Fall From Grace – Sports and Stigma

Any fan of football (soccer for Americans) has heard of it – the infamy:

The hand that gave France its qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. For non-soccer fan, especially on this side of the Atlantic, that move is not allowed. It’s cheating. And this started a storm. Remember Howard Becker, deviance only matters if it is seen and noticed by the audience. In the age of widespread media and the Internet, this particular act of deviance did not go unnoticed even if the referee did not see it.

And once deviance is noticed, sanctions follow. But what kinds of sanctions? Informal ones for sure as large numbers of people expressed their anger in a variety of fora all over the Internet. Thierry Henry and the French team got called all sorts of names for this. Henry for the deed, and the French team for accepting its qualification based on cheating.

Social stigma is also part of the game:

Note how the hand, a violation of soccer’s norms is depicted as “crime” and an inflammatory one at that. Audience perception is central indeed in the very definition of seriousness of the deviant act. In Europe, soccer is serious business. Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that both teams were playing their qualification for the world’s most important soccer event, the World Cup. The stakes were high. Played at a local level, this would have been a simple incident, sanctioned by a red card (because done so closed to the goal cage) and maybe a suspension.

Well, Henry might not be suspended and the international soccer authorities have ruled out the possibility of a rematch, but certainly, France’s participation to the World Cup is now stigmatized, tainted and comments about the way France got there will be made at the Cup and its defeat at whatever stage (if that happens) will be depicted as well-deserved. And even if France were to win (an unlikely proposition at this point), the win itself will be tainted.

And because this incident happened at a high-stake international game, criticisms are heaped not just over the player himself, but the entire team and the country.

An additional aspect of personal stigma that Goffman studied is how stigma completely reconstructs the stigmatized person’s identity around the stigma itself so that the stigma becomes the individual’s master status, pushing into the background any other other identity that the individual possesses:

It is too early to tell whether the stigma will “stick” and for how long. Certainly, again, this will hold through the World Cup. And this will require acts of contrition of Henry’s part (he has already done that).

At the same time, European soccer players are brands in themselves and attract sponsorship individually as part of their usual team. This is another potential source of sanctions. Will Henry lose his sponsors and therefore part of his earning? THis might be so as the stigma now attached to Henry might reflect on his sponsors.

As with the case of Caster Semenya, the deviance is socially produced, collectively noticed. But the difference with Henry, is that Semenya had to face potential formal sanctions based on formal procedures that affected her basic gender identity. In Henry’s case, so far, the sanctions are only informal in nature but stronger in intensity. In Henry’s case, his “nice guy” identity as well as his status in the international classification of soccer player will take a major hit along with his monetary value. But because Henry’s sport is team-based, his offense spill over onto the entire team.

However, in Semenya’s case, the formal procedures guaranteed a conclusion, which was reached today (with a lot left unsaid and ambiguities):

Will Semenya retain a trace of the stigma? Will this be mentioned if she competes again? The stigma might be “easier” for Semenya to shed as her sex is not something she can control where Henry’s act was plainly under his control. Semenya cannot help who she is whereas Henry could have avoided the deviant act that stigmatizes him.

But either way, in both case, the deviant label was applied based on not just visibility but notice. Semenya’s performance was questioned because groups decided she “looked” masculine (by socially defined criteria, such as heavy muscularity). Henry’s hand was captured on video for the world to see and social context made his deviance a “crime” of “inflammatory” nature.

4 thoughts on “Fall From Grace – Sports and Stigma

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fall From Grace – Sports and Stigma | The Global Sociology Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Football is a global business with huge vested interests.What we are looking at in France’s case,via vi Henry, is a commodity brand who generates massive revenue streams,via its lucrative fanbase in Asia and beyond.

    It is no coincidence that FIFA(football’s governing body that includes the former French player,Platini) broke competition conventions to ensure that Portuagal(brand:Christiano Rinaldho),and France(brands: Henry and Anelka)were in the world cup play-offs.For to lose the aforementioned brands would be to lose a potential global audience of 1-2 billion people.

    In contrast, a non-celebrity football team like Ireland has no financial benefits for FIFA.

    Whilst the game itself was dictated by the Bourdieuian ” rules of the game”,so to speak,the power dynamics were ultimately driven by the hegemony of teams like Portugal and France. In other words,despite the denigrating rhetoric,people had to stubbornly consent to Frances inclusion in the competition.

    In Bourdieuian terms,France and Portugal are implicted in powerful global fields with the required economic ,social and cultural capital to legitimate a game like the world cup.

    In the Irish context,the scandalous vilification of Henry is a good example of “ritual scapegoating”.For René Girard such scapegoats help to resolve social tensions produced by conditions of ontological insecurity and existential crises.

    • @pat, those are all excellent and very relevant points.

      The whole commercialization / commodification of sports is an integral part of the competitive organization.

      And indeed, I don’t know what the expected revenues are for the World Cup but they are probably humongous.

  3. Pingback: My Commenters Are Smarter Than Me – Football, Capitalism and Branding Edition | The Global Sociology Blog

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