Professional Sports

According to the ideal type suggested by Freidson (2001), sport does not exhibit all of the characteristics of a profession. Unlike archetypal high status professions (e.g., medicine) in which the practitioners rather than governments or markets exert significant control over their labor, professional athletes work in cartels and oligopolies where they must respond to the demands of owners, managers, coaches, sponsors, consumers, and the media. Thus it is more appropriate to say that like many institutions, sport exhibits particular professionalizing tendencies (e.g., specialization, relying strongly on expert knowledge). However, these professionalizing propensities can only be understood if they are located in a complex of five other interdependent and mutually reinforcing processes that have shaped modern sport from youth leagues to the international level: commercialization, commodification, bureaucratization, globalization, and governmentalization (Gruneau & Whitson 2001; Miller et al. 2001; Ingham 2005).

Modern professional sports have been transformed into a multibillion dollar global industry that employs millions of professional athletes, administrators, coaches, scientists, and lawyers. Paying this labor force would be impossible without the income that sporting organizations generate from gate receipts, the sale of media rights, and contracts with sponsors from the business world. It is crucial to emphasize that commercialization, commodification, and mediatization are not simply economic phenomena. For instance, commercialization and commodification simultaneously both constitute and are constituted by discourses in the sporting media. At a more general level, Rowe (2004: 95–6) refers to the culturalization of all institutions, noting that despite being progressively more commodified and commercialized, ‘‘sports events have become the most important, regular manifestations of . . . national culture.’’

Commercializing and commodifying sport occurred in tandem with the replacement of part time volunteers in informal community organizations by national and international bureaucracies administered by full time professionals holding degrees in business, economics, marketing, public relations, and management. Thus sport has gone from being discussed around the kitchen table to being managed by the executive office (McKay 1997). For example, virtually all private and public sporting organizations now have an executive director overseeing managers who monitor their business, operational, and strategic plans.

The Olympics, various World Cup events, and the Super Bowl are some of the most popular entertainment events in the world. One outcome of the integration of sport into the global entertainment industry has been the creation of ‘‘celebrity athletes,’’ in whom multinational corporations invest vast sums of money in the form of endorsements and sponsorships. Like other sought after and mobile professionals, elite athletes and coaches have become ‘‘flexible citizens’’ who switch nations and even nationalities for commercial purposes. Like most global processes, this one is based on the capacity of powerful nations to exploit disadvantaged ones.

The commercialization, commodification, bureaucratization, and globalization of everyday life have been facilitated by governmentalization, the process by which capitalist states have steadily calibrated and managed the conduct of their citizens. Citizens today are the objects of myriad private and public strategies that frame health, well being, lifestyle, fitness, quality of life, and ‘‘at risk’’ behavior as a matter of individual responsibility (Rose 2001: 5–7). This important shift in biopower means that professional experts have become increasingly authoritative in spheres that were not traditionally subjected to direct intervention by private and public agencies. Thus most nations now have government departments responsible for the national planning and funding of ‘‘amateur’’ sport, which are often linked with health, lifestyle, and physical education programs (McKay 1997; Howell & Ingham 2001).

In this regime of biopower, professional athletes have become classic ‘‘somatic individuals’’: both participants in and targets of ‘‘molecular politics,’’ with their technologies of self government articulating favorably with the emphasis by professional experts in both the private and public spheres that individuals must accept responsibility for managing their lives (Rose 2001). Thus cyborg athletes gradually subject their bodies to a plethora of legal and illegal performance enhancing techniques. Moreover, all of the above processes have transcended their origins in capitalist states and now pervade virtually all formal organizations worldwide.

There are immense qualitative and quantitative differences between organized sport when it was the pastime of mainly Victorian gentlemen amateurs and the current hegemonic ‘‘power and performance model’’ (Coakley 2004: 110–12), which features the professionalizing developments outlined above. Although these professionalizing trends cannot eliminate all other forms of sport, alternatives seemed destined to occupy a marginal status, given that they exist in a context in which there is heavy reliance on the knowledge of professional experts who continually try to improve athletic performance by the tiniest fraction. Like life in effectively all formal organizations, the tradeoff for the rewards that flow from submitting to this professionalizing regime is the unremitting ‘‘government of the soul’’ (Rose 1999).


  1. Coakley, J. (2004) Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  2. Freidson, E. (2001) Professionalism: The Third Logic. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  3. Gruneau, R. S. & Whitson, D. (2001) Upmarket Continentalism: Major League Sport, Promotional Culture, and Corporate Integration. In: Mosco, V. & Schiller, D. (Eds.), Continental Order? Integrating North America for Cybercapitalism. Rowman & Littlefield, New York.
  4. Howell, J. & Ingham, A. G. (2001) From Social Problem to Personal Issue: The Language of Lifestyle. Cultural Studies 15: 326-51.
  5. Ingham, A. G. (2005) The Sportification Process: A Biographical Analysis Framed by the Work of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Freud. In: Giulianotti, R. (Ed.), Sport and Modern Social Theorists. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills.
  6. McKay, J. (1997) Managing Gender: Affirmative Action and Organizational Power in Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand Sport. State University of New York Press, Albany.
  7. Miller, T., McKay, J., Lawrence, G., & Rowe, D. (2001) Globalization and Sport: Playing the World. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  8. Miller, T., Rowe, D., McKay, J., & Lawrence, G. (2003) The Over-Production of US Sports and the New International Division of Cultural Labor. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38: 427-39.
  9. Rose, N. (1999) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, 2nd edn. Routledge, London.
  10. Rose, N. (2001) The Politics of Life Itself. Theory, Culture, and Society 18: 1-30.
  11. Rowe, D. (2004) Sport, Culture, and the Media: The Unruly Trinity, 2nd edn. Open University Press, Buckingham.

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