The Super What?
Here is a riddle:
What social institution generates billions of dollars each year, influences how people act, affects how nations engage in diplomatic relations, is relevant to nearly all sociological themes, and yet, despite this ubiquitous nature and tremendous social impact is routinely ignored by sociologists?
Need another clue? Here is an easier riddle:
This Sunday, a major event of this social institution will occur. Over 110 million people in the United States will watch this event on television (probably making it the largest T.V. viewership in history); newspapers, magazines, and news shows have made it their headline story for two weeks; and it will be the major topic of conversation in workplaces, schools, and around the dinner table. But if you ask sociologists about this event don’t be surprised if their response is: “The Super what?”
It should be obvious that I am talking about sports and the Super Bowl. While it may be an exaggeration to say that sociologists would not know about the Super Bowl, it is not an overstatement to say that sociologists generally ignore the study of sport.
Despite the fact that sport has a huge impact on our social, economic, cultural, and political lives, sociologists generally turn a blind eye to the world of sport. Consider the following:
Introductory Sociology Textbooks: All of the bestselling introduction to sociology textbooks have chapters dedicated to various social institutions such as the economy, politics, marriage and the family, education, religion, and medicine or health. None of them has a chapter on the institution of sport and some do not even mention sport in their indexes.
Course Offerings. Although I know of no systematic compilation of sociology courses offered at colleges and universities, I’m pretty confident that specific classes on the sociology of sport, although they do exist at some institutions, are far from the norm in most sociology departments.
Academic Journals: According to a ranking of the most influential academic journals in sociology, the top three journals are the American Journal of Sociology (AJS), the American Sociological Review (ASR), and the Annual Review of Sociology. In hundreds of articles published in the past 10 years in these three journals only three articles have been about sports.
So whether you are a sociology student, a sociology professor, or a sociological researcher, sport is probably not on your academic radar. You may enjoy watching it or participating in it but it is unlikely that you will be thinking about it sociologically.
Keep in mind that this absence is in the mainstream of sociology. There are sub-disciplinary sociology of sport organizations such as the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) and the International Sociology of Sport Association (ISSA). There are also specific journals such as the Sociology of Sport Journal (SSJ), the Journal of Sport and Social Issues (JSSI), and the International Review for the Sociology of Sport (IRSS). Although these organizations and journals have a robust and dedicated following their numbers are relatively small and their influence within mainstream sociology is even smaller.
What I find particularly bewildering about the lack of interest most sociologists display toward the institution of sport is that so much of what goes on in the world of sports is not only inherently sociological but it is also highly influential to the existing social structure. In other words, sociologists should be paying more attention to sport not only because it is sociologically interesting but also because it is sociologically important.
The social significance of sport can be demonstrated by looking at the “holy trinity” of sociological analysis: gender, race, and class. The following books all make the point that far from being innocent games or harmless forms of entertainment, sports play a significant role in perpetuating systems of inequality.
In Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports, Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano make the compelling point that because sports are such a powerful social institution, women will always be seen as second-class citizens and will never achieve gender equality with men until girls and boys can compete against each other in sports.
In Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, John Hoberman makes the provocative argument that the rise of the Black male athlete preserves racial inequality and damages race relations in the United States. Sports and physical prowess are seen as the only viable avenues of success for black males whereas intellect and academic achievement are scorned. Black athletic success promotes the façade of racial integration and the end of racism.
In reality, as William Rhoden demonstrates in his book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, today’s Black athletes still exist in a plantation-like economy in which they must answer to and appease the wealthy, white-male owners.
In Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums, Kevin Delaney and Rick Eckstein point out that nearly all of the major sports stadiums that have been built recently were funded largely, if not exclusively, by public tax dollars; yet, the profits that are generated from the use of these stadiums goes directly to the millionaire (or billionaire) owners. In this sense, Delaney and Eckstein echo the arguments that we hear today in the Occupy Movement. Namely, that the 99% pays for it and the 1% gets richer from it.
Just because most sociologists are still sitting on the bench when it comes to studying sport does not mean that you have to be an idle spectator too. It is easy to become a sport sociologist. All you need to do is to start examining sports sociologically just like you probably examine television, movies, education, the family, and other social institutions from a sociological perspective. And there is no better time to become a sport sociologist than during the Super Bowl. So when you sit down to watch the big game this Sunday don’t just be an armchair quarterback, be an armchair sociologist!