“Form is temporary, class is permanent.” One of sport’s finest meaningless clichés, by this stage devoid of practically any semantic content, exhausted after decades of overuse. But in another sense, too, is class permanent: it is, inevitably, part of the fabric of the sporting world, structuring the way that sport works.
Sport generally functions as a microcosm of society, as do individual sports themselves. All sports may be equal, but some are more equal than others. Golf, for example, seems to sit atop the sporting hierarchy, and is often still the preserve of the wealthy. Cricket and tennis, although arguably less socioeconomically homogeneous than golf, share with it that lingering association of “poshness”, in all likelihood due to their very “English” character. The pride of place which the cricket pitch holds at the heart of Trinity – itself, as we must admit, Ireland’s poshest and most English university – demonstrates the connection. The old witticism that rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen and football a gentleman’s game played by thugs serves to show just how ingrained class structures are in our society, and how fixed ideas about what marks (or what should mark) each social class still persist.
Distinct groups are separated out, kept at arm’s length, each sticking to their own in a form of sporting segregation. Yet this is a subtle form of segregation: while it is no longer acceptable to keep the club house segregated along racial or gender lines – most of the time, at least – getting away with segregation along class lines is easier because it is often less noticeable. The association of one club (or even one sport) with one particular geographical area often leads to that club becoming synonymous with the social class associated with that area – a perfect example being the alignment of Leinster with D4, both on and off the pitch.
Even this weekend’s Premier League can be dissected along class lines. Take Arsenal’s fixture against Burnley on Saturday: one of the most establishment, middle-class clubs in the country, based in affluent North London, taking on the stereotypical working-class club from the post-industrial heartland of the North of England. On Sunday, Manchester United faced local rivals City, famously dubbed the “noisy neighbours” – little more than a euphemistic term for the nouveau riche club now so resented by their aristocratic neighbours.
All of society’s latent prejudices can be – and are – expressed in the “anything-goes” space of the sports arena.
Even the Premier League’s Top 4™ creates a de-facto footballing aristocracy, a self-perpetuating hierarchy which mirrors the real-life consolidation of socioeconomic standing to an alarming degree. When a new team breaks into the Top 4™, as Southampton are doing at the moment, it is not a shock in sporting terms alone, but in social terms, shaking the supposedly stable foundations of the expected order. It awakens within the media, in particular, a sense of novel excitement, a phenomenon comparable to the fear generated by the Great White in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws: the shark symbolises the middle-class fear of the working class rising up from beneath to destroy their peaceful stability. Southampton, then, might just carry with them the neurotic baggage of an entire society and its fears.
All of society’s latent prejudices can be – and are – expressed in the “anything-goes” space of the sports arena. Screaming “We pay your benefits!” at someone you have never met before in your life is apparently acceptable behaviour within the confines of the stadium, even though it would never be condoned on the street, in “real life”, that external reality outside the make-believe environment of the sporting spectacle.
The question of which sporting arena is also an important one. The importance of Ireland facing England at Croke Park for the first time had much to do with the symbolic significance of that arena in the context of Ireland’s struggle for independence, and in the collective psyche of the nation still today. But the poignancy of that event in 2007 had much to do with class, too: this was Ireland asserting its own equality with the former colonial oppressor – the “master” – in a place with such an important role in Ireland’s fight to through off that oppression. That match in Croke Park in 2007 almost took on proportions of class warfare, yet it was a fight which could not have taken place in the bourgeois surroundings of Lansdowne Road, at least not in the same way.
But it is when you start considering our own relationship to sport that things get interesting. George Orwell, long before the evil reign of Sky Sports, identified the link between sport and class: in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, football is the opium of the masses, the ultimate dystopian mind control technique, manipulated by the powers that be to subdue us, to distract us from what really matters. While we sit around worrying whether we remembered to put Sergio Agüero into our Fantasy Football team or not, Irish Water are lavishing water-charge-funded bonuses upon every man and his dog – that sort of thing. Put it this way – not only is sport highly stratified and do individual sports have their own internal class structure, but it might even be possible to see sport, in a more general sense, as a mechanism of class structure, a way to keep everyone quiet while the politicians and bankers get on with actually running things – and according to their own liking.
Maybe, then, to say that “class is permanent” is not so meaningless after all. When it comes to sport, the implications for class are always there, but we cannot think of ourselves as passive bystanders, simply watching on from the side-lines. We are constantly in play, whether we like it or not.
Illustration: Naoise Dolan