Does Football Bring Out the Worst in Human Nature?


Christopher Hitchens, ever the opportunist, has taken the tragedy of Cabinda and used it as a stick to beat the entire concept of sporting competition, including international football, in a Newsweek piece entitled “Fool’s Gold: How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature”. Hitchens begins:

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.

What now? Nevermind Hitchens has his tenses all confused in there (an Oxford degree doesn’t mean what it used to, does it?), how is South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup in any way in disarray because of a supposed “dispute between Angola and Congo over the “security” aspects of these allegedly prestigious sporting events”? Hitchens’ ignorance and conflation of events here is simply astounding, even by his standards. What does Cabinda have to do with South Africa and the World Cup?

And what even does the Cabinda attack have to do with sport itself, aside from the political opportunism impinging on a sporting event in the attack he mentions?  Terrorists attack shopping malls; does that make it the fault of shopping?  Terrorists attack planes; does that make it the fault of international travel? (No: according to Hitchens, it’s the fault of Iraq, but that’s a different story….)

Hitchens eventually meanders to his point, apparently that sport makes mean people meaner.

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.

Well, I can’t disagree with him there. Just like in the rest of life, people in sports do nasty, stupid, petty, violent, selfish things. Does sport on occasion exacerbate that? Yes, probably; it makes people interact more, and sometimes that can be bad. Where there is money, there is greed, there is Jack Warner.

Yet sport can also bring out the best in us, can foster community, can break down barriers, as Dave Zirin emphasises in the Nation in response to Hitchens:

Please spare us your disdain. Yes there is much to detest in the world of sports. But why then is it also such a source of solace, joy, and – heaven forefend – fun? Hitchens doesn’t care to explore this question. His contempt for the “rabble” triumphs any effort at reason. Just as with his ham-fisted analysis of religion, our love of sport is also proof-positive of our irredeemable idiocy.

And most of the time, sport just goes on its merry way, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes dull, a part of life for many people that can be fun or frustrating in equal measures.

But of course, there are no shades of grey for Hitchens.

Never afraid of the cheap shot, Hitchens then has a lovely little aside, saying “Incidentally, isn’t there something simultaneously grandiose and pathetic about the words “World Cup”?  Well, Chris, it’s actually called the FIFA World Cup. FIFA is the international governing body of world soccer (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), and has 208 national associations affiliated to it, who take part in the FIFA World Cup. The United Nations, by the way, has 192 members. What should FIFA call it?  The FIFA 208 Nations Who Play Soccer But Not Quite The Entire World If You’re Being A Pedantic Dick About Things Cup?

Oh heavens though, the pesky problem that much of the, uh, world likes sport has even worse consequences than this. Sport is not only bad in itself, he goes on to explain; it manages, by some process Hitchens doesn’t quite make clear apart from some terminology being taken from it, to infect everything:

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

Look, Chris, sport is a reflection of our societies, and only plays a small role in forming them. It’s always funny that those who complain about the amount of importance others attach to sport end up attaching too much importance to it themselves.

Sport is not some strange sphere occupied by rabid men and women who have lost all their sanity.  It is magical, it is maniacal, it is mundane. It is part of life’s confusing tapestry, which is not as black and white as Hitchens always seems hell-bent on proving everything is. And that’s really what he cannot stand about sport at all: it’s rather like life.

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