MONTREAL, QC. — It’s been a rough couple of years for hockey fans in general and for fans of the Montreal Canadiens in particular. Between the lockout, intractable negotiations over arena deals, and intense scrutiny over whether the Habs coach and GM must be bilingual, much attention has been focused away from the game of hockey itself. While resentment of the presence of politics, economics, or culture within what we like to think of a realm of play is understandable, ties between sports and core features of society cannot be unravelled. We may choose to shy away, but awareness of those ties can give us control when the perceived contamination of sports by societal issues leads us to feel as though we have none.
Because humans have always imagined their sports as representing their most valued social characteristics and aspirations, direct resemblances between politics, economics, culture and sports can be traced far back into history.
Ancient Greece, birthplace of modern democracy, was known for a liberal approach to life and for enlightened politics in which citizens joined together in discussion and decision making over community affairs. Contours of this participatory philosophy and other societal features were grafted onto sports practices of the Classical Greek era.
Echoing Greek politics, values of fair play and equality in competition were taught to students in physical education classes in the national education system and were also intricately applied to events in the ancient Olympic Games. Exemplifying additional sports-society links, ancient Greek athletics displayed core social values through their public enactment of rituals that characterized Greek religion. Greek athletics were not merely about physical fitness. The organization of sports highlighted revered social priorities. Participation signalled honouring of the gods as well as efforts to bring divinely granted good fortune to the community.
Whereas participation, fairness, and religious practice were fundamental virtues of society and sport in ancient Greece, the organization of ancient Roman sports was directly reflective of the core economic and militaristic dimensions of that great civilization.
The Emperors of Ancient Rome routinely used the wealth they accrued from imperial and economic success to please their citizens with the public provision of material opulence and national holidays of leisure. The culture of conquest and economic extravagance was replicated in Roman sports festivals that featured gladiatorial fighting by paid performers before audiences that were permitted to gamble on outcomes. Thus, in an advanced commercial and militarily robust society, sports took the form of orchestrated entertainment publicly celebrating the spectacle of violence in amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire.
In one final example of the constructed connections between core elements of society and sports, hockey in Canada provides a familiar illustration.
As a game originally played outdoors on ice, and that historically showcased tough physical play, hockey not only models the reality of a cold physical environment but also the strength required by Canadian communities to thrive within their geographic contexts. Parallel to the requisite physicality, hockey players off the ice are also valued for their humility, politeness, and generosity. When they find these character traits in the everyday comportment of their favourite players, Canadians locate in hockey a particular approach to social conduct and political affairs that many argue distinguishes their culture from that of their neighbours to the south.
This brief history shows that modern sports activities are not merely by-products of society, against which a human group’s politics, economics, and culture collide from time to time. Rather, society and sports are deeply intertwined, with the latter often deliberately built as a stage on which core features of the former are publicly expressed.
But, if it is really a society’s prized social philosophies and values that are showcased in sports, why should conflicts arise over these features at all?
As current tensions in the US remind us, societal values reflect the aspirations of many of its members at the same time as they can exclude the preferences of some. Serious disagreement over political, economic, or cultural policy can result in social unrest, but this is part of an unavoidable continuous process in which citizens of free societies move between stability and change as they work through defining and institutionalizing their social priorities. Due precisely to its role in expressing society’s values, there is no escaping the fact that sports is involved in social dynamics that are almost as likely to stir up debate and contestation as they are to promote collective agreement.
So, just as a political doctrine or an economic policy will not represent the aspirations of all members of a diverse society, the deliberate presentation of some of these features in sports will necessarily promote the interests of some citizens more than others. This was clearly the case in Greek athletics as women, non-aristocratic males, and slaves were excluded from participation in Olympic competition just as they were from the deliberations of the vaunted first democracy. And, while fighting and hitting are widely appreciated as reflective of a Canadian style of play, there is also an increasingly restive segment of fans and media pundits willing to speak out against their presence in the game.
The promotion of a society’s core values contributes to making sports an emotionally compelling experience for its fans. As fans in Montreal know well, when those values lack full citizen endorsement, the potential for acrimony is always there.
In the context of the ongoing hockey lockout, what does a consideration of the nation-building functions of sports offer to counter the intense frustration that hockey fans currently feel towards the NHL and the NHLPA?
With knowledge of the relationship between sports and society, the first suggestion is to accept that there is no mystery to the hockey lockout, or to the tactics taken by both sides, and to view it as tied to historic battles over the terms and possibilities of our society’s economic system. Shaped by and expressive of fault lines that characterize capitalism, the NHL is advocating owner or manager control over the conditions of work while the NHLPA is defending a more cooperative model of economic affairs. Fans and pundits appear surprised by owner and player greed, but limited restriction on material acquisition is endorsed by the private enterprise economy and by the culture in which it operates. Despite claims to the contrary, the lockout is a stage on which owners and players are performing societal deliberations, and intense disagreements, over core societal economic principles.
Recognizing the economic values being showcased in the lockout leads to a second suggestion that fans work toward developing specific positions on what is required to resolve it. It is common to hear that both sides are to blame, but this is a non-position that sidesteps the possibility of forming an informed judgment. Beyond displeasure resulting from missing the games, or from a lost salary if one’s income depends on the NHL, frustration is also created by confusion over which side’s policy ambitions are most unjust. Once they see the lockout as similar to management-labour battles waged in their own professional fields, fans can more easily identify the policies advocated by the two sides that require immediate reform in order for the business of hockey to resume and return to being healthy once again.
With a defined perspective, a final suggestion is for fans to join the deliberations by taking action. This can mean writing letters to the NHL, the NHLPA, or to specific teams to challenge the details of their stances. It can take the form of organizing online communities to pressure corporations that do business with the league or the players. It can also mean developing innovative projects, such as mobilizing to punish the NHL and the players when they return or appropriating popular symbols of hockey to get people involved in social priorities more important than arbitration rights, HRR, and ‘make whole.’ The fans’ power lies in their pocketbook and in their passion, interest, and time. By communicating clear preferences on the issues, by withdrawing support unless priorities are changed, or by channelling their frustration into either pressure tactics or needed public involvement, fans can use their power during the lockout to get things done.
Because fans are both valuable members of their communities and citizens, seeing hockey as a battleground for a society’s political, economic, or cultural direction need not instil fear. Just as sports will always be used to express official societal agendas, fans have the power and the right to get involved in the process. Involvement will not only help to ensure that the games are organized and played as the fans would like, but it would also mean that their communities and societies are being built according to the visions that are closest to their hearts.