Various elements of the economic system in the United States become metaphors for other elements. Sports, for example, which may be the case par excellence, acts as a metaphor for Wall Street, for big business, for the relationship of capital to labor.
In some cases, quite strikingly, the displaced factor in the metaphorization, rather than simply commenting on the primary term of the metaphor actually replaces it. In the process the secondary term becomes the reality it is supposedly only elucidating.
Thus for example the unions representing players become the site of the spectacle (using Debord’s terminology) of the drama of workers’ rights, even though the players are oftentimes almost as rich as the owners and members of the same privileged class. In general what were once dramas among social classes become dramas among celebrities.
The displacement works on multiple levels. The cheating scandal involving signal stealing and the New England Patriots in 2007 mirrored Wall Street market manipulation in the pre-crash era, while the relatively minor punishment meted out to the Patriot organization (even though the cheating may have helped determine the outcome of three Super Bowls) echoed the lack of effective legal sanctions for wrongdoing in the banking sector.
The various steroid scandals in baseball, cycling, and other sports similarly reinforce how the metaphor both works and further replaces the primary term (indeed in many cases the sports element of the metaphor might just as well be the primary term). The proof of this divergence is in the emotional resonance that can be seen in the debate over steroid use, which has been fierce, prolonged, and heartfelt. Here the nature of the distraction the spectacle provides can be clearly seen: as long as the debate is about steroids, it will be a debate about the behavior of celebrities and never about the deceit and chicanery of powerful actors in the US system of wealth, of which it is an instance.
Another example: the concern for the health of football players who suffer concussions at an unconscionable rate. Righteous indignation is quite the correct response, yet a terrible kind of embarrassment greets revelations of other forms of workplace injury, for what value could these low wage workers have in purely economic terms next to these wealthy young men? Clearly the stakes are so much lower for minimum wage earners and naturally, so is our concern.
To further extend the analysis, consider the following: within the media and among male sports viewers, whether avid or occasional, the only possible forum for positive commentary about unions and their activities resides in the sports world and involves exclusively those unions representing the wealthy class of professional athletes. Professional athletes are thus for all intents and purposes the only remaining “workers” in the US economic system. Their labor struggles dramatize (and at the same instant deflect) what is no longer allowed to be given conscious expression: the actual problems of average persons in the labor force.
This paradox leads to odd confusions. Sports writers have for example been uncertain about how to respond to the ongoing Alex Rodriguez steroid debacle currently playing out in a theater more near to you than you might imagine. Side with baseball and you have sold your soul to big business. Side with Rodriguez and you’ve just drenched yourself with sleaze. Some have even tried to make the sadly narcissistic, coddled, and deeply confused Rodriguez into a working class hero. Not hardly.
In the US it’s clear enough that the primary mechanisms for the production of spectacle are to be found in sports and entertainment. Both gain their power as metaphor, and yet that very power guarantees that the analogy evaporates in the process of being formed, so that sports (whose entire interest is generated through its relationship to the life outside it) is no longer a metaphor. It quite simply becomes the totality of the real.