Opening up a space for social justice and sport & leisure activism

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Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire


malcolm-macleanRecent years have seen the social role of sport become increasingly important in government policies while activist movements have begun to pay more attention to sport-related and -based campaigns. Mega-events are justified because of their potential to regenerate cities and leave ‘legacies’, whatever they may be, while communities stage protests over their dislocation by these same events – First Nations in British Columbia, shack dwellers in Cape Town, the former residents of Clays Lane (Stratford, London), current residents of Rio’s favelas and Circassian groups in Russia have all objected to the impact of Olympic and Men’s Football World Cup events on their lives. Elsewhere labour rights campaigns implicate sport industries in clothing worker exploitation, international agencies invoke sport as a development tool, government policies deploy sport as a crime reduction method or a mechanism to enhance ‘social inclusion’… amid all this, Brighton University’s Sport, Leisure and Social Justice conference (19-20 September 2013) presented an opportunity to explore the objectives of these political struggles around sport events and practices with its discussions between scholars and activists.

The conference opened with David Wolff (University of Brighton) outlining the University of Brighton’s Community University Partnerships Programme, designed as a bridge between community demand and need and university skills but functioning as mutually beneficial programme in the co-production of community programmes. Alongside this case study in corporate social responsibility Jules Boykoff (Pacific University, Oregon) discussed Olympic related activist campaigns as ‘event coalitions’ of campaigners where the mega-event functions as a site for focussing activism and profile; for Boykoff these campaigns are less a movement of movements as a “moment of movements”. This session, completed by Peter Donnelly’s (University of Toronto) discussion of the tensions between community engagement and the audit cultures that increasingly dominate higher education (a recurrent theme), anticipated many of the issues explored throughout the conference: the significance and usefulness of confrontational actions, the role, profile and constraints on academics as ‘public intellectuals’, the limits and possibilities of work in and with corporate bodies and the tensions between celebration and critique in sport-related events.

The organisers did well to integrate academics and activists/practitioners and all shades between and in combination. A useful panel looking at sport for development and peace (SDP) programmes featured Simon Darnell’s (Durham University) call for research programmes that move beyond the limitations of the dominant positivist approach to embrace the diversity of on-the-ground views, draw SDP participants into research design and heighten the context, especially the political economic contexts of SDP programmes. Alex Cardenas (University of Ulster, Derry) and Megan Chawansky (University of Brighton) discussed forms of academic activism in SDP work, Alex emphasising the potential and problems of these programmes for peace, and Megan unpacking issues of gender in the US State Department’s Global Sports Mentoring Programme and the Ernst & Young supported Women Athletes Global Leadership Programme to tease out issues of class, gender and corporate power. These two discussions of academics’ work in SDP were then further supplemented by Pete Beeley’s (Fight for Peace International) views from the ground as a worker in SDP, including football-based activity in Sierra Leone and martial arts programmes in Rio. In the discussion part of the panel, Simon Darnell challenged us to consider the ways that sport for development programmes may be part of the post-2008 rebranding and re-legitimation of neo-liberalism.

The conference concluded with a stimulating panel of activists/practitioners discussing their work in sport and movement cultures with an emphasis on race and ethnicity, peace-making and space, and gender and sexuality.

Other themes and discussions explored public intellectuals and activism during which Payoshni Mitra (Independent Researcher, Kolkata) discussed her advocacy work with inter-sex athletes in the context of both a three way discourse between activists, intellectuals and media-publics and the current political struggles around violence against women in India. Elsewhere in the same session Jayne Caudwell (University of Brighton) considered the question of research-informed activism by considering the acceptability of types of evidence, the challenges of speaking out and issue of the sustainability of both that research and that activism. John Horne (University of Central Lancashire), Ashley Gunter (University of South Africa) and Jon Dart (Leeds Metropolitan University) considered aspects of mega-events, while forms of football related resistance were explored by Mark Doidge (University of Brighton) on Livorno, Netta Ha-Ilan (Open University, Israel) on Hapoel-Kataman Jerusalem and Will Simpson (Bristol) on Easton Cowboys. The conference concluded with a stimulating panel of activists/practitioners discussing their work in sport and movement cultures with an emphasis on race and ethnicity, peace-making and space, and gender and sexuality. This panel included Alister O’Loughlan’s (Urban Playground Team) powerful account of a parkour programme in Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina as one of the most potent cases of the transformative potential of non-sport movement cultures.

Alongside the opening up of activist-academic discussions and dialogue, the conference prompted further issues. There are aspects of the conference that enhance and extend the discussions at the 2008 To Remember is To Resist conference at the University of Toronto (papers from which are published in Sport in Society Vol 13:1 in 2010), and other facets for me prompted other questions.

  1. Those of us involved in and concerned with these issues need a further discussion of what we mean by ‘social justice’; throughout the conference the term seemed largely taken for granted although participants deployed it in a range of ways, some as liberal(ish) notions of individual inclusion while others used it in a more socially transformative sense. There was a feeling that at times we were talking past each other as a result.
  2. A recurrent theme was the place, role and continued existence of academics as public intellectuals, while we almost certainly need to consider, as Alan Tomlinson (University of Brighton) requested, the distinction between public intellectuals and activists and as Jules Boykoff noted between public intellectuals and cultural brokers to which I’d add also developing a more sophisticated or nuanced sense of the academic-activist.
  3. The organisers opened up a space for academics and activists/practitioners to discuss the issues at the centre of the conference, but we need to take that further and find ways to build the spaces for mutual discussion, exchange and co-production of ideas and planning; a key issue is activist training.
  4. Despite the presence of the term ‘leisure’ in the conference title, it was dominated by discussions of sport, often as quite narrowly defined; until sport scholars find ways to close the gap we risk failing to fully grasp the banal, mundane and quotidian that appeared so often in our discussions as the key space for effective transformative action.

These questions arise from the opportunity offered so successfully by the organisers; they provided a space for exciting, inspiring and productive discussions and exchange. It is up to us recognise the spaces that are beginning to open up around sport, leisure, politics and activism as well as the gaps between the academy and activism and to find ways to create more productive relations that can help build programmes that undermine the constraints imposed by corporate sport and related body and movement cultures. I hope there will be publications, but also that they are published in a form that is readily accessible beyond the academy.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2013

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