Book Review: Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History

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Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History by Tony Collins
Published by Routledge
2013, £19.99

God bless Crystal Palace’s self-styled ultras, the Holmesdale Fanatics. The irony of proudly displaying a banner reading “AGAINST MODERN FOOTBALL” during a Premier League match this season, one which was beamed into bars and living rooms around the world on television, was clearly lost on them. Perhaps that’s only to be expected, given that they seem to consist mostly of pimply teenagers bouncing around under a flag while one of their chums whacks a drum in semi-rhythmic fashion.

They’re not the only supporters to have declared themselves to be “Against Modern Football“, though – far from it. The movement has been gathering momentum on the continent for some time, arriving in the UK in the last few years. That it has now firmly taken root here was evidenced in December when Stand Against Modern Football claimed the accolade of Fanzine of the Year in the Football Supporters’ Federation‘s 2013 Awards.

Some commentators – Sabotage Times‘ Stuart Gyseman, for instance – have viewed the movement with suspicion and even contempt, regarding “Against Modern Football” as nothing more than a glib T-shirt slogan or Twitter hashtag, and its adherents as posers and hypocrites. Certainly the sweeping generalisation does them no favours. Against exorbitant ticket prices? Yes. Against the EPPP? OK. Against games being rescheduled at short notice for TV with scant regard for fans? Yep. Against a farcically inadequate “owners and directors test” that would probably deem a convicted fraudster recently arrested on suspicion of embezzlement a “fit and proper” person to buy Leeds? Sure. But against modern football in its entirety? Hang on a minute. As with the Guardian‘s harbinger of financial doom David Conn, you do have to wonder whether these people actually like football at all. If the modern game has no redeeming features, then why bother wasting time and energy moaning about it? Why not go and find a sport unsullied by unsavoury characters, grubby commerce and dubious ethics to enthuse about instead? (Good luck with that…)

The fact that Stand Against Modern Football have abbreviated the fanzine’s title to STAND perhaps suggests a degree of embarrassment with the “Against Modern Football” tag, and the “About” section of their website is quite defensive – whether pre-emptively or in response to the criticisms levelled at them. For instance, they insist they’re “not the voice of the Against Modern Football movement“, despite the choice of name inevitably establishing themselves as such. Neither, they claim, are they yearning for a return to the dark days of “hooliganism, racism and deathtrap stadiums” (or, presumably, that familiar warm glow on your calf as someone else’s piss soaked through the back of your trouser leg). Furthermore, they are “not Amish. We like modern technology. It’s the 21st century and we will use online and digital media to communicate our message“. (They probably think goalline technology is the work of the devil, mind.)

Most telling, though, is the following note: “If you look hard and long enough, ‘modern football’ may not be that different from old football. STAND is about what’s happening now and just because something may or may not have happened in the past, it doesn’t mean we can’t voice our concern if it affects the supporters of today.” What to make of this sheepish admission (other than to ask why they didn’t then call the fanzine simply Stand Against Football)? Effectively they’re quietly conceding that perhaps football never was just small boys in the park with jumpers for goalposts, and that while the “Against Modern Football” mob might be right about the present, they’re wrong about the past.

That’s where Tony Collins’ book comes in. Collins certainly has looked “hard and long enough“, and concludes that “‘modern football’” is indeed hardly any different from “old football“.

As the title implies, Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History is a slim volume and deals with many sports rather than focusing exclusively on football, but it is persuasively argued and contains plenty of eye-opening supporting evidence as well as useful pointers for further reading. Don’t be deterred by the academic imprint, either – it’s a very accessible read for the layman, a fluent and informative social history unencumbered with jargon.

Collins lays out his thesis at the outset: “far from the purity of sport being ‘corrupted’ by capitalism, modern sport is as much a product of capitalism as the factory, the stock exchange and the unemployment line“. The Industrial Revolution, the emergence of mass markets and the growing influence of the media are all subsequently identified as critical factors in sport’s development. Collins notes: “Many sociologists and critics today talk about the ‘commoditisation’ of contemporary sport, yet in reality sport had been a commodity and its practitioners wage-labourers at least since Jack Broughton opened his boxing arena in 1743 and charged the public to watch paid entertainers do battle in the ring“. As if that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face for the “Against Modern Football” fraternity, Collins goes further in his observations about football specifically: “the culture of professional soccer … created a recreational facsimile of the capitalist world, in which capitalism’s myths of fair competition, equality before the law and the ability of talent alone to triumph were played out in miniature. Soccer was a living tableau in which the lessons of life under capitalism were illustrated over ninety minutes“.

This “culture of professional soccer” is not a recent phenomenon. Professionalism – the payment of players and allocation of prize money – was grudgingly accepted and legalised by the FA as long ago as 1885, with the maximum wage being abolished in 1961, paving the way for the astronomical salaries earned by today’s top performers. Collins refuses to denigrate professionalism, however, instead contrasting it favourably with what preceded it. The ostensibly pure and honourable ideology of amateurism was in fact nothing of the sort, actually just “a justification for social exclusion“; the amateurist ideal was regularly invoked “to impose strict social segregation between the classes or to control and discipline working-class players when it was felt to be expedient“. A career as a professional footballer, however, offered working-class men “the potential for not only money and fame but also for validation and respect, free from the concerns of status or patronage“, and most fundamentally the means by which they “could attempt to define themselves and influence the world around them, a possibility they were excluded from in their working lives“.

The fact that football clubs sprang up in rapidly expanding urban centres and generally drew players from their immediate vicinity meant that they “soon became seen as representatives of their city, town, suburb or even street“, and as “a way for working-class communities to express a sense of belonging, or identity” – a powerful and intimate geographical, social and emotional connection that persists today and that is the reason clubs are collective rather than singular nouns.

However, Collins denies that this means football is therefore “a ‘people’s game’ – as is often claimed today“; he would scoff at STAND co-editor Daniel Sandison’s contention in an interview that football “has, in many ways, been taken out of the hands of the fans who made it what it is today“. On the contrary, sport (football included) “has always been the plaything of the rich and the authoritarian bureaucrat“. In the eighteenth century it was “unashamedly part of the entertainment industry and played for profit” and “became a fashionable bauble for super-rich patrons“. Complain all you like about the pernicious influence of the American billionaires, Arab sheiks, Russian oligarchs, Malaysian nutters and British sport clothing peddlers who own the Premier League, then – but be aware that the concentration of power in the hands of an obscenely wealthy few is nothing new.

What is more, the worlds of football and business have always been inextricably linked. Collins reveals that “limited liability companies were formed by clubs in the 1880s as a way of raising capital for the construction of stadia“, and that even in football’s infancy private companies (breweries in particular) were key players in the ownership, governance and administration of individual clubs. Indeed, he attributes football’s ascent to its modern-day status as the world’s only truly international sport to this interconnection: “it was precisely soccer’s ability to create a sustainable business structure that could exploit the new mass sports market of the late nineteenth century that led to it outstripping its rival sports in popularity“. Football fandom, Collins wryly observes, is just the sort of blind, unswerving, readymade brand loyalty that marketeers in the capitalist economy are only too grateful to encounter and exploit.

Everywhere you look, Collins’ book is busy dispelling the myths about modern football peddled by its historically naive critics. New forms of betting that put the integrity of the game at the mercy of shadowy and unscrupulous syndicates? This is “in reality a re-emergence of the sophisticated gambling markets that had once existed at cricket matches and prize-fights in the 1700s“. The supposedly modern pursuit of short-term glory at the expense of long-term financial stability? Nothing of the sort. Even in the early days of football “the centrality of winning matches and tournaments invariably took precedence over profitability. At best, clubs sought to operate without making a loss; in economic terms, they were utility-maximisers, not profit-maximisers“. Valuable principles of sportsmanship, fair play and egalitarianism have been eroded and corrupted over time, to such an extent that football has now become an ethically moribund sport? Nonsense. It was long synonymous with violence and racism, while drug-taking amongst players was rife in the 1950s, when “English football went through a vogue for ‘pep pills’ and monkey-gland extracts“.

As this last point suggests, Collins doesn’t just set out to disabuse readers of their fanciful and romanticised notions of football’s past – he also implicitly casts certain aspects of the modern game in a rather more favourable light than the blinkered “Against Modern Football” brigade might allow. Take women’s football, for instance. In the early decades of the twentieth century it was enjoyed by thousands of players in the UK, but was suppressed in 1921 by the decision of a patrician FA to ban women from using its grounds. The women’s game consequently became marginalised, regarded by the authorities “with amused indulgence” at best. The renaissance of women’s football in recent years, in terms of its increasing popularity for both participants and spectators alike, is thus surely a development to be celebrated – as are the reduction (if not eradication), within the English game at least, of hooliganism and racism.

Indeed, such has been the rapid pace of positive change in another respect that Collins’ narrative is already outdated. There is a tone of exasperation and disbelief when he notes that “Of the thousands of professional football players of all codes around the world in 2011, only one soccer player – Sweden’s Anton Hysen – and one rugby player – Welshman Gareth Thomas – felt comfortable enough in their sports to be openly homosexual“. Since the book was written, Robbie Rogers, Thomas Hitzlsperger and most recently England women’s captain Casey Stoney have all come out and received an almost unanimously positive and supportive response, signalling a significant shift for the better. While there are still no openly gay players in the top flight of English football, it now only seems like a matter of time – something Justin Fashanu could probably never have dreamt of.

Nevertheless, as Collins points out in a general context, key developments such as this “could not have taken place without similar shifts in wider society“. As the old Left v Right ideological debates of the past fade from view and the neo-liberalist/capitalist consensus becomes ever more entrenched, it is increasingly evident that sport is “both a beneficiary of and an ideological buttress for this late twentieth-century counter-reformation“. His book’s take-home message is writ large towards the end: “The idea that sport has been hijacked by team owners or commodified by corporate interests fails to understand that modern sport is itself a creation of capitalism. There was no prelapsarian era in which football, baseball or any other modern sport was played by people purely for enjoyment“.

So much for the past and the present – how does Collins foresee sport’s future? Bleakly, for the most part, arguing that it will continue to follow global trends which at the moment translates as “growing economic liberalism … accompanied by increasing restrictions on civil liberties“. In the conclusion he does, however, allow himself what appears at first to be a rather curious and uncharacteristically fanciful vision of a (presumably socialist) utopia, one “in which art, culture and humanity itself have been freed from the exploitation, bigotry and oppression of capitalism” and in which “sport may play a positive role in helping men and women to reach the fullest extent of their mental and physical potential“.

In truth, though, this does not contradict what has gone before. Collins has been clear-eyed and fastidiously unsentimental in his description of sport’s origins and development, as both a manifestation and an instrument of capitalist society – but this need not (and indeed does not) equate to a tacit endorsement or approval of either. Like those who unite under the “Against Modern Football” banner, then, he appears to regard the status quo with a general distaste. Unlike them, however, he doesn’t inadvertently mythologise the past at the same time as denigrating the present; on the contrary, he has the invaluable sense of historical perspective they lack and as a result is only too aware that the beautiful game has always been at least a little bit ugly.

is the co-founder and co-author of Newcastle United blog Black & White & Read All Over. Since its inception in 2004, he's never been short of things to write about, be they messiahs returning, messiahs walking out, expletive-riddled press conferences or team-mates indulging in fisticuffs. He is the slightly shameful owner of a cardboard coathanger with Robert Lee's head on it, and is currently in search of a new lucky pub for watching televised games. Perhaps a new lucky team would be an easier option.

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12 Comments on "Book Review: Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History"

  1. Gerschenkron says:

    Provocative review – ta. Seems a bit snarky to have a pop at people protesting, what do you suggest they do instead? Shame there was no room to comment on financialized capitalism’s willingness to use sport to sell exorbitant “pay day” loans to what’s left of its working class followers. If that’s modern football, then we can probably be “against” it, eh? ;-)

  2. Ben says:

    The book invites a provocative review of this sort, in the way it challenges myths eagerly though uncritically and complacently endorsed by many. I include myself in that – as I hope is clear, I do sympathise with the Against Modern Football position on many issues relating to the game; I just have a problem with their apparently blanket opposition and, especially having read Collins’ book, the startling lack of historical perspective.

    I also have no issue with people protesting – my point was that doing so having forked out a small fortune to get into the game is hardly hitting the powers-that-be where it hurts. If you genuinely are “against modern football”, stop supporting it. The fact that I don’t watch Newcastle regularly is a matter of circumstance rather than principle, admittedly, but given the current regime I’m much more comfortable as an occasional spectator rather than a season ticket holder pouring money into Ashley’s pockets.

  3. Andy says:

    It was the maximum wage that was abolished in 1961, not the minimum (otherwise there would have been no amateurs).

  4. John Mc says:

    A really thoughtful piece, as always Ben.

    One commenter to me over on Twitter made the reasonable point that 18th and 21st century capitalism are very different beasts. I guess that intimated that their interactions with sport are the same. I’d agree with that – Ashley’s NUFC are quite different from the work’s team at Port Sunlight. But Collins’ book still seems to shine an important light on the ahistory of some of AMF’s positioning.

    Like you I find much of what AMF folks are ‘against’ sits well with my own conscience. Annual changing of kits, constant pushing of gambling in a world which courts young people, EPPP, lack of accountability are just a few things that grind my own personal gears. My problems with them are both their sepia tinged oeuvre and their inability to engage in granular debate. I’ve no truck with their hypocrisy in bemoaning something in which they actively engage – what interesting human isn’t a little contrary from time to time – merely their inability to grasp that this is one of those topics where one CAN have one’s cake and eat it. Ergo you can hate kit deals and the demagogic obsession with supporter’s trusts or like the German pricing model at the same time as UK stadia or tolerate the paraphernalia through love of the product.

    Their platform and their approach to others sees no room for such contradictions, debates and discussions and I think they’re poorer for it.

  5. Ben says:

    Andy: Cheers for flagging that up – my mistake. I’ll correct it.

    John: Collins does admittedly make the point that commercialism in sport has been ratcheting up over the last few decades – but it’s a matter of degrees rather than a fundamental shift. He actually downplays the difference between the two forms of capitalism, arguing that there’s very little that’s “neo” about neo-liberalism – it’s essentially a return to the economics of Adam Smith.

    One criticism I’ve had on Twitter is that I’ve set up AMF as a “ludicrous straw man” and that of course its adherents don’t hate everything about football. If that’s the case, though, why unite under such a childishly crude umbrella term? The respondent in question did at least concede himself that it was “silly”. The truth is that Collins’ book makes AMF a bit of a sitting duck.

  6. Ben says:

    Martin: Of course the HF crew were doing it for maximum publicity. But they were doing so by making use of the very mechanisms they profess to deplore. Hence lost irony, I’d say.

  7. Martin Searle says:

    Ben – use the structures of the oppressive regime against them wherever possible in order to overthrow them! La lucha continua!

  8. Ben says:

    Hoisting Sky et al by their own petard? I’d like to agree with you, but I don’t think the powers-that-be will give much of a toss when the disaffected fans are still pouring money into the coffers.

  9. Ben says:

    John: Agree with your point about discussion, debate and contradiction. Things seem to be starkly black and white in the world of the “Against Modern Football” crew, when in reality there are often shades of grey in between. Suggesting as much appears to be considered treasonous. It would be a shame if their approach to issues was to be blighted by inflexible dogma, because on individual issues I broadly agree with what they’re saying.

  10. Ben says:

    One clarification and one addendum to the review.

    The clarification: The opening paragraph was, I thought, a nice relatively light-hearted way to ease into what is pretty dense subject matter. I won’t insult people’s intelligence by saying it was never my intention to cause offence – it was deliberately flippant and provocative, in the same way that the book invites a provocative review – but it’s a shame if it’s deterred readers from going any deeper into the article and engaging with the substance of the argument.

    The addendum: While I stand by my point that Collins’ vision of a socialist utopia at the end doesn’t contradict what precedes it, I should have added that it’s rather frustrating that he doesn’t give any indication as to how this socialist utopia might come about (given that capitalism seems so entrenched, and sport within that). Perhaps, though, that’s something for another book, this one having focused on understanding the past better rather than imagining the future. If any readers know of books that already attempt this task, I’d be interested to look them up.

  11. Steve says:

    I tend to agree with the view you have put across from the author that it isn’t about a wonderful previous world of football suddenly tainted but that the game has been increasingly commercialised and financed to the point that the concept of your local club is no longer viable. Some things are better than before others are worse but crucially the integrity of the whole has been destroyed.

    I am a lifelong Forest fan. We have been given a chance to compete by the purchase of our club by a wealthy Kuwaiti, but what’s the point? If success is only possible through his money rather than a fair sporting endeavour what are we doing supporting it? Why should I support Fawaz Al-Hasawi ahead of Sheikh Mansour? Money has become so important that we are no longer watching a proper cohesive sporting competition.

    The only way around it that I can see is to either level the playing field (some chance of that!) or to close off the Premier League and run it as a global television event, maybe keeping local interest by regionalising the make up of the participating teams so that everyone is locally represented. Below that a separate national competition plays without the money and without the pantomime for those (like me) that want it.

    As an aside, women’s football has clearly progressed but the FA has already hijacked it so that the few have, just like in the men’s game, run off with the money and told everyone else to get stuffed.

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