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Neoliberalism, sport, and the working class

Toronto Workers’ History Project event features U of T academics
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Scholars discussed the intimate ties between sports and the working class, as a site of both struggle and self-expression. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY
Scholars discussed the intimate ties between sports and the working class, as a site of both struggle and self-expression. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

United Steelworkers Hall hosted one of the Toronto Workers’ History Project’s monthly talks on January 8. Featuring two University of Toronto academics, the event was a discussion and presentation on the history of workers and sport in Toronto.

Held in a basement room, audience members sat in fold-out chairs filling the space. Clearly, most had been there before: they called back and forth to one another, saying hello and exchanging news. No one was on their phone, or even sitting alone. It was initially discomfiting, in some ways, to feel so present — and somehow welcome — in a room full of strangers.

The night was segmented into two brief but connected lectures and a discussion and Q&A session. Former UTSC Principal and Officer of the Order of Canada recipient Professor Bruce Kidd spoke first, providing a brief overview of historical generalizations about sport and its development in the modern period.

Sports, Kidd asserted, began as a classed, gendered, and racialized practice. The sports most popular today in the Global North were not always universal, he explained. Rather, modern athletics were created for and by the upper class men of imperial Britain. Further, the values they attempted to inculcate through sport — masculinity, elitism, achievement — still dominate much of our contemporary conceptions of the practice.

Kidd went on to highlight how the excluded have fought and continue to fight for inclusion in sport. Working class people, especially women, faced a series of barriers to participation. First and foremost were their long, grueling work hours, which prohibited any possibility of leisure time. Although Kidd mainly referred to this impediment as a modern phenomenon, it’s clearly evident in the contemporary world as well — just look at neoliberalism’s marketization and atomization of every speck of free time an individual can muster.

Not to be constantly working, constantly online, constantly striving is the ultimate failure. As demands on our time increase, so too does the cost of participation. While this was a barrier in the 20th century, the increased elitism of sports as we know them today consistently favour the wealthy. Kidd quoted a fellow scholar to exclaim that “if Gordie Howe were alive today, he wouldn’t have made the NHL!”

Nevertheless, the working class did mount a resistance to the wealthy dominance of sports. One of the most powerful organizations was the giant ‘Socialist Workers’ Sport International,’ which counted two million members at its peak between the world wars. Every six years, they held ‘International Workers’ Olympiads,’ which admitted all interested workers, dismissed the idea of national teams, and enthusiastically included female athletes.

After the Second World War, the organization regrouped and is still active, but in a more collaborative capacity with establishment sports institutions such as the International Olympic Committee.

Other, smaller groups also cropped up between world wars, such as the Jewish Women’s Working Sports Association, whose members met at Spadina Street and College Street to practice gymnastics and other activities. However, today, most of these organizations are gone.

Participation in organized sport has fallen dramatically in the past twenty years, while the class stratification between athletes and the public has only increased. Kidd relates this gap to an atrophication in the public provision of leisure and sporting activities, as well as the dogma of neoliberal performance and elitism.

Kidd was followed by Janelle Joseph, an adjunct lecture at U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education Professor. Joseph, the author of the recent Sport in the Black Atlantic: Cricket, Canada and the Caribbean Diaspora, discussed her research and shared stories from her ethnographic interviews with older, male Canadian-Caribbean cricketers.

She quickly introduced the audience to a few key concepts in Black diaspora studies, such as the power of routes, the process of travel, and roots — cultural push-pull — before grounding these concepts in the wave of Caribbean immigration to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Many of these Caribbean immigrants settled in the Golden Horseshoe region, and many played cricket. The cricket leagues that formed were often extremely competitive but also extremely leisurely — players and spectators worked to recreate a carnival-like atmosphere around the cricket fields. Joseph described constant music, camaraderie, food and drink, and less demanding recreational activities, such as playing dominoes and dancing.

These cricket teams provided both an anchor and a barrier for new Caribbean immigrants, allowing them to feel at home in Canada and to create a space for themselves outside the often white-dominated spaces which they lived and worked in. Joseph also spoke to the distinctly masculine nature of these cricket teams, explaining the processes of performance and communication embedded in different methods of play.

Many of these Caribbean cricketers are aging out of the game, instead choosing to play in ‘Masters Leagues’, where the emphasis is on fun rather than competition. Many of these players struggled to encourage their sons to take up the game, and as such represent a last generation of committed and talented Caribbean-Canadian cricket players.

Furthermore, the Caribbean dominance of Canadian cricket is today quickly being displaced by a strong contingent of South and Southeast Asian players. Sometimes, Joseph explained, tensions between the two groups of players can erupt, as both try to navigate their shared colonial attachment to cricket and its place in their cultural histories.

Sports and the working class are intimately tied, both as a site of struggle and as a place of self-expression. Historically, working people have mobilized with incredible power to build parallel sporting institutions that were open to all, equitable, and firmly anti-capital. Today, the power of these institutions — as well as public services more generally — has dramatically waned.

As Joseph highlighted in her talk, independently organized sporting events and organizations are a vital ground for building community — but the cricket leagues which she discussed were private undertakings, not a success of public services. In the era of neoliberalism, mainstream sports have effectively doubled down on their ugly roots: classed, gendered, and racialized.