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)

Herbert Spencer

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.

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?