Opinionista Glen Heneck 28 June 2020

Of all the things I missed badly during lockdown, sport was the worst

In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx tagged religion as the ‘opiate of the masses’. Leaving aside the fairness or otherwise of that barb, were he alive today, he would have to redirect it at organised sport.

It may seem crass to talk about popular amusements when the world is facing unprecedented existential challenges. It just might be, though, that greater appreciation for such distractions is the key to a happier, fairer, more peaceful future. Human flourishing depends, after all, not so much on our institutions and economies as on our thoughts and expectations.

The worst part of the coronavirus lockdown, for me, was the sport. I missed seeing friends, I missed morning coffees, I even missed work — but what bothered me most of all was the months-long dearth of soccer, rugby, cricket and golf. It’s pathetic I know — I’m a decently educated grown-up with a job, a family and a conscience — but I assure you I’m not alone. To the contrary, I know that what I’m describing is true of a sizeable majority of South African men (and not a few women). Black and white; rich and poor; young and old.

Karl Marx tagged religion as the “opiate of the masses” in the mid-19th century. Leaving aside the fairness or otherwise of that barb, were he alive today, he would have to redirect it at organised sport. Literally billions of people now get their kicks, and much else besides, from following the fortunes of their favourite teams and players. It rankles with Marx’s latter-day disciples, but the bulk of the proletariat (and the bourgeoisie) care far more about Saturdays on the box than Sundays on the hustings. And while there are no doubt Liverpool fans who are committed to honouring the trinity, the greater majority are much more concerned about winning the treble.

Leaving aside the current reality though, consider the matter in the abstract, as an ideal. What’s not to like about the following?

  • A peaceful outlet for our competitive and aggressive urges. These used to find expression in wars, or fights, but now there’s mostly cheering and jeering (and drinking and the occasional dust-up).
  • A sense of belonging, and fraternity. You pick a team, or your dad or mate picks it for you, and you’re instantly part of a community. Pick well and you’ll have much to celebrate, for many years to come; pick not so well and you can learn humility and develop a sense of humour. Bearing in mind that it is actually open to you to change your allegiance, without being damned or ostracised.
  • The spectacle! I’m struggling to concentrate now because Barcelona are playing Bilbao and that means that Lionel Messi — the finest footballer ever — is doing his incomparable thing. Jinking, jumping, turning, teasing; it’s a mix of athleticism and magic that regularly takes the breath away. It’s like ballet, in a way, but with the massive added aspect of unpredictability and excitement.
  • Sport is one of the best ways for working-class youngsters to elevate themselves. The average annual income for a top league player in the UK is £3-million (that’s over R5-million a month, at today’s exchange rate) and the highest-earning sportsman in the world, Roger Federer, made $106-million in 2019. That’s an outrageous sum of money — pretty close to the biggest package paid to anyone, in any industry — but you don’t hear him being called out as cynical, greedy, manipulative, evil (insults routinely aimed at his fellow one-percenters). The staunch left is too ready to impute evil motives to captains of industry and too coy to say anything at all about titans of sport (and entertainment generally).
  • The upper reaches of many sporting codes are dominated by black people. Given the way partisanship works, and hero worship, it seems fair to deduce that the sports industry has done more to break down racist attitudes than any other.
  • Sporting contests are purely and unashamedly meritocratic; though subject to the rules, inevitably. And to strict segregation, fortunately. Within those parameters though, it’s the best who end up winning.

The single greatest highlight of 2019, for me, was standing in a bar watching Siya Kolisi lead South Africa, my main team, to World Cup glory. Here I’m wary of casually extrapolating — in this complicated, soccer-mad country of ours — but that’s really beside the point. What I’m getting at is that sport matters a great deal, to a great many people — and that the enjoyment of it is profoundly democratic.

Yes, when the game is finished, I get into my comfortable car and drive to my comfortable home, whereas many others have to make do with a taxi ride to far more modest accommodations. That doesn’t negate the point, though, that in the act of watching, all sport fans are equal. And that this reliable and considerable pleasure is accessible by virtually everyone, everywhere.

I have long been concerned by the fact that the left — another of my teams — is so utterly preoccupied by money and the way it’s maldistributed. Not because I doubt that economic struggles are foundationally important, but because I’ve never believed that they’re the only thing that matters.

I expect, and fervently hope, that the 2020 reckoning will augur a more equal (and therefore more peaceful) world — but what the lockdown has brought home to me is how many of the very best things in our lives are available either free or at very modest cost. Watching sport is one such activity, but there’s lots else besides, like walking, talking and meditating. And reading, sleeping and lovemaking. And listening to music. Etcetera.

That establishment economists ignore these sublime joys in their computations of value, is a dire failure of reason. That progressive analysts ignore them too, is a depressing failure of integrity. DM

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