Sport and Invisible Propaganda

essay social-observation

You know the feeling. You’re at the stadium, the anthem is being sung while a wounded veteran is paraded around next to the professional players. Tears well in your eyes, and it’s as though a balloon filled with liquid pride is gradually expanding in your upper abdomen. It’s incredibly unique – I, frankly, can’t think of more than a handful of instances wherein such a deep appreciation and sense of pride can be brought about in myself as if due to the flip of a switch. But why? Why does every American who’s ever seen a professional sports event know this feeling so vividly and experience it so intensely?

Noam Chomsky would probably turn to his propaganda model of media for an explanation. In its essence, Chomsky would say, the media’s primary purpose is as a tool to indoctrinate and suppress the masses. Prima facie, perhaps that claim sounds like just another academic spewing some “goddamned anti-American garbage.” But consider for a moment the perspective of a Martian peering down on America from outer space. This Martian would see a truly remarkable concentration of power and wealth within the government and the largest corporations. It seems to follow immediately that because humans are greedy creatures, those entities that control the vast majority of power and wealth in the US would want to continue to control that power and wealth. So then, as the astute Martian would point out, it makes perfect sense that those institutions would utilize a significant amount of the vast resources at their disposal to maintain their respective stakes. Well, as it were, some of the largest companies in the US are media companies. In addition to huge sums of capital, they control massive information distribution networks (e.g. TV, radio, social media, etc…), and the Martian would see that those networks and that capital were being appropriated to mold the public’s conception of the world away from the reality of corporate and governmental fascism and instead inculcate them with docility in order to maintain the status quo of power and wealth. What’s frightening about Chomsky’s model is that it’s coldly rational, unbiased politically, and posits that the existence of the propagandistic media is merely an emergent property of the concentrations of wealth that arise in capitalistic societies.

Through this lens, let’s take a deeper look at the culture of sports in modern society. Consider a relatively simple question that actually cuts quite deeply into the issue – why are athletes in the NFL paid so much money? Well, perhaps the prima facie answer is that they’re just extremely well qualified on a physical basis, and therefore deserving of special pay. Consider though that professional marathon runners, who are extremely well qualified on a physical basis (perhaps even moreso than NFL players), make vastly less money than NFL players. For example, Tamirat Tola, a 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist from Ethiopia, made a paltry $93,750 in 2018, while Jimmy Garropolo, the QB for the San Francisco 49ers, made $43,100,000. Physical qualification can’t be the answer. However, things become clear when you look at how much sponsorship money is being spent on each sport, and from who that money is coming. The NFL’s sponsorship revenue totaled $1.32 Billion in the 2017-2018 season, while the Professional Road Running Organization’s (PRRO) total prize money available for the 2018 season was a mere $330,000. The NFL’s sponsors are companies like Anheuser-Busch, Castrol, PepsiCo, and Frito-Lay, whereas the PRRO’s sponsors are companies like Publix (a grocery-store chain) and a small credit union in Washington DC. The NFL players are making more money because there’s a helluva lot more institutional money being poured into their market. The natural question to ask then is this: why aren’t companies like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo sponsoring the PRRO circuit? Well, it’s because the American public isn’t watching televised marathons – they’re watching their favorite NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA teams.

People put a pretty astonishingly large amount of time and mental resources into sports. If you ask your next-door neighbor how your local NFL team is doing, you’re likely to get an extremely articulate and complex response that takes into account the abilities of individual players, the coaching staff’s play calling decisions, the player trading market, etc… They’re probably going to cite specific statistics and be able to discuss intricacies that required hours of observation, research, and thought. And it makes sense – in our society, there are things that people can use their intelligence on, take politics for example, but most can’t really get involved in those things in any meaningful way. So instead, they spend their intelligence on other things that are cognitively intensive, yet also accessible – things like spectator sports. Sports intensely occupy the minds of a vast majority of the population and diffuse a huge amount of latent time and intellectual capacity, which is precisely what the corporate and governmental entities that control the majority of power and wealth would want. So it’s quite natural that companies like Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo are sponsoring the big spectator sports associations – those associations are doing a wonderful thing in the eyes of such companies. They’re efficiently squandering the time and cognitive effort of the broader populace that could otherwise be used to gain a deeper understanding of reality and potentially organize to bring about change in the upper echelons of power. Furthermore, it makes total sense that the armed forces show up, parade around veterans, and hold subtly nationalist ceremonies – they’re the grandaddy of the entities that have a vested interest in supporting such a quiescence of the broader populace. In an attempt to not inflame passions, I’ll leave that discussion to Chomsky.

Now let’s return to our initial situation. You’re watching your favorite team play, and you rise for the national anthem. Your heart swells with pride as the talented singer belts the anthem alongside a wounded veteran. With our newfound understanding, though, the sentiment of that situation changes. Spectator sports enforce jingoism, promote consumerism, and indoctrinate an impressionable society to maintain the status quo of power.

Think before you buy that ticket.