Our purpose here is to analyze the use of sports as propaganda, distractions from more important issues, and as methods of perpetuating division among the masses, and compare it to the use of sporting events in ancient times.
We are in no way deriding the brilliant athlete or stellar performance as a spectacle in any sport, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, the obsessive and fanatical involvement of fans, which is more than mere interest, and has become such a powerful, ubiquitous, financial and psychological web for so much of humanity, is the main point of our discussion.
HOW CAN WE DESCRIBE SPORTS?
When we discuss sports, what we mean is a particular type of mass programming ritual in which participants become metaphorical combatants, and the observers select the side they favor and cheer that team or individual on to potential victory. The side chosen for support appears to have some emotional attachment for the observer such as geographic location, personal characteristics of the player(s), the coach, or some nebulous sentimental affinity which is impossible to quantify or characterize.
If their team wins, they vicariously subsume the victory of the players, becoming jubilant, filled with euphoria, and testosterone. The effects of the competition are an addicting “high”, much like a drug, sought to be replicated as soon and frequently as possibly by the multitudes of sports fans.
A study, called Testosterone Changes During Vicarious Experiences of Winning and Losing Among Fans at Sporting Events, done by the University of Utah, found that fans observing their team win causes surges in testosterone, in both men and women, while watching their team lose lowers testosterone:
In both studies, mean testosterone level increased in the fans of winning teams and decreased in the fans of losing teams. These findings suggest that watching one’s heroes win or lose has physiological consequences that extend beyond changes in mood and self-esteem.
There are numerous other similar studies easily accessed by Google. The elevated cortisol secretion during the match can be explained by the social self-preservation theory. According to this theory, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis gets activated in reaction to a threat to the social-self, and consequently, cortisol is released. People think the match poses such a threat, as for many fans their emotional well being depends on the performance of their team. This is also called “basking in reflected glory”.
We can see, and probably agree through basic personal observation, that American and world sports fans in any case, invest a great deal of themselves emotionally into their respective sports. Many buy season tickets, spending massive amounts on the tickets, snacks, gas, gifts, merchandise, and of course an incredible amount of time either traveling or just merely watching their sport.
Of course, we shouldn’t neglect the shouting matches and taunting which goes on between supporters of opposing teams, sometimes escalating to violence, and has resulted in serious injury and even death. The emotional investment of such individuals, willing to dish out and receive unknown levels of bodily harm, as tied to the “honor” of their team or town, or out of anger due to loss, must be of an immense emotional degree, and their lives are likely to lack any other truly rewarding endeavors. To such people, sporting victory is the pinnacle of their existence which must be had at any cost, or their self-worth becomes diminished to an unbearable extent, and they seek an opportunity to lash out.
HISTORY OF SPORTS
Apparently, sporting competition may be over 17,000 years old, as surmised from cave paintings. Depictions of wrestling have been found in Sumeria, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Ireland, Scotland, China, and Persia. In fact, evidence exists that in addition to wrestling, weightlifting, long jump, swimming, rowing, flying, shooting, fishing and athletics, as well as various kinds of ball games, were all well-developed and regulated in ancient Egypt.
Other Egyptian sports also included javelin throwing, high jump, and snooker. We can clearly see that competition and the public spectacle of sporting events are a part of human history as much as violence, economic activity, religion, construction, and any other activity intimately tied to our collective unconscious since the dawn of civilization.
The time period we focus on most in this post will be that of ancient Rome and the usage of sporting activity by that power as a political tool. Because these events initially were staged by the wealthy elite of society they were called “gifts”, and were free to attend by the public. Attendance was virtually a patriotic act, and the events were specifically designed to capture the attention and favor of the public.
This function of sporting events in Roman culture differed significantly from that embraced by the Greeks, which had as its main purpose to display the athletic skill and ability of the contestants, who were volunteers, and not drawn from a pool of slaves, criminals, or otherwise unwanted or respected populations.
Additionally, in Rome, as opposed to Greece, it was mainly military skill and the propensity for violence that were the most valued attributes of the participants in these events. We read a statement by Pliny The Younger, a Roman statesman and author, where he mocks the banality of watching chariot races which attracted an audience from all over the empire:
The races were on, a type of spectacle which has never had the slightest attraction for me. I can find nothing new or different in them: once seen is enough, so it surprises me all the more that so many thousands of adult men should have such a childish passion for watching galloping horses and drivers standing in chariots, over and over again…. When I think how this futile, tedious, monotonous business can keep them sitting endlessly in their seats, I take pleasure in the fact that their pleasure is not mine. And I have been very glad to fill my idle hours with literary work during these days which others have wasted in the idlest occupations.
Further, we see that a particular Roman venue called the Circus Maximus, the largest of its kind, where chariot races were run for hundreds of years and seating was available for 150,000 people, was not at all dissimilar to our own sports arenas. Merchandising did not begin with the advent of advertising. As Robert B. Kebric describes in his Roman People:
Inside its four-story facade, the Circus was a maze of shops, rooms, stairways, and arcades. Throngs of people moved about the great interior corridor that provided access to any part of the structure. Vendors hawked their wares and sold refreshments and souvenirs; and, of course, there were always prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets, girl watchers, and drunks.
Merchandising was alive and well in the days of Rome; hundreds of oil lamps, pottery, mirrors, knives, statutes, art work, and other items were sold to the consuming masses, both poor and wealthy alike. Dozens of circuses were constructed all around the empire, and many more not yet excavated are unknown.
It seems as Rome conquered an area, it gave the people something to distract them from the fact they were now under foreign occupation, as well as the ability of Rome’s selected rulers to show their magnanimity toward Rome’s subjects and gain their favor. Similarly, after the Roman Coliseum was constructed, every major city built its own amphitheater to hold a wide variety of events.
Frequently, during races or other events the audience was permitted an outlet by shouting out their complaints regarding taxes, wars, food, and other issues to the Emperor or ruler in attendance between competitions or during breaks, but they generally forgot about their complaints shortly after and went right back to watching the show as it continued.
The vast majority of rulers who were subjects of such public declarations remained stoic and did not respond, to their own benefit. Caligula actually had his military arrest many complainants and summarily executed them in the center of the arena.
The first-century CE satirist Juvenal writes:
It is scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption. This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated.’ Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—-Bread and Games!
Juvenal’s famous phrase, panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”) has become proverbial to describe those who give away significant rights in exchange for material pleasures. Roman politicians passed laws in 140 B.C. to keep the votes of poorer citizens, by introducing a grain dole: giving out cheap food and entertainment, “bread and circuses”, became the most effective way to rise to power. Sound familiar?
Julius Caesar continued the tradition of mollifying the masses through Socialist-style largesse of free food, and of course the games. He put on massive spectacles that included hundreds of fighters, and recreations of his own campaigns. This brought him extreme popularity and almost deific status among the masses. Incidentally, sports and games popularity was greatest during the worst economic times, leading right up to the fall of the Republic.
SPORTS IN MODERN TIMES
Sports has become big business. Today there are more choices to follow teams or individual athletes than at any time in history. Our media provides up close and personal footage of each event, with close ups, replays, athlete and expert interviews, multitudes of sports shows, and of course, advertising takes up as much space and time as was deemed to be bearable to the audience, which is a significant amount.
Merchandising is ubiquitous, and provides a massive stream of income to the sponsors and the athletes. Endorsement fees have been paid to athletes which amount to fees many people never earn in a lifetime, and this fee is still a small fraction of the earnings generated by the athlete’s endorsement of a shoe or any other product. Athletes have become mega-stars; the populace cannot get far from athlete gossip projected at us by mainstream media which can dominate the airwaves for weeks while significant world events are playing out right under our noses and being nearly ignored.
The business of sports grows each year, and does not appear to be in any danger of decline; for while their profits grow and the masses watch, attend, and buy, the perfect distraction machine will remain in full effect. It should be noted that sports popularity has remained high during stagnant economic times, much like in ancient Rome.
“DIVIDE AND CONQUER” PARADIGM
The balkanization aspect of sports is a fascinating subject to explore. Social identity theory suggests that to maintain a positive view of our own group, our evaluations of our own group will be more positive than evaluations of another group. According to research, this holds true for sports fans; they will have more positive regard for fellow fans of their own team, and regard supporters of competing teams with less favor.
Research also indicates that sports fans see themselves as vicarious members of their team, as well as members of the fan group, which creates a double association and a strong correlation between team performance and self-esteem, mood, and confidence. Regarding the target of a fan’s devotion it can be a team, a player, and a sport, which provides a diverse ability to select one’s level of involvement with a sport. Sports Mania: Essays on Fandom and the Media in the 21st Century, multiple authors, (2008).
All these factors, and many, many more, all of which are constantly being studied in this 200 billion dollar industry, serve to create a strong bond of attachment of a fan with a particular group, to the exclusion of another group, and rivalries are always highly sensationalized by the media, whether it be between athletes, between cities, or between teams.
Rivalries produce an even higher level of emotional investment and effect on both the winners and losers, both positive and negative. Research has shown that highly invested fans are more willing to engage in illegal activity in order to ensure a win (such as injure an opposing player or coach) or after a significant loss (such as riot). This demonstrates a fanaticism bordering on self-sacrifice.
All the above factors serve the same purpose as political teams, religious teams, gender teams, sexual orientation teams, class teams, and any other label by which we have been labeled in order to feel special, exclusive and greater than those other groups not inside ours.
IS MODERN DAY SPORTS A CONSPIRACY?
No question in my mind, although it certainly has not always been so. Today we have come to replicate so much of that which was Roman. We are stunted in our spiritual and political development by those who run us and print our money.
We lead segmented lives identifying with our many labels and supporting their respective causes while expressing low regard and at times far more animosity against those who are deemed by our information sources to oppose our aims, including those other teams preventing us from winning the Championship and basking in glorious Victory, which will last the entire off-season.
Although we no longer feed people to lions or bears, we do feed our celebrities to the tabloids. Though we no longer have combat to the death, we have “civilized” and regulated combat in boxing, UFC, and the spectacle of professional wrestling. We no longer throw loaves of bread into the crowd but we’ve figured out that we can charge them higher than normal amounts for the poisonous drinks and snacks because, well, its just business, and they’ll pay it gladly for a dose of the drug.
Entertainment is no longer free as in Roman times, but the show ritual has a more polished, professional presentation, and clearly entertainment is no longer a “right” just for being an American – there are few rights if any left – as it was in the days of the Coliseum, after all the athletes are no longer slaves or criminals and must be paid, and paid well, as do the sponsors… And the advertisers… And the merchandisers… Talent agents… Scouts… Coaches… Lawyers… The Owners, of course.