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The Case for Studying Sports

This introductory column is the first in a new running series, where each week a current event in sports will be examined from a sociocultural perspective.
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(Photo: Stokkete/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Stokkete/Shutterstock)

On Christmas Eve, employees at the American Airlines Arena, the home of the Miami Heat, moved through the stadium, draping red shirts over the back of each seat. The next day, in a nationally televised game, LeBron James made his return to Miami, as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the stands, the crowd watched on, branded together, the shirts a de-facto family crest, a symbol of unity as their team went up against a player of such stature that his presence in Cleveland has caused their ticket prices to increase by 242 percent.

That was just one of five games that NBA teams played on Christmas Day, an annual tradition that began in the league’s second season in 1947. Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to see James’ return and most continued to watch on afterwards. In a day of unbridled consumerism, the NBA has shouldered its way under the Christmas tree, carving out its own spot, casting its product into homes across America.

Sports are so intrinsically wrapped in culture that their omnipresence, in some ways, renders them unseen—but, when examined, they provide an active reflection of society. Through isolation notable details emerge, like a stone plucked from rubble and held up under light.

Sports reflect other social institutions—family, politics, law, the economy—while also reinforcing inequalities, providing a platform for issues of race, gender, social stratification, and social change.

IT WASN’T UNTIL THE 1970s that sports sociology made notable strides as a legitimate field of academic study. By the end of the decade, the American Society for the Sociology of Sport had been created, its research later published in the Sociology of Sport Journal. Now, even in a relative state of infancy (as compared to, say, social psychology), the study of sports as a social institution and social phenomena has, deservedly, garnered greater attention.

There’s a cultural currency to sports, one we participate in and shape, and one that shapes us in return. There’s a power in that—influence and reach. It’s the reason celebrities and politicians and entertainers associate with athletes. It’s the reason that, on the eve of the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain both spoke with ESPN's Chris Berman during a Monday Night Football halftime segment. Athletes represent heroic values, discipline, and the peak of human achievement. For that, warranted or not, they are celebrated.

Sports also reflect other social institutions—family, politics, law, the economy—while also reinforcing inequalities, providing a platform for issues of race, gender, social stratification, and social change. And athletes espouse their own values, offer their own critiques of the world around them. James is just one athlete of many to recently wear an “I can't breathe” T-shirt in support of the family of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man choked to death by a white police officer.

In society there is corruption, greed, drugs, violence, commercial exploitation—and so there is in sports. There’s a moral significance, a moral function, that sports, as a shared experience, can provide (the NBA’s excommunication of noted racist and former Clippers owner Donald Sterling serving as one recent example). Often, through sports, aspects of society are exaggerated and dramatized, and in this way made clearer to us all.

The early Greeks used sport as celebration, to honor gods, and as part of funeral proceedings, and the Christmas Day match-up between the Heat and Cavaliers had each of those elements.

James’ fateful return to Miami symbolized the death of his tenure with the team, the one that went to four straight NBA finals and captured two championships, but the Heats’ status, and James’ status, remains. This game, like the others held on Christmas Day, was selected to amplify the league’s image, to offer viewers the best potential product to consume, and to give the NBA a stage to perform as not only a source of entertainment but as a pervasive marketing machine.

The intertwinement of sport and the economy has shifted the industry, from its roots in play to a new paradigm of corporate sport, where the focus is less on the activity itself but rather its consumption and the economic opportunities it affords. Fittingly, on Christmas Day, the NBA launched three new advertising campaigns.

One of those campaigns—a promotional spot for the film Taken 3—starred John Wall, a point guard for the Washington Wizards, alongside actor Liam Neeson. In another, an actor dressed as Santa depicted Allen Iverson’s infamous practice rant—a moment from sports pop culture that continues to resonate 14 years later. The last utilized the players themselves as the vessel for delivering a message as they promoted the hashtag #nogifts to those watching, a play on the holidays and the (intermittent) intensity of NBA defense.

In each of the five games the players also wore special-edition jerseys, with their first names, rather than their last, sewn onto the back. At the NBA’s online store the jerseys were made available for purchase at a cost of $110 each.

In origin, sport was about enjoyment. It wasn’t reducible to anything else. In some form, sports have been a part of every civilization. In Sparta the state benefited from sport as men used it to prepare for war. In Athens sport began to shift toward the individualized man. In the Olympics sport is used as a tool for nationalism. Now, while many elements of sport have been altered by bureaucracy, it still carries a fundamental trait for those that watch: an escape.

In sport, we find variability, and in an increasingly scheduled and compartmentalized world that matters. Sports invites spontaneity and randomness and often the greatest moments are found in that irrationality. There is artistry in the chaos. Like the way the sea settles after a storm, the horizon refreshed, the details more beautiful for having endured.

By actively watching sport and engaging in it we learn not only about ourselves, but, perhaps more importantly, our relationships with each other. For just that reason alone, though there are many others, sport is worthy of academic study.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.