Engaging and well researched analysis of sport and power in American culture

Steph Doehler
School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport, The Open University

Michael Serazio
The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture
381 pages, hardcover.
New York, NY: New York University Press 2019 (Postmillennial Pop)
ISBN 978-1-4798-8731-6

To propose that the sports industry exerts significant power over American media and culture sounds somewhat obvious, therefore you could be forgiven for reading The Power of Sports and feeling rather underwhelmed by the overarching conclusions drawn from the book. However, failing to look beyond these would prove a disservice to author, Michael Serazio, who undertook extensive interviews with key figures in American sports media offering credibility to the common belief that sport is intertwined with cultural, political and economic narratives within the US. Despite hegemonic power struggles within the sports industry facing scrutiny in recent years, sport has undeniably retained its elusive influence throughout the country. As a member of the Department of Communication at Boston College and an award-winning journalist, Serazio is a reliable figure to analyse the sports spectacle in America.

Serazio produces a fascinating read through an interdisciplinary approach that peels back the curtain on familiar concepts, breaking the fourth wall on how the media operate and how we, as consumers, are routinely duped into instinctively accepting their agenda. Serazio makes an unnervingly accurate forethought in the conclusion of the first chapter, writing “By the time you read this, dramatic events…will surely have intervened” (39). Whilst he refers to Donald Trump (who lost his presidency since publication) and the national anthem (which continues to sit at the heart of divisive protests), the statement also confounds the irrefutable impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had an all avenues of life, with sport being no exception.

Despite a semi-dominant focus on NFL, Serazio’s boundaries are relatively broad both in terms of sports covered throughout the book and how the industry wields its power and influence over its public. Each of the six chapters centre on specific themes, with particular focus on journalism, commercialisation, gender and power. These matters are examined through a range of academic subjects including sports media, commercialisation, communication and fan culture and identity.

Serazio opens Chapter 1 with a personal account of his attachment to sport through family ties. This charming introduction allows the reader to reflect on their own relationship with sport, particularly how it was influenced in its formative years. Frequently we see connections drawn between sport and religion, and Serazio is no exception to this. However, he doesn’t follow the same path of many others by focusing attention on outlining a direct comparison between sporting cultures and religious constructs, instead concentrating on analysing the cultural and emotionally compelling nature of sport through the metaphor of religion. As Serazio writes, religion is not a “cosmic order” but a “social order” that unites a group (15), in this case individual sports fans who coalesce to support their team. Further associations are made between the two entities, which Serazio interprets as “soulmates” by which fans “require total commitment of body and mind” (18). He infers that the lasting attraction of contemporary sport in society has filled the “vacuum created by the decline of traditional religion” (20).

This charming introduction allows the reader to reflect on their own relationship with sport, particularly how it was influenced in its formative years.

Capitalism is a prevailing theme of the book’s second chapter where Serazio explores how the digital revolution has impacted the development of sports journalism, drawing its transitions through several forms culminating in the social media boom. Through considerable analytical skills Serazio examines the symbiotic intersection of sports and journalism through the fundamental focus of the book, power. The chapter offers significant consideration to the manner that sports leagues possess colossal authority over the television networks and media channels that air their games, often creating “conflicting impulses” (51) between self-censored journalists and their revenue hungry employers.

Chapter 3 further develops the aforementioned topics as Serazio outlines how increasingly commercialised sports and the sports media maintain their power, analysing the marketing and merchandising of sports on a national and global scale. The chapter is grounded in the belief that “American sports in the 21st Century function basically as a backdrop for commercial activity” (105). Serazio suggests that fans are consumers for sale through their brand allegiance and offers several examples of the strategies used by sports franchises and television networks to contrive an insatiable thirst to gratify their susceptible audiences. Returning to the theme of religion Serazio maintains that fans are lured “into worshipping at the altar of the sports totem” (106). He withholds blame towards consumers for the faith they show their team as “sport is becoming ever more adept at evoking, manipulating and harvesting” (134). Despite Serazio’s position as a researcher into the topic, he doesn’t find himself above others, “I certainly buy into it, even as I know I’m being conned” (147).

As a cultural phenomenon, sports give powerful expression to the gendered aspects of culture, and this is explored within Chapter 4 in which Serazio presents the sports manhood formula that permeates all facets of sports media and culture and the subsequent consequences of this. The chapter’s opening proposes that “Gender politics have never been all that subtle in sports” (161) and Serazio goes on to suggests that females involved in the industry, either as athletes or within media roles, often find themselves marginalised. Serazio recognises that this topic must be exposed and deconstructed to diffuse the unconcealed power struggles within sport that promotes masculine hegemony to the deterrence of their female counterparts. This can be difficult terrain for any analysist to navigate, yet the author does so successfully and sensitively.

However, the book does provide an investigation into an extensive scope of topics that tracks both historical developments and contemporary influences, achieving its remit with impressive curiosity and detail.

The penultimate chapter disassembles the illusion that professional sports are unpolitical. This leads into a challenging discussion about race and protest, with particular focus on the uproar following Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest in 2016. His argument emphases the belief that activism by professional athletes will “have to negotiate the default politics of sports culture that have entrenched conservative values as natural and invisible and view any leftist critiques as illegitimate and intrusive” (230), consequently highlighting that despite the sports industry’s pretence of being apolitical conservative ideologies are plentiful. However, what Serazio fails to acknowledge in his discussion of Kaepernick, and of resonance to wider sports protests, is that sports reporters are habitually ill-equipped to address issues of race and often adopt a more aggressive approach of criticising a protester’s action and concentrating on more extraneous topics, rather than engaging in valuable dialogue on why the protest is taking place. A more contemporary perspective on the issue of sport and politics in 2021 would create an interesting discussion in the wake of both COVID and the racial injustices (and subsequent protests) that occurred with regularity across America in 2020. The risks associated with athlete activism could have been analysed in more detail within the chapter, even without the lived knowledge that we have since the book’s publication.

The final chapter acknowledges the turbulent relationship sports fans have with their chosen team. Serazio returns to his familiar approach of drawing religious parallels to understand the connection, “The religious totem, I believe, best captures the utopian function of these franchises and the fizziness than fandom affords” (287). He explores the idea that the commercial structure of sport is currently of more importance than outcomes of the sports themselves. Whilst this does have some merit, it stands to reason that many of the most financially secure sports franchises around the world are also some of the most successful; on field success inevitably breeds commercial gain. The theme of fan identity and agency is prevalent throughout the chapter, allowing the reader to understand the inescapable socio-political and sociocultural power that sports media and commercialisation have on fandom.

There are two minor criticisms of the book worth noting. Firstly, with the increasing discourse on race the subject was never put at front and centre of Serazio’s discussions and instead weaved into other topics. Even at the latter end of the decade it would be hard to suggest that this theme was not prevalent in American society and worthy of greater discussion. Of course, this leaves the author with scope for future editions of this book which could, and certainly should, focus on these issues more heavily. Secondly, despite Serazio’s suggestion that he “tried to borrow a more journalistic, readable vernacular” (39) the writing does follow the propensity of researchers to over-scholarise their conclusions and get lost in academic verbiage. There are occasions when the style is somewhat convoluted, which may put off some readers. Similarly, whilst Serazio criticises the provocative tone of the media through the book, he ironically writes in a similar manner at times.

To those with any reasonable knowledge of sports media The Power of Sports is unlikely to come as any significant exposé into its impact on American culture. However, the book does provide an investigation into an extensive scope of topics that tracks both historical developments and contemporary influences, achieving its remit with impressive curiosity and detail. There is little doubt that the book has a place within readings lists for a range of students across both America and the rest of the western world.

Copyright © Steph Doehler 2021

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