A Sociological Account of Sport: Critical Findings
Any study of sport that is not a study of the society in which that sport is located is a study performed out of context. In order to make sense of society—and how sport both reflects and reinforces societal structures and subcultures—one must bring to bear theoretical insight and empirical inquiry of the kind described in this chapter. The facts about sport and society do not speak for themselves, and sociological theories help us both make sense of our observations and develop analysis and explanations for the patterns we observe. The interplay between theory and evidence lies at the heart of the sociological imagination, which seeks to make sense of history, biography, and social structures (Sugden & Tomlinson, 2002). Hence, the study of sport sheds light both on the subcultures of particular sports and on the society in which they are located. Through the seemingly mundane and unserious aspects of sport, the sociologist can see serious aspects of society and the human condition.
This power can be illustrated with reference to the role and significance of champions in sport. What is it to be a sporting champion, and why do champions mean so much to people in various cultures and civilizations, both Western and non-Western? A champion usually refers to someone who is the first among all contestants or competitors, and in this regard the term refers to the ability of an individual or team to win a contest. Yet the origin of the word, in English, indicates a different usage and offers a clue to why champions are so much more important to us than their sheer ability to win and why people attach such meaning to them. The word’s first usage emerged in the context of the medieval tournament—where the warrior would act as a champion of others and would defend, or champion, a cause (Hughson, 2009). Athletes, then, are not simply champions of their sport but also of their local community, nation, and, sometimes, humanity as a whole. One example is the American boxer Muhammad Ali. A champion is said to possess special gifts and exude a certain charisma: He or she performs a kind of miracle by achieving the seemingly impossible. Athletes become modern heroes—symbolic representations of contemporary cultural values and who some people would wish to be. Champions are talented individuals, but as heroes they are people whose lives tell stories to fellow citizens and to people from other nations (Huizinga, 1955).
People from diverse cultures appreciate excellence and desire to achieve it or at least share in it. Champions, by representing communities or nations, make people vicariously fulfilled human beings. They are framed as modern heroes because sport has become a forum in which communal self-revelation occurs. That is, modern sport is viewed by some sociologists as a form of surrogate religion and popular theater in which occurs the communal discovery of who people think they are. Sport stadiums are contemporary venues in which champions are observed by spectators or watched by viewers: People thus experience sacred moments of exciting significance while seemingly leaving behind the profaneness of ordinary life. In this sense, society needs its champions as heroes. They perform the manifest function of achieving sporting success for themselves and their local community and nation. But they also perform a more latent role: They are meant to embody the elements that a society values most. As idealized creations, they provide inspiration, motivation, direction, and meaning for people’s lives. Champions as heroes act to unify a society, bringing people together with a common sense of purpose and values. That is how modern sport developed. Pioneers in the 19th century linked sport to Western muscular Christianity in terms of unselfishness, self-restraint, fairness, gentlemanliness, and moral excellence. This in itself supplemented traditional notions of chivalry such as honor, decency, courage, and loyalty. These qualities are some of the very attributes associated with what people describe as “true” champions. Yet, reality also intrudes into this setting.
That is, threats exist to the manifest and latent functions of champions as heroes. These threats stem from issues associated with authenticity and integrity. The status of the champion relies upon the authenticity of the contest; if the contest is tarnished by corruption, cheating, drug taking, or betting scandals, then the hero is diminished in our eyes. The contest is no longer either a mutual quest for excellence or society’s forum in which communal self-revelation occurs. Authenticity is also lost when a sport becomes too make-believe, is rigged, or becomes too predictable. Professional wrestling may produce so-called champions, but they are not taken seriously, and they are not heroes. In addition, if the champion represents a state system that the people do not support, then their respect is withheld; alternatively, athletes can become signs of resistance and offer glimpses of a different social system or different social values (Dyck, 2000).
A champion can, as hero, embody the elements that a society holds most dear, but his or her integrity can be undermined in several ways. Champions may be flawed geniuses—either because they suffer from hubris and feel they need not dedicate themselves to the required level and intensity of preparation and performance or because their private lives intrude on their status as heroes. Whatever the cause, society’s idealized image of them as athletes can be shattered; the cyclist Lance Armstrong is a case in point. In addition, our champion may be less a hero and more a celebrity—famous but not heroic. David Beckham’s media representation may be seen in this light, though even here his status appears to oscillate between celebrity and hero. In such a case, fame is short lived, and the athlete fails one of the tests of a true champion as hero—the test of time. Indeed, a celebrity sport star can be famous yet be neither a champion nor a hero, and thus be easily forgotten. In order to understand why champions mean so much and what effect they have, the role that sport plays in society has to be considered (Horne, Tomlinson, Whannel, & Woodward, 2012). This is where sociological theory helps and why insights from this subdiscipline are crucial to developing a rich understanding of sport and society (Coakley, 2004; Tomlinson, 2005, 2007).