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The Dehumanization of Sports

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
I’m very human. I bleed, cry, feed the babies, read.
“Mean” Joe Greene, defensive linesman, Pittsburgh Steelers

Traditionally, sports in this country held a happy position as an extension of that ambiguous abstraction, the American character, and as a manifestation of one of our cherished myths—the untarnished larger-than-life hero accomplishing Homeric feats before adoring audiences. This was accompanied by an overlay of the old-school British sporting values, which took on an American coloring through such utterances (now mocked mercilessly) as “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” and “Let’s win this one for the Gipper.” But at some point in the early 1960’s all this changed. Sports, especially the professional branch, rather abruptly began to reflect the darker side of America. Among franchise owners a kind of uncontrolled greed set in; on the playing field, violence, in too many instances, became an end in itself; the fans, collectively, took on a meanness and ugliness that were distinctly alien to the traditional public behavior of Americans. By 1976 all these elements converged to form a national breakdown of values from which there seemed to be no turning back.

In attempting to make some sense out of this phenomenon, one should perhaps begin with the fact that in the decade following World War II Americans enjoyed an unprecedented affluence which was accompanied by a movement away from the urgency of the work ethic. This trend created a kind of “leisure vacuum” which shouted to be filled. Thus began the commercialization and proliferation of sports. Entrepreneurs, seizing upon the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for diversion and escape, collaborated with city fathers and the “Czars of professional leagues in basketball, baseball, and football in the acquisition of new franchises.”Expansion” became the catalyst which propelled professional sports from a mild diversion to a billion-dollar industry. Aggressive economic buccaneers of the Robber Baron stripe pushed municipalities, often at the taxpayers’ expense, into building huge monuments to sports; and the Houston Astrodome, a closed-in stadium with regulated temperatures, became the ultimate symbol of America’s new secular religion.

Along with this economic and physical growth there developed a predictable demand for more professional athletes. This problem was solved, especially in basketball and football, by stepped-up college recruiting programs offering potential “superstars” enticement in the form of “scholarships” and other fringe benefits. By the late 1960’s the athletic programs of most of our large universities represented little more than training grounds for lucrative careers in the leading professional sports. Outstanding high school athletes, envisioning the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, simply allowed themselves to be put on the block and sold to the highest bidder by way of the college draft. For all practical purposes these college athletes became unofficially the property of professional clubs who saw to it that the young men were carefully programmed to put out maximum effort at a maximum salary by the time they moved into the professional ranks.

Perhaps the chief factor contributing to the proliferation and high visibility of professional sports in the 1960’s and 1970’s was the television medium. With customary acuity, the moguls of the commercial networks wasted no time in exploiting what to them appeared to be a sure-fire, profit-making venture relatively free of the usual government restraints to which large corporations are subject since the investors successfully perpetuated the idea that sports is entertainment, not business. Lucrative deals were arranged by which professional teams were paid millions of dollars for allowing the networks the rights in televising their games. All around everyone was happy. Owners of franchises were assured a sizable profit, and the networks were in a position to fill their coffers by guaranteeing sponsors a massive audience of potential consumers. A parallel escalation developed in players’ salaries. Before television moved in, the annual wages of professional athletes were commensurate with that of middle-level bureaucrats; after the television sports explosion, owing to the availability of money and the demand among the viewing public for ultimate “winners,” superior athletes were in a position to negotiate multi-million contracts. By 1976 an unusual number of players were paid annual salaries of more than $100,000.

Factors other than the economic ones raised sports to the level of a national obsession. Here a statement by Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” is pertinent. Orwell says, “An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” Sports addiction seems to follow a similar pattern: an athletic contest provides a means by which one can find a healthy escape into a world of heroics, physical combat, and ritualized violence. But as the opportunities to escape increase, the need for a “fix” becomes more urgent. The club owners and the television networks, with dollar signs dangling before their eyes, oblige by providing enough “fixes” to millions of sports fans to assure two types of perpetual “highs”—one of the manic variety, evidenced by the increasingly wild crowd behavior in stadiums and arenas, the other a kind of glassy-eyed somnambulistic state induced by watching hours of televised sporting events in the home. At this point, precious few of these sports addicts have demonstrated any inclination to kick their’habit, which is rapidly developing into a social problem of disturbing proportions.

Intensifying even further this new mass preoccupation with sports was the phenomenal popularity of football coach Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packer teams dominated professional football throughout most of the 1960’s. Lombardi, through a combination of charisma, perfectionism, football savvy, and the ability to lead men, developed so many winning teams that he became a national folk hero. His unintentional throw-away aphorism, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” (now destined for Bartlett’s Quotations along with other imperishable platitudes), struck some kind of primal chord in the American psyche and became a powerful catalyst in reversing once and for all the traditional belief that in athletic combat the means— how one played the game— should transcend all other values. Winning, and winning big, literally did become the only thing all across the board. But an even more pernicious fallout from the Lombardi myth developed. Hundreds of apprentice coaches, burning with the Lombardi zeal and eager to employ the vaunted winning methods of the Master, positioned themselves as mentors of Little League baseball and Midget football teams. Unfortunately, most of these men had taken on only the most abrasive and destructive characteristics of Lombardi, and few had any understanding of the sensitivities of young boys. Horror stories and film clips abound depicting 12-year-olds being shouted at, humiliated, threatened, forced to play hurt, being thrown off teams for not giving their all to win, etc. Since boys of this age and younger could not possibly have the emotional maturity to respond normally to such authoritarian methods, the only conclusion that could be drawn was that these coaches, for the most part, were indulging in an “ego trip” at the risk of traumatizing youngsters, in some instances permanently. In its most blatant form, these perversions of the Lombardi legacy represented child abuse on a level with that which existed in the blacking factories of Dickens’s boyhood.


By the mid-1970’s sports in this country, rather than being the force which the pioneering idealists claimed would liberate all that was best in human nature, had become one of the most oppressive, dehumanizing institutions in our society. Evidence of this decline was everywhere—in the actions of players, in the terminology of sports, in the liberalized rules of the games, in crowd behavior, and in the ethical standards of the sports hierarchy—the men who own and manage the teams and professional leagues.

Probably the chief factor which has dehumanized our athletes is specialization. Where athletes in earlier civilizations, particularly that of ancient Greece, represented well-rounded human beings who reflected the humanistic and religious values of their particular societies, those of today are a product of what is often referred to as the Post-Industrial Era. Generally this means simply that sports are an offshoot of our technology-oriented society; specifically it means that in order to achieve greater efficiency and more production (winning teams), sports organizations have compartmentalized, fragmented, computerized their operations along the lines of large industrial plants. Thus, on a human level, an athletic team today is analogous to a factory assembly line in which each worker performs one minuscule operation day in and day out. Football is a case in point. Not only are the squads broken up into defensive and offensive teams, but they are fragmented further into “special teams,” one for running back kickoffs, another for punt returns, etc. Players have been known to do nothing but kick extra points and field goals in a career spanning 20 years. While no one can possibly read the minds of athletes for clues to this aspect of dehumanization, it is obvious to outsiders that these men are locked into a system that is perfectly capable of producing thousands of zombie-like, one-dimensional creatures. In this respect a full-time athlete is simply not allowed to develop that sense of completeness which most men enjoy. Instead he becomes a “middle-linebacker,” “shortstop,” or “rebound artist.” A representative case: in my hometown of Washington, D.C., a bright, articulate young man named Sonny Jurgensen played quarterback for the Washington Redskins for about twelve years before retiring in 1975 at age 40.At no time during his career in Washington was he regarded by the public as anything more than a “quarterback,” a man whose sole claim to fame was a talent for throwing a football into the arms of waiting receivers. Perpetuating Jurgensen’s one-dimensionality were the local media which covered his quarterbacking feats in greater depth and scope than they did the President of the United States. At one stage Jurgensen presided over “The Sonny Jurgensen Show” on television with the proviso that his guests would be limited to football players and that the subject matter be reduced exclusively to football. On the eve of his retirement Jurgensen was asked the usual question, “What do you plan to do now that you no longer play football?” He replied sadly, “I really don’t know what I am going to do. All I have done for 30 years is throw a football.”

Another factor which has contributed to the dehumanization process is the sheer size and bulk of modern athletes. This is especially evident in basketball and football in which the pressure to win and draw ever larger crowds has accelerated the demand for outsized men—seven-foot centers and forwards in basketball, 280-pound linesmen in football. Outsized players are expected to perform outsized feats. The relationship between performer and audience becomes one of detachment. It is as if creatures from another planet had descended to earth and provided Americans with a new concept of the “hero,” a kind of Polyphemus in modern athletic gear, hurling bodies instead of rocks. Here again Orwell’s law of cause and effect seems to be at work: these games demand giants. The fans and the media regaid the giants as less than human. Ergo: The giants become alienated from their fellows and in the process lose a large chunk of their essential humanity.

As is often the case with women, athletes tend to be boxed into a role which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Sports critic Robert Lipsyte, for example, notes:

The athlete’s role is the traditionally “female” role. He is selected and rewarded for beauty and performing skills. He is used to satisfy others and taught to define himself by the quantity and quality of satisfaction. He is chattel; he is allowed no major decisions. When he grows too old to please he can be discarded; at worst, he mignt have to be paid off, but he cannot force the owner to keep him on the team, or play him.

Lipsyte’s analogy is perfectly valid up to a point, but it breaks down when one considers what action the two groups—women and athletes—have taken to change the roles that have been imposed on them. Through consciousness-raising, public debate, and extensive exposure in the press, the Women’s Liberation Movement has begun to have some impact in persuading women to examine their lives. Nothing of similar magnitude has occurred in the world of sports. Outside of a few mavericks who have written “expose” books about exploitative coaches and the Neanderthal aspect of Texas football, athletes, for the most part, have not demonstrated much appetite for “liberation.” Whereas women have reacted vociferously to “sexism”—exemplified by such cliches as “I want to be me” and “I want to be treated like a person, not a sex object”—male athletes continue to tolerate a host of pejorative terms aimed at perpetuating an image of aggressive animalism: football linesmen become “behemoths,” “monsters”; collectively they are simply referred to as “beef”; epithets like “Wilt the Stilt” and “Mean Joe Green” begin as public relations gimmicks and end as burdensome psychological yokes. Perhaps the most pervasively demeaning term applied to athletes is “Jock.” Like other all too familiar pejorative labels employed for the purpose of keeping certain groups in their place, “Jock” has evolved from an inside locker-room joke to a widespread usage that, considering the association with private parts and bodily functions, amounts to a national disgrace. Where debasing sexist and racial epithets are gradually being purged from the language, “Jock” continues its ascendancy, leaving all Americans diminished.

Moving from the performing athletes to the rituals of the games themselves, we can see a breakdown of the concept of fair play on all levels. As documented thoroughly in the New York Times, violence and “dirty” tactics have escalated disturbingly over the past decade. Basketball, which at one time resembled a graceful ballet, has become more “physical,” a body-contact sport; baseball more frequently succumbs to uncontrolled brawls; football in its viciousness has taken on the characteristics of open warfare; boxing remains the most blatantly brutal sport in the civilized world. But it is in the realm of hockey where violence has reached its apex. Through a combination of rule changes and a look-the-other-way attitude on the part of referees—both perhaps motivated by a blood-lust among the fans—hockey had by the mid-1970’s developed into a sport in which incidents of assault and battery had been sanctioned as being “all part of the game.” In a previous article I referred to these attacks as “ritualized crimes” which have created a dilemma: namely, what legal action, if any, should be taken when civil offenses are committed during the course of an athletic contest. Until recently crimes of physical violence which occurred on the playing field were exempt from civil penalty; justice was dispensed by the authorities within the sports e’stablishment, usually in the form of a slap-on-the-wrist suspension or a relatively small fine. But as incidents of violence became more frequent and more vicious, civil authorities in a number of cities stepped in and brought indictments against offending athletes. Thus, for the first time in modern history, traditional Anglo-Saxon concepts of justice were being applied to what had heretofore been a privileged sanctuary—the playing field. Those in positions of authority were no longer completely free to justify criminal acts in the guise of “It’s all part of the game.”

Sports critics have argued, however, that when sadism becomes public entertainment part of the blame must be shared by the spectators. A popular line of reasoning states that if the American public disapproved of the violent drift in sports they would boycott the teams that are responsible or turn off their television sets. But the evidence is all in the opposite direction. Instead of denouncing the violence, the spectators, in many instances, have actually encouraged it and on numerous occasions have physically attacked other fans, the officials, and even the players themselves. Psychoanalysts and anthropologists have enjoyed a field day trying to make sense out of this chaos by summoning up Freud and Konrad Lorenz and making appropriate allusions to the love of gladiatorial combat among the ancient Romans. But none of these “scientific” discourses on the perversity of spectators seems as convincing to me as E.B.White’s parable “The Decline of Sport,” written during the early stages of today’s sports boom. Like Orwell in 1984, White employs the common literary device of following a current social malaise to its logical disastrous conclusion at a point far into the future. On a literal level his subject is the proliferation of sport in the “third decade of the supersonic age. “Prophetically, White says:

Not only did sport proliferate but the demands it made on the spectator became greater and greater. Nobody was content to take in one event at a time, and thanks to the magic of radio and television nobody had to. A Yale alumnus, class of 1962, returning to the Bowl with 197,000 others to see the Yale-Cornell football game would take along his pocket radio and pick up the Yankee Stadium, so that while his eye might be following a fumble on the Cornell twenty-two yard line, his ear would be following a man going down to second in the top of the fifth, seventy miles away. High in the blue sky above the Bowl, skywriters would be at work writing the scores of other major and minor sporting contests, weaving an interminable record of victory and defeat, and using the new high-visibility pink newssmoke perfected by Pepsi-Cola engineers. And in the frames of the giant video sets, just behind the goal posts, the same alumnus could watch Dejected win the Futurity before a record-breaking crowd of 349,872 at Belmont, each of whom was tuned in to the Yale Bowl and following the World Series game on the video and searching the sky for further news of events either under way or just completed.

The result of this “vast cyclorama of sport,” according to White, was to “divide the spectator’s attention, over-subtilize his appreciation, and deaden his passion.” Following this comment, the satire depicts a wild sequence of chain reactions culminating in the gunning down, by a Mitty-like spectator, of a football player after he had dropped a crucial pass.(“The spectator,” says White, “was so saturated with sport and with the disappointments of sport that he had clearly become deranged.”) This episode is followed by a further chain of disasters involving sky-writing planes crashing on traffic jams and panic spreading to other stadiums.”All in all,” concludes White, “the afternoon of sport cost 20,000 lives, a record.” The parable ends on a note of optimism which might seem a trifle unrealistic in today’s setting:

From that day on, sport waned. Through long, non-competitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered. Even the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestion and pleasant smells.

As prophecy, White’s parable comes through as a master-piece of concise social and psychological observation. The relationship between technology gone berserk and compulsive acts of meaningless violence was never more brilliantly synthesized. It is difficult to argue with the premise of “The Decline of Sport”: that as one is desensitized by overexposure to any ritualized activity the easier it becomes to react violently to its excesses. Uncivilized behavior among spectators does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of the technological fallout which plagues everyone.

What makes the New Primitivism in sports so threatening is its being institutionalized and controlled by a hierarchical system that has been termed “feudalistic” in its authoritarianism and insensitivity to ethical standards. League presidents are appropriately referred to as “Czars.” Team owners and general managers, when they are not preoccupied in filling their stadiums and arranging television deals, become co-conspirators in what amounts to flesh-peddling—selling and trading bodies, not men. The players themselves, under this system, have little or no voice as to the condition under which they must work; they are simply “owned.” Compounding the injustices which result from this arrangement is the involvement of the powerful print and electronic media, both of which have a large stake in preserving the status quo in sports. The contrast here with the coverage of politics by the media is obvious: full reporting and editorial treatment; Watergates are exposed; the illegal invasion of the privacy of citizens by intelligence organizations is aired on the evening news; horror stories concerning corporate irresponsibility are related daily. But no commensurate exposure is given injustices and abuses in the world of sports. There is almost total silence on that score. Outside of the New York Times, few if any sports editors on our large metropolitan dailies employ a “voice of conscience” to blow the whistle when excesses occur. In the realm of sports there prevails a kind of oppressiveness and insulation that exists in no other institution in our society. It remains a feudal duchy untouched by the democratization that has taken place in other American institutions during the 1970’s.


Only recently have there been rumblings and organized efforts to make an “athletic revolution.” Perhaps the person who has had the greatest impact in this regard is Jack Scott, a former “establishment” college athlete who became radicalized while pursuing graduate studies and directed his energy toward creating a kind of sports counter-culture. Scott’s most significant innovation was the creation of the Institute for the Study of Sports and Society, a small-scale operation which published books by and about dissident athletes and served as a clearing house for controversies emanating from the traditional sports culture. Although Scott has recently become more rigidly ideological in his approach to sports, his ideas are being implemented in a non-ideological manner by a small group of disciples, some of whom have been successful in liberalizing athletic departments in academic institutions. The goal of the athletic revolution is to humanize sports in this country on all levels, from the Little Leagues to the professional leagues. The achievement of this goal, according to the reformers, requires radical change on both an institutional and individual level. While there is no official “Sports Liberation Movement” and no recognized credo in print, there is a body of floating ideas which may be summarized as follows:

  1. One should play to win while avoiding the excesses of the “winning is everything” philosophy.
  2. Athletes should be given a voice in the hiring of coaches and in the conditions under which they are expected to play.
  3. Athletes should be made conscious of the potential destructiveness of the machismo role which has been imposed upon them.
  4. Women should be encouraged to participate more fully in sports.
  5. Institutional racism should be eliminated. Talented blacks should be employed in managerial positions and as coaches.
  6. The use and abuse of drugs should be scrutinized carefully, especially as it applies to athletes playing with injuries and getting “up” for key games.
  7. College athletic departments should be placed into the academic mainstream. They should be made responsible to the central authority of the institution along with other departments.
  8. Recruiting abuses and the emphasis on acquiring “superstars’ should be eliminated.
  9. College athletic programs should benefit all the students rather than being used primarily as training grounds for professional athletes.
  10. Children should be eased out of organized sports and away from authoritarian coaches into free spontaneous play.

At the moment the prospects of the value system of sports being turned around seem dim. This is largely due to its peculiar hierarchical structure, with its similarities to the military, emphasizing collective ritualistic tactics and a male bonding in which the individual is sacrificed to the ultimate goal—victory. Some critics argue that since sports represents contemporary America in microcosm, a complete overhaul of our system is in order; it would be replaced by something vaguely in the nature of a non-capitalistic socialist democracy. The essential argument here is obvious: greed has brought about the decline of ethical standards in sports. Eliminate greed by changing the system (capitalism) under which it is allowed to thrive. On the surface this rationale seems to make sense. But it is deceptively simplistic as demonstrated by the elitist, overly structured athletic programs that have been developed in countries which claim to be egalitarian and non-capitalistic. A more reasonable solution, it seems to me, would be to bore from within. The “revolution” in sports must start from the chief casualties of the system, the players themselves, in concert with concerned humanists in other segments of our society. As women, homosexuals, blacks, and other exploited groups have done, the athletes would be wise to assert, through a variety of tactics, their demand for humane treatment. But before taking such a step they must identify the common enemy: league Czars, club owners, coaches, the media, politicians, and most spectators—all of whom have conspired to keep a gladiatorial army of performing “Jocks” in their place.


As we enter the last quarter of the 20th century, it is clear that sports are not going to stand still. The downward trend is going either to continue or be arrested and changed. If the present situation continues unabated, we are likely to find ourselves in the midst of an anti-utopian nightmare. Specifically, when expansion reaches a saturation point within the borders of the United States, sports are likely to become internationalized. They may follow the pattern of the multi-national corporations with ever-increasing economic power. Since the media will continue to have a huge financial stake in the coverage of sports, they too, in this area, will undoubtedly become international in nature. The television medium will again be in the forefront since it will be in a position of employing satellites and other sophisticated technological innovations to acquire a vast viewing audience, numbering in the billions, to watch single sporting events. Thus what is now a localized addiction could become global with the consequence of escalating violence among both players and spectators. If one wished to be cynical about it, he might even foresee a world in which sports replace religion as “the opiate of the people,” a kind of narcotic used by huge political and economic power blocs to fend off dissidence and revolutionary ferment and perpetuate the current drift toward political authoritarianism. A more optimistic view of sports in the year 2000 would assume that the current barbarity is merely a temporary aberration and that most Americans, when faced with a breakdown of civilized values in their traditional sports, will stir themselves and arrest the cancer before it becomes terminal. In this scenario sports will continue to play a significant role in our national life, but the elements which have led to the current state of corruption will be eliminated or reduced. First to go will be gigantism, the corporate monopolistic factor. Decentralization will follow. With a scaling down, players will acquire more autonomy and a greater consciousness of their human worth. The spectators, through education and self-examination, will “kick the habit” by participating more frequently in sports themselves and will learn to be more rational and selective in their viewing habits. Finally, as enlightenment spreads, the public will demand an end to brutality and bloodshed on the playing field through political action and a restructuring of the rules under which certain sports are played.

Like the institution of the presidency, sports in the 1960’s lost its way because it disassociated itself from our historical mainstream. It became a government unto itself with its own governing bodies, its own standard of ethics, its own system of meting out justice. In its isolation it developed rituals and patterns of behavior that were inimical to those practiced by most civilized Americans. The cure for the current decadence in sports is not to destroy it but to restore its harmonious relationship with all that is decent and humane in American life.


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