Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Class Consciousness, Sport & the Lockdown

Its now almost exactly six weeks since the Covid-19 induced lockdown began in Michigan and five weeks since I wrote the last blog “Class Consciousness: A Sticky Issue”. I had not intended to follow up the last post on class consciousness until the next time I would be teaching AS334 Race, Religion and Caste. But some unexpected consequences of the unprecedented Covid-19 lockdown have facilitated the convergence of some seemingly unrelated streams of cultural change that are going on right now. These cultural convergences caught my attention in ways that I found to be surprising and interesting at the same time – interesting in so far as they relate to the issue of class and class consciousness that turned out to be a somewhat sticky issue in the AS334 class and therefore worth sharing.

As with many people experiencing the lockdown I did my fair share of binge-watching certain Netflix dramas. One series that I found worthy of recommendation is The English Game which deals with a number of issues including but not limited to: the rise of English football as a professional sport, class consciousness, and the North-South divide in the UK. For me these were interesting for a number of reasons. First, I grew up playing football (its called soccer in the US) and to this day retain a strong interest in the Premier League (I’ve rooted for Liverpool since the mid-70s). Second, the school where I was educated had a long tradition of playing Rugby, and because football proper was considered a working class sport it was effectively banned during school hours even though it was the national sport. Rugby, on the other hand, was considered a gentleman’s sport, and deemed more fitting for the rigorous training of young men (very Victorian! But that’s how it was and I guess it still is that way). Third, I lived and worked in the north of England for a number of years, so got to experience the northern spirit first hand. Fourth, some of these factors are not so far removed from the experiences of college athletes in the US, and here will relate my daughter’s experience of being a student athlete, albeit in a very different sport, tennis. As I try to thread these issues together, let me begin with a brief synopsis of The English Game.

Written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, The English Game came out as a Netflix six-part miniseries in mid-March 2020. The English Game is based on the true story of the birth and rise of modern soccer. The drama is set in 1880s England at a time when the fledgling sport was divided along class lines. Almost two decades earlier in 1863, alumni from a group of 11 elite English public schools led by Eton College banded together to form the Football Association (FA). The FA became the governing body by establishing ground rules for the rapidly rising sport. The central rule was that all teams competing under the aegis of the FA had to be strictly amateur. The idea behind amateur status was to enable the upper class elites to try and retain control of the sport and keep it out of reach of the working classes, amongst whom football was rapidly growing in popularity. As Julian Fellowes narrates in an interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper:  “The whole reason the Football Association was formed was so upper class people who’d learnt the game at school could play against one another under a set of agreed rules. But, from the moment the rules were established in the 1860s, the sport increased in popularity seismically. It was extraordinary……..The English Game is the story of how these working class teams finally prized control of the sport from the public school boys.”

Unlike the alumni of the elite English schools which were based in the rich and privileged South of England, working class football teams were mainly based in the industrial Northern towns such as Blackburn. And whereas the amateur teams such as Old Etonians were comprised of rich, well fed and financially well resourced men who held privileged positions in society, men from the working class teams were not only poorly paid, they also spent 6 days of the week laboring in factories and could only find time to play for one day at the weekend, when they’d normally be resting. So how to compete with the privileged classes? 

This is basically what The English Game depicts so well, showing how one particular Northern club (Darwen FC) brought two Scottish men from Glasgow and paid them not only to play for their club but to train the working class team in a wholly different style of football in order to compete with the likes of the Old Etonians. Fergus Suter and Jimmy Lovell became the first players to be paid to play football. Thus beganthe transformation of football from a collection of amateur leagues to the world’s most popular sport. Of course, the upper classes weren’t going to give up without a fight, which is what the last 3 episodes are all about.

The two central characters in the Netflix series are Fergus Suter (regarded as the first professional footballer in the history of the game) and Arthur Kinaird (later the 11th Lord Kinaird, the Old Etonian and heir to a banking organization which became the forerunner of the modern Barclay’s Bank). The English Game highlights a sporting and ideological rivalry between the two men, which eventually turned into a lasting friendship as Kinaird embraced the move of the working class clubs towards professionalization, and later on became the first President of the newly Professionalized Football Association.

What the mini-series manages to emphasize rather well is the issue of class consciousness and dynamics in late 19th century England, in relation to the complex social and economic realities that underpin them.  But it also has some interesting lessons and resonances that not only go beyond the historical context in which the series is set (late 19th century), but also transgress the peculiarly English cultural context in which the class conflict is situated. On a more personal level, it reminded me of the positive role that Trade Unions played throughout the 20th century in developing sports facilities for workers, paid for by companies. In my hometown of Coventry I remember playing in weekend football and tennis leagues at grounds attached to companies like Massey Ferguson, General Electric Company, Courtaulds, and any number of the car companies that existed. Such facilities, paid for partly by the company and partly by Unions, helped foster a strong sense of camaraderie and pride amongst working families, but also gave children from these families access to sports and sporting facilities which they would otherwise never be able to afford. During the era of Margaret Thatcher beginning in 1979, many of these facilities started to disappear as companies closed, Trades Unions were smashed or outlawed and the economic environment shifted towards the kind of neo-liberalism we see today. Access to sports and sports facilities is now on a pay-to-play, with the rise of expensive sports clubs and gymns that are beyond the economic reach of many working peoples.

All of this seems to be a far cry from the way that sport is run at both amateur and professional levels today, and this is even more the case in the USA where everything to do with sport is monetized to such an extreme level that questions of class consciousness no longer seems to be an issue or to be as relevant as they once were. But appearances can be deceptive, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown in some rather strange ways. And this brings me to the fourth strand of the threads I’m trying to weave together in this post.

Since 2012, and like so many other parents in the USA, I’ve been actively involved in supporting my daughter to become a college athlete. After years of dedicated training and competition she managed to get a college scholarship to play tennis at a public university and join many other such scholar athletes in the NCAA. The Collegiate sports system in the US is unrivaled anywhere in the world insofar as it provides access to high (almost professional) levels of play and competition to those talented enough to be selected by a particular college, coupled with a full or partial college scholarship. While this might sound well and dandy, there is also an untold story behind all of this, as my daughter and I both discovered. In the last few years we were able to gain insights into how access to a sport such as tennis, and especially one’s ability to climb the sporting ladder even at an amateur level, is determined by an asymmetrical playing field, not too dissimilar to what is depicted in The English Game. It’s a playing field that has much less regard for true talent than for one’s access to wealth.

Of course there should be no surprise about this; it has always been true of sports such as tennis which have mainly been played by the wealthy middle to upper classes, much more so than team sports such as soccer or American football. With the exception of those student-athletes whose parents are coaches or have played the sport themselves, almost all of the top division-1 players going into NCAA tennis, for example, have wealthy parents who put their kids into expensive boarding academies where they were also schooled. In these academies these kids are coached and play anything from 5-8 hours a day, and 6-7 days a week. It takes serious money to do this. Compare this to many other kids who had genuine talent but were barely able to get expensive court time, or afford decent quality coaching and equipment, let alone the huge expense of hotels and travel for tournaments which take place almost on a weekly basis. And that doesn’t include the fact that for lower income parents, one or both of them will have had to take time off work to support them.

My point is not just to point out this inequity. Everyone knows this. What really struck both of us was that despite their privileged access to the sport, wealthy elites (often unconsciously) seem to be invested as much in keeping the less privileged out as investing in their own kids’ success! This aspect emerges not so much in any overt denials of wealth and privilege, but in their undiminished efforts to try and buy their way to success – by which I mean that they sincerely believe that their child is the best because of his or her talent and hard work alone, rather than their access to money which made everything possible in the first place. For them it’s a level playing field and their kids are mostly oblivious of the reality as well. This ardent belief forecloses the very real possibility that there may be unlimited pools of talent in kids from much lower income backgrounds. For the wealthy elites this other talent doesn’t exist, because it never gets to show up on the playing field!

From this perspective the sporting scene in 2020 doesn’t look so different from the 1880s when the working classes were struggling with the privileged elites who believed they ‘owned’ the game of football. Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic produced an unexpected twist to this story as all amateur and professional sports have ground to a halt. As neither the rich nor the poor are able to access indoor or outdoor facilities. Those who paid tens of thousands of dollars to be at academies appear to be in the same boat as those who could barely get access to courts and made it through talent alone. But again, appearances can be deceptive. It only gave the impression of having leveled the playing field, because wealth it seems is able to buy itself out of the lockdown which shut down all public and private facilities. I’m referring to the fact that some of the top players have been able to side-step the lockdown because their families owned indoor tennis courts! No wonder it is so difficult to level the playing field in practice.