The Evil Side of Sport

Abstract: This article discusses competition and sport. A recent court decision promises to make sport more competitive. This article puts some question-marks behind both sport and competition.

A Sport and the Media.

The success of cable-TV and pay-TV seems to depend on a number of ingredients, among which films, news, music and . . . sport. Sport receives the highest ratings, not only for live coverage, but also for shows on the topic of sport. Sport features heavily in news in the media. In many ways, sport is closely linked with the fate of the media. The ferocity of the fight by media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer over rugby league proves the importance of sport for other media. Therefore, a review of cross-media rules that is to look at "plurality, diversity and competition in the media" should also look into sport. As this article will show, the relation between competition and sport will raise questions about the efficacy of competition policy.

B. The nature of Sport.

For most people, sport represents the highlight of competition and symbolizes all the virtues of mateship, heroism and peaceful, civilized and law-abiding behavior. To argue that the whole system is rigged comes therefore close to blasphemy. Some people were therefore surprised when the Court recently decided that their favorite sport, rugby league, was organized in a way that breached the law, in particular the Trade Practices Act (TPA, see Appendix B). They wondered: "How can there be anti-competitive forces in sport, if there is such fierce competition in the field?" As the Court decided, the organization in control of rugby league (the ARL) engaged in anti-competitive acts in order to prevent a rival league to be set up.

C. Forces behind Sport.

Some people argue that the TPA should not apply to sport, because there are other than commercial aspects of sport that make it different from trade. They argue as follows: "Look at the way people identify with their local sportclub, with the colors that their heroes wear, the unity among the people from the neighborhood who turn up at a big match, the fanaticism of their support for what they see as 'their own club'. Perhaps father played for the club himself and now his son has joined as a junior player. Look at how important matches create unity among neighbors! Everyone in the area sets aside the arguments they have with each other and they all join in to support their local team; this way, sport brings the community together. Take all this away and what is left? Entertainment, art, perhaps a remarkable display of physical agility, but not sport!"

Others argue that the TPA should fully apply to sport, precisely to prevent such situations. They ask: "Is it desirable that local people unite behind 'their' club? Is such unity not also manufactured by the way sport is organized around local monopolies?"

The question is: Is sport inextricably linked to territorial thinking or can sport rise above such forms of politics and be played as a game that is not rigged from above, a game played on level fields? Or can sport go both ways? Does the Court ruling apply to professional sport only? Where is amateur sport different? If sport is so closely linked to territorial loyalties, then how much competition can be established? If amateur sport is to be free from competition, what kind of values is it to reflect? What exactly is sport anyway?

D. Can Sport be expected to become more competitive?

Does sport promote competition? By nature a sport match is a fight from which only one winner is to emerge. Sport is so into ranking and selection that time and again singularity is promoted as the winner.

In art, one artist may do beautiful things at one location, while another artist may do something nice somewhere else; there is no necessity for artists to work together, let alone against each other; competition between the artists is restricted to the fact that they both draw spectators to their work, i.e. one may draw more spectators than the other; but there is no direct confrontation between the artists, in fact, they may benefit each other.

In sport, spectators come to watch this very fight, this direct confrontation between competitors. Without the fight, spectators may admire the ball-handling skills of a player who gives a performance, but this would at best be regarded as an art-display, as entertainment. It only becomes sport when this element of confrontation is introduced. And this is exactly why the Government is so keen to promote sport.

The "competitive" spirit of sport is deceptive, as there may be fierce competition between players, but there is centralized control, there are rules, arbiters and organizational aspects that are not negotiable. This is how the Government likes to respond to calls for more competition in society; the Government is keen to encourage competition between businesses, but the Government's courts, judges, laws and general supervision are not negotiable. In fact, the Government is more and more using the argument that its laws are "creating more competition" as an excuse for its absolute and monopoly control over society.

The Government promotes sport in all kinds of ways. Many local (amateur) sport clubs depend on grants from federal authorities, on local councils that build sport facilities, control traffic, etc, on 'physical education' at local schools that train the future players; sport is full of organizations that act with the power of absolute rulers. All these organizations have monopoly tendencies, they are prone to anti-competitive thinking that glorifies the monopoly as the way to organize things.

Waving the flag, singing the national anthem, the display of pictures of the Queen in sport halls and at schools, this all seems to fit into this grand scheme. Territorialism such as nationalism goes hand in hand with sport; sport organizers know that setting up people in one geographic area against people elsewhere seems to bring out some of the worst behavior in many people, including violence, bit it does sell tickets.

The most glorious moment for most athletes is the opportunity to represent their nation in the Olympic Games. Dictators are keen to exploit such patriotic events to unify people behind a flag. Sport is dictators' pet instrument to spread dictatorial values. So, can sport be expected to become more competitive? Or is competition itself a limited concept? It makes more sense to focus on Optionality.

Appendix A: Sport and Political Manipulation go Hand in Hand.

One can hardly look at sport without noticing the hand of Australia's Government determining the shape of sport. Sports such as rugby, cricket and netball seem to attract the biggest audiences, so the media moguls are trying hard to control such sports. Why are such sports so dominant in Australia? Why do virtually all schoolgirls in Australia have a polo shirt and pleated skirt as part of their uniform? These sports are hardly known outside the Commonwealth Nations, a group of nations that all have the (British) Queen as Head of State. Only Commonwealth Nations can participate in the "Commonwealth Games". This is the major reason why the before-mentioned sports are popular only in a few nations. This exclusivity also explains why these sports are not included in the Olympic Games.

Netball, e.g., will be an important sport at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, but it is not an Olympic sport. Michele Buck, Queensland Netball president and netball's delegate to the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), is so fed up with this situation that she has decided to bypass the AOC and go straight to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to try and get netball included at the Olympic Games in the year 2000. After all, Australia regards itself as a top nation in netball and the 2000 Olympic Games will be played in Sydney. These examples show how much politics influences sport.

Appendix B: How broad is the Market?

Defining the "width of the market" is crucial in the legal case between the Australian Rugby League (ARL) and News Ltd. The ARL had organized rugby games since 1908 and News had tried to set up a rival 'Super League' in 1995. News had contracted over 300 players, coaches and referees, although there were 'loyalty agreements' between the ARL, clubs and players. News said the loyalty agreements were signed under duress, as the ARL threatened to exclude dissidents from its competition. Many players said their income was capped under the ARL and they were in other ways restricted, but were unsure about the prospects of Super League. News said this blocked entree into the market.

The Court first took a broad definition of the market and ruled that the ARL did not have a dominant position in the market, since this market "at least" included sports such as football, basketball, soccer and cricket. The Judge ordered clubs and players to honor the loyalty agreements, and put a wide ban on News' involvement in rugby league until at least the year 2000. Clubs that had chosen for Super League were effectively forced to return to the ARL and bring out their best players in the ARL-competition.

Many players were horrified by the Judge's definition of the "market". Rugby League is such a specialized sport that few players would be able to even cross to the similar Australian Football League (AFL) that plays "Australian Rules" football. Brisbane Bronco's players' representative Chris Johns described the rulings as a return to slavery for players and said he could not believe in a democratic society where a court could make players play against their wishes. Whereas employees can generally end their employment by giving one month notice, the court ruling did not give rugby players such rights. The Judge argued that rugby league was different as it was "motivated in a large part by considerations other than the pursuit of profit".

On 4 October 1996, the Federal Full Court took a more narrow interpretation of the respective market, deciding that the 5-year loyalty agreements did contain exclusionary provisions as prohibited in the Trade Practices Act and were therefore void. The orders made by the previous Judge were consequently set aside.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Chairman, Allan Fels, called it a "good, strong decision" and "an affirmation that the Trade Practices Act applies in full to professional sport". Allan called the case the first important victory for the ACCC since the competition law was extended this year to cover all areas of the economy and said that the loyalty agreements between the ARL and clubs were "transparently anti-competitive" as they were designed to stop News from setting up a rival competition.

Meanwhile, rugby league has seen spectators numbers tumble, while the AFL flourishes, which adds a prophetic glance to the title of the article Sport, Australia Rules!. The ARL did lodge an appeal to the High Court with concerns over, among other things, the loss of historical continuity in "local derbies" between nearby clubs, but it was thrown out of court.

Appendix C: Sport, will it remain a case of Australia Rules?

The article Sport, Australia Rules! discussed how sport in Australia had been organized on a cartel-basis. The article ended with the observation that Rugby League players were treated as virtual slaves of the NSWRL and that, according to the court, the Trade Practices ACT (TPA) was not applicable. Now the Federal Court has ruled that the TPA does apply after all (see Appendix B). Clearly, sport as it is organized in Australia promotes the wrong values. The question is, can this change or does sport have inherent characteristics that make it by nature prone to promoting singularity and dictatorial values? Sport is often argued to promote competition, but what is meant by that? Competition in sport seems to refer to a fight from which only one winner can emerge. Sport is so associated with violence, with hierarchy, with arbitrary rules and with ranking and selection, that it is easier to recognize the hand of the Dictator in sport, than Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market".


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