Subversive Sports: The Inherited Ideology of Imperialism

by Ariel Katz

This Friday afternoon, the Council on East Asian Studies hosted Professor J.A. Mangan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Strathclyde, to give a talk titled “Athleticism, A Global Ideology: From Cultural Imperialism to Cultural Hegemony.” His audience in the Luce Hall conference room was mainly professors, who reacted to his talk with emphatic nods and little almost-audible comments. Indeed, the topic Mangan tackled in his talk, and has wrestled with for years in his research, is “athleticism as an imperial instrument.” The suggestion that sports were the British Empire’s “chief spiritual export” and used to impart “dominance and deference, loyalty and obedience” is a fascinating claim given the modern world’s obsession with sports.

Mangan began his talk with an anecdote about the obscure “Great Revolution of 1851” at Marlborough College, a British private school for boys. Founded in 1834, the school was strict with its pupils, often using isolation and corporal punishment to discipline them. In 1850, the students rebelled, overtook the school, captured the headmaster, and burned before his eyes a manuscript he’d been working on for twenty years. G.E.L. Cotton, the school priest, thought desperately how best to control the boys, who were looting the village and destroying the school.

When you look at images of Marlborough College in 1834 and again in 1851, there’s one major difference: the second photo shows playing fields adjacent to the church. This was Cotton’s solution, what Mangan calls “brilliant social engineering”: Cotton created games fields and split the boys into houses, which played each other every day. This, Mangan notes, was “a perfect system of social control.” He marketed his strategy as one that trained “Christian manliness,” thereby creating what would become imperial Britain’s holy Trinity: God, Militarism, Athleticism.

Mangan’s “Manufactured Masculinity” (Amazon).

Mangan went on to describe how British missionaries “used the games field for moral instruction” in Africa and Asia, and how the introduction of sports in the colonies tried to promote a universal “Tom Brown” character—a brave, truthful, Christian gentleman.

The talk closed with a discussion of the larger context of Britain’s use of sport to export a moral system. Mangan noted that this “value-laden athleticism was a period phenomenon of a global phenomenon…it produced unforeseen consequences for the modern world: [our] obsession with sport has flourished in the post-imperial world.” Mangan asked the audience not only to consider the marks imperial sport left on the world, but to think about the inheritance of imperialism: internalized cultural norms that we forget were originally imposed from outside.

The question I left with, as I passed people playing soccer on their residential college quads, was: are we being trained to be the new imperialists? I’d only ever thought of house systems as a way to foster camaraderie, not as a means of controlling students and imparting a certain moral code.

If I ever get around to playing IMs, I’ll keep the boys of the Marlborough rebellion in mind.

Ariel Katz is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at