Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sport: The Last Refuge of Community in Our Society ?

above: Indigenous Australian football players

Firstly: Happy New Year both to regular and new readers. :)  The following article - our first for 2011 - is an exploration by past-contributor Geoff Drechsler - of the decline of community in modern society (especially Australian society)  - and of the potential place of sport in rectifying this.

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article by Geoff Drechsler

Revolutionary killjoy, Leon Trotsky believed that sport was an inappropriate diversion for the toiling masses from the erstwhile business of politics. Comrade Leon would be in a philosophical quandary if he ran his eye over 21st century Australian society. In our atomized society, we compete against our co-workers for the next step up the corporate ladder, then do a solitary Iphoned commute to get home. Under these circumstances - where we are more likely to live alone than ever before, organised sport may in fact be one of the last refuges of community in Australian society.

Now hold on - you’re thinking: 'what about the destructive front page rock star drug habits of professional football players?' What of the corporate machine that now ruthlessly markets sport ? And even the shameless genital exposure that seems a regular post match weekend event ? While all BBQ stoppers, they are far removed from the more 'middle of the road' Saturday afternoon reality for the suburbanites of the quarter acre block, where every weekend, people pull on a jersey, or guernsey, or goal attack bib together, whether slipping into full forward or goal defence. Think of another time when we work so tirelessly together, in unison, in an egalitarian way ? (And devote weeknights to it together so we get better at it as a team). Pretty much, we start participating as soon as we enter the school system too, whether we make the team or just have a kick around at play lunch, and the shared centrality of the clubrooms in our weekly ritual even offers a forum for community education.

In other aspects of our life, like the world of work, things have changed for most of us. Gone are the road crews and production lines that required us to work together as a team - with the need to get along over the long term in our “job for life”. "In" are the workstations where we work alone at our PC in a 9 to 5 world populated by individual performance assessments, individual work contracts - even eating lunch at our desk on our own…….

In parenting it is now rare to pass a crying infant around extended kin - who in the past all probably conveniently cohabitated under the same roof.  Instead we tough out the sleepless nights and greet the dawn on our own. To unwind, we retreat, alone, into the online world of the first-person shooter, PSP and online poker...  And yes - I know social networking is a form of interaction between people - but the intermediary is a soulless liquid crystal monitor.

While different sports certainly have an obvious social class bias (compare the down to earth 'Marngrook-ness' of AFL to the private school elitism of rugby union), all still encourage a togetherness that's quite alien to other aspects of our social life now.   (nb: 'Marngrook' was the name for the indigenous Australian game which many believe to have been the inspiration for Australian Rules Football)

Who would have thought that a whole lot of guys sitting around in the nude, drinking stubbies together on a Saturday afternoon, could be a social movement ?

The other aspect of sport that reinforces the togetherness is the phenomenon of mass spectating that occurs in Australia. The MCG is one of the largest sporting arenas in the world (Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground, the crème de la crème of English Premier League, the biggest league in the most popular sport on the planet, only holds 75,000). So this is the other dynamic of sport as community, spectating or “barracking”. (What other language has the equivalent expression to Australian English’s “footy mate” ?) You only have to spend any time in a country town to see organised sport also operates in this way, where sporting fixtures offer those members of the community who don't participate directly, an opportunity to come together nonetheless, watch and socialise. And our glorious weather encourages both.

So cast your mind back to last October, when you were throwing another banger on the barbie last at a Grand Final party, or more recently watching the seeming (seaming ?) demise of the Australian national test team with mates, and take a moment to ponder that that might be your community.

Geoff Drechsler is a veteran Australian labour movement activist


  1. What concerns me about promoting sport as the means for developing community is I note a tendency for sport to replace wider awareness of what's happening in our world. Dare to mention the tragedy of Palestinian oppression by Israel at the post game BBQ and you find yourself losing your audience as they politely drift away with a glazed look in their eyes

  2. Re-posting this material from my comments at 'Reddit Australia'.

    There's something in arguments about communities around 'identity' in modern society - and the growth of 'online communities' in the digital age.; There are new forms of community that did not exist before; But the flipside of this is that an AWFUL lot of people 'fall through the cracks'. And online communities don't really make up for a lack of face-to-face interaction.

    Also: the Geoff Drechsler's arguments about new forms of work organisation are important as well. Work is central to so many people's lives; and losing community and connectedness at that level can be devastating.

    The opportunity to participate in sport is one response to this.

    Also at 'Reddit Australia' some readers have criticised Geoff's article based on the argument that 'sport is de-politicising'.

    But the point isn't to say people shouldn't be politically engaged as well. Personally I've written extensively elsewhere in favour of deep civics education and active citizenship. But social-connectedness is important in of itself also - including in non-political contexts. The point being that social isolation is a form of alienation; And politics, after all, should be about providing people with a better quality of life...

    Although for some getting active in their local Labor Party or Greens branch - or their union -could also provide social connectedness and purpose...

    Finally: some people at Reddit Australia have tried to counter the thrust of this article by arguing that people have a 'social conscience' and help each other in times of disaster. (ie: as is occuring now in the contexts of floods in Queensland and elsewhere)

    This usually take the form of donations. Importantly, though, this does not mean that social atomisation isn't a real issue in day-to-day life. What's happening now is remarkable because it's the *exception* rather than the rule...

  3. Some sports go across cultures... for instance, Wrestling is practiced thru out the world, and there are many different indigenous types of wrestling, and it comes very naturally to many people. Its like a language of languages, an action which can go beyond class and social boundaries. I recommend joining your local wrestling club.

  4. I am a huge advocate for sport as a tool of real potential for fostering broader ideals of community development. For example, club sport has, for me, been the enviornment in which I have had my most valued inter-generational exchanges. I have enjoyed these as both an adolescent who was encouraged and nurtured by older players, and as a man who got to play alongside youngsters still in high-school.

    But what is crucial to sport being an effective community development tool is that it must not be essentialised. The minute anyone begins saying 'sport can solve all these issues within a community', it's likely the project is doomed. Yes, sport can play a role, a vital role. Sport can give wayward adolescents a focus; it can help conflicting communities focus on commonalities; and it can provide valuable opportunities for personal development, not to mention genuine benefits for personal physical and mental health. But it needs to be used in a thoughtful manner in conjunction with broader programs if it is to contribute to these possibilities. Otherwise it can have a detrimental impact on communities, such as hooliganism and riots.

    The key is to admit sport's limitations. Yes sport can help communities. But it can't do it alone.

  5. The problem with this piece is that it rubbishes one political idealism in order to promote a different idealism.

    Sport may be fun for some people, and certainly may be a welcome, community building distraction. But it also embodies what happens around it, including our lack of community and collective building in general.

    That means that if we're too socially retarded because of iphones, a certain work life, whatever, then that will also play into sport. This relies on the idea that we we will socially interact because of sport (that is sport gives us community) but if we're all so stunted as the article suggests then sport cannot help us.

    In the end sport is not going to move us forward intellectually at all - it cannot because it relies on the more base aspects of human life - to compete for no reason at all and if necessary to work with other people to compete.

    So while all this about sport sounds good the reality is that it's just further idealism that is hardly ever true that is being used to trash other idealism that may also not be true.


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