- Sport, Power, and Society: Institutions and Practices: A Reader
In this volume, Robert E. Washington and David Karen have brought together a wide variety of articles that help the reader examine the interaction between sports and other social institutions to better understand the underlying social influences that impact the actions of sports leaders and organizations. The editors contend that sport in its purest form is an ideal model of a meritocracy, a system of rewards based on one’s contributions to society. In sports, competition occurs but with an assumed “even playing field” where anyone who works hard can win. In addition, sports’ meritocratic practices are often open to the public and transparent for all to see. As such, the meritocratic model found in sports can serve as a model for other public institutions.
However, sports do not occur in a vacuum, and other social institutions can affect its meritocratic practices. These other social institutions have their own spheres of influence, and, taken as a whole, they form an intricate “power grid.” Where sport positions itself in this power grid affects how it reacts to the social pressures from the other social institutions. For example, through multi-million dollar television contracts, the media have commercialized sports where the teams’s goal of delivering audience shares may outweigh their goal of winning games. Similarly, racial, ethnic, and religious beliefs of team owners and management may prevent teams from hiring the best coaches and players by employing more socially desirable coaches and players. The editors feel that if teams fail to maintain their meritocratic principles, they are more likely to fail on the field.
To tease out these nuances regarding power, social institutions, and sport, the editors chose articles representing five social institutions (political economy, media, education, politics, and fandom/community) and two sets of institutional practices (body culture and violence and injuries). The book begins with an essay on meritocracy and sports and is followed by seven chapters representing the aforementioned social institutions and practices. Each chapter opens with an essay written by the editors to highlight each chapter’s key theoretical issues and is followed by four or five articles. All of the articles, except for two, were previously published in sport, sociology, or business books, journals, or newspapers with the vast majority having been published within the past ten years. Figures, tables, illustrations, notes, and references from the original publications are included within each article, but there is no comprehensive reference list at the end. An index of topics is provided.
The purpose of this book is to help readers become sensitized to how social institutions have impacted the meritocratic nature of sport and for the most part the volume fulfills its intentions. However, the editors emphasize the pure meritocratic nature of sport especially because of its “level playing field” where any team that works hard can and should win; but there are many social pressures affecting sport and its so-called level playing field. Missing from the body of culture section is an article about drug use, doping, or [End Page 172] other ways that athletes and teams gain physical competitive advantages, thus unbalancing the playing field. Another major social institution missing from this text is religion. One need only watch a few minutes of an National Football League game or Major League Baseball game to see players genuflect or raise their eyes to the skies to thank God for their athletic success. Other social topics that could have easily garnered their own chapters are gender, race, and the gambling industry. Finally, it is unclear if this volume focuses on sports in the United States or if its scope is more international in nature. The notion of sport in the social context of the United States versus an international context can vary considerably: the articles on India and Argentina, for example, seem to stick out from rest. Perhaps an international volume to supplement a U.S. volume would be justified.