Noam Chomsky on Sports (and a rebuttal)

Noam Chomsky has famously been very critical of sports and their role in American life. As always, we’ll give an unedited version of Noam’s comments on sports, give some context, and then discuss some arguments against his position. 

Take, say, sports. That’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system in my view. For one thing, because it, you know, it-it offers people something to pay attention to, that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about, you know, keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something with. And, in fact, it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s, that’s used by ordinary people in sports. And, you listen to radio stations where people call in, they have the most exotic information.

 

…understanding about, you know, arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this. Now I remember in high school, and I’m pretty old, I suddenly asked myself at one point, “Why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know, right? I mean they have nothing to do with me. I mean, why am I cheering for my team? It doesn’t make any sense.  But the point is it does make sense. It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And, you know, group cohesion behind the, you know, leadership elements. In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.

 

That’s also a feature of, uh, competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think they have, typically, they do have functions. And that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them as well.

Supporters of this critque of sports, and their role in society and culture, will be eager to cite the famous second century Roman public pulicy (which is at the foundations of modern sports): panem et circenses, or in english, bread and circuses. The idea being that to keep the populous occupied and distracted (so that they don’t seek revolution and overthrow the government) is by supplying them with food and distracting them with entertainment. However as other’s have noted this would be a type of genetic fallacy: Just because an idea arose on the grounds of making the public submissive, it doesn’t mean that all variations of the idea share the same role in society. In other words, even if the explicit intention of sports at the outset was to sedate the populous (which is debatable in itself), that doesn’t mean that it still is today. 

The reverse is also true, one which is more common in critiques of Chomsky: just because a societal phenomenon (like sports) has the effect of sedating the public, that doesn’t mean that there’s some entity at the top that explicitly introduced sports for that reason. In other words, sports may well be a tool for oppression but it could just as easily be true that this “sedation” of the public is really just a bi-product of something people are entertained by. The same could be said for the Harry Potter books. Their entertainment value serves as a distraction from political action. Sure. That doesn’t mean that J.K. Rowling wrote the books in order to distract the public from taking political action. 

In reality, the latter argument is an error that Chomsky seems to make on occassion. This entire article, which seems to lack relevance to the rest of the content on this site, is merely to make this exact point. Anything that’s entertaining, especially at the societal scale, will have cascading impacts on daily life. That doesn’t make them evil,  but then again that doesn’t make them “not evil” either. 

Should Noam Chomsky weigh in on sports again, or should we find more passages where he discussed sports, we will update this page as soon as we become aware. Please contact us if you are aware of such passages (or rebuttals) and we’ll review and update this page.

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