The sporting life could be the death of us


Milton Shulman sounds a warning note on television sport

Syndicated to newspapers on 16 July 1966


I AM a sports addict. Any game involving kicking, hurling, throwing, catching, bouncing, punching or hitting a ball is bound to rivet my attention.

The sight of horses leaping, running, trotting, bucking or hurdling will attract both my time and my money. Two men attempting to knock each other’s brains out in a ring fascinates me, the jockeying for position in a six- mile marathon absorbs me, the daring of ski-jumpers risking their limbs in wondrous leaps thrills me. Indeed. I cannot resist any
competitive contest involving the use of muscular, physical or mental skill. Only wrestling on TV bores me because I have long since ceased to believe in its authenticity.

But like all addicts I am beginning to worry about my passion. What started as a hobby has now be come compulsive; what should have been reserved for my leisure hours now occupies a good part of my working day.


Three weeks ago I settled down to write a long article about the theatre which would not only have earned me a respectable but sum would have brought in much needed foreign currency to this country.

But Wimbledon was being transmitted by the BBC all afternoon and a good deal of the evening and I found myself absorbed by such strategic duels as the Santana-Davidson match and the Bueno-Jones struggle.

Then came the five-day Test match. Again I had to switch on. This time my mornings were disrupted because those white-clad figures started out-manoeuvring each other at 11.30 in the morning and went on matching skill and wits until 6.30 in the evening. There was barely time to get a meal in, let alone write an article.


And now we are in the throes of three solid weeks of World Cup which means that the odd evening I used to devote to writing has now been washed out for me.

The hours wasted in this compulsive gawking has naturally meant that my productivity over the past three weeks has been materially reduced, my article is not yet finished and both my personal finances and the country’s balance of payments has suffered.

I think there is formidable evidence that my mania or disease (whichever you prefer to call it) is spreading like a plague throughout the land.

Secretaries are leaving their typewriters to watch tennis. Executives and salesmen stop administering or selling to see how long the Graveney-Cowdrey stand will survive and night workers will not doubt be leaving their lathes and machines to discover what England is doing against France.

Now there is nothing startling about our preoccupation with sport.

But what was once an eccentric indulgence we could afford is in danger of becoming a maniac obsession which we can no longer afford.

The Government is constantly urging us to raise our productivity by about three per cent. What that means in man hours worked, I have no idea.


But I would guess that the increase in man-hours wasted through watching sports in the past year or two has seriously affected the total productivity of this country.

And for this encouragement to watch rather than work, I think TV, particularly the BBC, is largely responsible. By making the country sports crazy, the BBC is certainly diminishing our productive potential.


Let us examine something like horse racing. There can be no doubt that the televising of horse races has not only increased interest in the sport but has stimulated a startling growth in gambling and bred a vast army of fresh punters.

There are something like 16,000 betting shops in Britain and during any afternoon each one of them has its quota of taxi drivers, manual workers, clerks, salesmen, etc., lingering on the premises betting and waiting for results.

I am sure that it could be said that something like two million man hours per day are lost because of horses and greyhounds.

As if this were not enough, the BBC commentators and publicists use every exhortation and trick in their vocabulary to get viewers to the goggle box during working hours.

When the BBC decided that they would start transmitting the second day of the last Test an hour earlier in the morning, the good news was announced repetitively with joyous enthusiasm and one commentator urged viewers to tell everyone in ‘factories and offices’ that they could now watch cricket earlier than anticipated.


And now the decision by the BBC to fill the screen for three weeks with football.

Not only does it blandly alienate viewers who do not care about football and hand over on a plate to the other channel a once-loyal audience probably numbering millions, but it indicates a sense of priorities which is out of touch with the prevailing sense of urgency and crisis which the country has to face.

The argument that the BBC was morally bound to devote this time to football because an event like the World Cup takes place in this country only once in 40 years is both specious and naive.

There are far more important events that take place in this country – events meaning much more to our tradition, our image, our well-being, our purpose than football – that the BBC would never contemplate honouring in this unprecedented fashion.

The 440th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth – and event that can hardly be said to occur with regular frequency – was not celebrated by a week’s peak time viewing of his plays let alone three weeks.

A duty?

Would the preparations for the launching of a British rocket to the moon or the details of a British discovery of a cure for cancer or even a successful London conference on disarmament be considered worthy of two evenings’ peak-time viewing, let alone three weeks?

By enshrining football in such a unique pride of place in its schedules and thoughts, the BBC undoubtedly expects us to place sport, and the watching of it, among the most worthwhile and magnificent achievements of our people.

With such authoritative encouragement and such responsible sponsorship, who can blame the average man for assuming that watching games on TV has taken on something of the aspect of a pleasant national duty?

Milton Shulman

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