Sports of the People, Opiates of the Masses – The Antiscribe Analyzes

An image from the Penn State riots, November 9, 2011 (Getty Images)

In one of his works, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx famously (or infamously, depending on your view) labeled religion as “the opium of the masses.”  As it would later come to be interpreted by theorists, Marx’s use of the “opium” metaphor was a way of describing a condition or system which provided an illusory or tranquilizing effect that inhibited a society from both recognizing and correcting its own flaws.  In Marx’s opinion, and again, it was his opinion, he saw general religion as an impediment, something that assuaged and clouded the minds of people, so that they ignored the injustices in their own society. So, instead of seeking to undermine or address their own class inequality, for instance, they might seek refuge in the calming belief of a divine power or in the hierarchal authority of a religious organization. Much later, Marx’s concept of the “opium of the masses” became further expanded upon by later Marxist theorists who tried to ascertain the causes of why the much longed for “revolution of the proletariat” that formed the basis for later Communist and Socialist thought never actually occurred en masse in industrialized society, and in most cases moved beyond the idea that religion alone was the impediment.  Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by the Italian Government as an enemy of the state, penned the theory of “cultural hegemony,” the belief that the ideals of the ruling class become the norm for all.  Later, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famed “Frankfurt School,” posited that it was the “culture industry” and its creation of mass products of technology, advertising, entertainment, and art that had lulled the mass populace into a sense of complacency.  As recently as the early 1970s, Marxist philosopher (and, admittedly, paranoid schizophrenic) Louis Althusser famously formulated his belief that the docile ideology of a people were molded by what he labeled “state apparatuses,” individual cultural forces, such as the government, the mass media, and so forth, of which he claimed the educational system, instead of religion, was the most influential apparatus.

Now, I’m personally not a political Marxist, and certainly neither Socialist nor Communist, but I do believe that certain aspects of Marxist theory present a unique and effective way of looking at history and the structuring forces in society.  In practice, of course, these theories suffer from many flaws, chief among which is that they are often too reductive in their scope and often negate human free will (as Marxism often does itself), but their core idea, that the byproducts of a culture can, in turn, inhibit a culture, have an undeniable basis in truth.  The universal idea of a “couch potato,” someone who spends all their free time watching television instead of enjoying or understanding the world around them, is a basic and common example of this idea.  Therefore, while I don’t ascribe, necessarily, to the need for a full global class revolution, it piques my interest when I perceive some aspect of media having an “opium” effect on our mass culture – one that seems, like an opiate drug, to impair our ability to recognize morality because we, essentially, have an addiction or dependence on it.  For the past few years, and most especially in the last week, I’ve been feeling quite strongly in a very long-held belief within the schools of cultural theory: that spectator sports have become among the most powerful opiates of the masses.

Surely, someone would have to be living under a rock (and specifically one without cable, internet, or 3G) to have somehow missed the scandal that has gripped Pennsylvania State University’s vaunted and venerated football program, the Nittany Lions, and its legendary coach, Joe Paterno.  Paterno, affectionately known as “JoePa,” was the head coach of the team for a staggering 46 years, and had long been synonymous with both the team’s identity and the University itself.  About a week ago, one of Paterno’s former assistant coaches and a well-known coach emeritus, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with 40 counts of child molestation and sexual assault against eight known victims over a period of about 15 years.  Despite the nature of the charges being horrific in their own right, it was soon revealed that not only is Sandusky alleged to have committed a number of these assaults on University property, but it has come out that school officials, including Paterno, may have known about their occurrence (in some cases as early as 1998), and failed to properly inform authorities. Given what is known at the time of this writing, it appears that, at best, the school effectively did nothing to stop Sandusky’s alleged crimes, and at worst, perpetrated a cover up that allowed an accused child predator to continue unabated for more than a decade.  Paterno specifically was informed by then graduate assistant (now assistant coach) Mike McQuarry of his witnessing Sandusky raping a ten year old boy in the team showers.  Both men, instead of informing the police, reported it to the school’s athletic director. McQuarry not only did not inform police, but apparently waited until the next day to tell Paterno about the scandal.  The athletic director they informed, who also failed to inform the police, is facing criminal charges as is the school’s vice president (both of whom have since lost their jobs). Paterno apparently is considered to have performed due diligence in the eyes of the law and at present time is not facing any criminal charges, though the damage to his reputation may be immeasurable.

Since the news of the scandal has both broken and developed over the course of the last week, the reaction in some corners has been surprisingly – at least to my sensibilities – polarizing.  I think it’s very fair to say that a majority opinion of those in the media and with people at large have been to be rightfully outraged by the actions (and inactions) of Paterno and Penn State.  Shockingly, though, there have been a number of very loud voices, especially from many students and alumni of Penn State who have not only tried to minimize Paterno’s role in this, but have even gone so far as to defend him and his character, based predominantly on his legacy as a coach and secondarily for his history of endorsing strong academics as a compliment to a collegiate athletic career.  While Paterno before this week certainly had a quantitatively strong reputation, and one that was certainly earned through talent, effort, and character, I personally think it’s ridiculous to think that these events, if true, have not irrevocably tarnished his career, and I’m hardly alone in that opinion.  Facing massing public and private pressure, early on Wednesday, November 9, Paterno stated that he would step down from his coaching position at the end of the coming season, still clearly oblivious to just how serious the scandal that had surrounded him had become.  The Penn State Board of Trustees, however, was less oblivious, and fired Paterno later that day, bringing an immediate end to a position he held for almost a lifetime.

The already unfortunate saga then took yet another somewhat disturbing turn later that day, as hundreds of Penn State students and other Paterno and school supporters gathered in State College, PA and rioted, overturning a news van, shattering car windows, and clashing with armed police, all the while vocalizing their outrage toward how the media and the trustees treated their beloved “JoePa.”  It was a mind-boggling and saddening display by people so clearly devoted to the illusion of their coach, their team, and their university that had forsaken any sense of legal or moral perspective.  In a sense, if the allegations about the university have perpetrated a cover-up are true, then the devotion to that illusion extends to Penn State as an organization as well.  In essence, the legacy of a sports program and the cult of personality centered on its star coach, as well as the multimillion dollar business that is annually generated from that football team, may have proved more important to some than protecting children from continued, enduring, traumatic sexual assault.  It’s the kind of moral disconnect that surpasses being a mere lapse in moral judgment, and crosses well into the realm of ethical and psychic bankruptcy.

What the Penn State and Paterno scandal, and the behavior it has revealed in certain people to me is an example of the role sports have sometimes proven to play in causing similar disconnections within our society, and frankly have been for a very long time. Sport are something of a religion in their own right to many people, and they’ve proven such an ingrained part of our national culture that our favorite teams and favorite players can often appear as inseparable parts of how we define our own identities.  If we wanted them, we have sports to fit the nature our character and sports teams to represent our countries, our regions, our cities, our schools, and even our ethnicities, so it’s certainly an understandable phenomenon for many us to get caught up in. In my view, however, sports have undeniably become an opiate for the masses; especially as it comes to how we measure ethics in our society and the way many of us prioritize certain elements of our lives and our world.

Now, to be clear, I’m not denigrating sports per se, nor certainly sports fans on a whole.  There are plenty of people out there who, like me, enjoy watching sports in moderation, who find them fun and a nice distraction, just like any other mass entertainment.  They are, just as baseball is commonly celebrated as a “pastime;” in that they are a way to pass free time.  Certainly for young people, participation in sports, in the correct setting, can also certainly be character building as well as a great method for maintaining physical fitness (though these are certainly not always true in all cases). And though I’m really not a devoted watcher of any one particular sport or team much these days, I’m always able to enjoy baseball, basketball, hockey, mixed martial arts, boxing, and football whenever I’m in a position to watch them.  And certainly, I will always consider myself one of the “masses.”  But there can be no denying that following sports in the last fifteen years have certainly meant heading into very dark terrain that I find very troubling, as even a fair-weather fan.

Now granted, for as long as there have been sports there have been scandals, and the idea of “fair play” has always been more of a myth than a reality. Yet somewhere over the last decade or so sports have become the new politics, in that to participate in our fandom of the sports, teams, players, and performers we enjoy watching, we also have to accept a great deal of ingrained corruption as part of our ability to do so.  I personally think of a few debatable causes for this cognitive dissonance, but regardless of cause, the fact is there have been a number of very prominent scandals that should have called our widespread enjoyment of sports viewing in question, but simply haven’t.  The BALCO scandals, for instance, garnered a great deal of media play, and represented really only the tip of the iceberg for performance enhancing drug (PED) use in baseball and professional sports in general, but attempts by the US Congress to shine a light upon the subject were pretty much shouted down or laughed at by the public at large.  A select group of famous active baseball players, like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Roger Clemens, ended up taking the majority of public scorn so people could keep enjoying “America’s pastime,” even with the knowledge of the unfair advantages (and the health risks that accompany them) that players were utilizing for the sake of personal gain.  There have also been seemingly countless scandals with players in all sports centered around questionable off the field behavior, which have ranged from the reasonably innocuous, such as Olympic Gold medal record setter Michael Phelps being photographed using a bong, to the cases of football players like Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, and Adam “Pacman” Jones, who were vilified by many in the mainstream for their conduct and faced disciplinary actions by both the National Football League and, in the case of Vick, prison time, but ultimately welcomed back into the fold by their sports and their fans despite their conduct.  Vick, for me, has been an especially disturbing case; despite his having been involved for years in a barbaric dog fighting ring and having confessed in open court to the killing of up to 8 dogs by drowning or hanging, there were many fans who saw Vick’s resurgence as part of the Philadelphia Eagles as vindication after having been “unfairly prosecuted” for his crimes (many, like me, saw it as a black mark on the NFL for bringing him back in the first place). Even though Vick and others are again, extreme examples that unfairly tarnish the images of other sports figures by association (many of whom I’m sure are decent people who balance celebrity status with leading of healthy, normal lives), on the whole, the fact remains that the news are regularly filled with a statistically significant amount of sports figures behaving badly, which people now seem to turn a blind eye to because “that’s just what they do.”

Even before Penn State, as The New York Times emphasized this weekend, collegiate athletics have become defined with stories coming out of many college campuses, of schools turning a blind eye to the behavior of their players, including instances involving the mistreatment of women, up to and including rape.  And there have also been the revelations of widespread abuse in college recruitment over the last few years; my own undergraduate alma mater, the University of Southern California, received harsh sanctions from the NCAA for infractions centered on their recruiting of running back Reggie Bush. Bush, months after playing in the 2010 Super Bowl for the game-winning New Orleans Saints, became the only player in history to have to return his Heisman trophy.  USC had two national titles stripped from their record and were additionally barred from Bowl participation for two more seasons (for the record, because of this, I now no longer watch any USC football).  In addition to that, especially in the wake of recent television rights deals whose income number well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, many observers, including noted civil rights historian Tyler Branch, have posed the idea that college players are being ruthlessly exploited for their efforts with really no direct financial compensation, since only a select few ever receive the so-called “golden opportunities” to go on to Major League Baseball, the NFL, or the NBA (who, in particular, doesn’t seem like it will be sanctioning any games for a while to come).

The examples can go on and on, honestly, with examples from the recent past, but one must also take into account the near future.  Within the next decade or so will likely come a watershed moment for sports on both the collegiate and professional level. Though many sports fans and most observers would rather like to ignore it, the fact remains that games like football, hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts, and fringe pseudo-sports like professional wrestling are all dealing with a serious concussion crisis, the bill of sale for which, paid for in the currency of broken lives, is only beginning to come due.  Combining that with huge issues of painkiller abuse and the widespread overuse of performance enhancing drugs, the fact remains that our ethical and moral relationship to sports will remain a serious issue going forward; one that our culture will either choose to collectively ignore in the name of the sports we enjoy, or lead us to the difficult choices about what athletic events we will allow to occur in a humane and civilized society.

This brings us to the fact that, I think, as an overall societal issue, we sometimes lose track of the fact that all sports, whether it be a team affair like football or basketball, or a combat sport like boxing or MMA, or even competitive exhibitions like gymnastics or figure skating, are at the end of the day, simply forms of entertainment.  While nearly all types of popular entertainment itself can often seriously be accused, including by the famous Marxist theorists I’ve mentioned above, of being opiates for the masses, we hold sports as being more sacrosanct, in some cases, then even the highest forms of art, and there are many, many people in this country who pay far more time and attention to sports “news” then any other kind (and sometimes in place of all other kinds).

It’s important to remember, too, especially with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the rising majority feelings toward corporations, income disparity, and the distribution of wealth, that the sports apparatus in this country, even in the case of so-called “amateur” areas such as the Olympics and the NCAA, are capitalist enterprises.  That’s not necessarily an indictment on its own, but when people place almost religious devotion to what are, in essence, the products of corporate entities (ad often monopolistic ones at that), something is very wrong, and very out of sync with the established priorities of our culture.

And that brings us back to Penn State.  If the horrible, shameful events that happened among the officials there turn out to be part of a larger cover-up, it was likely less driven by a devotion to the illusion of Penn State than the interest of preserving the millions of dollars that Nittany Lions football brings to the University every year (which, yes, is a state school, but nonetheless a financial enterprise).  If those kids who rioted did so to defend someone who played a part in that particular conspiracy for that particular reason, well, what does that say about how their priorities are organized?

Now, I’m in no way saying that we eradicate or reduce the number of sports from our culture, nor that there’s anything wrong with being a sports fan, or even a devoted sports fan.  I just think that perhaps as a culture we need to view all sports in a better perspective, as a form of entertainment that is trying to entertain us, and not a representative of our social interest that becomes inseparable from our own identity politics.  It’s an important designation: the difference between believing in an illusion, and accepting an illusion for what it can provide.  Because, in the end, sometimes a little bit of an opiate can prove beneficial. When you’re always using it, though, it’s an addiction, one that subverts and perverts reality, so that everything you think and feel becomes devoted to maintaining that addiction.  What I’m ultimately saying is, when it comes to sports, there are too many in our society who could, right now, stand for a period of withdrawal.  And maybe even some rehab.

(Given some of the subject matter of this piece, I made the choice to avoid using photographs as I usually do for these essays.  It is my hope that it does not detract from the content in any way.)

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