized sports' social critics, competitive athletics are to the creative play impulse that humans share with most animals, what porno is to sex. They are commercialized spectacles, somehow removed from participatory experience and frequently grotesque, that would be irrelevant in a society that emphasized process rather than product.

"We can sit down here right now and create a game," Edwards says, "but we cannot create a sport. A sport has a record, and a history and a value system that people are into."

It is the value system implicit in American sport-and its actual and potential utility in the social control of large segments of the population ("fans")-that has attracted Edwards' attention. Since 1968, he has written prolifically and lectured on sport. At Cal, he teaches a course called "Sport and Society." Sport, to Edwards, is a ritualized, highly concentrated microcosm of society as a whole, an activity in which its mythologies and most intimate conceptions of itself are laid out for all to see.

"You can analyze this thing for the price of a ticket. You can walk into a stadium and you can find out what is going on with women, with Blacks, with the working class. You can find out what's going on at the top," he says flatly.

In his early work, Edwards attacked the politics of exclusion in sport. (His book The Sociology of Sport is dedicated to Jackie Robinson.) Historically, as Paul Hoch points out in his book Rip Off the Big Game, women and minorities have been excluded from sport. The precursors of many American team sports originated in British public schools -schools that were almost exclusively White, male, and upper class.



Once minorities- especially Blacks- were finally admitted to sport, team quotas and "stacking" tactics were devised to literally keep them in their place. That meant only so many Blacks to a team, mostly in non-thinking positions. Such tactics remain as popular as ever, says Edwards, in order that predominantly White fans won't have to go through the 'agony' of trying to identify with and relate to, say a Black quarterback. As it is, Black athletes "have to be better than their White counterparts to make the team."

The preponderance of Blacks at 'physical' positions, such as defensive tackle in football, helps reinforce the stereotype of Blacks as magnificent, but dumb animals. It also dovetails neatly with the genetic theories of Arthur Jenson and William Shockley that purport to prove Blacks inherently less intelligent than Whites.

Edwards ascribes the current domination of sports such as pro basketball by Blacks to the fact that sport is given such heavy emphasis in Black communities. It is seen as a possible avenue of escape from the ghetto- even if the avenue is only viable for a few of the many who use it.

Despite his own involvement in fighting for Black equality in sport, Edwards wonders whether the pursuit of " as-salvation is not in actuality a "seductive process" for Blacks. "Minorities have more or less assumed that their greater involvement in athletics was a good thing. But there is a plausible argument that not only is it not a good thing, but it is a highly negative thing.

"This Black cat gets out there- "who can't get a job, is not eating, who cannot get a decent education- but he sees O.J. Simpson get a million dollar contract. More than that, he identifies with the efforts of O.J. Simpson on the football field. And the only way he can really do that is to be into the value system that supports that.

"We found out in Cleveland and in Los Angeles that voting in a Black man does not make any difference. We found out in basketball that a Black man doesn't make any difference. Bill Russell became the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Boston did not change, the NBA didn't collapse.

"The Black athlete, then, serves as almost an agent for the system, and becomes a contributing factor in the social control machinery keeping Blacks believing in the viability of the principles upon which American society is supposed to be functioning" - freedom, justice and equality for all.

And what about women? Can they be co-opted, too? "They already are. They are not asking for a change in the ideological system to allow women to function in society and in sport as full and adequate human beings. They are asking for a cut of the action so that a few women will have the chance to be perceived as the most adequate among the less adequate half of the species.

"They are essentially asking for an equal opportunity to be exploited with men in the existing ideological context. 'Why can't I play football? I want an equal opportunity to go out and humiliate and beat down and stomp and dominate other human beings with George Allen, so I'll feel big and adequate and superior.'

"That doesn't solve the problem that women are confronted with; it exacerbates it. The problem is that people's hopes and dreams and visions of themselves are defined by ideologies which do not function in their interests. They were set up with the interests in mind of White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, capitalistic males. Not even WASP working class or middle class males. Capitalistic males."

Edwards sees sports as especially effective means of advertising and advancing establishment interests. It does this by providing a popular focus for the values that underwrite the hierarchical capitalistic system: the work ethic, nationalism, traditional organized religion and especially individual competition, with its concomitant promise that individual success will surely come to those who work for it. Those values are disseminated through the extensive coverage of sport by the mass media. In this way sport serves as the sugared surface of an addicting ideological pill, frequently replacing religion as the preferred opiate of the masses.

"As a social control thing," Edwards observes, "what this does is to keep a person so wrapped up, and keep these traditional values so reinforced, that alternative ways of organizing the world do not become serious considerations."

Thus it comes about that a person with a small business, or a person who works in a factory and supports a family, will attend a sporting event to sub-consciously reaffirm his/her faith in the system. His business may be failing because of the variables in the economic system- the price of oil, or of sugar- he cannot hope to control. Her factory job may be meaningless and depressing. But on Sunday, when the Raiders beat the Broncos, all is well. He will go back to his business, she will return to her factory, and both will work harder. Success will come, just as it did to the Raiders.

Sometimes, though, the incongruities between the "cultural fictions" supported by sport and cultural reality become too great. Sometimes even the Big Game isn't enough. Then you have a Cleveland, where drunken spectators assaulted baseball players on the field earlier this year, or a Pittsburgh, where thousands of fans simply went beserk in 1971, with the World Series as the ostensible trigger.

"We must learn to understand the significance of situations such as Cleveland, where fans not only kicked the ass of the opposing team, they kicked their own team's ass, too," Edwards exclaims. "It was a total breakdown in the sacredness of the values involved in separating 'us' from 'them' and my stake in 'my' team's victory.

"They came out behind 10 cent beer and said, 'This whole thing is a ruse, it's a farce.' And if the game is a farce, then the principal structure, the sacredness of that game, is also a farce. You cannot go in and destroy the church and attack the priest without also tacitly admitting you no longer belong in the religion."

Was this a conscious thing on the part of the fans? - "No, or course it wasn't. It is not people rationally saying, 'I am fed up with the functioning of the political institutions.' When an explosion comes it is usually not a conscious, coordinated thing. Watts was not a coordinated thing. People didn't say, 'Let me go out here and confront this armored personnel carrier with this bottle with this wick in it.' But hundreds of people did it, all over the country.



"And you know the thing that brought about Cleveland was not anything that occurred on the baseball field. It was the pressure that emerged from Watergate and inflation. You had people running amuck and challenging the system, even though they did it within a traditional context, i.e. a baseball game.

"Pittsburgh was the same thing. 1971-the height of the Vietnam war. I mean, people were raping folks on the street, there was so much street crime that the cops literally gave up. And they tried to justify it under the aegis that, 'Well, the Pirates won the World Series.' Come on! When are we going to get serious about the implications of this?"

Edwards identifies such occurrences as "Pre-revolutionary phenomena," the same description he gives to the current supposed quietude of students and young people. The awareness that came out of the 1960's, and the frustration that came from trying to use that to change the system, is too high, he believes, to allow apathy to exist. Instead of apathy, "what we have is a group of people who are waiting in ambush." The ammunition has simply not arrived yet.



"The pro football player is one thousand times more astute than he was before 1968," Edwards observes, "and one hundred thousand times less sharp than he's going to have to be. This is indicated by the fact that he is pursuing freedom issues without at the same time recognizing that these freedom issues, if he is successful, will result in fundamental alterations of the game.

"They're not talking about more money, they're talking about who has the power to decide how goals will be achieved. Once you do that, you begin to cut into how many games you will play, what kind of turf we will play on, how many airplane trips we will take, how long and how much an individual will be required to play. The athletes haven't even begun to deal with that last one, but that's a freedom issue."

Ironically, were the NFL players to succeed in restructuring the game that completely, they would travel full circle. Back to the days of the Cincinnati Redstockings, before the ascendency of monopoly capital dealt a body blow to workers' control of sport. "But long before that time, of course, you're going to have a whole bunch of action on every level."

In the process, Edwards expects the eventual collapse of professional and intercollegiate sports as they are now known, and an escalating problem of violence at sporting events.

"Any kind of monumental movement is accompanied by the trauma of separation, of systems cracking, of energy separating, like splitting the atom. Relationships split and energy is released, and that energy in revolutionary situations is violence."

"Sometimes," I offer, "people use that energy against each other in pathological ways."

"This is without organization. But you see. just as other countries over time generated those individuals and those philosophies necessary to bring about a reordering through which more people could live better, the same thing will happen here. Because Americans are people, despite Superman and John Wayne and all the rest. They're people. And they will respond as people have responded time immemorial to oppressive situations."

Written by David Armstrong.

Reprinted from the Berkeley Barb, Aug. 9-15, 1974