INHERIT THE WIND
Mickey Blue Eyes
"Give me that old-time religion,
It's good enough for me."
Traditional Spiritual, USA.
The close-season: we can indulge opinion of general things football while we postpone analysis of Pienaar-Baines left side moves, or whether Ross Barkley has what it takes, or whether to play Felli up front or more defensively, or indeed whether Felli and/or Bainsey are on their way. These are all vital footy matters......but they can wait for the comic paranoia of yet another transfer window and the decision-making of new manager Roberto Martinez. And the banks.
Purely to pass the time, compare the game to organised religion. I am prompted in this because recently I met with a life-long friend and fellow atheist who dislikes spectator sports, particularly football; he openly derides their primitive tribalism and claims it is little different to ritual religious superstition. It makes for a lively discussion over a few glasses of vino. Such pursuits, he maintains, are at their peak and will now decline as "people learn sense" and "finally retreat from Neanderthal, quasi-religious rubbish and a deluded substitute for physical conflict."
Naturally I will have none of it. It is an old anti-football argument, an easy position to take given the awful record of minority behaviour. But add mainstream media over-exposure, throw in fans' anti-intellectual buffoonery and chauvinist malevolence, and if you are a devotee like me you can have a tough defensive job on your hands. Nevertheless, I contest the argument. Like all fans I love the game even when I am in a jaded mood and pissed off at the commercial direction of all professional sports - have you seen rugby and cricket playing surfaces plastered with advertisements? I am still just as likely to stop and watch kids play street footy as I am to pay to watch our beloved Royal Blues. This means the argument can get fierce as the Gavi di Gavi flows.
So, without getting too precious about it, is football, like organised religion, about to go into precipitate decline? In tandem, have professional spectator team sports indeed run their course of usefulness, expiring on their own faults, a virus attacking its host? One step further, is Merseyside football in mortal condition? Linkage is relevant; arguably one begets the other.
Bear with me while I make a short polemical comparison of the extremes of organised religion and footy:
The chances are you have never heard of the Scopes trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, USA. Or if you have you long ago dismissed it to the basement of school memory. Briefly, it was the trial of high school teacher John Scopes for teaching Darwinist evolution in defiance of a state law based on Biblical creationism. He was defended by the great American libertarian lawyer, Clarence Darrow, and prosecuted by the equally great Southern Christian populist, William Jennings Bryan. He was found guilty and fined $100, later quashed on a legal technicality. So both sides won a victory of sorts. At the time the trial was promoted around the world as an example of rational science V religious superstition. It was later dramatised in a stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, then in a Stanley Kramer film, from which this essay title is derived.
Predictably, contemporary American socio-political and arts critic H.L.Mencken and others roasted the creationists on the spit of science, as does Richard Dawkins in the modern era. But society has evolved a little since 1925. Today in Western culture the notion of creationism is widely considered crackpot, the province of small town fundamentalist witch doctors and conmen in Bible Belt Dixie, USA. Yet despite all evidence to the contrary the notion lingers and is still promoted with fanatic zeal. It even had leverage in modern US presidencies of Ronald Reagan and the Bush dynasty, while the British war criminal Tony Blair converted to Catholicism. So much for modern religious fundamentalism. Plainly there is life in the old dogma yet. Superstition and myth die hard. Elmer Gantry lives. Next door is the Flat Earth Society and the Christian Brothers.
But can we legitimately compare religious dogma to the hoopla of spectator club sports? Surely there is no equivalent "creationism" in football?
Yes we can, and yes there is, sort of: both require regular assembly of "the faithful" in one building, often described as consecrated if not hallowed ground; promote obscure ritual; follow a set of commandments; are hypocritical; are riddled with hatred and resentment; have outward displays of lurid clothing; require factional emotional "faith"; promote praise songs and artefacts; have caused mob violence, death and hysteria; have been subject to schism and reformation; have demanded - and got - concessions from the establishment; have been used by the establishment for its own purposes; and have produced manifestly ridiculous propaganda to promote themselves. Both have a following that is largely conservative in thought and action. Both are derided by leading infidel intellectuals and humanists. So, yes, comparisons are obvious, uncomfortable and valid. But only up to a point. And that is where the religion-sports comparison falls.
Still, a recent survey claimed there is as much trust in the Google search engine as there is in religious institutions. Clearly, humanity needs something to believe in...."faith," for want of a better word. Really it is a search for the Holy Grail (pun intended) of absolute certainty. Which, of course, is unattainable. Me, I just want to watch a footy match, preferably with Everton playing and winning gloriously as many games as possible. It beats creationism and "faith" every time.
However, some crude figures which at first glance appear to confirm my friend's basic argument (these are affected only minutely if Wales is included): today the population of England is about fifty-three million; four-division average league football attendance last season was 14,349: this is 0.027% of the population. In 1922 the population of England was about thirty-five million; four-division average football attendance was 14,478: this is 0.041% of the then population. Therefore, there has been a raw proportional decrease of 34% in match attendances over a period of ninety-one years; despite that, and intermittent fluctuations, the core figure is remarkably similar. But this doesn't tell the full story.
Last season, overall average attendances at English Premier League and Football League matches made a full recovery from the 1986 low of 8,130 (which at 0.017% of the population was the lowest since institution of the four-division format in 1922). Total season Premier League attendance alone was over thirteen million. According to Church Census 2005 the average church congregation across main Christian religions was 100. Everywhere churches close while football stadia are improved or replaced with new. The fact is football is flourishing nationally and internationally as a spectator and playing sport. Meanwhile, church attendances dwindle. This is in spite of sedentary social media and alternative leisure competition which did not exist in 1922.
Every week during the English season there are three million football participants, spectators and players. There are 1,486,000 registered football players in England, which alone is more than the aggregate weekly church attendance. There is an estimated 40,000 amateur and professional clubs in England, ninety-two of which are first level professional. There are fifty-two County FA, schools and military administrative bodies. So, if football is dying like religion it is going the wrong way about it. In fact all the evidence points toward an increase in sports interest, not a decline, and not just in football. For another instance, the Rugby League Super League average attendance is 10,850. And so on. Internationally the total figures for all outdoor and indoor sports are huge.
But then, as if to reinforce mundane religious similarity, we had a recent kerfuffle over the Everton club badge. One Joe Anderson was quoted, "Everton look up the word #defile - to treat something sacred or important without respect"....."Sacred"?!.....A football club badge or crest a mere thirteen years old?......Really? (Then again, elected mayor Joe was voted in after a turnout of a mere 31.68%. Or, to put it another way, a total of 98,507 bothered to vote out of 319,758. Of which dear Joe got 58,448, which equates to just over 18% of eligible voters. Scientifically, obviously not the most convincing shaman.) The new badge was pretty bad and should never have seen the light of day......but the previous one sacred?......Pass the sick bag, Alice. This is the sort of thing the late great Irish raconteur Dave Allen would have lampooned mercilessly. There are plenty of other examples everywhere, including even kit design changes that have some of "the faithful" in comic uproar. In these minor respects we fans are guilty as charged. Needless to say, episodes like this give my non-sports friend an easy target. You cannot blame him if he snipes.
As for "creationism" in football......Alas, yes there is. It is the absurd claim or implication there was once "A Golden Age" in the game. Funny thing is, The Golden Age coincides always with adolescence of the claimant, when the grass was greener, the sun always shone, alcohol was a stimulant not a depressant, it never rained, and England won the World Cup. This is especially true if the club he/she supports had a good run or a great team at the time. The other funny thing is, The Golden Age fades as the claimant gets into middle age and older, that dangerous period when cynicism can grow wildly, cultivated by non-football unrealised expectation, disappointment and frustration. Sadly, a tiny number of unfortunates are overwhelmed with hate or bitterness; this can lead to pathological extremes our criminal courts are all too familiar with. Individual behaviour scarcely varies at the edge of reason, only the emphases. You probably know some examples.
Usually all it amounts to is harmless if unconscious mourning for lost youth, and the use of some footy "trauma" - such as an outgoing transfer or a string of bad results - as an excuse to get misty eyed for a football past that never really existed. They come, they go. The game goes on. The safety valve works, after a fashion. But of course such inability to cope is a human trait not confined to sports. Even religion acknowledges the personal challenge of "a crisis of faith."
So, not only is the religious comparison too loose, it is lazy and plain inaccurate. The same analogy could be applied with equal falsity to other trivia such as popular music and the performing arts. Also, as the raw data shows, reports of football's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Next, the overall question of spectator sports and their existence: what use are they in the twenty-first century? After all, professional sports really took off as a spectator hobby during the soot-covered nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. Initially amateur, often prompted by churches and religion, mainly intended as healthy escapism from the factory system and other forms of regimented horror, they morphed into a local club system then into professionalism. Sports existed in many forms prior to that, but none had endured in universally accepted coded form. Like it or not, initially it was the public schools and universities which codified much of what we now have. Here we are, a century and a half later where sports have become a major industry in, oh irony, a deindustrialised society. Commercialism has almost eliminated the religious element but has only slightly dented club chauvinism. We now have an evolved hybrid.
Life has adjusted as it always will. We survive; we adapt because it is all humans know. If we stop, we die as surely as a plant that stops growing. The fact that sports flourish means they must have some relevance. So does religion, but it has stopped evolving and remains stuck in a deepening medieval rut. To place them in parallel is fair......but not to say they are the same. Sports have never held the same level of mass life and death as religion, though there have been times when they came perilously close to it. Sports are frivolous in essence but, sensibly considered, harmless and healthy, which is their prime contribution.
However, there is an interesting if simplistic Marxist factional argument that sports and other populist spectacles are promoted merely to divert organised mass attention from serious issues - a variant of the "opium of the people" religion notion. I don't buy it, but there may be some small truth in it. The fact is of course that sports are far too spontaneously popular to deny. The dominant feature is individual will unevenly applied, not dull-witted "opium" eating. Even totalitarian regimes cannot resist. In which case the establishment will manipulate where they can. The establishment may have retrospectively promoted sports for profit but it cannot force people to watch or play en masse. This was demonstrated by the dramatic fall in match attendances in the 1980s-1990s. At that stage the game looked doomed as supporters turned their backs in millions. Fans only returned as stadium facilities improved and the spectacle became more attractive. In other words, people really did decide they wanted the sport. Their motives may have been mixed, but they came back. The establishment had to go with popular will. For once, the dialectic worked.
In fact spectator sports have made their own niche in society. They are alternatives to participation for those who can't or won't play, a vicarious wish fulfilment. In the end TV and media exposure is merely a reflection of this. For all the phony hype and propaganda people still make their own choice and make their voices heard. This applies even to widely detested monopolies such as Murdoch's Sky TV, now gradually losing out to a demand for better shares with free-to-air TV and social media streaming. And while professional athletes mostly consider it just a job, they are all too human too and so can hardly ignore the primal emotions of team or individual sports glory. There is a sense of personal fulfilment that cannot be entirely selfish where there is dependence on the efforts of others. So, for all their faults, for all the perceived need for improvement, sports are a heady mix of altruism and selfishness. What could be more human?
All of which also highlights my last relevant consideration......the present predicament of Merseyside football. The sad fact is we presently endure a relatively unsuccessful era. For instance, when David Moyes left Everton, one of the phrases attributed to him was, "They'll never be as good as they were in the 1980s." When Wayne Rooney left in 2004 attributed to him was, "It was never going to happen at Everton." If the quotes are true these are hard words for all Evertonians to swallow, for, paraphrased or not, invented or not, they deprive us of football hope. But how true are they? Surely, if one of the first steps to solving a problem is to admit there is a problem, we better take the words seriously and go from there. And if Darwin is right we better adapt and survive or die. The natural process is dispassionate and "cares" as little as the supposed words of Moyes and Rooney. Which in turn means mere sentimental memory and "faith" on their own will get us exactly nowhere. Something else is needed.
Yet Liverpool and Merseyside, despite the travails, remains a hotbed of football and other sports. Everton is still one of the great clubs in the world game. So are our loveable neighbours, even if we have to admit it through gritted teeth. But both Moyes and Rooney went to Manchester, as did Jack Rodwell and Joleon Lescott, which prompts yet another uncomfortable footy question: what does the city of Manchester have that the city of Liverpool has not? More "faith"? Partial answer, obviously, more money. Also, two new football stadia - one of 75,000 capacity and the other shortly to increase to 54,000, one new cricket ground, and even one new rugby league stadium, boundary quibbles aside. Also, regional domination of mainstream media. By direct comparison, the city of Liverpool seems to do little but shoot itself in the foot and wheeze about tradition and history. Incredibly, at Anfield there was even a ludicrous "debate" whether to install a video screen. Sometimes even I shake my head in disbelief.
The secular reality is both Everton and Liverpool now fight to retain their status, if not in slow, ominous decay. Our neighbours were within weeks of bankruptcy and are now as financially tremulous as ourselves. Goodison Park and Anfield Road are dinosaur stadia with maximum capacities of 40,000 and 44,000 respectively, which means self-generated revenues cannot possibly compete no matter how well run the clubs may be. This also means our clubs seem incapable any time soon of mounting a serious challenge for the league title. The comparison hurts, given football past. Like most of us I love my city and I love football, though I have no illusion about either. So what is to be done? Can we recover our standing in the game? Why has more money been directed to Manchester than Liverpool?
Now, we can gain a small crumb of comfort from the past. We have been here before. Back in the 1950s both Everton and Liverpool were relegated while Manchester football flourished. The football pendulum then swung until the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were indelibly associated with Merseyside. Both Manchester clubs declined and eventually suffered relegation and failed to recover fully until the 1990s. But there the consolation runs out. This millennium is a completely different era with different emphases. We now live in an outright casino society. Adapt or die (which does not mean wholesale acceptance). It is small consolation that Manchester, for all its contemporary football success, will always look apprehensively at our city and its two clubs. So......give me that old time religion? If yes, do we not invite the same fate as religious fundamentalism?
Equally, there is a cruel socio-economic reality about the city of Liverpool that affects external received wisdom. Manchester has never suffered the same concentrated economic and propaganda attacks, though large areas there have equal or worse social problems. Recorded demography speaks for itself. So does recorded history. Back in the 1980s three ministers in the Thatcher government wanted to deny Liverpool as "...a viable social and economic entity." (They were: Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor of the Exchequer; Patrick Jenkin, Secretary of State for Industry; Leon Brittan, Chief Secretary to the Treasury; plus head of the tory policy unit, John Hoskyns, neocon author of the 1977 Stepping Stones Report). It needs little imagination to guess what devastation this caused once these powerful voices got into the establishment zeitgeist and its mainstream media. There was no requirement for "managed decline." It was a convenient excuse to jettison conscience and genuine effort. All it needed was a silent cut-off of adequate capital as urged by Hoskyns et al, and a steady barrage of jeering propaganda from monopoly owned media. Slow decay did the rest.
Certainly Liverpool was not the only victim, but it was equally certainly marked for brutal treatment, as were mining communities who formed similar mass democratic resistance. Relative - and I do mean relative - sporadic recovery has only happened in the last decade. There has been a logical knock-on effect for our local professional football clubs. The most obvious was when the Moores family sold both after a generation of ownership and made millions on the sale. Neither club has made sustainable renewal since. Both live on the edge. Now both clubs require a new "temple" to "worship" at.
In summary, illusion, superstition, myth and "faith" play an undeniable role in society. These are all present in organised sports and religion. And while "faith" may give deluded meaning to the meaningless, scientific curiosity and achievement will always erode and eventually eliminate its superstitions. This may take time and different routes, but it is inevitable. Where sports are concerned it is immediate physical achievement that matters most, not considerations of morality or dogma, which is another separation from religion. In fact the only time you get a feeling of religiosity about sports is when hormones rage out of control or common sense is in short supply.
One hopes sports never resort to the level of the Catholic Church in the wake of disclosure of paedophile priests around the world, all of it deliberately concealed by the Vatican in the shape of ex Hitler Youth Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger. Elsewhere, according to the Association of Catholic Priests, the Irish people have "...to all intents and purposes become pagan." They went on to say "this was caused by a lack of faith," not in its own intrinsic institutional structural failures. Therein lies the danger of ultimate self deception. And "faith." Potentially it is no less dangerous and irrational in mass spectator sports.
Occasionally art produces its own explanation of the role played by sports in individual lives. One such is the 1960 novel This Sporting Life by David Storey, later made into a film. It has resonance even now. Religion doesn't get a look-in.
Meanwhile, association football is still the most popular professional sport on Earth. Some people make a lot of money from it. But the vast majority of fans do not. Quite the opposite, for most supporters it is a large outgoing; for many, their largest leisure spend. Leaving aside the default of behavioural addiction, it is fair to claim most of them seek only sports glory, however temporary, however vicarious. Their motives will vary, but still they come. Who among us really knows why?
Earlier I mentioned the Irish comedian, Dave Allen. One of his chief satirical targets was Christian ritual, though he always seemed to me to do it with warm humour and affectionate incredulity. He always closed his TV show with a wry, "May your god go with you." That seems sensible to me. After all, one man's god is another man's joke.
Finally, another thing. The source of the title of this opinion is the King James Bible, Proverbs 11:29, which reads:
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:
and the fool shall be servant to the wise at heart.
Did organised superstition get at least one thing right?