Politicization of Sports and Sportization of Politics: A Global Dangerous Trend

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By Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of DemocraciaAbierta and a journalist. He has been senior fellow and general manager at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), general manager at the European Institute of the Mediterranean and at the Interarts Foundation. He was executive director of URB-AL-III, adecentralised and urban cooperation program for Latin America of the European Commission. Follow him on Twitter: @fbadiad. Originally published at openDemocracy and produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia

The globalizing way of promoting sports as a way of thinking and a way of life really just serves the dominant capitalist system. We interview Ivan Ergic, an international Serbian ex-football player for a critical view of the sports industry.

Croatia fans prior to the start of the FIFA World Cup Final at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Photo by: Aaron Chown/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In the context of the International Civil Society Week organised by CIVICUS in Belgrade in early April, we took the opportunity to talk to Ivan Ergić, a famous Serbian football player that has developed a very critical view of the sports industry and how it has become en epitome of global capitalism. Gradually, the industry’s macho-type winner and looser dynamics have also captured political campaigns.

Francesc Badia: I am interested in your critical view of sports, and how the industry more generally is not being tackled in the right way.

Ivan Ergic: Sport has its own dynamic and its own identity. It has become one of the dominant global institutions, fully commercialised and professionalised. Sports industry today serves as a way of promoting socially domineering capitalism, particularly through the idea that competition brings the best results and the best out of humanity. This, I think, is completely wrong. It is also one of the last domains in which macho culture, and its relation to militarism, is still present. No wonder women’s sports are not accepted on the same level as mens’: the women that we do see become completely masculinised and can only enter the field as such. This only shows how militant the industry of sports actually is. All in all, the globalising way of promoting sports as a way of thinking and a way of life really just serves the dominant capitalist system.

FB: What do you make of the values that sports promotes, in particular through team sports?

IE: The team-effort part has become converted into a pseudo-value. The industry wants to give people a feeling that there is something collectivistic about sports and this would be true if sports teams and sports organisations did not function like an average corporation. These days, sports teams have a clear hierarchy and a clear focus with a rationalisation of an aim, which is to win the title. This has nothing to do with solidarity or collectivist humanism.

FB: Can you talk about thesportisationof politics?

IE: I like to use the phrase “sportisation of politics and the politicization of sports” as even politics and political campaigns nowadays are gaining the same momentum and flavour. Similarly to sports contests, political campaigns are selling entertainment, have an equivalent element of competition and political arenas are increasingly becoming emotionalised, particularly on account of populists. A good example of this is what Berlusconi did in Italy. I think the “sportisation of politics” is a useful phrase as it pushes these parallel issues forward.

FB: And what about the polarisation in sports, the idea that one’s team needs to be defended at all costs?

IE: This is a big issue as most sports fans come from the working class. Completely passivised, they watch the contests sitting in front of their televisions they don’t even go to the stadiums anymore. We live in a world of hyper commercialisation and this is visible in sports as well. People from all over the world come to England to watch Manchester or Chelsea play for example. These aren’t just sports clubs anymore: these are global corporations. The fact that the working classes are becoming passivised is problematic as it diverts attention from the real issues. The fan movement is the only movement in the world that doesn’t have a collective institution or a body governing it. The divisions that this creates clearly show how sports segment different classes.

FB: What about the identities that people build around their sports teams?

IE: People construct their identities around their sports clubs as these are historically local clubs, which breed local patriotism. As symbolic representatives of a region, the connection that people feel to them is understandable. The issue with this is that it results in diverting attention from more existential issues. Fans go and protest energetically against corruption in a club, or a club going bankrupted, but they protest much less about losing their jobs in the local factory.

FB: What, in your view, is the connection between sports and nationalism, particularly if we look at Olympics, the World Cup, etc. ?

IE: Nationalism is one of the most profiting mechanisms of reorienting people towards issues related to their identities. It is an ideology that de-politicises peoples in a certain way, as its focus on identity blurs all other social and political issues. Its grip is most powerful amongst groups devastated by economic and cultural processes as it gives them a false promise of recuperating their lost pride. Politicians are well aware of the power that this has and continuously manipulate it. The World Cup, Olympics, etc. are events supposedly meant to unite people. At the same time they intensify national sentiments and national identities, which again diverts attention from the real issues. People should unite in the common aim of fighting political, economic and ecological issues, yet instead focus on the small narcissistic differences between different nations, on who wins, who doesn’t … identifying themselves with the teams in a common “we” have lost or “we” have won, this “we” being the team and the nation at the same time.

FB: Is there a role for civil society in our way out of this? A way of reforming the current state of affairs that could bring more positive values to the fore instead?

IE: Unfortunately the processes we are witnessing cannot be reformed within the sports industry’s own power dynamics, and this holds true of any institution today. What needs to be reformed is the structure of the system itself of which sports are an important part of. Of course there are attempts to de-commercialise sports such as financial fair-play, which is an innocent approach that pretends to bring more passion and enthusiasm and less money into football for example. But the sad fact is that sports are becoming increasingly more commercialised and globalised. This cannot be stopped unless the institutions that hold it in place in the first place themselves are revolutionised, and here global civil society, if it develops awareness of this structures, can definitely play a role.

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  1. rusti

    The fact that the working classes are becoming passivised is problematic as it diverts attention from the real issues. The fan movement is the only movement in the world that doesn’t have a collective institution or a body governing it.

    I think Chomsky comes at it from a slightly different angle than Ergić. This text is 35 years old, but it seems like a very apt take to describe things today:

    CHOMSKY: Well, let me give an example. When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

    In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

    Now it seems to me that the same intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could be used — would be used — under different systems of governance which involve popular participation in important decision-making, in areas that really matter to human life.

    1. Lukas Bauer

      This seems to be a perfect description of “nerd culture” as well.

      All the obsessive overanalysis of by themselves pretty trivial fictional TV shows, games, comic books and movie franchises may well have the same function.

      Or at least effect.

      It is certainly a very effective distraction, and may possibly have surpassed sports in importance these days.

    2. shinola

      From the Chomsky quote:
      “…when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.”

      That’s a feature not a bug. That’s the way international affairs, etc. are presented to the public by politicians and the msm (at least in the USA). Critical thinking & analysis are not generally encouraged or rewarded.

    3. Joe Well

      Also, pro and even amateur sports have a degree of transparency and protection from rule-breaking that is unheard of anywhere else in society, especially politics and business, but even the charity, religious and academic worlds.

      You can talk about pro sports and know that the facts in evidence are pretty much the facts in evidence. But with every other facet of society it’s a murky realm of conflicting motivations that even the participants may not understand.

      1. vidimi

        except that every once in a while a scandal comes along that blows off the lid on all the corruption that is going on in secret. cf. calciopoli in italy.

  2. witters

    I like this guy. Serbian Australian Depressive Footballer who found Marx in the way that matters.

  3. Disturbed Voter

    Ur fascism goes all the way across culture. It is modern tribalism … ethnos + ethos. But replacing the smaller tribe with a larger tribe is no improvement, it in fact erodes marriage and family, the nuclear family being the smallest tribal organization.

    1. Susan the other`

      Ur fascism sounds like a good description. I was thinking that sports is a tool we use to induce harmless group hallucinations. Excitement is the prize. We’re as compulsive as frogs. I kinda like sports, soccer and basketball/volleyball because I can see all the moves and the body language is very interesting; much easier than reading minds. And if you think about it, sports defuses the worst impulses of fascism/nationalism because it creates lotsa teams as opposed to one great leader. Even though there is a trophy for the best, the best is only marginally better than the worst. Monkeys seem to share this propensity for getting gratuitously excited over some little observation too. Maybe it’s group practice for when something really threatening happens.

  4. Clive

    Sport’s dirty and unpleasant little secret has always been the worse and most vile aspects of nationalism (and sectarianism, too, even within particular nations where one or more differing communities coexist).

    Yes, lands and peoples can be brought together through participation in both domestic and international competition in sport. But such competition has very little checks and balances within it to stop overt — but more likely covert — racism, sectarianism and nationalistic prejudices. The worst and most obvious offenders can receive bans from attending events, but the forces which propelled them to act out their irrational hatreds are still present and, worse, actively or passively (or even unintentionally) encouraged.

    Unfeasible and unattainable body image encouragement and mental health issues such as hypermasculinity are another two problems to add to sports’ list of inflicted societal damage, plus physical injuries (both short and long term) in their participants which often turn up as burdens on public healthcare services. Deaths as a result of unwise or just unlucky sport participation is textbook Darwinism in Action.

    1. Joe Well

      Very true.

      This is why contemporary physical education has moved away from sports as such and toward developing the student’s kinesthetic and interpersonal abilities.

      I might hope a new generation does not have this problem but physical education is one if the first parts of the budget to be cut.

      1. JEHR

        Joe, …and then art and music are next to be cut although they are usually presented as optional when they should be part of everyone’s learning.

      2. MichaelSF

        I have a very vague recollection of meeting a person in the mid 1970s that had written his dissertation on the difference between sports and athletics in schools. But the discussion went no farther so I don’t know what his conclusions were.

        My personal experience of sports/PhysEd in school was that it served to denigrate those of us who lacked athletic ability and elevate athletic yahoos who were eager to capitalize on their recognition/ability to further their opportunities to bully other students. And of course, after game fights between groups from the different schools. I would not be surprised to see that behavior/attitude carried forward into adult years.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          that was my experience with public school pe, too.
          I was the guy under th tree with a book, who was only marginally aware of oilers or astros, and really couldn’t care less about millionaires running with balls….let alone crosseyed scions of local hillbillydom doing the same.
          “faggot”, “pussy”…even from the idiotic testosterone enhanced coach, with his 3 foot hand made paddle for “eggheads” like me who continually “forgot” their shorts.
          had a big influence on my worldview, from early on.
          one of the biggest dissapointments of my life…ever so carefully hidden and sublimated and politely ignored…is how my boys(My Boys!) became avid sportsmen, and even more avid Fans(from “fanatic”…).
          filling their minds with stats and players and who put their foot where and looked at the sky and it was awesome!!!
          football, especially, is a damned religion in rural Texas.
          holding forth in public about the ritual combat, bread and circuses aspects of it all…with rich allegory regarding it’s function as a pressure relief valve…can get your butt kicked in certain places.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          I saw the discussion of a study (as opposed to a dissertation) and it reached similar conclusions. Public school programs in the US are designed to find and encourage athletes. They are not designed to help students of ordinary ability, and God forbid those who are sub-par (say not well coordinated or have slow reflexes).

        3. Arizona Slim

          I was one of those denigrated people. Discovered the pleasures of walking, cycling, and gardening when I was a young adult. I still participate and still enjoy them.

        4. Joe Well

          The academic field of physical education, as taught and studied in education schools in 2019, is very different from what all of us grew up with and unfortunately for the most part also very different from what goes on in most schools today, mostly for budget reasons and also because, even among teachers, there is a widespread devaluation of the profession of education.

          I knew plenty of teachers who could parrot academic and education jargon and incorporate it into highly sophisticated written lesson plans, and then in their classrooms would do the same kind of lecture or daycare-type lessons that a nineteenth-century schoolmarm wold have recognized.

  5. Wukchumni

    Until the mid 1970’s, pro athletes made diddily squat in salaries in the USA, a baseball player voted MVP in the all-star game might’ve received a $8k new Corvette for his efforts and was highly appreciative, as he was only pulling down $39k in 1971 as far as yearly salary went.

    It wasn’t uncommon on the back of baseball cards for it to state what sort of occupation the player had in the off-season, our local MLB player where I grew up had a liquor store, for example. Other players were realtors, in construction, etc.

    Nobody made the kind of moolah pro athletes were making all of the sudden (that $39k salary in 1971 is now more commonly like $3.9 million) and I think it had a great influence on Wall*Street in particular. How could those Palookas sans an Ivy League education be making so much money?

    Baseball decided in the mid 90’s that hitting a lot of home runs was beneficial for the game, and it didn’t matter how a player cheated his way to getting there, just do it.

    You could claim the same thing with earnings as far as stocks go, it’s all about the performance.

  6. bmeisen

    Thank you for this – a major issue around the world, especially in the US and Europe. Points of view like this are seldom heard. I last heard Dave Zirin voicing a version of it. I am a big fan of a European professional soccer team/club. I would like to ignore this criticism but it is on target.

    1. Conveyer Games

      “am a big fan of a European professional soccer team/club”

      Is this club from your city? Would you mind elaborate on why you are a fan of this club?

      Background on the question: I am seriously curious because I do not get why one would pay money and spend time on a club whose players since in most European clubs, only a fraction of the players are from the city of the club and most of the players aren’t even from the same country. Players and trainers come and go and it is exactly like a corporation.

      How do you see the relation between yourself and the club?

  7. Thuto

    While I appreciate the thrust of the post, I have to quibble with the scaffolding of its premise. The subtext, in my view, underplays the role of individual agency in allowing the love for sports to dominate one’s existence to the detriment of awareness and activism around more existential issues. Having played sports at a high level and still following it quite passionately, I nonetheless exercise my agency in a manner that puts my “love” for it in its proper context, I.e. as a form of entertainment and nothing more. Yes on game day i’m a passionate supporter of my team but once the game is over the thrill/disappointment of a win/loss diminishes accordingly and real life resumes. I’ve attended some of the biggest live sports events in the world and my sense before and after the games was that the majority of fans are rational, sober minded people who similarly place sport in its proper context vis a vis the role it plays in their lives. That said, just like every society has mad men and lunatics at its fringes, sport also has to reckon with its dark side. Hooliganism, particularly in European soccer, is the chink in the armor of sport as it seeks to model itself as a force for good.

    We’ve seen an alarming resurgence of racism inside sports stadiums lately but the question has to be asked whether the hooligans engaging in racist chanting and throwing of bananas at black players mirror, at the level of behaviour, societal attitudes originating outside the stadium? I would also add that sports bodies like FIFA and the IOC, through various programmes and initiatives, are making deliberate attempts to play a more prominent role in leveraging sport as a unifying force (whether these programmes are having the desired effect on the ground is a matter of debate). Populist politicians are, on the other hand, doing just the opposite and continue driving wedge after wedge between people of different cultures/identities in pursuit of political expediency, often brazenly so. As such, the juxtaposition of sport and populist politics in this post, while not without basis, can be misleading without adding the relevant caveats. As regards the corporitization of sport, this has engendered in sporting organizations the type of greed and corruption that is commonplace in the corporate world (as we’ve seen with scandals at FIFA and the IOC) and the “win-at-all-costs” mentality in elite athletes that leads to cheating, this much is clear. However, while I concede that globalists may be seeking to appropriate the popularity of sports in furtherance of their agenda, I’m struggling to see that they’re succeeding in using it to blind people to the existential issues that plague them as the post suggests, at least not yet.

    1. Wukchumni

      Something that’s interesting about hooliganism in sports, is here in quite violent America prone to public mass shootings, it’s basically unheard of, whereas in Europe it’s a given.

      One thing that separates sports from economics, is the idea that on the former you can have pretty much implicit trust in the numbers bandied about, be it a player’s average or the final score of a game, no bullshit as opposed to high finance.

      1. pretzelattack

        there have been some notably violent assaults on supporters of rival teams, in the last few years. maybe a murder or two, even. outliers no doubt, but in my opinion there’s more tension in public, the escalation of violence comes a bit more quickly. what would have been isolated punches once upon a time becomes a prolonged beating and stomping.

      2. Basil Pesto

        to consider hooliganism in Europe as a ‘given’ in 2019 is, in my admittedly anecdotal experience (I have attended football matches regularly in London and Berlin) rather overstating the case.

        In fact given the high cost of attending football matches, particularly in England, crowds tend to be quite 10%y and genteel. It’s generally accepted that football has become “gentrified”, particularly in England. Consequently or not, hooliganism is far less commonplace than it used to be, the odd violent incident as described above notwithstanding

    2. Basil Pesto

      I agree with you. The interview is pretty lame, and the lack of any form of socratic pushback from the interviewer is particularly insipid. For people who follow football there isn’t really any interesting or original insight here and his generalised framing, as you point out, diminishes his argument, which is pretty undergrad in the first place.

      The sport-like tarting up of politics particularly in TV media is something I observed when I was in high school in 2004, particularly in the United States where it’s literally Team Red vs. Team Blue. I’m still not sure how much value there is in reading too deeply into that phenomenon.

  8. Polar Donkey

    When the NBA offered Memphis the Grizzlies on the condition there would be no public referendum on public money being used to build the $265 million dollar arena, economists were rolled out to make ridiculous claims of positive economic impact. Almost 20 years later, there are rumors of the team moving to Seattle or Las Vegas in the next few years. People realize the economic impact of an NBA franchise has been less than promised. On sports talk radio, the discussion of why the NBA team shouldn’t move is based on emotion. The city just feels better with a team. They talk about how at a basketball game it is one of the few places you see black and white people together, even though there are pretty rigid class differences with seating inside the arena. If the team leaves, local minority shareholders have a right to offer a bid to buy the team for $350 million. If they did that, the poorest major metro area in America would have dedicated nearly a billion dollars towards feeling better 6 months out of the year (and only if they are good).

    1. Clive

      Same in England where the former Olympic stadium, keen to secure that oft-sought but seldom-seen animal “beneficial legacy”, ended up being corporate welfare for a local Premiership soccer team https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/45439883

      To call it a sweetheart deal is an insult to cotton candy manufacturers.

  9. JEHR

    I really like the analogy drawn between sports and politics in this article. Our PM created a cabinet with half women and half men. The women held positions of responsibility commensurate with their high capabilities. Some women, however, do not always have the same amount of regard for loyalty to the team when the team leader pulls a fast one during a secret meeting of the caucus. The idea in politics is that the caucus is a sacred place where no one inside it will every “betray” what goes on in the decision-making process. But, when two members of the team thought that the leader was not trustworthy, they rebelled and were turfed out of caucus. Their behaviour was deemed inappropriate while the leader’s behaviour was considered “normal.” The idea of a sports team always sticking together for the win no matter how the win is obtained could be directly applicable to political teams (caucuses). My hope is that women will continue to put integrity above winning in both sports and politics.

  10. skk

    This in a week when all 4 teams in the two football ( soccer ) cross-European clubs championship finals are all English clubs !

    Noting all this from afar, – while the BrExit made me despair about the UK in general, this event was a ray of sunshine. And it ought to make the working class BrExit supporters, and also football supporters think about their conflicts in their reasons for “leaving” – since when I look at the respective managers – I find a German, Spaniard, Italian and Argentinian there. And when I look at the players national origins – a similar story.
    And ownerships of clubs ? of course its global – Thai, US, Russians amongst others. As are the fans, spread out worldwide. I’ve sat in airport lounges, in Singapore and people are passionately watching … a UK League level game !

    This isn’t the football of the Don Revie, Brian Clough, Bill “more important than life itself” Shankly, times. Yet, while there are protests, when the Thai owner spends money on players, when the teams perform all is forgotten.

    I shall have to read the Mirror and Sun stories to see if anybody brings out the irony of working class support for leave and the national origins of club managers and players.

    While sports as a spectacle as a diversion for the masses is age-old, back to Roman games times – sports as in playing it is still a regular feature of “sporty”, usually younger, say under 45, peoples lives.

    The origins of UK football clubs has been taught as streets based, not something parachuted in by mill-owners, coal-mine owners.

    So I’m saying that the article brought out a sense of unease in me – its reads as just a bog-standard meta-system analysis, not something that’s started with an analysis of sports as of itself, as something that’s really deep in people and building out from that to how capitalism intertwines with it. I’ve given some aspects of what’s deeper above. There ought to be a really lengthy paper on this somewhere.

  11. Wombat

    This was a great read. I immediately thought of another effect – sportsball fans idolize the top athletes like the professional class idolizes oligarch billionaires. Consider Tom Brady … this elite athlete has millions of lapdog followers lauding his work ethic and talent. The way we idolize these athletes is not unlike how the professional class lapdogs Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk for their “innovation” and “work ethic”.

    1. polecat

      Well, many people need to live vicariously through their idols, of whatever sort, so they don’t have to dwell on how truly boring and dissatisfied their real existence is.
      I mean, take gaming for example. People wasting immense amounts of time and benjamins living through avatars, rather than spending their time and energy contributing to something perhaps more mundane initially .. but in the longer term, more beneficial, for themselves, and others — but no .. gotta get that hit of endorphins NOW, no matter the cost !
      It’s the same for sports pros, and political figures, dick-swingin oligarchs, environmental gurus .. you name it !

      1. anon y'mouse

        it’s cheap to be an avatar, and expensive to do something “real”. that is, if you can even get or find or borrow or steal the resources to do something “real”.

        hence Delta’s anti-union advertisement striking the root of truth “it’s so much easier to spend $700 on a video game system than a union. more fun, too!”

        your privilege may be showing. a lot of people don’t have that kind of agency, and it wouldn’t be welcomed where they live if they tried to exercise whatever agency they do have.

  12. Scott1

    The point of sports was to keep alive those skills useful in war when there was no war for those fit enough to be on the front lines of a battlefield.
    Churchill played polo which gave him skills for the calvary charge. He equipped himself with a semi automatic pistol instead of a sword.
    Patton’s sport was sword play.
    For Obama it has been basketball. For Nixon I recollect it was bowling.
    We can divide the sports by the expenses required for the equipment. There are the egalitarian sports where one ball is the equipment, and the elites sports where one must have a horse or even a sword.
    The elites spend money on their sports whereas the players of ball based sports want to make money at it.
    Churchill wrote that fame was the greatest of fortunes. I call it the currency of fame. I agree with him.
    In whatever case for Naked Capitalism how sports are paid for and what and whom make money or the real currency that is fame is a worthy focus for us now and then and not to be forgotten.

  13. Wat

    I agree with Mr. Erigic that pro sports supports capitalism, mainly by establishing a model of competition that appears sustainable. However, it only does so by structuring the games in a way that is not replicated in society at large: huge safe clean spaces, consistent rulings by authorities, all teams with the same number of players, high pay, and no one dies from winning or losing a contest (though playing can be costly on infrequent occasions), etc.

    What is also not mentioned in the sports broadcasts is the naturally high level of cooperation that balances the competition and stabilizes the industry. That is different from the public narratives, wherein cooperation is stifled through vilification as communism, socialism, or some sort of tyranny of the collective. Naturally, under these conditions, there is little stability….

  14. p fitzsimon

    Nothing new here. Twenty-five hundred years ago the first fascists, the Romans, discovered the advantage of sports as a national pastime. They inculcated violent spectator sport as a state and religious obligation. It helped to distract people as you looted them and prepared them for the acceptance and participation in military violence.

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