Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

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Nisbet on how violent, contact sports like football redirect people’s energies away from war (1988)

The American sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) laments the direction sports has evolved since the Second World War but sees one positive result, at least for contact sports like football (but not track and field), in that they reduce the pressure to go to war:

It is good that sports are so important. They—and especially the contact or “violent” ones like football, hockey, and boxing—play a role of reliving pressures in human beings which once had no other outlets but wars, Bedlams, and public hangings. If by some major accident we ever lose the mayhem of the hockey rink, gridiron, and prize ring, if we are limited, say, to track and field, heaven help the ordinary American who wants only law and order and peace.

The cash nexus and loose individual have many haunts beyond Wall Street and the Multiversity. It is not easy to think of a major pursuit in America in which monetary units have not yet triumphed over the motivations and discipline of old. Three, eminently diverse, areas come to mind: sports, religion, and government service.

In sports a significant evolution of power has taken place since World War I: We have seen the original amateur—once a term of honor in our society—succeeded by the professional, the respectable professional, it should be said; then by the agent, ever solicitous of his client’s income and investments and, of course, his own percentage. Sports have become as conspicuous and flagrant an example of the profit motive and the bottom line as any commercial operation known. But sports are something else: a secular religion in America, one that ranks only just behind education, which is by now a civil religion.

It is good that sports are so important. They—and especially the contact or “violent” ones like football, hockey, and boxing—play a role of reliving pressures in human beings which once had no other outlets but wars, Bedlams, and public hangings. If by some major accident we ever lose the mayhem of the hockey rink, gridiron, and prize ring, if we are limited, say, to track and field, heaven help the ordinary American who wants only law and order and peace.

The question is, how long can professional sports serve this important function—or any other function beyond their own preservation for profit? The cash nexus threatens to outstrip anything found in corporate America and on Wall Street. We honor the free agent who, having had the chains of serfdom struck off, is now at liberty to run from one team to another as fancy and financial reward determine. We are glad to see him reach the position of hanging loosely on the sport. But fans identify powerfully with teams, and the greatest of individual heroes from Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb down to Walter Payton and Lawrence Taylor are linked with given teams as closely as with their own names. We all know that money is important in the form of salaries, bonuses, and other forms of remuneration, but we also know that, just as it is impossible to glean genuine heroes from the ranks of stockbrokers, bankers, salesmen, and vice-presidents for production, it becomes more and more difficult to keep one’s mind on the performance of a Dave Winfield on the baseball diamond when rivaling it are the lush details of his latest contract—in the millions naturally, and made a little more interesting perhaps by the division into present income, deferred income, options, a special trust, and even, so help us, a foundation in his name. What confounds some of us is that all this is printed on the once-sacrosanct sports page, not the financial.

The celebrated bottom line is the sole reason we have so many teams in baseball, football, and basketball that East-West, North-South divisions are necessary, themselves perhaps cut into sections, with play-offs today calculated to give anyone a rough notion of infinity. Further adding to the possibility of present bewilderment and future boredom, and also a product of the cash nexus and a lubricant to looseness of the individual, is the relentless specialization of play. The player who is paid for but one activity—field goal kicking, kickoff return, or whatever—obviously is hanging more loosely on the game than his predecessors who, if they played at all, played sixty minutes, on offense and defense. It is really impossible to compare current with past stars in any of the major sports. No matter how we may thrill to a Jim McMahon and a Joe Montana at quarterback today, we are getting a good deal less from them than we did from quarterbacks who once upon a time played sixty minutes, on defense as well as offense, who themselves called the plays, ran with the ball, and often punted and drop-kicked. Tocqueville, speaking of the damaging effect upon the worker’s mind of the extreme specialization that went with division of labor, said that under such specialization “the art advances but the artisan recedes.” Today the fan as well as the player is receding, in Tocqueville’s sense.

It will be more and more difficult for most of us to keep balanced in our minds the dual role of the player: on the one hand, the high-salaried, expert worker in a basically machine effort; and on the other, the warrior jousting as did warriors of old for victory, sweet victory, on the field of battle, and the devil take all else.

About this Quotation:

We continue our exploration of what some of the authors in the OLL collection have to say about the relationship between sport and liberty. Since this week is Super Bowl week in Indianapolis our focus is upon football. We have seen how much Herbert Spencer despises all violent sports because they discourage individuals from respecting other people’s right to liberty and property; we have seen how the English jurist Sir Frederick Pollock regards violent games as somewhat distasteful but nevertheless are an example of a voluntarily agreed to association of individuals. In this quote we look at how the American sociologist Robert Nisbet sees a certain merit in games like football and boxing because they channel the violent impulses of individuals away from war and towards a relatively “harmless” form of entertainment. A rather back-handed compliment.

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