Introductory reader on sport and politics that has much to recommend it

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy & University of Worcester

Michael Lavalette (red) Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play 280 sidor, hft. London: Bookmarks Publication 2013 ISBN 978-1-909026-30-8
Michael Lavalette (red)
Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play
280 sidor, hft.
London: Bookmarks Publication 2013
ISBN 978-1-909026-30-8

Within eighteen months, international sport will have witnessed World Cup competitions in three sports, Football, Cricket and Rugby Union during which the commercialisation of sport is likely to attain extraordinary levels of intensity. A host of new challenges will present themselves to those who love sport, yet remain conscious of its many shortcomings induced by rampant capitalism and the failure to apply socialist principles to the management and conduct of sport which remains inherently conservative in its outlook.

Thus Lavalette’s new volume is a timely and much needed exploration of how we understand the place of sport in modern society, and more critically how this chimes with the need to ensure that this most apolitical of leisure activities is subject to a challenging socialist critique. To this end, an interesting and varied array of contributors from a range of positions on the left of politics (that include journalists, politicians, academics, lawyers and socialist activists) has been invited to share their views. These pieces form individual chapters in the volume and share the desire to critically deconstruct the nature of contemporary sport acknowledging that sport has been, and continues to be shaped by the contradictions of capitalism. In so doing, the contributors regularly refer to the complexities on the left regarding how sport should be viewed and treated, extending from those who believe that it is of no value and should at best be marginalised within socialist discourse, to those who identify with the millions of individuals who play and watch sport. Furthemore, for advocates of this perspective, sport remains infused with politics, as it has extended far beyond its original boundaries and impacts on many aspects of everyday life.

Structured into six sections of roughly equal length, the study is primarily concerned with the tensions that dominate sport, which Lavalette terms the politics of sport and the politics in sport. Initially the objective is to examine the structural location of sport within capitalist society. In so doing substantial attention is placed on the issue of globalisation. The focus then switches to sporting divisions including sexism, racism, islamophobia, class and disability. The notion of resistance is investigated by means of telling the stories of a number of sporting rebels whilst fan activities are scrutinised in terms of how they have articulated their objections to key organisational and commercial decisions. The final section of the text considers alternative future scenarios regarding participation in sport.

It is clear that the sports industry is integral to maintaining ruling class hegemony, with the discourses around gender providing just one example of how it is a mirror of capitalist society. Sport in its purest form can also offer an escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life, while providing obvious physical and mental health benefits; yet, as Budd suggests, it is possible to enjoy sport while realising its problems and limitations by “maintaining a critical distance from it.”

The dismissal of sport creates a cultural hierarchy whereby some cultural activities, such as music and art, are more worthy of our time and attention than others. This begs the question of who gets to decide what is worthy and what is not; is it right for socialists to denounce sport as a worthwhile pastime? Dart is quite right in asserting that “to dismiss sport, its participants and fans is patronising”, however, the reality of sport throughout history as Collins argues, has been one where men and women have played sport though not always under the circumstances of their own choosing. This, as the volume correctly contends, is explained through Brohm’s (1987) assertion that sport is a means of shaping public opinion and ideological framing, and that it has become an accumulator of wealth within the growing sportification of popular culture.

This begs the question of who gets to decide what is worthy and what is not; is it right for socialists to denounce sport as a worthwhile pastime?

The strengths of the text rest in parts five and six. These sections examine the resistance of sporting rebels and sports’ fans, campaign networks, athletes and workers’ sport networks. In so doing the text moves beyond the well rehearsed though valuable discussion about sporting divisions. The fans perspective also builds on part three which examines the consequences on clubs, protesters, supporters and athletes when sporting events and institutions are mismanaged and guilty of gross dishonesty and prejudice. Two case studies particularly worthy of note in this regard are those on Rangers Football Club (Mac Giolla Bhain) and McCann’s coverage of the Mexico Olympics where he draws some interesting parallels with the start of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Using sporting rebels as a focus for discussion, the text humanises the discourse and provides the reader (both the undergraduate and the non-specialist) with valuable illustrations that demonstrate through a wide historical framework (from the lives of Arthur Wharton, Joe Louis to Damian Hooper) clear contours of rebellion. With the insertion of a chapter on CLR James, the Marxist historian and journalist, the aforementioned figures can be viewed in a context of popular struggle, anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Even though he often focused almost entirely on cricket, James’ work linked the pursuit of leisure to what Hogsbjerg describes as “the mainsprings of human’s life essential progress.”

The coverage of resistance within fan networks combines attention on the more familiar (Peter Hain on sports apartheid) and the creation of FC United as a response to the purchase of Manchester United by the Glazer Family (Millward and Poulton), with some interesting observations on the “Chain Gang” at the Tour De France where riders are instructed to do what is deemed necessary to be victorious. The focus on the golden years of Workers’ Sport Movement prior to the growth of corporate sport shows that it had been established with highly political stimuli to oppose the growing sports industry, and demonstrated a successful socialist alternative to the expanding Olympic Movement.

As an academic exercise the project is fully justified and largely successful. By its very nature the contributions are slightly uneven in quality, however, the one real drawback is that the essays are too brief, and that each of the six sections requires both an introduction and a summary of the key arguments and themes discussed. This is particularly vital as the central discourse of the text has global resonance. However, as an introductory reader the volume has much to recommend it and the sections dealing with cycling are particularly enjoyable. As Dart suggests,

sport is contradictory, neither inherently good nor bad: what we need is a more serious engagement, assessment and appreciation of those who like sport and why they like it.

With this in mind Lavalette’s work provides a vital stimulus to further reading, reflection and discussion, and although the coverage of sport is extensive more space should have been devoted to Formula 1 and the racing industry. An analysis of the impact of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics provides material for a reprint within the next couple of years which the text deserves as more interesting sporting controversies come to light.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2014

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