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Sport may be an opium of the people – but it matters

England fans celebrate the team’s World Cup penalty shoot out victory on the beach in Brighton. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Many on the political left, including the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, view sport as serving the interests of capitalism, in part by entertaining, pacifying and disciplining the working class.

The French academic Marc Perelman abhors sport for the same reason Karl Marx disliked religion – that it is akin to an “opium of the people”. However, while Marx understood why people might seek a haven in a heartless world, Perelman shows much less tolerance, advocating that sport is utterly worthless, impossible to reform or reclaim.

But dismissing sport outright as a crass display of muscle-bound dullards, as appeasing “bread and circuses”, or an opiate drug fails to adequately engage with and explain its popularity.

The charge sheet against sport is long and damning. It can show the worst aspects of people’s behaviour and mirror the nastiest characteristics of capitalism, including its racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism and militarism. While bigots can be found at most sports events, it’s not “their” game and they shouldn’t be allowed to think it is.

Particularly at times of global events such as the World Cup, sport “contaminates” all parts of society and the disproportionate amount of media coverage sport garners clearly irritates many people. We can rightly despair at the amount of time and space elite sport receives and how it depoliticises and diverts people from political activity that might challenge the existing order – such as protests against the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump to the UK.

Sport is clearly political. If England do win the World Cup, no doubt those calling for a “hard Brexit” will use this to bolster their nationalistic chest-beating, whereas if England lose, it will be used to illustrate the (continuing) decline of the nation.

Worth celebrating

When we consume sport via the media, our conversations often focus on the elite forms of a game, on global corporations, multimillion-pound contracts, mega-events in new stadiums paid for by taxpayers. Still, tarring all sport with the same brush fails to distinguish the different levels at which people engage with it, from playing to watching, and recognising those elements within sport that are worth celebrating.

School sport was (and still is) for many people an unappealing and unpleasant experience due, in part, to the content and those who taught it. Most people have a horror story about their PE lessons or PE teacher. Yet, outside school, playing sport and doing physical activity can be fun.

The cultural historian Johan Huizinga and sociologist Roger Caillois both recognised that there are strong elements of play within all forms of sport, ranging from free-spirited, creative, frivolous activities to ones that are structured and serious. For many people, the hours spent as a youngster playing, kicking, throwing and catching a ball will probably furnish them with better memories and life skills than those spent watching Love Island.

I’m not adopting a rose-coloured spectacle view of the past here. As an adult, playing a game of five-a-side or badminton with mates after work, going for a swim, playing in the back garden or down the local park with the kids after school, or going on a run by yourself, all offer physical and mental stimulations that contribute to a better quality of life.

Fun, and good for you.

Sport is contradictory, neither inherently good nor bad. What we need is a more serious engagement with the works of writers such as CLR James, Mike Marqusee and Dave Zirin on why sport matters. Celebrating sport, while also cognisant of its structure and context, Zirin has been critical of the lack of engagement among socialists with sport and has consistently argued for the possibilities sport offers to the political left.

Seize an opportunity to have fun

But this isn’t all that sport is about: it’s also about the sensory, the aesthetic and about emotion. Watching Harry Kane skip past an opponent and blast the ball into the net, Serena Williams launch a powerful backhand down the line, or Virat Kohli hit the ball out of the cricket ground can be moments of pure pleasure. Trying to describe the precise feelings these actions engender is akin to trying to describe how a piece of music, painting or theatre performance makes one feel.

Fans of Roger Federer at Wimbledon. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

I fully accept that none of these the emotions will solve the problems created by capitalism. Yet, given capitalism offers us so few opportunities to feel good about, and within, ourselves, we should take those opportunities to have fun when we can.

To dismiss sport and those who support England as nationalist, right-wing racists will not get us very far. To go around a workplace stating “anyone but England” (unless you are Andy Murray …) is unlikely to be constructive in building a foundation for future action that collectively addresses the wider problems in society – be this underfunded public services, increasing levels of violence in society, or declining community cohesion.

Life under capitalism is a struggle; is there anything wrong with finding something that is enjoyable and exciting? As an opiate, watching sport will only ever offer a temporary “escape” whereas participating in sport and physical activity generates valuable physical and mental benefits to those damaged by capitalism. As a parent, I want my children to experience the pleasure and confidence that comes from being physically active, confident in and with their body, and of being part of a team and wider community.

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