Is it ethical to watch sport?

Our ethical columnist on why there is little difference between football and bear-baiting.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

With football, rugby and cricket and even motor racing dominating the news as never before, I am confused as to what I ought to think about sport. On the one hand, playing sport is healthy – especially for children – and watching it can elevate your feelings and bring people together in communities like few other things can. On the other hand, there seems something off about the dog-eat-dog laddishness of a lot of sport, not to mention all the money-mad consumerism now spoiling it, and the way it distracts people from the important problems you write about. So Ethan, is it possible to be an ethical sports fan?


Dear Jonny,

You like healthy sport? Well then, why don’t you get a few pals together, with some guns and knives and clubs and whatnot, and go out trampling across the countryside in the fresh air hunting foxes or deer or puppies? You’ll all have a marvellous time, get a healthy rosy glow (both from the warm blood inside your cheeks and the hot blood of your victims splattered across your faces), and you can simultaneously work up an appetite and kill something to eat.

You want sport that can bring people together and make them feel good? Why not get a toothless old bear, chain it to a pole (preferably made out of some rare and irreplaceable tree), then poke it with sharp sticks and kitchen implements before you bring on the specially-starved dogs to tear the bear to pieces (and if you’re lucky the bear will rip a few of them apart as well). In my experience, that should get all the people – and especially the children – laughing and enjoying themselves together like nobody’s business.

Of course, readers, I am using irony and sarcasm here to make my point in a clever way. Do Not Try This At Home.

But, I hear you object, those are nasty old blood sports, not our nice modern consumer-friendly sporting occasions. Ha! All sports are Blood Sports. Whichever of your favoured little boys’ games you might be indulging in, I’m afraid that the planet and biodiversity are the losers and human aggression, avarice and vulgarity are the winners.

Football, rugby and the like? Organised violence, a way of socialising young boys to believe that beating, thrashing, crushing, mauling, kicking or hammering is not only natural and within the rules, but a good thing. Why not go the whole hog and tell them to ‘give ‘em a damn good raping’? These sports brainwash boys to accept notions of racial, sexual and even species-based superiority, and teach them that it is a jolly good jape to persecute a more sensitive boy who might have been interested in loving the earth beneath his feet rather than trampling it to death. If you want to see a ‘beautiful game’, go watch dolphins frolic (but not the ones who play with plastic balls or bottles).

The Olympic spirit? About as palatable as methylated spirit. An insane celebration of human hubris, popularising the arrogant idea that men can be like gods sitting up on Mount Olympus, rather than scum in the gutter of the Earth. This ‘spirit’ is the epitome of a sporting ethos that absurdly suggests some people are ‘better’ than others because they can go faster, higher or further, rather than because, just say, they are more conscientious about recycling their household waste. When the Olympic horror show comes to London in 2012, I shall make sure I am deep in the rainforest.

That is before we even get on to considering all the pigs’ bladders torn bloody and weeping from their little piggie tummies to make footballs, and all of the cat gut ripped screaming from helpless felines to make tennis racquets. ‘Tiger’ Tim? Cat-stranglers the lot of them, more like.

The clearest expression of the Neanderthal brutishness of competitive sport is, of course, boxing. Here we see man in all his gory ‘glory’, the thin veneer of civilisation ripped asunder along with the facial tissue to reveal, not the ‘beast within’, but the bloody essence of humanity. (Which reminds me, Jonny, please don’t let me hear you use the speciesist phrase ‘dog-eat-dog’ again – it’s a man-eat-all-animals world we live in.) Still, at least boxing has the advantage that a decent number of the participants end up so brain-damaged that they will no longer be a threat to anything except the health service budget.

As for your mention of motor sport, words fail me. Racing cars, burning fossil fuels, rubber and the rest of it, for pleasure? Formula One – more like Formula Wanton! Frankly, you might as well hold a competition to see who can blow up the planet first – just for laughs.

However, Jonny, if there is one thing more despicably unethical than playing sports, it is watching them. What excuse could there be for spectating, aka inciting others to behave so disgracefully? Where competitive sports bring out the worst in the human individual, spectator sports bring together something far worse – the Human Crowd, the mob, the actually existing embodiment of man’s biblical plague upon the planet.

Individuals are bad enough and do enough damage on their own, but a crowd is far worse than the sum of its parts. It is a beast – no, that would be a good thing! – correction, it is a monster such as nature could never conceive. I challenge anybody who seriously believes that democracy – the dictatorship of the ignorant carbon-bingeing consumers over the enlightened few – can be a ‘good thing’ to go within a mile of a football match (I do not suggest getting any closer if you value your life), and just glimpse the truth about the chip-fat-caked, lager-soaked seething mob wearing its colours of hate on its smoking-related-cancer-ridden chest with pride.

But don’t take my word for it. Well, actually, you should, but there’s more. As so often these days, The Science is on the side of the righteous. It has been proved beyond doubt that watching sport is destroying the planet.

The wise boffins at Cardiff University did a study of the likely ecological impact of this year’s FA Cup final at the new Wembley stadium (another hi-tech tombstone celebrating man’s inhumanity to planet). They found that the event would leave an ‘eco-footprint’ 3,000 times the size of the Wembley pitch. Adding up the thousands of miles that fans would travel to the match, and the countless highly-processed pies, pints of lager and general unsavouriness that would be consumed there, they concluded with scientific certainty that each and every person at Wembley would leave behind an eco-footprint 10 times larger and more vandalistic than if he or she had watched the game at home. (Of course, it goes without saying that we should not be suggesting those idiots watch sport on the demon carbon-box – television – either.)

Nor is this the first time that The Science has blown the whistle on the way that football-watching makes men active participants in the blood sport of man-made global warming. During last year’s World Cup, another ethical academic who finally secured funding for some serious research proved that all those vulgar plastic England flags flying out of car windows were actually cheering on planetary destruction, because the drag factor they created by fluttering in the breeze caused each car’s engine to use even more fuel. The lesson is surely clear: we need to ban the World Cup and all plastic flag production now, and impose a green tax on anybody seen flying one

On top of all these terrible sport-related injuries to the environment is the small matter of the way that a brain-frying obsession with watching hairy men chase balls and each other around is distracting billions of people from facing up to the reality of the eco-crisis that is staring back at all of us from the eco-mirror. Basically, if it was not for football, it is obvious that world leaders would have accepted my message by now.

But is it possible to use the power of sport for good? There are wise men who think so, and none wiser than the former England goalkeeper David James, whom I understand is known among football fanatics as ‘Calamity James’. Presumably this is because of his oft-expressed concerns with the approaching calamity of man-made global warming. David wrote an article (yes, apparently some of them can!) where he revealed how football’s status as ‘pure bloke territory’ made it okay to ‘spit out gum and chuck bottles on the floor, and the industry mirrors this selfishness across the scale’. However, James says: ‘We’ve got to make use of football as a driving force for environmental change. We’d be stupid not to. It doesn’t take a think tank to see that the game holds a powerful influence over kids and adults around the world.’

Tempting, isn’t it, to imagine that the brain-washing techniques of mass sport could be used to wash the brains of tomorrow’s youth clean of all their eco-hate habits? But no, in the end, the only truly ethical response is for an aware and sensitive person such as David James to give up playing professional football. I have been delighted to find that many football fans agree with me that James’ immediate retirement would be a powerful force for good, even if they express this hope in a rather vulgar fashion.

Apparently, some reactionary old football manager once suggested that this so-called sport was more important than mere life and death. It is time to accept that he was right, inasmuch as the blood sport of the crowd has itself become a matter of life and death for the entire planet – a planet that they treat as a ball to be kicked around. Somebody else once observed that the Puritans wanted to ban bear-baiting not so much because of the suffering of the bear but because of the pleasure the crowd got from watching it. He said that as a criticism. I say, three cheers for the Puritans! Restraining the mob’s bloody ‘pleasures’ is our only hope of saving all the bears and the rest of biodiversity.

So Jonny, be strong, stand tall and Just Say No to sport. And if you still want something constructive, healthy and fun to do at the weekend, you could join our sponsored meditation in support of the ‘Kick Sport Out of Schools!’ campaign.

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}. Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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