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