American Exceptionalism on a Sunday Afternoon

American Exceptionalism on a Sunday Afternoon June 11, 2014

Robert Ellis is not a Marxist. But he finds “food for thought” in some Marxist critiques of the sport-industrial-imperial complex (Games People Play, 44-5). Sports reflects society, he observes, and some have pointed out the way American football is a mirror of the “clock-factory workforce.” Marxist’s push the point further:

He cites Peter Donnelly’s analysis: “Sport socialised individuals into work discipline, hyper-competitiveness and assertive individualism. In other words sport not only reflected capitalist society, but also helped to reproduce it, to reproduce dominant social and cultural relations in society as a whole.” And he cites Jean-Marie Brohm’s observation that in the early professionalization of sports in the late nineteenth century “Sport was directly linked to the interests of imperialist capital” and in fact provided cover for “imperialist international organisations.” More generally, Brohm claims that the function of sports is to “justify the established order,” a function especially evident in totalitarian countries where, in Ellis’s words, “sport becomes part of the mechanism of oppression.” But the same is evident in capitalist sport that “treats the athlete’s body as a machine, as if it were a factory component.”

Capitalist sports takes a particular form in the US. Ellis spends a section of a chapter probing what makes American sports American. One obvious factor is that Americans specialize in sports that, until recently, virtually no one else plays – baseball, basketball, American football. This is partly a question of timing. If American had been the global superpower in the late 19th century that Britain was, baseball and basketball might well be as globalized as soccer. 

Ellis convincingly argues, though that there’s more to it. American sports are exceptional because they reinforce in a particularly powerful way the dominant ethos of America. Sports, in short, function like a civil religion: “American elites sport is very self-consciously American, both in terms of its origin and its relatively self-enclosed playing context, and only in America are domestic fixtures always prefaced by the national anthem and accompanies by a national flag. . . . America might be said to be, if not an absolute exception, an extreme example of the entanglement of nationalism, identity, religion, and sport” (107). Just think of the display of military power (jets flying overhead), national devotion (national anthem) and sports that one sees every January at the Super Bowl, that highest of the high holy days of the American civil-sport-religion.

(More on Ellis still to come.)

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