“Football isn’t a matter of life and death,” former Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly once said. “It’s much more important than that.”
Truthfully, though, we rarely attribute the kind of importance to sport that we do to, say, politics, history, the arts or any of the other themes that traditionally appear in the pages of intellectual reviews.
Sport gets a rough ride in the heady world of intelligent and well-crafted journalism. In 2008 there was only one article specifically about sport in the London Review of Books, while the New York Review of Books carried an editorial about China and the Olympics and a review of Kasia Boddy’s Boxing: A Cultural History, but little else of overt sporting content. Meanwhile, the New York Times’ two-year foray into the world of sport with its quarterly title Play crashed and burned in November 2007, with falling sales and advertising revenues plunging the publication into the red. The New Yorker, barring a few exceptions, rarely prints feature articles dealing with sport.
Jumping to immediate conclusions, one might argue that this is purely intellectual snobbery—that the written world’s foremost thinkers, at home in the prestigious arenas of high politics, literature, theatre and the like, refuse to lower themselves to the less rarefied, more earthy atmosphere of the sports field.
But such a conclusion is probably unfair. Indeed, a number of studies indicate that academics and cultural commentators often neglect sport because they do not know how to treat it. In 2003 Lincoln Allison and Terry Monnington, lecturers at the University of Warwick, wrote a paper entitled “Sport, Prestige and International Relations”, which detailed the extensive reach of sport in the field of politics, national identity and world power relations. They found that international relations experts were too often guilty of neglecting sport as a discourse, simply because it did not fall into a failsafe explanatory category. “The most obvious hypothesis,” they conclude, “is that it does not fit into the traditional paradigms and debates of the discipline.”
Largely absent from the academy and intellectual periodicals, coverage of sport thus lacks the sort of depth and analytical rigour that commentators apply to other cultural phenomena. The majority of sports magazines on sale in the UK continue to target either adolescents or the kind of adult who thinks a football shirt is a fashion accessory. Reporters for these magazines write in a foreign language that includes impenetrable references to players’ nicknames, a labyrinth of statistics and complex game vocabulary (a particular favourite is “pinging it in with his left peg”, which I believe translates roughly as “playing a left-footed pass”.)
Anything that does not have direct bearing on the men chasing the ball does not appear on their pages. This inevitably leads to the lamentable proliferation of journalism in a vacuum, with writers treating sport as an inert entity unaffected by developments in the wider world. It is an approach that only reinforces the belief among the wider cultural intelligentsia that sport belongs in a category away from the “serious business” of current affairs, the social sciences and the arts—sequestered in a special place for the brutish writer and brutish fan alike. What a pity, because sport so often reflects and refracts the world around us just as art or politics does.
A handful of intellectual writers have tried, and continue to try, to integrate sport into complex political and sociological discourses. Cricket, which in the UK remains the natural home of intellectual sports writing, continues to inspire journalism of the highest calibre, particularly in the monthly Wisden Cricketer magazine. Football also has an equivalent publication, When Saturday Comes, which in recent months has addressed issues ranging from French national identity among young North African football enthusiasts to the controversial relationship between two footballers—one North Korean and one South Korean—in the Russian club Krylya Sovetov Samara. Across the pond, Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine are industry leaders, with ESPN winning an American National Magazine General Excellence Award in 2006, edging out the mighty New Yorker in the process. But these publications, aimed at the dedicated sports fan, are in many ways preaching to the converted. Mainstream intellectual journals continue to neglect these themes by and large.
It goes without saying that there are many eyebrow-raising examples of places where sport and society powerfully intersect. Books such as Simon Kuper’s seminal Football Against the Enemy, or Franklin Foer’s How Football Explains the World, show not only how sport reflects politics, but also how sport affects politics. For example, a handful of historians of the Balkans are now taking their lead from the world of sports in citing the rivalry between the football teams Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb as in part the root of the 1990s conflict in Yugoslavia. Historians of Weimar Germany long have suggested that the 1936 Olympics contributed, among many other factors, to the rise of the Nazi regime.
But sport not only serves as a telling historical lens; it has something to say about contemporary politics as well. Mark Bennett’s Russian Dynamo explores Russia’s resurgence under Vladimir Putin through the lens of her domestic football competition. The book’s message is clear: if you want to understand the oligarchs, you cannot neglect Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea FC or the control of football clubs Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow by oil and gas money. If you want to understand the intricacies of Russia’s regional politics, then try examining the meteoric rise of the Chechen team Terek Grozny, which, in the aftermath of a war that devastated the separatist republic, rather suspiciously constructed a football team that won the 2004 Russian Cup. If you are analysing corruption and the Mafia, the murky case of a young Russian striker, Dmitri Sychev, who allegedly asked for a transfer to Europe in 2004 after being leaned upon by a criminal gang, is a captivating one. In short, sport tells a story of Russia that is not always accessible to those who focus their research solely on the country’s tightly-managed political circles.
That is not to say that we should take our cues about politics and society wholly from sport. In the end, sportsmen and the people around them are focused solely on winning on the field, not on the more profound questions of human life, as demonstrated magnificently by former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann when he said: “Nobody in the game of football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.”
To the astute observer, sport does have a relationship to matters of life and death, just as Bill Shankly suggested. Those involved in playing and watching sport shape and are shaped by the discourses within our society—local, religious or ethnic allegiances, as well as economics, crime and social unrest. Taking sport into account offers the potential for an alternative, often innovative perspective on these issues. With a combination of greater sympathy from the academic world, and a more rigorous approach from sports journalists and writers, we could well see this potential realised.
James Appell  is reading for an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the sport editor of the Oxonian Review.