2020 saw multiple professional sports leagues struggle as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In March, the NHL paused its 2019-2020 regular season while Major League Baseball cancelled spring training games. In June, the NBA then temporarily suspended its 2019-2020 season in order to “safeguard the health and well-being of NBA fans, players, team and arena personnel, media members and the general public.” The following month the NFL cancelled all 2020 preseason games. In November, Bloomberg reported that the NFL, NBA, and MLB were facing a combined $13 billion Ioss in revenue.
In the corporate media, this huge monetary loss will, of course, be mourned as part of the devastating economic fallout of the Covid pandemic. But the fact that something as trivial as spectator sports can become such a huge part of the economy and have so many lives and jobs tied to its fate is something that will be inevitably glossed over. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Covid outbreak, we should reflect on this reality and on whether the whole concept of professional sports is something worth keeping in the post-Covid era at all. Perhaps Cuba’s decision to abolish professional sports provides an example that other countries should follow.
In 1961, two years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro declared an end to professional sport on the island. But banning professional sport was not a move against sport. In fact, it was the opposite. Castro wanted to make sport not something that people simply watched as passive spectators, but something that people participated in themselves. Rather than existing as a spectacle, sport would be participatory and community based. A few years after the abolition of professional sport, Castro commented, ““Anybody who truly loves sport, and feels sport, has to prefer this sport to professional sport by a thousand times.”
On this basis, the government promoted access to participatory sport for all. As a result, sport has provided an important means of physical education and, in turn, helped to promote public health. People in the United States should take note. Whereas the US has the highest rate of obesity in the world, Cuba has much lower levels and even exceeds the US in life expectancy – despite being a much poorer country that has furthermore suffered for decades under a brutal economic blockade.
Professional sport, meanwhile, has arguably harmed public health and communities here in the US. People waste huge amounts of time and money on the mind-numbing spectacle that is modern spectator sports. On weekends across North America, millions crowd into stadiums to sit passively watching the “action” unfold while gorging on all manner of junk food. One can only image the sums that are made from by the companies that sell this along with the tickets, the merchandise, and the other vulgar accompaniments of pro sport “culture.” Meanwhile, these same corporations get a captive audience of millions, both in the stadiums and watching from home, to advertise the latest wares in their vast apparatus of unnecessary consumerist junk.
Tied to this is the equally destructive personality cults that surround sports stars. In 21st Century America, these overpaid manchilds have come to take on the stature of Greek demigods in their cultural and social cachet. And this casts an ominous cloud over how US society will evolve into the future. As Arnold Toynbee pointed out, societies often rise or fall based on the kinds of people that they revere. Societies that look up to better people as role models thrive, while those that look down to inferior role models decline.
Again, the comparison with Cuba is apt. Their sports stars are not professionals, but all amateur who represent Cuba at the Olympics and other international events on the world stage not for money but for pride in their country and its achievements. They have normal day jobs like any other Cuban and receive no special reward for their participation.
This comparison ties to another one of the negative aspects of the US’s obsession with pro sports – the brain drain that it has created in some of the country’s poorest and most deprived areas. As a result of the huge structural challenges faced by ethnic minorities in the US, many see a career as a professional athlete as one of the few ways out of the ghetto. Huge numbers of minority youth, therefore, focus much of their time and effort during their most formative years on sports in the hope of making it into the middle class, rather than on academic learning. This has a double impact. First it damages the chances of the vast majority who won’t make it as professional athletes (not to mention the psychological impact on huge numbers of youth who live to see their dreams disappointed). Second, and perhaps worse, it damages these communities politically, since a less educated population means a population less able to articulate its needs and, in turn, less likely to successfully organize politically to safeguard its interests.
But of all the negative factors of professional sports, however, the most damaging of them all must be the ugly tribalism it breeds. As Noam Chomsky puts it:
When I was in high school I asked myself at one point: “Why do I care if my high school’s team wins the football game? I don’t know anybody on the team, they have nothing to do with me… why am I here and applaud? It does not make any sense.” But the point is, it does make sense: It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements. In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports.
Chomsky adds that pro sports also function as a means of keeping the public distracted from things that are of real importance, like political organizing for progressive social change:
One of the functions that things like professional sports play, in our society and others, is to offer an area to deflect people’s attention from things that matter, so that the people in power can do what matters without public interference.
Pondering the answer to the following question can be a deeply depressing exercise: What would the US look like if all the people who spend their weekends at pro sports games instead spent that time on pushing for progressive social change and educating themselves politically? Perhaps as good an answer as any is that it would be more like Cuba – a society based on solidarity not one-upmanship, that is participatory not passive, and that creates better role models and better conceptions of what is really important in the lives we lead.