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The Super Bowl and Super Profits: Sports and the Class Struggle

The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the US, topped on the world stage only by the summer Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. This spectacle is the apogee of bourgeois sports and the ultimate in “prime time” television, with roughly 100 million viewers tuning in each year. With such a colossal captive audience at their disposal, corporations shell out as much as $6 million a pop for a thirty-second advertising slot during the festivities.

Indeed, the ads themselves are a highly anticipated cultural phenomenon. Cities compete to host the event, promising a shower of riches and opportunities for the local economy. However, in practice, the stakes are high for host cities, as the National Football League (NFL) ’s stringent demands almost always lead to financial losses. Far from having a positive economic impact, the host city’s working-class taxpayers end up footing the bill. The promised job opportunities that come with hosting the game are temporary at best, and the vast profits generated go straight into the hands of the corporations. It is estimated that $6 billion in bets are wagered on the Super Bowl, and for the vast majority of workers living check to check, betting on the big game can be ruinous.

The Super Bowl is also a gargantuan propagandistic ceremony used by the ruling class to attenuate social unrest by paying lip service to the societal issues of the past year. In 2020, the brutal white supremacy inherent in the dictatorship of capital was slyly hidden by acknowledging the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprising during the game. In 2021, a teacher, nurse, and Marine were present during the national anthem, a gesture to mollify critics of the failed coronavirus response by the government. Big-name musical acts and marching bands then drown out these gestures. Oppression cannot be eliminated by a coin toss, after all.

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The profit-making pipeline to leagues like the NFL and NBA begins while athletes are still in college, generating billions in profits for cash-strapped universities. / Image: Pixabay

While top athletes stand to make millions per game, a first-year rookie in the NFL is only guaranteed $435,000. To be sure, that’s more than many workers will make in their lifetimes. But careers at the top level are often short-lived, with lifelong physical and mental health problems plaguing many athletes for decades after retirement. And when compared to the profits for the owners, it is a pittance.

The profit-making pipeline to leagues like the NFL and NBA begins while athletes are still in college, generating billions in profits for cash-strapped universities. However, on June 21, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the National College Athletics Association in a class action lawsuit put forward by college athletes.

Historically, the NCAA has exploited student-athletes, appropriating untold amounts of surplus value from their sweat and physical abilities. To add insult to injury, the association actively prevented players from soliciting endorsements, merchandising, or prospering off social media influence. The decision would appear to signify a paradigm shift in labor relations between players in Division I and II university sports and the NCAA juggernaut. According to the justices, the “NIL”—name, image, or likeness—of college kids can no longer be used by schools for their own profit.

Marxists recognize that antitrust rulings such as NCAA v. Alston provide some protection for student-athletes. After all, like all workers, they are entitled to the wealth created by their labor. However, as with all reforms won under capitalism, any benefits for the players flowing from this ruling will inevitably deteriorate over time. This raises the broader question of sports in general in relation to the class struggle.

Class society and sports

A materialist analysis of history explains that agricultural surpluses laid the conditions for the rise of class society. The ancient ruling classes had the time and leisure to engage in physical competition, often as preparation for warfare. Generally, the realm of sport was a private affair for the wealthy, sometimes extended to spectators from the lower classes mainly as a distraction from their lives of drudgery. Public games became a weapon in the ideological toolkit of class rule. Even as the mode of production changed, leading eventually to the domination of capitalism, the use of sport as a form of mass distraction continued. The bourgeoisie of our epoch has efficiently maximized this tool—and made a profitable killing in the process.

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The ancient ruling classes had the time and leisure to engage in physical competition, often as preparation for warfare. / Image: Public Domain

The capitalists of our epoch reinforce their rule through the illuminated screens of our devices, the roaring of fans in exorbitant stadiums, and the fetishization of professional athletes. The dominant mode of production in society influences all aspects of culture, including sports. Under the bourgeoisie, sports reflect the hierarchical and competitive capitalist system. In many ways, it is a concentrated expression of capitalism. There are notable exceptions, of course, but capitalist sport amplifies aggressive androcentrism, nationalism, racism, sexism, regionalism, and many other noxious “isms” found in bourgeois society and used to divide people. The forced marriage of sports and advertising further weaponizes the alienation and competition ingrained in the system.

Workers have little free time for leisure, and many find solace in watching a game on their day off. For a few hours, the anxiety of living under the domination of the market seems to dissipate. But the capitalists find a way to commodify our love of sports through the relentless bombardment of ads during the game. In fact, selling our attention to advertisers is one of the main streams of wealth for the owners of sports teams. In 2020–21, throughout its 17-week season, the NFL captured $3.4 billion in ad revenues alone.

As social beings, play is natural for humans. Participation with others in games is an essential means of communication and stress relief. However, class society transforms what should be a bonding, communal activity into its opposite. To be sure, slaves, serfs, and workers have enjoyed recreational activities throughout time despite the elite monopoly over “official” sports. But the alienation of capitalism contributes to a lack of meaningful human connection, a sense of belonging. Desirous of that essential aspect of human existence, many search for it in sports teams. This “tribalism” assuages many alienated workers, as they “belong” to the fan base of this or that team—often spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on apparel and other paraphernalia to display their allegiance.

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The capitalists of our epoch reinforce their rule through the illuminated screens of our devices, the roaring of fans in exorbitant stadiums, and the fetishization of professional athletes.. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

But this is but a pale reflection of genuine human connection and solidarity. After all, the working-class fans of the “other” team have more in common with you than the bourgeois fans of “your” team. Capitalist sport also widens the rift between humanity and the rest of nature. Instead of personally enjoying the outdoors, we vegetate in front of screens as a vicarious method of physically engaging with each other and the environment.

I am from Kentucky, where basketball is all but deified. As a worker, after a hard week of making profits for a parasitic boss, I have certainly enjoyed the reprieve offered by “game day.” Capitalism bifurcates our time between “work” and “free” so that in our sacred “free” time, sports entertainment mollifies us in the face of this unjust system. The small respite offered by the professional competitive spectacle dissipates as the realization that wage slavery awaits you Monday morning. The momentary release from the intrinsic pressures, dehumanization, and alienation of work is like taking care of a severed hand with a Band-Aid.

Escapist entertainment is big business

To be sure, the visceral attraction of attending a live sports spectacle may seem communal, but this is a flimsy replication of healthy mutual recreation. This mirage is a weak substitute for fully-realized class consciousness and human liberation. Team identity mimics the “tribalism” that manifests from the individual to the nation-state under capitalism.

Professional sports are used to erase class identity and reinforce false concepts of national or even regional or local “unity.” This is the idea that the bosses and workers in a particular area have common interests opposed to the workers of another area. Indeed, sport buttresses aggressive nationalism, consciously reinforcing xenophobia within the working class. One must only witness the World Cup to see throngs of workers supporting “their” countries against the “others.” The most glaring example of a ruling class utilizing sport to inculcate martial nationalism is surely in the US. The American flag and national anthem, military pageantry, and outright sponsorship are all used to enforce reverence to the bourgeois state.

Professional sports may seem like an innocuous distraction at first glance, but its importance to the bourgeoisie can hardly be overstated. Over $400 billion in sports-related revenue was generated just in the US and Canada last year. The ruling class exploits the physical abilities of athletes, converting them into anatomical machines for the profits of billionaire team owners and wealthy investors. Capitalist ideology adulates competition generally, but in sports, the relentless comparison of one human to another further denigrates athletes into a series of numbers, points, scores, stats, and arcane records. As a result, the pressures on athletes to produce more and more profits for the owners sometimes results in physiological, mental, and behavioral health problems like domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug use, and even aggressive non-consensual sexuality.

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Capital perpetuates an unrealistic physical form to commodify it as working people spend billions on diets and programs promising to result in Olympian bodies. / Image: clotho98, Flickr

Professional sport creates an ideal of the human body that is atypical and should not be the model for all. Capital perpetuates this unrealistic physical form to commodify it as working people spend billions on diets and programs promising to result in Olympian bodies. As a species, we have a diverse array of physiques, all beautiful in their own distinctive way. To diminish them in comparison to an unrealistic apotheosis of humanity can be psychologically devastating. Many workers simply do not have time for personal fitness in an economy that forces them to hold two jobs to survive.

The perception of physical inadequacy is inculcated into the proletariat, so they choose to live vicariously through their favorite professional players or sink into depression. Cue the mendacious snake-oil sellers, swindlers, and pharmaceutical peddlers with designs on our fabricated inferiority—and our wallets! As for unhealthy body images, another trope in the competitive sports arena is hyper-masculinity. Despite the growth of women’s sports over the past 40 years, the playing field still lacks anything approximating gender equality. Just observe the reactions of high school, college, and professional sports when it comes to trans athletes!

Sports divert class solidarity, but the very human need to belong to a crowd and community is revealed in this participation. Once the workers unite to fight back against the boss and then the class of bosses as a whole, this passion will be integrated into the class struggle. Once it is armed with a farsighted leadership, the proletarian team would be in a position to win every battle.

Sports for the people!

As workers, we produce all of the wealth and value in human society. Ted Grant once put it, “Not a wheel turns, not a phone rings, not a lightbulb shines without the kind permission of the working class! Once this enormous power is mobilized, no force on Earth can stop it.”

Our power to change the world is a material fact, shorn of any utopianism or fantasy. When this mighty ability is realized, and we democratically recalibrate the economic and political system to fulfill the needs of the people, our very culture will reflect very different values.

The socialist revolution will liberate sport from the shackles of class society. Gone will be the reductive, capitalistic framework that currently typifies it. To be clear, our vision as Marxists should include all people in the physical recreation of the future. Parks and gyms should be located everywhere and free of charge, not restricted to those with higher incomes. Sports, especially in its professional form, will transform into celebrations of strength and health inclusive of all abilities and needs. After the revolution, workers’ physical fitness associations will champion internationalist solidarity, qualitatively improve the physical and mental health of all, and liberate the human body from the confines of commodified sport.

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