Economic Update: Sports and Capitalism

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On this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on false "trade-off" between illness and economy, going from normal to extraordinary injustice, hypocritical scapegoating of foreigners instead of facing domestic public health and economic failures, and lastly, the tragic neglect of education during the pandemic and economic crash. On the second half of the show, Prof. Wolff is joined by Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin.

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Transcript has been edited for clarity.


Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes – our own, our children's. And I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to begin today's program by talking about an implication of the surging coronavirus cases, particularly in Texas, Florida, and Arizona, but in many other states as well. One of the things coming out of this is the attempt by those responsible for this catastrophe to pretend as though there had to be a choice between two necessary options – a trade-off, they like to say. Either you have a healthy economy or you have a healthy body politic, and body natural. This is nonsense. And it is the special pleading of people who ought to be ashamed. Let me explain. 

The first priority of a human being is to be alive, to be healthy, to have a decent level of physical and mental functioning. We all really know that. The economic needs we have are genuine, but they're a second priority. You really don't have to worry about your economic well-being if you are dead. This shouldn't take a long time to gather. But worse than that is the notion that you have to have a choice. In order to cope with the public health, we needed to shelter in our homes, we need to wear masks, we need to respect social distance – all of that. But that's a completely separate matter from how we then handle the work problem, the economic problem. 

And let me give you the best way to get this idea across by comparing the United States and Europe – because either there's a trade-off or there isn't. So let's see. Europe, over the last few days, has reported roughly 5,000 new cases of the virus per day. Over the same period of time, in the United States, we have announced and reported 50,000 new cases per day. A ten-to-one ratio. So clearly the Europeans have managed to give a priority to dealing with health before the economy. And they've succeeded. 

Now let's turn to a good measure of the economy: unemployment. What is the unemployment in the United States? Breaking all historical records since the Great Depression, tens of millions of people added to the unemployment list. Let me pick an example:  Germany, in Europe. I pick it because it's the most important economy in that part of the world. All right, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment in Germany was five percent. And today the unemployment in Germany is six percent. Get the picture? They have much less economic trouble and much less threat to their health. No trade-off. They did better on both of them.

Pleading trade-off is a cop-out. It's fake. It's the most fake news I have heard since President Trump overused the term.

I want to turn next to a transition we're going through. From capitalism's normal injustices, we are now graduating to capitalism's extraordinary injustices. Let me explain. What are the normal injustices? Well, there are many. Rich capitalists buy politicians to get the laws, and the rulings, and the regulations that favor them. Very old story. Not much justice there. To the rich go the spoils. That's how politics is played. You know it, and I know it.

Let me give you another example. We call it "gentrification." That is when rich people use the wealth that they have to decide they want to live where currently middle- and low-income people live. So they arrive in that neighborhood, in that town, in that suburb, and they start buying up apartments, and buildings, and homes, driving up the price, which means that the people who rent there can't afford the rents anymore, and the people who live there can't afford to stay in their homes. Old story. Classic, normal injustice.

But now, in the wake of the pandemic and of the crash of capitalism of 2020, we are having all of those, they're still there, but we have a whole new slew of extraordinary injustices. Let me point some of them out. Number one: When you put tens of millions of people into unemployment, and put them under extraordinary pressures of all kinds, then they can't cover their expenses. Millions of people did not pay their residential rents or their mortgage payments in March, in April, in May, and in June. That's the reality. Roughly half of all commercial enterprises likewise. Landlords, therefore, couldn't get the income they count on. So they turned around and told the banks they had borrowed from, we're not going to repay the loans we owe you, nor the interest. We can't, because we're not earning any money. The banks, in turn, have said to all their creditors and shareholders well, we're in trouble now and there may be a crash of the banks. 

And you know what's happening? And this is just a small example. All of these players in the normal capitalist system are reverting to abnormal strategies. Biggest one? Stiff everybody else. Get your lawyers lined up with your accountants, and go into court and threaten you can't do this, you won't do that, you oughtn't to have to do this. You have a lease? Break it. You have a rental contract? Forget it. Try to win the battle in court. But of course we know that the old injustices will now play out again. Those who have the most money can afford the lawyers with the best connections to get the outcomes in the courts that they want. 

And so what are we threatened with? Evictions. Massive increase in the number of homeless people. And make no mistake; it's that peculiar brand of homelessness that capitalism produces. You know what I mean by special brand? It's when you have large numbers of people without a home sitting across the street from large numbers of homes that have got nobody in them. And this is a system that keeps these two naturally-coming-together parts from coming together. It keeps the homes empty and the homeless without a home. Crazy? Yes. That's the system you and I are living in. 

And, you know, there's a parallel between normal injustice and extraordinary injustice, a parallel with how the economy works like that in the racism area. We all know what normal racism is. That's when you subject one part of your population that you distinguish from the other part, in our case by skin color, but countries have had all kinds of other ways: by gender, by ethnicity, by immigrant status. You know, one part of the society that has to live the instability of capitalism – the last hired, the first fired, the ones not treated real well, given the worst jobs, interrupted from time to time, they live in the worst housing, they have the poorest education, and the least medical care, so they suffer. 

But instead of admitting that the system is subjecting some people to this, which it shouldn't, you blame the people. There's something intrinsically wrong with them that explains how they're treated. You call them a race apart. You know when I first learned the term "race"? Reading British literature. In England they thought, the rich did, that poor English people were a different race. And you know how they proved it? Because the lower-class people used Cockney, a kind of slang in English.  And because of that they said, see? They can't speak, and so they have these deficiencies, and that's why they're treated so bad, rather than understanding that their system required, if you're going to have that level of inequality, that somebody play the poor part.

And then when things get extraordinary, it goes beyond that. That's when you try to keep the lid on the oppressed community. You try it with police, and the police overreact, and they use excessive force. And you all know where that has led us.

My third economic update for today has to do with calling out a certain kind of fakery. We have economic problems; we've had them a long time, not just under the covid attack. But instead of facing them – for example, the spectacular problem of unemployment. We should be rehiring all these people. It's what we did in the 1930s. We had unemployment, the government came in, rehired people, and did all kinds of socially useful things. We could have, we should have, done that now. We should certainly have a national debate about why we're not doing it now when we did it the last time we had unemployment like this. 

But instead we do scapegoating. You know, Trump entering office by scapegoating immigrants, as if they were the problem. Then the Democrats decide, oh no, it's not immigrants. You know who it is? It's the Russians. Over and over and over again, they're the bad guy. We're treated to endless discourses on the bad Russians. The Republicans? Well, they don't think the Russians are so bad. They've got a preferred scapegoat, Muslims, or more recently, Europeans. And then, of course, there's a scapegoat everybody's scapegoats, and that's China. One of the few things Republicans and Democrats seem to get together on is bad-mouthing the Chinese and blaming them for everything you can imagine when in fact their failure to solve the unemployment problem is the overwhelming issue they find it so difficult to think about. 

They don't even seem to remember that we had the government hire all those people back in the 1930s. And there ought to be at least a discussion, why in the world are we not doing that now? Why aren't they out there? Why aren't they testing everybody so we could get the illness under control? Why are they not building the infrastructure we need, a Green New Deal, etc., etc. "Why not?" ought to be the discussion. No, no, we have to scapegoat something, somebody foreign. That's always much easier. 

Last topic for today: the question of returning to classes in the fall. Look, most of you, I think, would agree with me that one of the most important social functions in any society is educating, training, teaching the next generation, the people who carry on the civilization we're part of. We call that education. We are now screwing up American education big time. We basically destroyed the last semester of schools. We're about to resume the destruction of education by online distance learning in the fall. Please. That's not what education needs. We have millions of unemployed people who could teach a lot – more than enough to have little classes of four to ten people, in public spaces where they can be far enough away so the teaching can go on. The teachers need it; the students need it. Why in the world are we not doing that? It's a catastrophe made worse by a capitalist system that can't think outside the box.

We've come to the end of the first part of today's show. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel; follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And be sure to visit democracy at work.info, our website, to learn about our other activities and shows, our co-op store – fully unionized – and the two books we've published, Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism. And lastly, of course, a special thanks to our Patreon community, who have always supported us and support us now. Stay with us; we'll be right back with American political sports writer David Zirin.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased to welcome to our cameras, and to our microphones, Dave Zirin, a man whose work I have followed for years. He's the sport editor at The Nation magazine. He's the author of 10 books on the politics of sports. And finally, he's the host of the Edge of Sports podcast, whose Twitter handle is edgeofsports (all one word). 

WOLFF:  All right. To start off, welcome, Dave.

ZIRIN:  Oh it's great to be here. I've read your work for many years myself, so I look forward to chopping it up with you, sir.

WOLFF:  All right, very good. All right, let's start with the kind of question that people who discuss sports rarely ask. Tell me, what do you think of the relationship between capitalism as the economic system we live with and the sports – professional, amateur, and all the rest – that we are so fascinated with, particularly here in the United States?

ZIRIN:  Well, that is a question I don't normally get. And as a starting point, I would just say that sports is something that has existed in every human society, once people have had the ability to clothe themselves, to provide shelter for themselves, and to feed themselves. And so sports becomes an outgrowth of a functioning society. And you fast forward to 2020, we are not a functioning society in the United States, and you see that reflect itself in the world of sports. But the bigger picture is that sports reflects whatever economic system it exists under – whether feudalism, hunter-gatherer societies, and of course capitalism, to get to your question. And under capitalism we've seen sports become a big business. The game is not just to be played; the game is to be sold, to as wide an audience as possible. And I think the people who first started sports as we developed as a capitalist society, certainly in the United States, in their wildest dreams could not have envisioned the kind of global leviathan that the sports world has become: a trillion-dollar entity that reaches into every corner of the earth.

And so sports is big business. And because it's big business, all kinds of issues that exist under capitalism – whether issues regarding labor, social movements, struggle, fights for equity – they all not just reflect themselves in the world of sports, but the world of sports then shapes those battles off the field and in broader sectors of society. So I think it does us a great disservice when we try to de-link the big business of sports from how capitalism is existing and developing in our society. Sports is capitalism, and capitalism is sports.

WOLFF:  How do you feel about the argument that making money, or profit, is somehow shaping, literally, the sports we have, the sports contests, the development of young people as they mature into being athletes? How do you see the impact of the business side of it shaping the other sides of it?

ZIRIN:  Well, I think it warps youth sports to take it through the line. Youth sports, over the last generation, has become a big business unto itself. It's become a feeder system into the colleges and into the pros, and this is a relatively recent development, this idea of seeing youth sports as a profit center and not just a place where young people gather to play. So you've seen the way capitalism has distorted youth sports to a pretty profound degree. And one of the ways it distorts youth sports is that it creates a value system that says only people who can play should play. And if you're not a good athlete, the best you can be is a watcher, is a spectator, is somebody who looks at the people who can play play.  

And it's hard to think of something more warped than that: this idea of when you take sports and kids – which should be a site of fun, and fair play, and community, and developing friendship – to see it become something that just mirrors professional sports. So that's the way it's warped youth sports. And by the way, a statistic that I find very troubling is that somewhere it's estimated between 60 and 70 percent of young kids quit playing sports by the age of 13. And that's a terrible thing. I mean, it relates to young people's health, it relates to how they're able to function during their teenage years, and it's all because of this value system that's projected onto the world of sports.

When you talk about college sports – I mean, college sports as a for-profit center – I mean, there have been critiques of that dating back to Upton Sinclair's writings in the 1930s. So this is not a new development. And yet, over the last, say, 30, 40 years – with the development of certainly cable television, as well as this idea that the public funding of stadiums is somehow an appropriate use of public dollars – you've seen far too many campuses, far too many neoliberal universities turn into football programs where there happen to be classes. And, you know, it's basically the classes are scenery for the football program itself. 

And you've seen the way, over the last generation, that the football program often becomes the economic tent pole of an entire community. You take a place like South Bend, Indiana, for example. I mean, this used to be a textile community, where they took a lot of local pride in the small Catholic college that was very good at football, by the name of Notre Dame. Now Notre Dame, whether or not it has a winning or losing season, has a ripple effect throughout South Bend. It's no longer a textile community, but it is a community that depends on people coming in for games. And everybody – from housekeepers at the local motels, to kids selling water bottles at the side of the road, to cops, police officers picking up extra shifts working security at the stadium – everybody needs to get their piece. And without Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, would be an economic disaster. So that's the change in sports at the collegiate level. 

Another statistic I'll just throw out at you, as long as I'm just filibustering here . . .

WOLFF:  Yeah, please do.

ZIRIN:  . . . is in 1981 the football coach at Clemson University was a guy named Danny Ford. His team won the national championship. He made $50,000 that year; that was his salary – a nice salary by 1981 standards, but hardly anything that would shame a Rockefeller. Fast forward to 2020, the head coach at Clemson is a guy named Dabo Swinney. He makes about $10 million a year. So a job that was worth $50,000 has become a job that's now a $10-million-a-year job. And that has everything to do with the capitalist growth of college sports as a profit center, as opposed to being something that, you know, is about amateurism, and a love of sports, and all the hooey that we get fed on Saturday afternoons.

WOLFF:  You know, it's remarkable. You remind me of sitting in my office, where I taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and looking across out my window at the enormous basketball arena that was being constructed, and going to meetings of the faculty where there wasn't money to upgrade our computers, and there wasn't money to provide tutoring for students who needed it, because all the money was going into the basketball stadium. And when a few of us dared to question the priorities here, we were told shut up, because when we invest in basketball, you see, we're going to get that money back, over years of selling tickets and TV rights, and all. In other words, you were exactly right. We were becoming the frill on what was basically a sports franchise titled a university. It was very, very sad.

ZIRIN:  Yeah, and if you think about how bizarre and twisted it is – what happens if the basketball team isn't any good? What happens if they don't sell tickets? Then the stadium becomes this sinkhole. It becomes this terrible cost where you've just shoveled tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars into something that's not going to return on its investment. And then where are the cuts going to come to make up for that kind of spending? It's not going to come from the athletic department; it's going to come from the broader university. We've seen that happen at other schools. The University of Maryland, right down the road from me, invested a ton of money into their football program, and their football program still wasn't any good, and so it ended up having a reverse ripple effect on the whole school, if you will, or just a toxic ripple effect, where everything had to get cut because the football team wasn't up to snuff. 

And, you know, I went out to do a talk a few years ago at the University of Oregon, where Phil Knight went to school – Phil Knight being, of course, the founder of Nike. And Phil Knight gives a ton of money to Oregon, but it's just for the athletic department. So you see all of these incredible buildings, while the school itself is putting workers on furlough so they can make up for budget shortfalls. And it really is amazing, like the contrast between the athletes' academic center – which looks like it was plopped down from Las Vegas somewhere – the contrast between that and, I mean, a typical building at the University of Oregon, which is in a state of terrible disrepair. I mean it's really bracing, and it says something about the priorities of the modern university. 

And it says something about the way, you know, capitalism operates, because there's profit from college sports. So it doesn't matter what you shine it up with. It doesn't matter how many pans to amateurism you embark upon. It doesn't matter how many poems that you write. All that matters is that there's money to be made there. And you're seeing that right now in such a frightening degree as so many campuses – as announced at Harvard today – are deciding that they can't go and do the in-person education, that they're going to a completely online program this fall. And yet athletes are still coming onto campus right now for practicing, for a season that probably is not going to happen. 

And in some places there are suspicions that athletes are being encouraged to purposely get covid so they can develop antibodies and not have it later in the year – like better you catch it now than in October or November. And yet, of course, we know that the science behind that is not exactly confirmed whatsoever. We don't know if you can catch it twice. We don't know how much permanent damage it can do to your lungs, which of course would be a terrible result for somebody who wants to be a professional athlete.  But this is the kind of quack medicine that's being peddled on college campuses right now.

But what's particularly gross about it is that it's putting these athletes, who are absolutely, you know, just overwhelmingly African American, in a position to have these kinds of health effects, while making sure that the overwhelmingly white students who pay full tuition are safely at home doing remote learning.

WOLFF: Yeah, very well put. I wish we had more time. I may have to really think about bringing you back, Dave. This is wonderful.

ZIRIN:  I'd love to come back.

WOLFF:  Let me ask you to comment – what do you think is the significance of the athletes taking a knee? In other words, deciding that somehow the disconnect between sports and politics, which you write about, they don't want to respect that. They want to bring their political feelings, aspirations, senses of justice into the world of sports. How do you react to that? How do you think about that?

ZIRIN:  I think it was a world-changing gesture. Colin Kaepernick putting his knee on the ground in 2016 was an absolute game changer. You could even talk about the history of sports and protest as existing before and after he took that gesture. Because what he did, was he fulfilled the true aspiration of protest, which is to make the people that you're protesting uncomfortable. I mean, protests don't matter if they're parades down Pennsylvania Avenue and they don't actually afflict the people that you are trying to make uncomfortable. And what Colin Kaepernick did, was he actually afflicted the comfortable by making the point that there is a gap between the ideals of the United States and the actual lived reality of African Americans in this country, and that is expressed most sharply through police violence, through racist police violence. 

And they tried to make his protest about the military, or about the flag, and saying, well, this is a disrespect to this and that. But that central key message got through, and somehow got through, amidst all the Trumpian propaganda that no, this is about police violence. And we've seen that this past year, that people identify taking the knee with protesting police violence. So, and of course you've seen that all over the country at protests that have taken place since the murder of George Floyd. 

So I think it was a revolutionary gesture. I think it was the kind of gesture that was an absolute game changer in our society. And I think you're going to be seeing a lot more of it in the months to come.

WOLFF:  Dave, I really mean it:  Will you be willing to come back, if we can schedule in a short time a return to continue?

ZIRIN:  It would be a thrill for me.

WOLFF:  All right, Dave, we will do that. And to all of you watching, I hope you have enjoyed as much as I have all that Dave has had to tell us, and the more that will be coming the next time we bring him back.

Remember, this is Economic Update. This is what we do. Thanks again to all of you for watching, to our Patreon community for your support, and, as always, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


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Showing 2 comments

  • Leonard Britvolli
    followed this page 2023-11-23 10:31:06 -0500
  • Cyrus Hahn
    commented 2022-11-25 06:07:17 -0500
    I agree with Prof. Wolff on neglect of education during the recent outbreak. The pandemic has disrupted education in many ways, but it is not just the lack of time that makes us forget about education. It is also the lack of enthusiasm for learning during this period. In fact, I believe that this is a result of how we were raised to think about our future. However, I must say that, during this time the trend of using online tools like https://fixgerald.com/ suddenly increased. Students learned about various online tools and how they can be utilized for optimum results. In my opinion, we should not be discouraged by the current situation because it might just be temporary. We can always go back to being motivated by our passion for learning if we want to learn more than ever before!

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