On Saturday, October 19th, 1985, as almost certainly the youngest member of the Sudbury Blues Appreciation Society, I was fortunate enough to witness some of the greatest blues musicians ever assembled on any stage. The setting on that particular evening was Sudbury’s Local 598, Canadian Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers’ Hall. It was the perfect backdrop to appreciate the music of the working class. This was several years before this local of the Mine Mill voted to join the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW), and it had retained that certain quality for which the old union halls and labour temples of the pre- and post- World War II period became known. The atmosphere evoked an old Rolling Stones aesthetic from gutbucket rockers titled “Rip this Joint” – “gonna go raise hell at the union hall”– a song composed when the Rolling Stones were actually a good band.
On stage that night were a few genuine innovators of blues music. Musicians who had perfected electric amplification of the genre through various small groups that provided strong rhythm sections and powerful harmonica. They were, in fact, a band that McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, assembled. As rumor had it, Muddy fell ill with a heart condition and thought it was time to retire. Before retiring, he wanted to assemble an all-star blues band from Chicago. His plan was the Legendary Blues Band, which included Willie Smith, Calvin Jones and Jerry Portnoy. Drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith recorded and performed with Muddy for over 20 years beginning in 1960. It was estimated that Smith participated in twelve sessions yielding eighty-four tracks and countless performances with one of the pre-eminent fathers of electric blues. Journeyman bass player Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, who backed up the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter and many other Chicago blues elder statesmen and women. He and Smith were considered together – as well as individually (especially by purists) – the most influential rhythm section (bass and drums) in American blues and rhythm and blues music from 1960 (when they first teamed up) to the present. Harmonicist Jerry Portnoy began his professional musical career as part of Muddy Waters’ backing band in the early ‘70s. He was renowned for his biting, flailing harmonica style, emotional range, and his effective vocals that punctuated his blues harp accompaniment. This collection was very impressive among serious blues aficionados and was a demonstration of years of master bluesmen practicing their craft.
On that evening, I sort of took it as my duty to make sure that the Legendary Blues Band’s contractual rider was filled. And as a star struck aspiring musical teen myself, I took the opportunity to badger the band with as many questions as I could. At one point I asked Mr. Portnoy how long he had been on “the road” touring as a musician and if it was as artistically fulfilling as it seemed. His response was a disappointment and a revelation for a young man who believed that these innovators and pioneers of the blues were the image of the human ability to transcend limitations through creativity. For Portnoy, being on “the road” for 26 years “sucked.” He did not have a home, he had several failed relationships and he worked very hard for very little money despite all of the notoriety. For him it was just another job. It was at this time that I realized that despite the popular pretence of musical genius the artistic practise known as the blues really was the result of human effort. The music and entertainment produced by these men was no different from ordinary commodities like guitars, guitar amplifiers or soccer balls. In spite of my nostalgic overtures, I had really lost sight of the fact that music industry – especially the blues music industry – was a business, and a lucrative one for its owners, precisely because of its uniqueness. The musicians themselves, however, had to “sing for their supper.” There was (and is) always going to be indeed something unique about the musical tradition designated as the blues, but the question continued to linger. How was I to reconcile the unique character of the talents of these men with the commodity they produced? How did one conceptualize talent or objectivity in a capitalist context and how were the two distinguished?
Culture and commodity fetishism
It was only when that I began graduate school that I recalled this event and began to consider this meeting I had with these idols of mine against something I read in Karl Marx’s German Ideology.
“Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of mental and manual labour appears. (The first form of ideologists, priests, is concurrent.) From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of ‘pure’ theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc.”[i]
Thus for Marx, culture really has only one parent and that is labour. Culture should not be overshadowed by the championing of consciousness. Labour and human effort is the unsung hero. Often we take for granted that we consume culture and by extension this gives us a sense that our freedoms are easy and plenty. In fact, our general sense of democratic freedoms appear overstated under a condition of free and easy consumption of cultural materials. Indeed, many people acquire purpose, sense and gratification from cultural materials that the system of cultural production and distribution has to offer them – cultural materials such as the blues or spectator sports. However, the production and the perception of such cultural materials is not a random or relative process. The performances generated by musicians or athletes cannot be separated from the properties of the commodity they produce. In a market economy, the monetary compensation such individuals receive is based on two very familiar considerations: supply and demand.
Furthermore, musicians and athletes, as entertainers, are endowed with unique talents or natural abilities/characteristics, and they work in industries where unique skills are a major input in the final commodity provided to consumers. All of this is part of a process of a culture industry in which commodities that have use value are produced. Without a doubt, these commodities satisfy a need or provide pleasure. However, the relationship between the production, distribution and consumption of cultural forms as commodities is not a trouble free or straight-forward one. As a matter of fact, in a condition where an identifiable social group, pursuing economic or political ends, in a competition to determine which meanings disseminate and which do not, which narratives are recognized about what, which arguments are given standing and what cultural resources are made available and to whom, consist of an extensive and complex constellation of power relations. These relations are embedded in the production of cultural forms as commodities. Thus, analyzing the process of cultural production for a particular cultural industry is vital in providing a wider and deeper understanding of production and the power structures concerned with culture and cultural production and how these structures connect to the larger political and social arenas of life.
Nowhere was the lacunae of this type of analysis more apparent than on July 8th, 2010, when basketball superstar Lebron James announced on a unprecedented live ESPN special, The Decision, that he had signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat for the 2010/11 season and would be teaming with Miami’s other All-Star free agent signee Chris Bosh and the already resident super-star Dwayne Wade. The thirty-minute television special attracted somewhere between nine and ten million viewers.[ii] It was considered by many – despite the critiques of crass self-promotion – a television extravaganza not to be missed. In fact, it was James’ image and symbolic value that were the commodities sold and marketed to viewers as never before. Cleveland, the city in which Lebron had plied his trade, watched with bated breath as his worth to the city’s economy was considered by many to be inestimable.[iii] LeBron didn’t want to just win titles he wanted to become sport’s first billionaire athlete by the marketing of his image. Up until this point, James had not even secured any sort of major championship and yet, despite James’ status as a super-star professional athlete, the fact that he is a performer – or a labourer – in a sector of the entertainment industry, seemed to have been almost deliberately minimized.
For those interested in symbolic production and the current material processes of cultural phenomena, James’ accrued value is an example of a commodification of experience as opposed to the sale of a tangible item such as cell phones or televisions. There seems to be a separation of Lebron James’ labour from its objective conditions – that is, between his talents on the basketball court and what is sold outside his effort on the court. In the sale of his symbolic image and value, it would seem that production, exchange and consumption are inextricably intertwined in the sense that the product that James produces is immediately communicated to and consumed by another. Here we have Karl Marx’s classic conception of commodity fetishism being enacted – that “relations between people” assume the form of “relations between things.”[iv] Work seems to have taken on an immaterial quality. However, can the phenomena of major-league sporting spectacles and the performance of athletes such as Lebron James be conceptualized as immaterial labour, when in fact they are relations between people throughout everyday life? This is what my experience with the Legendary Blues Band taught me and what has ultimately been the inspiration for this project’s examination of the culture of sport. When classified by economic functions – whether bluesman, actor, television personality, or athlete – an entertainer is an entertainer. In a capitalist society the product of so-called art or artistic performance is really not up to the artist, consumer, academics, critics and so on, but how the objects are valued. Nonetheless, despite our propensity to be nostalgic about sports, we must recall that professional spectator sports have been businesses for a considerable amount of time and that ultimately sports have become extensive industries. What is more, these businesses most often exist in the world’s most commercialized societies.
The central premise of symbolic or aesthetic production is that objects in contemporary political economies, due to the startling velocity in which they are circulated, are not just emptied out of symbolic content – the production behind the object – but are also progressively emptied out of material content. What are increasingly being produced are not material objects, but signs and symbols.[v] These signs and symbols break with the possibility of calculating value. Interpretation, explanation and analyses of the image associated with the object are relative and open to value assignment. Signs in this context are first and foremost of two types: they are of a primarily cognitive content, such as post-industrial or informational goods (museum exhibits or motivational seminars) or they have an aesthetic content (in the widest sense, “taste”) such as pervasive consumption exemplified in the use of the famous Guerillero Heroico (“Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”) an iconic photo of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara wearing his black beret taken by Alberto Korda. This “new” condition is purportedly taking place, not just in the proliferation of non-material objects, which comprise a substantial aesthetic component (such as pop music, cinema, video and events, the chief one among them spectator sports), but also in the increasing component of sign value or image in material objects. Sport seamlessly fits into either of these categories precisely because there is something so profoundly short-lived in the sporting event. The continuing popularity of sport as a prized commodity is packaged precisely because of the fleeting and ephemeral qualities a sporting event projects.
I want to argue that despite being characterized by many in the social sciences and humanities as a ‘new’ epiphenomenal cultural reflection of symbolic and aesthetic production, major league spectator sport and its associated products and industries are fundamentally a product of cultural production as opposed to cultural consumption. Viewing sport purely in terms of symbolic representations is a reflection that scholarly attention has shifted to cultural consumption from cultural production. Take for instance, Magic Johnson’s public announcement that he was HIV positive on November 7, 1991. This is indeed a superb opportunity to examine how the image of Johnson and others have been used by commercial and professional sports interests to (re)produce specific, narrowly defined messages about the meaning of AIDS and the HIV virus, well-established discourses that reinforce the dominant messages of homophobia and misogyny, masculinity, sexuality, race and so on.[vi] However, this tells us very little of how Magic Johnson was able to become the face of the financial services firm called Guggenheim Partners whose $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team managed to catapult the value of the franchise and its holdings to its highest point ever.[vii] Johnson’s fame and fortune was achieved first and foremost through the development of his unique talents, natural abilities and characteristics as a basketball player and worker in the lucrative industry of professional basketball, where his unique skills were a major input in the final service provided to consumers. Culturalist variants of cultural studies (those that focus on identity) inadequately conflate the athlete as a symbolic image with the athlete’s commodity status. The examples are numerous: Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, Tiger Woods, Anna Kournikova.[viii]
What is missing is an analysis of how athletic performance is embedded in the production of the symbolic image. The athlete’s labour may seem unique but in fact it is not. Athletes are performers employed by a sector of the entertainment industry and are always engaged with other athletes on teams or in competitions to produce a commodity for surplus value. Their training, hence labour, is crucial to this dynamic. This gap highlights the expediency of revisiting theoretical and practical issues of cultural production. An examination of the complex conditions of the commodification of the sporting event in the 20th century presents an opportunity to demonstrate that performance, in this case athletic performance, is embedded in production.
Viewing sport solely in terms of symbolic image also tells us very little of the material history of the Los Angeles Dodgers and how the land for Dodger Stadium was sequestered from local owners/inhabitants of Chavez Ravine (who themselves were a marginalized group of poor migrant Mexican workers and their families) in the early 1950s by the City of Los Angeles for the Brooklyn Dodgers and their owner Walter O’Malley. This was a move to provide incentives for a massive migration to Los Angeles and its suburbs and exhibits how professional spectator sport was incorporated into the monopoly capitalism of the time transforming communities into competitive cities.
The Brooklyn Dodgers and Chavez Ravine
In the sphere of major league spectator sports there does not exist a more fascinating study when it concerns the confluence of politics, economics, popular culture, along with public and urban policy, than the example of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their move to a plot of land called Chavez Ravine; home to a small but intimate community comprised overwhelmingly by Mexican-Americans, several Chinese immigrants and working-poor whites. On the one hand, the Dodgers’ move out of Brooklyn represented a benchmark for modern sports as it heralded unprecedented national growth in the business of spectator sports, and it also triggered the kind of emotional reaction that in recent years has led cities and professional sports teams and clubs to battle in the various arenas of government over their respective rights and obligations. The Brooklyn Dodgers have retained a romantic vitality that distinguishes them from other teams that have relocated. Perhaps it is because of the fact that the hard-core support of the Dodgers – mostly from the European working-class immigrant communities – was built in the close emotional tie that residents had (and continue have) to their borough, dating back to the time when Brooklyn was an independent city. Even more plausible is the fact that Dodgers were the team that finally broke the color barrier in MLB with the signing of Jackie Robinson. Nevertheless, the feeling of abandonment continues to infuriate Brooklynites and the Dodgers’ faithful to this day. The impact the move had on the residents of community would foreshadow the years of suffering that were to come for New York City (in particular Brooklyn).
On the other hand, there is – or was – this small plot of land named Chavez Ravine, after Julian Chavez, the 19th century owner of the property and one-time long-serving city councilman in Los Angeles. Chavez Ravine, a plot of land of approximately 352 acres comprising about 11, 000 homes in Los Angeles was many things; a Tongva Indian village, a cattle ranch, a hospital for smallpox victims and, at the time of the proposed Brooklyn Dodgers move, an intimate residential neighborhood for mostly working-poor Mexican-Americans targeted for urban renewal; the first socially important landmark in the United States to provide decent living conditions in low income housing – a potential blueprint to eliminate slums across the country.[ix] All of this real estate was a stone’s throw away from downtown Los Angeles and it became an explosive battleground of political infighting for a 10-year period to define the proper use of this land. The actors and issues ranged from organized supporters for public housing, to anticommunist-McCarthyite witch-hunts, to violent culture clashes between American naval servicemen and young Mexican-American men.[x] This all culminated in the subterfuge of a referendum approval in the form of a proposition by Los Angeles city council and the combined use of a draconian eminent domain law to expropriate the property and forcibly evict the poor residents of the community. The City of Los Angeles then proceeded to raze nearly the entire community and begin construction of the then state-of-the-art Dodger Stadium.
The author at Chavez Ravine.
In the past forty years, scholars have approached the subject of Chavez Ravine and the Brooklyn Dodger move from a variety of perspectives. Research on the subject seems sporadic and patchy and not until recently have examinations of the political, economic and socio-cultural issues surrounding the “Battle for Chavez Ravine” been treated in a systematic and methodical manner. A number of writers have stressed the positive benefits and negative repercussions associated with the westward move of the Brooklyn Dodgers orchestrated by the arch-villain owner of the Dodgers, Walter O’Malley. Several of these studies place the Dodger’s move to Los Angeles within a larger context of the postwar expansion of major-league baseball but not necessarily within the postwar political economy of the United States.[xi] Others have attempted to dispel the common assumption that citizens and taxpayers in Los Angeles were exploited by ill-advised decision of their elected officials.[xii] Still others have focused explicitly on the standard manner in which the Mexican-American experience of Los Angeles has been one of injustice, segregation and dislocation.[xiii] All of these approaches are useful in assisting the construction of a political-economic account of the role of sport and leisure in the accumulation process. However, what seems to be required is a synthesis of these approaches that would be entirely consistent with the approach advocated in this study. This would begin with: a) establishing the broader historical foundation and context of the dialectical relationship between work, sport, leisure and entertainment discussed; and b) assessing the material spatial practices that occur in and across space in such a way as to assure production and social reproduction. This would point us to the value of the regulation theory and the regulation of space. In this manner, we should begin the analysis of the study with the entity once known as the Brooklyn Dodgers
Sport and the entrepreneurial city
Public money has been crucial since the end of World War Two in bringing major league sport franchises to cities. Though private investors have paid exorbitant franchise fees, most expansion teams since the late 1960s have played in publicly financed facilities, which socialized one of their major costs. The case of the Los Angeles Dodgers should be understood against the background of greater monopoly capitalism of sport, public subsidization, and national and international mobility of capital in an arena of new information technologies, free trade, and more flexible industrial work processes that characterize the post-war development of capitalism, but more so, this current wave of neoliberalism. With the globalization of markets and audiences for manufactured goods and popular entertainment, along with rapidly changing consumer tastes and preferences, such circumstances have intensified what David Harvey called the entrepreneurial city or regimes of flexible accumulation,[xiv]in which civic and regional authorities feel more and more need to offer infrastructure and other incentives to attract new businesses – or just to keep existing ones.
The interrelated spatial and temporal modalities of capitalism that distinguished the post-Fordist phase of flexible accumulation from the Fordist era of mass production, have collapsed spatial barriers such as tariffs or regulations, so that the world increasingly became a single field within which capitalism can operate and capital flows become more and more sensitive to the relative advantages of particular spatial locations. Growing and declining cities and regions alike now compete more self-consciously and intensely for every kind of investment and the jobs that come with it. They have long done so for manufacturing, but with manufacturing jobs declining in many centers, civic leaders now campaign for information-processing and telecommunications functions and for shopping complexes, and of course, leisure and entertainment venues, along with other consumption and tourism-related investment. This situation underlines the growing role of leisure and entertainment in the western world’s urban economy and the perceived importance of investment in civic image and the entertainment infrastructure (stadiums, arenas, concert halls) that can sustain a city’s reputation as a ‘big league’ player on the national and international stage. These dynamics now give owners of major league sports franchises unprecedented leverage, allowing them to play municipal, regional and national governments off against each other to secure better deals. All such deals give owners the right to make more money – from other events, from advertising, even from selling the name of the facility – from a venue built or renovated at public expense. Civic and corporate leaders in today’s entrepreneurial cities fight hard to keep their major league sports teams – or conspire to lure teams to their cities – because of the depth of popular appeal of major league sports, their alleged economic value, and their role as signifiers of civic prosperity and ambition. State power intrudes where necessary to make sure that correct climate for investment is ever present.
Opponents of public subsidies for major league sports teams face a difficult struggle with business and political leaders who argue that public spending on ‘world class’ sport is simply a matter of economic and cultural ‘common sense.’ This claim has considerable popular appeal, and it is supported by the way the major league sport has become so thoroughly integrated into broader promotional circuits, which market the virtues of business culture at the very moment that they work to sell individual commodities within it. In the media-oriented world of capitalism today, virtually every cultural event, every public communication, has come to have promotional messages and public–relations purposes built into it. Formerly linked, but discrete endeavors – middle-class civic boosterism and urban development, the marketing of professional sport, and the use of sporting events, athletes, and sports facilities to promote other products – are becoming seamlessly united.
The production of the sporting spectacle and its iconic athletes remains a material process. Cultural practices are progressively more grounded within a capitalist mode of production. These are details that have been obscured by everyone from post-modernist cultural theorists, to neoclassical economists extolling the virtues of the ‘new’ dematerialized economy, to managers and policy-makers seeing knowledge as the only source of value. This is particularly the case with those characterizing this current phase of capitalist accumulation as fragmented, ephemeral and as a period in which cultural production has become unhinged from its material foundation and finds social agency through actors of the “creative class.”[xv] The shift in focus from cultural production to cultural consumption, and to the cultural practices of leisure rather than those of work, has in large part been an attempt to persuade people to construct themselves as consumers in opposition to producers. This focus on the current forms and practices of symbolic production sustains an ideology that mobilizes meaning on behalf of dominant interests. This was no more evident than with the infamous Margaret Thatcher maxim, “there is no such thing as society, just individuals.”[xvi]
Sport and the politics of consumption
Reinforcing this ideology is the manner in which textuality has become the preferred practice or mode of discussion, analysis and above all politics. Textuality is the process by which ‘meaning’ is restored to the new disembodied and content-less object through individual consumption, reception and interpretation; a highly subjective act as texts underlying the object will always be read and interpreted in different ways, by different people, and at different times. For instance, sports commentary – and now more so online sports commentary – has served to advance the development and dissemination of sporting content and the rise of global sporting cultures. This commentary has reproduced and extended forms of representation in sports media through facts and figures and has definitely moved sports beyond the visual spectacle particularly for readership based on fan identification. It has also been instrumental in the social construction and negotiation of hegemonic representations that affect and position not only the athletes but also those consuming and participating in relation to gender, sexuality and race. Commentary thus extends and alters the symbolic basis of sports coverage. Sports as a text is wide open and thus the greater is the range of pluralist political interpretation.[xvii] What is missing are the external factors related to this text, mainly, the embedded social relations of the production of said text.
The process of textuality has become the ‘new’ politics of more contemporary cultural studies departments in universities or a culturalist view of politics, which argues against ‘reductionism’ and economism, or the base and superstructure metaphor of classical Marxism and, above all, the Marxist conception of false ideology. The question of political ideology has been immensely complicated by developments within the analysis and politics of textuality. This analysis has brought into question the validity or existence of truth and intentionality. It has posed the difficult but unavoidable problem of the relationship between symbolic representations and normal social actions as untenable because the terms of such change are predicated on prioritizing economic relations and determinations over cultural and political relations. By focusing on consumption and reception at the moment of interpretation, more current variants of cultural studies have exaggerated the freedom of consumption and daily life. However, the direct social relations and dynamics between appropriators and producers under a system of capitalist exchange that create the text are either assumed or absent.
Examining the critique of the cultural practices in such a manner raises the intersection between two particular academic discourses and a cultural phenomenon – the uneasy relationship between contemporary cultural studies and political economy – as it affects the study of modern sport. As an attempt to explain global capitalism, more current variants of cultural studies have endeavoured to diminish, and at times remove, political economy from the study of culture. Sports stars such as Lebron James and David Beckham and iconic events such as the Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer have been utilized as commodities to reach niche markets, represent multiple identities, and to maintain normative ideas of sport and society.
As a critique of culture, politics and aesthetics, the contemporary enterprise of cultural studies has contended the act of cultural consumption is itself the driving force in contemporary society:
“Culture [has become] the prime determinant of social, economic, political and even psychological reality … [It] has become a product in its own right: thus, the process of cultural consumption is no longer merely an adjunct but the very essence of capitalist functioning.”[xviii]
Effectively, signs and symbols that make up consumer culture become the primary object of critique. This critique takes place within the context of the latest phase of globalization characterized by a proliferating media culture, hybridity, marginality, and the culture of the post-modern spectacle. All of which serve to produce an economy in which these very signs and symbols are primarily blurred and resist calculation. Culturalist variants of cultural studies do not adequately conceptualise the labour process and labour that extends into the production of culture (in this case sport) under the dominance of a calculation of exchange value. Rather than just study culture ‘in itself’ as a ‘thing’ or ‘object,’ culture is not perceived as an exchangeable commodity that produces its own pre-conditions. Primacy is placed on the panacea of culture and consumption at the expense of the processes involved at the level of social struggles over value, economic production, the market and the establishing of a commodity.
By focusing on cultural consumption, reception and interpretation, culturalist variants of cultural studies have exaggerated the freedoms of consumption and daily life. Taken together, and combined with conditions of free entry and exit of firms providing consumer goods, these assumptions imply individual consumers know best and will act in their own interest. Firms will provide what the consumers want; those that don’t will not survive a competitive marketplace. Competition and rationality together ensure that consumers will be sovereign – that is, that their interests will ‘rule.’ Simple investigations suggest that these assumptions do not adequately describe a wide range of consumer behaviors. This simple rational-economic model is reasonable for predicting some fraction of choice behavior for some class of goods, such as apples versus oranges, or milk versus orange juice, but it is inadequate when we are led to more consequential issues: consumption versus leisure, products with high symbolic content, fashion, consumer credit, and so on. It exaggerates how rational, informed, and consistent people are. It overstates their independence and it fails to address the pressures that consumerism imposes on individuals with respect to available choices and the consequences of various consumption decisions.
It is true that peoples’ relationships with dominant forces are in no way linear: people are not in any simple way manipulated by the dominant forces in society. People do, indeed, derive use, reason and pleasure from cultural materials and texts that a system of cultural production and distribution has to offer them. However, interpretation of cultural materials is not a random process. All commodities must have a use value; they must satisfy some need or provide some pleasure. There is no simple relationship between the unequal power relations embedded in the production, distribution and consumption of cultural forms as commodities and the use-value of the commodity to the consumer. There will always be some type of relationship in which a delimited social group, pursuing economic or political ends, determines which meanings circulate and which do not, which stories are told about what, which arguments are given prominence and what cultural resources are made available and to whom.
An example of this is the interpretation of the French national football team that won the World Cup in 1998. By many, the team was considered an exemplar of contemporary, culturally diverse French society (the team was comprised of players from sons of immigrants from Guadeloupe, Algeria, Senegal, the Congo, French Guiana, Armenia, New Caledonia and elsewhere) making the phenomenon of “European cosmopolitanism on display” a matter-of-fact occurrence reflecting a continent shaped by migration.[xix] However, in 2005, seven short years after the euphoric celebrations of the 1998 World Cup, there was significant civil unrest in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities (a period referred to in French as Les émeutes des banlieues de 2005). These riots were by mostly French youths of African and Maghrebian origins involving mainly the burning of cars and public buildings at night. A state of emergency was declared and was extended for three months by Parliament. The riots revealed that discrimination and unemployment were at the root of the problem. Nonetheless, this did not prevent the looming xenophobic backlash from right politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy to far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, demanding that foreigners be deported if convicted of involvement in the riots, and that naturalized French rioters should have their citizenship revoked. It is obvious that such examples reveal the shortcomings of an approach that analyzes sport as symbolic signs and symbols. At best this approach might merit a way to gauge certain views and perhaps trends in society. What this lacks is the rigor that a political economic approach can provide.
This new phase of global capitalism – in many ways – is not new, but rather, a change in the pace of the circuits of capital and the constellation and configurations of capital and technology, producing new use and exchange values in forms of culture, society and everyday life. This is something that the Frankfurt school claimed several decades ago. Because their model of the culture industries focused on the articulations of capital, technology, culture and everyday life that constituted the current socio-cultural environment, they have provided a crucial foundation towards studying how human relations were translated into commodity relations under monopolistic competition. We can best understand the changes and tensions in major league sport today as extensions of older commercial dynamics and as products of a newer political-economic environment that has been forming since the mid-1970s. There is still a great deal of work to be done to clarify exactly what is old and what is new about the apparent restructuring of these industries and the promotional discourses that sustain them. There is also a need to examine when and how current forms and practices of symbolic production in these industries sustain ideology – mobilize meaning on behalf of dominant interests – and when they do not. There is now a substantial literature on sport and ideology in capitalist societies, but there has not been enough research that examines how popular discourses produced around sport either sustain or challenge the new economic and political orthodoxies of our age.
The range of possible issues for examination is broad. The problem of ideology needs to be explored – particularly in the promotional discourses of team owners, civic boosters, and media commentators – and connected to the material claims that they make. In short, the material reality behind the ideology should be tested for verification. Sports promoters and media commentators work to construct an imaginary “us” around professional sports, as if everyone shares in the benefits that teams bring to their “home” cities. Yet as players’ salaries and ticket costs have risen, regular attendance at major league sport is now out of reach for most working-class and even middle-class fans. Popular celebrations of the benefits of “world-class” sport tend to gloss over an increasing polarization of many of our cities between the business and professional classes and everyone else. What is needed is more research about the material ways in which the business and professional classes benefit from “world-class” entertainment – for example, through increases in property values and from tax-deductible corporate entertainment – and how the lives of poorer citizens, of women, and of various racialized and marginalized groups are affected by public-sector cutbacks that erode community services, while spending on sports and entertainment mega-projects proceeds. How is exclusion and vulnerability experienced, by people who cannot readily present themselves as “buyers,” when the buying public is the only public that counts? These are simple questions associated with the restructuring of the modern sports industry that a political economy of popular culture can help us see more clearly.
Julian Ammirante enjoys every sandwich and maintains a healthy obsession with Italian and South American football.
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