Ideology and Sports

Sport and ideology refers to the way in which the former, as a distinct form of leisure activity, impacts upon the body of ideas which reflect the beliefs of a social group or political system. Indeed, the ideological capacity of sport can be considered so great that it may now be apt to rework Marx’s dictum, in that sport, rather than religion, might sensibly be considered to be the new opiate of the people. Unquestionably, explicit links between ideology and sports have their roots in the work of the Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno. In sum, Adorno argued that sport, like many other forms of popular culture, was a frivolous activity which reinforced the inequalities of the capitalist system and prohibited critical thought. At the heart of Adorno’s critique lay two defining principles: participant competition and the consumption of the sporting spectacle.

Addressing the first of these issues, Adorno argued that sport emitted dangerous social messages, which resonate with the sports playing proletariat. A given example is that sport is ultimately tied to ‘‘instrumental reason,’’ meaning that it serves a purpose of habituating those in subordinate social positions to the demands of material life. Therefore, Adorno’s indictment was specifically aimed at the means end rationality of bourgeois society, in that sport created the message that if the sports player worked/ trained hard he or she would have more success. This was the ideological communication from the capitalist system. Building upon this, Adorno saw that the intrinsic value of sport was in permitting competition between members of the same social class, in that they risked physically damaging themselves and each other during participation. Adorno argued that this was a dystopian reality: members of the oppressed class should be galvanizing against the inherent power structures rather than indulging in masochism. Thus, in this sense, sport creates a false ideology in which instrumental reason is central, which carries a strong capitalist work ethic and hides the ‘‘real’’ bourgeois enemy.

However, the ideology which sport creates does not stop at sports competitors. Adorno saw that spectators offered remuneration for the privilege of watching competitive sport. Thus, Adorno and Horkheimer (1992) argued that sport, like much of popular culture, was part of the culture industry. They argued that sport, like the other institutions that create popular culture, was owned by members of the bourgeoisie but uncritically consumed by the proletariat masses. Taking the view that popular culture may numb the working class’s faculties of critical thought, Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the differences between the ideological propaganda of the Nazi party and key agents within popular culture (including sport, music, cinema, and news print) were minimal. Indeed, popular cultural forms and Nazi propaganda were alike in lulling cultural consumers into a false sense of security and in the process limiting their ability to think critically. Essentially, the ideological message was that as long as the preoccupied proletariat had access to popular culture, they would not challenge the existing power structures.

Furthermore, the cultural industries have bourgeois owners who, for entry into sports events or access to the mediatized spectacle, charge fees for a unit of their product. Inevitably, like any profit making activity, this creates a surplus. Therefore, popular culture – including sport – pacifies the proletariat while producing a profit for the bourgeoisie. Indeed, Eco (1986) has voiced a similar opinion. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, he highlighted a belief that sport placates society by asking if it was ‘‘possible to have a revolution on a football Sunday?’’ With this, Eco suggested that sport – in this case football – negates the proletariat’s ability to think and act critically. Therefore, for Adorno, Horkheimer, and Eco, the only real sporting results are the continued oppression of those in subordinate positions and eventually an accommodation to monopolistic capitalism. What is more, these concerns were voiced long before the expansion of the global media, which has allowed the most popular sports events – such as English Premiership football and US NBA Championship basketball matches – to be broadcast worldwide, aiding the spread of global capitalism. In this sense, Adorno and Horkheimer’s condemnation was prophetic. Indeed, Adorno (1982) most succinctly summed up his concerns by arguing that ‘‘sport itself is not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection,’’ and therefore clearly demonstrating the role sport plays in developing an ideology which favors existing power structures.

Thus, Adorno demonstrates the linkage between sport and the ideology of the capitalist system. However, Bero Rigauer (1981) points out that sport has also been utilized as an ideological tool by ‘‘state socialists’’/‘‘communists.’’ For instance, in the former USSR, the first socialist sports movement was organized by the state immediately after the revolution. Therefore, sport was used to create harmony and practiced to promote the nation’s fitness during the Civil War (1917–20). This use of sport was markedly different from its uses in western capitalist systems, in that competitive sport was not featured. However, the practices were designed by Russian communist intellectuals in order to cultivate a social consciousness which could eliminate a range of social problems (such as alcoholism and illness). In this case, the ideological capacity of sport was utilized to manipulate the actions of the public, beyond capitalistic measures. Thus, using this form of ideology, sport can undeniably have a cohesive (as well as destructive) dimension that can (re)unite disparate societies.

However, the illustrated links between ideology and sport have been broadly one dimensional, relating to the way the economic or state power base conditions a public culture. Taking this route, Rigauer, Adorno, and Horkheimer do not look at subordination and empowerment beyond the macro political structures. Eco, on the other hand, pinpoints an additional criticism within the domain of sport participation. Eco argues that sport gives rise to a needless inequity, which separates those who demonstrate sporting aptitude from those who do not, deepening cultural inequality. Although Eco drenches his point with irony, it is clear that other forms of ideology exist beyond the parameters set by the named thinkers. Indeed, the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries have been characterized by the shift toward non class based new social movements. An agenda for future research which considers sport created ideology should be responsive to this, asking questions which relate to other forms of inequality in sport (and with links to the broader society). Such an agenda might, for example, specifically relate to issues of racism, xenophobia, gender, and sexuality, which pertain to both sporting and non sporting dimensions of contemporary society. Therefore, future scholarly research may focus on the various ideologies of inclusion and exclusion, building upon the impressive work of Back et al. (2001), Hargreaves (1994), and King (2003), among others.


  1. Adorno, T. W. (1982) Prisms. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Adorno, T. W. & Horkheimer, M. (1992 [1944]) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso, London.
  3. Back, L., Crabbe, T., & Solomos, J. (2001) The Changing Face of Football: Racism, Identity and Multiculture in the English Game. Berg, Oxford.
  4. Eco, U. (1986) Travels in Hyper Reality. Pan Books, London.
  5. Hargreaves, J. (1994) Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sport. Routledge, London.
  6. King, A. C. (2003) The European Ritual. Ashgate, Aldershot.
  7. Rigauer, B. (1981) Sport and Work. Columbia University Press, New York.

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