This essay introduces one of the most comprehensive anthologies on global sports culture today, entitled The Blackwell Companion to Sport.  It collects in a single volume research being done on global sports culture around the world by scholars from many different academic disciplines. Its authors, Ben Carrington and David L. Andrews are two of the most prolific and well-respected scholars working in this field today.  

 

The essay, which is divided into five parts, includes recommendations on the best way to approach sports as an object of academic study, reflections on how deceptively difficult it can be to actually define sport and on the implications of htis difficulty for those of us studying sport, an overview of the anthology as a whole, a list of works cited, and a short list of works recommended for further study.

 

  • I. Introduction: Anti-sport/Pro-Sport (pp. 1-8)

 

The authors begin (pp. 1-3) by summarizing an informal, but sharply polarized debate in the popular media about whether or not sports contribute something positive to our cultures and society.

 

PRO TIP: As you read, be careful to identify opinions belong to the author (or authors) of the essay and opinions belonging to other writers directly quoted, paraphrased or summarized in the essay.  

 

The "anti-sport" side of this debate was voiced by two individuals: the conservative English journalist Christopher Hitchens and the left-leaning English scholar and intellectual Terry Eagleton.  On the other side, the left-wing American journalist Dave Zirin (pronounced "Zye-rin") took the pro-sport stance.

 

THINK ABOUT: What are the main points raised by Hitchens and Eagleton against sports?  What are the main points raised by Zirin in support of sports? How do you feel about these opinions?  Why do you think you feel that way?  What common assumptions do they share about whether or not sports even has a relationship to society and to political issues? How do you feel about this assumption? Why do you think you feel that way?

 

Next (pp. 4-6), Carrington and Andrews describe the historical sources of (this is known as "historicizing") the positions taken by Hitchens, Eagleton, and Zirin.  This history shows that attitudes about sport have historically reflected the social position of those who hold them, as well as their broader views on culture, politics, and society.  An opinion about the nature or value of sports, in other words, has always also been (even if the holder does not acknowledge it, or is not even aware of it) also an opinion about culture, politics, and society.

 

THINK ABOUT: What are some of the broader attitudes about culture, politics, and society underlying the opinions of Hitchens, Eagleton, and Zirin, respectively? Do you hold any of those attitudes? Have you encountered them in others? 

 

Carrington and Andrews next (pp. 6-7) take up a specific example of a news item from 2012 in which fighting broke out between fans of rival football clubs during an Egyptian Premier League football (US: soccer) match.  Seventy-four people died and many more were injured during the violence.  Many casual observers would explain the violent outbreak by attributing it to the heated passions aroused (and encouraged) by sports fandom.  But Carrington and Andrews reject this explanation is over-simplistic and offer a brief but more complex description of the many complicated issues that should be considered in order to come to an adequate understanding of this sports phenomenon.  

 

This then allows them to conclude their summary of the anti-sport/pro-sport debate by rejecting both views as limited and oversimplistic.  Specifically, first, because they are predominatly driven by emotional reaction, neither argument takes the time to study and reflect more deeply on the issues in question and therefore (and second), they fail to make the connections between sport and the braoder cultural and social issues to which it is tied.  For these reasons, these reactions are unhelpful to the task of coming to a deeper understanding of sports.

 

KEYWORDS: Sports, Emotion, Understanding, Society

 

THINK ABOUT: Your gut responses as you read their analysis?  Are you bored? Skeptical? Overwhelmed? Intrigued?  Can you think of any sporting phenomenon in the United States, past or present, that you think has also been treated in an oversimplistic manner in the media, or that would benefit from a more complex analysis of the sort Carrington and Andrews outline?

 

In place of these limited polarizing positiosn, they offer (pp. 7-8) an alternative approach inspired by the work of C. L. R. James, which they summarize in an extremely important passage on p. 8.

 

James, they claim, exemplified the ability

 

"to think about sport as an activity that is simultaneously a space to which we escape for fun, relaxation, and enjoyment, a space charged with social significance and political possiblities for expressing who we are as individuals and the larger communities to which we belong, and as an embodied art form, a physically creative and aesthetic mode of being human, a world repete with all the ugliness and beauty, tragedy and joy, that resides within human societies." (8)

 

They believe that students and scholars (and, really, anyone who wants to go beyond simplistic opinions and get to genuine understanding) should try:

 

"to think about sports as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints, to examine sport as a form of cultural struggle, resistance, and politics whilst recognizing that it is also compromised by forms of commodification, commercialization, and bureaucratic control, and to consider sport as an embodied art form that is formed inr elation to both intrinsic and extrinsic goals and rewards that sometimes over-determine the stated aims of the participants."

 

PRO TIP: You can see that in the passage above I italicized those words that appear also in the title of the article as predicates (or definining attributes) of sports.  In general, the title of an essay or book can serve as a great entry point to understanding it.  Even if you have trouble understanding other details or even the overall argument, just looking for words that appear in the title and thinking about how the authors are using them can help you to to get a purchase on what you are reading.

 

THINK ABOUT: How the authors relate sports to escape, to struggle, and to art?  How do you feel about this? Do you find that you are more drawn to one or the other of these ways of thinking about sport? Do you find that you quickly reject one or the other of them?  Why do you think you have those reactions?  

 

What sort of experiences have you had as a fan, participant, or casual observer of sports in which at the time (or looking back now) you could see sports as escape, struggle, or art (or some combination)?  For example, you may find it easy "to think about sports as an escape from everyday life." But what it does mean to understand "that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal contraints"?  And how is that understanding related to thinking about sports as escape from daily life? 

 

Think of a concrete example of a sport or sporting experience that you think of as an escape from everyday life.  For many, it might be going to a Michigan football game at the Big House on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn; perhaps that appeals as an escape from the pressures of your academic or work or even family responsibilities.  So that might be an example of thinking about sports as an escape from everyday life.  But now, to follow Carrington's and Andrews' proposal, you have to also understand that  "no cultural activity" [including a Michigan football game] is "completely autonomous" [meaning: separable from, independent of] from "societal contraints" [meaning the influence of elements, individuals and forces in society that we usually think of as having nothing to do with sports on the field, like money, the media, race, class, etc.).   To really understand the full complexity of a sporting event like a Michigan football game means understanding that even as we are enjoying the escape provided for us by a Michigan football game, these societal factors are still at work, shaping and influencing that which we enjoy.  

 

We can do the same exercise with the rest of the passage: think of a concrete example of sport as "struggle, resistance, and politics" and then think about how "commodification, commercialization and bureaucratic control" might compromise that struggle; or think of a concrete example of sport as "art form" and then think about how that form emerges as a result of an individual's pursuit of goals that might distort that artistic expression.

 

  • II. What is Sport? Some Definitional Observations (pp. 8-10)

 

Having arrived at a method or at least described the challenge for those who would understand sports, Carrington and Andrews now pause to consider just what the word: "sports" or "sport" means.

 

They first offer (p. 8) the following working definition:

 

"A freely chosen competitive activity requiring physical exertion that centers the body as the main object for expression and creativity and that has some form of quantifiable goal, or external reward, as its main focus." 

 

As simple and obvious as it may seem, however, Carrington and Andrews immediately point out some questions that this definition leaves unanswered.

 

For example, how much "physical exertion" should an activity have to require to be considered sport? Activities like tennis and rugby clearly require a great deal, but activities like archery, golf, or bowling require considerably less. Nevertheless, they are considered sports, even though they are largely stationary and require little more physical exertion than other freely chosen competitive activities such as chess or card games or darts.  All three of these "games" are in some places around the world televised by sports channels.  For Carrington and Andrews even this brief consideration suggests that their working definition may depend upon some unstated assumptions and therefore unintentionally present attributes of sport valued by a particular culture or era as if they were the objective attributes of all activities called "sport" in all places and in all eras.

 

PRO TIP: The presentation of values, ideals, or norms of a specific culture as if they were held by all cultures is known as "universalizing."  

 

They continue this consideration by questioning whether"competition" and "freely chosen" are really essential dimensions of sport, and so belong in a definition of sports.  

 

Similarly, they challenge elements of what they call "the formal-structural" definition of sports.  "Formal-structural" refers to a particular sociological theory.  Within that theory, sport were defined as:

 

"secular activities, premised upon equality of opportunity to play, in which each athlete develops specialized roles, pursuing rational means to achieve goals and success that are quantifiable in order to pursue records, all overseen by bureaucratic institutions" (9)

 

Certainly, this covers most of the sports that are most popular in contemporary American society and even in Europe.  But the definition proposes some criteria that depend upon the degree of modernization or of wealth of the society, or else of its particular cultural values.  In this caes, Carrington and Andrews point out that this definition would leave out activities (like footracing) that were common in world cultures prior to the modern European era but were neither secular nor overseen by bureaucratic institutions.  Likewise, it leaves out certain new sports (known as "action sports" such as skateboarding, BMX, surfing, or Parkour) in which the pursuit of records and even the quanitifcation of achievement is imply not very significant if it is present at all. Once again, examining a definition critically reveals that the definition may tell us more about the culture it comes from than about sports.  This leads Carrington and Andrews to consider (pp. 9-10) whether the line between "sports" and (mere) "play" is really as easy to draw and as stable as we might assume before we stop to think about it.

 

THINK ABOUT: How you would define sport?  Write out a definition.  Now see if you can apply the same critical method Carrington and Andrews used to your own definition.   What activities that others might consider sports does your definition exclude? What assumptions does you definition make? Why do you think you made those assumptions? 

 

In concluding these "definition observations," Carrington and Andrews propose that instead of assuming a given definition to be a true one, we who are studying sports should include as part of our work a consideration of  such questions as: who defines what does and does not count as sport in a given culture, society, or era? how have they acquired this power and how to do they maintain it? what challenges are there to this definition?  How are the struggles to define sport related to other struggles in that society?  They conclude this section by quoting sociologist Richard Gruneau who proposed that we should undertake:

 

"'the study of play, games, and sports in the context of understanding the historical struggle over the control of rules and resources in social life, and the ways in which this struggle relates to structured limits and possibilities.'" (10)

 

Before moving on to the third section of the essay, in which Carrington and Andrews describe the various parts and chapters of their anthology, I'd like you to pause for a moment so that I can direct your attention to certain key words that have come up already just in the first ten pages of the reading. I'll be referring to these terms frequently throughout the term.  You can find them in the network of thoughts called "Keywords" in the concept map above. But they are important enough to merit special attention here.

 

Let me begin just by listing  "sports" and the three pedicates of sports from the title and first section of their essay:

 

  1. sports
  2. escape
  3. struggle
  4. art

That's a good starting point.  Now from the second section of the essay in which they reflected on issues of defining sports, a number of new terms appeared as well, which we can add to our list.  

 

  1. sports
  2. escape (as one of the functions of sport)
  3. struggle (as one of the functions of sport)
  4. art (as one of the functions of sport)
  5. language (since we struggle with the meaning of these words)
  6. play (as an element of sport and as an activity in its own right)
  7. culture (as a specific human context for sport)
  8. global (not their term, but culture as they used it implies an awareness that there are different cultures around the world, that they interact with each other in different ways, including through the spread and diffusion of sports as well as through the struggle to define sports)
  9. autonomy (within struggle, the impulse to govern oneself)
  10. authority (within sturggle, the impulse to govern others)
  11. body (as a key instrument for sports activity and for artistic expression in sports)
  12. creativity (as an element of sports)
  13. organization (or institutions, which oversee some sports, especially modern Western sport)
  14. competition (as an element of some sports, especially modern Western sports)
  15. rules (which structure sporting activities, including competition)
  16. goals (which orient sporting activities and may include excelence, or external rewards)

 

  • III. Sports Matter: A Companion to Sport (pp. 10-14)

 

PRO TIP: With any book, but especially with an anthology (a collection of essays by different authors gathered together in a single volume by an editor or editors), the preface or introduction usually provides an overview of the contents that is like a table of contents, but with short descriptions indicating the main ideas of each essay and how they fit together.  Reading this can help you orient yourself in the volume as a whole, within specific essays, but especially, as we are doing here, in relation to a field of study.

 

Carrington and Andrews begin their overview of the anthology's 6 parts and 34 chapters by reminding us that "sports" and "politics" are deeply interconnected in various forms.  First, we can "view societal problems reflected in the sports we play and watch."  Second, "individuals, communities, and even societies themselves come to understand who they are through sports."  This is the case not only in international competition, but even within regions and localities.  With this assertion of the belief that "sports matter" they move on to their overview, which is worth reading primarily for the overview of the field that it will give us, for its introduction of varying perspetives on and important issues within global sports cultures, and for giving us a few more "Keywords."

 

Part One: Sporting Structures and Historical Formations, the authors promise, lays out "the big picture as to why and in what ways sports matter, and the relationship of sport to questions of history, globalization, media, class, the body, race, gender, health, and the environment." (10-11)

 

Part Two: Bodies and Identities (11) focuses on the obvious fact that sports depends to an unusual degree among human activities on a self-conscious use and development of the human body.  "But," the authors write, "certain bodies and body types are often afforded a privileged status over others."  Accordingly, some scholars are interested in questions of "how we read and perceive other bodies, how we shape and think about our own bodies (and therefore our identities), and the ways in which social relations impact the body."  Taken together, scholars refer to these as issues of "embodiment."

 

If Part One looked at the big picture of how social categories intersect with sports, and Part Two looked at how society and sports converge on the most personal element of sports: our bodies, then Part Three looks at politics and struggle or, in the authors' words, "how sport in different locations and spaces becomes a conduit for political beliefs, ideologies, and social change" (11-12).

 

Part Four: Cultures, Subcultures, and (Post) Sport looks at how cultural dimensions of sports may shape and be shaped by all of the factors accounted for in the first three parts: social categories, embodiment, and politics and space.  Scholars here are particularly interested in how "a range of cultural practices and leisure activities" are "reshaping how we define and understand sport today." (12)

 

Part Five shifts gears from those often marginalized activities that challenge prevailing images of sport to what the authors call the "mega-events and spectacles" that command the most investment and attention in global sports cultures today (13).  The main issues in "Sport, Mega-events, and Spectacle" involve how through such massive events as World Cups, Super Bowls, and Olympiads (among others), sports become the means through which struggles over collective identities, cultures, and resources are waged, often both obscuring and revealing tensions within a society.

 

Finally, Part Six moves from the mega-events to the superstar athletes who perform in them:  "Sporting Celebrities/Cultural Icons" studies "the myriad ways in which 'stars,' 'celebrities,' and 'icons' are made by the sports/media complex and how 'reading' sports stars can give us an insight into wider social issues related to class, race, gender, sexuality, and national identity." (13-14).

 

This brief overview has introduced a number of new terms:  structure, historical formation, bodies, identies, spaces, politics, subcultures, post-sports, mega-events, spectacle, celebrity, icons.  But rather than add them all, we can form a smaller number of groups each of which include several of these.  For example,  "bodies," "celebrities," "identities" and "icons" all seem to refer to individual athletic performers or to those who watch them, the spectators.  "Mega-events," "spectacle," "spaces"seem to refer to athetic events (and of course to athletes and spectators).  "Subcultures" and "post-sports" suggest to me the edges or margins of the sporting world, which could refer in turn back either to performers or events or spectators.  Finally, structures and historical formations seem to refer to the ways that sports form part of society.

 

Here is our list of keywords from before, but with the new Keywords: athlete, spectator, event, and society added in.

 

  1. sports
  2. escape 
  3. struggle 
  4. art 
  5. language
  6. play 
  7. culture 
  8. global 
  9. autonomy
  10. authority
  11. body 
  12. creativity
  13. organization 
  14. competition
  15. rules 
  16. goals
  17. athletes
  18. spectators
  19. events
  20. society

Finally, there are some slightly more specific terms that reeappear in several contexts in their overview.  They refer to social institutions, categories, or factors that impact sports in every other aspect and therefore shape the way in which we study sports.  So we'll add those as well.

 

  1. sports
  2. escape
  3. struggle
  4. art
  5. language
  6. play
  7. culture
  8. global
  9. autonomy
  10. authority
  11. body
  12. creativity
  13. organization 
  14. competition 
  15. rules 
  16. goals 
  17. athletes
  18. spectators
  19. events
  20. society
  21. media
  22. class
  23. race
  24. gender
  25. nation
  26. environment

THINK ABOUT: This list of 26 Keywords.  It may seem like a lot to take in.  They are very broad, and there are a lot of them.  I don't expect you to memorize the list or definitions.  I want you to think of them as a kind of tool kit you'll be able to return to everytime you are faced with a sporting situation that you are trying to understand.  Like any set of tools, we understand them best by practicing our use of them.  The dictionary definition of a hammer can provide us with a certain kind of valuable understanding of what a hammer is and can do.  But this is in no way superior to (and in some ways is inferior to) the kind of understanding of a hammer that we acquire by picking one up and experimenting with it.  

 

Faced with a news item or personal experience in the world of sports, you might first consult the Keywords asking simply: "do any of these terms have anything to do with what I'm encountering here?"  From there, you might use the concept map above.  Start with one of the words that struck you as most relevant to the sporting situation you were thinking about. Then begin to trace the links the concept map provides leading it to other Keywords, reading materials, topics, etc...  Before long, you'll probably find that 1) that you are thinking much more deeply and broadly about the sports situation you began with and 2) that you have a better understanding of the meaning and potential function of the Keywords above.

 

I strongly recommend you try this now.  Just think of the first "sports thing" that comes to mind.  Now go to Keywords section of the concept map and click on the first Keyword you see that strikes you as somehow related to the "sports thing" you thought of.  Then just play around: experiment, bounce across the links to other concepts, different course focal points, reading materials, and so forth. But as you play around, just make a quick note on a scrap of paper of your journey through the concept map.  You'll wind up with a list.

 

Think about what that list means to you.  Just think about it.

 

  • IV. References (pp. 14-16)

 

In this case, references refer to the materials that Carrington and Andrews drew upon or cited directly in composing their essay.  

 

PRO TIP: The citations and references in a work can be enormously useful.  Not only do they show us that the authors are complying with their ethical responsibility to indicate where they have used the ideas of others, but they also show us where to go if we want to know more about specific ideas.  In this way, they can save us time.  Particularly, if I find myself strongly sympathetic to a particular author, I find then that the references he or she has already consulted on a topic are usually a very valuable starting point for my own research on the topic. 

 

  • V. Further Reading (p. 16)

 

 

PRO TIP: As the authors point out, dictionaries, general or specific, are an excellent reference point.  Moreover, scholars in different disciplines often use common words in slightly different ways from what you may be used to (or else invent new technical words).  One of these dictionaries can help you avoid frustration and save time in your studies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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