Social Theory and Sport Essay

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Sport provides unique opportunities for understanding the complexities of everyday life ranging from the macro to the micro. Macro perspectives include sport as science, politics, class, media, and globalization. Micro orientations focus on preference and participation, socialization, social-psychological outcomes, and sense of self.

Coakley (2008) details dominant theoretical perspectives and their relation to the study of sports. As a young field, the areas in need of theoretical attention are vast. While attention to race, class, gender, and media studies have legitmated sport in the wider discipline, other intriguing substantive areas remain fertile ground for development. We suggest three fruitful areas are: (1) the political nature of sport, (2) sport as art, and (3) the moral assumptions embedded in sport.

Political Nature of Sport

Viewing sports as politics is not new. This connection has been referred to as war without weapons” (Coakley 2008). Strenk (1979) points out how Nazis under Hitler and Fascists under Mussolini propagandized sport. The globalization process seems to have only increased the prominence of sport in politics. The Olympics in particular have clearly intersected with politics as the losers of both world wars have been banned, countries frequently boycott for political reasons, and political protests are routinely a feature in host cities. Additionally, the results of sport contests have directly resulted in political conflict, for example where Gabon, Congo, Honduras, and El Salvador have gone to war over the outcome of soccer games. Finally, cold war politics weighed heavily on sporting contests between the USA and Russia, embodying contentions of the superiority of their political and economic systems. During the same period, the USA used table tennis to open relations with China.

Gender also links sport and war as masculine traits of physicality, power, and domination underlie both the good athlete and the good soldier. As sports are not simply the random interactional assertion of masculinity, but also structured expressions of it, gender provides a pathway that bridges the macro and micro perspectives of sport as politics.

Sport as Art

Athletes talk about a sense of effortless competency, a sense of play where training and skill unconsciously come together. This is referred to as, ”beingin the zone,” where consciously learned skill melds with inner will. This creative action-rhythm is the very essence of the true athlete as artist.

A sporting contest is itself artistic expression (Young 1999). Our team reveals the multicultural mix of our community. While we still sit in hierarchical seating, we experience a union with one another, a manifest integrity of our community. We see our morality in the rules (e.g. fairness, earned accomplishment, etc). And with the final outcome, win or lose, we come to grips with being mortal. Social theory, particularly in the sociology of emotions, has much to contribute and gain from studying the creative, artistic, and emotional qualities of sport, and the meanings we find in it.

Moral Assumptions Embedded In Sport

Sport both embodies and impresses particular assumptions about human nature and a moral order. In a cyclical fashion, sport both assumes competition as an innate human quality and in turn teaches that this is the case. Like much western social, political, and economic theory, implicit in sport is the ideological assumption of a human will to power. The extent to which this is innate rather than cultural, if it is at all, remains unclear. Many traditional societies often do not overtly reflect this will to power. Thus, one might claim that it is the structure of sports, and more broadly capitalist economic models, that produce competitive tendencies.

While emphasis on competition is still the pervasive ethos of sport, some youth organizations have increasingly and consciously resisted it. For example, many leagues provide participation trophies rather than distinguishing top teams and players. Coaches may be discouraged from emphasizing winning as a value, or even from showing too much enthusiasm for successful” play. Social theory ought to be able to contribute to and gain from the study of youth development, attitudes, and mental health by comparing these different models of sport, which are polarized concerning the value of competition.


  1. Coakley, J. (2008) Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. McGraw Hill, Boston, MA.
  2. Strenk, A. (1979) What price victory? The world of international sports and politics. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 445: 128—10.
  3. Young, J. (1999) Artwork and sportwork: Heideggerian reflections. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57: 267-77.

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