This article is adapted from Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power (New Press, 2001).
I have the habit when I’m driving of turning on these radio call-in programs, and it’s striking when you hear the ones about sports. They have these groups of sports reporters, or some kind of experts on a panel, and people call in and have discussions with them. First of all, the audience is obviously devoting an enormous amount of time to it all. But the more striking fact is, the callers have a tremendous amount of expertise. They have detailed knowledge of all kinds of things; they carry on these extremely complex discussions.

And when you look at the structure of them, they seem like a kind of mathematics. It’s as though people want to work out mathematical problems, and if they don’t have calculus and arithmetic, they work them out with other structures. And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow.

Well, in our society we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in that in a very serious way—so they put their minds to other things, such as sports. You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff. So what’s left?

I suppose that’s also one of the basic functions spectator sports serve in society: they occupy the populations, and keep them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that’s part of the reason sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.