Commercial corruption of ‘sport’: Andy Murray, for example

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.]]

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11 Comments.

  1. Was it ever (or “ever” within the last few hundred years) any different?

    I recall sports in my childhood, that is, 55 years ago. The pressure to win in team sports was horrid and always reinforced by coaches and teachers, whose desire to win, win, win was more intense than that of the most competitive children, who were relentless competitive themselves.

    Way back then there was, I admit, a discourse for the spectators about sportsmanship and playing fair and “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”, but that was only a hypocritical window dressing for the pressure to win at any cost.

    These days there is less hypocrisy about sports and maybe that is positive.

  2. The “body feels like a machine” thing is interesting, because that’s *exactly* the state I’m aiming to achieve by training 12+ hours a week for the purpose of running from a to b as quickly as possible.

    There’s nothing joyful about the process at all, and racing, even at my modest speeds, is just plain unpleasant.

    But there’s something… curiously addictive & thrilling in the whole mastery over one’s body thing.

  3. Methinks you do protest too much. Way too much. Murray is a professional sportsman; of course he wants to win. Do you condemn anyone who wants to excel in their chosen field? Moreover, every sportsman is there to compete, even if it’s only the total rabbit (like me in my running days) who just wants to do a bit better next Saturday than last. The bit about being a bad influence on your students is a total non-sequitur. Murray hasn’t ‘got there’, he’s still working towards it, and bloody hard. And when/if he does get to the top of his sport, he’ll work just as hard to stay there for as long as he’s physically capable. I don’t deny that there’s much that sucks about much sport today, but don’t knock for the sake of it. Oh, and by the way, I detest Tennis.

  4. As a very keen ex tennis player and follower of the game (no, nowhere near world class as a player), and a Philosophy graduate, I find the points raised here of some interest. Initially I think Rupert Read is open to an ad Hominem albeit a fallacious argument. Andy Murray is ranked 4th in the world at tennis. I doubt Dr Read’s philosophical output to date, would entitle him to be held in such high regard.
    Murray is not the only player to enjoy only winning. Andre Agassi and his wife Steffi Graf have also made similar claims. Sport is now regarded as a profession, and as in any profession, the better you are at it, the harder you work, the more you earn. The old adage that it is the taking part which matters not the winning is now defunct so far as professionalism is concerned. It may however still hold in say, friendly club tennis and the like.
    Are we to regard Leaders of industry, High Court Judges, Doctors held in great esteem for their hard won expertise etc, as obscenely overpaid workmen? All of these professionals are surely well paid, pleased when they succeed and displeased when they fail, as is Murray. A philosopher can continue his/her occupation well into old age and still produce remarkable output. Not so the case of the tennis professional who is finished in his early 30s and must look for something else to occupy him/her. I am sure that outside of tennis Murray is a nice person. He neither drinks nor smokes is fond of animals and has a long term girl friend who is a remarkable artist. He is also involved in Charity work. Could he not be a role model, an example to young people, as to how dedication and sheer grinding hard work and the ability to get up when one has been knocked down, all enable one to succeed.
    I watched Murray play recently when he was suddenly seized with crippling back pain. At one time he could hardly serve or walk upright. As a fellow back sufferer I know how he felt and I would have called it a day, He however with the aid of on the spot physio, and medication, soldiered on, and eventually won the match. Surely that sort of spirit and determination is to be admired.
    The game of tennis as played by professionals has aesthetic appeal The perfect stroke production, lightening reactions, the flight of the ball, the ability to execute with grace and success, movements which few others can do. All this makes it a spectacle worth watching and millions pay to watch it. If you appreciate ballet you will probably see what I am trying to say.
    Returning to the matter of not liking one’s job. My working life was spent doing a job I did not much like. That said I worked hard and sincerely and by the time I left was financially sufficiently secure to make deeper and more serious inroads into what really interested me, Science and Philosophy. My advice to anybody not liking their job is either get on with it and stop moaning or find something better if you can. The comparison with pop stars here is in my opinion ludicrous. If harm is done to the young it is from this quarter and such loathsome TV programmes as “Eastenders” certainly not tennis. You say the occasional student just wants the grade and not the wisdom. With respect I do not think you can make a robust case merely based on the “occasional” Student.
    I hasten to add that I can see the point being made here that there is a bandwagon of grotesque inequality of our society and much deeper societal ills. However I ask Dr Read were he suddenly to find that every paper he had published in a learned journal and every book he wrote brought huge financial rewards would he resign his position as a well know philosopher and political activist and retire into obscurity I think not. To denounce his ‘Discipline’ as vampirical, as an absurd caricature of the noble enterprise it once might have been, and quit. That is what he is asking the likes of Murray to do. This request seems to have hastily assembled, or made by one who has deep internal troubling issues and or, is somewhat out of touch with what is and is not possible in this life. Most worrying, it has to my mind, a odour of hate embedded in it. We all have only one life to lead and we should make the best of it. Helping those less fortunate is an option, and if taken up is to be greatly applauded.
    I have Iain McGilchrist’s book to hand but have yet to read it. I shall now turn to it in due course, with renewed interest.

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  6. “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.” So what? Are we now getting to a state where, not only do we have to behave in certain PC ways, and say certain PC approved things, we can only have PC approved reasons for doing so?

    “In another, earlier, interview Murray also claimed, ‘My body feels like a machine.’” As Jeremy suggests, I think Rupert may have misinterpreted this remark. At the moment I am remarkably unfit but when I have been at the peak of fitness (for me) that is exactly how I have felt. I might have run for an hour but I was functioning so smoothly and so well — “machine-like” — that it was almost like sitting on a motor bike and gliding along.

  7. I see Rupert that you are using that naughty word ‘ought’ again. pronouncing moral judgements from your lofty moral high ground.

  8. Thanks Keith. I appreciate it could sound like that with the quote taken in isolation. if you had seen the whole interview, though, i dont think you would have heard it that way. It was far more McGilchrist/Merleau-Ponty (or indeed ‘cartesian’) territory: he seemed to me to be saying that he felt his body as machine-like AS OPPOSED TO biological AT ALL, and that it wasn’t him so much as a machine he was in.

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    Since I’d seen them as a child, I’ve been a Mets fan. And, I love ice hockey. But, like most American fanatics, the games are better appreciated and more fun in the minor leagues. Unions are important for industry and in the third world, baseball and hockey could have both waited.

    I long for the days when the ball was juiced and not the player. Free agency helped to eliminate biased ball but has been the most important part of the politics since Casey Stengel managed. It’s the game of the unfit, the vagabond, the other, the loser, and the child (Ken Burns may say more). In America, ball made “legends” not debt when chewing tobacco and maybe greenies were the closest thing to steroids in the world. Both sports were bad for the teeth, and the ghosts of the past tainted relations with minorities and among its bosses. The changes are inspired by a new fairness doctrine, now. It’s as American as Hollywood (also a social liability.) I hope the fates and fans are not disappointed in the future. I’m starting to regard the minors, Canada, and Bollywood more as the years.

    The sport of baseball was new, and exciting as the contemporary olympic games were at about the same time. Not that the culture only change. I think sports are more competitive and less fun; less dramatic; more estranged from humanity and (if it has them) values. One athlete was suspended for using a penis enlargement pill… I won’t mention his name (baseball had Pee-wee Reese, after all). Anyway the above link is from my home town, Newark, Delaware. Either way, the point is to return to an unsatisfying playground from the choreography now seen.

  11. Rupert, while I sympathise with much of what you say about the commercialisation/capitalisation of sport – the obscene amount of money involved in tennis, football etc is just that, obscene – I do have to take issue with your characterisation of Murray as a ‘victim’ and of the lessons that your students draw from what he or their other sporting heroes may do – i.e. it’s only about the grade. This is not the lesson at all. Murray would be the first to deny the idea of victimhood. He does what he does because he has chosen to (as a viewing of the recent BBC documentary about him makes absolutely clear). More importantly, he is not doing it simply to win prizes – it is about being the best that he can be at what he does, and about the utter dedication he shows to achieving this. Dedication to what we do – whether hitting a tennis ball or developing our minds at university – is surely a great thing. That such dedication becomes commodified is the real problem.

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