I used to get fairly worked up about my favorite sports teams; after one particularly distressing loss, I finally asked myself: why do I care? As a spectator, I realized that the importance of the game extends no further than the value I choose to assign to it. From then on, I devoted less of my time to sports and made a conscious effort to prioritize pursuits that seemed more worthwhile.
While I considered sports to be a distraction in my own life, Noam Chomsky argues that sports are a distraction for the masses. The renowned intellectual, activist and linguist believes that spectator sports are a form of propaganda designed to divert society’s attention. In his book “Understanding Power,” Chomsky says:
“In our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in them in a very serious way—so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folk. So what’s left? Well one thing that’s left is sports—so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that’s also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter.”
Whether or not the diversionary tactics are intentional, they do seem to be working: more people can identify football player Peyton Manning than the sitting Vice President. Sporting events earned a higher combined rating than one of last year’s Presidential debates. And newspapers don’t make room for a number of critical international affairs, yet devote a whole section to sports. While global warming will have a much bigger impact on our lives than the outcome of any baseball game, inevitably exponentially more people will show up to a stadium to shout and hold signs than to a rally supporting climate change reform.
Another reason I took a step back from sports was that players from my local team were semi-regularly arrested for some despicable crimes and the coach was suspended for unethical behavior. My initial instinct was to keep cheering for the team because I had pledged undying devotion to them as a child, but it seemed hypocritical to purposefully overlook deeds that I would criticize another team for.
This lifelong urge to support the home team no matter what is what Chomsky refers to as “irrational loyalty.” “There’s hard to imagine anything that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes than this does,” he said. When people learn to pledge unconditional support to those who represent their region through sports fandom, it does seem like a convenient trait for governments to capitalize on.
Chomsky also targets sports for promoting mass consumerism. As he sees it, the public pays for the right to be distracted, while the rich get richer off the ticket and merchandising sales. In the case of the Super Bowl, viewers are encouraged to pay just as much attention to the advertisements as the game itself. He similarly criticizes sports’ hyper-masculinity. Not only does it reinforce a system of male dominance and violence as entertainment, but also men who do not regularly watch sports are made to feel inferior and face peer pressure to participate in the rituals.
Though Chomsky uses sports as an example of a societal distraction, he acknowledges it is just one of many forms of propaganda presented as entertainment. And that’s why, despite cutting back on sports, I wouldn’t consider myself superior to a sports fanatic. There are plenty of other distractions (mindless television shows, pop songs) that I still engage — or perhaps disengage — with.
And shouldn’t we be entitled to these vices? As important as it is to devote time to meaningful, consequential activities, a life with no diversions seems pretty awful in its own right. Besides, I’m not quite as pessimistic as Chomsky appears to be toward sports. Sports can foster camaraderie with those in your community, teach teamwork, motivate individuals to strive for their best, and encourage exercise — assuming spectators are inspired to participate, not just watch from the couch with a beer.
The key is to find a balance. More than urging people to reject sports altogether, I suggest we use Chomsky’s points to ask questions about a society in which sports spectatorship is so significant. Is watching sports a hobby or my main activity in life? Am I using sports to distract myself from larger issues in the real world? And does my sports viewership benefit me or the ruling class more? Funny how even a common escape from politics can have underlying political implications of its own.