Sports Politics Of The Year
Wednesday, 28 February 2024 20:36

Sports Politics Of The Year

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman reworks the BBC's 'Sports Personality Of The Year' programme into ' Sports Politics Of The Year', and joins up those controversial dots between sport and politics

Nowadays, there's not a lot I agree with Julie Burchill about. Her and her partner Tony Parsons' decline and fall from 1970s verbal punk vitriol  to 21C reactionary bugbears is deservedly notorious. However when Julie in her customary barbed style declared 'Sport. Personality. Now there's an interesting idea' - well, I had to laugh, and agree with her.

Wednesday night's  primetime slot for the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year is, and always has been, a platform for celebritising sport. For entrenching the entirely false division between sport and the social, cultural, and political worlds that frame it. For denying the existence of a sporting economy run on capitalist principles that is a key factor in success and failure. For ignoring how all sports are socially constructed. Perhaps it isn't the job of Gary Lineker and Clare Balding to tackle any of this during the show, but the enduring resistance to doing so by too much of the sports establishment and media deprives sport of meaning, of its context. As CLR James in his 1963 book Beyond a Boundary famously put it:

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

This insight was further developed by Garry Whannel, whose 1983 book Blowing the Whistle: The Politics of Sport sought to establish a socio-cultural understanding  of the games we watch and play and avoid narrowing it down to something you just did:

Sport is marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity. You don’t need to talk or write about it. You just do it.

It was Garry's book that started me thinking about the sport I just 'did', which at the time was road running, and within a year I'd had my first piece published in Marxism Today on the London Marathon as a participatory spectacle. 

So almost 60 years on from Beyond a Boundary, almost 40 years on from Blowing The Whistle, let's rearrange S-P-O-T-Y to spell 'Sports Politics Of The Year' and think about what 2022 might look like through such a lens.

To start off with, theWorld Cup for men's football, in Qatar. A groundbreaking recognition that 'sport isn't political' is oxymoronic? No, not quite. The approach of the Guardian, liberal opinion and the wider sports media more widely, was frankly embarrassing. The Guardian declared this was 'a World Cup like no other', which was an entirely ahistorical approach. It ignored the host of the 1934 tournament - one Benito Mussolini - the brutal Argentinian dictatorship hosting 1978, Vladimir Putin's Russia hosting 2018 only 4 years after his invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region - and that's just for starters.  

Once the games kicked off, the Guardian's grandly titled coverage 'Qatar: Beyond the Football' became a mere footnote to the match reports, as it was always destined to be. Meanwhile the England team's protest amounted to wearing an armband, until it was decided in the face of FIFA opposition that even this was too much.

Fans before Brazil Portugal match at World Cup 2010 06 25 5 resized

Fans before the Brazil vs Portugal match. Wiki commons image by Marcello Casal Jr.

Far more significant than any of these damp squibs was the widespread popularisation of the Palestine flag and cause by fans and players, in particular Morocco's - and on this, the biggest global sporting stage of all. Perhaps now European FAs, commentators, pundits and football journalists might question why the Israeli team competed in the European World Cup and Euro's qualifying groups and their clubs compete in UEFA European competitions, but Palestine compete in the Asian confederation contests because Israel was expelled, due to their militarised mistreatment of Palestinians. Will the aforementioned ever mention this salient fact? Let's not hold our breath.  

And then the Cup Final. England's rivalry with Argentina, on and off the pitch, is every bit as bitter as ours with Germany. Rivalries constructed by playing each other in crucial and incident-strewn World Cup games: England v Argentina World Cup '66 Quarter Final, Argentina captain Rattin sent off; World Cup '86 Quarter Final England v Argentina, the infamous 'Hand of God' Maradona goal; World Cup '98  last sixteen game, England v Argentina, David Beckham sent off; World Cup '02 group stage, Beckham's redemption, his penalty securing England's victory. But of course, just like Germany, the rivalry is about something else too, the Falklands/ Malvinas. In the immediate aftermath of that war 40 years ago Eric Hobsbawm rather neatly summed up the mood at the time:

Everybody's looking down on us and if anything pitying us, we can't even beat the Argentinians or anyone else at football anymore.

Of course Eric wasn't approving of such attitudes, but he was realistic enough to recognise how widespread they were - arguably even more so four decades on. So how to explain the widespread recognition that last Sunday's World Cup Final was the best ever,  and Lionel Messi entirely deserving of the accolade 'Greatest of all time'? Because football represents easily the most popular version of both nationalism and internationalism.

All sports are socially constructed

How does the Women's Euros fit in? Well, England won it beating Germany to boot! There's nothing that boosts sport in England like domestic success, in two ways. 

First, it's a very different way for fans to parade our Englishness, free of toxic masculinity. As someone who has followed England to 4 World Cups I'd argue that this 'soft Englishness' has always existed and been majoritarian in England fan culture but when a coked-up lad stuffs a flaming flare up his arse the afternoon England men are in a Euros final, the framing by the media makes it appear we're all like that. The absence of such enabled England women's fans to establish a different framing, but a gut patriotism lacking such softening still exists and won't be entirely reversed by England women winning the Euros alone. This is a version of Englishness embedded in a martial and imperial tradition mixed with 'fuck-you' anti-social behaviour, which 'toxic masculinity' alone isn't enough to account for. 

Second, the impact on women's participation in playing football. Attendance levels for England women, the October game versus USA at Wembley sold out, the April game versus Brazil will likely do the same. The top women's clubs - Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal - can fill Stamford Bridge, the Etihad, the Emirates, and Old Trafford with tens of thousands of fans. Good, but this is spectating, not sport, and the key to a healthier society is doing sport not just watching it. Elite success boosts the latter but has next to no lasting effect on the former. Transforming school sport to enable all girls (and boys) to play football from the earliest possible age is essential, with crucially such opportunities to be vastly expanded for post-school years. But don't bet your house on any of this happening on the scale required.  

Across October to December uniquely England were competing in 4 World Cups. Men's football World Cup - England exited at the Quarter Final stage, so statistically top 8 is our ranking in this tournament. The men's rugby league - semi-final, exit. The England women's rugby team came oh so close to lifting their World Cup trophy but ended up losing finalists. Only the men's T20 triumphed to be crowned World Cup winners.

Those of us who share the Jamesian philosophy, however, would ask that apart from football, are any of the others truly World Cups? Sure they have the title, but the contenders are restricted to ex-British Empire states with assorted hangers-on doing not much more than making up the numbers for the group stages.

Two factors account for this. One, football was spread worldwide by trade, unlike cricket and rugby by empire. Two, football requires next to no facilities, simple rules, all body shapes can excel, and there's a global path to a professional career. In other words, all sports are socially constructed. 

Sport and politics are indivisible

Ireland's test series triumph over the All Blacks absolutely deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest team sport achievements of all time, never mind 2022. But Irish rugby is a bit of a curiosity. Unlike in football and the Olympics, there's a united Ireland team. The all-Ireland Irish Rugby Football Union predates 1916 and despite partition was never dissolved. This most English, and certainly not Gaelic of sports with its heartland clubs Leinster and Munster were never cast out, nor those that stick with the Union, Ulster another rugby heartland club, and in every other regard rejecting any notion of a united Ireland. And just like the football with Jack Charlton, the team's greatest success came under an English manager, Andy Farrell. We shouldn't overstate the significance of a team that unites both sides, given the centrality of republicanism vs. unionism to politics north of the border and a resurgent Sinn Fein south of the border, but we shouldn't ignore this most unexpected symbol of what a united Ireland could look like.  

So there we have it, a first stab at an alternative SPOTY. Not to ruin our enjoyment of sport, either watching or doing, but to enjoy, enrich and empower us. I'm sure Messi and Mbappé, Beth Mead, Ben Stokes, and Andy Farrell will enjoy the 'other' SPOTY night out and if they win them, their gongs are entirely deserved. But both sport and politics are all the poorer when they are treated as anything but indivisible from each other.  

World Cup Winners s s 2022 1.600

Philosophy Football's 'alternative SPOTY' T-shirt selection is available here.

What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?
Wednesday, 28 February 2024 20:36

What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?

Published in Sport

 Mark Perryman criticises the exclusive way some sports are managed, and suggests some progressive policies to bring out all the benefits of sport – for the many, not the few.

Cricket’s version of the ‘years of hurt’ – 44 in this case – came to a spectacular end early last Sunday evening. Thrilling, eventful, and glorious – no wonder the front pages the following morning were full of it. The sub-editor who came up with the headline ‘Champagne Super Over’ is surely in line for a hefty bonus.

For a certain version of a miserabilist leftism, all this amounts to is a concocted, nationalistic, distraction from more important matters at hand. For others, it’s hip-hip-hooray! The world has changed at the flick of a super over and superior number of wickets taken! The nation will take up bat and ball! Obesity crisis, what crisis! The truth lies somewhere in between, or as CLR James famously put it ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’

The hoo-hah over the tournament’s TV broadcasting rights sold off to the highest bidder, a Sky TV subscription channel, illustrates this perfectly. The England and Scotland women’s World Cup campaigns attracted record-breaking viewing figures, with over 12 million for England’s semi-final. But until the final was after much pressure shared with Channel 4, the cricket World Cup scraped by on a few hundred thousand viewers.

The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Ever since the birth of satellite TV, hyped-up claims have been made about the virtue of its ‘generous purchase’ of TV rights. Yet in every single case numbers following the sport on TV have plummeted, popular interest has been squandered, and participation levels have declined.

It’s been a disaster. Why on earth would any host nation allow the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a domestic World Cup to be be squandered in this way? Yet this summer we have had not one but two examples, in cricket and netball.

MP 2

Netball in particular has wasted the biggest chance it has ever had to grow the sport. Most women in this country have played the game during their schooldays, but the overwhelming majority promptly gave it up when they left school, never to return to the court. There’s been a modest reversal of this depressing trend following England’s gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, but nothing like the kind of platform a World Cup offers.

These sports’ governing bodies, and there are plenty of other examples, clearly cannot be trusted with the wider interests they are charged with. Of course most are hard-pressed for funds, but when participation is sacrificed for the short-term injection of cash, and to boost profits of privately-owned media companies, then something is clearly amiss. Some – though not enough – of the broadcasting rights to sporting events are regulated. They are not available to the satellite channels, and have to be broadcast on terrestrial TV. As a first step, an incoming Labour government should significantly extend that list, to include any domestic World Cup or World Championship for starters, and the Ashes too.

Nanny state? No! It’s standing up for the nation’s sporting interests. Those interests are centred on two roles sport performs like no other cultural activity – encouraging participation and framing a common-sense nationhood.

Sport is socially constructed

On the same weekend as that epic cricket World Cup final, terrestrial TV also treated us to the Wimbledon finals and the British Grand Prix. Both attracted huge audiences, yet neither will lead to many viewers taking up driving round Silverstone as a hobby, or picking up a tennis racquet for the first time.

That is because participation isn’t just about what we can watch on TV from the comfort of our own sofa, it is about providing the means to get us off that sofa too. Sport is socially constructed. A local go-kart track for the child inspired by Lewis Hamilton’s 100mph derring-do might do for starters, but the numbers who can afford to enter this hugely expensive sport at a competitive level are minuscule.

And tennis? The annual platform Wimbledon provides tennis frames it as an intensely upper middle-class pursuit, from the Royal Box guest list to strawberries and cream followed by a glass of Pimms. A revolutionary reinvention of tennis would reframe it as an urban, inner-city sport. A network of concrete tennis courts would not only be vandal-proof, they would require virtually zero maintenance. Add on an army of local authority coaches providing the much-needed structure to encourage those who pick up racquet and ball, and the whole sport could become about mass participation

It could become a sport for the many, not the few – ring any bells? And the few who made it up the ranks to play at Wimbledon would be a pleasant surprise and a welcome side effect, not the sum of our ambition. Having regulated the broadcasting rights, an incoming Labour Government should run an audit of every sport’s governing body’s finances. Those that failed to meet tougher objectives around mass participation would be deprived of the generous state support they receive, from taxpayers and Lottery players. Totalitarian? Not at all, it’s just common sense – these sports have lost the right to be trusted with the organisation and management of cultural activities which are so important to people’s health, happiness and well-being.  

Participation in physical activity is key to the nation’s health. But sport can deliver even more than that. A World Cup, in any sport, reaches the parts of a sporting nation like nothing else. When Liverpool won the Champions’ League the blue half of Merseyside looked away with studied indifference, while they were hardly dancing in the streets of Manchester, North London and elsewhere either.

A World Cup win is of a different scale. The casual observer is mobilised to become hardened fan for a month at least. In Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant phrase ‘An imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’

But of course that ‘imagined community’ is hugely contested, never more so than in this era of the Brexit impasse. Jacob Rees-Mogg clearly hadn’t spent very long on the playing fields of Eton if he could in all seriousness tweet after England’s World Cup victory, ‘We clearly don't need Europe to win.’

MP3

Yet this was an England team with an Irish-born captain, an opening batsman born in South Africa, a man of the match born in New Zealand, and wicket-takers born in Barbados and the grandson of a Pakistani immigrant. It was diverse, multicultural, and all the better for it. Of course this isn’t enough to roll back a resurgent popular racism – but it’s a start, an unrivalled platform for a very different imagined nation to the one of Rees-Mogg’s elitist and xenophobic imagination. Nothing reveals faux-populism like a politician’s ignorance of sport.

What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows? Not enough! The failure to understand the social impact and construction of sport leaves the political left incapable of contributing to the kind of national conversation that Sunday’s World Cup win has ignited.

Fortunately, what CLR James also taught us is that sport matters for its own sake too. For many millions of people, sport is not a distraction from the real world, but an invaluable and central part of that world. Let’s join them, savouring without apologies the victories of England and Wales – and along the way, hopefully learning lessons for the next Labour government’s more progressive policies around the ownership, control and regulation of sport.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. Their World Champions T-shirt, celebrating the diverse and multicultural England team is available here. Illustration is by Hugh Tisdale/Philosophy Football.

Wednesday, 28 February 2024 20:36

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......

Published in Sport

Stuart Cartland responds to Mark Perryman's article with a more cautious assessment of the potential for extracting progressive cultural meanings from the success of the England team.

As much as I want to believe in the positive force of seeing a strong and unified young multicultural English team do well at the Word Cup, as a symbolic metaphor for a modern, inclusive and progressive nation, I can’t help but dread how any English success only serves to embolden a sense of Englishness of the conservative right.

The metaphor of England beating other nations (and all nations that England play have some sort of symbolic ‘other’ about them) only serves to embolden a sense of English doggedness, separateness and fleeting superiority. In the current times of post-Brexit anxiety and continual economic and political crisis, the England team is used to represent a fantasy of England fighting against the odds and determining their own future.

Take a stroll into your nearest newsagents and see how the ever-reliable tabloids lap up these metaphors with gleeful jingoism. Time and again the tired old cliches and fetishes of war, empire and isolationism are dusted off when the England team play in major football tournaments. It’s as inevitable as a rail replacement bus, a hosepipe ban or the Germans doing well…Ooooh errrrrr.

Maybe, just maybe this time it will be different though – a faint hope I always have in times such as these. Never before has the England team represented such a youthful and multicultural image of England, a beacon of inclusivity, modernity and a last bastion of meritocracy in a society corrupt with nepotism and inequality.

However such obvious and strong metaphors, are quickly over-looked for the more familiar tub-thumping we are all familiar with and can expect or rather, have already witnessed. Regardless of who is playing for England, what dominates is the nationalistic default attachment of England’s glory to the good-old-days, a blitz spirit, bulldog spirit and how England needs only itself to determine its own future irrespective of the outcome – sound familiar?

How though can Labour or the left in general disrupt the dominant conservative narrative around cultural identity? Watching the now viral clip of Danny Dyer speaking about Brexit last week on the new Piers Morgan fronted TV show with fellow guest Jeremy Corbyn looking on, I couldn’t help but feel how his simple yet perfectly worded rant made Jeremy Corbyn look out of touch with a general mood, in that it’s left to someone like Danny Dyer to articulate genuine frustrations that politicians can’t or are unable to – and when they do attempt to it, it often looks contrived or off the mark.

In a similar way, if Corbyn and Labour tried to focus upon sport as a means to articulate a political or cultural struggle it is in very clear danger of ending up like the example that Mark Perryman gave of New Labour from 1996. Political manoeuvring around national teams often ends up looking like cheap and contrived bandwagon-jumping. In a wider sense ‘Cool Britannia’ and New Labour’s very purposeful rebranding of Britishness in the late 90’s also only served to solidify concepts of Englishness as the preserve of the conservative right. People are very wary of politicians trying to purposefully exploit sporting events, however sporting events are often used to manifest ideological sentiment – just think of Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. This is a good example of very clear inclusive and egalitarian sentiment expressed through a sporting occasion – but is a very rare and relatively successful example from the left.

The crux of the issue is that it is assumed and taken for granted that England (and it is particularly England for many reasons) doing well at sport (particularly football) is automatically linked to and co-opted by a particular and paradoxical type of nationalism. It’s a sort of default preserve of the right, a struggle that inclusive and radical concepts of national identity have always struggled with and against. This is clearly a deeper issue within our society, identity and dominant national narratives however, one that is constructed and can change. There is nothing natural about nationalism being inherently conservative or right wing,

How football is consumed and engaged with today has massively changed, it is the global game. Anyone watching the vibrant and good-natured mix of fans in Russia (yes, the place where we were warned not to go due to threats of extreme xenophobic violence) couldn’t help but be struck by the cosmopolitan feel of it all.

But even this international utopia of good will and the very clearly overwhelmingly working class and multicultural make-up of the England team is lost within the hubbub of England doing well (so far) at a major football tournament. Who the England team are what they can represent does have the potential to be a most powerful metaphor for the nation and a new sense of identity within a time of crisis and anxiety, but much like the potential of the team itself it never seems to be realised.