Sport: Socially Divided, Spuriously Unified?*

Clare Hunt of Australia in action during the 2023 Cup of Nations match between Australian Matildas and Spain at CommBank Stadium on February 19, in Sydney, Australia (Shutterstock/IOIO IMAGES)

It is often claimed that sport has a unique capacity to unite whole nations and even the entire world.  Especially during what Dayan and Katz in their book Media Events call “high holidays of mass communication” like the Summer Olympics, euphoria is felt and expressed by many, not least in the media.  When mega-events are in play, even those who do not care much for sport get drawn into the spectacle because the media paper our cultural walls with it.

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, is a case in point, and one strengthened by the fact that this astonishingly successful spectacle was devoted exclusively to women’s sport.  However, that there was so much surprise that women’s football could attract huge stadium and TV audiences and generate so much collective emotion highlights a major fault-line in sport’s putative unity – gender.

There was little time to bask in the afterglow of the Women’s World Cup when the medal ceremony in Sydney was marred by the antics of Spanish Football President Luis Rubiales.  Having grabbed his crotch in celebration, he then forcibly kissed the lips of Jenni Hermoso, a player he was supposed to be respectfully congratulating.  The ensuing international scandal rumbles on, obscuring the achievements of the Spanish women’s team and focusing on “hegemonic masculinity” in football and other sports.

Gender Divisions

As a social and cultural institution, sport was founded on and sustained by gender inequality, with ramifications far beyond that arena.  It offered an anointed space where men could assert superiority over women, naturalising their claim to physiological advantage and entitlement to homosocial congregation.  Apart from a few individual, predominantly middle-class, non-contact sports like tennis and golf, women found little room for professional advancement in sport.  Even in such instances, the men’s version is generally deemed to be more exciting and of higher quality, and so more watchable and saleable.  For example, why is the men’s final always the climax of Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and why have the riches of Saudi-backed LIV Golf not yet been extended to women?

There are signs of progress towards gender inequality in 21st century sport, as professional women’s leagues proliferate and pay parity – though not equal overall remuneration – achieved in some countries and sports.  Yet, Forbes’ 2023 list of the world’s highest paid athletes contains only one woman, Serena Williams, at number 49.  Having recently retired it seems unlikely that she will return to the list, although the also-retired Roger Federer remains there at number 9.

Divide and Unite

Gender is but one area to be considered in answering a broad question like ‘does sport unite or divide us’?  Of course, the ‘or’ could be replaced with ‘and’, meaning that the answer must be ‘yes’.  Alternatively, in traditional social scientific terms, dialectical framing could be applied: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.  In either instance, sport both unites and divides in myriad ways.  I argue, though, that the evidentiary weight is on the side of division.

It is often forgotten that sport is a specific form of institutionalised physical culture that is not an endless re-run of an imaginary Ancient Olympics, but a product of modernity.  What we routinely call sport only emerged in the nineteenth century, when folk games became regular, regulated physical contests with rules and even laws.  It was also transformed into a valuable product that created its own industry and forged crucial links with others, especially the media.  As Allen Guttmann influentially put it, these developments signalled a move “from ritual to record” and, for Jean-Marie Brohm, constructed “a prison of measured time”.

Sport also became a compulsory part of the school curriculum and an important aspect of leisure, with the noble values of amateurism emphasising fair, honourable play.  The ruthless pursuit of winning and, even worse, getting paid to play, created a deep divide within sporting culture.  This split, for example, led to the secession of rugby league from rugby union, which after a period of ‘shamateurism’ became fully professional itself.  Today, with the development of what I call a vast ‘media sports cultural complex’ in which staggering sums change hands and illiberal nations burnish their reputations by refining their ‘sportswashing’ techniques, the term ‘amateur’ is commonly used as an insult.

Sport is a sprawling enterprise that encompasses everything that manifests in spaces from classrooms to boardrooms, parklands to cathedral stadia.  It is increasingly difficult to think of all this as a singular phenomenon, although advocates of sport are prone to exaggerate its universality and to downplay its deficiencies.  This is because sport and physical activity are often misleadingly combined, meaning that almost any kind of movement like a morning jog, stroll or swim can be counted as sport for statistical purposes.  But that classification evacuates its structured competitive element, not to mention the material rewarding of a minority.

This blurring of what constitutes sport is the basis of one of my criticisms of Andrew Leigh’s book Fair Game: Lessons from Sport for a Fairer Society & a Stronger Economy.  He emphasises the virtues of sport “at its best” and offers a series of uplifting, heart-warming stories of sport playing a socially unifying role.  But, to be a social scientist first and sport fan second means going beyond appealing mythologies and cherry picking the most favourable phenomena, although I’m aware of sometimes engaging in the reverse practice – perhaps it could be called lemon picking.

When I and colleagues at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society surveyed a representative sample of adults as part of our Australian Research Council Australian Cultural Fields project, we found that 61.2 per cent played no organised sport at all and only 44.5 per cent had watched sport live at a venue in the past 12 months.  On the other hand, 84.9 per cent had watched some sport live through the media (mostly television).  So, if sport does in some sense unite us as an activity, it mainly involves watching it on screen.  We found, like other researchers, that sport participation also varies by gender, class, level of education, cultural background, location, and age.

Such variable patterns of ‘sportingness’ raise the thorny issue of who constitutes ‘us’ and ‘we’.  Andrew is quite confident about these categories, but after conducting another ARC research project, A Nation of ‘Good Sports?’, in Greater Western Sydney, I am rather less so.  I found that sport can be quite isolating in culturally diverse, demographically dynamic contexts.  Although, in contrast, it may also work as a conversational lubricant in helping to forge connections in the workplace between people of different origins.

Sport can present barriers to people with backgrounds that make them feel isolated in, say, alco-centric sport clubs, while also presenting tantalising opportunities for gender norm resistance by girls from cultures that may disapprove of female athleticism.  These are the complexities exposed at ground level, but they are produced under circumstances where capacities to participate in sport commonly reproduce and even exacerbate social inequalities.

‘We’ tend to think of other people as being uncannily like ‘us’ in multiple areas of life, including our experience of and orientation to sport.  If our attitude is positive, we are unlikely to attend closely enough to the language of sport, in media commentary, spectator talk and exchange between combatants.  Too often what is heard is less than edifying.  Whole nations are stereotyped as robotic or volatile; Indigenous peoples represented as both mystically talented and feckless, and people of colour animalistic and lacking in qualities of leadership; women are declared to be inferior to men, and men disparaged as feminine or stigmatised as homosexual; trans gender and non-binary athletes are called cheats and freaks; real or imputed disability is rendered as insult, and so on.

I am not, of course, claiming that most sport discourse is always so damaging and negative.  There is considerable mutual respect and kindness in sport, and progress within sport organisations and among sportspeople in ruling such hurtful language out of order.  To pick one example more-or-less at random, it is now eight years since ACT Senator David Pocock called out homophobic abuse on the field of play.

Nor am I arguing that such attitudes are exclusive to or even over-represented in sport.  The key point is that sport is an especially effective vehicle for hostile language and, on occasion, violent behaviour, precisely because it is structured around competition and conflict.  Andrew Leigh is quite right to say that sport at its best is beautiful to behold.  But how often is it so?

Sport at its most professional and esteemed has developed too much in ways that prize profit over persistence, forging a Faustian pact with gambling and performance-enhancing, body-jeopardising substances, and is overly accommodating of the compulsively corrupt and the morally bankrupt.  I don’t want to end on a depressing, downbeat note.  Sport today may be on balance more divisive than unifying, but we need not abandon hope every time we enter a stadium or pass through a sport media portal.

Social Goals and Penalties

To return to the gender question in our Australian Cultural Fields research, a striking finding was that women typically aged 35 and above, in lower management/professional/intermediate occupations, who had completed an undergraduate and often a postgraduate degree in the Humanities and Social Sciences outside the elite Group of Eight universities, constituted the cultural taste cluster most indifferent and hostile to sport.  Based on stadium/live site attendance and media statistics and my very unscientific sample of conversations with such women during and after the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, sport in Australia may have taken a sudden, unifying turn.  More than once I heard that, if only more elite sport were like this, then it would soon find a loyal new band of previously alienated adherents.

The final lesson, then, is that sport can unite rather than divide us.  All it needs to do is reinvent its structures and practices, rediscover its ethical mission, and reimagine who are ‘us’.  A societal success preferably achieved without the accompanying heart palpitations induced by a penalty shootout.

* This is a shortened, revised version of my presentation to The Inaugural Social Sciences Week Great Debate – Does Sport Unite or Divide Us?  My debate opponent was the Hon Dr Andrew Leigh MP, and the event was organised by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia with support from Synergy Group.  It was held at the National Library, Canberra, 5 September, 2023.

Copyright © David Rowe 2023
Twitter: @rowe_david

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David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; and Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London. His latest book is Making Culture: Commercialisation, Transnationalism, and the State of ‘Nationing’ in Contemporary Australia (co-edited, Routledge, 2018). David’s work has been translated into Chinese, French, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Arabic.


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