A strong collection of essays on some of sports most compelling figures

Steph Doehler
Open University, UK

Lisa Doris Alexander & Joel Nathan Rosen (eds.)
The Circus is in Town: Sport, Celebrity, and Spectacle
299 pages, paperback
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi 2021
ISBN 978-1-4968-3655-7

In this fifth and final volume of a series which explores the wider intersection of sport, media, and popular culture, The Circus is in Town focuses on the expectations between athletes, fans, and communities which are concurrently manipulated through the lens of the media and commercial endeavours. Unquestionably, the subjects of analysis have all displayed feats of athletic expertise in their respective fields, and furthermore all have experienced controversy that exists within the spectacle spectrum. Written by a range of scholars from multiple disciplines, the reader is given thoughtful insight into megastars such as LeBron James, David Beckham, Shaquille O’Neal, Maria Sharapova, Tiger Woods and Colin Kaepernick, within its 11 essays. Specifically, The Circus is in Town aims to “add clarity to the questions regarding how it is that the reputations of celebrity athletes are forged, maintained, transformed, repurposed, and at times even rehabilitated” (xviii).

A familiar challenge of reviewing an edited book is the contrasting writing styles of various contributors, and, as such, generalisations have been included within this appraisal. Similarly, this reviewer has developed a rounded overview of the volume for brevity, therefore comments on individual chapters are concise.

An early observation of the book is the questionable diversity in the selection of megastars in which contributors focused their attention, though, naturally, we cannot criticise the authors for not undertaking a different project. However, given that of the 11 chapters only three address female athletes, and the majority concentrate on either American athletes or, at least, athletes within an American context, there was certainly scope to widen the breadth here. Although this reviewer appreciates that the approach likely caters to its core audience, questions could be raised whether this was simply a lack of diversity on the editor’s part, or a wider, very realistic indictment of how particular demographics of athletes are underrepresented. To their credit, the editors themselves acknowledge this by stating, “certainly, there were dozens of other subjects who for what can be best described as logistical reasons were left off this roster” (xxviii), coupled with references to several athletes who could have been included. One, Caster Semenya, is an intriguing suggestion where the editors offer strong justification for why she might have been an appropriate inclusion, which inspires the question as to why she wasn’t. However, as will be explored below, a prominent narrative of this book contrasts with Semenya’s own story.

Within almost every chapter the focal point, the athlete, is portrayed as entitled, manipulative, and calculating in their own spectacle and agenda, whilst simultaneously absolving the media of accountability in their narratives.

A clear and easy to follow structure characterises the overall flow. Although some chapters achieve this stronger than others, each attempt contextualises the concept of athlete spectacle in relation to their chosen subject. The essays are isolated from one another, which makes them easily digestible and allows the reader to muse through the book at their own pace. At nearly 300 pages, it provides a comprehensive array of input, without becoming a challenge to consume.

We begin in Chapter 1 with an analysis of LeBron James’ complex relationship with Northeast Ohio. Chapter 2 flies across the Atlantic with a critique of David Beckham’s celebrity in an essay which depicts disappointment towards his stardom, with limited acknowledgement of Beckham’s charity work or allyship. Chapter 3 offers an abridged biography of Tiger Woods which, whilst lacking in theoretical perspectives, outlines a clear purpose statement in analysing “narratives and representations of him” (63) that landed on the front pages of media coverage; an intention well achieved. Chapter 4 addresses the retroactive apologia of Tonya Harding’s Olympic debacle, using Benoit’s Image Repair Theory as the primary framework.

Chapter 5 explores the rhetorical strategies of symbolic patriotism as enacted by pro sports leagues relating to the ‘take the knee’ movement. An arguable leniency towards the media was displayed here when the author wrote “as the expressions became variegated, it became increasingly difficult to track exactly what the gestures were protesting” (123). If one paid attention to athletes, then their messages were very clear; the media simply chose not to cover them, instead opting to focus on the action, not the meaning. Nonetheless, a useful postscript was added to this chapter given the subsequent murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd amongst others. Chapter 6 is a stimulating read where the narratives surrounding Maria Sharapova’s doping ban are explored. It raises several pertinent questions relating to doping in tennis, leaving the reader with wider discussion and thoughts beyond the chapter. Chapter 7 critically interrogates the contrasting reactions to Jason Collins and Michael Sam coming out as gay. Here, some narrative appears to excuse the poorer response to Sam, rather than challenging the societal stigma of homosexuality in sport.

One chapter is devoted to Tiger Woods, here playing the last CIMB Classic at Kuala Lumpur in 2018. (Shutterstock/Hafiz Johari)

Chapter 8 considers Shaquille O’ Neal reputational arc’s, aligning to hip-hop culture. This reviewer will admit that she struggled with resonance in places given her lack of affinity to the musical genre, but others may well be intrigued by this. Chapter 9 is a quirky essay whereby the author traces former American soccer player, Michelle Akers’ journey through the narrative from Disney’s Lion King. This chapter felt like the anomaly within the collection due to its more light-hearted approach, and yet was one of the most enjoyable to read. Chapter 10 conducts a media analysis of the Conor McGregor–Floyd Mayweather pre-fight press conferences, with regular leanings on Donald Trump’s own media statements, which, depending on one’s own political leanings could have the reader shaking their head in disbelief (at Trump, not the author). The final chapter revealed how mainstream America narrated the rise of 80s baseball star, Fernando Valenzuela, through a cultural and ethnic lens.

An afterword by Professor Jack Lule concludes the book nicely and acknowledges that athletes “are not at all innocent and powerless in the struggle over identity. They offer idealized images of themselves to the media and the world, seeking to shape their identity, build their brand, secure their place, and manage their reputation” (279). And this characterises a concern for this reviewer over a noticeable theme in the book. Within almost every chapter the focal point, the athlete, is portrayed as entitled, manipulative, and calculating in their own spectacle and agenda, whilst simultaneously absolving the media of accountability in their narratives. There is little concern from the authors over athlete welfare and the impact that intense media scrutiny can have on these superstars, circling back to this reviewer’s previous reference to Caster Semenya.

Notwithstanding these concerns, the book shows great academic value for those interested in sport sociology, and sport communication and journalism. The editors should be praised for closing this five-volume series with an entertaining concluding book which can be enjoyed as both a standalone or in conjunction with its predecessors. The individual narratives are absorbing and these stories collectively showcase the root of sport and spectacle in an effective manner.

Copyright © Steph Doehler 2022

Table of Content

Foreword: Looking inside the Cave… and Out
David C. Ogden

Introduction: Notes from under the Big Top
Lisa Doris Alexander and Joel Nathan Rosen

“You must believe me”: Northeast Ohio and the Promise(s) of LeBron James
Curtis M. Harris

I desire him so much he repulses me: The Transcendentally Disappointing Fantasy of David Beckham (Or Why There Is Only One David Beckham)
Carlton Brick

The Apotheosis of Tiger Woods: Monetizing Racial Transcendence and Sexual Transgression for a Quarter of a Century
Henry Yu

“She’s a Princess, and I’m a Pile of Crap”: Retroactive Apologia and the Tonya Harding Olympic Debacle
Kevin A. Stein, Matthew H. Barton and Arthur T. Challis

Symbolic Rupture: “Take a Knee” and the NFL as Commodified Spectacle
Brian Carroll

“Russian Sensation” or “Mean Girl”? Maria Sharapova, Drug Bans, and Schadenfreude
Rory Magrath

Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and the Challenge of Coming Out in Men’s Team Sport
Andrew C. Billings, Leigh M. Moscowitz and Melvin Lewis

Shoot-Pass-Slam: Reconsidering Shaquille O’Neal
Andrew McIntosh

The Lion Queen: Michelle Akers and the Pride of US Women’s Soccer
Roxane Coche

A Notorious Spectacle: A Critical Media Analysis of the “Money” Fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather
Ted M. Butryn, Matthew A. Masucci and Jay Johnson

Reading Fernando Valenzuela and Fernandomania: Broadening Americanness One Pitch at a Time
Jorge Moraga

Afterword: Bread, Circuses, and Desolation Row
Jack Lule

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