What does not kill you is a sport

J. Ostwald at Skulking in Holes and Corners posted a very thoughtful entry on the metaphor of war and modern sport. The tendency to use the visual language of warfare in the context of sport has a long history and, as Ostwald deftly explains, it says a great deal about popular understanding of sport and war in a complex way. The cynic might say that this use of bellicose language is little more than a ploy to make something largely irrelevant (large-scale commercial sports leagues) into something both visceral and meaningful by close association with abstract martial symbolism and an audience that is predominantly a passive observer of both sport and war. I’m something of a cynic, but that rarely produces interesting writing so I’ll take a slightly different tack, down the related path of violence as sport (or sport as violence).

Johan Huizinga (blessed be his citations) wrote that fighting ‘is the most energetic form of play and at the same time the most palpable and primitive.’1 Considering that Huizinga and many of his contemporaries and successors thought of medieval people as largely childlike, this seemed an easy explanation for all that violence we associate with the distant past. I’m exaggerating the argument to a small degree, but it’s the same argument Norbert Elias used in his grand ‘civilizing process’ where sport came to absorb and re-direct surplus inter-personal violence into less destructive and more regulated outlets.2 I think you can gather from my tone that I am less than enamoured with this theory, although I can’t deny its elegance in practice.

That argument about sport and violence, the idea that the two are intimately connected, is a concept largely accepted within the study of violence but the nature of the relationship is still in question. Does sport control, regulate, or re-direct latent violence or does it exploit it, normalize it, or trivialize its performance? Is sport simply a socially acceptable alternative to aspirational violence? Does the language of warfare, nationalism, and all those abstract concepts of glory and fame rationalist violence in sport and internationally?

Huizinga, and Elias, certainly thought sport regulated violence. Carolyn Conley wrote an interesting paper on interpersonal violence in 19th century Ireland that argued that violence itself was treated as sport, at least in certain contexts.3 Eric Dunning pushed the theory rather further such that the regulating influence of sport seemed to sustain and promote violence, where it otherwise would not appear. Dunning and his co-authors studied rates of violence amongst fans of organized sports and argued that fans did not experience violence vicariously through the observation of ‘legitimate’ violence on the pitch, rather they participated in their own inter-spectator violence as an extension of the match.4

It is all a bit of mess really. Histories ‘cultural turn’ has taken the study of violence into the territory of social theory and anthropology and that’s ultimately for the good. The problem, now as it ever was, is that despite all the new and promising conceptual models for understanding past behaviour, we are still working with the same sources that record that behaviour. This particular angle on violence asks lots of very good questions of that evidence but those sources are often just as steadfastly resistant to new interrogation as they were with the old ones.


1 From J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon press, 1955), quoted in Carolyn Conley, “The Agreeable Recreation of Fighting” Journal of Social History 33 (1) 1999, 57.
2 I refer, of course, to Norbert Elias The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigation. Edited by Eric Dunning. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell. revised ed. (London: Blackwell, 2000). I found a recent summary of this theory, written for historians unfamiliar with all the social-theory studies of violence in Andrew Linklater, and Stephen Mennell “Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations – An Overview and Assessment.” History and Theory, no. 49 (2010): 384–411. I will say that Linklater and Mennell are not very critical of the theory, being more of an introduction to the concept than a robust evaluation of it. For that, see the essays in Warren Brown and Piotr Górecki Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) and Gerd Schwerhoff “Criminalized Violence and the Process of Civilisation: a Reappraisal.” Crime, History & Societies 6 (2) 2002: 2–22.

3 opt. cit. n.2

4. It’s easier to get a feel for Dunning’s theory in his more recent work: Dunning, Eric. “Sociological Reflections on Sport, Violence and Civilization.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 25 (1) 1990: 65–81, and “Violence and Violence-Control in Long-Term Perspective: ‘Testing’ Elias in Relation to War, Genocide, Crime Punishment and Sport.” In Violence in Europe: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by S. Body-Gendrot and P. Spierenburg, 227–49 (New York: Springer, 2008).


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