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  • Taking the Sports Brief: A Review Essay
  • David Rowe (bio)
Susan Birrell and Mary G. McDonald, Reading Sport: Critical Essays on Power and Representation. (Northeastern University Press)
Jeff Benedict, Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women. (Northeastern University Press)
John Bloom, To Show What an Indian Can Do: Sports at Native American Boarding Schools. (University of Minnesota Press)
Alan Bairner, Sport, Nationalism, and Globalization: European and North American Perspectives. (State University of New York Press)

The literature of sports has, over the last four decades, changed substantially in quantitative and qualitative measure. The space devoted to sports has expanded on the more traditional fronts, such as reportage, high journalism, and hagiography, while also developing among the more postmodern genres, including celebrity fetish gossip and business sentiment analysis. In academic and public intellectual writing on sports, the more anodyne forms of narrative history and functionalist sociology have progressively been supplemented and challenged by a more critical oeuvre. This work has been dedicated to the task of de-naturalizing sports shibboleths, re-framing the sports gaze, disinterring its darkest and most repressed secrets, and enunciating its suppressed histories.

The books reviewed here are part of this gathering tendency in sports discourse. They constitute responses to the relentless growth of what I call the media sports cultural complex and the retarded development of critical sports studies in academe and the broader public sphere. These works invite those engaged with sports as participants and spectators — which is to say just about every sentient human being who, willingly or unwillingly, must in some way come to terms with the sports behemoth — to look anew at the strange phenomenon so aggressively consuming the spaces between time, space and culture. They demand a re-consideration of this unlikely mèlange of physical folk play, bourgeois state imagination and the commodification of culture that we call sports. These works offer opportunities for the ‘un-reading’ of sports’ living texts as a precondition of the ‘re-reading’ demanded by its persistent and self-reinforcing mythological power.

Reading Sport: Critical Essays on Power and Representation takes a textualist approach derived from, as the editors note in their introduction, “a new form of critical sport analysis” (3). Events and celebrities here become texts to be read and analysed in terms of what they can reveal about “relations of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, nationality, physical ability, and the like” (3). Sports, once largely cut off from the main game of social critique or treated as merely epiphenomenal in relation to the principal engines of the social formation, is in this context a highly instructive vantage point from which the multiple layers of social life and their attendant power relations can be ‘seen through’. These structures of dominance are, according to Birrell and McDonald, characterized by interdependent and multi-causal “power lines” that in this work are theoretically framed within “critical cultural studies” (4). Hence, the “reproduction of power through ideological means” (11) is the main concern of the anthology, with sports regarded as the refractive screen through which the complex workings of the social world can be apprehended in a vibrant and popularly resonant way.

Reading Sport takes a mystery (or, more accurately, open secret) tour of the bizarre American landscape of sports pages, chat shows, billboards, motivational autobiographies, gossip columns, Internet shrines, court reports, business magazines, rise-and-fall films, network news and supermarket tabloids. In so doing, this anthology of (mostly) previously published work teases out the multiple, intersecting power relations and “lines” that demand critique of, rather than resigned fascination with, the American sports celebrity ‘show’. This landscape, peopled by the likes of Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Tonya Harding, and O.J. Simpson, is mapped for what it can reveal of “hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, economic power, and white privilege” (11). The first reading, by Nick Trujillo of the media representation of baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan, finds all these present in ideological profusion. The author maps out a range of features of hegemonic masculinity and tracks Nolan’s career through a youth characterized by the media’s emphasis on the remarkable corporeal power of his arm (but with some reservations concerning his affective self-control), to...

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