Ethnicity in Sport

Ethnicity in sport has proven fundamental. It has long determined who has played, what participation and performance has meant, treatment by fans, media representations, and presentation of self.


Ethnicity is closely related to race. In fact, the two concepts are often confused with one another and used interchangeably, because both provide means to classify and organize observable differences among people. It is important, however, to distinguish between them, particularly in the context of sport. Whereas race describes the use of biological features, especially skin color, to understand people and define social groups, ethnicity refers to the use of cultural characteristics, including language, nationality, country of origin, and custom, to make sense of others and create social groups. While the physicality of sport rightly directs attention to issues of race and racism, the relationships between ethnicity and sport afford keen insights into the formation of identity, community, and society.

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Sport and Ethnic Identity

Through sport, ethnic groups define who they are or aspire to be, the values that matter to them, and what distinguishes them from other people. In a very real sense, sport has facilitated the creation of imagined communities: athletic performance and circulation of it through print, visual, and electronic media encourage individuals to identify and connect with others, seeing themselves as part of a common people, or ethnic group. The capacity to play and watch sport has proven to be especially meaningful for ethnic minorities, particularly when great performance offers a foundation for pride and celebration.

In many instances, a particular sport becomes emblematic of a people. Baseball, for example, is said to be America’s pastime and as American as mom and apple pie. Similarly, hockey has come to be closely associated with Canadian identity and rugby with what it means to identify oneself as a New Zealander. And ethnic groups, particularly native peoples, increasingly have sought to revive historic sporting practices as a means to reinvigorate heritage and culture.

In other cases the style of play becomes a means to claim or refuse a particular ethnic identity. In the US, the flamboyance, creativity, individuality, and flair associated with the black urban culture has transformed contemporary sport and society, providing African American and Euro American athletes and fans an important reservoir for the presentation of self and the nurturance of social networks. Negative public perceptions of this style of play and its association with urban blackness have also caused gatekeepers to affirm the values defining whiteness through controlling transgressive expressions. Similarly, the hard and fast style of cricket cultivated in the West Indians not only radically changed the sport, but it also became a powerful affirmation of ethnic identity. Increasingly, corporations and sport teams, mindful of ethnicity and style, have capitalized upon ethnicity to attract fans and sell products.

Increasingly, over the course of the twentieth century, sporting spectacle offered important occasions for ethnic and national groups to present themselves. The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games provide an excellent illustration of this pattern. In 1936 the Nazi regime used the Summer Olympics in Berlin to articulate a muscular, romantic vision of Germanness, while giving material expression to its antisemitism. The Summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 witnessed a much more oppositional statement when African American athletes raised their fists in a black power salute on the award stand, affirming an ethnic identity too long marginalized and demonized. The Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 were also the scene of ethnic protest. The Lubicon Lake Cree Band used the ceremonial torch run passing through Saskatchewan in advance of the games to bring attention to their ongoing land claim disputes and the destruction of their culture.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the assertion of ethnic identity through sports to be a matter of choice free from the constraints of history or power. In fact, a range of factors, including cultural expectations, political access, social location, and education, delimit the capacity of ethnic groups to articulate an identity audible to all. Making matters worse, stereotypes, bias, and misconceptions often influence public understandings of athletes and athletics. Indeed, research shows that media coverage, beginning with the emergence of modern sport in the nineteenth century, has displayed a propensity to frame players in ethnic terms. In the US, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, for instance, the media have lamented the minimal work ethic and discipline of athletes of color, while emphasizing their natural abilities, and in turn, have praised white athletes for their hard work, intelligence, and leadership abilities.

In many ways, Tiger Woods offers a striking example of the limits and possibilities of ethnic identity in sport. The celebrated golfer has sought to be identified and accepted as Cablinasian, a term he created to encapsulate his multi ethnic heritage. Supporting Woods’s hybridity, Nike ran a series of ads in which kids from a number of distinct ethnic groups proclaimed, ‘‘I’m Tiger Woods.’’ Most journalists, commentators, and fans, however, worked hard to assign a singular identity to Woods. Many observers sought to claim Woods, taking him as an example of African American or Asian American excellence and a source of ethnic pride. Media coverage, in turn, frequently presented the golfer in terms that broke with conventional understandings of blackness, but when Woods was not successful, stereotypes of the black athlete became more common.

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Sport and Ethnic Relations

While many commentators and fans have pointed to sport as a prime example of multiculturalism and social progress, athletics actually is a much more complex arena of ethnic relations, at once highly visible, saturated with power, and often very contentious. Sport often emerges as a borderland or middle ground that has promoted efforts to assimilate ethnic minorities, encouraged ethnic groups to challenge the precepts and practices of mainstream society, and prompted countless cultural borrowings and social reinventions.

Sport socializes. Sport teaches. It conveys important ideas about the social order. When incorporated into school, physical education and extracurricular athletics have proven important to the efforts of multi ethnic states to deal with perceived social problems. Through sport societies seek to nationalize those deemed foreign – immigrants, indigenous peoples, and other ethnic minorities. In the US (and Canada), boarding schools were established in the late nineteenth century for Native Americans. Over time, athletics became increasingly important to efforts to Americanize indigenous peoples, or as it was often put at the time, ‘‘kill the Indian, to save the man.’’ Educators hoped to instill a competitive spirit, discipline, morality, and manliness. In time, they would come to see sports as a powerful public relations tool that might elevate public perceptions of Native Americans, easing the process of assimilation as it eroded misconceptions and prejudices. As Native American boarding schools began to fall out of favor in the 1920s, the post revolutionary Mexican government sought to use physical education for similar ends, namely to unify a multi ethnic country around shared values. In contrast to its northern neighbor, the effort was not focused on eradicating Indianness. Instead, it amplified ethnic difference, incorporating indigenous practices into the physical education curriculum to forge the hybrid, mestizo nation it envisioned Mexico becoming. Importantly, in both of these examples, athletics in education target ethnic minorities, affixing the problems of broader society on their backs.

In neither case did sport ease ethnic tensions or misunderstandings; however, in both instances sport proved to be especially transformational precisely because the play of sport simultaneously changes individuals and invites differently situated players in turn to change it. Encouraging interaction among different ethnic groups, sport offers a space in between, a meeting ground in which ideas, practices, games, pleasures, and possibilities can be shared, exchanged, and borrowed. Ethnic minorities often adapt individual sports to their own ends. In addition to the play of cricket and basketball previously discussed, the introduction of cricket to the Trobriand Islands is instructive here. Missionaries hoping to acculturate Trobrianders and offer them a substitute for warfare taught them to play cricket. Much to the missionaries’ chagrin, however, the islanders rewrote the rules of the sport and used matches as occasions to perform traditional rituals and magic. Dominant ethnic groups remake games played by marginalized groups as well. After watching and playing it for years, Canadians appropriated lacrosse from Native groups, taking a traditional sacred cultural complex and turning it into a rationalized and secular sport that looked quite different. Later, lacrosse organizations in Canada banned First Peoples from participating in sanctioned matches. At the same time, sport has allowed marginalized ethnic groups to survive in hostile social environments. On the one hand, many immigrants play games brought with them. Latino soccer leagues in urban areas in the US allow participants to establish important social networks, find work and community, and maintain connections with homelands. On the other hand, ethnic groups often turn to sport in unbearable social circumstances, such as Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.

In highly stratified societies, where the distribution of rights and resources turns on ethnicity, there are limits to the creativity and freedom afforded by sport. Indeed, as in other social domains, sport has long exhibited pronounced ethnic inequality. Ethnicity has been the basis for exclusion from competition. It is common knowledge that indigenous peoples were barred from lacrosse in Canada, African Americans could not participate in baseball, football, and myriad other sports in Jim Crow America, Jews were marginalized in athletics under the Nazi regime, and Asian immigrants could not play as equals in Great Britain. Even more commonly, ethnic minorities have endured discrimination in position assignment and coaching opportunities, while suffering persecution as they have taken the field and played the game. At the same time, the marginalization and underdevelopment of ethnic communities frequently translates into extremely limited social and economic opportunities. Ethnic minorities regularly turn to sport as a means to achieve a better life. In fact, the history of sport in virtually every country throughout the world parallels its history of immigration; successive waves of immigrants enter into particular sports, only to be replaced a generation later by a subsequent, more newly arrived ethnic group. Only a small fraction of athletes ever achieve their dreams of playing professional sport, suggesting that it is an uncertain path to upward mobility which misdirects energies and aspirations and in turn furthers the underdevelopment of marginalized communities.

Finally, sport is a site of social struggle and ethnic resistance. The ongoing controversy over the use of American Indian names, images, and symbols in sport provides an excellent example. For nearly a century, Native American mascots have reflected and reinforced dominant notions of masculinity, citizenship, and history. Over the past 35 years, a multi ethnic coalition, led by American Indians, has challenged such symbols, asserting that they misappropriate, misuse, and misunderstand indigenous culture and history. They have protested and petitioned, pressing educational institutions and professional teams to change their mascots. In many ways, the controversy has derived in part from efforts to defend traditional formulations of identity in the US, especially its foundations in ethnicity (whiteness), gender (masculinity), nation (Americanness), and history (the myth of the frontier). It also reflects deep interpretive differences. Whereas supporters insist that mascots foster respect and are meant to honor Native Americans, opponents assert that they denigrate Native Americans, perpetuating historical patterns of discrimination and dispossession. Moreover, supporters stress text (honor, intention), while opponents emphasize context (history and racism).

Ethnicity has been central to athletics since the emergence of modern sport in the nineteenth century. It has proven particularly important for the articulation of ethnic identity and the shape of ethnic relations. As sport becomes increasingly global and mass mediated, the relationships between ethnicity and sport undoubtedly will become more intense and intricate.

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  1. Bloom, J. & Willard, M. N. (Eds.) (2002) Sport Matters: Race, Recreation, and Culture. New York University Press, New York.
  2. Cronin, M. & Mayall, D. (Eds.) (1998) Sporting Nationalisms: Ethnicity, Immigration, and Assimilation. Frank Cass, Portland.
  3. Eisen, G. & Wiggins, D. K. (Eds.) (1994) Ethnicity and Sport in North American History and Culture. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
  4. King, C. R. & Springwood, C. F. (2001) Beyond the Cheers: Race as Spectacle in College Sports. State University of New York Press, Albany.
  5. MacClancy, J. (Ed.) (1996) Sport, Identity, and Ethnicity. Berg, Oxford.

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