Are Sports Just a Distraction?

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.


Related Stories:

Reevaluating How and Why Women Watch Sports

Fighting Homophobia in Sports

Saudi Arabia’s Female Olympic Athletes Called ‘Prostitutes’


Past Member
.3 years ago

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Bob Abell
Dr. Bob Abell4 years ago

"Roman politicians devised a plan in 140 B.C. to win the votes of these new citizens: giving out cheap food and entertainment, "bread and circuses", would be the most effective way to rise to power." "This was the last gasps of the Roman Republic prior to its decline into the autocratic monarchy characteristic of the later Roman Empire's transformation about 44 B.C."

Continue the focus on sports and reality TV. No surer way to ensure rule by despots (also known, curiously enough as "Republicans"), and to ensure the decline of the U.S. "Empire".

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you Kevin, for Sharing this!

Milan L.
Milan Lorman5 years ago

Yes, of course it is. But clearly, we are talking only about the overblown, monstrous SPORT and not our young people keeping fit and building character. Noam Chomsky seldom says (writes) something that I have any difficulty agreeing with. It IS a distraction. What "drives me to distraction" is the number of comments, which do not put any cap on the amount of distraction from more serious issues, which people "need". There is only so much relaxation that we can afford to allow ourselves as members of a society, wich is facing an increasing burden of problems. Just like there is only so much time we can spend sleeping, while there is work to be done.

Don't let distractions eat too much into your serious responsibilities. And don't pretend that you don't have any. You are a Citizen, aren't you?

Be aware of those who offer you endless DISTRACTIONS. They have an agenda which will most probably not be to your ultimate benefit.

Dominic C.
Dominic C5 years ago

Sports is not a distraction. Its a way to relax, to begin strike conversations and get to know people with the interest in a particular sport.

Robby R.
Robby R5 years ago

I don't miss with sports.

simon short
Simon Short5 years ago

Please can we distinguish between:
Playing a sport - involving physical excercise, co-ordination, some tactics and co-operation. Healthy stuff!
Watching a sport - a bonding experience and a terrific way to cement a community. Can be at the centre of a grand day out.
Watching skilled professional people do their incredibly overpaid jobs for a corporation which aims to make as much money as possible at the expense of anything - including the fans and any tradition they might have - This is the stuff that's used to advertise anything from unhealthy foods and drinks to corrupt political parties.
I recommend doing the first two - especially the first. Always remember this is a SPORT. It's supposed to be fun or it's not a sport anymore.
Avoid the last one. It kills sport and it's terribly bad for you too.
Me, I quite like cricket, but it's GOT to be played in whites rather than advert-beblazoned pyjamas. Obviously, cricket is only worth watching if it's played by amateurs near a decent pub and a pleasant church and the ONLY way to applaud is to clap slowly.
It the score matters more than the game, I'm going off to watch some cows.

C. R.
Carole R5 years ago


Ken W.
Ken W5 years ago


Scott haakon
Scott haakon5 years ago

There is too little fun in this world. Having something to cheer for is a positive good thing. So people sit on the couch. There are no solutions that could not use some humor.