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Cows and the Apocalypse

Canadians harbour three sacred cows they would do well to put out to pasture. The largest is professional sports. The second is gambling, the third charity.

Since this may seem a  surprising proposition, I will sketch how sports, gambling and charity have been diminishing  the middle class and sanctioning an increasingly vicious attack upon the poor.

I  begin with an undisputed fact: However enthusiastically we 'talk the talk', most North Americans are not active participants in sports.

For the typical fan, life centers upon television, social media and occasional  forays to ball parks or hockey arenas.

Any remaining energy is spent ferrying youngsters to practices and games, followed by rehearsals of their exploits or shortcomings. For those without family or community sports connections, professional sports provides around the clock opportunities to celebrate, agonize over or second-guess decisions by coaches and franchise owners.

All of this is deemed wholesome. Sports, it is said, underscores and develops camaraderie and teamwork. Life lessons abound: Sports teach that "playing the game is what it's all about". Such benefits may be occurring, but less desirable outcomes are never talked about. The most obvious is that professional sports – the catalyst and focus of whatever interest the young have in athletics – are restricted to a small tribe of extraordinarily talented athletes.

Yet everything we are learning about  well-being emphasises the importance of life-long activity. If athleticism is portrayed as restricted to a few decades of a few lives, what about the 'remaindered' lives these narratives encourage?

The institutionalized indolence encouraged by professional sports is a self-fulfilling prophecy! A  pandemic of disease and obesity has direct links to millions of fans trooping to hockey, baseball and soccer stadiums when not watching games on screens. Children internalize powerful lessons when they see adults in their lives cheering and cajoling professional athletes.  Youngsters carted to hockey practices or figure skating lessons are especially at risk. They are seeing living proof that they too must soon put away dreams of life-long vigour to nurture similarly short-lived ambitions in their children.


Even more worrisomely, sports activities  perpetuate toxic ideas about competition, strategy, teamwork, us vs. them, the loss of personal identity in favour of the team ... These notions  legitimate practices  sorting populations into winners and losers.

More ominously still, the sports establishment sets the stage for military adventures, and diminishes the likelihood that non-confrontational solutions to differences of opinion will be sought. Sporting events are toy wars . Winners are celebrated  and everyone internalizes  the grim lesson that most are destined to be losers.

I get pride that one's country has spawned 'world class' athletes. However, I have trouble understanding how people identity with teams whose membership is always changing. Canadians' ecstasy over Donovan Bailey's Olympic exploits in 1997 ... , their shame when Ben Johnson was stripped of Olympic gold a decade earlier ... , are mysterious to me.

Fortunately, there is a way to organize sports events that would  repair my confusion on this matter, and deepen the enjoyment of fans in general.  In the New World at least, sports fans are the third or fourth generation spawn of immigrants. Nations could populate segregated teams with athletes  from both immigrant and  indigenous populations.

Americans have even more choices. They could field  teams constituted out of Indian and Black populations. This would be a win - win situation: If  teams comprised of indigenous or black athletes fared poorly on the world stage,  fans would have no need to feel shame. These athletes are  the spawn of already defeated  groups.

On the other hand, should their  proxies win, armchair heroes would have, for the first time, an actual reason to gloat: "Do you realize," they could say to  stakeholders in other nations, "our ancestors whupped the ancestors of the team that just whupped yours!

Think what we could do to you!"


Time to move on. What is the connection between fandom, gambling and  ordinary well-being? Like vicariously celebrating sports achievements, gambling is doubly appealing to the poor, physically repressed or frustrated. Obesity, indolence,  incompetence ... do not prevent individuals from sending 'fiscal avatars' out to do battle – i.e., by placing a bet or buying a lottery ticket.

The difficulty of and risk of physical competition is analogous to winning a game of chance. Since 'time is money', gambling really does involve putting (a bit of) one's life on the line.

Capitalizing upon such psychological connections,  government-sponsored lotteries, casinos, video lottery terminals ... are  springing up everywhere. The challenge  that gambling is socially disruptive and psychologically addictive is deflected by channelling a percentage of the gambling industry's profits into good works.

Not surprisingly, this is sometimes dismissed as blatant hypocrisy in keeping with the oxymoronic nature of  'gambling industry.  However,  arguments in defense of casinos and lotteries may be straw horses. The question to ask is "What are we being distracted from?" In the modern world - with the help of people-displacing technologies - companies have less need for sophisticated, well-paid employees. A few will do if they control powerful computers and automated production systems.

Thus, we have the paradox of increasing productive capacity in the context of frozen, declining or vanished incomes. What does this have to do with athletics and gambling? Until recently, trade agreements and multinational corporations have been exporting the  consequences of  people-displacing technologies. However, an explosive situation has been building up.  Not only has the emerging nation well run dry, new technologies are snuffing up even the need to drive trucks and automobiles.

To make matters worse, the last two centuries have seen an evolution of personal rights claims as part of the package of entitlements persuading people to abandon families and communities. Westerners now have robust notions of  entitlement: Medicare, unemployment insurance, old age pensions and welfare.

As information-processing and robotic developments marginalize most people,  these expectations are increasingly unsupportable. They are politically volatile and have no economic relevance. The alternative - that general well-being will be achieved by guaranteed incomes  funded by  taxes upon financial transactions is not plausible. The wealthy own and   control what is going on. Public infrastructure is degrading, expenses are being downloaded to municipalities and  health care is being clawed back. This is why there will be no global redistribution of wealth.

The impossibility for  even developed nations to find  money to carry on explains governments' love affair with charities, sports and gambling. Replacing actual well-being with spectator opportunities and possible windfalls are wonderfully appealing to distraught, terrified populations.


Finally, channelling gambling profits into charitable activities is clear evidence that the non-wealthy are being thrown under the bus. Charities change the way individuals think about themselves and what is going on. There is a difference between receiving funds to secure food and shelter as a right, and receiving the same  dollars as a handout.

The institutionalization of charities, the talking-up of volunteerism, the transmogrification of welfare into workfare ... undermine the sense of personal dignity civilised nations depend upon. The fact that some of these charities are funded via casinos and lotteries is merely an incidental delight.

As this process unfolds, we should expect an increasingly rapid degradation of ordinary well-being. The  good news is that poor may not notice what has become of them. After all, they will have 4' television screens and stupendous virtual lives.

Sports, gambling and charities: the cows of our apocalypse.

We didn't need a fourth. We didn't warrant horses.