We Can Dance If We Want To

A note from the editor: I’m tremendously excited to share this guest post by Scott Jedlicka, a dear friend and sport management professor at Washington State University. I find it challenging and thought-provoking in all the right ways. And it’s timely, coming not just when most of us surely thought the pandemic would be a memory, but also on the eve of the Final Four, when most of us will be engaging in just the sort of sports consumption (and, for some, the internal conflict) that Scott expounds on here. I hope you’ll read it, maybe a couple times, and let us know what you think. This is exactly the sort of work I had hoped to share when I started this site a year ago and I’m so thankful to Scott for the time, thought, and effort he put into this work. Finally, a special thank you to Andrew Hao, Alec Hurley, and George Kioussis for their insightful and prompt comments and suggestions on Scott’s early draft.–Tolga

In the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic, George Packer’s bluntly titled “We Are Living in a Failed State” recounts the United States’ woefully inept response to COVID-19. While much of Packer’s withering criticism is leveled specifically at the Trump administration and its utter inability (or refusal) to deal with the unfolding crisis, he also artfully captures the social, cultural, and economic environment that exacerbated these failures of leadership:

This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.

All of this is accurate and not very optimistic, of course, but the final clause is what really gives Packer’s description a dire tone: “no vision of a shared identity or future.” Packer is describing an empire on its last legs, a riven populace bereft of solidarity and unable to imagine a departure from the status quo. He is describing a culture in decline.

Insofar as it is an indicator of “normal” life, sport plays a revealing role in this denouement. The approaching end of the pandemic is unlikely to reverse the trajectory on which America finds itself. At the same time, the resumption of major sporting events, the familiar cycle of ritualized celebrations reliably marking the passage of time, will no doubt be heralded by many as a positive and welcome development. The critics and reformers will continue to stridently draw attention to sport’s shortcomings, of course, but—as was the case before the pandemic—the lion’s share of this criticism will either be filtered through various identity-based lenses or reduce sport to just another battlefront in the war of labor against capital. While these approaches are not without value, they tend to share the same contradictory and self-defeating endpoint.

For those concerned with issues of social equity, sport’s value lies primarily in its status as a visible platform for raising awareness. Consequently, sport is considered to be a distinct realm of public life only to the extent that it engages an audience that might otherwise reject considerations (or be wholly ignorant) of social justice. When professional or college athletes engage in various forms of protest, or when injustices occur in sport itself, it is meaningful precisely because it demands the attention of those who would prefer to look away. In this view, the dialogues, conversations, et al. that are ostensibly initiated or advanced through athletes refusing to “shut up and dribble” will necessarily lead in the direction of broader social critique: of the factors underpinning racism, misogyny, state violence, exploitation and abuse, and so on. It is at this point, unfortunately, that this critical approach to sport tends to go off the rails. Those whose politics position them in opposition to the causes championed by athletes will inevitably conclude that sport is being “politicized,” the response to which is typically to point out that sport—as a social practice—is an unavoidably politicized activity. This is a largely irreconcilable stalemate, as the two competing claims are generated from dissimilar premises; the “keep politics out of sport” crowd believes (however disingenuously) that there is something about sport that makes it essentially different from other spheres of social life, while its opponents decidedly do not.

Unfortunately, by denying that sport is anything other than a mirror of society, even those sympathetic to the causes associated with “politicized” sport reach a similar impasse. If one acknowledges the existence of intractable problems that are manifested in sport and in society (the latter of which, again, are often emphasized in sport through athlete activism), they are faced with two general paths to resolution. The first, common to many reform efforts in sport, is the “bad apples” diagnosis: that the problems of sport and society can be largely attributed to the negligent or malfeasant behavior of individuals. At the end of this path lies an easily implemented but rarely effective set of solutions that typically involves some combination of education, awareness-raising, and selecting the “right” leaders. The second path points in the direction of structural change, but the solutions on offer here are less obvious and (for most) emphatically less palatable. Those who pursue this line of critique must, at some point, confront the reality that if sport is a socially constructed activity (political in the way that all realms of social life are political), and if the causes of the problems with which they are concerned are rooted in the structures of society itself, then true reform will necessarily require fundamental changes to sport. In other words, the conditions that make sport a useful arena for social advocacy are also very likely the conditions that create the issues that require advocacy in the first place. Many who champion sport’s utility as a platform for awareness raising are less enthusiastic about setting fire to the stage.

Because it also shares the belief that sport is a generic social activity, the emergent “Marxist” approach to critiquing sport encounters the same sort of difficulties as those more explicitly oriented toward social justice per se.* While this treatment has a more clearly articulated theory of change than its counterpart (presumably, the ultimate goal here is a scenario in which athlete-workers exercise democratic control over their productive enterprise as part of a broader societal shift toward socialism), it typically refuses to evaluate its assumptions against any moral or philosophical standard. In the Marxist view, sport is essentialized as work, with athletes (laborers) locked in the familiar struggle with owners/managers (capital). However, this analysis is undermined by a failure to fully grapple with the possibility that capitalism circumscribes sport’s form and function relative to society. The assumptions that sport is work and athletes are workers (indeed, the very notion that sport can be “produced” in an economic sense) are largely determined by the capitalist condition, which underscores the contingency of this Marxist view of (commodified) sport. While the struggles of athlete-workers are most certainly real and important, sport itself is rendered impotent as an emancipatory activity. As just another industry, sport has arguably been more effective as a tool of hegemony than as a site of worker liberation, further emphasizing the limitations of an approach that insists on viewing sport in this way. The really pernicious implication of all of this is that a focus on sport’s labor struggles may, on balance, serve the interests of capital more than they further any anti-capitalist agenda. What adherents of this approach are left with (at least as I have characterized their position) is a choice between waiting for socialist revolution or rejecting sport as fundamentally incompatible with any left-progressive political project.**

“Sports are the reward for a functioning society” was a recurring phrase in the early stages of the pandemic. As far as I can tell, it is attributable to Jane McManus of the New York Daily News, who wrote on March 10, “It’s at moments like these when you see how our sports schedule is a tribute to a healthy and functioning society,” though it was later popularized by MLB pitcher Sean Doolittle. Originally, the sentiment was intended to emphasize the gravity of the still-new pandemic: if major sporting events, embedded as they are in the ebb and flow of the American social calendar, are being swiftly and indefinitely canceled, we should probably take this seriously. However, especially once the culture warriors got involved and the rapid resumption of sports became a position associated with the right, the phrase was more often deployed from the left as a (self-righteous) commentary on the Trump administration’s failure to plan for and control the spread of COVID-19. Any push to resume sports was characterized as merely a politically motivated attempt to distract and downplay the mishandling of the pandemic, and therefore illegitimate; “sports are the reward for a functioning society” peppered any number of op-eds urging athletes and organizations to delay their return to normal activities, simultaneously uttered with mournful resignation and gleeful reproach.

Like the more established critical approaches described above, this recent attitude toward sport’s relationship to society is, at best, incomplete. This is confirmed by a range of rather obvious historical examples of states whose seemingly high-functioning sport systems were not exactly indicative of societal flourishing; sport is no more a sign of prosperity than trains running on time. Common to all of these critiques is an inability or unwillingness to consider sport on its own terms, as an activity that is, contrary to standard critiques of sport, “utterly unlike the rest of ordinary life”. Acknowledging sport’s distinctive properties (much less building a critical theory or political program on them) is anathema to many left or left-liberal reformers, primarily because it seems to validate a philosophical position that is today most associated with the “don’t mix sport and politics” strain of right-wing popular thought, which bases its defenses of sport on the premise that sport is different and in need of “protection.” Thus, when left-leaning critics correctly point out the ubiquitous presence of politics in sport, they also (unnecessarily and inaccurately) attach themselves to the position that there is nothing special about sport. This wariness of lending legitimacy to the right’s position stems in no small part from the fact that the right has firmly committed to the bit: as I will discuss below, the conservative pundits of yesteryear shared a similar belief in sport’s unique properties. However, these pundits’ analysis (which anticipated the decline of another empire) reached a far different conclusion than the right lands on today, which opens the door ever so slightly to the possibility of an altogether new approach to understanding sport’s relationship to culture and society.

In 1909, the Quarterly Review published “Sport and Decadence,” a wide-ranging polemic about the state of sport in Britain and what it portended for the maintenance of the British Empire. The piece is fascinating enough as a historical artifact, but its contents are surprisingly relevant to the state of U.S. sport and culture in 2021. The article’s central argument is distilled most directly in the following passage (emphasis added):

Disease, moral and physical, is mainly the handiwork of a man’s perversity or folly. The symptoms of national decay are many and easily diagnosed. A nation is on the downward grade when a large portion of its population is (1) unwilling to defend or incapable of defending what, not without reason, we call the mother-land against external attack; (2) is unable or unwilling to provide by its own exertions for its own immediate wants or to save from the earning of its industry a sufficiency to meet the exigencies and disabilities of old age; (3) is unable or unwilling to indulge in recreation except vicariously, and regards ‘sport’ as a pastime to be undertaken by others paid for the purpose for the amusement of onlookers.

It is certainly a provocative claim, one that is almost inconceivable to twenty-first century sports fans and critics alike: a preference to consume sport as a commodified spectacle is symptomatic of cultural rot.

Much of what comes next in the article is a defense of old-school amateurism, though there is also a surprisingly healthy dose of criticism leveled at the “so-called Olympic Games (new style)” (the fourth edition of which had been staged in London in 1908), described by the authors as a “meretricious parody” that utterly fails to honor its purported Hellenistic roots. The arguments advanced in support of amateurism are fairly predictable: physical fitness is virtuous only insofar as it provides “a healthy lodging for a healthy mind”, the pursuit of fame and sporting excellence is unnecessary and vainglorious, sport in schools should not be prioritized at the expense of academics, etc. What is more fascinating—and what makes this article’s defense of amateurism different from the defenses commonly trotted out by organizations like the IOC and NCAA—is how readily the authors reject what they call “the money test”: the idea that the difference between an amateur and a professional athlete is that the professional is explicitly compensated for their time and effort, while the amateur is not. Rather, “it is the distinction between means to an end and the perversion of such means into an end in itself. The man who plays a game for the game’s sake, and for the pleasure and physical benefit it entails, without regard for profit or popularity, is an amateur; the man who does exactly the same thing for a living or for the plaudits of the crowd is a professional.” What the authors are concerned with here, more than anything, is the corruption of sport relative to its idealized state, one in which athletes play for what would today be identified as the achievement of intrinsic benefits rather than as a response to external incentives.

If this article was published today, it would be dismissed (justifiably) by many as reactionary nonsense. The Quarterly Review was an overtly conservative publication, and the concerns in “Sport and Decadence” are very clearly motivated by fears that a rise in spectator sport signaled a diminished cultural vitality, particularly prevalent among young men, which would in turn undermine the British imperial project; and if the empire fell, what then? (The fourth paragraph of the article begins with the sentence, “Race suicide is possible”, if you were wondering about the authors’ collective outlook, anxiety level, and understanding of the stakes involved). Yet, despite the authors’ suspect motives, the article offers a more basic insight about sport’s relationship to culture that should not be cast aside too hastily, for it bears directly on the relationship between sport and American culture today.

What concerned the Quarterly Review editors over a century ago was the potential for sport to lose its capacity for teaching cultural values (however backwards they might be) and instead function primarily as a tool of atomization, turning spectators into listless consumers of (print) media and spectacle:

The majority of young men with any aptitude for healthy games, frightened by the grotesque criterion of excellence set up for them by the descriptive reporter, refrain from any attempt to take an active part in such competitions, but by the aid of their gate-money pay others to play for them and make a match an excuse for loafing up to the ground, sitting or dawdling away an afternoon, and ‘ backing their fancy ‘—most appropriate of phrases—with no regard for the merits of the game and with no real advantage moral or physical to themselves.

The consequences of such atomization, the authors argue, are as predictable as they are disturbing: diminished social engagement and attachment, poor physical and mental health, a growing sense of cynicism and nihilism—is this sounding familiar? More generally (and I believe this was what the Quarterly Review editors found most alarming), a fascination with sport-as-spectacle signals a deep sense of resignation, if not despair. To play “for the game’s sake” is important because it requires hopeful effort, a belief that the joy, creativity, and expression associated with such an effort have worth and meaning. Giving up on these possibilities, then, is a sort-of “canary in the coal mine” with regard to cultural attitudes. It is indicative of a society that, as George Packer suggests, has painted itself into a corner. The pervasiveness and matter-of-factness with which we disregard the value of play for its own sake is perhaps best demonstrated by University of Pennsylvania bioethicist (and one-time COVID-19 advisor to the Biden administration) Zeke Emanuel’s defense of his controversial 2014 essay, “Why I Hope to Die at 75”. When asked, several years later, “what’s wrong with simply enjoying an extended life?”, he replied: “these people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age—when I look at what those people “do,” almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.”

The way out of this cultural malaise is not clear. But, the implication of the preceding discussion of “Sport and Decadence” is that sport has a role to play. It is not, as prevailing critical approaches might suggest, merely a reflection of society or a tool of oppression. Its essential characteristic—“the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”—suggests that sport is deeply and perpetually connected to human flourishing; to paraphrase Bernard Suits, in utopia, everything would be a sport. This also means that sport’s capacity to be a site of social transformation is inherent in sport itself, and is not predicated, at least not entirely, upon a favorable set of sociocultural circumstances. Rather, the ability of sport to change society—not symbolically, or in any sort of consciousness-raising sense, but actually change people—depends upon the choices made by those in a position to deliver sport opportunities to those people. Far too much energy is expended in largely fruitless attempts to pierce the veil of false consciousness by revealing “the dark side” of sporting spectacles. A political program that wanted to make use of sport’s transformative capacities would instead focus its efforts on engaging people (of all ages and abilities) in sport as participants, and in ways that draw out the self-actualizing and solidarity-building aspects of sport. To the extent that this runs contrary to the expectations and desires of those who benefit from the social status quo, it also renders sport participation as an act of resistance in a way that watching sport could never be.

What I am arguing, essentially, is that the people responsible for delivering sport to the masses—everyone from youth sport coaches to public recreation directors to martial arts studio managers to sandlot baseball entrepreneurs—should be enlisted in the effort to use sport for cultural renewal, rather than as an indicator of cultural decay. Such an undertaking will clearly require various types of institutional support and no shortage of hard work. Nonetheless, conceiving of sport’s relationship to society in this way allows the outlines of a framework for political action to emerge.

The authors of “Sport and Decadence” concluded their article with a quote from Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” and a final remark:

‘ Have the Pyrrhic dance as yet;

Where is the Pyrhhic phalanx gone? ’

We do not even dance ourselves, but pay others to do it for us.

We can still dance if we want to. We’ve got all your life and mine.

*I use quotes around Marxist here to indicate a general preoccupation with Marx’s dialectical materialism, though some who are sympathetic to this approach may reject the Marxist label. Consequently, it is used here merely as symbolic shorthand.

**To be clear, these two approaches do not differ markedly in their aims or general moral orientations and it is not my intent to juxtapose them as conflicting viewpoints. They are distinguishable from one another primarily in terms of their core emphases as well as their efforts to reform sport and to use it as a lever for broader progressive change. Moreover, despite the critique advanced above, these perspectives have, if nothing else, been almost entirely responsible for normalizing the idea that sport should not be exempt from critical analysis.

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