A good edited collection on sport and politics, albeit with a US focus

Alan Bairner
School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University

Daniel A. Grano & Michael L. Butterworth (eds.)
Sport, Rhetoric and Political Struggle
228 pages, paperback
Oxford, Oxon: Peter Lang Publishing 2019 (Frontiers in Political Communication)
ISBN 978-1-4331-4677-0

Unlike sociology, political science has tended to ignore the relationship between sport and politics, unless the focus has been strictly on governance and policy making, thereby relegating sport’s wider political dimensions and ramifications to the side-lines. It is, therefore, to the credit of the editors of and contributors to this collection of essay, most of whom work in the field of Communication Studies, that they have taken up the challenge to examine the links between the language of politics, sport, and activism.

The book comprise an editors’ introduction followed by four sections – Contextualising Sport and Political Struggle (three chapters), Mobilizing Resistance (five chapters), Confronting Stigma (four chapters), and Future Provocations (one chapter). Arguably there could have been a clearer definition of politics in the editors’ introduction. The claims that politics is ‘a mechanism for establishing order through practices, discourses and institutions’ whereas ‘the political’, citing Chantal Mouffe, ‘refers to a permanent condition in which human relations are unavoidably defined by conflict’ (p. 8) are useful. However, I think I prefer the more straightforward distinction between the politics of states and the politics of sub-state organisations with this book focusing primarily on the latter albeit in relation to responses to the former, in this instance the United States.

The assertion that ‘the prevailing wisdom in the United States has long held that politics and sport should not mix’ (p. 1) is, if true, somewhat surprising. It is the case that Avery Brundage, president of the United States Olympic Committee and later the International Olympic Committee, bandied that particular slogan around during the 1930s but I would like to think that many, perhaps even most, of his compatriots have moved on since then and arrived at the undeniable conclusion that, whether Brundage’s successors like it or not, politics and sport are inseparable.  As the editors themselves observe, sport is ‘a rhetorical site that is constitutive of political culture’ (p. 5).

Where the collection falls down, however, is in its persistent introspective tone which, whether consciously or not, may well ask too much of many non-American readers.

Where the collection falls down, however, is in its persistent introspective tone which, whether consciously or not, may well ask too much of many non-American readers.

The first chapter is Abraham Khan’s discussion of Curt Flood’s struggle with MLB to secure free agency, possibly more economic than political although here are another two realms that are inextricably linked. The overarching theme of the chapter is confrontational rhetoric and its perils with Flood’s subsequent demise being attributed to his struggle. In Chapter Three Karen Hartman takes up this theme with reference to Colin Kaepernick whose commitment, she argues, ‘has opened up a rhetorical space wherein those affiliated with sport are more willing to engage broadly in social activism’ (p. 55). Whether it was Kaepernick who opened up this space and not Cassius Clay, Tommie Smith and John Carlos is a moot point. Indeed, Clay is the focus of Lisa Corrigan’s chapter (Chapter Five) on rhetorical intimacy and black masculinity in which it is claimed that ‘the iconicity of both Ali and [Malcolm] X heightens our interest in them as individuals, but as friends they occupy a much larger space in public memory’ (p. 85) although not perhaps for members of today’s younger generation.

Chapter Seven, the work of Daniel Brouwer and Katrina Hanna, analyses the (re)articulation of race, sexuality, and gender in US football by way of a commentary on Tyrann Mathieu’s identification with the Honey Badger. Don’t ask. This was almost certainly the chapter that made me feel most acutely aware that my knowledge of sport in the US is negligible to say the least. According to the authors, the story consists of ‘narratives of racial redemption’ (p. 116) although Mathieu’s own claim that ‘we can just call the position I play the ‘Honey Badger’ (p. 125) added little to my understanding.

Before reading this book, I was unfamiliar with Mathieu and also with Flood and Richard Sherman (discussed by Anna Young in Chapter Eight). Other names I already knew – not only those of Clay and Kaepernick but also that of Greg Louganis who is the subject of an insightful essay written by Jeffrey Bennett. Where the collection falls down, however, is in its persistent introspective tone which, whether consciously or not, may well ask too much of many non-American readers.

(Image source: La Progressive)

From my own unashamedly European (not British) perspective, the most thought-provoking chapters were Chapter Two, Katherine Lavelle’s ‘“Change starts with us”: Intersectionality and Citizenship in the 2016 WNBA’ and Chapter Six, Mike Milford’s ‘Spirits in the Material World: The Rhetoric of the Iroquois Nationals’. Lavelle describes ‘how a league not routinely part of the national conversation on social justice issues used their agency and platform at a critical time in U.S. culture’ (p. 49). In so doing, she ironically alerted me to the fact that her chapter has implications that extend well beyond the shores of the United States.

Similarly, as was the case with the WNBA players in 2016 when they ‘advocated for dialogue about gun violence and police brutality’ (p. 48), Milford’s examination of the rhetoric surrounding the Nationals lacrosse team touches upon concerns encountered throughout the world wherever people, and especially indigenous people, feel the need to have their voices heard. As Milford notes, ‘sometimes the team’s achievements are held up as examples of the indomitable Native spirit’ (p. 101) whereas at other times, ‘the team’s appearances on the international stage are a legitimation of the Native American nations’ (p. 101) with sport being used as ‘a means to a particular rhetorical end’ (p. 102). Whilst some native American nations have traditionally used the sport of lacrosse for physical and spiritual healing, with the emergence of the Nationals, we witness ‘a celebration of Native identity against social, political, and economic marginalization’ (p. 104) and an affirmation of ‘their existence and relevance’ (p. 107). Here in this chapter is overwhelming evidence of sport and politics as ‘rhetorical resources’ (p. 110).

This is a good book that deserves to be read by scholars with an interest in the relationship between sport and politics. But, with honourable exceptions, it is also a very American book. I look forward to similar issues as those that are raised in it being addressed in a future collection of essays with contributions from other parts of the world where the sport-politics nexus has every bit as much resonance as in the United States.

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2023

Table of Content

Rhetoric, Sport, and the Political: An Introduction
Daniel A. Grano & Michael L. Butterworth

Section I: Contextualizing Sport and Political Struggle

      1. Curt Flood, Confrontational Rhetoric, and the Radical’s Constellation
        Abraham I. Khan
      2. “Change Starts with Us”: Intersectionality and Citizenship in the 2016 WNBA
        Katherine L. Lavelle
      3. The New Rhetorical Space for Political Activism
        Karen L. Hartman

Section II: Mobilizing Resistances

      1. Diving into the Past: Greg Louganis, Queer Memory, and the Politics of HIV Management
        Jeffrey A. Bennett
      2. Touching Ali: Rhetorical Intimacy and Black Masculinity
        Lisa M. Corrigan
      3. Spirits in the Material World: The Rhetoric of the Iroquois Nationals
        Mike Milford
      4. (Re)Articulations of Race, Sexuality, and Gender in U.S. Football: Investigating Tyrann Mathieu as Honey Badger
        Daniel C. Brouwer & Katrina N. Hanna
      5. Richard Sherman’s Rhetorical Witnessing
        Anna M. Young

Section III: Confronting Stigmas

      1. Ableism and Paralympic Politics: Media Stereotypes and the Rhetoric of Disability Sport
        James L. Cherney & Kurt Lindemann
      2. Athletes and Assemblage: Political Struggle at the ESPYs
        Meredith M. Bagley
      3. “I’d Just Like to Let Everybody Know”: Pete Harnisch on the Disabled List and the Politics of Mental Health
        Raymond I. Schuck
      4. When Sport Facilitates Saying the Unsayable at the Boundaries of Race and Sexuality: Jason Collins and Michael Sam
        Barry Brummett

Section IV: Future Provocations

      1. “My Whole Life Is about Winning”: The Trump Brand and the Political/Commercial Uses of Sport
        Thomas P. Oates & Kyle W. Kusz
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