Olga Guryanova (CC0 1.0) via unsplash
Olga Guryanova (CC0 1.0) via unsplash

Sport is man, sport is society

Talk about soccer requires a more than vague expertise, but, all in all, it is well-focused. It doesn’t oblige you to intervene personally, because you are talking about something played beyond the area of the speaker’s power. For the male adult it’s like little girls playing ladies: a pedagogical game, which teaches you how to occupy your proper place.

By Umberto Eco

There is one thing that – even if it were considered essential – no student movement or urban revolt or global protest or what have you would ever be able to do. And that is to occupy the football field on a Sunday. The very idea sounds ironic and absurd; try saying it in public and people will laugh in your face. Propose it seriously and you will be shunned as a provocateur.

Not for the obvious reason, which is that while a horde of students can fling Molotov cocktails at the jeeps of any police force, and that at most (because of the laws, the necessity of national unity, the prestige of the state), no more than 40 students will be killed; an attack on a sports stadium (such as the recently thwarted attack in Paris) would surely cause the massacre of the attackers, indiscriminate, total slaughter carried out by self-respecting citizens aghast at the outrage.

You can occupy a cathedral, and you’ll have a bishop who protests, some upset Catholics, a fringe of approving dissidents, an indulgent left-wing, the traditional secular parties (secretly) happy.

And you can occupy a party’s headquarters, and the other parties, with or without a show of solidarity, will think it serves them right. But if a stadium is occupied, apart from the immediate reactions, the disclaiming of responsibility would be total: Church, Left, Right, State, Judiciary, Chinese, League for Divorce, anarchist unions, all would send the criminals to the pillory.

So there is a deep area of the collective sensibility that no one, whether through conviction or demagogical calculation, will allow to be touched. And there is a profound structure of the Social whose Maximum Cement, if broken up, would cause a crisis in every possible associative principle, including the presence of man on earth, at least as he has been present in the last tens of thousands of years.

Sport as a calculated waste

Sport is Man. Sport is Society. But if an overall revision of our human relationships is in process, let it also touch Sport. At this ultimate root it will discover the inconsistencies of Man as a social animal. Here what is not human in the relationship of sociality will emerge. Here the deceptive nature of the Classical Humanism will become dear, founded on Greek anthropolalia, founded in turn not only on contemplation, the notion of the city or the primacy of Doing, but on sport as a calculated waste, as a masking of the problem, 'chatter' raised to the rank of tumour. In short – and this will be explained below – sport is the maximum aberration of 'phatic' speech and therefore, finally, the negation of all speech, and hence the beginning of the dehumanization of man or the 'humanistic' invention of an idea of Man that is deceptive at the outset.

Sports activity is dominated by the idea of 'waste'. In principle, every sports act is a waste of energy: if I fling a stone for the sheer pleasure of flinging it – not for any utilitarian end – I have wasted calories accumulated through the swallowing of food, earned by work. Now this waste – I must make myself clear – is profoundly healthy. It is the way that it is proper to play. And man, like every animal, has a physical and psychic need for play. So there is a recreational waste that we cannot renounce: It means being free, freeing ourselves from the tyranny of indispensable work.

If, as I fling my stone, another man beside me aims to fling one still farther, the recreation takes on the form of 'contest', also a waste, of physical energy and of intelligence, which provides the rules of the game. But this recreational waste proves a gain. Races improve the race, contests develop and control the competitive spirit, they reduce innate aggressiveness to a system, brute force to intelligence.

But in these definitions lurks the worm that undermines the action at the roots: contest disciplines and neutralises the aggressive charge, individual and collective. It reduces excess action, but it is really a mechanism to neutralise action.

From this nucleus of ambiguous healthiness (a healthiness that is 'healthy' up to the point where a boundary is crossed – as you can die of an excess of that indispensable liberating exercise that is laughter, and Margutte explodes from exaggerated health) leads to the first degenerations of the contest: the raising of human beings dedicated to competition. The athlete is already a being who has hypertrophised one organ, who turns his body into the seat and exclusive source of a continuous play. The athlete is a monster, he is the Man Who Laughs, the geisha with the compressed and atrophied foot, dedicated to total instrumentalisation.

The athlete as monster

But the athlete as monster comes into existence at the moment when sport is squared, when sport, that is, from a game played in the first person, becomes a kind of disquisition on play, or rather play as spectacle for others, and hence game as played by others and seen by me. Sport squared equals sports performance.

If sport (practised) is health, like eating food, sport seen is a defrauding of health. When I see others play, I am doing nothing healthy, and I am only vaguely enjoying the health of others (which in itself would be a sordid exercise of voyeurism, like watching others make love), because in fact what I enjoy most are the accidents that will befall those who are healthily exercising, the illness that undermines this exercised health (like someone who watches not two human beings but two bees making love, while waiting to witness the death of the drone).

To be sure, someone who watches sport performed by others becomes excited as he watches; he yells and gesticulates, and so he is performing physical and psychic exercise, and reducing aggressiveness, and disciplining his competitivity. But this reduction is not compensated, as when one exercises sport, by an increase of energy or by an acquired control and self-mastery. On the contrary, for the athletes are competing in play, but the voyeurs compete seriously (and, in fact, they beat up one another or die of heart failure in the grandstands).

As for disciplining competitivity, which in exercised sport has the two aspects of increasing and losing one’s own humanity, in athletic voyeurism it has only one aspect, the negative. Sport is presented then, as it has been over the centuries, as instrumentum regni. These things are obvious: the circenses restrain the uncontrollable energies of the crowd.

But this sport squared (which involves speculation and barter, selling and enforced consumption) generates a sport cubed, the discussion of sport as something seen. This discussion is in the first place that of the sports press, and therefore sport raised to the nth power. The discussion on the sports press is discourse on a discourse about watching others’ sport as discourse.

Present-day sports, then, is essentially a discussion of the sports press. At several removes there remains the actual sport, which might as well not even exist. If through some diabolical machination of the Mexican government and chairman Avery Brundage, in agreement with all the TV networks in the world, the Olympics were not to take place, but were narrated daily and hourly through fictitious images, nothing in the international sports system would change, nor would the sports discutants feel cheated.

So sport as practice, as activity, no longer exists, or exists for economic reasons (for it is easier to make an athlete run than to invent a film with actors who pretend to run); and there exists only chatter about chatter about sport. The chatter about chatter of the sports press constitutes a game with its full set of rules: you have only to listen to those Sunday morning radio broadcasts where they pretend (raising support to the nth power) that some citizens gathered in the barber shop are discussing sport.

Or else you can go and listen to such talk where it occurs. It will be seen, as for that matter everyone knows already, that evaluations, judgements, arguments, polemical remarks, denigrations, and paeans follow a verbal ritual, very complex but with simple and precise rules. In this ritual, intellectual energies are exercised and neutralised; physical energies are no longer in play, so the competition shifts to a purely 'political' level. In fact, the chatter about sports chatter has all the characteristics of a political debate. They say what the leaders should have done, what they did do, what we would have liked them to do, what happened, and what will happen. Only the object is not the city (or the corridors of the state house) but the stadium, with its locker rooms.

Such chatter seems therefore the parody of political talk; but since in this parody the strength that the citizen had at his disposal for political debate is vitiated and disciplined, this chatter is the ersatz of political speech, but to such a heightened degree that it becomes itself political speech.

Afterwards, there’s no more room – because the person who chatters about sport, if he didn’t do this, would at least realize he has possibilities of judgement, verbal aggressiveness, to employ somehow. But sports chatter convinces him that this energy is expended to conclude something. Having allayed his doubt, sport fulfils its role of fake conscience. And since chatter about sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practising sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the chatterer thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in sport. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for sports activities.

Idle talk

This chatter is the sort of thing whose function Heidegger examined in 'Being and Time' under the heading of 'idle talk': 'Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one’s own. If this were done, idle talk would founder; and it already guards against such a danger. Idle talk is something which anyone can make up; it not only releases one from the task of genuinely understanding but develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility for which nothing is closed off any longer.... Idle talk does not aim to deceive. Idle talk does not have the kind of Being which belongs to consciously passing off something as something else.... Thus, by its very nature, idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone.'

Certainly Heidegger wasn’t thinking of idle talk or chatter as totally negative: chatter is the everyday manner in which we are spoken by pre-existent language rather than our bending language to ends of comprehension and discovery. And it is a normal attitude. For it, however, 'what matters is that there is talk'. And here we come to that function of language that for Jakobson is the phatic function, that of contact. On the telephone (replying 'Yes, no, of course, fine...') and in the street (asking 'How are you?' of someone whose health doesn’t interest us, and he knows it, and in fact he plays along, in answering 'Fine, thanks'), we conduct phatic discourse indispensable to maintaining constant connection among speakers; but phatic speech is indispensable precisely because it keeps the possibility of communication in working order, for the purpose of other and more substantial communications.

If this function atrophies, we have constant contact without any message. Like a radio that is turned on but not tuned, so a background noise and some static inform us that we are, indeed, in a kind of communication with something, but the radio doesn’t allow us to know anything.

Chatter then will be phatic discourse that has become an end in itself, but sports chatter is something more, a continuous phatic discourse that deceitfully passes itself off as talk of the City And Its Ends.

Born as the raising to the nth power of that initial (and rational) waste that is sports recreation, sports chatter is the glorification of Waste, and therefore the maximum point of Consumption. On it and in it the consumer civilisation man actually consumes himself (and every possibility of thematising and judging the enforced consumption to which he is invited and subjected).

A place of total ignorance, it shapes the ideal citizen so profoundly that, in extreme cases (and they are many), he refuses to discuss this daily availability has for empty discussion. And so no political summons could affect a practice that is total falsification of every political attitude. Thus no revolutionary would have the courage to revolutionise the availability for sports chatter; the citizen would take over the protest, or suddenly rejecting, and with desperate distrust, the intrusion of reason in his reasonable exercise of highly rational verbal rules.

Thus the students in Mexico City died for nothing when they protested against the Olympic Games. It seemed reasonable for an Italian athlete to say nobly: 'If they kill any more, I refuse to jump'. But it was not established how many they would have to kill for him not to jump. And if he then didn’t jump, would be enough, for the others, to talk about what would have happened if he had jumped.

Many malignant readers, seeing how I discuss here the noble sport of soccer with detachment, irritation, and (oh, all right) malevolence, will harbour the vulgar suspicion that I don’t love soccer because soccer has never loved me, for from my earliest childhood I belonged to that category of infants or adolescents who, the moment they kick the ball – assuming that they manage to kick it – promptly send it into their own goal or, at best, pass it to the opponent, unless with stubborn tenacity they send it off the field, beyond hedges and fences, to become lost in a basement or a stream or to plunge among the flavours of the ice cream cart. And so his playmates reject him and banish him from the happiest of competitive events. And no suspicion will ever be more patently true.

Everyday unreality

I will say more. In an attempt to feel like the others (just as a terrified young homosexual may obstinately repeat to himself that he 'has' to like girls), I often begged my father, a sober but loyal fan, to take me with him to the game. And one day, as I was observing with detachment the senseless movements down there on the field, I felt how the high noonday sun seemed to enfold men and things in a chilling light, and how before my eyes a cosmic, meaningless performance was proceeding. Later, on reading Ottiero Ottieri, I would discover that this is the sense of the 'everyday unreality', but at that time I was thirteen and I translated the experience in my own way; for the first time I doubted the existence of God and decided that the world was a pointless fiction.

Frightened, as soon as I had left the stadium, I went to confession to a wise Capuchin who told me that I certainly had an odd idea, because reliable people like Dante, Newton, Manzoni, Gioberti and Fantappié had believed in God without the slightest difficulty. Bewildered by the consensus, I postponed my religious crisis for about another decade – but I have been telling all this to indicate how, as far back as I can remember, soccer for me has been linked with the absence of purpose and the vanity of all things, and with the fact that the Supreme Being may be (or may not be) simply a hole. And perhaps for this reason I (alone, I think, among living creatures) have always associated the game of soccer with negative philosophies.

The passion of soccer

Now, however, I must say that I am not against the passion of soccer. On the contrary, I approve of it and consider it providential. Those crowds of fans, cut down by heart attacks in the grandstands, those referees who pay for a Sunday of fame by personal exposure to grievous bodily harm, those excursionists who climb, bloodstained, from the buses, wounded by shattered glass from windows smashed by stones, those celebrating young men who speed drunkenly through the streets in the evening, their banner poking from the overloaded Fiat Cinquecento, until they crash into a juggernaut truck, those athletes physically ruined by piercing sexual abstinences, those families financially destroyed after succumbing to insane scalpers, those enthusiasts whose cannon-crackers explode and blind them: They fill my heart with joy. I am in favour of soccer passion as I am in favour of drag racing, of competition between motorcycles on the edge of a cliff, and of wild parachute jumping, mystical mountain climbing, crossing oceans in rubber dinghies, Russian roulette, and the use of narcotics. Races improve the race, and all these games lead fortunately to the death of the best, allowing mankind to continue its existence serenely with normal protagonists, of average achievement. In a certain sense I could agree with the Futurists that war is the only hygiene of the world, except for one little correction: It would be, if only volunteers were allowed to wage it. Unfortunately war also involves the reluctant, and therefore it is morally inferior to spectator sports.

For I am speaking of spectator sports, mind you, not of sport. Sport, in the sense of a situation in which one person, with no financial incentive, and employing his own body directly, performs physical exercises in which he exerts his muscles, causes his blood to circulate and his lungs to work to their fullest capacity: sport, as I was saying, is something very beautiful, at least as beautiful as sex, philosophical reflection, and pitching pennies.

But soccer has nothing to do with sport in this sense. Not for the players, who are professionals subjected to tensions not unlike those of an assembly-line worker (except for questionable differences in pay), not for the spectators – the majority, that is – who, in fact, behave like hordes of sex maniacs regularly going to see (not once in their lifetime in Amsterdam but every Sunday, and instead of ) couples making love, or pretending to (something like the very poor children of my childhood, who were promised they would be taken to watch the rich eating ice cream).

Now that I have posited these premises, it is clear why I feel so relaxed during football World Cups. Rendered neurotic, like everyone else, by tragic world events when we have to devour newspapers and stay glued to the TV awaiting the latest escalation in terror, in the weeks that are dominated by football I can happily skip reading the papers, avoid TV, at most have a quick scan of the news. For the rest, the papers and the TV talk about things I want to hear nothing about.

The devotion of the mass media

There’s no need to ask ourselves why the World Cup has so morbidly polarised the attention of the public and the devotion of the mass media: From the famous story of how comedy by Terence played to an empty house because there was a trained bear show elsewhere, and the acute observation of Roman emperors about the usefulness of circenses, to the shrewd use that dictatorships (including the Argentinian) have always made of great competitive events, it is so clear, so evident that the majority prefers soccer or bicycle racing to abortion, that it isn’t even worth reflecting about. But since external pressure impels me to reflect I might as well say that public opinion, especially in Italy, has never needed a nice international championship more than it does now.

In fact, sports debate (I mean the sports shows, talk about it, the talk about the journalists who talk about it) is the easiest substitute for political debate. Instead of judging the job done by the minister of finance, you ask whether the final or decisive game will be decided by chance, by athletic prowess or by diplomatic alchemy.

Little girls playing ladies

Talk about soccer requires, to be sure, a more than vague expertise, but, all in all, it is limited, well-focused; it allows you to take positions, express opinions, suggest solutions, without exposing yourself to arrest, to loyalty oaths, or, in any case, to suspicion. It doesn’t oblige you to intervene personally, because you are talking about something played beyond the area of the speaker’s power. In short, it allows you to play at the direction of the government without all the sufferings, the duties, the imponderables of political debate. For the male adult it’s like little girls playing ladies: a pedagogical game, which teaches you how to occupy your proper place.

At moments like this, when preoccupation with the causa publica (the real one) is so traumatic, do we look at ourselves, as critical Italians and Europeans? For us, the World Cup is like the parmesan on our macaroni. Finally, some news that isn’t about terrorism! Perhaps it would be best to engage in fewer political discussions and in more circenses sociology. Also because there are circenses that do not appear to be such at first glance, such as certain conflicts between police and 'extremists', that only take place on Saturdays, between 5pm and 7pm.

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC, … (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC,... (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

Umberto Eco, born in 1932, was a novelist, columnist, philosopher and media scholar. His works include History of Beauty and the novel The Name of the Rose, which brought him international fame. The above article is based on his book Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, published in English by Vintage and translated from the Italian by William Weaver. Umberto Eco died in February 2016.

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