From the February 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard
1948 was a year that will remain long in the memories of English sports fans. The Olympic Games were held here, an Australian cricket team visited and toured the country and the usual football, cricket, horse racing, dog racing, speedway and other sporting features had their place. The relative merits of prominent footballers and first-class cricketers have been hotly discussed. The abilities of various race horses and jockeys have been the subject of much argument. The Olympic contestants from all over the world have been cheered and applauded. Evenings have been devoted to the weekly ritual of completing the football pool coupons.
Late in the year a controversy arose over the business of the transfer of football players from one club to another. Football clubs will pay thousands of pounds to other clubs to obtain the transfer of a top-line player. The players become tied to the clubs that buy them. If they leave the club with which they are registered, they are barred from earning a living as professional footballers by playing for any other club.
Capitalism has converted to its own ends the many institutions thrown up by society in the course of its development and the sporting institutions have certainly not escaped. Sports and games, once the care-free expression of the joy of living, have become, for most of us, an entertainment to relieve the monotony of living.
At one time, man's sport was centred in the struggle to wrest from nature the means of life. Exceptional prowess in the hunt, etc., was the pinnacle of achievement. But now, except for those whose livelihood is derived from it, sport is practically divorced from the business of producing life's necessities. In a few rare instances, men cling to the old forms of enjoyment connected with the tussle with nature, instance fishing. In the main, sports have taken on a new aspect with each change in the social structure. The games and pastimes of the medieval village differ greatly from the more vigorous pursuits of barbarians before them, and the pay-at-the-gate type of game that we get today.
For the majority of workers nowadays, life is a continual round of drudgery and toil and monotony. They have no control over their labour—no interest in their products. There is no "joy of workmanship" for them. Home comfort for many is more of an ideal than a fact. They have but few opportunities and little inclination to leave the towns and cities to enjoy the countryside. Too tired after their toil to engage in active recreation, the majority of workers seek a little respite in the entertainments offered them.
This condition of affairs offers a fruitful field for investment to those with wealth to spare. The institution of sport is seized upon and corrupted in the interest of capital. It becomes an industry. We see the amateur displaced by the professional and gate receipts become the motive for organising games. Even the remaining amateurs must play to the gallery to ensure patronage—or just get squeezed out. The players are subject to exploitation and intensification just as are other workers. Players who are at the top of their class are a money-making attraction and the clubs that employ them bind them in a form of slavery.
In a drab and unromantic world people seek thrills and excitement. These are provided by profit seekers whose interest is not in "sport for sport's sake," but in balance sheets and dividends.
Here is an instance of an institution, drawing its vitality from a deep social need, being converted to an instrument for producing profit. That it is used as a means for retarding the spread of revolutionary ideas, we are well aware. Although it may not be a conscious intention to do so, yet the organised professional sports of today serve the same purpose as the gladiatorial contests of the days of the declining Roman Empire. Whilst the exploited populace is applauding the contestants, in either greaves or shin-guards battling with either trident or tennis racquet, they are giving no thought to their exploitation or the means to end it. In this way sport serves a dual purpose. It produces profit for a few and it keeps the minds of the workers filled with thoughts of league matches and cup ties, winners for the 2.30, featherweights and heavyweights, Oxford and Cambridge, greyhounds and hares, holes, goals, tries, l.b.w.'s and all the other jargon and paraphernalia of present-day sport. Not forgetting totalisators and permutations.
Socialism, by ending exploitation, will end drudgery; by abolishing poverty it will abolish sordidness. Men and women will find life more interesting, they will find that it can be an adventure in itself. They will not be driven to seek artificial excitement. Friendly rivalry will take the place of cut-throat competition, on the sports ground as elsewhere. Sport can then be the means of allowing men to exhibit their physical strength, their fleetness of foot, their keenness of eye, their powers of endurance and their agility. It can satisfy man's desire to play. That was its original function. Capitalism has degraded it. Socialism can amend it. Socialism can make life entertaining so that men can use sports as a means of recreation, so that they will not be so tired and bored that they need to make of it a form of "pass-time."