February 02, 2012

The Super What?

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_PicBy Peter Kaufman

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:

clip_image001 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.

clip_image001[1] 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.

clip_image001[2] 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.

clip_image005In 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.

clip_image007In Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, John Hoberman makes the provocative argument that clip_image009the 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.

clip_image011 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!


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Interesting. And important to examine considering that sports can often impact societies in such a serious way that they can even be deadly for the spectators...(ie: Egypt)

I thought the answer to the riddle was entertainment. Then again, it seems sports is becoming more and more entertainment industry. Also, its role in social structure seems to grow: doing fitness / being thin is an indicator of social status.

The situation is similar in anthropology, even though there are some great works out there by people like John MacAloon, Robert Sands, Joseph Alter, Susan Brownell, and even sociologist-anthropologist Loic Wacquant. I always point out to my colleagues that 20-25% of the copy in most national newspapers is dedicated to sports. Even in Australia, arguably more sports mad than the US, we struggle to get credibility for academic study of sport. I think part of the issue has to be an animus that many intellectuals feel toward sport: even though they may pride themselves in being interested in 'popular culture,' they sometimes feel no qualms about being surprisingly dismissive of sports.

I have to disagree with many of your claims. I am one of those scholars who has studied and continues to study sports. It is rather remarkable the number of scholars and programs dedicated to exactly what you claim is non-existent. There are more of us out there than you actually think. The larger question that should be asked is why are these scholars and programs mostly located in Europe and less so in the United States?

I just started a Sociology class and I found this post very interesting. On the first day of class the professor asked us what things we thought affected human social behavior. The answers were: Religion, politics, education, economics, etc. All of these topics are covered in our textbook. And, you are correct, our textbook has no mention of sports, not even in the index! I would have never even thought of sports as influencing social behavior but it really does, and on so many levels. I am from St. Louis Missouri, and I can tell you that people from St. Louis LOVE their sports teams! I live in Los Angeles now and my husband and I will occasionally go to a sporting event when teams from St. Louis are in town. We have always worn St. Louis apparel when we have gone to the games. Luckily we have never had any problems with any of the LA fans - other than maybe a few dirty looks or a couple of rude comments. For the most part everyone has been good natured. In fact, a little friendly banter between the fans of competing teams is to be expected, and can sometimes add to the experience. I remember a long time ago when we still lived in St. Louis and my husband and I went to a Rams/9ers game. My husband is a die hard San Francisco 49ers fan, and I had the whole section booing him! It was all in good fun. In fact, we ended up talking and joking with many of the people sitting around us. But there are so many stories of fans of visiting teams getting hurt. The story about the Giants fan being beaten into a coma at the Dodger game last year made me wonder if I want to risk wearing St. Louis Cardinal's gear the next time I go to a Dodger's game. This also reminds me of the soccer player that was killed many years ago after he scored a goal against his own team causing them to lose the World Cup that year. And why do riots happen in some cities when their team loses a championship? Or wins a championship? It is very interesting how sports affects human behavior... Good food for thought! Thanks!

I have never looked at football or any sport like that. I know that there is race, gender and class involved in sports. My mom always says why aren't there girls on the professional football team? If they are good then they should be able to play on it. Also, now that the players get paid well they get all cocky and forget who they were before they got millions of dollars sitting in their bank accounts. I see a lot of African American on the football teams then the Whites. I think they use them for football because they are stronger and taller. They can build the body mass more than the Whites. I think any should be able to play no matter if you are a girl, the color of your skin or whether you have money or not.

My answer to the riddle would be Government.

I find it funny that sports aren't looked at by sociologists. I can point to the reactions to Justin Verlander's winning of the MVP and Cy Young last year as a great event in baseball history and it could be seen amongst the fans. Trades for players and signings which affect teams have a major impact on the team tend to cause a lot of commotion among fans, and the affects can often be seen in daily life.

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