A very American revolution took place in 1906. No riots, no placards, no mob justice; this was a revolution from above, presented as a natural evolution from an old regime that had already begun to crack and crumble. For in the years since it had divorced itself from rugby and its free-flowing, zigzagging runs, American football had become little more than trench warfare—attritional, ugly, bloody. So deadlocked was the sport by 1905 that the Michigan Wolverines conceded not a single point in the first twelve games of their season, a run ended only by a 2-0 loss to A.A. Stagg’s Chicago Maroons. And when 18 players died and 159 were injured that year alone, Teddy Roosevelt threatened to abolish the sport by executive edict. Forced into action, the Rules Committee agreed on a battery of changes—almost thirty—to make the game more attractive. Among the novelties was the forward pass, which enraged conservatives like Pop Warner, the Cornell coach, who complained that true football was “a game in which the ball was advanced by either rushing or kicking,” and prophesied the advent of “basketball tactics.” The new rules did indeed permit new tactics, but with them came new levels of creativity: a quarterback could now pass short or long, narrow or wide, backwards or forwards, and all on the spur of the moment. It took years for quarterbacks to fully absorb the news of their emancipation, but in the end American football recovered from the crisis of 1905-6 to become one of the world’s great sports, habitually producing moments of beauty and drama like the finale of the 2009 Super Bowl, when Santonio Holmes, teetering on tip-toes like a 195-pound ballet dancer, 35 seconds remaining, grabbed Ben Roethlisberger’s inspired throw to mark the winning touchdown.
Today America stands in need of another revolution. Its political institutions have sunk into ill-willed, muddy gridlock, massed defenses lining up to block any forward runners. But 2-0 scorelines are not enough for a country that is, as the erstwhile neoconservative Francis Fukuyama has recently written, rapidly becoming a plutocracy, with rule not only by but also for the rich. The richest 1 percent of American families now enjoy 23.5 percent of national income, up from 9 percent in 1978; since 1978 the rate of income tax contributed by the richest has halved, from 70 percent to 35 percent; and the wealthy have just won themselves a famous new tax cut. For all the success of neoliberal economics in spreading the pleasingly simple notion that tax cuts equal economic growth, it is hard to believe that the general will is being reflected. In America, it seems, the rich get their way.
“The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world,” writes Fukuyama, “are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade it, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society.” In other words, America is starting to resemble a banana republic. But whereas banana republics are infamously unstable, there is no populist movement against the plutocrats in America. A weary cynicism has settled over our politics; helpless outrage is all we can muster. Even to talk of revolution in these times is to sound not only histrionic and deluded but also venomous and violent; somewhere along the line from Robespierre to Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot, revolutions have acquired rather a bad name. But not all revolutions are the same. Some revolutions come from above—demanded by the president, enacted by legislation, presented in terms native to the existing system. No riots, no placards, no mob justice, only unavoidable reform. Just like 1906.
It will be said, no doubt, that American football is just a game. But no sport is just a game, since only some games qualify as sports. Ultimate frisbee, for example, began life as a game thought up by high school students, but has since become a sport. Both the game and the sport involve throwing the same object in the same kind of contest; the difference is that the rules of the sport are laws, enforced by a governing body. The English word “sport” began to be used in its current sense—and then imported into languages as diverse as French, Greek and Japanese, which didn’t have the concept—only in the century or so when the British schematized a multitude of games including soccer, cricket, field hockey, tennis, table tennis, rugby, polo, golf, badminton, snooker and darts, setting up governing bodies to export and enforce those rules across the empire. The British like to credit themselves with founding all these sports, but to found a sport is usually only to institutionalize a pre-existing game, not to invent one—though basketball was drawn up from scratch by a Canadian P.E. teacher, and Harry Potter fans apparently have high hopes for “quidditch.”
Since they have laws and governing bodies, sports can help us see what it means to govern well. A game can die, whether because it was never any good or because it no longer fits with the world (jousting, anyone?). Sometimes, then, a leader must change an institution just to keep it alive. Sports are conservative institutions, often preserving patent absurdities simply because they’re traditional (consider the scoring system in tennis), but every sport must evolve. American football is particularly radical—it is not unusual for the referee to have to explain the latest rules to the crowd in the middle of a game—but it is not the only sport with a history of revolution. Ice hockey, for instance, only legalized the forward pass in the 1930s, and even a sport as set in its ways as cricket has felt itself forced to shorten some matches in order to survive in a world fast losing patience with its serene, stately rhythms.
But to reform a sport its governors must first decide what really makes it the sport that it is. Otherwise in changing its laws they may create a different game altogether. To decide which parts of an institution must persist through any changes is to decide on the essence of the game, its core. It is hard to see how we could sit down and work out the essence of, say, American football, let alone PowerPoint our findings to a room of execs, but we can at least help ourselves by opening with the right questions. What role does sport play in human life? What is sport for?
It seems obvious who sport is for: players and/or spectators. Different cultures have drawn the line differently. In Rome sport was for the benefit of spectators, and gladiatorial combatants were obviously expected to die; in imperial Britain sport was thought to benefit players, so amateur participation was encouraged; contemporary America mixes considerable professionalization with a powerful amateur ideal.  But what benefits can a sport give its players and spectators anyway?
A good sport is fun, first of all. Its paths are unpredictable; it challenges us both physically and mentally; it allows us to compete for hard-fought victory. A sport that had no effect on our adrenaline levels would be a bad sport: we need to feel the pressure in our blood. A good sport therefore raises the passions, which can be a dangerous thing. St. Augustine describes the experience of one of his friends watching gladiators: “He looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him…” Every hard-core sports fan will recognize this feeling, but few will agree with puritanical Augustinians that we should therefore censor sport. A fan might argue, for instance, that sport allows players and spectators to purge themselves of aggressive energies, making the rest of the world a safer place. In the 1999 comedy The Cup, the elders of a Buddhist monastery eventually let their novices watch the World Cup final—“two civilized nations fighting over a ball”—as a kind of lesson in working through their attachment to illusion, the root of aggression and misery. By contrast, many a puritan conceals a bitter aggression that may be only the worse for being left unexpressed.
The puritans are right, however, that a sport, like any institution, shapes our habits and hence our characters. A good sport promotes athleticism and dexterity in its players, of course, but also qualities like physical and mental courage, patience and teamwork, discipline and determination, humility and sportsmanship. Different sports will emphasize these to different degrees, obviously: a dart thrower need not be athletic and a golfer need not be a team player; basketball teaches teamwork better than baseball, but baseball cultivates mental strength more than any other sport except golf. As Augustine suggests, sports also have an effect on spectators, just like plays or movies. In Three Uses of the Knife, David Mamet points out that a good match is basically a three-act drama: hope; setback; triumph. We savor the spectacle but also seek ethical instruction, ascribing success to virtue and failure to cowardice or hubris, as though there were some author in the wings orchestrating a morality tale. In truth, however, the sporting spectacle is governed not by a didactic playwright but by little old Lady Luck. Under the sway of her cruel delights we must learn to control our tendency to mope or gloat. As in the theater, we are most apt to learn such lessons when we imagine ourselves as the protagonist. The best sports commentators facilitate this ethical training with mantras designed to outline the situation facing the player: there really are times when you need to hit one out of the park, but in life as in cricket, you should always add two wickets to the score.
A good sport is not yet a great sport, however—like a work of art, it must do more than excite, more than teach. It must be beautiful. Beauty and sport have long been related: in ancient Greece athletes were held to be paragons of beauty, and the need to commemorate an athlete’s victory was crucial to the development of sculpture. More importantly, the action can itself be beautiful. The Greek word for watching games is the same as that for contemplation (theôrein) and it is true that a pass or a pitch or a hit or a dunk can be beheld like a work of art. Players themselves seem to recognize this: Wayne Rooney tries to chip the keeper from the same spot so often, against all logic, that he resembles an artist who can never quite capture his recurrent dream. And seasoned Manchester United fans may even spot the anxiety of influence, since the artwork Rooney so desperately wants to fashion— the ball looping over the keeper before plummeting perfectly into the net—is only a replica of the crowning achievement of his great predecessor at United, Eric Cantona. Rooney has actually emulated Cantona’s 1996 goal against Sunderland once already, against Portsmouth in 2007, and he has better statistics; yet thirteen years after Cantona left soccer to become an actor, United fans still sing hymns to the man they call the King. Rooney therefore cannot but notice that numbers alone do not a great player make—beauty is also wanting. And this is true in all sports, not only “the beautiful game”: Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Brian Lara, you name them, they all had it. Like dancers whose bodies are so finely tuned as to express a rich inner life in the act of straining toward physical impossibility, the graceful movements of a great sportsman, somehow both deliberate and effortless, body and mind completely at one, can seem to manifest the human animal in its very perfection.
And since our ideals of beauty and excellence change historically, a sport that fosters beauty can provide a window onto the spirit of a people or an age. In my view, colored no doubt by nostalgia for a childhood preoccupied with the game and its annals, cricket must have played this role in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperial England, representing a gentlemanly ideal of competition that was amateurish in the best sense. Aggression was permitted and required, but only within certain bounds; the game rewarded patience and the very Victorian virtue of self-control. When someone tried to bend the rules in ordinary life, he would be called back to the ideal: “I’m afraid it’s just not cricket.” Pious as this sounds, winning really isn’t the highest good on offer in the sport. After a particularly fiendish delivery elicits a particularly adroit defensive shot, the commentators are likely to pronounce that “cricket is the winner.” As a schoolboy player I dreamt not of trophies or medals but of the moment just after a perfectly effortless cover drive, when my whole body would be poised like a statue. One afternoon, toiling in the foreign and profane field of soccer, still living in my heart as a cricketer, I was shouted at for stopping to applaud the beauty of an opponent’s pass.
But the world is not ideal, and no one institution can make it so. Cricket may embody certain ideals, but its players began falling short of them at least as early as the brutal “Bodyline” series of 1932-33, when the English bowlers were directed to aim their missiles at the opponent’s body to prevent him from scoring. For an institution only ever exists insofar as its rules are followed, and hence interpreted, by particular people with particular practices and mores. The NFL, for example, does try to shape American culture, but it can only get so far. Take video replays. We can imagine another culture where an ethic of sportsmanship made it shameful for a coach to order a review unless he was fairly sure an injustice had been done. In this culture unlimited reviews could be allowed without any great disruption, since in point of fact there aren’t all that many clear injustices. But America isn’t like that. In recent years what was supposed to be an objective description of human behavior, or at least a heuristic for understanding it—people maximize their own welfare—has become an ethical imperative: get as much as you can within the rules. The NFL cannot completely change a culture in which putting the good of the whole before one’s own immediate interest is considered naïve and unmanly. But still it plays its part. Taking men as they are, not as they should be, it constrains them to act as if they were sportsmanlike. Each coach is only allowed two reviews; if either fails, he is granted no more. To get as much as he can, to be as “rational” as possible, he must learn to ask the question only when sure of injustice. And in forming this habit, he might gradually begin to think like a good sport. Perhaps.
But this pretty picture of sport making the world a better, more beautiful place still relies on the idea of wise governors who can decide on the best way to live. Maybe no one has the authority to do this; in any case those who currently administer sports clearly do not. In fact, if we measure the false-hearted and inept grandees of FIFA or the IOC against the ideal, the present situation comes to seem rather hopeless. Like hippos, they spend most of their time out of view, submerged in committee meetings, wallowing in the steam rooms and jacuzzis of Zurich hotels, surfacing, it seems, only in order to glut themselves. Their greed for novelty and personal gain leads to farcical decisions like trying out a new ball with different aerodynamic properties during the 2010 World Cup or awarding the 2022 tournament to Qatar, a country with 1.6 million inhabitants, an inhuman climate and not a single stadium—but worse than that it also renders them defenseless against those jackals who cloak themselves in the aura of the future and pronounce in solemn tones, with all regret, that the only way for a sport to survive is to make more and more money.
Pick any sport, look at recent decisions about what to change, and work out what the governors consider worth conserving. You will most likely find that the implied essence of your beloved sport, the basic aim that ties it together and cannot be destroyed, is not to promote goodness and beauty but to make money for its owners, administrators and players. Sometimes this comes with a half-hearted trickle-down excuse, as when English cricket administrators claimed that selling TV rights to Rupert Murdoch’s satellite channel, rather than keeping coverage free-to-air, would fund equipment for the grass roots of the game. But often such subterfuge is unnecessary, the needs of capital having already infiltrated the very rules of the sport in question. This seems to be the case with the ingenious system of time-outs in basketball and American football, which admittedly permit tactical reconfigurations but also double rather too conveniently as ad breaks—both on TV and in the stadiums themselves, where spectators are liable to look up from their hot dogs to find the court or rink or field invaded by shills dressed up as Big Macs. Literally.
But the spirit of capitalism can pass even deeper into a sport: in American football, it goes down to the composition of the teams themselves. Lest we forget, each team essentially comprises two teams, one for attacking and one for defending. When one side loses possession, the game is stopped and every player leaves the field, replaced by another more suited to the new task. Each player has a well-defined function: a defensive lineman is more or less never expected to run with the ball, a wide receiver is never expected to defend, a kicker only enters when kicking is required, and a long snapper just “snaps” the ball to the punter. If a great sport can provide a window onto the ideals of its age, American football may therefore be the paradigmatic sport of modern America, for the extreme division of labor has long been recognized as one of the hallmarks of capitalism. Adam Smith begins The Wealth of Nations with a discussion of its power to increase productivity; a worker who focuses on one process alone becomes more adept at it. The goal of an offensive lineman is to obstruct the opposition defense as they storm the runner or thrower. The people most suited to this task turn out to be so swollen with fat and muscle they can barely move, mammoths who would be almost entirely useless if regularly required to run with the ball or chase down a defensive back after an interception. As it is, their physique vastly raises the standard of quarterback protection, which spurs tactical innovation all round.
Yet the division of labor is not without its detractors. Chief among them was actually Adam Smith himself, a fact often mysteriously forgotten by his champions at right-wing think tanks. Smith argued that although specialization produced material wealth, it greatly impoverished the lives of workers themselves. Noting, as would Marx, that “the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments,” Smith went on to claim that under capitalism these employments rob workers of their creative powers, leaving them stupid, ignorant and immoral. A specialist may develop great skill at his own micro-task, but meanwhile his other abilities wither. Moreover, he can no longer consider the process as a whole, which makes it impossible for him to understand how his own work makes sense. Since understanding what we are doing and why is crucial to an active and flourishing life, the extreme division of labor can rob us of our full humanity.
In the NFL, only the head coach really sees the game as a whole; everyone else is concerned with particular sub-processes. In some plays an offensive lineman has no idea what actually happened until he watches the replay. He is just a cog in a machine whose workings he cannot—should not—fully understand. But while specialization may rob the lineman of his humanity in an elevated, abstract sense, it may also rob him of something rather more earthly, namely his life: what in other industries is the ongoing refinement of raw materials is for the offensive lineman an ongoing increase in weight. According to a 2006 Scripps Howard survey, between 1985 and 2005 the average offensive tackle became 13 percent heavier, and linemen now have a 52 percent greater risk of fatal heart disease than the general population. Perhaps we’re not so far from the gladiators after all.
But the increasing specialization has its effect on the spectator too, since American football has become so complex that it is impossible to comprehend the entirety of a play in one viewing. In sports like soccer, rugby and basketball the spectator can generally imagine himself as the player in possession and as it were choose to pass, run or dribble himself. In American football, on the other hand, the quarterback has a kind of inside information as to the future movements of the wide receivers, so that the spectator’s outbursts and pleadings during a play will often prove in hindsight to have been simply ill-informed. This problem is only exacerbated by television coverage that doesn’t allow you to see the wide receivers at all until the ball is well on its way to them, but even in the stadium itself one has to choose which subsection of the play to focus on, whether it be the offensive line against the rushing defense, the wide receivers looking for space or the quarterback searching for options. American football can only be fully appreciated when pieced together on the replay screen, which makes it a peculiarly modern sport; and while this may not rob the spectator of his humanity, it does take away some of his primitive pleasure.
Yet American football is a great sport precisely because it expresses the values and contradictions of its era. Like the game which is in many ways its obverse, cricket, it somehow combines extraordinary tactical complexity with the potential for high drama and moments of astonishing beauty such as the finale of the 2009 Super Bowl. But like cricket it is also fast becoming something of a charming relic, as the world it reflects and evokes—not the gentry and the village this time but the early twentieth-century, Chaplin-esque assembly line—is swept away by the new eco-tech industries of Seattle and San Francisco, where there are no oppressed proles to be found, only innovators who dress down and think outside the box and outsource their grunt work. In fact, this new efflorescence of capital is perhaps best emblematized in the sporting world by the rise of ultimate frisbee—in a loose sense nothing but American football minus the contact, a game made bloodless, airy and safe for an elite and supposedly counter-cultural college crowd. But might the NFL, that cumbersome old codger, still have a trick or two to teach us jaunty, self-satisfied newbies?
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of American sports from a European perspective is that for all their consumerist glitz—sideline showgirls; halftime rock concerts—and the peculiar rootlessness that such consumerism entails—teams as “franchises” that can relocate in search of tax breaks and TV markets; vapid, off-the-peg chants like “Let’s go, x!” or “Defense! Defense!”—the leagues themselves are exemplary not of capitalism but its seeming opposite: socialism. The NFL, for instance, is surely the most red-blooded and red-state of American sporting leagues, and yet the same crowds that grill stacks of slabs of steak on the backs of epic pick-ups before games also cherish an institution in which resources and success are systematically redistributed from the haves to the have-nots. The NFL has a salary cap to prevent the richest teams from outspending the poorest; each year the worst teams get to draft the best young players; and, most surprisingly of all, the best teams have to play more games against each other just so that more bad teams can reach the playoffs. In other words, each successful season is subject to the mother of all estate taxes: losing. And the reasons for this socialism are both clear and widely accepted: only if each team has a genuine chance of winning or losing will players perform at their best and so thrill us with their athleticism, creativity and beauty. Or, to put it the usual way: only if every game is tense enough will fans keep the league in the money.
The customs of your own country always seem natural, and you assume they fit together. But rule-bound Germany has no speed limit on highways, while freedom-founding America fines pedestrians for crossing the street incorrectly. And so it is that the same European countries that restrain capitalism in general allow it to go unchecked in sport. In European soccer, teams can spend as much as they like, and the more successful a team is, the greater its share of TV revenues. Soccer has therefore become something of a test case for what happens to a mini-society with little or no redistribution. The results are grim. Domestic leagues like the English, French, Italian, Spanish and Scottish have grown increasingly uncompetitive; the Scottish championship, for example, has been won by one of two clubs for the last 25 years. The top teams in each league are now often more concerned with their performance in inter-European competition, whose knockout structure makes it far less predictable, but even here the deck is stacked by finance: the recent shift of power from English to Spanish clubs has as much to do with sterling’s 2007-8 crash against the euro as with the beauty of the “Total Football” system the Spanish imported from Holland. And as if to confirm that soccer has become a plutocracy, real-life plutocrats—oil men, mostly, from Russia and Arabia—have crashed the party like rock stars at a talent show, turning once-venerable working-class institutions into their private playthings. Yet the paradox is that soccer will only remain an amusing diversion from the oligarch’s terra-cotta villas and supermodel-bedecked yachts to the extent that money does not translate directly into success. The pleasure lies in the friction.
In light of the European experience, American football’s redistribution of resources seems wise indeed. But if European sport needs a dose of American socialism to stay healthy, might we not likewise prescribe some European socialism to American society? Today’s “knowledge workers” are unlikely to be convinced that they owe it to the lower classes to share their wealth. After all, it’s not as if they’re lording it over factories staffed by malnourished wretches; they’re just selling their brain power to the highest bidder—fair exchange, no robbery. But what if the market economy actually needs redistribution to keep working? In his award-winning book Fault Lines, former IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan argues that the 2008 financial crisis was precipitated by growing inequality in the United States. “In 1975, the 90th percentile earned, on average, about three times more than the 10th percentile,” he tells us; “by 2005 they earned five times more.” But rather than actually redistributing wealth—for instance by spending more on education in poorer areas—successive administrations settled for improving the lower classes’ perception of their wealth by extending them artificially cheap credit. This led to all sorts of perverse incentives which created the bubble that eventually burst. Had America been more equal, the whole charade would not have been necessary and the economy would have been on a surer footing.
But inequality weakens capitalism in other ways besides. For the economy to be as dynamic as possible, entrepreneurial activity must be fully incentivized; the best ideas must come to the fore; each individual must have a sporting chance of success. But this equality of opportunity obviously requires a meaningful inheritance tax that forces each young adult to invent ways of creating his own wealth. We are so far away from this most American of dreams that we can only joke about it, as in Tea Party patron David Koch’s self-deprecating gag:
You might ask: How does David Koch happen to have the wealth to be so generous? Well, let me tell you a story. It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars!
The sad thing is that this story is basically true, and that Koch doesn’t seem to care that it completely invalidates the neoliberal, survival-of-the-fittest policies that his law firms, think tanks and universities promote. He is like the rich man in the Charles Rodrigues cartoon who admonishes a beggar: “Go inherit your own money!”
Inconsistency is hard if not impossible for the human mind to bear, and if you are committed to market socialism in one realm, you cannot simply dismiss it in another. Koch may not follow American football, but many do. And although the NFL can hardly change the wider capitalist culture that pro football reflects in its very essence, it can at least point to a more humane version of that culture, one that places the good of the collective higher than that of any individuals. In other words, perhaps saving capitalism from the capitalists is all we should aim for right now. Marx himself did not believe in revolution pure and simple. Following the more conservative Hegel, he held that change should always build upon what is valuable in society as it currently exists, rather than wiping the slate clean. Let us look for our revolution not to Russia, 1917, then, but to America, 1906.
Just over a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt used the presidency to save American football from itself, a Bears fan running for president revived the spirit of 1906. “The real gamble in this election,” he sang to us, “is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result.” There is an unwinnable war and a deep recession and the population is under-educated and ill-informed, yet Washington still will not make the rich pay their taxes. Some voters, it seems, are more equal than others. American democracy, if it is to survive, desperately needs a forward pass in the direction of fairness and equality of opportunity. True, the Founders may only have intended the running game. But we should never forget that the Founders were themselves revolutionaries—they of all people knew that a rotten regime must be dismantled. The rules that bind and constrain us are not natural laws, fixed and frozen, but ours to create and to change.
Our final goals may well be greatness, perfection, beauty—but first we must have goodness, justice, ethics. And before we can have these virtues in our society we must have them in our political institutions. What sport teaches us is that the game shapes the players; to change the players we have to change the game. We can hardly expect our politicians to be noble, for instance, when they have to prostitute themselves for campaign contributions almost every week; campaign finance reform is urgent and indispensable, even if it requires constitutional change. Yet every man and his dog knows that if one party suggested an amendment the “rational” strategy for the other would be to refuse it. We must constrain our representatives to act as if they put the country before themselves, whether by naming and shaming those who place “holds” on legislation, or by reintroducing the over-my-dead-body drama that filibustering used to entail. And perhaps by acting as though they were mature, politicians will actually become mature. Perhaps.
All the way back in 1938 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote that electioneering in America was “a kind of national sport,” with “two gigantic teams whose political differences were hardly discernible to an outsider.” But no matter how ardently we follow or pursue sports, and for all their ethical, aesthetic and cultural value, they are still, when push comes to shove, forms of play. And play is not serious. As Huizinga observes, “play is never a task”; if other concerns become pressing, we can always stop playing. But politics can never be deferred or suspended, at least if we are to live well. For as humans we cannot flourish by ourselves; we need the right environment. And politics is the business of creating that environment, of shaping practices and hence people. Plutocracy, then, will end up distorting not only our politics but our very souls, bending us out of shape in increments too small to protest. To keep ourselves upright we will have to save the system—but the clock is running down.