Do libertarians hate team sports?


We can learn a great deal from watching and playing sports

Quite a few libertarians of my acquaintance dislike sports, or at least affect indifference to sports and games, particularly if they are team games. (Opinions may be different with more individualistic pursuits, such as martial arts, golf, board games such as chess, and tennis). I sometimes wonder whether is a correlation between the individualist mentality that is congruent with being a libertarian, and a dislike of team games. Sometimes such opinions are forged by school: some of my earliest, and most unhappy memories of school as a young boy were having to play football (soccer to Americans) on a muddy, freezing cold morning under their eagle eye of a bullying games master. Such activities, along with rugby, cricket, hockey and the like have been a torment to millions of young children although others have relished the experience and been confirmed sports addicts ever since. (Funnily enough, after my early unhappiness, I developed a love of cricket and also play golf and a bit of tennis.)

I think a reflexive dislike of team sports among certain libertarians would be a mistake. Apart from schools – where pupils have no choice in the matter – people typically play team games because they want to do so, either for enjoyment, money, or even better, for both!

And as the principle of voluntary co-operation for wider ends is a bedrock of a classical liberal worldview, then team sports, and the associated structures of clubs and social gatherings around them, are a good example of civil society that grows and flourishes without, and often despite, the oppressive hand of the State. Sports also demonstrate how rules – which are the essence of games – can be established and develop without a State. In the past two hundred years or so, in much of the developed world, especially the English-speaking one, a whole set of codes for rugby, cricket and soccer were developed, for example. The bodies that set and monitor these rules are autonomous institutions and not part of states, although in practice governments sometimes try, not always successfully, to interfere with sports codes. In general, however, the rules that we see – whether it be the handicapping rules for horse racing, or Formula 1 motor sport, or yachting, golf or whatever are glorious examples of how the mutual self interest of people wanting to have a good time can create rules and procedures on their own. There will be trial and error; commercial pressures and incentives will encourage changes, not always for the better, but always there is the possibility of review and refinement. And in the end, if you don’t like how, say, the 24-hour motor race at Le Mans is run, you are not forced to pay for it with taxes.

And sporting contests, while they might be “zero-sum” in the sense of having winners and losers – unlike the mutual benefits of exchange in a market – are part of a broader positive-sum world in which people freely choose to enter a sport, or watch it, because the enjoyment thereof is worthwhile. I support a football team – Ipswich Town FC – and I know that my support for this East Anglian club will bring as much heartache as pleasure, given its relatively lowly status these days. But I gain a net benefit, emotionally, from following a team, getting interested in the competitions and struggles of the players. If the annoyance/cost factor were to get too great then I would stop and do something else.

Sports have, of course, been sometimes used, or misused, by States for political purposes. The political shenanigans that one sees around the Olympic Games, for example, are a case in point. Public sports facilities are sometimes funded with taxpayers’ money and the land acquired through compulsory purchase (or what the US refers to as eminent domain.) Some sports seem to be peculiarly vulnerable to political manipulation and financial corruption – there have been problems with soccer and cricket, for example.

But while I don’t dismiss these problems, I don’t buy the argument, once famously made by George Orwell in an essay about football, that sporting rivalries intensify hostilities between nations rather than subdue or control them. Consider: today (16 March), I am going to watch, with nervousness, as England’s rugby union team takes on the Welsh in Cardiff. There will be much passion on both sides; there will be singing of national songs, crazy costumes, a large consumption of booze, and a few sore heads the morning after. One or two fans might also have their collars felt by the police. But as far as I can see, such events in general channel patriotic feelings in a fairly harmless, even constructive way as we can appreciate the guts and skills of sportsmen, tease our rivals about it in the office on the Monday morning, and leave it at that. That’s endlessly preferable to rivalries one sees enacted on the battlefield or through trade conflicts.

There is a lot that sports can teach us about life. A few years ago, the journalist and former professional cricketer, Ed Smith, wrote a much-praised book called What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons. There is much in here for people of varying political philosophies to think about. And one of the most interesting points made is that money, far from necessarily “corrupting” sports, often is a vital part of the equation.

Anyway, the rugby is on, so this article is going to end here.

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