Book Review: Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History
Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History by Tony Collins
Published by Routledge
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. Itâ€™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, â€˜modern footballâ€™ may not be that different from old football. STAND is about whatâ€™s happening now and just because something may or may not have happened in the past, it doesnâ€™t mean we canâ€™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.