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The Visual Du Jour – GOOOOOOAAAAL

January 10, 2013 by and tagged ,

I love soccer, or as we Europeans call it, football. I also like network visualizations. So, how can I not love this network visualization of Ballon D’Or votes. If you don’t know what the Ballon D’Or is, check this out.

Quick explanation:

“The above visualization shows the network of votes of the Ballon d’Or 2012. Voters and voted for players make up the 524 nodes of the graph. Node size is based on indegree. The 1513 edges are based on the given votes, with each of the voters having three votes: 1st place 5 points (thickest line), 2nd place 3 points, and 3rd place 1 point (thinnest line). Node color indicates either being a captain (red), coach (violet), journalist (blue), or player who did not vote (green).”

There really seems to be two players and everybody else: Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo just dominates the whole thing.

Posted in Dataviz, Sports | No Comments »

Book Review – Planet Sport

September 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

I have to confess that I found Kath Woordward‘s Planet Sport to be a little mess of a book. As I have mentioned before, I am always on the lookout for short books that might make for some interesting readings in sociology for my freshmen / introduction to sociology class.

Naturally, sports is a topic that would definitely generate interest with my students. And this is a very short book (about 90 pages of text). So, my hopes were that I would be able to integrate this one as well, especially with a basic thesis such as this one (Kindle edition):

“This book demonstrates why sport matters and how, by arguing that we should take sport seriously and explore what is social about sport. Sport is not just another domain to which social theories can be applied, sport is also distinctive and generates new ways of thinking about social issues and debates. Sport is affected by the global economy and social, political and cultural processes, but also has effects on the wider social terrain of which it is part. Sport is much more than play.

Sport is particular in its combination of personal pleasures and pain, embodied practices, collective commitment and globalised politics and conflicts. Sporting events are also sites of resistance and protest as well as the reiteration of traditions and conformity. Sport is divisive and collaborative, conflictual and democratic; it combines people in very particular, positive and energising ways, but also recreates tensions, ambivalences, hostilities and conflicts. The role and status of sport in contemporary societies is thus crucial to an understanding of the nature of social and cultural change as part of the iterative practices of micro narratives and encounters as well as being part of global transformations.” (Loc. 92)

But I am afraid, this book will not make it into my list of freshmen readings. My number one and main issue is the writing. Good grief is it convoluted, heavy-handed and full of jargon. I mean, seriously:

“There is some confusion between philosophical and empirical categories of sex gender that could be clarified by exploring some of the specificities of lived experiences and the plasticity of flesh, by combining flesh and experience, perception of self with the perception of others and of situating enfleshed selves within the social world.” (Loc. 835-837).

And yes, I know what she is referring to but who wants to read something like this (the whole repeated reference to “sex gender” throughout the book annoyed me as well).

The second major issue I had was the organization of the book itself. It felt messy to me. I say “felt” because of the fact that Woodward is a famous and much respected sociologist, I perfectly consider the possibility that I missed the point entirely. I understand that when you write a short introduction to something, shortcuts have to be taken and not everything can be put in but I really do question the selection of materials and how they were addressed.

There is, for my taste and, I think, for an introductory book, way too much abstract theoretical stuff that will be incomprehensible to undergraduates. For instance, chapter 6, Everyday Routines – The Ordinary Affects of Sport is a perfect illustration of that, full of phenomenology and is more directed at the researcher in sociology of sports than a reader looking for an introduction to it. It is a very abrupt break from the rest of the book that makes you wonder what it is doing there, in the middle of it.

The issue is not the topic itself, of course, sport is at the center of so many social processes and structures that certainly justify introductory writing as Woodward herself suggests:

“Sport is a central part of contemporary life and widely enmeshed with and constitutive of social relations and social divisions; planet sport is made up of the intersection of very different power axes. For example, whilst in the wider cultural and social terrain of western neoliberal democracies categories of sex gender may be seen as more fluid, in sport the binary logic of sex persists, albeit largely called gender in the contemporary discourse of sport. The vast majority of sports are classified as women’s or men’s competitions, even though men’s are not always marked, as in the football ‘World Cup’; the female counterpart of which is the ‘Women’s World Cup’. The ways in which networks of hegemonic masculinity endure make sport a rich field for research into social and cultural continuities as well as change, especially as more women worldwide are joining in and enjoying the pleasures of sport as well as its rigorous regimes.” (Loc. 151)

All these topics are addressed in the book but in such a confusing and/or repetitive fashion that it makes following the thread of the book rather painful. There are some elements that are really interesting but either they are not pursued or they get a confusing and jargonian treatment. For instance, there are important sociological aspects: sports as disciplinary regimes under rationalized systems of training, sport as bodily projects within the framework of individualized technologies of the self, sports are displays and structuring of hegemonic masculinity. After all there is a whole continuum of sports from individuals working out at the gym to professional athletes training for the Olympics in professional settings and regimes.

There is also the globalized economics of sports and their embedding in global neoliberal logics and logics of commodification, as was amply demonstrated by the just-ended 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

At the same time, sports in embedded within a series of regulatory regimes at the local, national and global level that coexist alongside unregulated sport practices such as parkour:

Sports is also shot through with issues pertaining to gender (or “sex gender” as Woodward puts it), race and social construction of the able body. Of course, the able body, as opposed to the disabled one, are socially constructed categories that get challenged by technology as the case of Oscar Pistorious recently demonstrated as he competed in both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games (Gold in the former, Silver in the latter). The use of blades as effective leg substitute calls into question the clean cut binary of “able / disabled”.

Actually, this binary is not the only one being called into question. The case of Caster Semenyia, already discussed here, also calls into question the neat binary “men / women”, which has been central in the structuring of sports.

As for race,

“The classification of people into racial categories has played a key role in segregation in sport by means of criteria of visible corporeal difference too. Race and racialisation have been elements in the classificatory systems of sport and are constitutive of racialised categories in other social worlds. Racialisation has been a powerful element used to justify exclusion from particular sports historically by formal means and more recently still by biologically determinist essentialist discourses about racial types as well as through social and cultural forces.” (Loc. 262)

It is not hard to find examples of that, especially in the context of the apartheid system. [In addition, social class plays a part in there as well. After all, Pistorious himself enjoys the benefits of technology thanks to his privileged class status.] Moreover, when it comes to race,

“Black athleticism can be used to support theories of racialised difference and the suitability of black people, usually men, not only for particular sports, generally not those with the distinction of association with the upper classes, such as polo and golf, but also for athletic rather than intellectual activity.” (loc. 274)

One only has to remember the utterly stupid commentators arguing that Africans are fast as “natural selection” from slavery. At the same time, blacks have been long excluded from certain sports such as polo and golf. There is, of course, politics at the intersection of race and sports:

“Politics has dominated sport in places as diverse as Nazi Germany, the USA during the period of racial segregation and South Africa in the apartheid era when boycotts became the most powerful tool of resistance. Racism in sport has most strongly militated against competitions between people classified as belonging to particular racial or ethnic groups; fights between black and white boxers were banned in the US for a long period of time (Simmons, 1988). At some periods in sporting history the politics of inequality played out through institutionalised exclusions, at others through less formal mechanisms, such the impossibility of black players joining the clubs of the sports of the affluent, privileged white classes, such as golf clubs. Class and racialisation are widely imbricated in the politics of sport. Recognition of the processes of exclusion has been one step along the way to promoting diversity, albeit a very slow step in many sports.” (Loc. 294-300).

The global aspect of sports is quite obvious and I wish it had been treated better and in more specific. Woodward does note the multilayered aspect of global governance as well as sports loyalties. I wish there had been more on the neo-colonial flows of players from the periphery to the core, especially in soccer, for instance. There are also global flows of money, corporate sponsorship, etc.

At the same time, sports have benefited from the rationalized and bureaucratized (in the Weberian sense) of technologies of performance through pharmacology (hello, Lance Armstrong) as well as scientific training through a variety of professionals in various degrees of specialization (such as physical therapists or sport psychologists or even nutritionists). This leads to the creation of highly paid, scientifically trained athletes getting read for global events (such as the Olympics) where they will perform for (almost) the entire world through the global media (a nexus of corporatism and global communication technologies) in global spectacles.

The global nature of sports also points to the global inequalities in sports. The global flows are far from even in the world-system by class, race and gender. This relates to the fact that sport is big business. I wish more data had been included here:

“Some stakeholders have benefited and these developments have created new stakeholders, media networks, broadcast services, promoters, agents and notably a new class of sports stars, a relatively small number of whom earn massive fees not only for their performance on the field but also in the commercial synergies created by the sport media nexus and expansion of sites for the purveyance of popular cultural products. Such benefits have increasingly been concentrated for example on the celebrity stars, mega leagues and top clubs through sponsorship deals. Many have not benefited, notably the focus and site of the channelling of resource has been in men’s sport while women’s teams and clubs struggle to gain any sponsorship. Global inequalities mean that resources are distributed according to the rationality on irrationality of market forces, which again lead to particular emphasis on sports such as the men’s big team games.” (Loc. 720-726)

Woodward also provides some interesting developments on the deployment of technology and power in order to reduce uncertainty in sports:

“Sport is a field where records and measurement count. It matters that times and speeds are accurately measured in athletics, especially given the high rewards that are now involved. Other sports demand visualisation and filming techniques and heat-sensitive equipment as well as additional human resources; cameras at the wicket in cricket, at the touch line in rugby to adjudicate tries amidst an ever more voluble demand for more and more accuracy to judge outcomes, ensure fair play and redress the inadequacies of the human eye and the lack of all-round vision of the referee. Technologies are constantly developing more sensitive and precise means of ensuring accuracy to ever-higher standards of precision. These developments are inspired by the expanding technoscience that is the motor to much sporting innovation and the quest for certainty.” (Loc. 739-745).

And that is on top of the already-mentioned procedures designed to ensure that a woman is a woman or that a man is not doped up (note the distinction in testing in the context of hegemonic masculinity).

Similarly, if one has followed the preparations to the 2012 Olympics – and any other such global events – it is easy to see how much work went into the reduction of risk and uncertainty on multiple levels: guaranteeing that sponsors would recoup their money, the major emphasis on security and surveillance, crowd control, etc. As such, and this is not something mentioned in the book, the sport megaevent become thoroughly embedded in the surveillance society.

So those are the main aspects of the book that I wanted to highlight. As I said, the issue was not so much the content as the writing and organization. Not recommended for undergraduates. A shame, really, because the sociology of sport is such an interesting field.

I’d be curious to see what Dave Mayeda thinks. Sociology of sports is more his field than mine.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commodification, Corporatism, Gender, Global Governance, Globalization, Nationalism, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Girls Can’t Be As Good As Boys!

July 31, 2012 by and tagged ,

So, first, we had the whole Caster Semenya saga: a female athlete who is really good… so good indeed that it is suspicious. Is she really a woman? Let’s test. Ok, she is. But she is not feminine enough, so, let’s pump of her full of hormone to increase her femininity and lower her performance because she is getting way to close to men’s performance levels and that is just wrong.

And now, we have the Chinese Superwoman, as Le Monde calls her. We are talking about Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who’s killing it at the Olympic Games in London. She’s good. Too good. Well, she’s obviously a woman so her men-level performances can only be explained by doping (Chinese, y’know).

“The world of swimming may have spent 36 hours in a ferocious debate over the means by which she could achieve such astonishing feats, but the 16-year-old had other things on her mind. As the electronic beep sounded to mark the start of the race, she leapt from the blocks, put her head down, and swam.

(…)

On Saturday, Ye had stunned a crowd that thought it had already seen the shock of the evening 40 minutes before, when the great Michael Phelps failed to win a medal in the men’s 400m individual medley.

In the women’s race of the same event, Ye swam a final freestyle leg of such jawdropping acceleration that she overhauled the race leader, finishing almost three metres ahead in a time which shattered the world record. On Monday, in qualifying for Tuesday night’s event, she had gone on to break the Olympic record for the longer distance.

It was awesome, astonishing, unbelievable. And it didn’t take too long for a leading US coach to say what many had been muttering.”

And the real issue is this:

“La Chinoise Ye Shiwen, 16 ans, médaillée d’or sur 400m 4 nages samedi, a battu le record du monde de cette éprouvante discipline (4 m 28′ s 43 centièmes), mais elle a surtout crawlé les cent derniers mètres de sa course presque aussi vite queRyan Lochte (58 s 68 contre 58 s 65), sacré la veille chez les garçons, au terme du deuxième 400m 4 nages le plus rapide de l’Histoire (4 m 05 s 18 centièmes).”

She swam almost as fast as the male winner in the same category. Something is wrong. Except not:




It is interesting that when women performance improve and get closer in line with male performance, then, that is an issue. The same thing happens with scholarly achievement. How many books have been (and continue to be) written about the relative greater success of girls in school and women in universities? All of them deploring the loss of gender supremacy for boys and men. And sometimes calling not so subtly for a restoration of such supremacy through intervention (all couched in terms of making school less ‘feminine environments’ and more attuned to alleged masculine needs).

The case of these women athletes getting closer to men performance levels generates the same kind of anxieties, if not direct intervention, as in the case of Caster Semenya.

Posted in Gender, Sports | 3 Comments »

Men Making Decisions About Women – A Visual

July 8, 2012 by and tagged , ,

So, first, we had this:

And now, we have this (H/T: Isabelle Germain on Twitter):

The context for this last one is this:

“The IFAB agreed to unanimously approve – temporarily during a trial period – the wearing of headscarves. The design, colour and material permitted will be defined and confirmed following the IFAB Annual Business Meeting in Glasgow in October.”

As the article in Nouvelles / News notes, the issue was brought to FIFA by other men to keep women veiled on the pitch even though this goes against FIFA regulations that equipment should be free of political, religious or personal elements. For the women, it was a lose-lose situation: veil or censorship. As Isabelle Germain notes, so much for the universal values of sports and women’s rights. This introduces a form of inequality between female players and it puts Muslim players who wouldn’t otherwise wear the veil in a precarious position. It also implicitly endorses a sexist religious symbols that stigmatizes women’s bodies.

And on this subject, I disagree with Laurent Dubois (who is otherwise one of my favorites sports social scientists… y’all should subscribe to his blog) especially on the example he chose to illustrate the point that the hijab should be ok on the pitch. The situation of a player in Quebec or Canada is not the same that of Asian or Middle Eastern players who may face real threats on the issue of the veil. Dubois also criticizes the French Football Federation for jumping in after the FIFA decision and indicating that, in the name of secularism, veils would not be allowed in competitions held on French soil (which goes along with the whole veil policy in France, which, for the record, I supported).

Of course, I am divided on this. I want as many female football players as possible, from all over the world. Women in sport is good for women and girls, and it is good for society. And I understand very well that, for women in certain parts of the world, no veil means no game. And this is what happens at the convergence of multiple patriarchal institutions where, in the end, older men get to decide on what women can do with their bodies. The result will always be bad for women.

Also, please, can I be spared the “what if women choose to be veiled?” argument? That does not change the inherent meaning of the veil. Why do you think that Jordan Prince wants women veiled? To support their choice to be so? Not really. This decision is NOT about women’s choices (which is why I think Dubois’s example is not good here), it is about caving in by one patriarchal group to the demand of another patriarchal group and individual.

Posted in Gender, Patriarchy, Sports | No Comments »

Racism By Any Other Name – Whitewashing Les Bleux

April 28, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Holy !@#$. Seriously. I guess this is the next stage in the controversy that followed the World Cup fiasco (which was discussed here). The political fall-out is this: it’s the Blacks and the Arabs that caused the mess in South Africa. There are too many of them in the French national team.

Let’s impose a quota at the source, the training centers that are such an essential part of the French professional football training system:

“Members of the French Football Federation’s National Technical Board, including the France team coach Laurent Blanc, have secretly approved a quota selection process to reduce the number of young black players, and those of North African origin, emerging from the country’s youth training centres as potential candidates for the national team, Mediapart can reveal.

The plan, presented in November 2010, involves limiting the number of youngsters from black and Meghrebi African origin entering the selection process from training centres and academies as early as 12 and 13 years of age.

(…)

Mediapart has also learnt that, during the November meeting, France national team coach Laurent Blanc said he was “favourable” for a change in the selection criteria for youth talent as of the age of 12 to 13 years in order to favour those who sources said he described as having “our culture, our history”. The sources added that Blanc cited the current would football champions Spain, reportedly saying: “The Spanish, they say ‘we don’t have a problem. We have no blacks’”.”

Oh dear. Of course, as sociologist Stephane Béaud demonstrated in his book, there was a lot more to the South African debacle than just a “rebellion of the savages”. There were structural factors involved. But from the get-go, the blame-game involved pointing the finger at the non-whites from the projects, described as thugs. So, it is not entirely surprising, but shocking nonetheless, that the FFF would propose such institutionalized – and probably illegal – discrimination plan. But it is a perfect illustration of the easiness with which leaders of various kinds jump to racial conclusions and measures and ignore others, and how easily these get accepted, even if not quite openly acknowledged.

Posted in Racism, Social Discrimination, Sports | No Comments »

Book Review – Traȋtres A La Nation

April 16, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stephane Béaud’s Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”

The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.

The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.

For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.

Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.

For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.

At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership.

Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.

Add to this the role of the French Football Federation and its incomprehensible to reappoint a discredited coach (which appointing his successor right before the World Cup, thereby undermining him even further), the respective relationships between the players and this coach (certainly, several players from the established group had a grudge against him), the conflict between the FFF and the other major institution involved, the Professional Footballers League. And finally, the infiltration of the political and social tensions from the housing projects into the team all created a bundle of tensions that were bound to explode at some point… and did.

These events are also a reflection of the change in recruitment of players in French football. In the post-War period, one finds most French football players came from the blue-collar working-class (especially the clubs from Northern France). The trajectories of these players are quite different than what they are today. They usually spent their youth years in amateur football, still going to school to obtain technical and vocational qualifications. They become professional relatively late (in their 20s). Therefore, they receive a rather typical working-class socialization. The 1998 team is basically the last fling of that generation of players, with a specific sport and social ethos based on humility, collectivism, respect for the elders and explicit patriotism. This is the working-class before the precarization of the working-class of the deindustrializing years and the defeat of its political power. And the players of the 1998 team who did grow up in the housing projects did so before the ethnic contraction and marginalization of these areas and increased polarization.

There are three major differences between the 1998 team and the 2010 team, sociologically speaking:

(1) There are now more players in the great and economically powerful European teams of England, Italy and Spain. A minority of them now play for French teams.

(2) Players are now recruited by training centers (famous institutions that detect football talents and develop them over several years, with hopes of professionalization right after graduation. These centers have made France the second exporting countries – after Brazil – when it comes to footballers, but they also close off earlier and earlier any real education and occupy a greater part of the players’ socialization) at an earlier and earlier age, and especially from the lower classes. Fewer players now come from the working-class French heartland, and more and more from the housing projects on the outskirts of France’s largest cities.

(3) There are now more players of African origin, especially sub-saharan Africa, as opposed to the Maghreb, and from players from France’s territories (Antilles, Guadeloupe, etc.).

This greater internationalization of football out of France is directly connected to the legal context created by the Bosman Ruling, which allowed players to have greater freedom of movement from one club to the next. This greater freedom has also led to the massive inflation of footballer compensation. All of a sudden, the most powerful European clubs were able to recruit players from all over Europe, and the players were able to demand higher pay for their services. These teams have been accused of pillaging other countries for their own benefit. If French football creates great players, the French teams are not economically strong enough to retain them once these players fully develop their potential. This has led former players to deplore the lack of “fidelity to the jersey”. This also means that teams are less likely to have a trademark style of play, as the recruitment is no longer local and long-term.

Now, a player will typically enter a training center around 15 years old (if not pre-training centers that recruit even younger players) and they may leave for a non-French team even before their training is complete to start playing for the club that has recruited them. And the Bosman Ruling allows these young players to change club more easily (making more money in the process). As a result, their trajectories are much less smooth and their socialization more chaotic as they leave their families at a fairly young age. For the lower-class parents of these players, to sign a professional contract is a way out of the project for their son and club scouts start contacting parents as early as possible (the competition is extreme), making them incredible offers. From the clubs’ perspective, these young players are commodities, and they expect rather rapid returns on investment, so as to re-sell the players at an even higher price than they paid for him.

This means that, at a young age, players have to be surrounded by a whole entourage of agents, attorneys for themselves and their parents, along with the usual trainers, PR people, etc. But in the context of increased precarization for the lower classes, social tensions in the projects, and the ever-more repressive policies put in place by the Sarkozy government, who could resist?

So, Béaud argues that the strike of 2010 in South Africa is an act of civil disobedience and also a reflection of all these structural and cyclical factors: the changes in socialization of the players, transformation of the labor market for French football players, the impact of geographical and sport migration and the corresponding social uprooting, along with the pressures tied to the obligation to perform earlier, faster and better in a very competitive context… on top of the group dynamics and the interpersonal and institutional issues mentioned above.

Béaud wraps up his study with an analysis of the evolution of the players of Maghreb origin in French football, inserting it as well in the social context of immigration and integration. The last two chapters of the book are less directly related to the 2010 fiasco but they additional layers to an understanding of French football in its social context.

As I mentioned above, this book is a great read (something that does not happen enough in sociology!) and a great example of public sociology and live sociology. Highly recommended… if you can read French.

<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”http://www.amazon.fr/Tra%C3%AEtres-nation-autre-regard-Afrique/dp/2707167169/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41FnLegOc1L._SL500_AA300_.jpg” alt=”" width=”300″ height=”300″ /></a>Stephane Béaud’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.fr/Tra%C3%AEtres-nation-autre-regard-Afrique/dp/2707167169/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1302999785&amp;sr=1-1″ target=”_blank”>Traîtres À La Nation – Un Autre Regard Sur La Grève Des Bleus en Afrique du Sud</a> (en collaboration avec Philippe Guimard) is perfect and great example of public sociology. It very nicely and powerfully shows what sociological analysis can do, especially with respect to a very high-profile event, such as the “strike” by the French football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>I really do hope that this book will get an English edition. If that were the case, I would jump on it and make my students use in my undergraduate classes. It is written at the perfect level, uses a lot of concrete examples. There isn’t too much jargon but the sociological analysis is crystal clear and very powerful. And, of course, the topic is guaranteed to get people’s attention. One can point at this book and say “this is what sociology does.”</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The starting point of the book, obviously, is the strike by the players of the national French team during the World Cup, followed by their shameful exit from that competition in the early stages (after a very controversial qualification), and the social and political fallout from these events. Considering how discussed these events have already been, what does sociology have to bring to the table? First off, most of the discussion has been tainted by moral, classist and racist considerations. Exit the glorious days of the “black, blanc, beur” winning team of 1998, now, the strike is denounced by politicians as the work of low-class, highly-paid little bosses and the hapless followers. The media and politicians engaged in moral condemnations. Putting oneself in the position of judge, prosecutor and jury is not what sociology does. The job of the sociologist, for Béaud, is the Weberian injunction of Verstehen.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>The point of sociological analysis then is to put these events in the proper context (what I call SHiP – structure, history, power) and to retrace the sociological factors that shaped this French national football team (especially in contrast with the 1998 team). What Béaud engages in is what he calls “live sociology” in which moral judgment is suspended and social action is re-situated in is (muli-layered) context, understood as a system of constraints in which individual behavior occurs. That is, the challenge is to treat this event as a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense): the strike is a product of the deregulation of French professional football, structural causes, changes in recruitment, training and socialization of French footballers, the internationalization and precarization of football careers (based on changes in the legal framework). Alongside these structural factors are more institutional and symbolic factors, such as relationships between players and the media, as well as the group dynamics within the French team.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”><a href=”http://e-blogs.wikio.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/LEquipe_Anelka_Domenech_UNE1.jpg” target=”_blank”><img style=”margin: 5px;” src=”http://e-blogs.wikio.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/LEquipe_Anelka_Domenech_UNE1.jpg” alt=”" width=”320″ height=”217″ /></a>For those of you who don’t remember, the strike of the French team occurred after France’s main sports daily newspaper published the photo to the right, on its front page, after the defeat against Mexico. The comment between quotation marks is supposed to have been said by Anelka against French coach Domenech in the locker rooms. Following the alleged incident, Anelka was expelled from the team by the French Federation.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>Arguing the fact that what goes on in the locker rooms is supposed to stay there, and never be divulged to the public, the players went on strike and issues a communiqué (actually drafted by the attorney of one of the players) also blaming the Federation for mismanaging the situation.</p>
<p align=”center”><object classid=”clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000″ width=”480″ height=”390″ codebase=”http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=6,0,40,0″><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true” /><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always” /><param name=”src” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/GBl8Ia5_dCA?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US” /><param name=”allowfullscreen” value=”true” /><embed type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”480″ height=”390″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/GBl8Ia5_dCA?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”></embed></object>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>For Béaud, this reflects the growing tensions that have been building up between players and the media as well as the changes in these relationships. Whereas these relationships used to be simple and straightforward, if not friendly, they have become more formal, complex and marked by the professionalization of the players. While players used to be approachable, and locker rooms were not closed off to the press, interactions with players are now mediated by the entourage that is characteristic of the main players (attorneys, PR consultants, etc.) and the creation of mixte zones in stadiums is a perfect reflection of that. As a result, it is more difficult to get more than canned talking points out of the players who are already uncomfortable with public speaking.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”>At the same time, Béaud shows that what happened was not the product of the “little bosses” from the projects pushing the other players into the strike. The French team was indeed divided but not along racial and ethnic lines but rather into group statuses such as established players (incumbent players, those more or less guaranteed to play) versus substitutes. The established group is composed of players who have the most sport legitimacy and credibility, which puts them in positions of leadership. Compared to other players also from the project, the established players are more sensitive to any feeling of symbolic humiliation and injustice, and they are more likely to experience a relative frustration with the poor game strategy of the French team in recent years, under the leadership of a discredited coach. So, in the 2010 French team, one finds the dominated group, the newcomers, and the recently selected players from African origin. Their lack of either integration in the team or football capital reduced the probability that they would go against the decisions of the established group. And the newspaper frontpage gave the team a unity it had never achieved before.</p>
<p style=”text-align: justify;”></p>

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Commodification, Globalization, Identity, Institutional Racism, Media, Migration, Nationalism, Organizational Sociology, Racism, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Sanctions, Social Stigma, Social Structure, Socialization, Sociology, Sports, Teaching Sociology | No Comments »

The Revolution Will Not Be Facebooked/Twittered… It Will Be Soccered (Ok, I’m Not Proud of That One)

January 31, 2011 by and tagged ,

Dave Zirin:

“Over the decades that have marked the tenure of Egypt’s “President for Life” Hosni Mubarak, there has been one consistent nexus for anger, organization, and practical experience in the ancient art of street fighting: the country’s soccer clubs. Over the past week, the most organized, militant fan clubs, also known as the “ultras,” have put those years of experience to ample use.

Last Thursday, the Egyptian Soccer Federation announced that they would be suspending all league games throughout the country in an effort to keep the soccer clubs from congregating. Clearly this was a case of too little, too late. Even without games, the football fan associations have been front and center organizing everything from the neighborhood committees that have been providing security for residents, to direct confrontation with the state police. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger said, “The ultras — have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment.” Alaa then joked, “Maybe we should get the ultras to rule the country.”

The involvement of the clubs has signaled more than just the intervention of sports fans. The soccer clubs’ entry into the political struggle also means the entry of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the mass of young people in Egypt for whom soccer was their only outlet.”

Incidentally, I was telling one of my colleagues today that if I were Gadhafi, I’d be worried. Well:

“As soccer writer James Dorsey wrote this week, “The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.”

Dorsey’s statement proved prophetic on Sunday when it was announced that Libya’s government had instructed the Libyan Football Federation to ban soccer matches for the foreseeable future. Sources in the government said that this was done to head off the mere possibility that Egypt’s demonstrations could spill over the border. The fear was that soccer could be the artery that would connect the challenge to Mubarak to a challenge to former U.S. foe turned ally Moammar Gadhafi.”

And speaking of sports and politics, I just bought this brand new documentary by Dave Zirin, from the excellent Media Education Foundation:

Posted in Social Movements, Sports | No Comments »

The Pleasure Periphery – Rules Are for The Natives

January 9, 2011 by and tagged ,

Via Denis Colombi, every year, we have to endure coverage of the Paris – Dakar (which is no longer from Paris to Dakar but never mind), where wealthy white men (and such races are gendered phenomena) get to use peripheral or semi-peripheral countries for their enjoyment, in a typical neo-colonialist fashion.

Years ago, I got to meet a few people who did the Paris – Dakar, and they were discussing the norms of the race. One such norm was that if you or someone from your team ran over some natives, you should NOT stop under any circumstances. Keep going, as these people might get brutal if you run over their kids. The bottom line was that the local population was either a hindrance (they force you to slow down and waste precious minutes to the finish line), or straight a hostile force to avoid, which was hard to do as the race got through populated areas.

Well, the geographical location of the race may have changed, but the lack of respect of local rules has not:

“En marge de cette épopée motorisée des temps modernes, le respect des règles n’est pas toujours exemplaire. La Funam (Fundación para la defensa del ambiente), une association argentine de défense de l’environnement opposée à l’existence de tels rallyes, a constaté 28 “graves infractions” au code de la route perpétrées par certains des concurrents du Dakar, “mettant gravement en danger la population locale”. Cela se passait le 3 janvier, lors du trajet de liaison de la deuxième étape qui menait les concurrents de Córdoba, où est basée cette association, à San Miguel de Tucumán, sur une route extrêmement fréquentée, située à une centaine de kilomètres au nord de Córdoba.

Sur la base de nombreuses photos (à voir ici) qui prouvent ces infractions, la Funam a porté plainte le 6 janvier auprès du tribunal de Córdoba. Cette démarche vise les pilotes des véhicules photographiés, contre lesquels est demandée l’application de la loi, à savoir l’imposition des amendes correspondantes, à leur retour dans la province de Córdoba lors de la 12e étape, le 14 janvier. La Funam fait remarquer que la loi argentine prévoit qu’un étranger ne peut sortir du pays sans s’être acquitté des contraventions dues. Elle ajoute que de telles infractions se produisent sur pratiquement toutes les étapes de liaison.

La Funam demande en outre qu’une enquête soit menée afin de savoir si les responsables de la prévention routière et de la police de Córdoba ont reçu des consignes pour ne pas intervenir lors de ces infractions. Elle exige également de la part de ces entités qu’elles fassent respecter le code de la route lors du retour de la compétition dans cette province.”

The photos are indeed revealing of violations of the rules of the road in populated areas and apparent indifference from the authorities, hence one of the complaints as to whether police officers had received instructions as to not intervene, as the organizers of the race give money to the host countries.

This is not surprising. One of the characteristics of the pleasure periphery is that norms are suspended for Westerners, whether we are talking about drug us or sex trafficking or any other kind of activities that are either frowned upon or downright illegal in Western countries.

In the example I gave above, race organizers actively encouraged a hit-and-run attitude. In exchange for the ability to transgress norms for one’s own pleasure, the host country gets money and does not ask too many questions.

Beyond the exploitation aspect of this, in the case of such races, the environmental cost is great (which is part of the reason why the race was moved away from Africa).

But as I mentioned above, there is also a gender aspect to this (indeed, quite often, the pleasure periphery is enjoyed by Western men). These races are fake versions of rugged adventures, relying on one’s wits, struggling against a hostile environment (the sand deserts of Africa!) in a manly competition where many norms are suspended (except those of white male solidarity in case of accidents). This is fake, of course, as the whole organizational infrastructure of the race provides layers of protection against adversity (despite high profile accidents and deaths), so the pilots are not on their own at any time. Help is always at hand. But it is enough for these men to finish the race unshaven, disheveled, with cotton scarf flying in the wind, to pretend to have crossed the Sahara all on their own.

It is yet another way in which white male privilege is made invisible.

Posted in Neo-Colonialism, Sports | No Comments »

“Doing” Globalization – Football Transfer Networks

November 21, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Tony Karon on football and globalization and how the European championship leagues “belong” to Africa in the sense that African audiences follow them assiduously, spot the jerseys of their favorite teams, etc.:

At the same time, Raffaele Poli, in “Understanding globalization through football: The new international division of labour, migratory channels and transnational trade circuits”, International Review for the Sociology of Sports, 45 (1), 491  -506, dissects the more complex connections between Africa and European leagues:

“The purpose of the article is to show that the general tendency of increase in the international flow of athletes does not occur by itsef, as a general feature of the contemporary world, but concretely depends on the actions of a plurality of actors who, by the relations they build on a daily basis, are responsible for the interconnection between specific zones of departure and arrival. Generally speaking, globalization is not seen as as outcome that actors cannot influence, but as a structural process directly linked to human agency.” (492)

In other words, Poli adopts a relational perspective (as opposed to a substantive one) that focuses on contexts, networks and processes of social actions. His unit of analysis is neither the individual players and their motivations nor the macro-structures of the world-system. Rather, the unit of analysis is the transfer networks through which players circulate and interact with a variety of other actors. From this perspective, actors use their social capital and network connections in a strategic fashion (but not as decontextualized as in game theory).

Small-scale interactions ultimately lead to large-scale outcomes and patterns which, in turn, shape small-scale interactions. It is these actors-in-network that globalize whichever part of the social structure they operate in as they take advantage of opportunities presented in their interactions with other actors, such as coaches, managers and agents, as well as the constraints of their social context. Networks are then dynamic configurations that set the possibilities and limitations within which actors (in this case, footballers) operate.

“In the case of the footballers’ transfer market, networks are made up of a plurality [sic] actors playing distinct and complementary roles. From a relational perspective, each flow is a concrete, empirical, and synthetic output of networks involving, among others, club officials, managers, agents, talent scouts, investors and, last but not least, players themselves and quite often also their relatives. These actors collaborate to make transfers possible and compete to appropriate the financial added value generated by the latter. As a consequence of this reasoning, we consider that no flows occur without the participation of multiple stakeholders who are directly or indirectly linked [sic] each other, and whose decision-making power is greater or lesser according to circumstances and opportunities.” (494)

Actors then may take into account global factors in their decision-making as well as global flows and their directionality. Regarding professional football, there is a “before Bosman” and “after Bosman” era (which allowed players greater freedom of movement and transfer). After Bosman, there was an increase in expatriate footballers, mostly from Latin America and Africa playing in Europe.

Spanish, French and Italian clubs are especially likely to hire outside of the continent than English and German clubs. As with other types of economic activity, there are transnational migratory channels, structured by intermediaries, for highly skilled labor. These channels could not exist without what Poli calls “massive network investments.” (498)

When it comes to the intersections between geography of origin of the players and their destination, Poli notes a high concentration of expatriate African players in France whereas Western European expatriates end up largely in England and Eastern European expatriate are more likely to end up in Germany. Latin American expatriate players are more likely to end up in Spain and Italy. These patterns can be explained by a combination of geographical proximity and historical links. But using three specific cases, Poli shows that the presence of networks and intermediaries was central to the trajectories of players.

Based on these cases, Poli identifies different types of spaces and clubs through which players transit through the transnational trade circuits, based on their specific decisions in interaction with networks and other actors. Each space represents a structure of opportunities and constraints:

  • The platform space: the first country to which the player comes from (often the periphery or the semi-periphery)
  • The stepping stone space: the country from which the player gains access to a “big league” country (for instance, less dominant European countries in the European football world)
  • The transit space: the country the player passes through and leaves and where the level of competition is what he is used to
  • The relay space: the country where the player was loaned before he returned to either the stepping stone or the transit spaces
  • The destination space: the wealthiest and most prestigious leagues and clubs (England)

The player trajectories may not go through all of these space (except for the first one, and probably the second one) as not every expatriate makes it to the destination space, and some may get stuck in less prestigious leagues and clubs (there is both upward and downward mobility).

What individual trajectories shape up to be is again a function of interaction with specific social networks and human intermediation, social capital, economic and speculative interests, competitive advantages and structured inequalities in the world-system. In that sense, globalization is not just an outcome over which players have no effect but both the structural context in which they operate but also what they “do” as they activate global networks as part of their strategies and trajectories.

Posted in Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Labor, Migration, Networks, Social Capital, Sociological Articles, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Book Review – Gaming The World

August 5, 2010 by and tagged , ,

I have to say that based on the title, I had high expectations for Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann‘s Gaming The World: How Sports are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture. Sadly, I was disappointed. Not that the book is all bad, no. It is interesting at times, but a bit tedious at others. But my main objection is that the title is somewhat misleading. There is not much in the book about “reshaping global politics and culture”. There isn’t even much of a global outlook on sports. The book is mostly a comparison between the United States and Europe, and an exploration of the differences in hegemonic sports culture and examination of why soccer never really took off in the US and how other sports came to dominate sports culture. Another thing that is annoying is the poor editing of the book. There are a lot of typos.

This is how the authors establish the premise of the book:

“How have developments since roughly the 1970s—in the advanced industrial capitalist economies of the liberal democracies of the United States and Europe—altered key aspects of contemporary sports cultures? And, to what degree have globalized sports and their participating athletes in turn influenced postindustrial societies and identities? Which role do sports play in globalization, and to what extent are they an engine of cosmopolitan political and cultural change? At the same time, how have sports successfully maintained traditions in the continuing battles for their very identities? And how have sports reconciled the new challenges that have emerged by their becoming globalizing cultural forces with new affiliations and allegiances far beyond local and national venues?

(…)

We argue that even as the national and the local continue to be resilient forces, the substantial changes befalling sports through the processes of second globalization—and the cosmopolitan changes accompanying it—also transcend national and local affiliations.” Highlight Loc. 127-39

The problem is that the book does not really do that once the reader is past the introduction. In this early part of the book, the authors go over some of the literature on globalization and the world of sports. More specifically, they use Robertson’s concept of glocalization to note the two-way nature of the global / local dynamics when it comes to sports. The world of sports is global as is visible through international events such as the World Cup or the Olympic Games (the authors could have mentioned the enormous institutional structure of global governance of sports more in details) and the technologies that allow a global audience to participate. But it is also intensely local. The global has not killed local identification with one’s local team of soccer or football. As with other domains, cosmopolitanism, localism and nationalism coexist. As such, sports is also a source of conflicts.

Indeed the authors do spend time exploring the dark side of European soccer: the fact that young Neo-nazis and fascists and racists have carved out the soccer space for themselves as their political views are not seen as acceptable in other social and political contexts. Also, the authors do a good job of exploring the organized, structured and deliberate sport violence in European soccer as opposed to the spontaneous, rare and disorganized celebratory riots occasionally seen in the US.

Similarly, athletes can be local, national or global superstars, along with some teams as well. There is a global commercial sector riding on such multi-layered stardom. Also, there is no question that sports and politics are closely intertwined:

“As sports have gone global they have become more embedded in politics, constituting an important display of political authority and even figuring into the most quotidian political matters. Throughout the twentieth century, dictatorships of various kinds utilized the charismatic power of sports for their own, often nefarious, causes.

(…)

It is, of course, de rigueur for every head of state and head of government in Europe (including Schröder’s female successor, Angela Merkel) to attend all the important matches that her or his country’s national soccer team contests even beyond the World Cup.

(…)

Political campaigning, governing, and symbolic politics often entail references to sports. Using sports as “cultural capital” has become commonplace in many societies and is not limited to populist politicians like Berlusconi. Sport as an ornamental tool has turned into a globalized phenomenon.” Highlight Loc. 238-66

It goes without saying that sports is a part of culture and identity. The authors note in particular that sport is a form of language that translates more or less well across culture: very well in the case of soccer (due to the simplicity of the game, its democratic nature and low entry costs), or very poorly in American sports. When specific sports become dominant in a given culture, they create a hegemonic sports culture that contributes to shaping identity and becomes a source of social capital and people participate in it by playing, watching, debating, etc.

The book does devote a lot of space going over the history of hegemonic sport culture in the US and Europe and the different social contexts out of which specific sports became dominant: football out of the culture of the American college towns, basketball out of the YMCA and the ideology of muscular Christian masculinity, and baseball out of working class cultures. On the other hand, soccer and rugby and cricket emerged in British elite schools and propagated along with the British Empire. Hegemonic sports culture may diffuse (the easy way) or institutionalize (the harder way). But of course, diffusion of sports involves the creation of uniform rules and codes so that international competition becomes possible.

In the case on US hegemonic sports culture, there is very little interest and opportunity for internationalization since the main sports remain confined to the US (with Canada in the case of hockey). For the US global interest is limited to what the authors call Olympianization, that is interest rises every four years or so when a major event such as the Olympics or the World Cup of soccer takes place. But in between, the sports involved regain their subordinate status. It is the opposite for the hegemonic sports: collegiate championships carry more interest than international competition. The rest of the world may know the names of major basketball stars but it does not mean that US hegemonic sports culture has translated to the rest of the world. In the case of baseball and football, the rules are too complex and other countries already have rugby and cricket. Only basketball has some global appeal (the authors note the importance of the Dream Team at the Barcelona games in that regard).

A related aspect of hegemonic sports cultures is that they are almost exclusively masculine spaces, both when it comes to players and audience. Even getting women sports commentators is usually a battle. The authors convincingly show that women have a better chance of getting some sport space with non-hegemonic sports, as has been the case for women’s soccer (similar examples occurred in Europe). It is easier for women to get such space when men are not so good at it and do not feel threatened by the emergence of women’s leagues and teams. In the US, the impact of Title IX is still contested even though women basketball is pretty much established but women are otherwise relegated to softball and other sports.

Orgtheorists would be pretty interested in the organizational aspects of the development of hegemonic sports cultures that is fairly elaborated in the book. The authors explains at length the differences between the US model of college sports and professional commercial teams (not attached to specific cities) versus the European soccer model based on federation of cities and leagues. There is no college sports in Europe. Development of athletes takes place in different educational tracks (the famous – not mentioned in the book – sport-études in France).

The way globalization has come to American hegemonic sports has been through migration. Major US sports teams have more and more non-US born players from different parts of the world. These athletes may have used the US college sports system to rise through the ranks and gain professional careers. Successful sports careers represent the meritocratic way of assimilating.

And this is one of the main problems I have with the book. For all the use of globalization and globalization theory, the book is limited to US / Europe sports culture. Other parts of the world are mentioned but only occasionally. A great deal of the book is even more specifically historical comparison between the US and England. This is not to say that the book is a waste of time. I learned a lot about the history and evolution of hegemonic sports cultures in the US and Europe.

At the same time, the authors do not have the critical eye that Dave Zirin has on the economics of sports. They consider that sports operate in the domains of social capital and symbolic value. That is one major omission.

I would argue that part of my disappointment has to do with the expectations set by the title and subtitle and the actual content of the book. I was expected something more global and more in line with what the cover states.

Posted in Book Reviews, Globalization, Sports | No Comments »

Book Review – Bad Sports

July 25, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , ,

I confess to knowing next to nothing about Americans’ favorite sports, football, basketball and baseball but I had heard of Dave Zirin thanks to the Grumpy Sociologist. I had read a few columns from him and enjoyed his writing. So, I decided to read Bad Sports – How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love.

I should note that I also picked it as my first non-fiction Kindle reading, hoping that it would not be too scholarly and would be a good start in the process of doing all my reading on Kindle (that is, based on what is available since academic books seem to be underrepresented on the e-book market).

Bad Sports is a quick read. The writing is quite pleasant and informal. Obviously, Zirin enjoys throwing a few punches around. The book is about how extremely wealthy team owners make like bandits by blackmailing cities into getting them brand new (and obscenely expensive) stadiums and arenas, and gorge themselves on public monies while delivering lousy results, squeezing the fans for as much money as they can, all the while promoting ultra-right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity.

It is the story of mostly white men who got enormously successful (often by inheritance, almost always with political connections) in a variety of businesses and decided that being successful in one area would translate easily into another. So, they bought themselves teams (it does not look like which sport is involved actually matters, Zirin covers football, basketball, baseball and hockey), and then ruined them while laughing all the way to the bank at the expenses of the taxpayers and fans.

The book exposes the sense of entitlement, arrogance and condescension these men display. Somehow, they reminded me of the Wall Street CEOs after the collapse of 2008. In many ways, this is the same story. These men use their political connections to make a lot of money. They make a lot of really bad investments. Taxpayers are left to pick up the tab and watch the ruins. And, based on what Zirin writes, it is not like these men are really good at being sports team owners: they recruit the wrong players, fire competent coaches and managers, and hire toadies in their stead, and have nothing but contempt for the fans and the day-today workers of their team. In many ways, from the way Zirin tells it, they behave like the dictators of failing states. Good things these sports can’t be outsourced to the global South because otherwise, Americans would be watching their beloved sports on Tv with games played in peripheral countries.

This story represents one small aspect of what has happened to the economy in the past 30 years or so: the triumph of neoliberalism with massive redistribution towards the top of social ladder, and flat income lines for the vast majority of the population. It is the story of the triumph of the transnational capitalist class and its capture of the nation-state institutions that now work almost thoroughly as funding and enforcement arms of a corporate regime:

“During the economic boom of the 1990s, the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, publicly funded stadiums became the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. These stadiums, ballparks, arenas, and domes were presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay, and suburban flight. They are now the excrement of the urban neoliberalism of the 1990s, sporting shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. In the past twenty-five years, more than $30 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep from coast to coast.” (Highlight Loc. 211-16)

And even this, stadium construction as public policy, does not work. It is just another form of plunder, or as Zirin puts it, a form of “shock doctrine”:

“This, remember, is the best-case scenario for stadium development. Recently, sports economists Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland and Brad R. Humphreys of the University of Alberta asked whether building new stadiums spurred the local economy. In their study—which spanned nearly thirty years and examined almost forty attempts to lure teams—they failed to discover a single example of a sports franchise jump-starting the local economy, including of course, the Camden Yards example. In fact, they uncovered the opposite trend: “a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area. . . . Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” This is seen ever so clearly in the service jobs created not only by the gentrification that surrounds Camden Yards but the stadium jobs themselves. They are poverty-wage occupations where $7.00 an hour is the going rate.” (Highlight Loc. 2026-34)

It is though a form of blackmail: if owners do not get a taxpayer-funded arena, they take their ball and move to another city. As Zirin puts it, it’s “your money or your team“. This is another aspect of these owners that Zirin emphasize as well: they are vindictive and love to punish everyone and anyone who does nor bow to their will, again, from moves in the middle of the night, to blackout policies, to shutting out of critical reporters.

For Zirin, most of what ails sports (including steroids and other drugs) can be laid at the feet of these owners. The buck stops with them even though they often get away with a lot, and the blame gets assigned lower on the sports stratification ladder. Political connections are useful in that respect.

So what is the solution? When an owner ruins a team, athletically and financially, then, the community should be able to take over, in the form of a Green Bay Packers model kind of ownership and management (even though it is not possible, as the masters of the game have ruled it out of their by-laws). Zirin is a populist when it comes to sports: the fans matter, the players matter and that is what makes the heart of the game. Corporatization and its strongmen have ruined it.

It is quite an entertaining read even for someone like me with non-existence knowledge of the subject. Zirin is quite an encyclopedia of sports. He is a true fan of the sports he writes about. But don’t be fooled by the punchy writing style, there is a lot of information and analysis in the book and a lot to learn. As I mentioned above, count this a another datapoint in the triumph of neoliberalism and corporatism with the same effects in sports as in other economic areas.

Highly recommended even if one is not a sports fan.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Economy, Labor, Social Inequalities, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sports | 1 Comment »

Sociology of The World Cup – Football and / as Culture

July 10, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

Ok, one last post on the sociological aspects of football as the end of the World Cup nears.

First, much has been made of Americans’ lack of interest in football. Of course, there is the idiotic conservative argument that football is boring, not enough goals are scored (Americans enjoy quantity over quality, as usual, in food as well as football), never mind that the argument can be made that baseball is worse in that department, especially since there is no time limit. Or the American exceptionalism argument: if the world loves it, then, Americans cannot possibly do so as well!

In the LA Times, Ariel Dorfman (website) invokes the cultural field (in Bourdieu’s sense) argument, and that field is already crowded in the context of the social organization of sports through the education and college and university systems funneling players in the professional leagues:

“The predominance and head start of those more “American” games has not allowed soccer the space to develop at the collegiate and professional level and, perhaps most crucially, is not massively dreamed of as a path to grandeur by athletically endowed children mired in poverty. American kids have the same talent as youngsters in the favelas of Rio or the shantytowns of Nigeria, but it is siphoned off at an early age in search of more lucrative venues.”

Also, the fact that what are now considered American sports are actually variations on older ones:

“Americans have perennially seen themselves as pioneers, constantly reinventing themselves. Their most popular sports have appropriated traditional games and drastically modified the rules: Cricket became baseball, rugby turned into American football, and even basketball can be considered a variation on indigenous native American activities. But how do you take the “foreign” game of soccer and make it into something other than … well, soccer?”

Football does not fit in the media, ad-saturated culture and therefore children are not socialized into watching much football on television:

“Nor do children in the United States get to watch much soccer on television. This last point may be an insoluble problem for the sport’s advancement because it concerns the structure of the game itself. Major U.S. sports events have timeouts and interludes during which ads can be breathlessly crammed in, but one of the essential attractions of soccer is the dramatic relentlessness of the contest once it has begun. You literally cannot stop the clock. This is such a sacred rule of the game that its organizers have resisted the clamor to allow video replays, even when the referee has made a flagrantly erroneous call that can cost a team victory.”

Dorfman is optimistic though, for two reasons:

  • Demographics: the US is receiving a lot of immigrants from football-loving countries, especially Central and South America.
  • Geopolitical: we might be witnessing the end of American exceptionalism and supremacy, economically, politically and militarily.

That might open some space for a more football-friendly integration in the American culture.

Taking a different approach, David Winner examines how the changes in Dutch football reflect political changes in the Netherlands as the country gets ready for the final.

This used to be Dutch football:

“For decades, the reputation of the country as a bastion of free thinking, creativity and fun was buttressed by its uniquely attractive football culture. The totaalvoetballers carved out a niche by playing daring, creative, attacking football – and usually lost their most important matches in tragic circumstances. Their tendency to self-destruction in major tournaments made the Dutch many people’s favourite second team. Holland was the Lord Byron or Marilyn Monroe of international football.

(…)

Dutch football as we have known it was born in Amsterdam in the late 1960s as the city was being transformed by social and cultural revolution. Playful Provos and anarchists were subverting the old, grey, sober Netherlands and turning the city into a centre of world hippiedom. Meanwhile, iconoclastic Ajax coach Rinus Michels and teenage genius Cruyff were laying down the blueprint for a revolution in football.”

This is now:

“Fortuyn represented a darker side to Dutch liberalism. His eponymous party, the Pim Fortuyn List, exploited growing anxiety over immigration and identified a new enemy for the Dutch open society: Islam. When Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002 – by a Dutchman who claimed he was acting to protect Muslims from being “scapegoated” – it was clear that Dutch society and politics was developing a sharper edge. The famous coffee shops, where cannabis could be smoked freely, have come under scrutiny as politicians attempt to balance an easygoing approach with the demands of a vocal anti-drugs lobby. Amid concern at the level of criminal activity in Amsterdam’s red-light district, half of the city’s “prostitution windows” were closed in 2007.

According to Paul Scheffer, one of the country’s most perceptive cultural and political commentators, what we are seeing from the men in orange in South Africa reflects a more cautious and fearful nation. “We are more insecure, conservative. You could also call it realism. We have become aware of our vulnerability, so have a more sober idea of what we can do, what we can be. The more free-floating, high-minded idea of what we represent in the world has got lost a bit in the last 10 years. Of course you lose something that was nice, but you lose also something that was irritating – I never liked all that moralism.

“You have something now that is less interesting because it’s less distinctive. We focus on the result and don’t worry if it’s nice to watch. We’ve become more average, and the paradox is that perhaps being average will win us the World Cup.”

Is there anything that conservatism does not ruin?

For the record, I am not rooting for Spain nor the Netherlands. I just want an exciting final.

Posted in Culture, Politics, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Savage Extraction – Football Edition

July 6, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

It is an interesting (and depressing) report but it is always annoying to have a “thank goodness white people are the only well-intended and honest people ready to save these poor African children” segment. That being said, it is still worth watching as a form of resource extraction from the Global South to the Global North:

Posted in Neo-Colonialism, Sociology, Sports, Trafficking | No Comments »

Sociology of The World Cup – Channeling David Held

June 24, 2010 by and tagged , ,

In this great post, Tony Karon channels David Held‘s analysis of globalization as multipolar phenomenon. Karon starts by enunciating what makes this World Cup actually quite interesting:

“Les Bleus were trounced by Uruguay and South Africa, and plunged into a national crisis that required presidential intervention by their own implosion. Uruguay, refusing to accept the also-ran status accorded them in the established order went on to impudently win the group, and look destined for a quarterfinal spot after facing South Korea (another arriviste happy to claim the knockout round spot that most had assumed would go to Nigeria) The USA — very much the soccer equivalent of a BRIC country in the world economy — cheekily finished above England (kind of like the equivalent in world soccer of France in world politics, a country whose mantle of imagined greatness is decidedly shabby, if not a garment in the tradition of the emperor’s new clothes). That, of course, condemned England to face its nemesis, Germany, in a match that the smart money says England are unlikely to win.

Serbia were many pundits “dark horse” for the tournament, but neither Ghana nor Australia got that email, and both beat the Balkan favorites, Ghana going through to the group stage where they have an even chance against fellow arrivistes, the USA — one of those two will get to the last eight. Others who forgot to check their emails were Paraguay and Slovakia, both shutting Italy out of a place in the knockout stages they seem to regard as their due, simply for showing up. Even lowly New Zealand refused to succumb to the Azzuri, and would have beaten them were it not for a dodgy penalty. An international tournament in which the Kiwis return home unbeaten is, indeed, a world turned on its head.

Then there was Japan, having the temerity to not only beat Cameroon but to outplay one-time European champions Denmark with three goals that included an elegant, two-part tutorial for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba on how to score from free kicks with this Jabulani ball — and in the process, earn second place in the group and a ticket to the last 16 that the Danes had pretty much assumed was waiting for them at the will-call window.”

So what is happening? What makes the difference between success and failure? According to Karon: embracing globalization and diversity.

“These are teams that have embraced globalization both in their composition and style, adapting to best practices learned elsewhere. Germany and Switzerland are teams full of immigrants; the ethnically homogenous Italians have struggled. (Then again, France’s squad was predominantly of immigrant stock, and that didn’t help them.) Success may have more to do with embracing innovation and applying skills and organizational principles learned in the global soccer “economy” — the success of Uruguay and Mexico, even Ghana, can be partly attributed to the large number of their players now based at European clubs.

The point becomes more clear in reverse: The teams that performed below expectations are those most stuck in old ways; there was a staleness and familiarity to the styles of play and even the personnel of Italy and even England. France appeared hamstrung first and foremost by a sclerotic bureaucracy unable to effectively harness the abundance of resources at its disposal. Nigeria — let’s not even go there, beyond to observe that the malaise of a country that isn’t really sure if it’s a nation is well reflected in a chaotic soccer system.”

But Karon refuses to take that as a football theory of globalization (or globalization theory of football). Either way, it is fascinating to watch as everything is up for grabs. Interestingly, as US political power is on the wane, its football team is not out. This might be the year where semi-peripheral countries kicked the core countries’ a$$es, which would served them well for letting their financial elites tank the world economy.

Posted in Globalization, Sociology, Sports | No Comments »

Sociology of The World Cup – Defeat by Ethnicity

June 23, 2010 by and tagged , ,

Denis Colombi is right to recommend this column by Marwan Mohammed and Laurent Mucchielli. As they state, it didn’t take long for some French right-wing philosopher (and yes, we have a few of them, each one more pathetic and intellectually bankrupt than the next) to blame the poor performance of the French team at the World Cup on the assigned ethnicity of its members… i.e.: not enough whites.

To paraphrase Mohammed and Mucchielli, in 1998, when France triumphed at the World Cup, everyone celebrated the multiethnic team (“black, blanc, beur”). And even though the 2006 World Cup final ended with Zidane’s headbutt, it was all forgiven and seen as motivated (Zidane had to defend his honor). But then comes the 2010 fiasco, and all of a sudden, ethnicity, essentialized and forcibly assigned, explains everything.

So, from this idiotic perspective, defeat (now recast as not only as sportive but also as moral) is the result of ethnic and religious divisions and their supposed moral attributes: thuggish and mafia-like morality and lack of patriotism. This French team, once seen as a miracle of integration, now is seen as populated by delinquents from the suburban projects. What else could explain the rout. A soft version of this has been disseminated throughout the media.

This attitude reflects what Amartya Sen (2006) calls a solitarist approach to identity (a metastasis of The Clash of Civilizations), that is, assigning individuals to one identity and using this assignment as explanatory principle for all behaviors. This forced assignment is quite often done to minorities. It is a form of symbolic violence and it is a source of very real interpersonal violence.

Let me quote Sen:

“The politics of global confrontation is frequently seen as a corollary of religious and cultural divisions in the world. Indeed, the world is increasingly seen, if only implicitly, as a federation of religions or civilizations, thereby ignoring all the other ways in which people see themselves. Underlying this line of thinking is the odd presumption that the people of the world can be uniquely categorized according to some singular and overarching system of partitioning. Civilizational or religious partitioning of the world population yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members  of exactly one group.

(…)

A solitarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.

(…)

Violence is promoted by the cultivation of a sense of inevitability about some allegedly unique – often belligerent – identity that we are supposed to have and which apparently makes extensive demands on us (sometimes of a most disagreeable kind). The imposition of an allegedly unique identity is a often a crucial component of the ‘martial art’ of fomenting sectarian confrontation.

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned attempts to stop such violence is also handicapped by the perceived absence of choice about our identities, and this can seriously damage our ability to defeat violence. When the prospects of good relations among different human beings are seen (as they increasingly are) primarily in terms of ‘amity among civilizations,’ or ‘dialogue between religious groups,’ or ‘friendly relations between different communities’ (ignoring the great many different ways in which people relate to each other), a serious miniaturization of human beings precedes the devised programs for peace.” (xii-xiii)

Emphases mine. Sen here dismisses both the clash of civilizations-types of explanations as well as identity political movements (such as new social movements based on identity).

And this is what is happening with the use of ethnicity to explain the French defeat (and implicitly exonerate the real White French people involved, mainly, the manager, coaches and Federation representatives).

Not only that but such a solitarist approach, by definition, cannot be concerned with facts and realities of individuals within groups. As Mohammed nad Mucchielli note, there are currently 10 “white ethnics” in the French team (are they completely blameless?), and 13 blacks, 7 of them are from non-metropolitan territories and 6 are from African background. And out of the 23 selected to the national team, only 5 were from suburban projects. And from a religious perspective, most players have not declared any affiliation. Sarcastically, the authors note that, thank goodness, there were no Arabs on the team, otherwise, the commentaries would be even more vile.

But what matters here is, for Mohammed and Mucchielli, the racial obsession in the political and media discourse, again, this reduction (miniaturization as Sen states) of people’s behaviors to their “origins”. This is not only odious but also extremely dangerous because, from this perspective, anyone with a skin darker than white is reduced to a dangerous stereotype that negates individuality and plurality. This is a form of contempt that used to be applied to the working class (“classes laborieuses, classes dangereuses”) that has been racialized.

Moreover, this racial obsession obstructs any alternative analysis of the World Cup defeat, those that, for years have indicated the systemic dysfunctions and faulty leadership within the team. It is much easier (and for some, more satisfying) to just fantasize about gangs, religious thugs and suburban mafiosi from North Africa rather than examine the inherent difficulties of managing a national team from a structural and group-dynamic point of view.

Posted in Identity, Sociology, Sports | 1 Comment »

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