Is Football a Force for Good or Evil?

We have just barely recovered from the morality stress-test of Qatar and another global carnival of physical exertion is already upon us. On July 20, FIFA’s Women’s World Cup kicks off and will demand our attention for a month. Unlike most sports that allow us to regroup, recuperate and refocus, association football is relentless and has acquired a kind of ineluctability.

London, UK – March 10 2019: the fans shout during the match of Premier League between Chelsea – Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stamford Bridge stadium. © Silvi Photo /

June 13, 2023 21:51 EDT

Football is not just a sport: basketball, boxing, cricket, tennis, and other hugely popular endeavors are. But not football. It’s set apart; it transcends sports to the point where it shares the same emotional and intellectual space as war, politics, sex, and faith. And the trick of football is to move so unstoppably fast that we never get a chance to ask a moral question: is it a force for good?

“Undeniably, yes,” its defenders would answer, gesturing to the way in which the sport unifies people of diverse backgrounds and with totally different characteristics. They might also note how football has brought prosperity to areas of the world that might otherwise remain deprived. And brought not just entertainment but an unusual type of gratification to populations that lack other forms of reward. I made this point recently on BBC Radio4’s Moral Maze (you can listen here).

Football has other virtues: it encourages camaraderie, teamwork and mutual respect. In recent decades, the sport has encouraged and promoted the participation of groups that have traditionally been marginalized or excluded from mainstream sports and, indeed, society. As well as women, football integrates disabled people and, unlike many other sports, has no restrictions on transgender players.

The Magic and the Dangers of Football

The anguish of being a football fan is this: everything else in life is unexciting and sublunary by comparison. Football fans are used to this. Going to a game means to be transported beyond the range of normal experience and, for two or more hours, feeling exalted and newly alive. Other sports offer similarly thrilling sensations but without the added exhilaration, the fieriness or the occasional delirium. Paradoxically, many of the features of football’s unique formula are unwelcome outside the stadium and, often, inside too. Football’s is an edgy, hostile environment, where fury, antagonism and belligerence are natural elements: they combine agreeably but dangerously. We wouldn’t want them all of the time. Life would be too treacherous. For a couple of hours, though, danger is fine.

The passion football fans feel is unparalleled. A heavyweight title fight, the Super Bowl, an Olympic track final, and a few other sports events provoke an intense arousal among fans, but football’s pleasures are unique. That’s because of its history. Football was never supposed to be a sport: its origins lie in annual struggles between pre-industrial English villages or neighborhoods. The skirmishes were arranged confrontations involving physical conflict, weapons and injuries. Over time, rough-hewn rules gave the battles order, and eventually they were refined into football. There were a great many variants, but, by the end of the nineteenth century, just two remained: association football and rugby (which itself was divided into two codes).

The distinction between players and spectators didn’t exist in more primitive forms of what became association football and, even after the formation of the Football Association in 1863, observers were probably invested, as we’d say today. In their heads, the club they were rooting for was their club: owners were merely custodians. As the sport spread to continental Europe and Central and South America, the proprietorial sensibility spread, as did the feverish atmosphere. And ugliness too.

The violence associated with football was an outgrowth of the attachment fans felt for their clubs. Fighting was simply part of the continuum of normal behavior. It disappeared briefly and understandably after the Second World War, but recrudesced in the 1970s. While there are still violent undercurrents at football games anywhere in the world, they remain that—below the surface. The reason for this is the gentrification of the sport that started in the early 1990s. Before then, few games were televised live, players’ earnings were relatively modest and fans were raucous. Then, TV networks created subscription channels and clubs became content providers rather than bastions of local pride and gateways to community tradition.

Football appeared to become a different creature. Fans’ inclinations changed, though without being sanitized. Racism is one of the sobering reminders that, for all its modernizations, football’s regressive features will not die easily. Their persistent presence continues to haunt the game and issues reminders that traditions, even the lamentable ones, are like clumsy thieves— they leave fingerprints.

Codes of Silence

Football is not alone in harboring sex offenders, though the number of horrifying cases of child abuse in recent years invites speculation on how long this kind of exploitation has been going on and whether the sport has employed a code of silence. It is not alone in this respect and many other sports, including gymnastics, swimming, athletics, basketball, and hockey, have been embarrassed by their failures to protect children and adolescents.

Another code of silence is thought to suppress gay male players, who typically wait until their competitive careers are over before declaring their sexual inclinations. In so doing, they perpetuate the myth that football culture is homophobic and intolerant of LGBTQ+ concerns. The women’s game is exactly the opposite. Indeed, women’s football has developed into a standard-bearer for gay rights. Reality differs from myth: 95% of fans are decidedly not homophobic and most would prefer gay male players to come out. My own research in 2010 and 2020 confirms fans reject the popular characterization of football culture but suspect there are obstacles. They conjecture coaches, managers, agents, and football club owners prohibit gay players from being honest. Their reasons for doing so remain opaque, but probably derive from concerns (however unfounded) about the market viability of openly gay male players.

It could be argued that a different sort of code of silence operates in the administrative offices of football too. Certainly, the staggering amount of corruption revealed in recent years indicates that many senior officers of FIFA, the sports’ governing organization, were loyal to an oath of omertà for decades, aware of countless bribes and kickbacks but unwilling to blow the whistle. As the sport commercialized, the rights to host and broadcast major tournaments became valuable and were pursued with the kind of zeal associated with the most tenacious players. But while players’ fouls were visible to all, administrators’ dishonesty was barely perceptible, at least to those who were not involved.

A sprawling investigation dating from 2015 and still ongoing resulted in scores of convictions, imprisonments and resignations. The awkward question of whether the corporatization of football had brought with it dishonesty was answered. It was like lifting a rock to discover the insect life beneath it. The creepy-crawlies were football’s officials and politicians. And just think: players who were prone to fouling were often called “dirty.”

I’m not naïve enough to think other sports are any different: All major sports respond to the clink of coin. This is why the most benevolent paymasters have been able to draw not only football, but golf, Formula 1, boxing and other major sports to the Gulf States. Many complain that football is selling its soul to billionaire sheikhs, but that presumes there was ever a soul to sell: Association football has been a professional sport since 1885 (baseball in the US was already professional by then), so the sport has always been more about lucre than love (the word “amateur” is from the Latin “amator”, meaning “lover”).

Like practically everything else that brings pleasure, including gambling, junk food, social media and TV-binging, football secretes harm. When reminded of this, everyone looks away. At least fans do. For them, football is like nothing else on earth: the joys it brings overpower everything. To others, it’s one of many pointless distractions that take people’s minds off of the things that really affect their material lives. And for still others, it is a once-great sport, now made presentable and incorporated into the entertainment industry.

They’re all right. If football had been a uniformly good force, it wouldn’t have had its thumping impact on cultural history. It’s the doubtfulness that keeps people ruminating. While people are thinking, talking and philosophizing, the sport stays at the fore. The instant they stop, football becomes just another sport.

[Ellis Cashmore is co-editor of Studying Football.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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