George Orwell Pooh-Poohs the NBA Finals

Well, not exactly, but if he were here today, Orwell would no doubt mock it as part of "the lunatic modern habit…of seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

Here, from a memorable essay called "The Sporting Spirit," in a newspaper column from December 14, 1945, Orwell speaks (taken from George Packer's great Facing Unpleasant Facts collection):

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympics, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles…

Nearly all the sports practiced nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and the exercises; but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage competitive instincts are aroused…instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern cult of sport arose. Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin, but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman times and the 19th-century. Even in the English public schools the games cult did not start till the later part of the last century…then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that hte whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.

"Large power units"…like Shaquille O'Neal, for example, who has played for both Orlando and L.A.?


Always wondered how fans could root for a guy so bullying, but Orwell's right, it's not about the individual player, it's about power, especially to humiliate. Orwell interestingly goes on to point out that these kind of games mean more to those who don't actually exercise:

…organized games are more likely to flourish in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or at least a confined life…in a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals…in a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one's physical strength or for one's sadistic impulses.

Well, why don't you tell us what you think, George, instead of beating around the bush? Jeez.

But he's right, you know — in my basketball days as a younger man the guys I played with might sometimes watch televised sports, but many had a slightly disdainful attitude towards fans — that is, fans were guys who couldn't actually play themselves, and so had to have others do it for them.

Because Orwell seems so modern to us, and so prescient, we sometimes forget how much of a country bumpkin he was…as anyone who checks in with his diary will attest, and David Levine drew in l966:


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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