Important sport critique fails to engage wider audiences

Paul Dimeo
University of Stirling

David L. Andrews
Making Sport Great Again: The Uber-Sport Assemblage, Neoliberalism, and the Trump Conjuncture
167 pages, hardcover.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2019 (Palgrave Pivot)
ISBN 978-3-030-15001-3

Global sport, and in particular American sport, has been embraced by big business and is exploited by cultural and political analysts to make specific claims and progress specific ambitions. David Andrews has written a highly detailed and theoretically-rich book which explores the ways in which consumerism and commercialism have become interwoven with political discourses promoting neo-liberal and neo-conservative paradigms.

Andrews is a renowned scholar in the field of social and cultural studies of sport. As Ben Carrington wrote for the publicity blurb: ‘With the publication of the brilliant Making Sport Great Again, Professor David L. Andrews firmly establishes himself as the leading social theorist of sport in the late-capitalist consumer culture. There is no better scholarly guide to the politicized and politicizing nature and influence of contemporary sports on society than Andrews’ perceptive words and always-challenging ideas. Theoretically rich and empirically grounded, Making Sport Great Againis both an intellectual and political intervention into the hyper-commodified, commercialised spectacle that is modern uber-sport, a diagnostic analysis of neo-liberal sports cultures of the highest order that deserves to become an instant classic’.

So, what exactly does Andrews mean by uber-sport and what are the over-arching points of analysis?

In brief, I am not entirely sure because I found it a real struggle to wade through the deep waters of his sociological terminology.

I understand that sport is political and hierarchical often leading to discrimination that is hidden behind the normality of sports performance, business and entertainment. Therefore, the rationale for the book is perfectly reasonable, as stated early on: ‘a desire to expose the “political-cultural work” implicating the sport industry in “spreading, installing, universaling and naturalising neoliberalism” (Clarke, 2016, p.239), as an iniquitous, divisive, and undemocratic political formation (Brown 2015; Giroux, 2011)’ (p.2).

However, the following sentence was harder although I get part of the meaning about why we do cultural analysis. I just wonder if the language has to be so complicated:

‘In Braidotti’s terms, explicating the relationship between a popular cultural practice (uber-sport) and the operations of neoliberal power and domination within the contemporary US is impelled by a “radical aspiration to freedom through” understanding: an “epistemophilic yearning for the empowerment that comes with knowledge … of the specific conditions and relations of power that are imminent to our historical locations” (Braidotti, 2013, pp.11-12). Such is that epistemic yearning motivating this critical contextual undertaking’ (p.2).

The irony is that the politics underpinning this book are supposed to be about inclusion and democracy but the production of knowledge and analysis in the book is highly elitist and fails to engage wider audiences.

The irony is that the politics underpinning this book are supposed to be about inclusion and democracy but the production of knowledge and analysis in the book is highly elitist and fails to engage wider audiences.

Given my challenges in grasping the full sociological technicalities, I imagined at the very least I would be able understand what uber-sport means. Helpfully, each chapter has an abstract, and the abstract for chapter 1 includes a good starting point defining the term as ‘the sporting expression of a late capitalist society driven and defined by the processes of corporatization, commercialization, spectacularization, and celebritization’. All of which can be obscured by the broader social, cultural, political and economic forces that shape uber-sport. The term uber is taken to mean ‘above the rest’, and so uber-sport ‘signifies the highest, superlative, or consummate sport form … to refer to the currently idealized model or corporatized-commercialized-spectularized-celebritized sport culture, the hegemonic blueprint for the structure, delivery, and diversified consumptive experience of elite/professional sport’ (p.10).

By chapter 2 we head into another realm of sociological theory. Andrews is inspired by ‘DeLanda’s Deleuzian-informed assemblage theory’ which leads to uber-sport being ‘examined as an acentred assemblage constituted by a contingent amalgam of heterogeneous elements, and complex intra- and inter-assemblage rhizomatic relations’ (p.31).

There is certain vagueness to where this all leads. The chapter called ‘Assembling Uber-Sport’ ends with a paragraph which unfortunately leaves me somewhat bewildered:

‘the rhizomatic contingent relationality of the uber-sport assemblage problematizes the perceived stability and coherence of uber-sport, with multiplicity, complexity, and change supplanting any lingering singularity, simplicity, and stasis: a condition of perpetual relational becoming confounding the very possibility of an essential uber-sport being. Impossible to definitively pin down, uber-sport cannot be reduced to any single assemblant scale, such as athlete/player, consumer/viewer/spectator, the performance event (game, match, or contest), its spatial location, commodified forms, or media representations. It is an assemblage comprising multiple empirical scales cutting across “different realms of reality” (DeLanda, 2016, p.68), and incorporating a flattened non-hierarchical ontology eschewing any necessary sectoral influence. Furthermore, constituted by/constitutive of myriad assemblage relations that are themselves contextually specific uber-sport’s empirical, scalar, and temporal reach is so expansive, its boundaries so permeable, that any essentializing or universalizing coherence ascribed to it is little more than a managerial illusion. Ubiquitous yet ubietous, uber-sport formations are a demonstrable part of the “assemblage of assemblages” (DeLanda, 2016, p.14) that comprise the society in which they are situated, including the neoliberal US formation’ (p.55).

It is a great pity that this book is written for a specialist, highly educated, audience.

I must confess that there are several words in that paragraph I had to look up. And I remain somewhat vague as to what the book is actually arguing. Subsequent chapters show how Donald Trump has engaged with sport for his own political ends. The final chapter outlines a response, which is broadly to reflect upon the political nature of sport. Or to use Andrews’ words: ‘the discussion challenges progressives to counter uber-sport’s regressive and reactionary politicization, by investing in the political-cultural work required to rearticulate uber-sport to emancipatory and actualizing political formations’ (p.151). Partly that could be through education of students, but the author’s articulation of the options is general rather than specific: ‘there are no simple answers or solutions … The disarticulation of uber-sport from its currently reactionary pose and its re-articulation to and through a more progressive Leftist politics are possible; they are just difficult to imagine, let alone realize’ (pp.154-5).

All of which leaves me, as reviewer and reader, unsure how to judge this book. I probably agree with the core message: sport could be used to promote a fairer society which gives opportunities to members of all communities etc. I agree that the profit making, nationalism, racism, sexism and other bad behaviours promote the power hierarchy. I’m not sure I agree with the scholarship because most of it I struggle to understand.

The irony is that the politics underpinning this book are supposed to be about inclusion and democracy but the production of knowledge and analysis in the book is highly elitist and fails to engage wider audiences. I can’t see how the apparent objectives of mobilizing forces of resistance can develop if only a handful of people are on board and they are all working in academia. Even teaching students to be self-reflective and critical of existing social processes is going to be very limited if they can’t understand the books being used in their classes. Sports studies in a broader sense engages young people interested in history, sociology, management, psychology, science as related to sports contexts: it would be wonderful have a textbook they could read and easily understand which makes them think about why the sports industry has become so problematic and what might be done in practical terms to address that. It is a great pity that this book is written for a specialist, highly educated, audience.

Copyright © Paul Dimeo 2019

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