Professor Tony Collins starts a series of articles about the relationship between sport and capitalism with an introduction to the history of sport.
It’s been a rough year for sport. In the last few months we’ve seen match-fixing allegations in tennis, Russia banned from international athletics for alleged doping, and the implosion of FIFA over endemic corruption. That’s not to mention the billionaire takeover of football and the grip of satellite TV on the game.
So where did it all go wrong?
In reality, nothing has gone wrong – modern sport has always been about money. It emerged in the 1700s as part of the growing commercial leisure industry of Britain’s emerging capitalist economy. The first rules of boxing, horse-racing and cricket were drawn up in the eighteenth century explicitly to make gambling easier and more transparent. Even the MCC, that bastion of the gentleman amateur, included rules for gambling in its early rulebooks. Teams and athletes were effectively owned by their aristocratic ‘patrons’, many of whom owed their wealth to the slave trade.
Sport was an entertainment – and like every other aspect of life under capitalism, it was organised to facilitate profit.
The Peoples’ Game?
When football was transformed into a mass spectator sport in the late 1800s, it quickly became commercialised. Soccer may have been ‘the People’s Game’ in terms of popularity, but it was as much a plaything of businessmen as it is today.
There’s no better example than Manchester United. When Newton Heath F.C. went into liquidation in 1902, they were bought by J.H. Davies, owner of Manchester Breweries. Renamed Manchester United, the club became an appendage of Davies’ business. United’s seven-strong board consisted of Davies and six other employees of the brewery. In 1909 Davies provided the cash that allowed the club to move to Old Trafford. And just as the Glazer family today has leveraged the club for their own financial interests, so did Davies: an FA enquiry in 1910 discovered that he received £740 rent from the club for land it did not use.
The same story was repeated across football. Chelsea was created by the owners of Stamford Bridge as an attraction to bring crowds into what was becoming a white elephant stadium. Most clubs that weren’t created as openly commercial ventures were formed by churches as a way of bringing Christian morality to working-class youths, such as Aston Villa, or by employers seeking to foster corporate unity in opposition to trade unionism, such as West Ham. Football made for great entertainment – but it was a never a people’s game.
Amateurism, Class and Race
The idea that sport was originally free of money and played only for love is a myth that was invented by the Victorian middle classes. Books like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ spread the gospel of Muscular Christianity across the British Empire, promoting the idea that sport was a moral force for good. This was how the idea of amateurism was invented, based on the belief that sport should be played without financial award.
But behind this lay naked class hatred. The first rules of the Amateur Athletic Club, the forerunner of the Amateur Athletic Association, explicitly stated that anyone who was ‘a mechanic, artisan or labourer’ could not be an amateur. In 1895 rugby split into two distinct sports – league and union – when rugby’s middle-class administrators refused to allow working-class players to be paid compensation when they had to take time off work to play. Until 1963, cricket even divided its players into middle-class amateur ‘Gentlemen’ and working-class professional ‘Players’.
As was made clear in militaristic poems like Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ - with its refrain ‘Play up and play the game’ – this was the ideology of the British Empire. Sport, proclaimed the Yorkshire Post, the organ of the northern English industrial bourgeoisie, had ‘done so much to make the Anglo-Saxon race the best soldiers, sailors and colonists in the world’.
In 1911 the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill banned ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells from boxing against Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion. Between 1907 and 1948 no black boxer could fight for a British boxing title, thanks to a ‘colour bar’ introduced in response to Johnson’s success and the perceived threat he posed to white racial superiority.
The ‘level playing field’ that sport was supposed to provide for everyone regardless of background was never level – and some could not even play on it.
Sex and Drugs
This was doubly true for women. The famous sporting motto ‘Mens sana in corpore sana’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) referred not to the creation of intellectual minds in healthy bodies, but of morally pure minds, free from effeminacy and the temptations of adolescent sexuality.
Modern sport was above all male, and founded on a strictly policed gender division. Women were discouraged and sometimes actively excluded from taking part in sport. In 1921 the Football Association officially banned women soccer players from using its football pitches. Even when women were allowed to take part, ideas about supposed female ‘weakness’ meant the Olympics barred them from events like the marathon until 1984.
It was the belief that successful women athletes were less than feminine that led to so-called ‘sex testing’ in the 1960s. The tremendous success of Soviet bloc women athletes led to Western paranoia that they were not ‘real women’ and in 1966 sex-testing was introduced in athletics. But this had no basis in science and was merely a more brutal way of enforcing traditional gender norms. Today, sport’s governing bodies assign themselves the right to define an athlete’s gender, an act as arrogant as it is reactionary.
It was also the Cold War that brought hysteria over drugs into sport. Drugs of varying forms had long been used in sport – even Frank Buckley’s Wolverhampton Wanderers were taking monkey gland extracts in the 1940s – but the rise of Soviet and East European athletes from the 1950s saw the West take the offensive and accuse the Soviets of ‘cheating’ by using drugs. As the ethical force of amateurism declined in sport in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral arguments previously used against professionalism were re-focused on medical stimulants.
Paranoia about drugs now replaced fear of professionalism as the raison d’être for tight control over athletes. Thanks to anti-drug legislation in sport, professional athletes today live in a totalitarian world where their every move is monitored and their civil liberties stripped away. And where sport goes, so too does government.
The Future of Sport
Nothing has gone ‘wrong’ with sport. For almost 300 years it has been an essential part of the capitalist leisure industry. There was never a golden age when it was pure; and the attempts to purify it by introducing amateurism led to the systematic exclusion and persecution of all those who fell outside its middle-class norms. Today it is a plaything of the rich and an instrument of control – just as it has always been.
Yet it remains a uniquely compelling form of entertainment. It is unscripted melodrama that allows the participant and the spectator to experience great emotional peaks that are rare in everyday life. It offers opportunities for physical artistry and collective endeavour that can sometimes touch the essence of what it means to be human.