Marketisation and the academy’s role in sport’s moral crisis


There are few who could doubt that élite competitive sport and its institutions are in a state of moral crisis. Most obviously, we have corruption scandals in FIFA where many of its international leadership have been arrested, suspended or are under criminal investigation. In a slightly more convoluted form there is the current crisis in the IAAF with compelling evidence of systematic use of performance enhancing substances at a national and international level, and some suggestions that claims of ignorance by those at the top are implausible. The IAAF has also been recently slapped down by the Court of Arbitration in Sport over its sex testing régime, that became notorious during the Caster Semanya case, being shown to be systematic and flawed in several cases in India, most notably those of Santhi Soundarajan and Dutee Chand. In other settings it is becoming increasingly obvious that playing sport is a danger to health, such as in American Football when as concern over brain injury spreads and the American Football establishment, as nearly all sports establishments do, resists the change needed to save lives of athletes.

Elsewhere debates around mega-events, especially in the wake of the widespread public discontent in Brazil over both the 2014 Men’s World Cup and to a lesser extent the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, suggest that even acolytes of these events are becoming increasingly concerned that they function as a mechanism to transfer public facilities BrandEnclosuresand wealth to private hands. It’s not just the IAAF that is embroiled in doping claims; despite protestation there is little evidence that cycling is any ‘cleaner’ than it was, while the Australian Football League’s Essendon club seems also to have been caught with its fingers in drug cabinet. Yet the language surrounding performance enhancement remains that of ‘cheating’ as if it is an individual act, ignoring the powerful arguments by scholars such as Tara Magdalinski and Paul Dimeo that the use of performance enhancing substances and technology is inherent in and consistent with the logic of performance sport.

The cases made by Magdalinski in her 2009 book Sport, Technology and the Body and by Dimeo in his 2007 A History of Drug use in Sport are important interjections into the debates about performance sport, and although 7 years old (in Magadlinski’s case) and 9 years old (in Dimeo’s case) remain crucial pieces of work that explore and make sense of the apparent epidemic of ‘cheating’ in élite sport. The point is not to praise these pieces as somehow unique – they are fine examples of a long tradition of critical sport studies both in and beyond the academy – but to suggest that the conditions under which they were produced are changing and this kind of work is now under threat. I‘m not in the business of a jeremiad, and this is not a Chicken Licken warning of an imminent end of academic scepticism and critique: the sky is not falling, yet. But, it is to take ideas developed in analyses from other areas of immaterial labour to suggest that the conditions that allowed for the kind of sustained development of a critical analysis are being pushed aside in at least the UK but increasingly in other EU and OECD-type countries.

We’re used to explaining the changes taking place in higher education as a form of privatisation – which in funding terms and the rise of reliance on fees (in the UK, government guaranteed loans to pay those fees, but individual fees none-the-less) is correct. These fees are a symptom of something more insidious however – the marketization of formerly public higher education, without romanticising past approaches to higher education. This tendency has been picked up effectively in many parts of the European Higher Education Area where student and academics have actively opposed the ‘Bolonga Agreement’ between governments on the grounds that it standardises the form and large parts of the content of higher education across the more than bolognaburns 30 states that make up the EHEA to create a common education market. Academics are also becoming increasingly aware that part of this marketization is that public sources of research funding are becoming more limited and we are increasingly driven to private funding sources. It also means that the basis for many decisions in universities is a combination of student demand (the courses they sign up for) and highly problematic data derived from student satisfaction surveys – it is all very student-as-customer – while staff members have their time tightly allocated and often monitored through crude but fear inducing surveillance systems.

What this means, in a time of economic crisis, is that in the UK at least students are entering the workforce with a huge debt burden from study and living expenses and many are making study decisions around perceived job success. Across the country we are seeing a growth in courses in sports therapy and strength and conditioning coaching, while many coach education programmes are reorienting themselves to élite and performance coaching rather than participatory community based coaching. This is in a context where a health agenda is sidelining an emphasis on physical activity in favour a policy drive towards sport, a very limited set of physical activity types. In many places as a result we are seeing a shift in staffing from social science and humanities based programmes with a community participation and fitness sport orientation towards an emphasis on performance sport and closer work with sports commercial institutions, including national and international governing bodies.

In part, this is what happens during the bad times – institutions become more conservative on order to protect themselves. But there is more than that to the current situation. For analysts of sport making sense of the current predicament requires that we shift part of our focus from aspects of doing and watching sport as forms of cultural practice to questions of work in and around sport, including academic exploration – that is we need in part to turn the lens on sport scholarship as work. Recent work in the sociology of art can help us here. For some years now the sociologist of art Pascal Gielen, working with others, has been exploring the production process in art, arguing that art-as-work (and I’d add other forms of immaterial labour, such as academic work) takes place in four areas:

  1. the ‘domestic’ space of idea development where meditative practice is carried out, ideas worked on, taken up, rejected and so forth,
  2. the ‘communal’ space of the classroom, studio or similar where ideas are enhanced through reflection, dialogue and dispute with peers,
  3. the ‘market’ space where what matters is the product of domestic and communal activity, and finally
  4. ‘civil’ space where dialogue, reflection and dispute takes place with publics, not only peers.

We’re in a position where the marketization of higher education is both squeezing out and colonising the first two and marginalising the fourth, while concurrently financialising the products of our work in #3.

The danger here is that the ‘market’ brings about uncertainty, encourages us as researchers to focus not only on our current work but to keep in mind how what we do, how we do it and what our findings are is also likely to have an impact on our next projects, including the likelihood of securing more difficult to get funding. These circumstances undermine the conditions that allow for critique, weaken creativity (while the ‘market’ claims to want creativity: in a recent essay Gielen discounts neo-liberal ‘creativity’ as a market ideology of ‘creativism’: it’s a nice shift in emphasis). These conditions, the marketization of higher education, the shifting emphasis in sport science and You still believe in research grantsstudies programmes towards performance sport and the increasing emphasis on non-state sources of funding, limit critique to that which is allowable in certain boundaries weakening the likelihood that we’ll be developing arguments of the kind made by Tara Magadalinski and Paul Dimeo; that the use of performance enhancing substances and technology is not ‘cheating’ as an individual act but fully within the logic of a drive to win in performance sport. We’re not there yet and are still quite a long way off this kind of silencing of critique, but the road we’re on is heading in this direction.

This dominance of the market is most definitely not a conspiracy of old school ties or other insider networks although they are powerful in sport. This dominance is more potent and more insidious: it is the validation of scholarship by the fiscal measure of the market, a kind of fiscal fundamentalism that undermines the significance of civil and university peer approval, changes work patterns. We ask less pressing questions, and might adopt a more submissive attitude while precarity means that our critique will come from a less stable foundation: we’re certainly going to have to squeeze more and more into the increasingly constrained time allocation for research and scholarly activity. Recent advice about academic creativity, for instance by Patrick Dunleavy, is well worth taking note of – but for most of us unattainable because we just don’t have the time to keep up. Yet, these newly fiscalised measures put us in a place where one of the measures of research significance is the number of publications and other outputs, not their importance (or in managerial speak, their outcomes) which may not become obvious for many years. In sport settings, it further risks increasing our dependency on the commercial governments of sport; in the case of the current moral malaise the very people we cannot trust to be open to or even seek critique. In the US for instance, a dependence on football’s government would almost certainly seriously undermine the work currently being done on brain injury, while Allyson Pollock’s recent Tackling Rugby reproduces correspondence between her (former) university and the Scottish Rugby Union exposing the attempts to constrain her work on rugby injury.

This marketization of academia and academic work on sport should be seen as a serious challenge to those of us who want better, different sport. If we keep going down the current path with the same approach to the political economy of scholarly critique, we risk being in a situation where sports morality is too important to leave to its commercial governments but there is no-one in academia, a usual source of critique, ready and able to take the rudder: our sporting pastimes risk being less enjoyable, less inclusive and more dangerous as a consequence.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. He is currently serving as Academic Director of the Doctoral College at University of Wales Trinity St David, and has academic appointments in Australia, South Africa, and Gibraltar. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements, and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and former Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport, and is currently Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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