What is the greatest Sports Myth

A few months back, at the annual conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS), distinguished scholar Jay Coakley introduced his talk with a depressing parable about sport in American society. In his hometown of Fort Collins the local university, Colorado State, had concocted a plan for a new $220-million football stadium, with all the usual, faith-based promises of jobs, community spirit, prestige, and donations. Coakley, drawing on his broad knowledge of sport, higher education, and community development, contributed to a local opposition. He explained that the empirical support for a pay-off from huge investments in college football is scant to non-existent. Yet despite this evidence and his credentials as one of the nation’s leading sport sociologists, Coakley’s perspective – and that of the local opposition – was promptly dismissed. In December the Colorado State University board, in the midst of a long period of broad budget cuts for higher education, gave final approval for its new stadium.

Why are critical perspectives, even when based on solid data, so easy to dismiss in American sports culture? Coakley himself told his stadium story as a way of emphasizing the power of what he calls ‘The Great Sport Myth’ – the widespread assumption, built on both raw emotional attachments and personal interests (with a boost from the enormity of sports as a business), that sport is inherently pure and good, that this purity and goodness are transmitted to those who play or consume sport, and that sport inevitably leads to individual and community development. The implication of the Great Sport Myth is: “There is NO need to study and analyze sport critically, because it is already as it should be.”

The problem is that when you look through sociological lenses, or really any analytic lens that includes a modicum of critical thinking, you quickly realize that sport by itself actually does nothing. Sport is, however, enacted and given meaning in ways that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and quite often profoundly complex combinations of both. For every community that has rallied together around an inspirational team, there is a community that has been torn apart by blind allegiances. For every individual that has been empowered by participation in sport, there is another that has been further marginalized by the ways that class, race, and gender are structurally embedded in our sportscape.

And herein lies the rub: the type of informed critical analysis offered by sport sociologists can help explain those contradictions and, at its best, lead to positive change. But it doesn’t seem to be working.

I’ve long admired the work of sport sociologists from a tentative distance, and have dipped my toes in the field in my own scholarly work on sports and development. In November of 2014 their annual meetings came to my town (Portland, Oregon), and I had my first chance to fully immerse. The experience reinforced both my respect for the lenses sport sociologists have to offer as well as my concerns that those lenses are not making enough of a difference – damned by the general inaccessibility of academia, the all-to-common sullenness of critical theory, and the suffocating power of the Great Sports Myth.

Take, for example, a pair of excellent sessions at the NASSS conference addressing the sports business behemoth Nike. The conference program explained: “In line with the meeting’s overarching theme of ‘Intellectual Activism’ and its location in Portland, Oregon, these panels use Nike as an empirical point of departure to explore how sport scholars and activists can generate and disseminate ‘useful knowledge’ in pursuit of social justice.” The sessions addressed issues ranging from labor practices to marketing and mascoting, offering comprehensive and diverse perspectives with the potential to constructively inform one of the most powerful players in the sports world. The only thing missing was anyone from Nike. We in the audience were told that the organizers had made multiple efforts to involve someone from Nike in a panel, and several of the presenters spoke with frustration about trying to get Nike people to talk. But even though we were just miles from Nike’s world headquarters, it was futile – the company with the actual power to make change had no interest in engaging with sociologists.

Not only did the sociologists have trouble bringing their message to the corporate world, they sometimes can’t even get fellow academics to listen. For instance, a panel titled “Coaching at the Crossroads: Intersections between Sport Psychology and Sport Sociology” included perspectives from scholars and practitioners who bridge the fields of sociology and psychology. The panel offered a lively discussion of how sociological perspectives can be a valuable complement to the more mainstream performance-enhancement techniques of sport psychology – offering ways to reflectively engage with opportunities and quality experiences beyond just short-term outcomes. In the midst of that conversation one of the panelists mentioned that they had proposed a similar session for a recent meeting of sport psychology scholars. The proposed session was summarily rejected. Even many psychologists, it seems, aren’t interested in sociological lenses.

In fact, the academic study of sport is doing fairly well in fields like psychology, which tend to be less challenging to the Great Sport Myth. Probably the most relevant example to sociology is the proliferation of academic programs offering degrees in “sports management” or “sports administration.” A Chicago Tribune article noted that the number of sports management programs at American universities rose from 20 in 1980 to around 300 in 2010. In contrast, a history of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport noted that during a brief period of expansion in the 1980s there were at least eight American universities offering Ph.D. programs specializing in Sport Sociology. Those are now all gone, with a few replaced by a minor in Sport Sociology “under the guise of Sport Management.”

While there is a strain of sport management that takes a critical sociological perspective, the field as a whole is clearly more oriented to capitalizing on the raw popularity of sport and the Great Sport Myth. In contrast, as Andrew Yiannakis, Merrill Menick, and Troy Morgan (the authors of the history of NASSS) note, “Sport Sociologists are often seen in the public eye as ‘sport haters.’ Given the fact that we live in a society in which sport is perceived to play a significant and positive role in the lives of many, it is not surprising that the Sport Sociologist’s critique often falls on hostile, if not deaf ears.”

All hope is not lost. There is an ongoing effort among the sport sociologists to balance critical perspectives with more constructive engagement, and there have been significant calls for a more “public” sociology of sport (Sut Jhally’s keynote address at the 2014 NASSS meetings was even titled “Beyond the Ivory Tower: Public Pedagogy in a Time of Collapse”). There are also important voices in the new media that draw on critical sociological perspectives. Most prominent in American media is Dave Zirin, who invokes sociological concepts such as intersectionality and structural inequality in discussing popular sports events. In 2008 he published a piece in the American Sociological Association’s magazine Contexts titled “Calling Sports Sociology Off the Bench,” and his weekly podcast has had an occasional segment titled “Ask a Sport Sociologist.”

Overall, however, the data often seem to suggest that it is futile to fight the Great Sports Myth. No amount of scholarly, evidence-based critique stops white elephant stadiums from breaking ground, and the complexities of sport as a cultural phenomenon continue to go unrecognized by the mainstream sports industry. But I remain convinced that sports culture really would be a better place if a robust sport sociology could convince us otherwise.