As our climate-damaged sport-saturated ‘summer’ continues, it’s worth taking a moment perhaps to reflect on the concept of ‘sport’, and what it means today.
Take recent Wimbledon tennis finalist Andy Murray, for instance. Murray said on Radio 4 in the run-up to that final that he only enjoys winning, not playing / taking part – he regards tennis purely as a job. If so, he is a tennis player for the age of faceless soulless capitalism: an obscenely-over-rewarded workman.
Of course, perhaps he is just providing some much-needed honesty about the true grind, pressure and hard work that lies beneath the surface mythology of tennis’s beauty, art, and passion that sports commentators like to celebrate. Tennis, after all, is a fundamentally competitive game and professional players have to want to win: to do this requires commitment, hard slog and training as a full-time job.
Perhaps so. And I admire Murray’s honesty, at least, in his remarks on Radio 4. But his lack of social inhibition about what that honesty reveals makes his attitude if anything all the more scary. He thinks that there is nothing wrong with being a joyless winning-is-ALL-that-matters professional. Such attitudes ought to be an object of societal scorn, they ought to be cast away with derision. Instead, they are increasingly ruling us. This is rather terrifying and depressing. Tennis ceases to be a sport any more, in any meaningful sense whatsoever: it becomes merely a job.
And this is a job which is part of a wider, exploitative picture: the obscene pay of such top celebrity sportspeople contributes to the grotesque inequality of our society. The rewards they get buy our time on the cheap.
But most of all, it exploits the young minds who are corrupted by the relentless love of money, victory and nothing else. The case of pop stars is similar – their earnings (the top ones) are absurd and obscene, too. But there is one difference that makes their situation very slightly less objectionable: They don’t get paid for winning a ‘sport’.
In another, earlier, interview Murray also claimed, ‘My body feels like a machine.’ These words will be of interest to a philosopher like Merleau-Ponty, or Zygmunt Bauman. They are a confession of a way of living the body and of experiencing oneself as an industrial object, and a commodity, which is critiqued beautifully also by a philosophical neurologist like Iain McGilchrist (see my piece at http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398 ). They reveal the ethos of an activity that goes beyond inspiring youngsters to work hard to achieve high aspirations. Rather it fills youngsters with the idea that it is OK and admirable to be alienated from your own body; that winning is all that matters; that joy is unimportant.
To avoid misunderstanding: I am taking Murray here as an example of wider-spread attitudes and problems. I might have equally taken the Williams sisters, or Tiger Woods, or for that matter many of China’s atheletes. To avoid a more important misunderstanding: I am not attacking Murray or any of these other individuals as individuals. There is much to be said for the view that these sportspeople are victims of their families, trainers and fans, and symptoms of much deeper societal ills.
But to step out of the victim role requires action, not ongoing connivance and collaboration. If sportspeople have a miserable time and feel joyless then they should quit and do a different job, just like people in the real world… but then in the real world people are rarely aiming to win millions at a time or getting paid just to wear a branded shirt.
If Andy Murray and his ilk really want our sympathy, then then could get it easily, and create history: by denouncing their ‘sports’ as vampirical, as absurd caricatures of the noble enterprises they once might have been, and quitting.
…Finally; why am I so bothered by all this? Well, possibly because the likes of Murray are a bad influence on my students, too. And by that I mean I know the occasional student who goes to uni and just wants the grade. ” There’s my grade. That’s me sorted. I’ve passed the test, I’ve won the competition; what else matters?” In such a scenario: obviously not the love of wisdom…
[[Thanks to Ruth Makoff, Tom Greaves, Denise Smith, Lee Hyde, and Tim Jones, for thoughts that contributed to this piece.]]