"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hitchens on Sports

Christopher Hitchens has a really, really aggravating, snide and condescending article on why sports are dumb.  I know- who knew he would ever be condescending.   I've been angry at it all weekend, and have been stewing.  It is fisked in its entirety below the jump.   It is very, very long, but don't let that intimidate you.  Anger can be a good thing.

 And now for a sports roundup: in Angola in early January a gang of shooters sprays the bus carrying the national soccer team of Togo, killing three people in the process, and a local terrorist group announces that as long as the Africa Cup of Nations tournament is played on Angolan soil, fresh homicides will be committed. The member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that have the task of hosting both the Cup of Nations and the soccer World Cup in Cape Town this summer are in disarray as a consequence of the dispute between Angola and Congo over the "security" aspects of these allegedly prestigious sporting events.
Sports round-ups usually have scores as well.  This is called: cherry-picking.

On my desk lies an essay by the brilliant South African academic R. W. Johnson, describing the waves of resentment and disruption that are sweeping through the lovely city of Cape Town as the start of the World Cup draws near. Cost overruns and corruption, the closing of schools to make room for a hastily constructed new stadium, violent animosity between taxi drivers and mass-transit workers, constant disputes over the rigging of "draws" for the playoffs, allegations of bribery of referees … Nothing is spared. (Incidentally, isn't there something simultaneously grandiose and pathetic about the words "World Cup"? Not unlike the micro-megalomaniac expression "World Series" for a game that only a handful of countries bother to play.)

Yeah, I get that the World Cup is expensive and a hassle.  It is too bad that the political elites shove this contest down the throats of an unwilling populace.  I feel like Hitchens is trying to have it both ways, here: seem to take the side of the people, enduring the annoyance of the event, but spending the rest of the essay being an insulting prick.   

Also, that is a great, great, great point about the “World Series”.  I feel like I have heard that line of arguing before, pretty much from every 17-yr-old and graying academic.  Perhaps Mr. Hitchens is not aware that the MLB has the best ballplayers in the world, attracting talent from dozens of countries.   But still, that was a really excellent zinger.  Also, I think a guy telling billions of people that their mostly harmless diversions are wrong-headed and stupid should maybe avoid introducing the phrase “simultaneously grandiose and pathetic” into the discussion.

My newspaper this morning bears the tidings of another unappealing moment in Indo-Pakistani relations: Pakistani lawmakers have canceled a proposed tour of India after the larger neighbor's Premier League failed to bid for any of the 11 Pakistani cricketers who had offered themselves.

I didn’t know that.  For a guy who hates sports you seem to know a lot of sporting news.  Maybe you can let me know just what, exactly, a wicked googly is.  Drop me an email, please.

Meanwhile, genial, welcoming, equable Canada, shortly to be the host of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, is now the object of a stream of complaints from British and American sports officials, who say that their athletes are being denied full access to the venue's ski runs, tracks, and skating rinks. Familiarity with these is important in training and rehearsal, but the Canadians are evidently determined to protect their home-turf advantage. According to one report in The New York Times, the Whistler downhill skiing course was the setting for an astonishing scene, as "several medal contenders were left watching over a fence as the Canadian team trained. 'Everybody was pushing to get on that downhill,' said Max Gartner, Alpine Canada's chief athletic officer. 'That's an advantage we cannot give away.' " Nah nah nah nah nah: it's our mountain and you can't ski on it, so there, or not until we've had the best of it. "We're the only country to host two Olympic Games [Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988] and never have won a gold medal at our Games," whined Cathy Priestner Allinger, an executive vice president of the Vancouver Organizing Committee. "It's not a record we're proud of." But elbowing guests out of your way at your own party—of that you can be proud.

This is a fair point, I guess, or at least a useful anecdote.  But it is hardly the only thing going on at the Olympics, and is really not much of a story, actually.  In fact, it is really boring and not illuminating.
didn't have to read far to find the comment I knew would be made about this spiteful, petty conduct. A hurt-sounding Ron Rossi, who is executive director of something snow-oriented called USA Luge, spoke in wounded tones about a supposed "gentlemen's agreement" extending back to Lake Placid in 1980, and said of the underhanded Canadian tactic: "I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship."

Ready?  This is going to be good.  He’s been waiting for someone to say this, so thatyou can have a classic pivot.  I am giddy!

On the contrary, Mr. Rossi, what we are seeing is the very essence of sportsmanship.


Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want—as in Africa this year—or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples.

Or, presumably, anywhere else.   Except maybe the locker room bit- I concede that sports are the only place where a gun is in a locker room, but that is because they are pretty much the only place that uses locker rooms, professionally.  Guns are not exclusive to sports, of course.  Nor is infidelity and a wife, scorned, attacking her husband.  She just happened to use a golf club, but that has nothing to do with sports, really (in a world blissfully without sports, Elin Woods might have used a fireplace poker, or if she was in a locker room, a gun.)  Also, the dog fighting example?  You used incorrect punctuation.  You put “stars’ homes” when you meant to say “a star’s home”.  The way you wrote it people might think this was widespread, instead of only being about Michael Vick.  I presume there will be a hasty correction, lest people think you are exaggerating to stretch out a paper-thin point. 

As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay "The Sporting Spirit," after yet another outbreak of combined mayhem and chauvinism on the international soccer field, "sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will." As he went on to say:

"I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles."

Putting it a bit strongly, you say. But what about the border war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, when the violence set off by a disputed soccer match escalated to the point of aerial bombardment?

Fair enough.  In Kapucinski’s “The Soccer War”, he did start by saying “There was no tension between the two countries before the soccer match.” 

In Khartoum recently, a soccer game between Egypt and Algeria led to widespread violence, a sharp exchange of diplomatic notes, a speech about affronted national honor from President Hosni Mubarak, hysterical hatred pumped out on state media, and an all-round deterioration of what you might call civility. And this between two members of the Arab League!

Huh.  This seems like something that happens between members of the Arab League all the fucking time.  I would think that his last sentence there was sarcasm, mock-shock, but it would undermine his thesis entirely.

 Incidentally, that observation takes care of the excuse that is sometimes offered: that if rival countries confine their contests to the sporting field, they allow the quarrel between them to be settled vicariously.

I really don’t think I have ever heard anyone say that.  People might say “wouldn’t it be better if they met on the court/pitch/field than in battle, but does anyone actually think that a problem would be resolved by a game?  I think that Hitchens is setting up a strawman here.  But if anyone can find an example of this, I am more than willing to admit I am wrong.

 Before the match in Khartoum, Egypt and Algeria had no diplomatic quarrel. After the game, perfectly serious people in Cairo were saying the atmosphere resembled that following the country's defeat in the June 1967 war … In the India-Pakistan case the position is almost the reverse: relations between the two countries have been poisonous enough for decades, but there is no doubt that the cricket snub has almost effortlessly made a very bad situation even worse.

Probably not dramatically worse.  Maybe.  But probably not.

Yes, yes, I know about Invictus and am a slight friend and strong admirer of the author of the original book. But it was the use of rugby and other sporting cults to reinforce and exemplify apartheid that had been the problem in the first place. And no clear-eyed observer of the South African scene thinks that the Invictus moment was any more than a brief pause in the steady decline of friendship between the country's ethnic groups: a decline that has much to do with sporting rivalries and the idiotic loyalties and customs on which such allegiances depend.

Really? The breakdown of friendship has much to do with sports?  Like, much more than the lingering effects of apartheid and serial mismanagement by the ANC?  No?  It is sports?  OK.

So here's something so toxic that it's even Mandela-proof. (I suppose that the people who so willingly describe themselves as "fans" are aware of the etymology of the term but consider it to be no insult.)

No, because it really isn’t.  It is only an insult if people use it as such, but the word term “fan” has been divorced from the pejorative, at least popularly.  If someone said to me “you are a White Sox fanatic, and I mean that in the classic sense, as an insult”, I might take it as such.  But it doesn’t actually mean that anymore.  I also love the “so willingly describe themselves” trope, like it is something so blindingly stupid.    

Anyway, this has been a long article.  Are you done?

I'm not done.


Our own political discourse, already emaciated enough, has been further degraded by the continuous importation of sports "metaphors": lame and vapid and cheery expressions like "bottom of the ninth," "goal line," and who knows what other tripe.

Yeah, it is lame when people describe politics this way, but that is more of a symptom, rather than a cause, of our inane political rhetoric. 

 Hard enough on the eyes and ears as this is—and there are some cartoonists who can't seem to draw without it—it also increases the deplorable tendency to look at the party system as a matter of team loyalty, which is the most trivial and parochial form that attachment can take.

I don’t think it actually increases the tendency.  I think the drive for power and for money, as well as the way that redistricting boosts the fringe, has a lot more to do with that.  Sports is a way to describe it, but- and I am speaking of someone fully aware of the power of language- I really don’t think it has exacerbated it.  Our politics have gotten more juvenile, and so juvenile language is required.  I will hear arguments, but I really don’t believe it is the other way around.

Meanwhile, the sponsorship racket means that a string of thugs and mediocrities is regularly marketed and presented for "role modeling" purposes, and it's considered normal for serious programming to be postponed or even interrupted if some dull game goes into (the very words are like a knell) overtime.

Careful with “thugs”, buddy.  And I don’t really think people like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Peyton Manning, Roger Federer etc are really “thugs” or mediocrities.   Some of them are awe-inspiring geniuses.   And most overtime games are not dull- by definition, they are very close.  Tied, even!  What you meant to say was “something I don’t care about is interrupting something I do, and that makes me petulant.  But I suppose, being a grown-up, I can understand why other people might enjoy it.”  Lousy editors, right?
OK, here is where it gets good, if “good” can be read as “stroke-inducing”.

I can't count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower.

Italics, for “already known” are hisNot mine.  He really wanted to emphasize that the front page is being interrupted by scores which happened yesterday.  As a matter of fact, he thinks that point is so important, he is going to repeat it in the next sentence.

 Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day.

First of all, if I may, screw you.  How exactly does reading about sports degrade the act of reading?  Really, I want to know.  Does Hitchens know that the sports stories are not just scores, or play-by-play?  I understand he may find it boring to know what strategy was used or what the players had to say or trade rumors- but does it really degrade the act of reading?  No, it doesn’t  And note the picture that he paints, “staring enthusiastically”, with its hint of a vapid mob-mentality, with hordes just staring, because words that are about sports don’t actually need to be read.  And, again, the sarcastic “events that occurred the previous day.”

Christopher.  Mr Hitchens.  Come here.  I don’t know why I have to do this, since you are a grown-up, but I feel compelled to tell you this.  Everything that you read in the paper occurred the previous day.  This is not particular to the sports section.  All sections of the paper also project and have analysis and predictions.   But the “news” is also telling you what already happened, most of which you should have been able to find out.  If newspapers could tell you what happened tomorrow, they wouldn’t be going out of business.

These avid consumers also have tons of dedicated channels and publications that are lovingly contoured to their special needs. All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper.

Special needs.  Great stuff.  One could also say “interests”. 

Or picture this: I take a seat in a bar or restaurant and suddenly leap to my feet, face contorted with delight or woe, yelling and gesticulating and looking as if I am fighting bees. I would expect the maitre d' to say a quietening word at the least, mentioning the presence of other people. But then all I need do is utter some dumb incantation—"Steelers," say, or even "Cubs," for crumb's sake—and everybody decides I am a special case who deserves to be treated in a soothing manner.

I don’t mean to be vulgar- actually, I do- but that is the most obnoxious bit of Euro-twat prattling I have ever heard.  What goddamn restaurant has anyone ever been in that has a maitre d’ and a bunch of sports fans yelling about the game?  I admit that I haven’t been in that many restaurants with a maitre d’, because I don’t have a lot of scratch, and I don’t really use that term anyway, because I am not an asshole.  But in actual restaurants with hosts and tablecloths and other such fancy things, there generally aren’t a lot of TVs blaring the game.  If you go to a bar, though, where people are watching the game, you should expect to see people cheering.  And if you do utter your “dumb incantation”, people will not decide you are a special case.  If they are interested in the game, they will talk to you.  Or if not, they won’t.  What 99% of adults won’t do is act like a prick and condescend to you because your interests are slightly different.

Or else given a wide berth: ever been caught up in a fight over a match that you didn't even know was being played? Or seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.

There isn’t even an argument here, I guess.  Hitchens is pretty much saying everyone who likes sports is a mindless, concussed slobbering pathetic moron.   Everyone- all players, all fans, everyone.  It is a goddamn wonder I even managed to put on pants this morning.

Wait! Have you ever had a discussion about higher education that wasn't polluted with babble about the college team and the amazingly lavish on-campus facilities for the cult of athletic warfare?


 Noticed how the sign of a bad high school getting toward its Columbine moment is that the jocks are in the saddle?

No. In almost every high school the jocks are the most popular.  So it goes without saying that every school with a shooting is in this state, but so is every school without a shooting. And the Columbine psychos didn’t target the jocks- they wanted to kill everyone.  This is a non-argument.

Worried when retired generals appear on the screen and talk stupidly about "touchdowns" in Afghanistan?

No.  Because they don’t actually think that it is a football game.  I think it is silly, but I don’t worry about it.

By a sort of Gresham's law, the emphasis on sports has a steadily reducing effect on the lowest common denominator, in its own field and in every other one that allows itself to be infected by it.

No.  Most people understand that it is a metaphor.  No one thinks we should turn over the Marines to Tom Brady (sports guy, Hitchens).  I think it is a good bit more offensive when sportscasters use war metaphors.   But not really offended, because everyone who is a real person and not a caricature dreamed up by Christopher Hitchens to put an intellectual veneer on his petty grievances knows that it is just a game.  And they aren’t made more stupid by it.

Though I didn't think the story belonged in the news section at all, I did learn today that there's not enough snow for this bloatedly funded spitefest in Vancouver and so they'll be choppering some white stuff in from the north. That at least might be momentarily interesting to watch (Haitians in particular would, I bet, be riveted to see it). Meanwhile, with millions of other don't-care people, I won't be able to escape the pulverizing tedium of the events themselves. Global warming never seemed a more inviting prospect. Let it not snow, let it not snow, let it not snow.

See, I’ve escaped the “pulverizing tedium” of the events.  I watched some hockey, because I like hockey, but I either watch something else or nothing at all.  It is really not difficult to avoid them. 

I am not going to get into an argument about why sports can be a very, very good thing here.  Briefly, one of the things I like is that it is an outlet for being irrational.  I can “hate” the Packers, but it doesn’t mean anything.  It won’ affect anyone.  No one will be hurt.  It is a good channel.  It is also a bonding thing.  When the Sox won the Series in ’05, it allowed my dad and my brothers and I to have a beautiful moment we were all happy about.  I still get teary when I look at pictures of the 4 of us hoisting champagne. 

But, no- Hitchens is right.  I like sports, therefore I am an idiot.  Lorp de da- I don’t even know how to use this keyboard.  Ut-oh!  I just accidentally poured spaghetti on my head and set a dog on fire.  And now I am petting that dog.  Dumb dumb dumb. 

Thus are the wages of liking sports.


  1. Hitchens, in general, thinks that braggadocio, a large vocabulary, and random cultural references can make up for that that his arguments consist in implausible stated premises, a host of implicit and also implausible premises, from which his conclusions do not follow.

  2. I bet Hitchens got picked on by "jocks" when he was a kid...
    Sports reveals character- flawed or good.
    And great breakdown of his article. He dismisses sports while neglecting their benifits. Your '05 Sox example is a good one. The '80 Olympic hocky team brought America together like nothing else could have.

  3. Thank GOD for Christopher Hitchens. Now, no matter how egregiously I may display my utter lack of sporting knowledge or skill, I can take comfort in knowing that there is an even bigger douchebag out there willing to make me look veritably Roddickesque in comparison.