Social Theory and Sport

Despite acknowledgments of sport as a legitimate focus of sociological analysis from early thinkers such as Spencer, Simmel, Weber, Scheler, and Mead (Luschen 1980), the lack of development in social theory and sport studies has been well documented (Frey & Eitzen 1991), although there appears to be increased movement toward the generation and integration of more theoretically driven work.


Washington and Karen (2001) point out that Bourdieu’s ‘‘Sports and Social Class’’ statement has focused much of our attention with these following key observations: (1) sports is a field relatively autonomous of society with a unique historical dynamic; (2) sport represents struggles between social classes; (3) sport shifted from an amateur elite practice to a profession ally produced spectacle for mass consumption; (4) sport production and administration must be understood within the industrial political economy; (5) sports participation as exercise or lei sure time depends on economic and cultural capital; and (6) sport practices vary by the conscious and unconscious meanings and functions perceived by various social classes.

Sport provides unique opportunities for understanding the complexities of everyday life. Bourdieu’s (1991) original argument calls for theoretical inquiry that integrates macro and micro interests, bridging social structure and social psychological processes. Macro methodologies cover, for example: (1) concerns with developing sport as a science (Luschen 1980); (2) global politics (Strenk 1979); (3) sociohistorical labor and leisure development (Zarnowski 2004); (4) the accessibility of sport to various classes and social mobility (Kahn 2000); and (5) the role of media in generating national identities (Lowes 1997). Micro orientations will focus inquiry on (1) sport preferences and participation (Miller et al. 2002); (2) socialization (McNulty & Eitle 2002); (3) self esteem (Adler et al. 1992); (4) immortalizing the self through sport (Schmitt & Leonard 1986); and (5) sport play to display (Stone 1955).

Still being a young field, the areas in need of theoretical attention are vast. While race, class, gender, and media studies have moved sport away from an ‘‘orphan speciality’’ status (Frey & Eitzen, 1991), other intriguing substantive areas remain fertile ground for development. Three areas which are particularly fruitful are the political nature of sport, sport as art, and the moral assumptions embedded in sport.

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Political Nature of Sport

Viewing sports as politics is not new. This connection has been referred to as ‘‘war without weapons.’’ Strenk (1979) points out how Nazis under Hitler and Fascists under Mussolini propagandized sport. The globalization process seems to have only increased the prominence of sport in politics. Examples of the obvious intersection of sport and politics include:

  • The losers of world wars have been banned for several years from the Olympic movement (the US refused visas to East Germans for two decades).
  • Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in protest of the Suez war. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands withdrew over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and China pulled out in a continuing demonstration against the International Olympic Committee recognition of Taiwan.
  • South Africa was barred from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
  • The Mexican government shot and killed students protesting the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
  • Arab terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972.
  • 32 nations boycotted the 1976 Olympics in Montreal because New Zealand maintained sports relations with South Africa.
  • The US, followed by West Germany and Japan, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In return, the Soviet bloc boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
  • North Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
  • Gabon, Congo, Honduras, and El Salvador have gone to war over the outcome of soccer games.
  • The US and Russia attempted to proclaim superiority of their political and socioeconomic systems by winning the most Olympic gold medals.
  • The US used table tennis to open relations with China.

Sports have been ‘‘justified since antiquity for providing soldiers with the physical training they would require in battle’’ (Semenza 2001). There is always binary opposition in battle. It is one team against another, one country against another, one individual against another, one alliance against another. Further, encounters in both sport and war are fundamentally a physical contest. Even competitors in sports where there is no direct physical contact between opponents understand their contest as one of warlike physical opposition. Finally, there are consequences for winning or losing. These may be concrete or symbolic, but they are clearly valued by competitors, as demonstrated by fierce competition and emotional reactions to winning and losing.

Gender also links sport and war. Male gendered traits tied to physicality, power, and domination underlie both the good athlete and the good soldier. Generally, sports are not simply the random assertion of masculinity; rather, they are structured expressions of it, reflecting past, dominant, institutionalized representations of masculinity (i.e., war). Social theory can further illuminate similarities in sport and war, generating insight into current international political relations as well as reaching into the social psychological production of gendered identities.

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Sport as Art

Athletes talk about a sense of effortless competency, a flow felt while playing where it all comes together – all the training, studying, and coaching. During this experience the mind seems to stop and there is expanded vision beyond thought. This is referred to as ‘‘being in the zone’’ or what we call a creative action rhythm. It emerges from a twofold process: (1) learning, by first absorbing all that one can from books, practice, and coaches/teachers, and (2) creative acting, where one acts out of what was learned instead of merely imitating. This creative action rhythm is the very essence of the true athlete as artist.

The dependence of sport on rules may suggest an opposition to creativity. But suppose the rules were restrictive and it was possible for them to remove the artistic, creative element of sport and that athletes merely applied what they had learned from their coaches. Would sport still be enjoyed by spectators? Would athletes still practice their crafts with passion and dedication? Imagine going to a basketball game where the players seldom did any thing new. We would only tolerate it for young players, and then maybe only if the players were our own children. But reflect on how excited we are when a successful, dynamic, creative play occurs. These are actually the moments which give meaning to sport. These moments, when sport transcends physical mechanics and becomes emotionally salient, are what allow individuals to experience creative participation, even as spectators.

Young (1999) shares an interesting theoretical framework in this regard. Calling on Heidegger, he reminds us, ‘‘poetically dwells man upon this earth.’’ This means, without art, he merely exists. Sport, like art, conjures emotion in the participant as well as the viewer. This emotion pulls us away from the maze of everyday details, demands, and decisions (Goffman 1961). This emotional experience is the essence of art and it is clearly found in sport.

Attending a sporting contest is itself seeking artistic expression (Young 1999). The game setting is far from the ordinary. Our team reveals the multicultural mix of our community, but is integrated. And although we sit in hierarchical seating, we experience union with one another, a manifest integrity of our community. We share a national anthem. We see our morality in the rules (e.g., fairness, earned accomplishment, etc.). The athletic activity, although subordinated to rules, encourages equality between competitors, but yet does not get in the way of artistic expression. We can see the virtues of skills. And however well planned and rehearsed, with the final outcome, we come to grips with being mortal. Through the athletic artistic expression, we are transported from our ‘‘average everydayness’’ into Augenblick, the ‘‘moment of vision’’ (Young 1999). The athlete helps us see the hero that is concealed in everyday characters. Social theory, particularly in the sociology of emotions, has much to contribute and gain from studying the creative, artistic, and emotional qualities of sport, and the meanings we bring and take away from our games (Duquin 2000).

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Moral Assumptions Embedded In Sport

Sport both embodies and impresses particular assumptions about human nature and a moral order. Particularly central to youth sports, the debate about the value of competition represents broader clashes over human nature itself. In a cyclical fashion, sport both assumes competition as an innate human quality and in turn teaches that this is the case. Like much western social, political, and economic theory, implicit in sport is the ideological assumption of a human will to power. The extent to which this is innate rather than cultural, if it is at all, remains unclear. There is evidence that this sort of orientation is primarily cultural (Sahlins 1972). Many traditional societies often do not overtly reflect this will to power. Thus, one might claim that it is the institutionalization and structure of sports, which most often follow a western, capitalist model of competition, that produce these tendencies. Sahlins (1972) similarly found that small, primitive societies tended to develop westernized power orientations only after being engulfed in larger, organized states. Sport is certainly one arena in which investigation into the matter may prove fruitful.

While emphasis on competition is still the pervasive ethos of sport, some youth organizations have consciously shifted away from a competitive model. For example, there are leagues in which everyone receives a participation trophy rather than just rewarding top place teams and most valuable players. Coaches may be discouraged from emphasizing winning as a value, or even from showing too much enthusiasm for ‘‘successful’’ play (e.g., within the American Christian Upward Program). These organizations present an opportunity for sociology to address some competing hypotheses embedded in the ideologies of these typical and counter typical models of sport. Social theory ought to be able to contribute to and gain from the study of youth development, attitudes, and mental health by comparing these different models of sport, which seem particularly polarized concerning the value of competition.

We might compare the current diversity in the world to a prism. The nature of the prism’s color spectrum is that there is no connectedness between colors, meaning there is no identifiable demarcating line that defines the end of one color and the beginning of another. It is essential to realize that one of the colors in the spectrum of global diversity is sport. Its boundaries blend and merge with the agenda and concerns of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, family, work, leisure, economic development, politics, global relations, etc. The selected literature cited here points to the possibilities of interdisciplinary social theory development.

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  1. Adler, P., Kless, S., & Adler, P. (1992) Socialization to Gender Roles: Popularity among Elementary School Children. Sociology of Education 65: 169-87.
  2. Bourdieu, P. (1991 [1978]) Sport and Social Class. In: Mukerji, C. & Schidson, M. (Eds.), Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 357-73.
  3. Coakley, J. (2004) Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. McGraw Hill, Boston.
  4. Duquin, M. (2000) Sport and Emotions. In: Coakley, J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Sports Studies. Sage, London, pp. 477-89.
  5. Frey, J. & Eitzen, D. S. (1991) Sport and Society. Annual Review of Sociology 17: 503-22.
  6. Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis.
  7. Kahn, L. (2000) The Sports Business as a Labor Market Laboratory. Journal of Economic Perspectives 14: 75-94.
  8. Lowes, M. (1997) Sports Page: A Case Study in the Manufacture of Sports News for the New Press. Sociology of Sport 14: 143-59.
  9. Luschen, G. (1980) Sociology of Sport: Development, Present State, and Prospects. Annual Review of Sociology 6: 315-47.
  10. McNulty, T. & Eitle, D. (2002) Race, Cultural Capital, and the Educational Effects of Participation in Sports. Sociology of Education 75: 123-46.
  11. Miller, K., Barnes, G., Melnick, M., Sabo, D., & Farrell, M. (2002) Gender and Racial/Ethnic Differences in Predicting Adolescent Sexual Risk: Athletic Participation versus Exercise. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43: 436-50.
  12. Reiss, S. (1990) The New Sport History. Reviews in American History 18: 311-25.
  13. Sahlins, D. (1972) Stone Age Economics. Aldine, Chicago.
  14. Schmitt, R. & Leonard, W. (1986) Immortalizing the Self through Sport. American Journal of Sociology 91: 1088-111.
  15. Semenza, G. (2001) Sport, War, and Contest in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Renaissance Quarterly 54: 1251-72.
  16. Stone, G. (1955) American Sports: Play and Display. Chicago Review 9: 83-100.
  17. Strenk, A. (1979) What Price Victory? The World of International Sports and Politics. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 445: 128-40.
  18. Washington, R. & Karen, D. (2001) Sport and Society. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 187-212.
  19. Young, J. (1999) Artwork and Sportwork: Heideggerian Reflections. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57: 267-77.
  20. Zarnowski, F. (2004) Working at Play: The Phenomenon of 19th-Century Worker-Competitions. Journal of Leisure Research 36: 257-82.

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