Musings on the Star System, or The Panopticon Reversed

Courtesy of 'Nach Dem Film'You want to know?

You want to know what being a professional athlete is like? You wondering about the lifestyle? You want to know why I get paid so much money?

It's not to play basketball, let me tell you. It's to spend my life under the eye. My entire life. I get paid to live in front of a camera and expose myself to the world.

And it's not just for shooting hoops.

I can't smoke a little herb, even though so many people do. I can't marry a white girl, though I'm certainly allowed to fuck them — that's just fuel for the sterotype. I can't gamble, even though it's a legal act in 47 out of the 50 states, in one form or another.

People say it's 'cause I'm supposed to be a role model. Hell no! I'll be a role model when, and for whom, I choose. What they meant to say is that I'm supposed to be a product pitchman: I can't act in a certain way or else I'll lower my value on Madison Avenue. I have to talk in cliches and always have a stoic look on my face. And I'm chained to the basketball court wherever I go … I can never just be me — somebody might be watching.

Who gets the last laugh, though? I do. You're the prisoner …

Corporate America is too stupid to figure out how to sell their products efficiently without me — or the next person just like me.

(Someone will figure it out, though — and that person will be my liberator.)

And if I raise the roof or do a little handshake or dance with one of my boys, there's a million kids around the world copying me. Same as I used to copy Isiah's handle, or Bird's jab step, or MJ's flight. It's like being a puppeteer running a million puppets at once.

Hope these kids are getting the skills, though. Hope they're copying the hard work as well.

Doubt it … hard work doesn't make for good television.

Goddamned postmodernism.


The first sporting contest ever covered on television was a Wimbledon tennis match, in 1937. In 1939, a U.S. college baseball game between Columbia and Princeton was covered, using only one camera panning back and forth to capture the action (Brookes, 2002). Hockey Night in Canada followed a few years later (Nattrass, 1988).

As the medium matured, the amount of sports programming available to audiences increased exponentially. By 1972, there were 1,250 annual hours of sport programming on the major American networks in addition to a substantial amount produced by CBC and CTV (Smith and Blackman, 1978). It became conceivable that sport could dominate a schedule, which is exactly what happened when ESPN, a twenty-four hour all-sports specialty cable channel, launched in 1979. In 1984, following ESPN's commercial success in the United States, The Sports Network (TSN) was created in Canada as a means of branding Labatt Breweries with its primary consumer segment, males aged 18 to 49 — the same demographic group that consumes televised sport (Sparks, 1992).

Today, professional sport is one of the biggest industries in the world, with sport media one of its largest product categories. Revenues are generated primarily through corporate advertising and audience subscription fees. Ownership of prime sports programming is a key piece in the chess match for control of the world communications industry, with players from the U.S., Australia, Europe and Japan leading the way.

As a result, professional athletes — most notably the star celebrity athletes — now find themselves in a panoptic schema.

"He is seen, but does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication" (Foucault, 1977, p. 200).

Statistical information is the distilled essence of sport in modernity. As such, professional athletes have disciplined their bodies and minds towards one end: "putting up numbers". However, discipline has insinuated itself into pro sport in other ways as well. Since both television and professional sport generate a large percentage of their revenues from corporate support, it is necessary for these athletes — again, particularly the stars — to conform to a standard that is perceived to sell products. Thus, the panoptic gaze constantly keeps the athlete "enclosed" in the (virtual) space of the basketball court.

Yet the great irony is that those who would play supervisor end up locked in a panoptic schema of their own. The marketing machine expands the disciplinary mechanism, thereby "increasing the possible utility of individuals" (p. 210), either as a potential labour supply or future consumer base for the pro sport industry. Everyone wants to be the star!!

"Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces; … it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies" (p. 217).

What, then, about the future of sport? It should be positive, shouldn't it? After all:

"[A]ny member of society will have the right to come and see with his own eyes how the schools, hospitals, factories, prisons function. There is no risk, therefore, that the increase of power created by the panoptic machine may degenerate into tyranny; the disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible 'to the great tribunal committee of the world'" (Foucault, 1977, p. 207).

Um, not exactly. The media matrix is owned by corporations. Yes, these corporations are controlled by a market economy, which is certainly credited as being an important part of a democracy. But markets and democracies are based on the idea of perfect information, which certainly doesn't exist today, and won't, so long as the owners of capital choose. In essence, it is their ability to escape the panoptic gaze that subverts the democratic process.

Professional sport and sport media, then, become not a democratic disciplinary mechanism, but a tool of violence against society.


Brookes, R. (2002). Representing sport. London: Arnold.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. The birth of the prison. New York: Penguin.

Nattrass, S. (1988). Sport and television in Canada: 1952-1982. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Alberta.

Smith, G., & Blackman, C. (1978). Sport in the mass media. (CAHPER Sociology of Sport Monograph Series). Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Sparks, R. (1992). 'Delivering the male': sports, Canadian television, and the making of TSN. Canadian Journal of Communication, 17, 319-342.


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