July 10, 2018
Spectator sports often teach us a lot about the people, or rather peoples, who make them popular. There is nothing new about this, of course. Seneca taught us as much about the state of Roman society in his time as about his own Stoic sensibilities, when he wrote, in his Moral Letter "On Crowds”:
But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts "by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. You may retort: "But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried "Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: "A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!”
With a few cosmetic changes, you could bring this passage right up to date for American society and itscrowds, by substituting the disappearance of professional boxing in favor of "mixed martial arts” or "ultimate fighting” for Seneca’s analogous account of the increasing preference for the "pure murder” of combat without defensive armor, rules, sportsmanship, or skill, that in his time was displacing those forms of gladiatorial combat which, by comparison, had been "the essence of compassion.”
While Seneca’s general point about the corruptive influence of crowd behavior is legitimate, his insufficiency is in failing to note the extent to which the relationship of crowd preference to external societal conditions can work both ways. In other words, yes crowds can rile themselves up to a frothing blood lust; but just as the effects of drunkenness on a given individual are somewhat determined by his sober, established character — an "angry drunk,” for example, is a man with pent up frustrations who has not found healthy outlets for those turbulent emotions, so they get the better of him when his rational restraint is weakened by alcohol — so the manner of a given crowd’s mania will be guided by the "sober” social conditions prevailing within the community from which the crowd hails. Thus, for instance, whereas Occupy Wall Street protests invariably left their venues in a state of filth and vandalism, Tea Party rallies typically left public parks neater and less littered than they were before the event.
Leaving aside the fringe case of the shift from boxing to ultimate fighting — from the aggrandizement of athleticism, stamina, and insouciant courage to the aggrandizement of vanity, brute violence, and fantasies of virtual maiming — consider the more mainstream transition in American society in which football has utterly displaced baseball as the national pastime.
To enjoy baseball is to revel in statistics, strategizing, and the slow walk to the mound, perhaps more than in the brief moments of physical action. Football, by contrast, thrives almost entirely on the visceral gratifications of the forty-yard run, the long bomb, or the quarterback sack — that is, extreme and thrilling action, much of it violent and dizzying. It almost goes without saying that the society which gradually falls out of love with the strategic, slow game in which a thirty percent success rate puts a player in the Hall of Fame, and falls in love instead with the game of strength, speed, and "brutal hits,” has undergone a fundamental emotional shift at the level of crowd instinct.
The recognition of this societal shift explains baseball’s recent and deliberate shameful excursion into the world of performance-enhancing drugs, as the Major Leagues’ bigwigs, beginning with the watershed season of the Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa homerun derby, knowingly turned a blind eye to the corruption of their sport, in the name of "creating more excitement.” The classic 2-1 pitchers’ duel, once the definitive example of good baseball, fell out of favor as dozens of ten-year veterans suddenly started shattering their career-best homerun records. The statistics and record books which had been the lifeblood and historical continuity of the sport were tossed onto the bonfire of immediate gratification, tradition sacrificed to the god of Progress in the religion of The New.
Perhaps this degradation was implicit from the beginning, given the reciprocal relationship between crowds and the societies that produce them. Just as a significant portion of the conservative, polite Tea Party has devolved into the Trump cult, celebrating crassness and simple-mindedness, so perhaps sports crowds — being like all crowds, always and everywhere, only as intelligent as their dumbest member — were bound, in time, to abandon the relative sublimity of baseball (thought) for the baser desires for speed and power (action) satisfied by football.
But for all the weakening of moral fiber indicated by such a devolution, American sports still manage, for the most part, to retain a basic level of sportsmanship and respect for fair play and the dignity of one’s opponent (all of which is violated by the MMA nonsense at its core). Competition undertaken with self-respect, and also mutual respect, carried out on a foundation of equal opportunity ("May the best man win”) and institutional self-reliance ("Protect yourself at all times”). American spectators sports, for all their negative impact on society (and I believe most of the impact is and must be negative), are still, by and large, games played by and for people who essentially believe in liberty and justice.
What then, are we to make of soccer, or football as most of the world calls it? I can barely watch the sport myself, even or especially at the World Cup level, partly because I find its action somewhat tedious — unlike baseball, or even American football, soccer’s action is literally continuous, which means there is no time for thinking, strategizing, reassessing, or talking it over. Everything happens now, and it is always "now” in soccer. There is no past or future, apart from the ticking of the clock. Soccer is the sport of the inescapable and endless Present. In this respect, it is perfectly suited to the sensibility of socialist nations, in which history and calm reflection have been jettisoned in favor of the non-stop assembly line of free-floating "progress.”
But for me, there is another element of soccer that has become endemic to the sport at its highest levels and which seems particularly suited to crowds that bring to the stadium a basically socialistic character. This element is not a rule or a style of play, but rather a common practice of all the best players: crying, whining about alleged unfairness, and demanding undeserved pity.
The main reason I cannot stomach soccer is that one cannot watch a match for five minutes without seeing yet another player, when losing a race for the ball, throw himself onto the ground and pretend to have been kicked or tripped by his opponent, in an attempt to win some benefit from the referee. In other words, faking an injury or playing phoney victim in order to cheatone’s way to special advantage, fair play be damned, is not the annoying exception, to be booed by the crowd, but rather standard play in soccer, to be cheered and encouraged by the crowd, assuming it happens to be their own player whining, and his whining happens to be successful.
That this is, at base, a Euro-socialist trend is indicated by the fact that it is prevalent across sports, but only among athletes from socialist nations. As a young Canadian in the early 1980s, I remember the moment when the National Hockey League enjoyed its first major influx of European players, mostly Swedes, Finns, and Russians. Suddenly, Canada’s unofficial "national pastime” — the vast majority of NHL players throughout the league’s history had been Canadians, in spite of most of the teams being based in American cities — was witness to an unprecedented revolution: players "taking dives” or exaggerating injuries to draw penalties. This was common practice in European hockey, as was always apparent during Olympic competition. But now the sport’s elite level had been infiltrated by the European poor sportsmanship and fakery-for-advantage, the same sort of thing that dominates soccer, at least in the mind of this stickler for gentlemanly fair play and individual liberty.
(Interestingly, this early trend seems never to have taken hold of hockey, as many feared it would when the number of European players in the NHL grew. Apparently the early transplants learned the hard way that the whining and fakery that had worked on European officials was getting them nowhere with North American referees, so they were forced to play "straight,” i.e., without using crying as a strategy.)
Winning at all costs, without respect or fair play — Donald Trump’s mentality — is emphatically not, contrary to leftist mythology, intrinsic to "capitalism.” On the contrary, it is intrinsic, or even essential, to competition in a world in which everyone knows that winning means twisting the rules for one’s advantage. Rules, under socialism, are not approximations of natural justice; rules are just instruments of power, to be exploited by anyone who can gain the ear of the administrative state. Likewise other people, one’s competitors: they are not rational agents, worthy of the respect due to anyone trying to make his way in life on his own steam; other people, to a socialist, are just means to one’s own ends, a mass of "obstacle” to one’s goals, to be used or abused for one’s gain by whatever means necessary.
Demeaning oneself with lying, whining, crying, demanding attention and favors from the officials in recompense for one’s supposed hardship or ill-treatment, all the while sneering shamelessly at the innocent people one is accusing of wrongdoing for the sake of one’s immediate advantage — this is standard play in soccer. It is standard thinking for socialists.
And the crowd goes wild.
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