Let’s rebel against the new referees

From reality TV to school sports, faked activities controlled by outside judges have replaced real competition.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Today’s culture, complains liberal US theorist Benjamin Barber, is hyper-competitive. Every discussion or TV programme has to be a game that yields winners and losers, with debates replaced by quizzes, and cookery or music programmes by knockout contests involving ritual humiliation. Society is ‘unreflective, grasping, aggressive, and cutthroat’, and we must rein in the aggression and learn to cooperate again (1).

Not so, say conservative thinkers such as the UK’s Melanie Phillips – actually competition is at a low ebb. Sports days are being phased out, educational success and failure is replaced with prizes for all; race times get slower because everybody is just ‘taking part’ or ‘competing against themselves’. We must renew the competitive urge, which fuels great deeds and drives people to push themselves beyond their limits.

So who’s correct? What in fact is the culture of our times – and what kind of culture should we try to cultivate? At our May Manifesto Club salon, a collection of club members – from different political backgrounds and professions – explored the question over glasses of wine.

Dan Travis, tennis coach and author of the Manifesto Club Thinkpiece on sport (2), said that competition was indeed being phased out from schools. Sixty per cent of sports days now are not races yielding winners, but ‘games’ involving various exercises with parachutes or tasks for a group to perform. Indeed, history teacher Mark Taylor said that in his south London comprehensive, many kids had no appetite for competition – he recalled a sports day where some kids turned up in jeans, and one young man did not bother with the bend of the athletics track but just cut straight across.

There is much laziness and futility exhibited here. While a match of football has a clear drive and players can channel and push themselves, more sport now is just about fiddling around. Indeed, Dan says that the bottom line for sport is often ‘health’: the desire for self-transcendence, developing one’s abilities to the full, is replaced with the goal of biological maintenance, keeping the heart ticking over.

Yet this is only half the story. As Dolan Cummings noted, there is a lot of futile competition around too: often we see ‘fighting for the sake of fighting’, winning and losing merely for winning’s sake. Survivor and associated TV programmes pitch people against each other for no end, a social situation becomes a game with victor and vanquished. The terms on which the winner is declared are relatively arbitrary, he argued, and participants show extreme ‘conservatism’ and ‘deference to the rules’. Participants are working within the set format and appealing for affirmation on those terms, hanging on to the opinions of such luminaries as X-Factor judges Dannii Minogue and Sharon Osbourne.

But perhaps this is not the age of competition or cooperation, but instead the age of the referee.

Dan Travis observed that competition is not being replaced by 1960s communalism, but instead it is more a question of ‘managing results’. Children are still being set up in games and competitions, but these are highly managed affairs, with shifting goalposts and indefinite outcomes. Rules are not established once and for all, but are developed on an ongoing basis, and subject to all kinds of artificial weighting – ensuring that all children get a chance to participate, for example, and that no team is made to feel bad.

In traditional sports, the rules were developed within a sporting community and laid down in the rulebook, and the referee was merely there to enact the rules. Now with Pop Idol or Survivor, the referees are centre stage: they are opinionated and mouthy, they harangue competitors and make up the rules as they go along. The swelling subjectivity of the referee – whether it is a pompous Simon Cowell or a worthy sports day supervisor – corresponds to the shrinking subjectivities of participants. We are often neither competing nor cooperating, but playing their game.

This is an age of both faux competition and faux cooperation: in both cases, the terms are set from without, and are estranged from the purpose or drive of an activity. What makes a good hospital or surgeon? Doctors know and patients know, but league tables measure not this but the externally determined standards of bureaucrats. Faux competition – designed to inject motivation from without – erodes the authentic drive of medical practice. Meanwhile, faux cooperation means enforced collaboration – with the tedious fashion at conferences for group- or consensus-building exercises. Again, these are exchanges structured by the referee, who designs all the participative exercises and lays down the rules for engagement.

As the salon drew on and the glasses emptied, we agreed on the importance and value of sporting competition. Psychiatrist Swaran Singh emphasised the importance of children learning to deal with failure, to ‘pick themselves up’ and try again: self-esteem is not something that can be given to children, he said, but is the product of their own efforts and successes. Dan Travis spoke passionately about the competitive drive, and said that the desire to be the best can drive athletes to greatness and nobility.

But there was awareness, too, that collaboration is equally important as a driver for individuals. The academic Peter Sammonds said that the trouble for him was to encourage his students to cooperate – since they were often reluctant to work together in scientific research teams, developing research plans and sharing results, as they would have to do as scientists in the real world.

Perhaps we could summarise like this: when the goal of an activity is very simple, competition is an appropriate motivator. Competition can occur most purely in sport because it is, at base, a simple matter: the length of a jump, the speed of a run, a ball between the posts. Where the goal is more complex, it doesn’t fit so easily into the terms of winning and losing. The musician or intellectual with a desire to simply be ‘the best’ would never be as good as the one who lost themselves in their music or ideas, who sought not to beat others but to dedicate themselves to their end.

I drew two main conclusions from the evening’s discussion. First, that we should devote ourselves to ends – be they sporting or intellectual – and that this will sometimes pitch you against others, and sometimes mean that you work in alliance with others. And second, that we should encourage a rebellion of both competitors and cooperators against the new referees and their pointless games.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. Manifesto Club salons bring together club members for serious, informal conversation about the state of the world, and the possibilities for a better one. (The next salon is ‘The pursuit of Truth’ on 17 July in central London, with introductions by Frank Furedi and Tom Addiscott.)

Previously on spiked

Paul Bickerton considered how to make an Olympian. Tim Black said school sport is being stripped of its competitive element. Alex Standish argued that competitive sport has been chased out of schools. Duleep Allirajah labelled Wimbledon a ‘festival of self-flagellation’ and said the problem with England, at big sporting occasions, is that we want to win, but expect to lose. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) The lost art of cooperation, Wilson Quarterly

(2) In Support of Competitive Sport, a Manifesto Club Thinkpiece by Dan Travis

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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