SPORTS (Social Science)

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 Shilling’s 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. Foley’s 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 underrepre-sented 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.

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