views updated May 11 2018


Children's play and children's games have always been an important part of a culture. The role and social significance of that play, however, varied according to its historical context. Often the games and play were just that"play" for the purpose of pleasure, entertainment, and diversion. When given unstructured time or even during their daily chores, children likely throughout history have created games that involved footraces and throwing contests or that otherwise mimicked the adult activity around them, all of which could be considered sport.

Youth Sport in the Ancient World and Medieval Europe

Sometimes games were designed to teach socially approved gender roles, to indicate maturation, and to teach skills necessary for future survival of the individual and the culture. Some African tribes encouraged pubescent girls to wrestle each other as part of the ritual initiation into adulthood. The Diola of Gambia promoted physical strength by encouraging the male and female wrestling champions to marry. Boys in ancient Greece were encouraged to attend the Olympic Games, and races for the younger boys were sometimes organized separately. Girls of the time had their own games: they participated in the female version of the Olympics, the Hera Games. Spartan children were encouraged to compete in track-and-field and to participate in mock battle events to become stronger and more competent adults. Boys in the Roman civilization were similarly expected to begin their training as youngsters, competing in games and individual sports.

The Christians of medieval European society, however, cared less for sport than their predecessors in imperial Rome and ancient Greece. As a result, games and play in the Middle Ages were more childish diversions than socially promoted means of teaching appropriate behavior. But children and adults did play games, despite the concern of the church that sports created a dangerous focus on the physical body that might distract the individual from the importance of the salvation of the soul. For example, large games of medieval folk football involved many adults and children of the town. Girls and milkmaids also played a game called stoolball, a variation of the sports that would later evolve into baseball and cricket. The European ambivalence towards such activities continued for centuries despite King James I of England's Declaration of Sports (also called the Book of Sports). This proclamation encouraged lawful recreation among children and adults and was opposed by the religious Puritans.

Early North American Sports

When the Puritans arrived in the New World of North America, they continued their tradition of intolerance of games and sports. Their encounters with the indigenous Native Americans, who attached religious significance to their organized sports and limited participation to adults, served to harden the Puritans' conviction that sport, even among children, would endanger the immortal soul. The lack of organized or team sports for children among both Native Americans and Puritans in North America did not mean that children there did not engage in play. However, the adults

did not provide structured sports in the ways that had been common in the Old World and that would become widespread beginning in the 1800s.

Although few organized sports existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the northern colonies of America, the southern regions had a greater emphasis on outdoor activity and less of a Puritan focus on the soul. Almost all southern boys and many southern girls were taught to ride horses and to hunt wild game, both as a means of survival and as a kind of sport in races and competitions. While northerners in the late eighteenth century had developed harness racing as an organized sport, signifying their appreciation of equestrian events, the role of boys in this sport was generally limited to that of exercisers and grooms.

Clubs and the Turner Movement

Organized sports and team sports for adults seem to have evolved throughout America in the early-and mid-nineteenth century. Private athletic clubs were formed around sports like fishing, archery, and rowing. In 1860 men and boys formed cricket clubs in about 100 different cities in the United States. Many of these clubs were intended for the wealthy, but later athletic clubs would be organized around ethnic lines, as a place for immigrants to preserve their culture and language as well as their sports.

In the early nineteenth century, social reformers noticed that young men and boys who worked in factories and lived in the cities lacked the physical health and stamina of their rural counterparts. Accordingly, they founded private gymnasiums and promoted the Turner movement. A key figure in this undertaking was Friedrich Jahn, a Prussian who combined German culture with gymnastics (the word Turner derives from the German term that means to perform gymnastics). In 1842, Jahn's Turner exercises were incorporated into German education for boys, but beginning as early as the 1830s in America, Jahn's transplanted students taught gymnastics in private gyms for boys and college-age youth.

In that same era, collegiate sports began on an informal level in the United States, and after the Civil War's conclusion, professional leagues for baseball were established. Although organized youth sports had not yet appeared, club sports and professional sports provided a model for youngsters, both native-born and immigrants, and they played these games in their own space and their own manner. Sporting experiences differed among the different cultures, based in part on race, class, and nationality.

Muscular Christianity

The evolution of youth sports stemmed in part from the rise of "Muscular Christianity." Victorian leaders in both England and America feared that boys, in particular, were too physically frail to become effective and powerful leaders. Thomas Arnold, the headmaster at the Rugby School in England from 1828 to 1842, organized team sports for his male students in order to build strong physical bodies. The activities also served to keep the boys occupied, tired, and away from the temptations of alcohol and prostitutes, which Arnold feared would corrupt their souls and their ability to effectively lead. The Rugby headmaster was the first modern educator to actively link physical education with the education of the mind. Arnold's model was lauded and ultimately subscribed to by leading American social reformers.


The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in England in 1844 and appeared in the United States in 1851. The YMCA was initially intended to provide a refuge for boys and young men, particularly those of lower-class or immigrant status, who were seen as being at risk from the non-Christian temptations that were common in large cities. Within twenty-five years, over 260 YMCA gyms were established across America, encouraging young men to play baseball and football, lift weights, row, swim, and otherwise build healthy bodies. By 1895 the YMCA had adopted as an emblem an inverted triangle to emphasize the three parts of a fully developed man: mind, body, and spirit. Although a Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) would appear in the late 1870s, the YWCA did not have the same emphasis on athletics, offering only a few gymnastics programs based on German and Swedish models.

The YMCA organization would create several new American sports. In 1891 young James Naismith, an instructor at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, was asked to create a game that could be played indoors during the winter, and he invented basketball. Naismith did not specify that the game would be for males only, and female physical educators quickly adopted the game but modified it to a less strenuous six-on-six version that minimized exertion. William Morgan, another YMCA physical director in Massachusetts, created volleyball, and the game was quickly incorporated into physical education programs across the country.

Playground Movement

Linked to Muscular Christianity was the playground movement, based on the belief of many reformers that youth sports could be used as a way to Americanize immigrant youth, to lower crime rates, and to exert social control over the working classes and the poor. Many philanthropists had worried that poor urban children without supervision, fresh air, and a place to play would turn to crime. As a result, beginning in the late 1890s a number of urban parks and playgrounds were founded through private land donations in conjunction with public rezoning. Originally, playgrounds were supervised by volunteers, but around the turn of the twentieth century, educators began to recognize the value of sports as a control mechanism, and many communities began to hire adults to organize games and activities for the children. The Boston School Committee, for example, began supervising playgrounds because they considered it an appropriate function of the public schools.

Collegiate Sports and Physical Education

Collegiate sports began informally in the mid 1800s. Students at Yale and Harvard began rowing against each other in the 1840s, and in 1859, about ten years after the appearance of baseball, two other New England colleges formed club teams and played against the other with some regularity. These events would lay the groundwork for the vibrant collegiate sports scene that continues today. Collegiate athletics first gained widespread popularity in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, when more and more teams began to participate in a variety of sports. President Theodore Roosevelt served as a link between Muscular Christianity and collegiate sports. Roosevelt was himself an avid outdoorsman and the product of rigorous physical training as a boy. He strongly supported youth and collegiate sports, believing that every boy should participate in athletics to build strength of body and of character. His leadership would be critical in 1905, when collegiate football was most at risk. The popular American sport had evolved in part from rugby and, in its early form, was extremely rough and dangerous. After a number of deaths, collegiate leaders were encouraged by Roosevelt to meet in order to decide if the game should be banned, but instead they were able to agree upon a number of rule changes to better protect the players. In 1910 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed to oversee the growing number of college athletic conferences. Aside from brief declines during the two world wars, participation in college athletics grew throughout the twentieth century and became culturally significant not just on college campuses but across the country, especially in its popularity among spectators.

Women's collegiate sports originally grew out of physical education departments. Early teachers in the programs were concerned about the risks to young women from overstrenuous activities and the dangers of excessive competition. As a result, college women often played variations of the games played by the men. Teachers also promoted gymnastics and calisthenics rather than sports and encouraged intramural games rather than intervarsity competitions.

Female college students enjoyed sports, however, and African-American women, in particular, were encouraged to compete in track-and-field events at several schools. Throughout the mid 1900s, the United States national women's track-and-field team was dominated by African-American collegians. The rise of the women's rights movement and the enactment of Title IX in 1972 had a profound affect on women's collegiate sports. As a result of the law, female college athletes received better facilities, coaches, and greater access to sports, and the result has been an unprecedented rate of female participation in college athletics. Like their male counterparts, female athletes are part of the business of college sports, which is based on public spectatorship through television and in-person attendance.

School-Age Physical Education

Physical education in the schools began in the 1830s with the appointment of Dr. Charles Beck, a student of the Turner movement, to the faculty of the Round Hill School in Massachusettsthe first physical-education teacher in America. In addition to gymnastics, Beck also taught his students to swim, skate, wrestle, and dance. His work was a model for other schools that chose to teach calisthenics and gymnastics to both their boys and girls in order to build their health. Often the exercises were led in the classroom by the classroom teacher rather than by a specialized physical education instructor. However, as more colleges embraced physical education in the early twentieth century, they began training young people who then employed in the schools specifically to teach sporting and recreational activities.

After World War I, when many American leaders had been concerned by the physical inadequacies of the early troops, several states passed laws requiring that physical education be taught in the schools. Although most of these laws focused only on boys, a few states required that girls also receive similar instruction. Some of these programs were dropped during the Great Depression. As a result, there were renewed concerns about the fitness of American troops during World War II, and increased attention was paid to physical education thereafter.

Moreover, the growth of suburban areas in America after World War II resulted in a shift from the traditional focus on physical education in an urban school setting and instead placed new emphasis on suburbia. In both urban and suburban schools physical education included not just calisthenics but games and sports.

School Athletic Organizations

When boys in the 1890s began playing sports, they simply organized their own high school teams, much like their collegiate counterparts had, and the teams began first in urban areas. Luther Halsey Gulick Jr., formerly the director of the YMCA Training School, became the director of physical training for the New York City public schools in 1903. A great believer in the need for physical development to match moral development, Gulick understood that organized sport could be more beneficial for boys than gymnastics and calisthenics alone. He formed the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), which promoted interscholastic competition in sports such as rifle shooting. A girls' division was later created, but it did not allow interscholastic competition.

Adult supervision of high school team sports began at roughly the same time. Some football programs at the turn of the twentieth century were facing the same problems as the collegiate programs of the timea large number of injuries and instances of preferential treatment for athletes and the use of "ringers" (skilled outsiders added to teams to improve performance). In 1902 high school educators across the country met to increase their authority over interscholastic athletics, and by 1923 all but three states had established statewide interscholastic athletic associations. Like most reformist movements, organized high school sports were intended to control the energized mass of students and focus their attention on academics rather than sex and hooliganism. High school sports also formed a bond among students, both athletes and spectators, and helped give the local community an identity. Further, as educators in the 1970s began to impose academic minimums for athletic participation, sports became a motivator for better performance in the classrooms.

Sports opportunities for high school girls were limited in the beginning. A few states had widespread participation in certain high school sports. Oklahoma and Iowa, for example, had extensive and very popular high school girls' basketball programs, but the girls still played six-on-six ball until the 1980s. However, Title IX and the women's rights movement greatly increased the opportunities for high school girls, just as they had for collegiate women, and their participation rates grew dramatically beginning in the 1970s.

Youth Sports Leagues

In the twentieth century more and more private organizations began organizing and sponsoring youth sport leagues for childrenboys, in particular. One of the first was established in 1930 with the foundation of the Catholic Youth Organization. Immediately it launched basketball and boxing tournaments for Catholic boys in order to combine religious and physical instruction. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, other church leagues were formed, and there were also a growing number of publicly funded community leagues. Organized sports were available for children as young as age four and five in many areas of the country.

Little League Baseball, Inc., the largest youth sports program, was founded in 1939. Throughout its history, Little League Baseball has had an extensive participation rate around the world and an organizational structure modeled so closely after professional baseball that the season culminates in a Little League World Series. In its first few decades, Little League Baseball drew boys of all ages, but girls were usually excluded. In 1974, after a series of lawsuits had been filed against Little League Baseball and other similar youth baseball leagues, Little League Baseball officially opened the dugout to girls. At the same time, however, Little League Softball came into being, and girls were often encouraged to join that league instead. Today, some girls play on Little League Baseball teams but more play Little League Softball. A few boys, in turn, have played on the Little League Softball teams. Parental involvement in Little League has also been extensive and, to a degree, notorious. In the 1960s and 1970s some Little League parents (especially fathers) earned the reputation of being loud, abusive types who pushed their children too hard and threatened coaches, umpires, and opposing players.

Little League Baseball was a model for other youth sports organizations that were founded after World War II and expanded over the next thirty years. These included Pee-Wee and Pop Warner Football, Pee-Wee and Midget Hockey, and Biddy Basketball. Until the 1970s, when the courts ordered the leagues opened to girls, most of these programs were for boys only. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) offered programs in track-and-field, wrestling, skiing, and swimming, which were divided by age group. Again, many of these were initially aimed at boys more than girls, but the swimming program was always coeducational. The hockey programs popular in large, northern cities, limited by a lack of ice time, have been criticized for having practice times for four-and five-year-olds that take place too late at night and too early in the morning. Many of these programs have also suffered adversely from excessive parental involvement. Parents have been convicted of assault, battery, and manslaughter for their behavior at the sporting events of their children.

In the 1960s the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) was founded and marketed partly as an alternative to Little League Baseball and that organization's sometimes overinvolved parents. Soccer was a relatively new sport to the United States, and fathers did not have the same emotional attachment to the game as they did to baseball and football. As a result, girls were encouraged to play from the very beginning of the AYSO. The league marketed itself as being kinder and gentler than Little League Baseball, emphasizing the lack of parental involvement and the active participation of all children on the team. "Every player's a quarterback" was the unofficial AYSO slogan. The popularity of youth soccer has grown dramatically since its inception, though it too has experienced some of the same problems with overenthusiastic parents that were previously identified with other sports. Nonetheless, parental involvementsometimes supportive and constructive, sometimes excessive and negativeremains a large factor in youth sports.

See also: GutsMuths, J. C. F.; Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; YWCA and YMCA.


Berryman, Jack W. 1996. "The Rise of Boys' Sports in the United States, 1900 to 1970." In Children and Youth in Sport: A Biopsychosocial Perspective, ed. Frank L. Smoll and Ronald E. Smith. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark Publishers.

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Dunning, Eric, and Kenneth Sheard. 1979. Barbarians, Gentlemen, and Players. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fields, Sarah K. 2000. "Female Gladiators: Gender, Law, and Contact Sport in America." Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa.

Garnham, Neal. 2001. "Both Praying and Playing: 'Muscular Christianity' and the YMCA in North-East County Durham." Journalof Social History 35: 397409.

Gorn, Elliott, and Warren Goldstein. 1993. A Brief History of American Sports. New York: Hill and Wang.

Guttmann, Allen. 1988. A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Guttmann, Allen. 1991. Women's Sport: A History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kerrigan, Colm. 2000. "'Thoroughly Good Football': Teachers and the Origins of Elementary School Football." History of Education 29: 517542.

Rader, Benjamin G. 1999. American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, 4th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Swanson, Richard A., and Betty Spears. 1995. History of Sport and Physical Education in the United States, 4th ed. Dubuque, IA: Brown and Benchmark Publishers.

Wiggins, David K. 1996. "A History of Highly Competitive Sport for American Children." In Children and Youth in Sport: A Biopsy-chosocial Perspective, ed. Frank L. Smoll and Ronald E. Smith. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark Publishers.

Sarah K. Fields


views updated May 23 2018


SPORTS. Sport in America began as premodern participatory contests of strength, skill, and speed that were unorganized local competitions with simple rules. However, as the nation modernized, sport became highly organized with formalized rules and national competition. Sport became commercialized with expert athletes entertaining paying spectators.

The first sportsmen were Native Americans, who competed for religious, medicinal, and gambling purposes. They had running races, but were best known for team ball sports like lacrosse, which had over forty variations. The colonists defined sports broadly to include all diversions. Colonial amusement reflected their European backgrounds, including social class and religion, and their new surroundings in America. Puritans brought their opposition to pagan and Catholic holidays, Sabbath breaking, and time-wasting amusements. They barred brutal sports, gambling games, and amusements that promoted disorder, but advocated useful activities like wolf hunting, fishing, and training-day (military practice) contests like wrestling and marksmanship. The more heterogeneous colonies had more options. New York, with its Dutch heritage, had bowling, kolven (golf), and boat races, and also horseracing after the English took over the colony in 1664. In Philadelphia, control of the community passed from the Quakers to a secular elite who in 1732 tried to separate themselves from lesser sorts by organizing the Schuylkill Fishing Colony, the first sports club in the British Empire.

The South had the most expansive sporting culture. The Anglican Church was more tolerant than the Puritans were, and personal ethics did not prohibit gambling or blood sports. An elite planter class emerged in the late seventeenth century, which tried to emulate the English

country gentry. The great planters originally raced their own horses in impromptu quarter-mile matches and wagered enormous amounts with their peers. By the mid-eighteenth century, they were starting to import expensive Thoroughbreds that competed in long distance races at urban tracks established by elite jockey clubs. This public entertainment helped demonstrate the supposed superiority of the great planters over the masses.

Publicans throughout the colonies were the first sporting entrepreneurs, sponsoring animal baiting, gander pulling, cock fights, skittles (an early form of bowling), shuffleboard, and target shooting to attract thirsty patrons. Moral reformers, particularly evangelical ministers of the Great Awakening, opposed these sports. During the Revolution, many patriots frowned on gambling as unvirtuous and elite sports as aristocratic. The Continental Congress in 1778 recommended that the states suppress racing and "other diversions as are productive of idleness and dissipation."

Antebellum Sport

Sport in the first half of the nineteenth century remained premodern, abhorred by proper Victorians who frowned upon it as immoral and wasteful. The sporting fraternity encompassed a male bachelor subculture, including segments of the elite, skilled butchers, street thugs, volunteer firefighters, and Irish immigrants. They enjoyed blood sports, combat sports like boxing (which was universally banned), and gambling sports. Southern plantation owners employed slaves as cock trainers, jockeys, boxers, and oarsmen.

The leading antebellum sportsman was the industrialist John C. Stevens. He restored Thoroughbred racing to New York in 1823; established the Elysian Fields, the preeminent site of antebellum ball sports, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1831; promoted the first major pedestrian race in 1835; and organized the New York Yacht Club in 1844. Seven years later, Stevens sponsored America, conqueror of the finest British yachts, promoting pride in American naval architecture, craftsmanship, and seamanship.

American sport began a dramatic transformation at midcentury that led to a boom after the Civil War. This was influenced by the processes of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration; by the development of an ideology that created a positive image for sports; and by the rise of new modern games. The ideology of sports was developed by secular Jacksonian reformers—who thought sports could help cope with such negative features of rapid urbanization as soaring crime rates, epidemics, and class conflict—and by religious reformers inspired by the Second Great Awakening, who saw them as a way to fight sin. Both groups believed that participation in exercise and clean sports would improve public health, build character, develop sound morals, and provide an alternative to vile urban amusements. This positive attitude toward sport was supported by the examples of Scottish Caledonian games (traditional track and field contests) and German turnverein (gymnastic societies). Clergymen like Thomas W. Higginson advocated muscular Christianity, the cornerstone of the Young Men's Christian Association movement that harmonized mind, body, and spirit. Health advocates in the 1840s organized the municipal park movement that resulted in the creation of New York's Central Park in 1858. It became a model for large urban parks after the Civil War.

Team sports aptly fit the sports creed. Cricket, a manly and skillful English game, enjoyed a brief fad in the 1840s, but was quickly surpassed by baseball, which had evolved from the English game of rounders. Baseball was simpler, more dramatic, faster paced, and took less time to play. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright drew up the modern rules for his middle-class Knickerbockers club. Early teams were voluntary associations of middle-income men, principally in metropolitan New York, although the game spread quickly along the Atlantic seaboard. Teams were organized by occupation, neighborhood, or political party. The top New York teams organized the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1858 to define rules, resolve disputes, and control the sport's future.

The Late-Nineteenth-Century Sports Boom

The sports explosion was directly abetted by the technological revolution. Communication innovations like telegraphy and telephony helped newspapers report events at distant locations. The New York World in the mid-1890s introduced the first sports section. Daily coverage was supplemented by weeklies beginning with the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine (1829) and William T. Porter's urbane Spirit of the Times (1831), which promoted angling and horseracing. Other important periodicals included the National Police Gazette (1845), the New York Clipper (1853), and the Sporting News (1886).

The coming of the railroad enabled athletes to journey to distant sites for competition. This potential was demonstrated in 1852, when, to promote rail travel, the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad sponsored the first American intercollegiate athletic contest, the Harvard-Yale crew race at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Railroads enabled baseball leagues to operate and illegal prizefights to take place at out-of-the-way locations. Cheap urban mass transit, especially electrified streetcars, increased access to sporting venues.

Technological innovations also helped sport in many other ways. Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb improved illumination for indoor events. New equipment was created, such as vulcanized rubber for balls and tires, and new machines made possible cheap, mass-produced sporting goods. The English safety bicycle invented in the late 1880s created a cycling fad among men and women. Riders joined clubs, raced, toured, and attended six-day professional races at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Social class heavily determined sporting opportunities in this era. The elite, who emulated the English gentry, had the wealth, time, and self-confidence to indulge themselves. They used expensive sports to gain recognition and improved their status by joining restricted athletic, jockey, country, and yacht clubs. Elite colleges became centers of intercollegiate competition, beginning with rowing (1852), baseball (1859), football (1869), and track and field (1873). Participation spread by the 1890s to state and private colleges throughout the nation. Competition promoted manliness, school pride, and the reputation of institutions. Student-run associations ran the teams and recruited gifted athletes through financial aid and easy course loads.

The hardworking new middle class finally became involved in sport because of the sports ideology, the creation of clean new sports, and the accessibility of suburban parks where by the mid-1880s they played on baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Their participation in sport demonstrated "manliness" and offered a sense of self-worth and accomplishment lost in their increasingly bureaucratized work. Manual workers' options were hindered by urbanization, which destroyed many traditional outdoor sports facilities; by the arrival of eastern European immigrants with no athletic heritage; and by the factory system, with its strict time-work discipline, low wages, and long working hours. Lower class urbanites were most active in sports that were accessible and fit in with their environment, like boxing, billiards, and basketball. Progressive reformers promoted sports at settlement houses to help inner-city youth acculturate.

Nineteenth-century sport was virtually an exclusive male sphere. Yet, women, mainly elite daughters whose status protected them from criticism, began to participate after the Civil War. Physicians and female physical educators advocated improved fitness for women to make them more attractive and healthier mothers. Young women partook of sociable coed sports like croquet and ice skating, and individual sports like archery, golf, and tennis, the latter introduced to the United States by Mary Outer bridge in 1875. The cycling fad encouraged the development of sports clothes, including bloomers, shorter skirts, and no corsets. Women's colleges taught physical fitness, but female students preferred team sports and intercollegiate competition. Athletic leaders at the turn of the century modified men's sports, especially the new game of basketball, to make them more "appropriate" for women—that is, less exertive and less competitive. Nonetheless, female physical educators opposed intercollegiate sports as creating undesirable manly values like competitiveness and individualism, and in the 1900s, noncompetitive play days supplanted intercollegiate women's sport.

The Rise of Professional Sport

While most nineteenth-century sport was participatory, the era's most significant development was the rise of professional spectator sports, a product of the commercialization of leisure, the emergence of sports entrepreneurs, the professionalization of athletes, the large potential audiences created by urbanization, and the modernization of baseball, boxing, and horseracing. Baseball started to become a business in the 1860s with the hiring of the first paid players, the opening of Brooklyn's Union Grounds, and the 1869 national tour of the all-salaried Cincinnati Red Stockings. The National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the first professional league, was formed in 1871, supplanted by the more business-minded National League (NL) in 1876. The NL's success led to the rise of rivals, most notably the working-class-oriented American Association—which was created in 1882 but merged with the NL the next season. In the 1880s, major league baseball largely developed its modern character, including tactics, rules, and equipment.

Baseball, dubbed the "national pastime," completely dominated the sporting scene in the early 1900s. Not merely fun, its ideology fit prevailing values and beliefs. It was considered a sport of pastoral American origins that improved health, character, and morality; taught traditional rural values; and promoted social democracy and social integration. Baseball's popularity was reflected by the rise of the American League, the growth of the minor leagues from thirteen in 1900 to forty-six in 1912, and the construction of large fire proof ballparks.

Prizefighting was universally banned until the 1890s, when the bare-knuckle era came to an end—marked by Jim Corbett's 1892 victory over heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, the preeminent sports hero of the century. Boxing continued to be permitted in just a few locations until the 1920s, when it was legalized in New York. It then became very popular, with heroes like Jack Dempsey fighting in arenas like Madison Square Garden.

Fighters came from the most impoverished backgrounds, hoping to use boxing to escape poverty. There were a few black champions in the less prestigious lighter weight divisions. However, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (1908–1915) was considered a threat to white supremacy, and there was a crusade to get rid of him. Thereafter, no African American got a heavyweight title shot until Joe Louis, who won the title in 1937. He became a national hero one year later by defeating Max Schmeling, symbol of Nazi Germany. After World War II, boxing was a staple of prime time television, but overexposure and widening public recognition of underworld influences curtailed its success.

Horseracing was rejuvenated after the Civil War under the aegis of politically connected elites. After a successful experiment at Saratoga, New York, in 1863, the American Jockey Club opened New York's Jerome Park (1866), a model for elite courses in Brooklyn; Long Branch, New Jersey; and Chicago. Their success encouraged the rise of proprietary tracks—like those in Brighton Beach, New York, and Guttenberg, New Jersey—run by men closely connected to political machines and syndicate crime. By the early 1900s, every state but Maryland and Kentucky had closed their racetracks, if only temporarily, because of the gambling. In the 1920s, Thoroughbred racing revived because of increasing prosperity, looser morals, ethnic political influence, and underworld influences. Racetrack admissions surpassed admissions for all other sports by the early 1950s, and continued to do so until the early 1980s.

Public interest during the 1920s—the so-called "Golden Age of Sports"—was whetted by increased leisure time and discretionary income, by national radio broadcasts of events like baseball's World Series and heavyweight boxing championships, and by the development of a pantheon of heroes. Every major sport had its great hero, role models who symbolized prowess and traditional and modern values. Idols included Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bobby Jones in golf, and Charles Lindbergh in aeronautics. While women were largely limited to "feminine" sports like tennis, figure skating, and swimming, some female athletes—notably tennis player Helen Wills—also became widely celebrated.

The Great Depression hurt sport, though people still looked to recreation for escape. Commercialized sports declined, but less than most businesses, as companies curtailed industrial sports programs, and colleges cut back on intercollegiate sports, particularly football. On the other hand, the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration constructed thousands of sports fields, swimming pools, and other athletic facilities.

The United States and the Olympics

American athletes at the first Olympics in 1896 came from elite eastern colleges, yet squads in the early 1900s had many working-class ethnic athletes, including Native American Jim Thorpe, gold medalist in the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 games. The first Olympic Games in the United States were held in St. Louis in 1904, but drew only thirteen nations. The 1932 winter games were at Lake Placid, New York, and the summer games in Los Angeles at the Coliseum. The summer games featured the first athletic village. Babe Didrikson starred, winning two gold medals and a silver in track. An all-around talent, she was the greatest female American athlete of the century. Before the 1936 games at Berlin, there was widespread support for a boycott to protest nazism, but the movement failed. The African American Jesse Owens starred, capturing four gold medals in track, yet returned stateside to a racist society.

Post–World War II Sport

Spectator sports grew rapidly in the prosperous 1950s and 1960s. There were more major sports, the number of franchises rose, and television enabled millions to watch live events. Air travel facilitated major league baseball's opening up of new markets in 1953, when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, and again five years later, when the New York Giants and Dodgers moved to the West Coast. The thirty teams in Major League Baseball, the thirty-one teams in the National Football League (NFL), and the twenty-nine in the National Basketball Association (NBA, founded in 1949) were located throughout the country. This expansion was accompanied by the construction of arenas and stadiums by local governments to keep or attract sports franchises. Television broadcasts promoted growing interest in college football, and created a huge boom in professional football during the 1960s. By the early 1980s, twice as many households watched pro football as baseball. Television also increased interest in golf and tennis, making celebrities of golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and tennis player Jimmy Connors. Public tastes were broadened, especially through the American Broadcasting Company's Wide World of Sports, which went on the air in 1961, and became the longest running series on television.

Professional athletes became empowered through their unions. Marvin Miller, president of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which began in the late 1960s to secure higher salary minimums, grievance procedures, increased pensions, and representation by agents. The union secured salary arbitration in 1973 and achieved free agency in 1976. Average salaries in baseball rose from$19,000 in 1967 to $1.4 million in 2001. Nonetheless, the value of sports franchises appreciated, as with the Chicago Cubs, worth $500 million in 2002.

Major college sports prospered after the war. National College Athletic Association (NCAA) football gained lucrative television contracts, and attendance reached forty million by 1970. Basketball, a much lower cost sport, had to recover from the point shaving scandal of 1951. By the early 1970s, however, the NCAA basketball champion-ships became a prime annual television event, along with the World Series; the NFL's Super Bowl, first played in 1966; and car racing's premier event, the Indianapolis 500.

Race was the central issue in postwar sport. From the late nineteenth century, African Americans had been barred from competing against whites in most professional sports. This custom was shattered by the pivotal integration of Major League Baseball following the hiring

of black player Jackie Robinson in 1947, a huge step in the civil rights movement. Pro football had integrated one year earlier, and the NBA followed in 1950. Desegregation resulted from such factors as the Second Great Migration; African American participation in World War II; political pressure from civil rights workers and politicians like New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia; prointegration columns by African American, communist, and mainstream sportswriters; and the outstanding achievements of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Integration moved slowly, and college football teams in the Deep South did not desegregate until the late 1960s. However, in 2002 most players in the NFL, and nearly 80 percent of the NBA, were African Americans, including superstar Michael Jordan, the highest-paid team player of all time.

Women's sports began to boom in the 1970s, as a result of the growing interest of young women in sport, feminism, and improved health, and in reaction to demands for greater American success in international sport. Tennis star Billie Jean King played a major role by demanding equity in prize money, by helping to organize the Virginia Slims circuit in 1971, when she was the first woman athlete to earn over $100,000 in one year, and by defeating misogynist Bobby Riggs in a 1973 nationally televised match. In addition, in 1971, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was established to organize national championships. Then, in 1972, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act barred sexual discrimination by schools and colleges that received federal assistance. Women were thereafter entitled to parity in athletic scholarships, training facilities, and coaching. By 1996, nearly half of all intercollegiate athletes were women.

The postwar Olympics became an adjunct of the Cold War, supposedly reflecting the relative merits of capitalist and communist social and economic systems. The Soviet Union consistently surpassed the United States, and East Germany nearly matched the United States in 1976, and surpassed it in 1988. One reason for the relatively poor U.S. showing was that it originally had weak women's teams, reflecting national support of only "feminine" sports. National track teams relied heavily on women from historically black colleges, among the few institutions that supported women's track. One black woman runner, Wilma Rudolph of Tennessee State, won three gold medals in track in 1960.

The 1968 Olympics was a target of protest on the part of black athletes encouraged by the civil rights and black power movements, and by the example of charismatic boxer Muhammad Ali. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter forced a boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow to protest Soviet incursions into Afghanistan. The 1984 Los Angeles games, boycotted by the Soviet Union, and completely organized by the private sector, was a financial success, earning $250 million. American women became much more successful, led by Florence Griffiths-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, interest in sport was continuing to grow. Not only were major spectator sports, particularly baseball, football, and auto racing, drawing larger crowds than ever before, but television coverage, especially on cable networks like the Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN), continued to expand. Furthermore, men and women's interest in health and personal appearance sustained the fitness movement that began in the 1970s, promoting mass participatory recreational sport among people of all ages.


Adelman, Melvin L. A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics, 1820–70. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Cahn, Susan. Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Gorn, Elliott. The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Grundy, Pamela. Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Lester, Robin. Stagg's University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at the University of Chicago. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Rader, Benjamin G. American Sport: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Riess, Steven A. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

———. Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Seymour, Harold. Baseball. 3 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960–1990.

Smith, Ronald A. Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Wiggins, David K. Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Steven A.Riess

See alsoCollege Athletics ; Football ; Hockey ; National Collegiate Athletic Association ; Olympic Games ; Sports Unions ; andindividual entries, e.g.,Baseball ; Football ; Track and Field .


views updated May 21 2018


People in all cultures have always engaged in playful physical activities and used human movement as part of their everyday routines and collective rituals (Huizinga 1955). The first examples of organized games in societies worldwide probably emerged in the form of various combinations of physical activities and religious rituals (Guttmann 1978). Those games were connected closely with the social structures, social relations, and belief systems in their societies. Although they often recreated and reaffirmed existing systems of power relations and dominant ideologies, they sometimes served as sites for resistant or oppositional behaviors (Guttmann 1994; Sage 1998). Variations in the forms and dynamics of physical activities and games indicate that they are cultural practices that serve different social purposes and take on different meanings from time to time and place to place. Research on these variations has provided valuable insights into social processes, structures, and ideologies (Gruneau 1999; Sage 1998).

The physical activities that most sociologists identify as "modern sports" emerged in connection with a combination of rationalization, industrialization, democratization, and urbanization processes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As various forms of physical activities and play were constructed as institutionalized, competitive, rule-governed challenges and games, they became associated with a range of processes and structures in societies. To varying degrees in different settings, "organized sports" were implicated in processes of social development and the structure of family life, socialization and education, identity formation and government policy, commodification and the economy, and globalization and the media. Today, sports constitute a significant part of the social, cultural, political, and economic fabric of most societies.

As cultural practices, organized sports constitute an increasingly important part of people's lives and collective life in groups, organizations, communities, and societies. In addition to capturing individual and collective attention, they are implicated in power relations and ideological formation associated with social class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, and physical ability. Because sports are social constructions, they may develop around particular ideas about the body and human nature, how people should relate to one another, expression and competence, human abilities and potential, manhood and womanhood, and what is important and unimportant in life. These ideas usually support and reproduce the dominant ideology in a society, but this is not always the case. Ideology is complex; therefore, the relationship between sports and ideological formation and transformation is sometimes inconsistent or even contradictory. Furthermore, sports come in many forms, and those forms can have many different associated social meanings.

Although sports continue to exist for the enjoyment of the participants, commercialized forms are planned, promoted, and presented for the entertainment of vast numbers of spectators. Sport events such as the Olympic Games, soccer's World Cup (men's and women's), the Tour de France, the tennis championships at Wimbledon, American football's Super Bowl, and championship boxing bouts capture the interest of billions of people when they are televised by satellite in over 200 countries around the world. These and other formally organized sports events are national and global industries. They are implicated in processes of state formation and capitalist expansion and are organized and presented as consumer activities for both participants and spectators. Although sport programs, events, and organizations may be subsidized directly or indirectly by local or national governments, support increasingly comes from corporations eager to associate their products and images with cultural activities and events that are a primary source of pleasure for people all over the world. Corporate executives have come to realize, as did Gramsci (1971) when he discussed hegemony and consensus-generating processes, that sponsoring people's pleasures can be crucial in creating a consensus to support corporate expansion. At the same time, most sport organizations have sought corporate support.

People of all ages connect with sports through the media. Newspapers in many cities devote entire sections of their daily editions to sports, especially in North America, where the space devoted to sports frequently surpasses that given to the economy, politics, or any other single topic of interest (Lever and Wheeler 1993). Major magazines and dozens of specialty magazines cater to a wide range of interests among participants and fans. Radio coverage of sporting events and sports talk shows capture the attention of millions of listeners every day in some countries. Television coverage of sports, together with commentary about sports, is the most prevalent category of video programming in many countries. First the transistor radio and more recently satellites and Internet technology have enabled millions of people around the world to share their interest in sports. As Internet technology expands, these media-facilitated connections that revolve around sports will take new forms with unpredictable social implications.

Worldwide, many people recognize high-profile teams and athletes, and this recognition fuels everything from product consumption to tourism. Sports images are a pervasive part of life in many cultures, and the attention given to certain athletes today has turned them into celebrities, if not cultural heroes. In cultures in which there have been assumed connections between participation in sports and character formation, there has been a tendency to expect highly visible and popular athletes to become role models of dominant values and lifestyles, especially for impressionable young people. This has created a paradoxical situation in which athletes often are held to a higher degree of moral accountability than are other celebrities while at the same time being permitted or led to assume permission to act in ways that go beyond traditional normative boundaries.

People around the world increasingly talk about sports. Relationships often revolve around sports, especially among men but also among a growing number of women. Some people identify with teams and athletes so closely that what happens in sports influences their moods and overall sense of well-being. In fact, people's identities as athletes and fans may be more important to them than their identities related to education, religion, work, and family.

Overall, sports and sports images have become a pervasive part of people's everyday lives, especially among those who live in countries where resources are relatively plentiful and the media are widespread. For this reason, sports are logical topics for the attention of sociologists and others concerned with social life.


Although play and games received attention from various European and North American behavioral and social scientists between the 1880s and the middle of the 20th century, sports received scarce attention in that period (Loy and Kenyon 1969). Of course, there were notable exceptions. Thorstein Veblen wrote about college sports in the United States in 1899 in Theory of the Leisure Class. Max Weber mentioned English Puritan opposition to sports in the 1904 and 1905 volumes of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and William Graham Sumner discussed "popular sports" in his 1906 Folkways. Willard Waller devoted attention to the "integrative functions" of sports in U.S. high schools in The Sociology of Teaching in 1932.

The first analyst to refer to a "sociology of sport" was Theodor Adorno's student Heinz Risse, who published Sociologie des Sports in 1921. Sports received little or no further analytic attention from social scientists until after World War II. Then, in the mid-1950s, there was a slow but steady accumulation of analyses of sports done by scholars in Europe and North America (Loy and Kenyon 1969; Dunning 1971).

The origins of the sociology of sport can be traced to both sociology and physical education (Ingham and Donnelly 1997; Sage 1997). The field initially was institutionalized in academic terms through the formation of the International Committee for Sport Sociology (ICSS) and the publication of the International Review for Sport Sociology (IRSS) in the mid-1960s. The ICSS was a subcommittee of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education and the International Sociological Association, and it sponsored the publication of the IRSS. Other publications in the 1960s and 1970s provided examples of the research and conceptual issues discussed by scholars who claimed an affiliation with the sociology of sport (Kenyon 1969; Krotee 1979; Lüschen 1970). In addition to meeting at the annual conferences of the ICSS beginning in the mid-1960s, many scholars in the sociology of sport also met at the annual conferences of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS). This organization was founded in 1978. It has sponsored conferences every year since then, and its membership has been as high as 326 in 1998. In 1984, the Sociology of Sport Journal was published under the sponsorship of the NASSS.

Although the sociology of sport involves scholars from many countries and has its foundations in traditional academic disciplines, its early growth was fueled partly by the radical and reform-oriented work of social activists trained in a variety of social sciences. That work attracted the attention of a number of young scholars in both sociology and physical education. For example, in U.S. universities, many courses devoted to the analysis of sport in society in the 1970s highlighted sport as a social institution, but many also used sports as a focal point for critical analyses of U.S. society as a whole. Objections to the war in Vietnam inspired analyses of autocratic and militaristic forms of social organization in sports and other spheres of social life. Critiques of capitalism were tied to research on the role of competition in social life and the rise of highly competitive youth and inter-scholastic sports. Concern with high rates of aggression and violence in society was tied to an analysis of contact sports that emphasize the physical domination of opponents. Analyses of racial and civil rights issues were tied to discussions of racism in sports and to issues that precipitated the boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games by some black American athletes (Edwards 1969). Analyses of gender relations were inspired by the widespread failure of U.S. high schools and universities to comply with Title IX legislation that, among other things, mandated gender equity in all sport programs sponsored by schools that received federal funds.

Today, those who are dedicated to studying sports as social and cultural phenomena constitute a small but active, diverse, and steadily expanding collection of scholars from sociology, physical education and kinesiology, sport studies, and cultural studies departments. This has made the field unique because many of these scholars have realized that to maintain the field they must engage each other despite differences in the research questions they ask and the theoretical perspectives and methodologies they use.

Mainstream sociology has been slow at the institutional level to acknowledge the growing social and cultural significance of sports and sports participation. The tendency among sociologists to give priority to studies of work over studies of play, sports, or leisure accounts for much of this disciplinary inertia. Furthermore, sports have been seen by many sociologists as nonserious, nonproductive dimensions of society and culture that do not merit scholarly attention. Consequently, the sociology of sport has continued to exist on the fringes of sociology, and studying sports generally does not forward to a scholar's career in sociology departments. For example, in 1998–1999, only 149 (1.3 percent) of the 11,247 members of the American Sociological Association (ASA) declared "Leisure/Sport/Recreation" as one of their three major areas of interest, and over half those scholars focused primarily on leisure rather than sports. Only thirty-seven ASA members identified "Leisure/Sports Recreation" as their primary research and/or teaching topic (0.3 percent of ASA members), and only two Canadian and two U.S. sociology departments offer a graduate program in the sociology of sport, according to the 1998 Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology. At the 1998 annual ASA meeting, there were approximately 3,800 presenters and copresenters, and only 20 dealt with sport-related topics in their presentations; only 2 of the 525 sessions were devoted to the sociology of sport. Patterns are similar in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia (Rowe et al. 1997).

In physical education and kinesiology, the primary focus of most scholars has been on motor learning, exercise physiology, biomechanics, and physical performance rather than the social dimensions of sports (see Sage 1997). Social and cultural issues have not been given a high priority in the discipline except when research has had practical implications for those who teach physical education, coach athletes, or administer sport programs. As the legitimacy and role of physical education departments have been questioned in many universities, the scholars in those departments have been slow to embrace the frequently critical analyses of sports done by those who use sociological theories and perspectives. Therefore, studying sports as social phenomena has not earned many scholars high status among their peers in physical education and kinesiology departments. However, the majority of sociology of sport scholars with doctorates have earned their degrees and now have options in departments of physical education or kinesiology and departments of sport studies and human movement studies.

There have been noteworthy indications of change. For example, there are a number of journals devoted to social analyses of sports (Sociology of Sport Journal, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Culture, Sport, Society). Many mainstream journals in sociology and physical education now accept and publish research that uses sociological perspectives to study sports. National and regional professional associations in sociology and physical education in many countries sponsor regular sessions in the sociology of sport at their annual conferences. Annual conferences also are held by a number of national and regional sociology of sport associations around the world, including those in Japan, Korea, and Brazil as well as the countries of North America and Europe. The International Sociology of Sport Association (ISSA, formerly the ICSS) holds annual conferences and meets regularly with the International Sociological Association. Attendance at many of these conferences has been consistent, and the quality of the programs has been impressive. The existence of such organizational endorsement and support, along with continued growth in the pervasiveness and visibility of sports in society, suggests that the discipline will continue to grow.

Among other indications of growth, articles in the Sociology of Sport Journal are cited regularly in social science literature. Scholars in the field are recognized as "public intellectuals" by journalists and reporters associated with the mass media. Quotes and references to sociology of sport research appear increasingly in the popular print and electronic media., the world's major Internet bookseller, listed over 260 books in its "Sociology of Sport" reference category in March 1999. Most important, major publishers such as McGraw-Hill estimate that every year nearly 30,000 university students take courses in the "sport in society" category.

Complicating the issue of future growth is the fact that scholars in this field regularly disagree about how to "do" the sociology of sport. Some prefer to see themselves as scientific experts who do research on questions of organization and efficiency, while others prefer to see themselves as facilitators or even agents of cultural transformation whose research gives a voice to and empowers people who lack resources or have been pushed to the margins of society. This and other disagreements raise important questions about the production and use of scientific knowledge, and many scholars in the sociology of sport are debating those questions. As in sociology as a whole, the sociology of sport is now a site for theoretical and paradigmatic debates that some scholars fear will fragment the field and subvert the maintenance of an institutionalized professional community (Ingham and Donnelly 1997). Of course, this is a challenge faced in many disciplines and their associated professional organizations.


Through the mid-1980s, most research in the sociology of sport was based on two assumptions. First, sport was assumed to be a social institution similar to other major social institutions (Lüschen and Sage 1981). Second, sports were assumed to be institutionalized competitive activities that involve physical exertion and the use of physical skills by individuals motivated by a combination of personal enjoyment and external rewards (Coakley 1990). These conceptual assumptions identified the focus of the sociology of sport and placed theory and research on sports within the traditional parameters of sociological theory and research.

Theory and research based on these assumptions were informative. However, many scholars in the field came to realize that when analytic attention is focused on institutionalized and competitive activities, there is a tendency to overlook the lives of people who have neither the resources to formally organize their physical activities nor the desire to make them competitive. Scholars became sensitive to the possibility that this tendency can reinforce the ideologies and forms of social organization that have disadvantaged certain categories and collections of people in contemporary societies (Coakley 1998). This encouraged some scholars to ask critical questions about sports as contested activities in societies. Consequently, their research has come to focus more on the connections between sports and systems of power and privilege and the changes needed to involve more people in the determination of what sports can and should be in society.

These scholars used an alternative approach to defining sports that revolved around two questions: What gets to count as a sport in a group or society? and Whose sports count the most? These questions forced them to focus more directly on the social and cultural contexts in which ideas are formed about physical activities and the social processes that privilege some forms of physical activities. Those who have used this approach also note numerous cultural differences in how people identify sports and include them in their lives. In cultures that emphasize cooperative relationships, the idea that people should compete for rewards may be defined as disruptive, if not immoral, and for people in cultures that emphasize competition, physical activities and games that have no winners may seem pointless. These cultural differences are important because there is no universal agreement about the meaning, purpose, and organization of sports. Similarly, there is no general agreement about who will participate in sports, the circumstances in which participation will occur, or who will sponsor sports or the reasons for sponsorship. It is now assumed widely by scholars who study sports that these factors have varied over time from group to group and society to society and that sociological research should focus on the struggle over whose ideas about sports become dominant at any particular time in particular groups or societies. This in turn has highlighted issues of culture and power relations in theory and research in the sociology of sport.

Before the mid-1980s, most research and conceptual discussions in the sociology of sport were inspired or informed by structural functionalist theories and conflict theories (Lüschen and Sage 1981; Coakley 1990), and in parts of western Europe, figurational sociology was used by some scholars who studied sports (see Dunning 1992). Those with structural functionalist perspectives often focused on questions about sports and issues of socialization and character development, social integration, achievement motivation, and structural adaptations to change in society. The connections between sports and other major social institutions and between sports and the satisfaction of social system needs were the major topics of concern.

Those who used conflict theories viewed sports as an expression of class conflict and market forces and a structure linked to societal and state institutions. Their work was inspired by various interpretations of Marxist theory and research focused generally on connections between capitalist forms of production and consumption and social behaviors in sports and on the ways in which sports promote an ideological consciousness that is consistent with the needs and interests of capital. Specifically, they studied the role of sports in processes of alienation, capitalist expansion, nationalism and militarism, and racism and sexism (Brohm 1978; Hoch 1972).

Figurational, or "process," sociology was and continues to be inspired by the work of Elias (Elias 1978; Elias and Dunning 1986; Jarvie and Maguire 1994). Figurational sociologists have focused on issues of interdependence and interaction in social life and have identified historical linkages between the structure of interpersonal conduct and the overall structure of society. Unlike other theoretical approaches, figurational sociology traditionally has given a high priority to the study of sport. Figurational analyses have emphasized sports as a sphere of social life in which the dichotomies between seriousness and pleasure, work and leisure, economic and noneconomic phenomena, and mind and body can be shown to be false and misleading. Before the mid-1980s, research done by figurational sociologists focused primarily on the historical development of modern sport and the interrelated historical processes of state formation, functional democratization, and expanding networks of international interdependencies. Their best known early work focused on linkages between the emergence of modern sports and the dynamics of civilizing processes, especially those associated with the control of violence in society (Elias and Dunning 1986).

Since the mid-1980s, the sociology of sport has been characterized by theoretical and methodological diversity. Fewer scholars use general theories of social life such as structural functionalism and conflict theories. The theories more often used are various forms of critical theories, including feminist theories and hegemony theory; also used are interpretive sociology (especially symbolic interactionism), cultural studies perspectives, and various forms of poststructuralism (Rail 1998). Figurational sociology still is widely used, especially by scholars outside North America. A few scholars have done research informed by the reflexive sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Laberge and Sankoff 1988; Wacquant 1995a, 1995b) and the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens (Gruneau 1999).

Methodological approaches also vary. Quantitative data and statistical analyses remain popular, although various qualitative methods and interpretive analyses have become increasingly popular, if not the dominant research approaches in the field (Donnelly 2000). Ethnography and in-depth interviewing, along with textual and discourse analysis, have emerged as common methodologies among many scholars studying sports and sport participation (Coakley and Donnelly 1999). Quantitative methods have been used most often to study issues and questions related to sport participation patterns, the attitudinal and behavioral correlates of participation, and the distribution of sports-related resources in society. Both quantitative and interpretive methods have been used to study questions and issues related to socialization, identity, sexuality, subcultures, the body, pain and injury, disability, deviance, violence, emotions, the media, gender relations, homophobia, race and ethnic relations, new and alternative sports forms, and ideological formation and transformation (Coakley and Dunning 2000).


Sociologists study sports because they are prominent and socially significant cultural practices in contemporary societies. The sociology of sport contains an active, diverse, and slowly expanding collection of scholars united by professional organizations and academic journals. Continued growth of the field depends on whether these scholars continue to do research that makes meaningful contributions to the way people live their lives and recognized and visible contributions to knowledge in sociology as a whole.


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Coakley, J. 1990 Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies, (4th ed.). St. Louis: Mosby.

——, 1998 Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies, 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

——, and P. Donnelly, eds. 1999 Inside Sports. London: Routledge.

—— eds. 2000 Handbook of Sport and Society. London: Sage.

Donnelly, P. 2000 "Interpretive Approaches to the Sociology of Sport." In J. Coakley and E. Dunning. eds., Handbook of Sport and Society. London: Sage.

Dunning, E., ed. 1971 The Sociology of Sport. London: Cass.

—— 1992 "Figurational Sociology and the Sociology of Sport: Some Concluding Remarks." In E. Dunning, and C. Rojek, eds., Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Edwards, H. 1969 The Revolt of the Black Athlete. New York: Free Press.

Elias, N. 1978 The Civilizing Process, vol. 1: The History of Manners. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

——, and E. Dunning, eds. 1986 Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Gramsci, A. 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Q. Hoare and G. Smith. New York: International Publishers.

Gruneau. R. 1999 Class, Sports, and Social Development. Champaign, Ill. Human Kinetics.

Guttmann, A. 1978 From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia University Press.

—— 1994 Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hoch, P. 1972 Rip Off the Big Game: The Exploitation of Sports by the Power Elite. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

Huizinga, J. 1955 Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ingham, A. G., and P. Donnelly 1997 "A Sociology of North American Sociology of Sport: Disunity in Unity, 1965–1996." Sociology of Sport Journal 14(4):362–418.

Jarvie, G., and J. Maguire 1994 Sport and Leisure in Social Thought. London: Routledge.

Kenyon, G. S., ed. 1969 Aspects of Contemporary Sport Sociology. Chicago: Athletic Institute.

Krotee, M., ed. 1979 The Dimensions of Sport Sociology. West Point, N.Y.: Leisure Press.

Laberge, S., and D. Sankoff 1988 "Physical Activities, Body Habitus and Lifestyles." In J. Harvey and H. Cantelon eds., Not Just a Game: Essays in Canadian Sport Sociology. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Lever, J., and S. Wheeler 1993 "Mass Media and the Experience of Sport." Communication Research 20(1):299–313.

Loy, J. W., G. S. and Kenyon, eds. 1969 Sport, Culture, and Society. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Lüschen. G. ed. 1970 The Cross-Cultural Analysis of Sport and Games. Champaign, Ill. Stipes.

——, and G. H. Sage 1981 "Sport in Sociological Perspective." In G. Lüschen and G. H. Sage, eds., Handbook of Social Science of Sport. Champaign, Ill. Stipes.

Rail, G., ed. 1998 Sport and Postmodern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rowe, D., J. McKay, and G. Lawrence 1997 "Out of the Shadows: The Critical Sociology of Sport in Australia, 1986–1996." Sociology of Sport Journal 14(4):340–361.

Sage, G. H. 1997 "Physical Education, Sociology, and Sociology of Sport: Points of Intersection." Sociology of Sport Journal 14(4):317–339.

—— 1998. Power and Ideology in American Sport. Champaign, Ill. Human Kinetics.

Wacquant, L. J. D. 1995a "The Pugilistic Point of View: How Boxers Feel about Their Trade." Theory and Society 24:489–535.

—— 1995b "Pugs at Work: Bodily Capital and Bodily Labour among Professional Boxers." Body & Society 1(1):65–93.

Jay Coakley

Janet Lever


views updated May 14 2018


"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" queried the historian and political reformer C. L. R. James in the preface of Beyond a Boundary (1963), his lyrical exploration of political, social, and racial relations in the twentieth-century West Indies and British Empire. He answered throughout the book that those who only know sport really know nothing of value. Sport, he insisted, was an essential part of the fabric of modern cultures, the democratic art of the globe's common folk, the stage on which a myriad of social issues were contested. Intellectuals who dismissed sport as mere games or mass opiates misunderstood the fundamental power of sport for shaping modern culture, James insisted. James wrapped his arguments for West Indian political independence and the equality of people of color in the British Empire in discourses on cricket and the ideals of fair play. "It isn't cricket," James insisted, whether he was decrying poor sportsmanship within the boundaries or denouncing racism on the cricket pitch or in any other human endeavor.

In the course of his meditation on sport, James also claimed that ideas about sport were interwoven with ideas about identity, citizenship, gender, and every other facet of human culture in ancient as well as modern societies. Following the lead of James, scholars since the 1960s have contended that ideas about sport are inextricably linked to ideas about politics, economics, and other facets of culture. The vast majority of investigations about the power of sport in shaping and revealing cultural mentalities have concentrated on modern history, especially on modern Western societies. A smaller contingent has excavated the athletic ideologies of classical Western antiquity. The sporting lives and ideas of non-Western and non-modern peoples remain mostly unexplored. Regardless of the time period or culture studied, however, recent scholarship insists that those who know only the details of sporting practices and nothing about the larger cultures which shape and are shaped by those practices really know nothing of value.

Sport and Traditional Cultures

Modern conceptions of the contrasts between tradition and modernity frame contemporary studies of the history of ideas about sport, physical education, and body culture. Perhaps the most influential work in shaping contemporary paradigms, Allen Guttmann's From Ritual to Record (1978), grounds the history of athletic competition firmly in the modernity versus tradition dialectic. While contemporary scholars certainly bring differing theoretical perspectives to the study of ideas about sport, they rarely question the notion that traditional and modern physical cultures are essentially different entities.

Even though a few historians argue that traditional physical activities are so different from modern athletics that sport can only be understood as a product of modernity, a range of evidence indicates an ancient lineage for sport. Sport, in various forms, has been a part of cultural life since the origins of the human species. As most anthropologists contend, the hunters and gatherers of early human history lived in societies with abundant leisure. Their sports played a critical role in teaching the skills and teamwork necessary for hunting and warfare. Athletic contests served as sites for the demonstration of physical prowessparticularly male prowess. Sports were also embedded in the religious rituals of hunters and gatherers, as they are enmeshed today in the sacred practices of the world's few remaining traditional cultures.

The archaeological evidence for sport among hunters and gatherers, or among the early farmers in the new agricultural societies that began to emerge in various places around the world circa 7000 b.c.e., is limited and sketchy. Carvings and inscriptions related to sport appear occasionally in ancient Western, American, and Asian civilizations. The first compelling written evidence regarding ancient ideas about sport appears in Homer's Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.). Homer's work reveals Greek aristocrats who used competitive sport as a vehicle for demonstrating prowess. Significantly the ancient Greeks used the same word, agon, to refer to athletic contests and combat. Winning honor and glory in war or sport marked the zenith of Greek masculine achievement.

Ancient Greeks formalized and rationalized competitive athletics, moving from funeral games and irregular contests to well-organized sporting extravaganzas held at a variety of sites, and especially in sacred places to honor Greek gods. The most important Greek athletic festival, celebrated every four years beginning in 776 b.c.e., was the Olympic Games. The Olympics evolved into a vital celebration of pan-Hellenic identity for the balkanized Greek city-states. Greek citizens felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to Olympia at least once in a lifetime. Homages to and exposés of the Olympics appeared frequently in Greek literature, philosophy, and drama. Greek city-states sponsored athletic programs to develop stars to win fame for their hometowns in the games, especially at Olympia.

The Olympics reveal much about Greek culture. Participation and spectatorship were limited to males. Only freeborn Greek citizens could compete in the Olympics. Victors won olive-wreath crowns symbolizing their accomplishments. Early twenty-first century scholarship indicates that the Greeks had no conception of what moderns label amateurism. While Olympic champions received only symbolic garlands from the sponsors of the festival, their city-states subsidized their training and bestowed enormous riches on those who brought glory to their polis.

The Greeks also sponsored sporting contests in which athletes competed directly for lucrative prizes such as the Panathenaic Games. Athletes earned fame and fortune in ancient Greece. Public acclaim translated their athletic prowess into political clout. Male athletes served as icons of physical beauty and objects of erotic desire. The athlete embodied Greek notions of physical perfection and inspired artistic re-creations of the human form. By the 500s b.c.e., a class of professional athletes appeared in Greece. The time, effort, and attention lavished on athletics earned condemnation from Greek intellectuals such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who did not object to athletic competition in principle but disparaged the narrow focus on bodily prowess to the exclusion of all other characteristics of good citizenship required of elite athletes. These thinkers argued that athletics should be one of many components in the general training of good citizens. Such arguments sparked a debate about the meaning and purpose of sport that has raged in Western societies ever since, raising issues regarding whether sport should serve the general education of the common citizen or whether sport should serve exclusively to test the extremes of human capability.

Traditionally scholars have argued that, with a few exceptions such as an athletic festival for women hosted at Olympia in honor of the goddess Hera or odes to the athletic prowess of Spartan maidens, Greek athletics were relentlessly patriarchal. In the 1990s, a debate over the level of participation by Greek women in athletics began. Some revisionists posit a much more substantial role for women in Greek sport, noting that female names appear on lists of Olympic victors. In one famous case, a woman who owned a chariot team won an Olympic race. Other revisionists argue that contextual readings of the evidence reinforces rather than revises the patriarchal nature of Greek sport, contending that an accurate interpretation reveals that the Spartan female chariot owner was in fact a surrogate put forward by her male relatives to further embarrass the defeated chariot teams and demonstrate that wealth rather than masculine skill won equestrian competitions.

Greek athletics spread throughout the ancient world during the Hellenistic era. Greek stadia, gymnasia, and hippodromes appeared in cities throughout the ancient West. Even after the conquest of Greece by Rome, Greek athletics remained the normative conception in ancient Western cultures. The Romans, like other cultures influenced by the Greeks, both adopted and resisted Greek ideas. Some Roman patricians patronized the Olympic and other Greek games and propagated Greek notions of the importance of physical education in the general development of the citizenry. Other Roman elites, with the support of many plebeians, rejected Greek athletics as too hedonistic and effete for Roman tastes. The Greek custom of competing in the nude offended Romans such as the philosopher Cicero, who condemned Greek sport as undermining family, duty, and state.

Still, like the Greeks, the Romans promoted chariot racing and built huge monuments for sporting contests. The Romans practiced a different set of spectacles that emerged from a different history. The ludi Romani represent the first appearance of mass spectator sport in history. The Roman games comprised three basic disciplines. The circuses, by far the most popular and common of the three spectacles, devoted themselves to chariot racing. The munera presented gladiatorial combats to the masses. The naumachia, the rarest of the Roman games, were elaborate reconstructions of famous naval battles. Each of the Roman games was deeply intertwined in the political conflicts of Roman society. Chariot teams at circuses promoted political factions. Gladiators fighting to the death reminded both Roman citizens and barbarians that the empire had been built on violence. Significantly very few of the gladiators were Roman citizens. The vast majority were war captives, criminals, or political or religious dissenters sentenced to the arena for the amusement of the masses. Opposition to gladiatorial games from both Roman and non-Roman sources highlighted the cruelty of the munera. Foes of Roman games also condemned them as part of a "bread and circuses" policy practiced by imperial governments to buy the consent of the masses with the dole and sporting delights. These condemnations of sport as an agent of statecraft bent on diverting the people from social problems have remained staples of sporting critiques into the contemporary era.

Greek and Roman sports were exceptional in their imperial reach and sophisticated organization but traditional in most other aspects. Traditional sports were frequently part of sacred rites and were generally martial exercises for training warriors. Traditional sporting practices were almost invariably local and loosely organized. Traditional games varied from place to place and from time to time, and were based on custom rather than formal rules. Traditional sports were incredibly durable, lasting in similar form for thousands of years. Finally traditional sports were, like traditional social relations, structured around social inequalities. Hierarchy, kinship, ethnicity, and gender habitually shaped participation. Women were generally excluded from the sports of traditional societies, especially as participants and sometimes as spectators.

Sport and Modern Cultures

Histories of sport reveal that modern cultures conceptualize physical activity differently than traditional societies. Modern sport tends toward the secular rather than the sacred. A focus on equality, both in the conditions of competition and in opportunities to compete, consumes modern sport. Modern sport replicates modern social structures in other ways as well, manifesting the peculiar modern manias for specialization, bureaucratization, rationalization, and quantification in unique ways. In modern history, sport is embedded in the major trends of modernity itself, industrialization, urbanization, and nationalism. Most significantly, at least from modern perspectives, has been a new conceptualization of sport as a useful tool for solving social problems that has replaced an understanding of sport as part of the steady rhythms of traditional life. The idea of sport as a social utility certainly has roots in older traditions, as Greek and Roman concepts about athletics as training for citizenship testify. However in the modern period the idea of sport as a useful tool grew to grand historic dimensions.

In early modern Europe, sports served the emerging centralized monarchies by symbolizing power and cultivating popular support. Monarchs commandeered the older sporting practices of the aristocracy in order to celebrate regal prowess and wealth. To gain popular support as they moved to usurp the power of the nobility and clergy, European monarchs transformed popular peasant pastimes into political rights to win over the masses. At the same time sport became a central element in the education of European elites. The Renaissance witnessed the excavation of classical notions of sound minds in sound bodies. Renaissance thinkers insisted that a complete education developed physical as well as intellectual faculties. Utilitarian notions of sport also developed in unexpected places. Early-twenty-first-century scholarship has revealed that Protestant reformers, far from the sport-hating puritans of stereotype, in fact endorsed a variety of athletic endeavors as long as they were undertaken to make people better workers, better citizens, better soldiers, and better Christians.

Purposeful sport that served specific social ends was firmly established in Western societies in the early modern period. During the same epoch, the sports of non-Western cultures moved rapidly toward extinction. The "Columbian Exchange" in sport was initially a one-way street. Indigenous sports, such as the elaborate ritual of the Mesoamerican ball game, were destroyed by Western conquest. Modern sports developed almost exclusively in Western cultures. Western cultures sometimes appropriated pastimes such as lacrosse, a game with heritages in both Europe and the Americas, but they relentlessly modernized them. A survey of sports including the largest global athletic event, the modern Olympic Games, reveals that, with one exception, all developed from Western sources. That one exception, judo, was invented by pro-Western innovators in Japan who sought to modernize their own nation through the introduction of Western-style sports. The global sporting culture that has emerged since the mid-1800s is a product of the West.

The rise of the modern nation-state, beginning in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century, fueled rapid growth of the idea of sport as a useful social tool. In sport many nationalists thought that they had discovered an elemental force for making the French Revolution's three criteria for modern nationhoodliberty, equality, fraternityinto social realities. Through modern sport they proclaimed the end of the old sporting order of ancien regimes and the rise of new national pastimes, from cricket to prize fighting to varieties of football to baseball. They recognized, as C. L. R. James later noted, that when the modern masses had the liberty to choose their leisure they gravitated to sport. Sport also became a testing ground for modern notions of equality. Class, ethnicity, race, and gender boundaries increasingly came under attack on playing fields in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The ideal, if not always the reality, of equality, played to mass audiences in sporting dramas through "great experiments" in racial integration such as the tales of Jackie Robinson in U.S. baseball, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (better known as Pelé) in Brazilian soccer, and Learie Constantine in British cricket.

It was, however, the third element of the French Revolution's prescription for modern nationalism where sport found the most fertile loam. More than any other modern institution with the exception of war, sport provides the necessary conditions for the blossoming of fraternity, the patriotic bonds that bind citizen to citizen. Sport and physical education as agents of fraternal bonding first developed during the 1700s and 1800s in the English-speaking world and in Germany. In Germany, which was occupied by France and not yet unified as a modern state, a powerful national movement known as the Turners arose. The Turners were devoted explicitly to promoting physical fitness and implicitly to creating a nation of soldier-athletes to win independence for the fatherland. The movement married exercise to patriotism. Turners formed the core of the German revolution against French hegemony and fought for a unified German nation. The Turner movement spread to German communities in Europe and the Americas, and sparked imitations in Denmark and Sweden. The inherent Germanness of the physical education system, however, ultimately prevented global diffusion of the Turners.

At the same time, in the heartland of the industrial revolution, modern competitive sports developed in Great Britain, its colonies, and its former colonies. National games such as cricket, soccer football, and rugby football emerged. Promoters sold these games as the fraternal foundation of Greater British identity. Resistance to British national games from sections of the English-speaking world sparked the modernization of Gaelic football and hurling in Ireland and the invention of baseball and American football in the United States. Through these games, and the massive literature that grew to support them such as the classic English sporting novel, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), Anglo-American cultures crafted the idea that participation in sport taught modern peoples the basic tenets of citizenship. In Anglo-American ideology sport promoted moral virtue, balanced individual and communal needs, and fostered fair competition in every social endeavor. Sports, as Anglo-American promoters ceaselessly preached, were essential tools in the construction of modern nationhood.

While the gymnastic exercises of German Turners failed to find a receptive global audience, Anglo-American sports soon became a worldwide phenomenon. As the world's major imperial power, Great Britain's games spread throughout the world. As a rising imperial power, the sports of the United States also spread. With the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, an event midwifed by the baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French Anglophile who fervently believed in Anglo-American sporting ideology, modern Western sport moved toward global hegemony. During the twentieth century, the Olympic Games and the World Cup soccer tournamenta 1930 spin-off from the Olympicsbecame the world's most popular spectacles. Soccer football, originally a British pastime, became "the world's game," spreading from the West to the rest of the world through emulation and diffusion rather than at imperial gun-point. Non-Western cultures clearly chose to adopt this European import.

Encased in rhetorical claims that sport promoted peaceful internationalism, the global spread of sport during the world's bloodiest century (the 1900s) revealed that most of the world's cultures had converted to the Anglo-American faith that sport was a crucial element for fueling patriotism rather than athletic pacifism. As sport became the common language of global culture, it represented a dialect that forged national rather than global identities and was spoken with equal fluency by dictatorships as well as democracies. Sport represented an essential bonding agent in the "imagined communities" of many modern nations. Initially national sporting cultures embraced men but discouraged or excluded women from serving as patriotic athletes or fans. As ideas of gender equity altered social relations in modern nations, the homosocial boundaries of sport came under assault. By the end of the nineteenth century, women had begun to participate as both spectators and players in increasing numbers. The emergence of women in sport was frequently equated to women's emancipation and suffrage. When U.S. swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to conquer the English Channel in 1926, beating the times of all the men who had previously navigated those waters, her feat was hailed as a triumph that rivaled the acquisition of women's voting rights.

In spite of the feats of Ederle and other women, male performances remained normative in modern sport. Women athletes were frequently prized as much for their sexual appeal as for their athletic prowess, a consumer culture trend since the early twentieth century that perhaps explains the early-twenty-first-century global fascination with tennis player Anna Kournikova. Fans in many nations both cheered and leered when women Olympians stoked the fraternal furnaces of athletic nationalism. In cultures where women athletes raised direct challenges to gender orders, such as in some modern Islamic states, female champions such as the Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka aroused violent reactions.

Sporting conflicts over ideas about gender reveal that in the early-twenty-first century sport remains a powerful site for debating social concepts and practices. The history of ideas about sport indicates that the question that began C. L. R. James's meditation on cricket and West Indian culture should be expanded. What do they know of sport who only sport know? Insights into human societies develop at the intersection of sport with the myriad other facets of culture, from politics to religion to gender to economic interchange. In the history of ideas, sport represents a popular common pursuit for many societies at many times that can reveal much about the dynamic complexities of human cultures.

See also Body, The .


Baker, William J. Sports in the Western World. Rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Cahn, Susan K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women' s Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Dyreson, Mark. Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Guttmann, Allen. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sport. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

. Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Holt, Richard. Sport and the British: A Modern History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Howell, Colin. Blood, Sweat and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2001.

Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Edited with an introduction by Andrew Sanders. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. First published in 1857.

James, C. L. R. Beyond a Boundary. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Originally published in 1963.

Kyle, Donald G. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 1998.

LaFeber, Walter. Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Murray, Bill. The World's Game: A History of Soccer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Oriard, Michael. King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Young, David C. The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics. Chicago: Ares, 1984.

Mark Dyreson


views updated Jun 08 2018

sport has been defined by a UNESCO Committee as: ‘Any physical activity which has the character of play and which involves a struggle with oneself or with others, or a confrontation with natural elements’. They added ‘If this activity involves competition, it must then always be performed in a spirit of sportsmanship. There can be no true sports without the idea of fair play.’ The UK Sports Council in 1992 stated; ‘We know that sport can make a positive contribution to national morale, health and the economy. We believe that it can enhance community spirit, equality of opportunity, personal development and social integration.’ Over 150 activities are recognized by the Sports Council as sports, and a line has been drawn to the exclusion of chess, as a game, not a sport.

The origins of sport in general lie in their practice for combat and war. Fencing is depicted on Egyptian murals from the time of the pyramids; appropriately, sabre and foil are two of only fifteen disciplines included in every modern Olympic Games since 1896.

Robert Dover codified English country sports into his celebrated Dover's Cotswold Olimpicks, in 1612, almost certainly attended by Shakespeare, which continued until 1853. Baron de Coubertin had his idea to found a modern Olympics partly from his attendance at the similar Much Wenlock Olympics in Shropshire. Both these festivals run today. The equivalent sports festivals in Scotland are the Highland Games. In both countries from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries local girls and women of all ages ran footraces at country fairs for holland smocks, or shifts — the ‘smock races’. In Scotland also, during nearly 200 years from the Peace of Glasgow in 1502 to the Revolution of 1688, every reigning monarch of the Stuart line, including Mary Queen of Scots, played golf — a sport which has been played on the moon.

The ancient Olympic Games were religious festivals which commenced with a procession along the sacred way, the Pompike Othos, followed by sacrifice and oath-taking. The athletes were all men and competed naked, and only one woman was permitted to spectate, a priestess of Demeter, the Goddess of earth and harvests. The Komos was the ceremonial crowning of the victors with olive leaves on the fifth day, after which they returned in triumph to greater wealth and status in their city states. The Olympic Games were primarily occasions to honour Zeus, but their origins are to be found long before the Greeks came to the Mediterranean. Although the first Games are reputed to have been held in 776 bc, the site was occupied a thousand years earlier. After 293 celebrations, Emperor Theodosius banned them in ad 393, ostensibly for corruption and professionalism, but essentially because as a converted Christian he disapproved of their pagan associations. An idea of such festivals may be gained in the Duveen gallery of the British Museum, from the frieze which originally decorated the Parthenon. The modern Games, and many other major sports festivals, follow a similar format.

The major change in modern sport (apart from the expansion of women's participation) is the massive impact of money and professionalism. It is reported that the American television network NBC has paid $3.4 billion for certain future Olympic rights, and on a lesser scale this is happening throughout particular sports, aided by lottery and other funding. This is not entirely new: many of the ancient Greek Olympians had their training expenses paid and subsistence provided, and although there were no money prizes at the Games, nevertheless, the champions could look forward to major material rewards back in their city states. The concept of amateurism in Britain arose as a means of preventing the working classes from competing against the aristocracy. As late as the 1930s physical education teachers were considered professional athletes and thus ineligible for the Olympics. An important change in Britain has been much better subsistance finance (mainly lotttery funding) for full-time training for selected athletes. At the Sydney Olympics 28 medals (and ten 4th places) vindicated this policy.

Rules of the games

It is axiomatic that sport is played to rules, which are formed to establish equality. Sports sociologist Alan Tomlinson has commented: ‘Sports … are contested in theoretically equal terms: they are increasingly specialized; they are based upon officially drawn-up rules and extraordinarily sophisticated approaches to them; they are run by organizational personnel; they are measured in unprecedentedly detailed ways; and they stress the unsurpassable, the far horizon, the stretching of limits.’ Regarding the measurement of such limits, when Said Aouita officially beat David Moorcroft's 5000 metres world record of 13.00.41 by 0.01 seconds — or 0.0013%, the current author wondered if the track itself was measured with comparable accuracy. By contrast, 0.01 of a second would be an acceptable 0.01% of the 100 metre world record time of 9.79. But beyond the rules there are also meta-rules, unwritten systems of conventions which embed the rules in a value system, signalled by victory award ceremonies or football team celebrations. A bowler, bowling a grubber to prevent a winning run being scored, defies the conventions of cricket, but not its rules. When Oliver McCall refused to fight Lennox Lewis in the boxing ring in Las Vegas in 1997, he defied not the rules, but the conventions. And sport is often powerless against those who defy its conventions.

The requirements of modern sport

The requirements of modern sport can be considered in terms of the total expert input into a National Team or Olympic Squad (although a much scaled down version is applicable to the preparation of a Saturday primary school team). Many areas of expertise are needed:

Specialist equipment

advances continually. The ‘shovel blade’ in rowing, and the ‘wing paddle’ in canoeing, both gave significant advantages when first introduced. It was noted that a marathoner running at 322 metres per minute (around 2 hours 10 minutes) needed 62 ml of oxygen per kg per minute with a then conventional shoe, but only 60.8 ml at the same speed with an air-soled shoe. An aerodynamic, low profile, smaller wheeled, helium-tyred, lighter bicycle (5.9 kg compared to conventional 8.1 kg) reduces drag by about 7%, giving a 5 second advantage over 4000 metres at 50 kph. From 1940–60 the pole vault world record improved by 23.5 cm, but in the next twenty years it improved by over 100 cm — mainly by improvements in the pole itself. Modern rackets in tennis and squash have increased ball speed. The Formula 1 Grand Prix car has changed out of all recognition in the past thirty years — and so on.

Technical and motor skills

have also vastly improved, due to education of coaches regarding motor skill learning and also to detailed biomechnical analysis, in sports ranging from gymnastics to the football free kick. As a biomechanist, Dick Fosbury won Olympic gold and set a high jump record by realizing that, as the centre of gravity of the body is nearer the back than the front, it made more sense to go over the high jump bar on his back, thus not needing to lift the centre of gravity quite as high, for the same height of jump. Hence the ‘Fosbury Flop’ — although it needed the technology of the raised foam landing area. Not all technical improvements are feasible; for example a new javelin technique was perfected whereby the thrower greased the javelin tail, held it initially in the middle, and span like a discus thrower before release. Use of the technique immediately led to throws beyond the then world record, but the accuracy was too uncertain for use in stadia.

Tactical innovations

and identification of weaknesses in the opposition have been assisted by videotaping and notational analyses especially of the ‘invasion’ team games, from rugby to camogie, and of the racket sports.

Sports psychology

plays a major part in most modern competition at high level, in a variety of ways, ranging from stress handling and motivation, to acceptance of defeat and of injury.

Sports nutrition and biochemistry

are vitally important, with techniques such as carbohydrate loading for muscle glycogen boosting now standard, the importance of maintaining fluid balance being recognized in a wide variety of sports, the use of creatine supplements benefitting short term anaerobic work, and promising innovations being made regarding amino acid supplementation.

Sports medicine

(including physiotherapy and podiatry) is, of course, vital, not just to help treat or even prevent injury, but also in areas such as sports amenorrhoea, due to too high volume training, which may lead into, or already be part of, the deadly triad of amenorrhoea, osteoporosis (with its sports risk of stress fractures), and eating disorders.

Team selection

is obviously of major importance and team management is no longer a perk for a long-serving official, but a full-time high profile job demanding a broad range of managerial, organizational, and personal skills.

Physical fitness

which falls into six components:(i) aerobic (cardiorespiratory) fitness — or ‘stamina’, dependent on maximal oxygen uptake, and what percentage of that maximum may be sustained during the sport, as assessed by techniques of ‘anaerobic threshold’, ‘critical power’, or the more recent ‘lactate minimum’ analysis;(ii) local muscle endurance (often, somewhat inaccurately, called anaerobic fitness), assessed in terms of peak power output (in watts), time to peak power, rate of fatigue, total work done (in kJ), and rate of recovery;(iii) muscle strength (increasingly measured on isokinetic dynamometers, to assess the force output at the contraction velocity required in the sport);(iv) muscle speed itself — often combined with muscle force to provide a measure of power;(v) flexibility; and(vi) body composition, in terms of the percentage of body fat.

Some sports, such as marathon running or sea swimming, require very high levels of fitness in just one or two areas; others, such as gymnastics, dance, and some martial arts, require high levels in almost all of them. Each sport requires an individual fitness profile and, as each competitor is different, this usually requires subtly different emphases within the training cycles. Analysis of the fitness components must always be the basis of training advice to coach and to competitor.

Sports science

is now a major feature of competition. Yet the author competed in athletics in the late 1940s and 50s, and in those days of no tracksuits, we ran in winter with newspaper down the front of our vests, and had a squirt of methylated spirits onto the back of our pharynx at the end of the training run; we changed in a ‘steamie’ attached to a public baths, and washed ourselves in its iron tubs — always with a ‘rub-down’ from an old trainer. A club member vulcanized pieces of car tyre treads onto our ex-army 30p thin-soled black plimsoles; yet on this regimen, the club, from inner-city Glasgow, won the English National Senior Cross-Country Championship and provided a string of international and Olympic team members.

Sport and health

A very large number of people engage in sport, or exercise, for the benefits of ‘health-related fitness’, with a major rise in recent years of jogging and aerobics. Sir Phillip Sydney Smith in the seventeenth century said ‘You will never live to my age except you retain your breath through exercise and your heart through joyfulness’, and famous exercise epidemiologists, Jerry Morris and Ralph Paffenbarger, have provided a very firm modern foundation for the belief that exercise is a major factor in the prevention of coronary heart disease. Aristotle (384–22 bc) pertinently observed that ‘Men may fall into ill-health as a result of hypo-activity.’ On the other hand, Hippocrates (469–399 bc) observed that ‘Health is at risk when exercise is at very high levels’, and indeed, ‘Sport for All’ implies sports injuries for all. This has long been recognized: the Scottish Maitland Folio Manuscript of 1582 (transcribed into modern English) has:Bruised muscles and broken bones
Strife, discord and spoiled bairns
Twisted in age and lame withall,
These are the beauties of football.

Sport and age

The oldest Olympic medallist was Swedish shooter, Oscar Swahn winning silver in 1920 aged 72. The oldest woman Olympian was 70-year-old Hilda Johnstone at Munich. Youngest known competitor was a 10-year-old Greek gymnast in 1896, and youngest individual medallist was Danish woman breast-stroker Inge Sorensen in 1936, at just 14. Of course, many sports now have Master's national and even world championships. In athletics, for example, these have age categories extending into the mid-90s. Norwegian Herman Smith-Johannsen was still skiing Nordic style into his eleventh decade, and George Stelback of USA was still golfing at 106. A recent Himalayan expedition had an average age of over 70, and in the final of the 1996 world indoor athletics championsips, Yekaterina Podopayeva, aged 42, just beat Mary Decker-Slaney, 38, in a thrilling 1500 metres final. Sandy Neilson swam 100 m freestyle in 58.59 s to win Olympic Gold at 17, 23 years later she swam the distance in 58.87 s, and just failed to make the USA Atlanta team.

Ergogenic aids and doping

A cynic has suggested that the difference between ergogenic work-producing aids, and doping, is that doping works. Perhaps the most bizarre such aid was the East German experimentation with rectal insufflations of air to optimize the buoyancy of swimmers; and among the most controversial — and most popular — is the use of altitude as an ergogenic aid to training. Doping itself is not new, e.g. the 1904 marathon winner Thomas Hicks was given multiple doses of strychnine and brandy while he was running! Just before the men's 100 metres in 1920, the US coach gave his men a mixture of sherry and raw eggs. Aids like that are harmless enough, but in 1960 the Danish cyclist Knut Jensen died during the Olympic road race, having taken amphetamines (which interfere with heat dissipation) and nicotinyl tartrate. Full scale Olympic doping control started in 1972, and rule 29 of the Olympic Charter states, simply, ‘Doping is forbidden.’ Hence, doping is cheating. Dr Robert Kerr, in practice in San Gabriel, was quoted as saying: … ‘in 1983 I was seeing 2000 patients for steroids alone … There were seven physicians who prescribed steroids right here in San Gabriel, and at least seventy of them in the Los Angeles area. Nationwide thousands of doctors were involved.’ The drugs causing most current concern are erythropoietin (in the aerobic endurance sports), insulin-like growth factor-1, insulin itself and nandrolone (in the strength-power sports).

A major problem facing governing bodies and national associations who ban competitors for doping is that they may be taken to court by professional athletes in terms of ‘unlawful restriction of earnings’, and the association may find itself on the end of an expensive lawsuit. There is now a whole legal area connected with sport, from arranging the contracts to taking up cases such as that of 11-year-old Teresa Bennett, who took the FA to court because their rules denied her playing in her school football (boys') team, in which she was the best player. Another case was the attempt before the Lillehamer winter Olympics of 1994, by the husband of American skater Tanya Harding, deliberately to cripple her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, by hitting her knee with an iron bar. Fortunately Kerrigan recovered, and went on to win a medal.

Sport and religion

Sport has long been seen, rightly or wrongly, as a very useful means of education, of social control, and even as a means of evangelizing. An increasing number of Christian athletes, for example Jonathan Edwards, the current triple-Jump Olympic champion and world record holder, are following the example set by 1924 400 metres champion Eric Liddell, who in 1925 went as a missionary to China. But even he was just the latest in a long line of ‘Muscular Christians.’ Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile, in 1762, was the inspiration for famous physical educators such as J. F. G. Salzmann. But Charles Kingsley and Tom Hughes are generally credited with being the pioneers of Muscular Christianity — title of a chapter in ‘Tom Brown at Oxford’ (1861) which contains: ‘The least of the muscular Christians has got hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief that a man's body is given him to be trained … then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of righteous causes. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship.’ As one of the founders (later principal) of the Working Men's College in London, Hughes launched an athletic programme there in 1854, with a cricket team and a fully equipped gymnasium. He also taught boxing in the basement. Elspeth Huxley's 1973 biography The Kingsleys noted: ‘In Amyas Leigh he created the quintessentially muscular Christian, transparent, honest, brave, strong, chivalrous, none too bright but resourceful in emergencies, chaste, loyal to God, Queen, Devon and his mother.’

Sport and nationalism

There is a powerful nationalist element behind all international sport — as those who witnessed the extreme partiality of the American crowds in the Atlanta Games will testify although Sydney 2000 was very fair. Within the UK, Wales and Scotland advertise the fact that they exist as a countries through sporting success, hence their extreme fondness for rugby and football, respectively. The Republic of Ireland gained huge recognition with Michelle Smith's three swimming 1996 Olympic gold medals. Yet among the athletes, as the current author witnessed in Munich after the terrorist attack which killed eleven members of the Israeli team, there is a very strong feeling to require future Olympic teams to march into the arena, not by country, but by event. (The competitors in each event tend to know each other very well, while hardly knowing at all the majority of their own country's team members, so it makes social sense.) Also, many felt they would prefer the Olympic flag to be raised, and an Olympic anthem to be played at medal presentations. This will not happen. The television companies have a massive incentive in playing the nationalist card to augment their viewing figures.

The sociology of sport

Finally, the whole sociology of sport, in terms of race, class, gender, local history, professionalism, empowerment, — inter multa alia — is being increasingly analysed by sports sociologists, such as Professor Jennifer Hargreaves with, for example, her widely acclaimed texts ‘Sporting Females’ and ‘Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity’, and Professor Grant Jarvie, who focusses deeply into local community sport (eg Highland Games and shinty). In addition, sport provides a very large employment outlet, being economically of major importance in the leisure and tourism, and sports equipment, clothing and shoe industries. Think of football, golf, fishing, skiing and horse-racing — and leisure sports wear. In Ireland, for example, sport is one of the country's major employers.

Sport and the arts

Don Masterton, a commentator on the arts and sport, noted that ‘If sport does have a relationship with the arts, then drama is its closest kin’, and dance indeed would seem to have a foot in both camps. Robert Frost thought that ‘writing poetry without rhyme, is like playing tennis without a net.’ Lillian Morrison wrote. ‘There is an affinity between sport and poetry. Each has power to lift us out of ourselves. They go naturally together wherever there is a zest for life.’ While we may think it the province only of poets and artists to seek beauty, consider Robert Francis' description of ‘The Skier’:He swings down like the flourish of a pen
Signing a signature of white on white
or of gymnasts:Competing not so much with one another
As with perfection,
They follow follow as voices in a fugue,
A severe music.

Sport and War

George Orwell held that ‘International sport is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard for all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence — in other words it is war minus the shooting’. Conrad Lorenz took a different view: ‘A simple and effective way of discharging aggression in an innocuous manner is to redirect it into sport.’ In war, men fight to support comrades, not to dominate the enemy, and Jean Rostrand noted: ‘In war, man is much more sheep than wolf; he follows, he obeys. War is servility, rather a certain fanaticism and credulity, but not aggression.’ Yet especially in the First World War, the boundaries with sport seem blurred, as a contemporary account shows: ‘7.30 am 1 July 1916. As the gunfire died away I saw an infantry man climb onto the parapet into No-Man's land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so, he kicked a football; a good kick, the ball rose and travelled towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.’ Thus began the blackest day in the entire history of the British Army.On through he heat of slaughter
Where gallant comrades fall
Where blood is poured like water
They drive the trickling ball
Anon .
There is a hill in England
Green fields and a school I know
Where the balls fly fast in summer
and the whispering Elm trees grow
There is a hill in Flanders
Heaped with a thousand slain
Where the shells fly at night and noontide,
And the ghosts that died in vain.
Everard Owen Three hills and other poems.
Again: ‘… on Christmas Eve, along several stretches of the Flanders front, curious festive scenes took place, including some of he most incredible sporting scenes in the war — in at least two places along the front, footballs were produced and impromptu matches were started between German and British soldiers.’These happy boys who left the football field,
The hockey ground, the river, the eleven,
In a far grimmer game, with high elated souls,
To score their goals
W. M. Letts Golden Boys
In 1884, headmaster Haslam of Rippon school emphasized the value of sport in his Speech Day sermon: ‘ Wellington said that the playfields of Eton won the battle of Waterloo, and there was no doubt that the training of English boys in the cricket and football field enabled them … to undergo fatiguing marches in Egypt … to stand up to work, and how to give and take a blow.’ This aspect of sport is still subject to contemporary debate.

Craig Sharp

See also exercise; fitness; martial arts; war and the body.


views updated Jun 11 2018


SPORTS. Sport was an essential and socially significant pastime in the early modern world, an arena in which individual identity and ability were expressed by king and milkmaid alike. Capable sportsmanship at tennis, jousting, and even wrestling were increasingly perceived as the markings of a strong monarchy, which determined the athletic displays and rites of passage that prevailed in an aristocratic court. The sporting culture, in turn, was philosophically sanctioned by many humanists who extolled the "gentlemanlike pastimes" of swimming, archery, swordplay, and horseback riding as valuable components of any elite education.

Peasants and those of the lower orders also engaged in sport for their own purposes, reinforcing community cohesion by carving out their own particular spheres of play. Not all sport was universally embraced, however, and over the course of the period Puritans and others began to lament the "devilish" activity that joined other activities such as drinking, gambling, and dancing to produce "moral degeneracy." Nevertheless, sport prevailed against these assaults and emerged from the period more varied and popular than ever.

In the Book of the Courtier (1528), Baldassare Castiglione (14781529) set the tone through his admonitions regarding proper court behavior and etiquette, in which sport occupiedat least for malesa central and elevated position. Sport, however, was conceived by such writers in very different terms than those who came before (or perhaps since). For them, personal skill at a game such as archery was offset by the concept of Fortuna ('Lady luck'), a capricious goddess who determined the tides and turns of one's own personal luck. Sport was also imbued with a humanist regard for man, his body as well as his soul. According to Castiglione, the perfect man at court was "well built and shapely of limb," and displayed his physical capabilities by excelling at games of wararchery, horsemanship, and swordplayas well as less martial physical activity, notably swimming, running, throwing, and jumping. Especially in games of mock war, such as jousting, the point was to achieve individual distinction on a physical level, as one performed on a stage that recalled traditions of military triumph. Even kings entered the game in this sense, as was the case with the famous encounter on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, when Henry VIII of England engaged Francis I of France in a wrestling match, alongside other gaming activities.

Despite its dangers and the increasing obsolescence of mounted and armored warfare on the battlefield, jousting sports continued to flourish in the form of fencing, which witnessed a shift to the long thin-bladed rapier and the use of point and the lunge, and with it an increasing emphasis on speed, dexterity, and technique. Another sport in which actual weapons figured prominently was archery, which sustained its popularity even as the bow and arrow became increasingly archaic in war. According to Roger Ascham (15151568) in 1546, "How honest a pastime for the mind [is archery]; how wholesome an exercise for the body; not vile for great men to use, not costly for poor men to sustain." Finally, horses also continued in their martial importance, as they were used in the hunt, and in races such as the Italian palio and in England during annual competitions. Dressage, which was an extremely difficult, technical, disciplinedand time-boundform of classical riding, was undertaken by military academies, though it, too, enjoyed a reputation as a more elevated sporting spectacle, and one that reinforced and perhaps played out social hierarchies in presenting the mounted rideraccording to one Tudor writeras a force of "majesty and dread to inferior persons." At the same time, the increasing precision of horsemanship, in the form of dressage, reflected a greater emphasis on uniformity and mathematical rules, as reflected in the writings of Descartes or by the early modern military shift to the use of drill.

Other activities enjoyed by the upper levels of society included tennis, which became the sport of kings such as Henry VIII, most notably, and was referred to in the writings of Erasmus, More, and Montaigne (with the latter's brother dying after being hit in the head with a tennis ballno trivial accident when balls were frequently decried as too hard). After 1600, however, tennis declined in popularity, though it continued to ebb and flow in the elite consciousness alongside the new sport of golf.

Meanwhile, though football and related communal games tended to be spurned by elites and their writers, the similar game of càlcio ('soccer') flourished in Italy, allowing gentlemen, in the words of Cardinal Silvio Antoniano, to appear "more erect and more eager, and [enabling] them to meet sadness and depression with unruffled brow." Like other sports of the day, càlcio was affected by increasing bureaucratic intervention and mathematical quantification, as rules were drawn up to establish standards of play as well as objective and (increasingly) recorded scoring systems.

While sport among the elite was lauded by religious and secular leaders, sport among the lower orders was subject to greater condemnation on the part of authorities, who might have feared the disruptive and violent potential it could contain. The church and civic officials had long attempted to curtail football and other peasant games, with writers such as Sir Thomas Elyot (1490?1546) advocating that football, in particular, be "put in perpetual silence." Urban footballers, or those who practiced their exertions near churches, were particularly odious to churchwardens, city administrators, and other leaders, who understandably feared the destruction of property. The "bloody and murdering" practice of football continued, however, in spite of Puritan hostility and denunciation, and despite the increasingly restricted fields that were fenced in after the enclosure movement in England. While games were allowed within proscribed time periods and special festival occasions such as Shrove Tuesday or May Day, the community- and identity-reinforcing benefits of sports proved too enticing for villagers and townspeople alike.

Such attachments were due in part to the fact that certain sports were so embedded in the peasant tradition, where footballusually involving two opposing teams that kicked or threw the ball against the opponents' goalsextended back centuries. In England the game had mythical origins, with claims that it had originated among Roman legionnaires in Britain, or later, among Saxons. Whatever the truth, the term futball first appears in records of the fourteenth century, with indications that the sport had already existed for a while. Similar to football, but more like modern-day soccer, was the game known in France as la soule à pied, which also extended back to the Middle Ages and involved opposing villages or specifically designated individuals competing to propel a leather ball forward by feet alone. Shouler à la crosse which would evolve, with American Indian contributions, into modern lacrosseinvolved similar feats using sticks, while the stick-based game of hockeyderived either from the French hocquet, meaning 'shepherd's staff', or the Anglo-Saxon hoc, meaning 'hook'also originated in the Middle Ages.

Less physically taxing than fencing or football, though perceived as sport by upper and lower orders alike, were gambling games and related pastimes such as cockfighting. Though an ancient and universal game, dicing in early modern Europe continued its popularity and used the familiar cubed objects rather than the original knucklebones, though some dice were carved in the image of men or beasts. German mercenaries called landsknechts (literally, 'servants of the country') were particularly renowned dicing gamblers of the time, while knights and ladies, along with children and villagers, also continued to participate. Not surprisingly, objections were raised by Puritans, although enforcement of prohibitions was uneven. Gambling was not simply a "profane exercise" but also quite clearly a sin and banned in places such as John Calvin's Geneva. As one epigrammatic writer put it in 1636, the banning of sport and games resulted in "dull iron times" that made one long for "the Golden Age's Glories." Restrictions were subsequently eased, however, in reaction to the failed suppression of sport; partly as a result, the eighteenth century witnessed a veritable explosion of games and gambling, which continued, as they already had, to provide a sphere in which to exhibit, perform, show off, display physical prowess, and fashion one's identity through the kick of a ball, the lunge of a sword, or the roll of Fortuna -imbued dice.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Castiglione, Baldassare ; Cities and Urban Life ; Court and Courtiers ; Enclosure ; Festivals ; Gambling ; Games and Play ; Humanists and Humanism ; Hunting ; Peasantry ; Popular Culture ; Puritanism ; Tournament .


Baker, William J. Sports in the Western World. Totowa, N.J., 1982.

Cox, R. W. History of Sport: A Guide to the Literature and Sources of Information. Frodsham, U.K., 1994.

Dunning, Eric. Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sport, Violence, and Civilization. London and New York, 1999.

Mason, Tony, ed. Sport in Britain: A Social History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1989.

Sarah Covington


views updated May 09 2018



Sports are group games and individual activities involving physical activity and skills.


Sports help children develop physical skills, get exercise , make friends, have fun, learn to play as a member of a team, learn to play fair, and improve self-esteem .

Participation in sports is a great way of staying active and offers wonderful rewards for mental health. Being involved in sports has been proven to help children learn valuable skills for dealing with life's ups and downs. They teach youth how to interact with others and work as a team. This skill facilitates working with others in other ways such as on a class project or a school play. Sports also help students become more independent and feel better about themselves. The result is positive self-esteem and self-confidence, which are extremely important for determining later happiness and success.

Sports also offer an enjoyable, exciting environment in which to learn how to handle both failure and success. Everyone wins and loses some of the time in both sports and other endeavors. Winning feels great and empowering but can also cause a young person to feel pressure and anxiety in the next attempt to win. Losing usually produces feelings of sadness, depression, and disappointment. Learning how to cope with these different feelings fosters good mental health.

Another aspect of sports that contributes to a healthy mind is goal-setting. Young people who have goals are more likely to be self-motivated and are usually able to accomplish more because they know what they need to do in order to get ahead. Without goals, adolescents tend to lack direction and focus. In sports, goal setting is essential for improving individually and working as a team. This is also true in other pursuits. For example, if a student wants to get better grades, reaching specific goals, such as studying for a certain period of time each night, is the most likely way to achieve them.

SPORTSMANSHIP American sports culture has increasingly become a business. The highly stressful and competitive attitude prevalent at colleges and in professional sports affects the world of children's sports and athletics, creating an unhealthy environment. The attitudes and behavior taught to children in sports carry over into adulthood. Parents should take an active role in helping their child develop good sportsmanship, according to a 2002 health advisory issued by the journal Clinical Reference Systems.

To help adolescents get the most out of sports, parents need to be actively involved. Quoting from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Web site, parental involvement includes the following steps:

  • providing emotional support and positive feedback
  • attending all or some games and talking about them afterward
  • having realistic expectations for your child
  • learning the sport and supporting your child's involvement
  • helping your child talk with you about experiences with the coach and other team members
  • helping your child handle disappointments and losing
  • modeling respectful spectator behavior

EXTREME SPORTS Extreme sports in the early 2000s are becoming increasingly popular among young people. They offer the thrill of facing difficult challenges and overcoming obstacles. Extreme sports get the heart racing and put the body and mind to the test in the face of danger. However, with the many physical and mental benefits of extreme sports comes the risk of injuries. It is essential to work with a trained instructor and use the necessary safety equipment when doing any kind of extreme sport.

Extreme sports are not for everyone. However, those looking for bigger challenges in their quest for physical fitness have many options, including rock and ice climbing, surfing, whitewater rafting, wakeboarding, water-skiing, mountain-bike racing, bicycle stunt-riding, skydiving, skateboarding, and extreme snowboarding. There are many camps around the country that teach extreme sports to kids and teenagers. Anyone can find the nearest extreme sports camp or more general information by typing "extreme sports" on any Internet search engine. There are thousands of Web sites devoted to these activities.


An infant is capable of participating in only a limited amount of athletic activity. Still, many parents worry about their child's motor skill development and wonder how they can help develop these skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises parents that normal play with adults is more than enough physical stimulus to encourage normal development of motor skills. In years of research, no one has produced any evidence that increased stimulation of infants increases development of motor skills in later years.

Swimming is perhaps the only sport infants are really able to participate in. While infants instinctively hold their breath when immersed in water, pediatricians warn that they also swallow water, which can produce hazardous side effects. The AAP advises that infants should not participate in swimming activities until they are at least four months old.


Toddlers are naturally curious and exploratory, leading them to develop independence skills such as walking and talking. These should be encouraged by adults, as should frequent interaction with other children their own age. Athletic activity at this age should be free form and spontaneous, with adult interference or direction held to a minimum. The AAP suggests that adult intervention, such as teaching a child to throw and catch a baseball, has little effect on later motor skills development, and they warn that the repetition of such practicing often stifles the natural urge to play creatively. It has also been shown that until children reach ages of five to seven, their vision is not sufficiently developed to follow objects that are moving quickly through their line of sight, such as thrown balls.


Children are not little adults when it comes to sports and physical activities. As reported in Heidi Splete's article on age-appropriate sports skills, Sally Harris, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in Palo Alto, California, asserts that early childhood sports should focus on skill development rather than competitiveness. Activities should allow children to learn by trial and error with minimal instruction. Competition is mostly a distraction for preschool-age children. Appropriate athletic activities for children of this age are dance, beginning gymnastics (primarily tumbling), and swimming. Free-form play with peers is probably most important, both for its socializing effect and for the creative expression it offers.

Sports activity in early childhood should have three basic components, according to Harris. They are acquisition of basic motor skills, social development by the child's interaction with coaches and teammates, and cognitive development in understanding and following instructions and executing strategy and tactics.

School age

By the age of five or six, children begin rapidly developing motor skills. Also, posture and balance become automatic, and reaction times become faster. However, learning complex rules is often difficult and trying to teach a child a sport requiring a great deal of instruction, such as baseball, football, or soccer, may only cause frustration and a lack of interest. A child's inability in these areas can also cause a sense of failure and provoke a life-long aversion to organized sports. One good way to get a child interested in sports during these years is to engage in physical activity the whole family can participate in, such as taking long walks or bicycle rides. Most pediatricians suggest that complex team sports that require coaching or memorization should be postponed until a child reaches the age of nine or ten. Between the ages of six and nine years, beginning soccer and baseball are appropriate sports, especially if the focus is on getting children interested in sports or physical activity.

By the time a child reaches adolescence , his or her interest in sports is most likely at its peak. Children of this age often collect sports memorabilia, wear clothes resembling the uniforms of their favorite players, and spend larger amounts of time watching, participating in, and talking about sports. At ages 10 through 12, children can improve traditional athletic skills and master complex motor skills. They are able to play sports involving strategies and teamwork, but growth spurts can bring physical and emotional changes that parents and coaches should be aware of, according to Harris.

In the last several decades of the twentieth century, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of school districts that require physical education classes for students. As a result, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set an objective to increase the number of children six years of age and older who exercise on a daily basis at light to moderate levels for at least 30 minutes.

A 2002 survey of student participation in extracurricular sports activities at middle schools showed a typical program was offered on average 3.6 hours per week. It also revealed that 26.7 percent of boys and 22.9 percent of girls participated in the activities. The most commonly offered activities at middle schools surveyed were basketball (31.7%), track and field (10.3%), soccer (9.4%), tennis (6.7%), and football (5.4%).

Since the middle schools offered a small number of sports activity programs, the survey recommends middle schools add a variety of noncompetitive activities, such as dance, aerobics, martial arts, jogging, walking, and yoga . Providing programs that appeal to a wider range of students at all grade levels of middle and high school would likely increase participation in extracurricular sports and physical activity programs.

The social benefits of athletics are especially important for young girls. In fact, it has been argued that girls are more in need of the benefits of athletics than boys. Adolescent girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys, and many suffer from the false belief that their bodies are useful only to the extent that they are attractive to boys. Statistics compiled by the Women's Sports Foundation also demonstrate that young female athletes receive substantial benefits from participation in sports. They found that girls who participated in school athletics are 92 percent less likely to use drugs, including tobacco and alcohol; and 80 percent less likely to get pregnant. Additionally, they are three times more likely to graduate from college.

Common problems

The most common problem in adolescent sports is sports-related injuries. An estimated 30 million children in the United States play in organized sports but about 35 percent drop out each year, usually due to physical injury or emotional stress. Each year, hospital emergency rooms see more than 2.6 million sports-related injuries in young people, according to an article in the April 8, 2002 issue of U. S. News & World Report.

Among children ages 5 to 14 years, the top sports injuries annually are: bicycling, 336,250; basketball, 193,400; football, 185,740; baseball and softball, 117,250; and soccer, 85,430. The number of other sports injuries include skateboarding, 49,930; hockey, 25,400; and gymnastics, 26,950.

Among young people ages 15 to 24 years, the top sports injuries are: basketball, 277,00; football, 171,290; bicycling, 95,720; baseball and softball, 88,340; and soccer, 68,790, according to the article. Other sports injuries included general exercising, 38,560; snowboarding, 29,700; hockey, 28,070; and skateboarding, 27,470.

Parental concerns

The National Athletic Training Association encourages parents to ask questions of coaches when their children become involved in sports. These questions include the following:

  • What is the level of the coach's education? Does it include training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid?
  • What does the coach do when an injury happens? What is the protocol for returning to play following an injury?
  • Is there an on-site athletic healthcare provider or consulting team physician? Does the coach knows about any health conditions of the child and have phone numbers where parents can be reached in an emergency?
  • Are there emergency medications available for children with asthma or allergies?
  • What are the inclement weather guidelines, especially for lightning storms and extreme heat?
  • Is the athletic equipment safe, properly fitted, and in good condition?
  • Are there any supervised preseason and in-season conditioning programs?

When to call the doctor

If a child receives a soft tissue injury, such as a strain or sprain, or a bone injury, the best immediate treatment is ice, compression, elevation of the injury, and rest. Get professional treatment if any injury is severe, such as a fracture, profuse bleeding, dislocated joint, prolonged swelling, or prolonged or severe pain . Playing rigorous sports in the heat requires close monitoring of both body and weather conditions. Heat injuries are always dangerous and can be fatal. Children perspire less than adults and require a higher core body temperature to trigger sweating. Heat-related illnesses include dehydration , heat exhaustion (nausea , dizziness , weakness, headache , pale and moist skin, heavy perspiration, normal or low body temperature, weak pulse, dilated pupils, disorientation, and fainting spells), and heat stroke (headache, dizziness, confusion, and hot dry skin, possibly leading to blood vessel collapse, coma, and death). Professional medical help should be sought for heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and any other heat-related illnesses that do not quickly clear up.



Erickson, Darrell. Molding Young Athletes: How Parents and Coaches Can Positively Influence Kids in Sports. Oregon, WI: Purington Press, 2004.

Fish, Joel. 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child. New York: Fireside, 2003.

Malina, Robert M., and Michael A. Clark. Youth Sports: Perspectives for a New Century. Monterey, CA: Coaches Choice Books, 2003.

Shannon, Joyce Brennfleck. Sports Injuries Information for Teens: Health Tips about Sports Injuries and Injury Prevention. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2003.


Goldberg, Michael J. "Kids Dropping Out of Sports." Pediatric News (February 2002): 25.

Ishee, Jimmy H. "Participation in Extracurricular Physical Activity in Middle Schools." The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (April 2003): 10.

Lord, Mary. "Dangerous Games: Sports Injuries among Children." U.S. News & World Report (April 8, 2002): 44.

Metzl, Jordan D. "Sports Should Be About Fun." Pediatric News (October 2002): 32.

Splete, Heidi. "Developmental Stages of Sports Readiness Can't Be Rushed: Accept Some Level of Chaos." Family Practice News (Sept. 1, 2002): 33.

."Work on Age-appropriate Sports Skills: How Much, How Soon?" Pediatric News (October 2002): 28.


American Academy of Pediatrics. 141 Northwest Point Blvd., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007. Web site: <>.

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. 1 AMS Circle, Bethesda, MD 20892. Web site: <>.


"Children and Sports." American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, January 2002. Available online at <> (accessed October 14, 2004).

"Sports Injury Prevention: Children and Adolescents." Safe USA, July 14, 2002. Available online at <> (accessed October 14, 2004).

Teresa G. Odle

Ken R. Wells


Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) An emergency procedure designed to stimulate breathing and blood flow through a combination of chest compressions and rescue breathing. It is used to restore circulation and prevent brain death to a person who has collapsed, is unconscious, is not breathing, and has no pulse.

Cognitive ability Relating to the process of acquiring knowledge by using reasoning, intuition, or perception.

Dehydration An excessive loss of water from the body. It may follow vomiting, prolonged diarrhea, or excessive sweating.

Heat exhaustion A condition of physical weakness or collapse often accompanied by nausea, muscle cramps, and dizziness, that is caused by exposure to intense heat.

Heat stroke A serious condition that results from exposure to extreme heat. The body loses its ability to cool itself. Severe headache, high fever, and hot, dry skin may result. In severe cases, a person with heat stroke may collapse or go into a coma.

Motor skills Controlled movements of muscle groups. Fine motor skills involve tasks that require dexterity of small muscles, such as buttoning a shirt. Tasks such as walking or throwing a ball involve the use of gross motor skills.


views updated May 14 2018





Sport is a social phenomenon that deeply permeates societies throughout the world. Millions of people view, participate in, or discuss sporting events on a near daily basis. Further, sport has become a multibillion-dollar industry that employs thousands of people. As sport has become more pervasive and as the size and magnitude of the sport industry has grown, it has increasingly come under the scrutiny of sociological researchers. The purpose of this entry is to overview some of the major issues and insights developed from a sociological analysis of sport. This overview is categorized into two sections. First is a discussion of sociological studies of sports as an institution that has significant implications for the lives of participants, their families, and the communities in which they live. The second category of studies views sports as a microcosm of society, which provides a fertile field to test sociological theory and gain insights about society. This entry continues with an overview of both of these research agendas.


Research on sports as a social institution has been guided by two very different theoretical perspectives. On the one hand, researchers using a systems model, largely derived from functional theory, tend to see sport as an institution that contributes to society by reinforcing major cultural values such as success, achievement, competition, work, and cooperation, and also increases community or school unity. Other sociologists examine sport from a conflict perspective where it is viewed as an opiate of the masses (Coakley 2001; Eitzen 2001).

Sport as an Inspiration: The Functional Perspective Numerous studies have been conducted that seek to determine the consequences of sports involvement for participants. Prominent among this research are studies seeking to understand the relationship between involvement in sports during childhood and adolescence and a variety of simultaneous and adult outcomes. While a variety of possible outcomes have been explored, two representative examples of this line of research are described herein. These examples include the relationship between sports participation and adult income and sports participation and the sexual behavior of teenage females.

A number of researchers have empirically explored the relationship between sports participation and adult income. These studies have consistently found that individuals who participate in youth or high school athletics generally have adult earnings that are higher than individuals who do not participate in sports. For the most part, these relationships remain significant when factors such as race, parents socioeconomic status, and parents educational attainment are statistically controlled.

Similarly, researchers such as Tamela McNulty Eitle and David J. Eitle (2002) have determined that sports participation is strongly associated with the sexual behavior of adolescent females. This research found that adolescent females who play sports are less likely to have ever had sexual intercourse (Miller et al. 1999), have an older age of onset of sexual activity (Brown et al. 1997; Miller et al. 1998), and have higher rates of contraceptive use (Miller et al. 1999). Even after adolescence, Eitle and Eitle found that those who participated in sports were less likely to become pregnant outside of marriage and to have had fewer lifetime sex partners.

Researchers have attempted to explain why participation in athletics tends to have these positive outcomes. Explanations include physical appearance; it is argued that being stronger and healthier provides advantages in both athletic participation and the work force. Christopher Shillings 1992 findings maintain that the physical capital accrued through sports participation is convertible to other forms of advantage in other areas of life. Researchers James Curtis and colleagues argued in their 2003 work that athletes gain self-confidence, which leads to better choices; they learn important interpersonal skills, and athletic involvement provides visibility and social networks.

Sport as an Opiate: The Conflict Perspective Some scholars argue that sport is an institution that provides the illusion that success can be achieved by anyone with talent and who is willing to work hard. As a result, sport is one of the institutions that allows deep and persistent patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality to continue. Thus, because a few minority athletes have become extremely famous and wealthy, society is lulled into thinking that prejudice, discrimination, and racism are largely problems of the past. In addition, some maintain that sport is a powerful reinforcer of a racist ideology. For example, African Americans are typically represented as being athletically superior. Unfortunately, concomitant is the belief that they are mentally inferior. Thus from an observation of sport one is given the impression that minority athletes succeed because of physical prowess, while white athletes succeed through perseverance, hard work, and intelligence. To show that this racist ideology persists into the twenty-first century, in 2004 J. R. Woodward examined the sports guides dedicated to critiquing collegiate players eligible for the annual National Football League draft. He found that African American players were more likely than white players of their same position to be described in physical rather than mental terms.

Also from the conflict perspective, sport can be viewed as a tool used by the advantaged to help them maintain their privileged positions. In his book Beer and Circus (2000) , Murray Sperber discussed how modern college sports are used as an opiate of the masses. He noted that since the mid-twentieth century the cost of college education at large state universities has increased dramatically. At the same time the quality of that education has diminished as class sizes have significantly increased and a much higher proportion of the classes are taught by graduate students or part-time faculty. Sperber argued that to distract students from the fact that they are paying more and getting less, colleges have placed greater emphasis on sports. Thus, rather than demanding academic change, students focus on the upcoming football or basketball game. Meanwhile, so-called student-athletes are recruited to fill the stadium and keep alumni donations flowing. The exploitation of these student-athletes is evident as the vast majority will not have the benefits of a career in professional sports and are placed in circumstances where academic success is unlikely. When their eligibility has expired, these former student-athletes leave college, often without a degree and lacking the skills necessary for success in life outside of athletics. Similarly, Douglas E. Foleys 1994 ethnographic study of a Texas high school describes how high school football is an agent of socialization that reinforces existing patterns of race and gender inequality.


Some researchers in the sociology of sport argue that sport is a microcosm of society. A 2004 book by Franklin Foer (2004) describes how soccer can explain the world. Thus sport, like society, has become increasingly bureaucratized and commercialized and continues to exhibit patterns of racism and sexism. Further, because sport tends to be open and visible, it provides an excellent lens to study these issues and test relevant theories. To follow are several examples showing how studies of sports are used to gain insight about society.

Professional sport represents the epitome of capitalism, and much can be learned about labor relations in general by watching the conflict between professional sports team owners and athletes. The actions of professional athletes closely parallel the actions of other workers as they seek higher wages and better working conditions. Like other workers, professional athletes have sought redress in the courts and they have formed unions and organized strikes. At the same time, owners attempt to keep wages low so their profits will be greater.

In addition, much can be learned about race relations in the United States from sports as circumstances in sport generally reflect circumstances in the remainder of society. While sport appears on the surface to be a very meritocratic institution, where participants are rewarded strictly on the basis of their accomplishments, a careful examination reveals extensive patterns of inequality. For example, while minority athletes are visible and numerous in sports such as basketball and football, they are underrepresented in many other sports. Further, minorities are underrepresented in positions of power in virtually all sports. The owner of nearly every professional sports franchise is white, minorities are rare in the upper management of sports, and most coaches are white. For example, during the 2005 college football season, only 3 of the 117 teams playing Division I football had a minority head coach. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that minority assistant college football coaches perceived less career-related opportunity, were less satisfied with their careers, and had greater occupational turnover expectations than their white counterparts.

Among players, sociologists have detected a phenomenon called stacking. Racial stacking is the over- or underrepresentation of players of certain races in particular positions in team sports. For example, quarterbacks in football and pitchers and catchers in baseball have traditionally been white, while running backs and defensive backs in football and outfielders in baseball are much more likely to be minority. Again, this pattern reinforces a racist ideology as white athletes dominate positions of power where mental skills and leadership are essential, while minority athletes dominate positions where pure athletic skill is more critical.

There are also extensive differences by race in the sports that individuals play. In 2003 Pat Goldsmith conducted a study of the racial patterns of school sports participation and used these differences as a forum to test economic and cultural theories to explain these differences. Economic or structural theories predict that differences by race exist because of economic differences across races. Cultural or racial theories would predict that differences would exist even when socioeconomic status was equal. He found that economic theories best predict the sports that whites play, while cultural theories best predict the sports that blacks play.

It should also be noted that similar patterns of inequality in sports are found relative to gender. In college and high school, female sports generally receive only a minority of the athletic budget and the coaches of female teams have significantly lower salaries. In sum, the sociology of sport is a new and dynamic subdiscipline with the potential for significant insights about sociological theory and about societies in general.

SEE ALSO Sports Industry


Adler, Patricia A., and Peter Adler. 1989. The Gloried Self: The Aggrandizement and The Constriction of Self. Social Psychology Quarterly 52 (4): 299310.

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Cunningham, George B., and Michael Sagas. 2004. Racial Differences in Occupational Turnover Intent among NCAA Division IA Assistant Football Coaches. Sociology of Sport Journal 21: 8492.

Curtis, James, William McTeer, and Phillip White. 2003. Do High School Athletes Earn More Pay? Youth Sport Participation and Earnings as an Adult. Sociology of Sport Journal 20: 6076.

Eide, R., and N. Ronan. 2001. Is Participation in High School Athletics an Investment or a Consumption Good? Economics of Education Review 20: 431442.

Eitle, Tamela McNulty, and David J. Eitle. 2002. Just Dont Do It: High School Sports Participation and Young Female Adult Sexual Behavior. Sociology of Sport Journal 19: 403418.

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Eitzen, D. Stanley. 2001. Sport in Contemporary Society. 6th ed. New York: Worth Publishers.

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Foer, Franklin. 2004. How Soccer Explains the World. New York: HarperCollins.

Foley, Douglas E. 1994. Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goldsmith, Pat Antonio. 2003. Race Relations and Racial Patterns in School Sports Participation. Sociology of Sport Journal 20: 147171.

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Sage, George H. 1998. Power and Ideology in American Sport. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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Sperber, Murray. 2000. Beer and Circus. New York: Henry Holt.

Woodward, J. R. 2004. Professional Football Scouts: An Investigation of Racial Stacking. Sociology of Sport Journal 21: 356375.

Don E. Albrecht


views updated May 08 2018


Sports are activities involving physical exertion and skill in such areas as strength, speed, stamina, and dexterity in which an individual or team competes against another for entertainment of the participants or an audience.

Water-Based Sports

Sports that occur in or on the water are called water sports. There are different types of popular water sports around the world.

Swimming and Diving.

Swimming is the act of moving through water by using the arms, legs, and body in motions called strokes, such as the backstroke, breaststroke, and crawl. Competitive swimming is one of the world's most popular sports. Diving is the act of plunging into water, usually off a diving "board." People dive competitively by performing airborne acrobatics before entering the water.


Surfing is the act of riding on waves. Traditionally, people surf by lying, kneeling, or standing on a surfboard; however, they may also surf with just their body (bodysurfing), or with a sail attached to the board (windsurfing). Competition takes place wherever waves are ridden, from Hawaii to indoor wave pools. Surfers are judged based on the wave's size, the distance ridden, and the quality of maneuvers.


Waterskiing is an activity in which people are pulled behind a motorized boat with skis attached to their feet. The types of competition skiing include: slalom (skier passes buoys), trick (skier performs tricks), jump (skier is propelled off ramp to maximize distance in air), and race (powerboat with skier behind). Sport variations include barefoot skiing, wakeboarding, and kneeboarding.*

Canoeing and Kayaking.

Canoes and kayaks are small crafts that are pointed at both ends.* In sprint competitions, speed races on still waters are performed over different distances in a straight line. Slalom races are timed competitions held on a rapid river through gates suspended over the water.


Rowing is a method of moving a boat through water by using oars. One of the world's most honored rowing competitions is the Henley Regatta that is held annually on the Thames River near Oxford, England.


Fishing is the act of catching fish for sport or food. Competitions and tournaments focus on specific game fish, such as trout, tarpon, and bass. Competitions include cash awards and prizes for various categories, including biggest fish caught, first fish caught, and most fish caught.


Sailing is the act of moving across water in a vessel powered by wind. The main types of competition are closed-course (small lakes or inshore waters), coast (large lakes, inland waters, or offshore), and ocean. In ocean racing, competing vessels navigate over open sea. The America's Cup Race is an international yacht race in which crews compete while representing their home countries.

see also Recreation.

William Arthur Atkins


McManners, Hugh. Water Sports: An Outdoor Adventure Handbook. New York: DKPublishers, 1997.

* See "Recreation" for a photograph of a wakeboarder executing a flip.

* See "Transportation" for a photograph of a sea kayaker.


views updated May 29 2018

sport / spôrt/ • n. 1. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment: team sports such as baseball and soccer | [as adj.] (sports) a sports center. ∎ dated entertainment; fun: it was considered great sport to trip him up. ∎ archaic a source of amusement or entertainment: I do not wish to show myself the sport of a man like Williams.2. inf. a person who behaves in a good or specified way in response to teasing, defeat, or a similarly trying situation: go on, be a sport! Angela's a bad sport.3. Biol. an animal or plant showing abnormal or striking variation from the parent type, esp. in form or color, as a result of spontaneous mutation.• v. 1. [tr.] wear or display (a distinctive or noticeable item): he was sporting a huge handlebar mustache.2. [intr.] amuse oneself or play in a lively, energetic way: the children sported in the water.PHRASES: in sport for fun: I have assumed the name was given more or less in sport.make sport of dated make fun of.the sport of kings horse racing.DERIVATIVES: sport·er n.