Is sport just triumphant tribalism?
What a weekend of football we have ahead of us!
On the ABC’s Offsiders program (26/9), the sports commentator, Roy Masters, made comments about how the AFL grand final was a sign of sport’s contribution to the harmony of society; and that governments should recognise this in their continued sport funding.
Mr Masters’ claim seems true; and it is no doubt the reason that Australian governments (and governments around the world) pour money into sports stadiums, World Cups, Olympics, training programs, and more.
Yet is this kind of reasoning above reproach? The tribalism of sport has a dangerous allure. While many people at sporting games can be generous people, invariably they descend (myself included) toward the primitive tribalism that hurls abuse at the other side and glories in the victories of one’s own team. The ups-and-downs of sport have documented “real-life” effects and carry over into family and work life.
Personal depressions and economic downturns can result from teams loses (e.g. the All Blacks at a World Cup). Alternatively, sport can give us false and unearned pride in a misleading transcendence, especially if it becomes absolutised.
This is not to criticise the many physical and social benefits of sport, especially for young people, and the importance of “play” and “gaming” for people, as well as the importance of local and social identification.
Nevertheless, we should also recognise the importance we place on sport that almost grinds the country to a halt on important “game days” like grand finals. In fact, many Australians can hardly go a few days without a sporting event – we are constantly looking toward the next game as there are more sports and longer seasons. Sport provides public rituals that give unity through certain forms of transcendence, feed local and nationalistic loyalties, and construct hero narratives for us to worship (at the expense of other beliefs and narratives).
Many people, in an off-hand way, say that sport is Australia’s “religion”. Particularly in the absence of traditional forms of religion, sport supplies the public rituals and forms of transcendence that take us out of ourselves and into a social communion that we can believe in and enjoy. Sport has always been important “religiously” for Australia and this seems to be increasing.
Religion probably comes from a word that means to “re-bind”: it is about binding and re-binding us together, usually in worship. This is what the “pagan” religions were meant to do; and in its origins, Christianity interestingly rejected this role, and instead, identified itself with philosophy that critiqued the pagan religions for their “false” worship. The world-renown Stanford professor, René Girard, argues that social order is built on scapegoat mechanisms.
These mechanisms control the violent rivalries and tensions that arise from conflicting human desires by building up a group of people against an enemy or scapegoat. Similarly, sport functions to channel passions, desires and tensions through rigorously controlled rivalries that are directed against enemies. For example, after the grand final, the Collingwood captain spoke of going to “war”. Sport produces and controls rivalries that allow for a transcendent, cathartic release, which contributes to social order and cohesion.
The rivalries are usually built on geographic spaces, so to enable cohesion amongst people living together. Of course, this cathartic release can, at times, be insufficient (like in some soccer matches) and real violence results because sport has failed to fulfill its function to control and satisfy the human desire to “vent” and blame a rival.
I am not arguing to eliminate sport from our culture. I grew up playing and watching sport – and continue to enjoy it. I wish I didn’t enjoy it so much, particularly in its competitiveness; and that is part of the problem.
Sport can become a ritual, rather than a fun game, to construct a safe and whole identity, particularly away from the grind of the capitalist world. The challenge for us, as individuals and as a society, is how to play, watch and prioritise sport “for the fun” so that it does not become obsessive and destructive; and so, that it does not take over our country and its identity.
In sport, we want to belong to something: to something greater and bigger than us.
Human order is “religious” in this sense: it gives us a sense of identity and transcendence, though it is often built over against others (and rather than through positive means); and this is the danger of sporting tribalism.
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