By Paul Blackledge
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Sport: capitalism at play

This article is over 7 years, 9 months old
Can Marxism help us make sense of sport? Paul Blackledge mines Tony Collins's Sport in Capitalist Society and Michael Lavalette's collection Capitalism and Sport for some answers.
Issue 390

If the Winter Olympics in Sochi, London 2012, and the World Cup in Brazil prove nothing else, they confirm that sport and politics go together like a horse and carriage – and those who argue otherwise are at best illiterate or more likely ideological.

How socialists should respond to these events is also clear enough – no amount of grand spectacle could ever justify Russia’s homophobia or Brazil’s social cleansing. And for all its brilliance, the opening ceremony at London 2012 didn’t justify the £11 billion spent on the games in a period of austerity.

Obviously, in situations such as these, socialists should stand alongside those resisting the intertwined state and corporate behemoth that underpins modern elite sport.

Nevertheless, there is much more to sport than these commercial showcase events. For every Olympics there are tens of thousands of more or less formal weekend and evening fixtures through which many millions of ordinary people participate in sport.

Campaigning against these events would make about as much sense as picketing your local church. Marxists are atheists, not idiots, and, as Adrian Budd argues in Capitalism and Sport, our critique of sport ought to be as nuanced as is our critique of religion.

So while it would be wrong to forget the myriad links connecting everyday sport to these festivals of the elite, we should resist the temptation to conflate the two.

Bread and circuses

Unfortunately, there is a tendency among socialist critics of sport to do just this. Both Jean-Marie Brohm’s Sport: A Prison of Measured Time and Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport focus on what Brohm calls “Elite, top level competitive sport” in a way that informs their dismissal of all sports as forms of social control along the lines of the Roman Empire’s Bread and Circuses.

This approach isn’t so much wrong as one-sided. It is surely right that when most of us engage with sport it is as more or less passive consumers of a mass entertainment industry whose goal is to relieve us of our cash.

We pay for Sky (Rupert Murdoch said Sky used sport as a “battering ram…in all our pay television operations”), we buy our beers and snacks, we shell out an extortionate amount of money for “our” team’s kit emblazoned with free advertising for a company we wouldn’t otherwise touch with a barge pole, we gamble on the results, and then, if they pitch it right, we buy the crap advertised at half-time.

What’s more, sport clearly has an ideological function. In the words of the 1975 Quel Corps’s Twenty Theses on Sport, sport’s competitiveness, its nationalism and its elitism help to “justify the established order” and contribute to its reproduction through such things as preparing “labour power for capitalist industrial labour” and fixing the subordination of women.

While recognising the power of these insights writers such as Richard Gruneau in Class, Sports and Social Developments and Ian McDonald in One-Dimensional Sport have countered that sport can also act as a space for the realisation of individual and social potentialities. In so doing they point back towards the kind of leftist defence of sport most famously articulated by CLR James in his superb semi-autobiographical study of cricket Beyond a Boundary.

Against what he claimed was Leon Trotsky’s dismissive approach to sport, James suggested that modern sport emerged in the 19th century alongside the movement for democracy as a novel and deepened realisation of a universal aesthetic need.

He argued that cricket in particular offered a dramatic spectacle framed around “two individuals”, the batsman and bowler, who in repeated sequence, “are pitted against each other in a conflict that is strictly personal but no less strictly representative of a social group”. This structure helped foster a particular artistic style of physical action to which we as spectators respond because “we are made that way”!


To say that sport has a dramatic essence should be uncontroversial, and this insight certainly helps explain the appeal of sport as a form of mass entertainment – though James’s suggestion that test matches are the closest thing we have to Greek tragic drama is ridiculous. This assertion is rooted in James’s problematic suggestion that sport emerged as an expression of the artistic aspirations of the democratic movement from below.

This is a big claim for which he offers little evidence. Moreover, his related argument that cricket was born of an artisan tradition which put “style” at its centre such that the “end result is not of great importance” cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

In Sport in Capitalist Society, Tony Collins points out that cricket developed towards its modern form from the 18th century as pre-existing bat and ball games became increasingly commercialised. In this novel context, rules became standardised so that outcomes could be clearly judged by paying (and more importantly gambling) spectators. Indeed, commercialisation preceded the emergence of most cricket clubs, which were largely formed to capitalise on this new phenomenon.

James’s alternative vision of cricket as an emergent artistic expression of artisan life obscures this process in a way that masks modern cricket’s essence as a capitalist form. Weaknesses with his approach are evident in his later curmudgeonly comments on Clive Lloyd’s almost unbeatable West Indies side of the 1970s and 1980s.

This was a team of consummate professionals whose approach to cricket was anything but playful, and with the notable exception of Viv Richards, not particularly artistic. This team worked at their victories, and it is somewhat ironic that a Marxist of James’s standing should have so little to say about them.

But though their professionalism was readily explicable in Marxist terms, it flew in the face of his much more romantic vision of cricket: it reflected a broader propensity for all areas of modern life to become subordinated to capitalism’s instrumental approach to winning – in this case, cricket’s tendency to evolve into a confrontation between machine-like batting against machine-like bowling.

Risk averse

By subordinating all means to the end of winning, sport tends, like capitalism, towards a risk averse negation of play. This tendency explains behaviour that bewildered James: for instance, the claim made by cricket’s greatest batsman, Don Bradman, that it was only in one innings (after scoring his hundredth century) that he felt able to relax his normal discipline and enjoy himself by playing at the crease.

Bradman’s confession illuminates how competitiveness and professionalism mediate against play, art and beauty within sport. And though unfortunate, his approach to batting coheres with the attitude of most fans who would rather see their team win or even draw a bad match than lose a great one.

This tendency towards the negation of play is evident not only in the propensity for flair and brilliance to be sacrificed for consistency in percentages games, but also in the way that consistency informs the kind of systematic hard work over many years that slowly but surely ensures sport lends itself to ruining the health of many athletes in a process that is amplified by, but not qualitatively changed by, the use of performance enhancing drugs.

By contrast with James, Sport in Capitalist Society is a largely successful attempt to grasp the historical specificity of sport in a way that points towards the possibility of its transcendence. Collins points out that, though leisure time appears to be a natural and universal opposite to time spent at work, the experience of time as a series of distinct periods of work and leisure is a very modern form.

Whereas the pre-capitalist peasantry experienced life as a total activity governed by nature and the seasons, emergent capitalism transformed these relations in ways that appeared to free leisure time from work while actually subordinating it in a new way.

Alongside a shift from a life dominated by the rhythm of the seasons to one subjugated to the discipline of the factory, periods of leisure spent outside these new factories continued to be dominated by production within them.

And though the concrete experience of work has changed dramatically since the industrial revolution, one thing has remained consistent: we tend to be free to do whatsoever we choose to do in our leisure time, just so long as we do things that don’t prevent us from getting up for work in the morning, and ideally, that actually help us work better.

Leisure time is thus best understood not so much as an alternative to the alienation of the workplace but rather as a constituent part of a broader system of alienation. And just as wage labour was a product of the violent destruction of older forms of production, modern leisure time generally and sport more specifically grew out of the ruins of pre-capitalist forms of play. Indeed, as capitalist production came to dominate the lives of working people, old forms of play were actively suppressed as anathema to the work spirit.

Working week

Conversely, from the middle of the 19th century farsighted capitalists from above (worried that capitalism would implode through catastrophically high infant mortality rates) alongside workers from below (wanting to improve their quality of life) reacted to this situation by pushing for limitations to the working week.

Interestingly, the newly freed Saturday afternoons were colonised not by the old feudal games but by the organised sports that had been re-forged in the English public schools. These sports entered working class life from the top down alongside a number of other increasingly commercialised activities.

The novelty of these games is often obscured by reference to the ancient roots of football. But modern football, like modern cricket, has little in common with the plurality of games played in the medieval period.

Whereas earlier forms of game playing were governed by local customs shaped through the agricultural calendar, modern football emerged as one of a variety of rigidly codified and commercialised sports designed to fill the new experience of leisure time.

This distinction suggests not merely that modern sport emerged in England in the 18th and 19th centuries as James points out, but that it did so, as Adrian Budd and Gareth Edwards argue in Capitalism and Sport, as a specifically capitalist form of social activity. Indeed, it emerged not as a democratic renewal of play but as its negation – or rather, as Collins argues, as “capitalism at play”.

It is important to register the difference between play and sport because, though sport is a modern capitalist phenomenon, play, as Fraser Brown argues in Playwork: Theory and Practice, is an innate and universal human need that is both fundamental to the healthy development and well being of individuals and communities and best able to act in this way when freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated.

By contrast with this libertarian model of play, the original “muscular Christians” who took sport to the working class saw themselves as part of a moral crusade to fill “useless” leisure time with “useful” sporting activities designed to instil the virtues of team spirit and fair play among a layer of people who might otherwise be drawn to debauchery. Whatever the godly intentions of these reformers, they effectively helped foster a capitalist work ethic among that minority of workers who came to play sports.

As for the vast majority of workers who didn’t actively participate, sport was quickly transformed into a mode of entertainment that it was hoped would be ideologically safe because it could foster class compromise both at local and national levels.

It was also very lucrative. A new layer of businessmen seized the opportunity to profit from spectators who would pay to watch, pay to gamble on the results, and pay again to buy newspapers for reports of “their” team’s performance. To reproduce this system, sport has roots in schools and other institutions that churn out an endless supply of new talent on the one hand and spectators on the other.

This is done through a process of separating the sporting wheat from the unsporting chaff by means that mirror the way schools generate academic differentiation for the labour market. Indeed, just as a majority of people remember school as the place that taught them they couldn’t do maths, so it teaches an equally large group that they can’t do sports.


Despite these criticisms it would be wrong to dismiss sport. This certainly isn’t because sport can be untangled from its capitalist essence – it can’t. Rather it’s because, alongside an ongoing working class rebellion to win more leisure time, there are currents that rub against the total subordination of leisure to the needs of capital accumulation.

Though the idea of sporting good old days before the money-men took over is a utopian myth, communities of resistance have nevertheless emerged among supporters who have come into conflict with attempts to reduce them to mere customers. If the radicalism of these communities has, in the long run, tended to be muted by their integration into sport’s commercial logic, the very fact that they exist opens a space to think beyond sport.

Fortunately, thinking beyond sport doesn’t take a heroic leap of imagination. My own recollections of sport as a child, for instance, is of the gap between the free floating, uncodified forms of football, rugby, cricket and cycling, etc we played on the (now built over) “reck”, and the rigidly codified and hierarchical forms of these sports that were organised through school.

Whereas we enjoyed playing the former spontaneously and inclusively (I have no memory of anyone suggesting that we exclude either the girl next door or the disabled boy from down the street from our football matches) for most of us school sports quickly became, like school maths, boring – mainly because of its one-dimensional focus on winning.

And though sport’s competitive exclusvity tends to overwhelm the inclusivity of play, my time on “the reck” reflects a broader experience of those playful alternatives to sport that are never entirely expelled from its practice among ordinary, non-elite, participants.

Within mainstream sport itself the ethos of fair play opens a space for contestation about its essence. And though this concept has mainly been used to justify the exclusion of those “losers” who aren’t good enough to compete, it has also been deployed, as Michael Lavalette points out, to challenge the traditional masculine, sexist, racist and hetero-normative forms taken by sport.

Socialists who dismiss sport run the risk of discounting these struggles. And if it is obvious that we ought to engage in them, it should be equally obvious that we should aim to push them beyond their formal limits.

Physical activity

Although we welcome the fact that many of the formal barriers to participation in sport have broken down, these victories don’t affect sport’s essentially capitalist form. To challenge capitalism’s colonisation of physical activity requires a shift back from sport to play.

And though sport’s essence as the capitalist form of play acts as a fundamental barrier to such a project, because the tendency for sport to negate play is never complete, struggles around this tension will repeatedly resurface.This means that there is a space within which socialists should intervene in sports in favour of the democratic inclusivity of play against the overriding tendency to consumerisation, exclusivity and elitism.

Such conflicts will not normally be at the centre of our activity, and shouldn’t lead us to sow illusions in the possibility of radically transforming sport. Nevertheless, when these struggles arise we should throw ourselves into them, especially when, as Sue Caldwell notes in Capitalism and Sport, they are school-based struggles to make physical activity as playful, inclusive and egalitarian as possible.

Sport in Capitalist Society by Tony Collins (Routledge £19.99) and Capitalism and Sport edited by Michael Lavalette (Bookmarks £9.99) are both available from

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