The respected footballer activist Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, simply known as Sócrates, is reputed to have once said: “I am not a footballer, I am a human being.” With these words, but more importantly the political stances he took and practical actions he got involved in, Sócrates defied the growing image during his playing days of the professional footballer as a pliable instrument in the accumulationist field of sports marketing.
Traceable to the late 1870s when the tobacco industry began to invest in baseball, through to the 1930s when television broadcasting produced the first millionaire sportspersons, sports marketing has all but corrupted what began millennia ago as forms of relaxation especially for the underclasses – sport.
While earning the respect of many, the insistence by Sócrates to be treated as a human being were bound to fall on deaf ears. The confluence of media corporations, especially television, sponsors and advertisers, and greedy administrators, all marshalled by sports marketing companies and agents, has led to the replacement of relaxation and social cohesion, which is what sport was all about, with the dominance of financial interests.
It is against this background that Naomi Osaka’s conflict with the moguls at the French Open after she refused to participate in press conferences has to be understood. Stating her reasons as the punishing nature of the press conferences and how they can destroy players, Osaka revealed that she had been going through depression, before withdrawing from the tournament. Of course, not before she was fined $15 000, surely as an attempt to coerce her to continue enduring the spectacle.
It may be pleasing that many expressed support for her brave stance. Surely, support from Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic meant a lot to the young player, and sent a message to the tennis moguls that they should treat players as human beings first before anything else. But this will not stop the rot in professional sport in general whose roots have gone too deep.
Modern sport is but a revival of ancient barbarism that has seen elites exploiting and corrupting human physical abilities. In a 2018 article Anna McCullough quotes Oscar Robertson, a former student-athlete and first president of the NBA Players Association comparing modern sportspersons to gladiators: “Student-athletes are treated like gladiators—revered by fans and coveted by [NCAA] member institutions for their ability to produce revenue, but ultimately viewed as disposable commodities. They are given no ability to negotiate the contents of their scholarships, often punished severely for even the smallest NCAA violations, and discarded in the event they suffer major injuries.”
Professional sportspersons are indeed treated as gladiators whose sole role has been reduced to entertaining the cheering crowds, all to the total disregard of the sportspersons’ self-actualisation and wellbeing.
Like gladiators, whose primary role was to entertain the ruthless emperor and his royal cohorts, with the cheering crowds serving only as sound effect and visual props, modern sportspersons are indirectly in the employ of sports marketing companies who make billions of dollars from bringing together the administrators, sponsors and advertisers, and broadcasters, each of these making further billions of dollars out of the sweat of other human beings.
Osaka may not have the same level of political awareness that Sócrates had. However, her actions exposed the ruthlessness and greed of the interests that control sport. And for that, her stance should be commended.
Sponsors and advertisers pour billions of dollars into the multiple platforms at the games so that their brands may be showcased before, during, and after the matches. These range from naming rights, mentions in the corporate media, and airtime on television stations in the form of touchline billboards, and media walls and bottles of beverages which are compulsory visual features at all the press conferences. For these companies, press conferences serve as major marketing platforms to reach billions of audiences (read customers) across the world.
For the anchor broadcasters, press conferences serve as sources of billions of dollars in revenue generated through subscriptions and advertisements, as well as from the resale of re-broadcasting rights to other broadcasters. In turn, the latter broadcasters also rake in further billions of dollars from local advertisers who understand the value of prime-time television during major matches and following press conferences.
In all these, it is the interests of capital that is primary, and not those of the sportspersons and fans. The recent attempt to create the European Super League was a clear example of the decadent state of sports marketing. With little regard for their loyal fans, who would not afford distant travel where the clubs would play and could be deprived of regular local fixtures, the only interests for the clubs that sought to form the ill-fated league was to increase their earnings, on the basis of their ‘selling power’.
Perhaps the most desperate, reckless, and decadent element of modern day sport is displayed by the insistence of the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics that the games will proceed despite the fact that 80 percent of Japanese people are opposed to their hosting under the current Covid-19 conditions. The sole interest for those at the helm is to secure the billions of dollars that are at stake from broadcasters, sponsors, and advertisers.
Least on the concerns for the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics is the health of the human beings who will be participating as athletes during the games, and the fact that the whole of humanity across the world may suffer worse as the games may prove to be a global super-spreader event; let alone the impact on the Japanese people themselves.
Save for the activism by fans who stopped the creation of the European Super League, the elite interests that control professional sport continue to do as they wish due to various reasons.
Central to all this is the hegemony of capital and its corrupting nature over almost all sporting activities. Relatedly, the ingrained individualism that results from the capitalist ethos, where sportspersons see themselves as brands, and not as human beings as Sócrates would have wished. Like gladiators, they are made to continue to compete and render a spectacle with little regard to their physical and mental wellbeing. The result of all these is that sports is now a new opiate.
Those who should fight alongside conscientious sportspersons like Osaka, and could invoke the activism of Sócrates, the fans themselves, seem to have resigned themselves to the decay that has set into sport. Unfortunately, activist groups also seem to have long abandoned sport as an arena of struggle. Thus, like Sócrates when he left Brazil in protest to ply his on-field skills in Italy but returned to an unchanged home country, Osaka may have withdrawn from the French Open. She will however return like a gladiator to another Grand Slam tournament where the rules remain the same. Where players will be paraded in front of branded touchlines and media walls, for the elite crowds who cheer them on, not because they love them as human beings, but because they serve as a spectacle.
To change the decadent trajectory of professional sport the stance taken by Osaka and the support expressed by her fellow players and fans broadly should be used as a platform for a renewed activism against the hegemony of capital over human creativity and physical prowess. Ultimately, we should see other human beings, not just sportspersons.