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Herbert Spencer worries that the violence and brutalities of football will make it that much harder to create a society in which individual rights will be mutually respected (1879)

The English radical individualist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) argued that, since “old beliefs” about violent activities such as imperial conquest and some sports were so widely held, the prospects for rapid social change in the late 19th century were not good until people began to respect each other’s rights. He singled out “the brutalities of football” for special consideration:

A nature which generates international hatreds and intense desires for revenge–which breeds duelists and a contempt for those who do not seek to wipe out a slight by a death, is not a nature out of which harmonious communities can be molded. Men who rush in crowds to witness the brutalities of football matches, who roar out ferocious suggestions to the players, and mob the umpires who do not please them, so that police protection is required, are not men who will show careful consideration of one another’s claims when they have agreed to work together for the common good.

[473]. Those who, not content with that progress through small modifications which is alone permanent, hope to reach by immediate reorganization a high social state, practically assume that the human mind can forthwith have its qualities so changed that its bad products will be replaced by good products. Old beliefs in the wonders to be worked by a beneficent fairy, were not more baseless than are these new beliefs in the wonders to be worked by a revolutionized social system.

A world which, from the far east of Russia to the far west of California and from Dunedin in the North to Dunedin at the Antipodes, daily witnesses deeds of violence, from the conquests of one people by another to the aggressions of man on man, will not easily find place for a social order implying fraternal regard of each for each. A nature which generates international hatreds and intense desires for revenge–which breeds duelists and a contempt for those who do not seek to wipe out a slight by a death, is not a nature out of which harmonious communities can be molded. Men who rush in crowds to witness the brutalities of football matches, who roar out ferocious suggestions to the players, and mob the umpires who do not please them, so that police protection is required, are not men who will show careful consideration of one another’s claims when they have agreed to work together for the common good. Not by any ingenuity can there be framed well-working institutions for people who shoot those who will not enter the political combinations they form, who mutilate and torture the cattle of dissentients, who employ emissaries to blow up unconcerned persons and cause a panic, and who then, when the wretches have been convicted, are indignant that they are not released. Only to a wild imagination will it seem possible that a social regime higher than the present, can be maintained by men who, as railway employees, wreck and burn the rolling stock of companies which will not yield to their demands–men who, as ironworkers, salute with bullets those who come to take the wages they refuse, try by dynamite to destroy them along with the houses they inhabit and seek to poison them wholesale–men who, as miners, carry on a local civil war to prevent a competition they do not like. Strange, indeed, is the expectation that those who, unscrupulous as to means, selfishly strive to get as much as possible for their labor and to give as little labor as possible, will suddenly become so unselfish that the superior among them will refrain from using their superiority lest they should disadvantage the inferior!

Without having recourse to such extreme illustrations, we may see, on contemplating a widely diffused habit, how absurd is the belief that egoistic conduct may forthwith be changed into altruistic conduct. Here, throughout the whole community, from the halls of nobles and the clubs frequented by the upper ten thousand, down through the trading classes, their sons and daughters, and even to the denizens of kitchens and the boys in the street, we find gambling and betting; the universal trait of which is that each wishes to gain by his neighbor’s loss. And now we are told that under a new social system, all those who have greater ability will submit to loss that those who have less ability may gain! Without any transformation of men’s characters, but merely by transforming social arrangements, it is hoped to get the effects of goodness without the goodness!

About this Quotation:

Since our local football team has reached the superbowl I thought it might be interesting to explore what our authors have to say on the topic of sport (football in particular) and individual liberty. The range of views is quite interesting. At one end we have the radical individualist Herbert Spencer who hates football because it encourages violence and brutality; John Hobson thinks that the love of sport amongst the upper classes encourages British imperialism and among the lower classes is a throwback to feudalism. At the other end we have the modern American sociologist Robert Nisbet who thinks violent sports like football and hockey channel the warlike spirit into safer directions (unlike track and field); and the English jurist Sir Frederick Pollock who thinks that because violence in sport is voluntary then no legal crime is committed by actions, which in other branches of life would be regarded as violent assault. Then we have the cynical Earl of Shaftesbury who reminds us that in the past unscrupulous glaziers have given town youths a football in order to encourage playing in the street, and thus breaking windows, in order to increase business. So, in addition to having “philosophers of the kitchen” (Spencer, Erasmus, Hume), we now have “philosophers of the football field”. Who would have thought?

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