Joe 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.