An introduction to the negative aspects of sport

Alan Bairner
Loughborough University

Eric Anderson & Rory Magrath
Advanced Introduction to the Sociology of Sport
124 pages, paperback
Cheltenham, Glos: Edward Elgar 2022 (Elgar Advanced Introductions)
ISBN 978-1-80088-929-3

This book is part of an Elgar series which now consists of ninety-eight titles. In terms of the subject matter, these range far and wide to include such topics as globalisation, nationalism, law and literature and law and renewable energy, freedom of expression and international tax law. Few, if any, attempt, at least on the evidence of the title, to introduce an entire academic sub-discipline, the challenge taken up by Eric Anderson and Rory Magrath

I was interested in the book initially for the very simple reason that I wanted to find out what an ‘advanced introduction’ is. I regret to say that, having now read the Advanced Introduction to the Sociology of Sport, I am none the wiser. Anderson and Magrath certainly introduce readers to a range of concepts, themes and issues that are central to the sociology of sport. Inevitably, as one would expect of any introductory text, there are also omissions which, in this instance, serve to draw attention to the solipsistic approach which the authors have chosen to adopt. Arguably, and unconventionally, the index is a good place to start. Although Eric Dunning and Harry Edwards are each referred to once (as is Lady Gaga), there is no mention of Norbert Elias or C.L.R. James. Neither Durkheim nor Weber merit a mention. On the other hand, Anderson and Magrath cite themselves on 10 and 20 occasions respectively. Far from demonstrating that this reflects the advanced character of the book, it serves to highlight the somewhat eccentric and introspective structure and content of what is identified as an introduction. It is, of course, an introduction but to the authors and their main concerns, rather than to the sociology of sport as a multi-faceted sub-discipline

The introductory chapter is promising. It begins by referring to the initial aims which the International Sociology of Sport Association set out in 1965. The authors declare their intention to reflect ‘the broad aims of the sociology of sport’, by examining the ways in which the institution of sport continues to reaffirm social inequalities. They proceed to a definition of sport and to emphasise the need for critical thinking. They then conclude this brief introduction by acknowledging that they will focus on ‘some of the most divisive issues affecting sport (and society more broadly)’ p. 7. So thankfully it would appear that sport evangelism is likely to get short shrift.

Anderson and Magrath decided to focus on the negative aspects of sport and chose to ignore the pleasure that sport gives to so many people as participants and spectators.

However, the fact that the first chapter of the book addresses sport and violence reflects a degree of pessimism about the potential social value of sport that even angry old leftists like me might find somewhat surprising. That the second chapter is dedicated to sport and brain injury merely confirms an initial suspicion that this is an introduction that is in danger of starting from the wrong place. The context in which the institution of sport is undeniably able to reaffirm countless social inequalities is characterised by the global popularity of sport itself. Why and how are the questions that need to be asked before violence and the possibility of brain injuries take centre stage.

To that extent, the third chapter, on sport and social class, is potentially more sociologically promising. What we get, however, is a relatively superficial account culminating in a quasi-Marxist critique of sports scholarships in American universities which, exploitative as they are in many respects, are not perhaps the most egregious examples of how and why class matters in sport as in so much else. Perhaps some discussion of the ideas of both Gramsci and Bourdieu, amongst others, would have facilitated a more insightful and nuanced consideration of this topic. But yet again one is left with the impression that the book is more about the authors and their concerns rather than about what might be helpful to new recruits to the sociological study of sport.

The fourth chapter comprises nineteen pages on sport and sexuality whereas, remarkably, only twelve pages are allotted to sport, women and marginalization, the focus of the next chapter. The main preoccupations of the authors become abundantly clear, if you hadn’t spotted them already, in the final paragraph of the women and marginalization chapter. ‘It seems salient’, they write, ‘that if you want to prevent men from experiencing mental health issues related to collision and contact in sport; if you want to prevent women from experiencing mental health issues related to collision and contact in sport; if you want to prevent men’s violence as related to these sports; and if you want to prevent women’s violence as a result of these sports – there is a simple answer: stop playing, or change the sports to remove brain trauma’ (p.81). Without wishing to diminish the importance of addressing the links between certain sports and brain damage, I am not convinced that this was the most significant conclusion to arrive at in a chapter on sport, women and marginalization. But clearly the authors thought differently.

Image: Margaret Kite (Shutterstock)

The final chapter examines sport and racism and covers a number of the main debates. Even here, however, all roads eventually lead to violence in sport and brain trauma with the authors justifiably drawing readers’ attention to black NFL players being ‘disproportionally denied compensation compared with white NFL players’ (p. 94). The authors then begin their conclusion by stating that ‘the primary purpose of this book has been to provide a brief, critical examination of some of the major issues which continue to impact across the world’ (p. 96). At least we know now. It was not to provide an introduction, advanced or otherwise, to the sociology of sport. The authors are perfectly entitled, therefore, to remind the readers that they ‘have outlined how sports have emerged with a range of dangerous, unhealthy, and largely toxic characteristics’ (p. 97). They list ten of these and note that there are many more that they could have provided but they were ‘constrained’ in what they could write about. It seems to me that the constraints were largely self-imposed even though one can only do so much in a short introduction. Anderson and Magrath decided to focus on the negative aspects of sport and chose to ignore the pleasure that sport gives to so many people as participants and spectators.

I have never been convinced by the more evangelical claims for sport. However, I was taken aback by the authors’ confident assertion that ‘sport teaches us to hate our competitors’ (p. 97). I spent 25 years in the north of Ireland at a time when a lot of hating was going on. Yet, as Donald McRae (2019) compellingly documents, that emotion was almost wholly replaced in the amateur boxing clubs of Belfast by respect and comradeship. A violent sport, no doubt, and one that is capable of leading to brain damage but perhaps we should heed the words of Joni Mitchell and try to look at life from both sides now, especially if we wish to write an advanced introduction to an important sub-discipline which sadly this book is not.

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2022


McCrae, D. (2019) In Sunshine or in Shadow. How boxing brought hope in the troubles. London: Simon and Schuster.
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