Is Football Still Sport?
It unfolds like a soap opera for the entertainment of millions and the profit of a few. What has football become?
It's hard to imagine that George Orwell and Ted Turner would have had much to discuss had they ever found themselves seated together over a Sunday roast — aside from a mutual appreciation of the pencil moustache. The tyrannicide and the tycoon would not, it seems fair to say, have much natural repartee. It would be one of those occasions to break out the conversational back-stops: weather, perhaps. Sport, certainly.
"Serious sport," Orwell might elucidate as he goes back for a second helping of parsnips, "is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting."
Turner, turning over a Yorkshire pudding, wondering what it could possibly be, would nod sagely. "Sport is like a war, without the killing," he would observe.
Orwell looks at him askance. His interlocutor, he thinks, sounds disappointed, as though sport's lack of bloodshed is an area for improvement; almost like he is offering recreation as a concept some constructive criticism.
"Ahem," comes a noise from across the table. His gargantuan white moustache putting both men to shame, his eyes twinkling, Baron Pierre du Coubertin clears his throat. "I always said," he declares, in heavily accented English, "that the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."
Perhaps that motto remains true for the Olympics, although in an age in which all sports and their participants rely so heavily on sponsorship, and in which sponsorship demands results for increased exposure, it is hard to imagine it does. Few would suggest it has ever applied to football; tribalistic, fierce, its historiography written by men who viewed second as abject failure. If it ever did, it does not now.
Should their host insist, then, that after the Viennetta has been cleared away and the coffees drained, his guests should repair to the living room to watch Sky's Super Sunday, De Coubertin would no doubt decline, his sporting sensibilities offended. Orwell and Turner, though, would find some reason to linger.
Two men for whom sport is war would not recognise the game being played out before them, its glitz, its glamour. What they would see is 90 minutes of action treated almost as a distraction from the real business of sport: the narrative of news. Sport is not war. Not now. In an era in which even war is entertainment — all that was missing from the second Gulf War in 2003 were extended highlights — sport is unlikely to be exempt.
It is a cultural trait that has been noted. In his treatise Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, the commentator Neal Gabler observed that the rise of a society driven by the desire to be entertained forced "nearly everything to turn itself into entertainment in order to attract attention."
As for war, politics, culture and the rest, so for sport. Gabler's thesis is that the primacy of entertainment evolved as essentially a democratic reaction to aristocratic control of what might be termed "old culture". Entertainment — be it print media, cinema, radio or television — was a culture dominated by the common man. He looked for "horse play, belly laughter, pretty girls, ingenious scenery, flippancy and fol de rol."
Most of all, he looked for humanity. There is a media doctrine taught as the theory of "Like Me": namely, every story printed or filmed must contain elements where the reader or viewer can see a parallel between their own life and that of the subject. People want to read about people like them; hence the proliferation of the human interest story. Sport is no different. As Gabler puts it, "Who needs the sporting events when the athletes themselves are walking inspirational soap operas?"
Inspiration is just one of the characteristics viewers, readers, listeners — consumers — of sport-as-entertainment expect. Just as in the penny dreadfuls and the yellow papers of the late 19th century and the tabloids and Fox News of today, so sport must provide the full gamut of human emotion. There must be disappointment and delight, heroes and villains, redemption and revenge, glory and gall. The sport itself — the action of the game — provides just part of this. The rest is in the anticipation and the denouement.
And that is where the media comes in. That is not just the written press, but television, radio, the internet, everything. Football is big business. To newspapermen, it is the battering ram with which to drive sales. To broadcasters, it means subscriptions. To websites, it means hits. It drives an industry (that industry then feeds football; the arrangement is mutually parasitic). And to drive an industry, to attract attention in an age of entertainment, as Gabler says, it must become entertainment.
All of which raises the question: can football, as seen through the prism of Sky, still be considered a sport? Or is it something else? It possesses characters, narrative, plot. It attracts more attention for what happens off the field than on. The game still continues, of course, but the edifice around it suggests that sport is just an aspect of what football has become. Is it, in fact, sports entertainment?
That term exists already, of course, for sport's embarrassing young cousin, professional wrestling. It was first coined in the mid-1980s, when the lurid, muscle-bound cartoons of the World Wrestling Federation were at their most popular, though it is thought to date back to 1935.
It is defined — by Wikipedia, for the omerta which pervades professional wrestling means few people have been inclined to discuss what counts as sports entertainment — as "a type of spectacle which presents an ostensibly competitive event using a high level of theatrical flourish and extravagant presentation with the purpose of entertaining an audience." That could, quite easily, apply to any Sky match featuring Nani.
Furthermore: "Unlike typical athletics and games, which are conducted for competition, sportsmanship, exercise or personal recreation, the primary product of sports entertainment is performance for an audience's benefit."
Sports entertainment is, then, sport with the sport removed; it is sport purely as narrative, sport as Sky Sports News would have us believe. It is to sport, essentially, as soap opera as to life. "It is ballet with violence," as Jesse Ventura, formerly a professional wrestler, now a politician, pundit and personality, put it. It is not competitive. What happens in a bout is not really significant, not on a technical level, because the outcome is pre-destined. The story, what this latest instalment means, is all that counts.
This is what football has become. A startling example came on March 9 this year, the morning after Barcelona, at their impish, dervish best, had exhilarated in excoriating Arsenal in the Champions League. For the 90 minutes of that 3-1 second leg win, sport happened, sport at its absolute best, two teams of impeccable technical expertise — though one, in truth, substantially better — seeking glory.
The headlines the next day? "Referee killed us, insists Wenger," read the Times, in reference to Massimo Busacca's officious — but hardly criminally baffling — decision to dismiss Robin van Persie minutes into the second half. The beauty of Barcelona was relegated to second billing behind the whisper of illusory controversy. The latest instalment is all that matters. That's enough of the sport, let's get back to the story.
That is not to suggest that football is in any way pre-determined, despite the best efforts of various match-fixers. And yet it is structured. It is structured in the sense that the fixture list, for all of the Premier League's denials, is either amended to provide a steady supply of appetising fixtures and putative storylines or, such is the regularity with which Super Sunday becomes Grand Slam Sunday on the same weekend every year, it proves the existence of God.
And it is structured in a less formal way, by a compliant media. To take one example: managers, at press conferences, do not often request silence and deliver a breathless monologue about the incompetence of referees. They are asked questions. Sometimes they answer them truthfully, or controversially. Often, how they answer them is irrelevant, because they have been asked a question which has no right answer, delivered a query from which they cannot escape.
So, too, mind games. There can be no concept more broadly defined in the sporting landscape than these exercises in cod psychology. They are largely, when removed from the hype and the hyperbole in which they are uttered, analysed and examined, attempts at smart-aleckry which would shame a child; delivered by a manager, and they become weapons in a perma-war for mental primacy.
Everything, in football, is heightened. Reality is not enough, so it is expanded, meaning is extrapolated, significance is assumed. And all of it around a structure to ensure maximum exposure, maximum interest, to guarantee, as Gabler puts it, that its characters fulfil their contracts "to carry out their lives for the amusement of the readers."
But perhaps, because there remains an element of sport at the heart, a kernel of actual endeavour, it would be unfair to group football, or more specifically elite football, with professional wrestling. Perhaps a better term can be found in another sub-genre of popular culture. Perhaps Super Sunday, or 6-0-6, or tabloid newspapers — by format or mentality — should come with a disclaimer. These people are real, it should read, and anything can happen, but some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment.
That is the format followed by the statement which precedes every episode of ITV's cult documentary soap opera, The Only Way Is Essex, a programme built around the lives of a dozen or so entrepreneurial, spray-tanned twenty-somethings in London's gaudy hinterlands.
It is part of television's latest trend, the "structured reality" format which started with Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, spawned The Hills and Jersey Shore and is now spreading, rather like a high-definition botulism, across Britain's networks. There is TOWIE, as it is known, now a Bafta-winning series. There is Made In Chelsea and Geordie Shore, respectively an insight into the vapidity of the aspirational class, the abhorrence of the assumed aristocracy and a chilling insight into what happens when humans do not have to work, merely drink, eat and rut.
The premise is simple: soap operas are expensive to make, because you have to pay writers and actors and build sets and stuff. Reality shows are, frankly, dull, because most people when left to their own devices don't do much and aren't interesting. So the two have been combined; reality wasn't quite enough for television, so it has been altered to be more like television. It has been structured.
"These are real people," Tony Wood, the creative director of Lime Pictures, which created TOWIE, told the Today programme. "We place them in environments in which the narrative of their lives and the emotional context of their lives will be played out."
This is Gabler's ingenious scenery, where the requisite horseplay can be carried out by pretty girls and boys. "Before the cameras roll we'll say 'remember to ask what happened last night'," according to Wood. "In the edit, I'll cut words out of sentences to make it more 'writerly' and give it that soap opera quality. But we don't make anything happen that they don't want to happen. The emotional narrative is real."
The parallel with football is clear. Not the football played on parks, but the football played in the Premier League and played out, in every minor detail, in newspapers and on the radio and the internet and the television. Not football the sport, football the sports entertainment.
The characters playing on the pitch are real; they determine which way their lives, their stories will go. These people exist. Anything can happen. Turner may even approve. Orwell and De Coubertin certainly would not. For them, all sport was struggle. To see it cast as mere soap opera, to see courage replaced by character, all of it consumed by narrative would be anathema. Neither conquering nor fighting well matter so much as they did. As long as there is a story to be had, in our most beautifully structured sport.
This article appeared on Episode Fourteen of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.