NASSS Conference: “Sport in place”, New Orleans, LA, 2012


Susanna Hedenborg
Aage Radmann
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Susanna Hedenborg and Aage Radmann

“Sport in place” – the 33rd annual conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in New Orleans, November 2012, featured more than 80 sessions and workshops as well as three keynote addresses. Themes discussed and papers presented covered a wide range of topics such as sport for development and peace, sport in old and new media (seemingly with particular emphasis on Twitter), how to teach sociology, human and animal relationships in sport, sport management and sport and gender, or, perhaps more accurately, feminist studies.


The first keynote lecture was aimed to inform conference participants of our local setting. As stated by Toni Bruce, president elect of NASSS: “We travel around to conferences and very often we don’t get a feeling for the places were are at”. The panel consisted of Jay Cicero from GNOSF (Great New Orleans Sport Foundation), Casey Knoettigen (Urban studies, University of New Orleans) and Brandon Haynes (Department of Planning and Urban Studies, University of New Orleans), and its participants discussed the place of sport in New Orleans. GNOSF is a non-profit organisation working to bring sport events to New Orleans. Through establishing a permanent office and staff, the organisation has been able to draw more than 40 big events since 1992 (among them Olympic trials for track and field, junior Olympics, Men’s and Women’s final four and the upcoming Super Bowl in the beginning of 2013, which will generate 343 million dollars according to GNOSF). Knoettigen and Haynes focused on how sports, and especially the New Orleans NFL team ”The Saints” have played a role in the healing of the city after Hurricane Katrina. Their project analyses sport from socioeconomic and religious studies perspectives. Apart from the function of sport as a social healer, it was particularly interesting to learn that small economic transactions taking place around sport events (such as small shops outside the arena), may be of even greater importance for every day life in New Orleans than the big transactions referred to by GNOSF.

The second keynote took place on the third conference day and consisted of a panel comprising Professor emerita Susan Greendorfer, University of Illinois; Professor emerita Susan Birell, University of Iowa; Professor emerita Nancy Theberge, University of Waterloo, and Professor emerita A. Ann Hall, University of Alberta. Greendorfer began by providing an account of the development of feminist studies in sport studies and how NASSS was formed in 1980 in Denver. The panel subsequently shared their experiences of being feminist scholars in the field of sports research, and the ways in which their own accomplishments had developed since the late 1950’s. Aside from their descriptions of how they entered the field and their views on mentorship, teaching and publishing, they also gave the audience a fantastic opportunity to understand how a perspective grows into an established academic field. In addition, the panel members shared their thoughts on future challenges; emphasising questions such as whether the feminist perspective will dissolve into other perspectives, and whether the field of sociology of sport will dissolve into other academic fields. The panel discussion was video recorded by NASSS, and the video will hopefully be made available to scholars who were unable to attend. It is well worth watching; if you do not know your history, it is difficult to shape the future!

(E)merited keynote panel at the NASSS conference. Left to right, Susan Greendorfer, Susan Birell, Nancy Theberge and A. Ann Hall. Photo: Susanna Hedenborg.

Faye Linda Wachs, president of NASSS, gave the third keynote speech on the last day of the conference. Wachs, who has written the book Body Panic with Shari L. Dworkin, stressed that everyone is involved in body politics, as well as the necessity of opposing what society is doing to our bodies. Wachs begun by observing that we are currently more interested in the physical appearance of our bodies than how they feel. She proceeded to discuss the importance of sport sociologists analysing the body from a sociological point of view, rather than relinquishing this field of expertise to the natural scientists. She problematized concepts like the “obesity epidemic”, showing that obesity is not an individual problem, but a social one, in the sense that the measurement used to define obesity (Body Mass Index, BMI) is somewhat arbitrary, and society is unjust. Everyone does not have the same opportunity to actually choose what to eat and drink and to practise physical exercise, which can lead to segments of the population developing unhealthy habits. Not only food politics affect peoples’ bodies; there have been discussions about the possibility of privatising city parklands in order to keep out “undesirable people”. A possible consequence of this is that the people in most need of public physical recreation areas will be unable to access them. Wachs also presented a project for which she had felt obliged to apply for research grants, targeting obesity in a group of minority children by promoting PE and providing schools with resources to acquire equipment. The project turned out to be problematic. The performance of children from middle class schools improved as expected: they trained more, ran faster and were able to do more push-ups. However, children in the poorer schools did not improve their performance. Wachs related this to the children’s relation to society at large. A greater problem, however, was that this resulted in the improving schools gaining increased means, while the poorer schools lost funding.

Gender issues in sports

Several sessions addressed and questioned the gender binary in sports. One session comprised presentations about mixed-gender football in the UK (Laura Hill, Brunel University), mixed-gender swim training in California (Michela Musto, University of Southern California) and transgender issues in children’s and youth sports (Ann Travers, Simon Fraser University). Laura Hill has conducted a study for the FA on girls playing mixed-gender football, exploring injury risk, changing room issues and whether mixed teams influenced the game. Hill concluded that several studies have demonstrated that the injury risk does not increase with mixed-gender teams, there were no problems with the changing rooms (as boys and girls never used them, but opted to change at home) and that the game was not influenced. This conclusion caused the FA to raise the age limit for gender-mixed playing from U11 to U13. Hill observed, somewhat ironically, that this was a small alteration for such an expensive study.

The German mixed-gender swim team won the event’s debut World Cup in Dubai 2012.

In her presentation, Michaela Musto demonstrated that during the structured time of swim training, gender was not an issue for the children as they related to each other as individuals. This may be due to swimming being an individual sport, but Musto suggested that it might be more related to practise time being structured and led by a coach. In unstructured times, however, children positioned themselves as boys and girls. This indicates the importance of coach-led training, and regulation of children’s practices. In the final presentation, Ann Travers who has worked with transgender issues in sport demonstrated that regulations have been altered so as to welcome transgender persons/children to sports, however, on the condition that they are labelled either men or women. In that way, these inclusions have reproduced gender binaries rather than weakening them.

In one of the sessions on sport, gender and media, Kent Kaiser of Northwestern College presented a quantitative study on hockey players on Twitter, analysing the differences between the ways in which men and women communicate. Unlike previous research, Kaiser observed that there were only small differences in men’s and women’s tweeting habits, although women tweeted much more frequently than men. Dunja Antonovic, Pennsylvania State University, presented a study on “Women, sport and the blogosphere”, exploring how women relate to sport, understand sport and constitute themselves as fans. 619 blog profiles on two sites, BlogHer and Women Talk Sports, were used as source material. According to Antonovic’s study, women generally write more about their own sports-practice than fandom, and understand sport as empowering and conducive to well-being and self-improvement, and feel that competing enhances growth. The bloggers presented the aim of sports as building positive, inclusive and empowering relationships, and also wrote about making female fans visible. Traci Yates, University of Tennessee, demonstrated in her presentation that the understanding of the female fan experience must be open to complexity. Although it seemed that most of the women in her study had male mentors in the world of sport fandom, they all expressed how they experienced their love for a team or a sport in many different ways.

Power and leadership in sports

An issue that tends to be underexplored at European sports conferences is the intersection of race and other power structures. At the NASSS conference, the topic was brought up in most sessions. In one, Desmond Miller, York University, presented a study on how black Canadian student athletes compete for athletic scholarships in the US. Nancy E. Spencer, Bowling Green State University, discussed the power of whiteness in tennis through the mirror of media representations of Serena Williams’s “dance” (the crip-walk). Questioning notions of race, gender and social class, Shawn Forde, University of British Columbia, reflected on his own work in Lesotho with a sport for development project. He is writing an auto-ethnography from his time in Africa, including drawings and texts emphasising the complicity of his own situation as well as the projects.

In a session titled Culture and leadership: The impact of organizational structures on non-traditional leaders presenters demonstrated and discussed how to get more women in sports organisations and decision-making positions. Ketra L. Armstrong, University of Michigan, claimed that sports are cultured places and gendered spaces and that women working in sports had three different frameworks of understanding, labelled as “fix the women”, value the feminine and create equal opportunities (the latter not being favoured by the women who were interviewed in the study as it was seen as degrading; women would be given jobs because of their gender, rather than their capacities). Along with many other important points, Armstrong stressed that knowledge of sport, not least the ability to play golf, was of crucial importance for women to become leaders, just as the presence of other women in positions of authority. Armstrong emphasised that one possible framework of understanding, the only one that might actually make a difference, was not represented among the women she has studied; that of changing the system. This observation was discussed in relation to society at large as well as specific sectors, such as the media. An interesting possibility mentioned by Armstrong is that business people (i.e. men) working in sports may be more inclined to employ women, perhaps due to being shaped in a culture that rewards achievements to a greater extent than sports organisation culture. Armstrong briefly related her analysis to other power structures such as race, but did not go into depth about these perspectives.

Meg G Hancock, University of Louisville, employed a similar framework in her presentation on sport management and career construction, based on an interview study with women. Her informants attested to the importance of interpersonal relationships as well as professional development activities for career advancement. Obstacles to advancement, her informants noted, were other women and a male-dominated industry culture (where the work–life balance was especially difficult for women). Hancock ruminated on possible solutions to these issues. She contended that male leaders from within the sports sector often bar women’s career advancement, while male leaders from the business sector do not. Peer mentoring was also noted as a possible strategy for changing the system as well as creating more positions.

Bernadette Locke became the first female Division I coach of a men’s basketball team when she joined the University of Kentucky as an assistant coach to Rick Pitino in 1990.

Erin Morris from the University of Illinois presented a study on female assistant coaches, demonstrating the existence of both organisational and social structures that hinder their advancement. In her interviews with 10 female coaches, FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) assistant coaches of the Millennial Generation (all born after 1980) in basketball, rowing and soccer, certain themes dominated. Firstly, leadership as athletes was a recurring theme; the women were all former athletes, and felt that this had taught them coaching and given them recognition. The second prevalent theme was education: formal coaching clinics were not considered particularly useful, although Morris’s informants noted that they helped attendees build networks (and women specific networks were underlined), but that college coursework was of greater educational significance. In general, this group of Millennial Generation women were optimistic and saw possibilities rather than obstacles, stating that women’s roles are changing. They also challenged the concept of barriers, generally favouring the term constraints (among which work-life balance was mentioned as the hardest constraint).

Animals in sports

Inspired by Donna Haraway and Linda Burke, among others, three sessions were devoted to sport and human/animal relationships. Susanna Hedenborg, Malmö University, presented a study of the horse as enabler in therapeutic riding and showed that in Sweden this is an established practise of long standing in disability sport and physiotherapy, which has in fact increased since the 1950’s. Discourse around the horse has shifted; formerly described as a physical enabler (training muscles or loosening them up, bringing disabled children to the forest to experience nature, a tool for developing sports for all), the horse is now increasingly described as a social enabler, healer, therapist and coach that can teach social leadership, among other things. Kevin Young, University of Calgary, presented a study of the Calgary Stampede, an agricultural fair that includes many forms of violence towards animals. Young demonstrated how the Stampede is advertised and represented as a key symbol of (a lilywhite, possible masculine?) Calgary. Young also notes that the Stampede has been fiercely criticised by animal rights activists and animal welfare groups; the latter have seemingly been more successful in their aim to improve animal handling. James Gillett, McMaster University, presented a study on the “Fletcher street” stables. Gillett has been using documentary pictures and movies as source material for the study as it is difficult to get access to the field and during the presentation he showed how the representation of horsemanship is pictured in different ways in this area, in comparison to our expectations of equine activities as being white, middle class, safe with helmets, etcetera. Michelle Gilbert, McMaster University, presented an interview study of three generations of female Canadian pony club members. Gilbert has analysed the experiences and life trajectories of her informants in relation to the understanding, embodiment, reproduction and destabilisation of gender and social class relations through their involvement in the Pony Club. Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural reproduction was combined with Donna Haraway’s ideas about the nature/culture divide.

In the second session on animals in sport Guilherme Reis Nothen, University of Toronto, demonstrated the racial and discriminatory practices in dog sports. Purebred dogs and mixed-breed (now called “All American” or “All Canadian” dogs) can expect very different treatments when it comes to showing (where the mixed-breeds are not welcome) and, for example, agility competitions where mixed breeds are welcome on the condition that they are sterilised. Reis Nothen examined the attitudes underlying the different treatments, and showed similarities between the regulations of dogs and “scientific racism”, sterilisation and eugenics in the first half of the 20th century in the use of the concepts. Melanie L. Sartore-Baldwin, East Carolina University, has studied attitudes to animals in sport in relation to sports fandom and gender and found that the strong belief in the presence and maintenance of social hierarchies was reflected in views of animals as exploitable. In addition, male sports fans were more inclined than women to accept exploitation of animals. However, a regional perspective is necessary to enable a deeper understanding of this matter, Sartore-Baldwin noted. In some regions masculinity is more linked to, for example, dog fighting than in others. Additional power structures like age, race and social class will perhaps shed further light on this pattern. In a provocative and therefore interesting presentation Paloma Holmes and Caroline Fusco, University of Toronto, analysed the connection between the sport spectacle and hyper-consumption of animals as food. Using the concept of economies of flesh and actor–network theory (ANT), they showed how animals are at the centre of the human sport experience; BBQ, Hamburgers, Chicken Wings et cetera are always available for purchase in the arenas. These animals are important actors, in the ANT understanding, but remain invisible. Pictures of meat and half-naked women were well suited to the purpose of exploring power relations in sports arenas. If one traces the networks further back, one could also discuss who is employed in the slaughterhouses, who takes care of the animals before they are slaughtered, and how animals are raised in order to get to different power structures in the network.

Disability issues in sports

In a session titled Disability in sport – experiencing inclusive sport, Natalie Campbell, University of East London, used Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of liquid modernity and interpretative phenomenological analysis to discuss the life experiences of disabled student athletes. In her interpretation of the athletes’ life stories, important concepts included belonging, otherness, culture and identity. Campbell demonstrated successfully that sport could be interpreted as a container stopping the possible liquidity of life experience, rather than the perhaps more expected container: the body. For instance, sports practise rather than the body stopped Campbell’s informants from partaking in student activities to the same extent as other students.

Power soccer. Brady Kedge, shown at right, maneuvers the ball during a power soccer game in St Louis, MO, February 2012.

Michael Cottingham, University of Houston and Joshua Pate, James Madison University, presented a study of how disabled athletes in Power Soccer are perceived as inspirations rather than athletes (supercrip was used as a concept), due to the perception of them as having to overcome greater challenges than others, and that less was expected of them. Excessive praise thus became a sort of degradation, as the athletes never intended to be sources of inspiration for others. Cottingham and Pate’s presentation showed that marketing campaigns also emphasise athletes’ inspirational potential rather than their performance. The final presentation in this session covered a different topic, namely, head injuries in Canadian children’s ice hockey. Mitchell Green, University of Ottawa, showed that the use of observation rather than medical reports can alter and shed new light on events taking place in the ice rink. Green also demonstrated that the actual number of incidents has decreased as a result of the new “head-shot-rule”, a response to public pressure (despite the cultural tradition in ice-hockey of seeing children as indestructible).

The wide scope of sociology of sports

Practical and applied knowledge and competence in teaching Sociology of Sport was explored in two sessions with different foci. Catriona T. Higgs, Slippery Rock University, spoke about “Kinecting” with Students: Strategies for Implementing Instructional Technology in Online and Hybrid Sport Sociology Classes. She emphasized the importance of involving social media as well as supporting different learning styles. One lecturer who does not use media at all when teaching is Linda J. Henderson, St. Mary’s University College & University of Calgary. Henderson aims to “shake” the students and make them realize that studying sport academically has “real life” applications and implications.

The conference showed that sports sociology is a large domain. In the session Sport in the Lab, the three speakers, Kass Gibson, Sandy Wells and Jennifer Sterling, all emphasized the importance of multi-disciplinary research, especially when it comes to Lab-studies. Kass Gibson from the University of Toronto and working in the Joint Center for Bioethics presented a study focusing on the theorizing of the relationship between biology and technology as technique in order to critically interrogate the recursive structuring of technology, science, physical cultures (and the bodies therein), and how this informs our understanding of life itself.

Dancing Bodies and Organ Music: Deleuzoguattarian Thought in Sport and Physical Culture was a moving session (pun intended) that skipped from dance and injuries in Pirkko Markula’s presentation (Im)Mobile Bodies: Contemporary Dancers’ Experience with Injury through the question “Can repetition make a difference” (Alejendro Cerda), to Amanda De Lisio’s presentation titled Preserving Spaces of Uncertainty: Bioremediation, Urbanism and the Sport Mega- Event. The session ended with Sean Smith’s Three Simulations: Deleuzian Control Societies and Topologies of Temporary Enclosure. The presentations on Deleuze theories seem to focus on the notion that interaction between different actors rather than a single creates meaning, and that the space that is being created, sometimes spontaneously, creates new understandings for the people involved.

Media studies

The session Media: Constructing & Negotiating Sporting Identities in New Media explored questions related to the new media landscape. Jason Genovese, Bloomsburg University, asked how Twitter has affected the professional identity of different journalists in his presentation Tweeting Television Sport Journalists: The Continuation of a Fragmented Professional Identity Online. Among other things, Genovese contended that Twitter has certainly contributed to the fragmentation of professional identities. Christine Dallaire, University of Ottawa, discussed how gender identities are constructed in cyberspace in Skateboarding Women: Building Collective Identity in Cyberspace. The study informing her presentation has focused the blog Dallaire analyzed the collective subjectivity created through this blog among female skateboarders. Fawn Draucker, University of Pittsburg, continued this fascinating session with her presentation Localizing place in a global space. Ratification of audience through place on Twitter, asking whether local space can be established in the global media landscape. Her answer was affirmative; by manipulating different tweets one can reach specific groups and create special local team-places. Adam Love, Mississippi State University, focused on Internet message boards in his presentation College Sport, Message Boards, Anti-Intellectual Discourse. Love concludes that those who post on such message boards are displeased with university faculty members, who are described as lazy and inefficient. Love’s study demonstrates pressure on the academic staff, who are also accused of “brain-washing” the students. The message boards express a strong anti-intellectual ideal.

The session Media: Gendered Constructions started with a presentation by William Bridel, University of Alberta, titled If she can do it, why can’t you, in which he discussed different media images of women who participate in Iron Man competitions. Bridel’s study also focused on “transformation” narratives in the media construction of Iron Man Triathlon, epitomized by the statement: “I was sick, fat, addicted, Ironman saved my life”, one of the main media stories connected to this fast growing global sport. Kelly Poniatowski and Kelly Frace, Elizabethtown College, explained why Canada and the U.S. have dominated women’s ice-hockey through a media analysis of NBC coverage. Steve Bien-Aime, Pennsylvania State University, has conducted a media gender study in which he has examined differences in the media coverage of American male and female World Cup soccer teams. His conclusion that the image of soccer is more gender neutral in the U.S. than in Europe reminds us of the importance of contextualizing the different research fields.

The NASSS conference is theoretical, practical and political. The conference emphasized the sentiment that social scientists must make their voice heard, and that it is more important now than ever. The strong feminist history of NASSS is illustrated in that the 2012 conference board consisted of eight women and three men. Deleuze, Foucault, Bourdieu, Latour as well as Goffman and Stuart Hall – all male theorists – were referred to in many sessions; however, in 10 or 20 years, when the next generation writes the NASSS conference report, we hope that there will be more female researchers’ among the theorists whose ideas underpin the presentations.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg & Aage Radmann 2013

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