When Joe Brolly Met Georg Lukács

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brollyJoe Brolly wrote an interesting article on the commodification of sport in this week’s issue of Gaelic Life. It’s a topic that crops up frequently as a critique of capitalist culture, from the Against Modern Football movement to combat the pricing of working-class fans out of the game, to controversies over the proliferation of performing-enhancing drugs in elite sport, to debates over whether college athletes should unionise in the United States.

Brolly, a former Derry footballer turned RTÉ pundit, explores it in the context of the amateur GAA and specifically men’s gaelic football. His thesis is that the increasing commercialism of the GAA leadership is driving the sport towards professionalism, instilling a will to win that is sapping the love of the game from the players and producing private bodies which are enriching the few at the expense of the many.

What he’s describing is similar to a process philosopher Georg Lukács called “reification”. This is where human relations or properties are transformed into human-produced things, given a value independently of and surpassing people themselves, and eventually coming to govern our lives. This distorts human relations, forcing us to interact with each other in terms of things rather than as people ourselves, producing a commodity fetishism. The pre-eminence of economic relationships over social relationships also causes a generalised condition of alienation, where we feel divorced from the work we do, the parts of life we enjoy, each other and even ourselves.

Interestingly, Brolly’s analysis reminds us that these processes do not happen in isolation or simply as economics. They are effected by the latent culture. So, in the GAA, commodification is buttressed by existing ideology like the “doctrine of club and county” and “strong community expectation” which produce a “loyalty” to the organisation and make deviating from its line difficult.

Ideology plays an important part in the GAA, which as well as being one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world has also, as an institution, often been on the side of conservative forces in Irish politics. In certain respects sport has a similar social function to religion, bonding communities, giving them rituals to share and establishing a sense of tradition – even if anyone who has attended Catholic mass would tell you sport’s entertainment value is a good deal higher. But any organisation of that kind that lasts under capitalism will have the GAA’s contradictions – partly playing a role in reproducing the system, partly providing ordinary people relief from its hardships.

And so on the one hand you have an organisation of over a million members, operating on a communitarian ethos, rooted in local communities, with a genuine sense of ownership for the grassroots, and at the same time its assets are over €2.5billion, many fans are priced out of its biggest games, its former leader sits in the European Parliament with Fine Gael and its most notable moment in 2014 was when it tried to force through a series of multi-million dollar concerts against the wishes of a working-class urban community.

Brolly’s description of the merits of the GAA, an organisation that teaches us “the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work”, echoes what Liverpool greats said about their sport in the past.Bill Shankly said that football was about “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards”. John Barnes said that “for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.” Both compared this ethic explicitly to socialism.

While there are important critiques of amateurism and volunteerism – for instance, how they are used by projects like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ to replace entitlements with charity – Brolly correctly identifies the connection between professionalism and capitalism. Whereas under amateurism sport can be enjoyed for sport, with winning its own reward, professionalism means that competition becomes dominant. Winning is no longer about sport but about earning – if a player fails to achieve they could lose their jobs, which means losing their means of subsistence.

In the United States numerous left-wing commentators argue that college sports should be professionalised – since the athletes are already working, making profits and in effect being hyper-exploited. That makes sense for the NCAA, with its revenue of nearly a billion dollars a year, but does it for the GAA? With a tenth of the revenue and more clubs? If it went professional the tiny market is likely to mean a very small number of top teams, with a few elite players, desired as much for their star power as technical qualities. For even the championships to work these would have to be supported by an army of low-paid, casualised workers in it for their love of the game or their county. And if only a few counties could go professional – where would that leave players born outside their lines? Relegated to amateurism? It’s hard to see how a transfer system could be avoided.

And that would only be the beginning of the loss for the GAA with professionalism. If GAA players had a proper union and decided they wanted wages – who could begrudge them? But the problems Brolly raises are serious. When sport becomes professionalised it becomes a business, torn from the context it developed in and many of its previous social functions. When it is amateur it is about participative entertainment, public health, forging community identity and supports collaboration. All of which tends to draw on the direct engagement of large segments of the community in a democratic fashion. When it is professional all of this is overtaken by the entertainment industry, a pretty nasty affair that has a habit of devouring the souls of worthwhile past-times.

Capitalism has a mission to reduce all human endeavour to profit, but it wins consent by concealing this. Its advocates talk instead in general terms about business, markets, entrepreneurship, trade, wealth, things that imply a greater social utility. Or, when they’re running an amateur organisation, as Brolly points out, they talk about “broadening participation”… through television deals with Sky Sports. Likely to broaden the market for a product, maybe, but not increase participation in a sport.

Below are some segments from Joe Brolly’s article, Saving the GAA, Part 2. A digital version of the full issue can be bought from Gaelic Life for just over €1here.

“In the wake of [my last] column five current county footballers contacted me. What I had written chimed with their experience.

They described how rehearsal and repetition had made the game joyless. Worse, their lives are being micro-managed.

They are constantly tired. They suffer from dreadful boredom. One said that he would feel guilty if he socialised. It was easier not to. Every one of them talked about the pressure to win and the fact that their real lives were deemed to be irrelevant.

In each case, I asked whether they wanted to go public. In each case, they declined. They did not want to appear disloyal.

They did not want to provoke the hostility of team mates or management. One of the boys told me he was on a scholarship and could not bite the hand that feeds. […]

Young men tend to have tunnel vision. College and u18 football is itself highly professionalised so they are already well groomed by the time they hit senior level.

And when everyone else is on the hamster wheel, then there’s nothing to complain about and no-one to complain to.

Our amateur games are supposed to be a life-enriching experience, that teach us values of fairness, the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work. They ought to (and once did) imbue us with life skills.

The whole point is to provide an overwhelmingly positive experience. But, what was once a healthy past-time has been entirely hijacked by an obsession with winning. And, when winning is all that matters, nothing else does. Of course, we play to win. But winning at all costs is a negative, immoral, unhealthy philosophy, on and off the field. […]

In 2000, then GAA President Sean MacCague, who was a leader, warned of the dangers of a culture of professional sport and said that this was a challenge that must be systematically resisted. Instead, since then, the leadership has sat in the Titanic, hob nobbing in first class as we drift towards the Titanic.

There has been no attempt to combat the professional practices that have taken hold of the game. USADA’s landmark report on sport in America True Sport: What We Stand to Lose in our Obsession to Win identifies an unchecked culture of ultra competitive coaches as one of the critical problems. “Coaches who place too much value on winning contribute to an unsportsmanlike environment. And these coaches have the potential to push the psychological, emotional and physical limits of their players to the point of harm, creating a hostile environment.” Which is exactly what is happening in our county game. The paid manager has time on his hands and resources at his disposal. He duly creates a professional, full time regime for his players. Paid to win, this is his sole focus. […]

In October 2010, Paraic Duffy, the most powerful man in the GAA, said “the problem I have is that if we state amateurism as a core value and that players and managers shouldn’t get paid, we have to do that.” That “if” re-sounded around the country. At the 2011 congress in Mullingar, then president Christy Cooney memorably called such payments as “a cancer running through our organisation”. You have to say it was a lovely bit of rhetoric. In January 2012, Duffy’s report, GAA Amateur Status and Payments to Team Managers was released. In it, he set out two options. “Implement fully the Association’s amateur status” or “introduce a sys-tem of regulated payments to county managers”. He concluded with the astonishing words “I do not advocate one option over the other.” The guardian of the GAA’s ideals publicly expressing indifference as to whether managers should become professionals, thereby envisioning a two tiered system where the county game becomes semi-professional. […]

Commercialism has after all become the dominant principle at national level. The deal with SKY was done covertly. Only a few people were involved. Congress – supposedly the ruling body of the GAA – was ignored altogether. The fact they would have overwhelmingly rejected the move meant that it had to be done on the QT. Our ideals were by-passed, replaced by nice rhetoric about “broadening participation”.

Never mind the established fact that watching elite sports emphatically does not increase participation. A systematic review by the British Medical Journal after the London Olympics concluded that ” there is no evidence that watching the Olympics increases participation.” The House of Commons Education Select Committee reached exactly the same conclusion, deriding the idea of an “Olympic legacy” and concluding that what stimulates participation is voluntary effort, resources, coaches and facilities.

The point is that the obsession with the county game is entirely self defeating. As Margaret Heffernan wrote in her remarkable book A Bigger Prize, “Trickle down doesn’t work in sport. Focussing resources, rewards and celebrity on the top few doesn’t help anyone.” As the Socio-Economic study of the impact of the 2000 Sydney Olympics (2001) concluded ” the only pastime that was more popular after the Games than before them was watching the TV.” Nielsen figures show that a paltry 50,000 viewers in the UK and NI watched the All-Ireland football final on SKY.

Locked into this self defeating cycle, the leadership have lavished money on the GPA, a free market limited company (the current deal is worth €8.75m over five years) , who in turn have enriched a handful of elite players. It is easier to appease them than take them on, an option that would require a strategy and a pair of balls. Again, the current leadership’s approach to this issue is consistent with them harbour-ing a vision of an elite, professional game. Welfare should be dealt with by the GAA, not a limited company with a vision a world away from ours. And by that I mean real, holistic welfare. Not the back-patting, superficial kind used by the GPA as a shield against criticism. […]

But [simple solutions] might mean less money. Wherein lies the problem.Capitalism has seduced the current leadership, to the extent that the option of protecting the club players, the county players, the members and the noble ideals of the association is seen as radical and unreasonable. Those who object to this drift to-wards dysfunction are castigated as cranks and backwoodsmen. “True Sport” concludes with the words ” To save sport, those in a position to reinforce its intrinsic values must be vigilant and persistent in communicating those values.” We can see the iceberg. If we can find a captain with courage, it’s not too late to turn.”

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One Response

  1. juniorjb

    January 24, 2015 1:46 pm

    I think you are also watching this in a context in which the meaning of sport for amateur participants is undergoing change in the culture at large. I have been a coach, instructor and participant for many years and have noted the increasingly significant role that competitiveness as a value in itself now plays. Sports participation has become more individualized and now (amongst many other things of course) serves the role of a kind of endorsement of personal prowess, commitment and generalized “fitness”. With middle-class professionals you see participation in triathlons, running, cycling and so on growing. Increasingly these are presented as status building activities, with an overwhelming emphasis on competitions (commercially lucrative for organizing entities) with a quasi-corporate apparatus of measurement, ranking and results orientation. Philip Mirowski’s latest book describes the emergence over the last few decades of a neoliberal subjectivity that chimes in with just these changes. All of this seems innocent enough if you are immersed in such a context and have had limited exposure to alternative cultures of sport that give greater attention to creativity, imagination and autonomy, all values that I would maintain are ever present and possible in most forms of sports. The vaunted personal growth and maturity that supposedly comes with sport is not an inevitable outcome – it only develops in concert with a process of reflection and a critical awareness of the meaning and purpose of sport as a practice, something that the right kind of coaching can encourage. An overwhelming emphasis on competition and results is for most participants inimical to such a development.