Insightful, in-depth overview of the effects of neoliberalism on the governance and management of sports

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy & University of Worcester

David L. Andrews & Michail L. Silk (red) Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture 316 pages, hft. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 2012 (Sporting) ISBN 978-1-4399-0504-3
David L. Andrews & Michail L. Silk (red)
Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture
316 pages, hft.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press 2012 (Sporting)
ISBN 978-1-4399-0504-3

Now that we have entered the era of post truth politics, and recently experienced another orgy of hyper commercial sport branded under the Olympic banner, it is imperative that the impact of neo-liberalism on contemporary sport is fully exposed. Andrews and Silk’s 2012 text “Sport and Neoliberalism” provides an ideal opportunity to consider and assess its relevance to the functioning and performance of contemporary sport. Choosing to focus on the reality, costs and repercussions of its impact, this 2012 volume unpicks an assortment of issues that frame contemporary elite sport, despite being a little light on the impact of economic austerity.

Although the editors clearly declare their position on the perceived worth of neo-liberalism as a governing principle in terms of its role as a dominant political, social and economic organising mechanism which purges the system of obstacles to the functioning of free markets, this in-depth overview and its application to sport is valuable though a little over-written in places.

In realising the ambition of the study, Andrews and Silk work from the premise that sport as part of popular culture organises identity, citizenship and agency within a neo-liberal existence by means of pedagogical relations and practices. Although their study is heavily skewed towards the United Stated on the basis that they believe that this is where the neo-liberal core is located, these discussions have wider geographic relevance as part of everyday life in which sport and exercise culture are justifiably deemed to be a critical part of the cultural terrain determining how political agendas are formulated and influenced.

Central to this undertaking is the issue of defining what is understood by the term neoliberalism. Though often misunderstood or partially articulated, neo-liberalism is wisely perceived by the editors as a populist political and economic ideology which became widely evident with what was described by the late Stuart Hall as the “Great Moving Right Show” when the political landscape changed in response to local and global recession, the decline of mass-manufacturing economies and the crisis of Keynesian welfarism. The latter witnessed the desire on the part of many to dismantle the building blocks of the post-war economic and social welfare consensus in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with a strategy to mobilise policies to enable the extension of marketisation, encourage competition and stimulate the process of commodification. This change implied that the state was no longer obliged to answer for all of society’s needs for order, health, security and productivity.

The text comprises a compilation of scholarly articles focused on the central theme of the relationship between sport and neoliberalism and is divided into three sections. The first considers the structures, formations and mechanics of neoliberalism, the second explores and discusses government and governance, whilst the final section concludes with fewer chapters and considers consuming pleasure, citizenship, subjectivities, and ‘popular’ sporting pedagogies. Surprisingly the volume lacks a chapter dedicated to the news media, more especially the power of media oligarchs. However, it is the last two sections that generate most interest and originality in their contribution to the discourse.

While the introductory chapter speaks mostly to American sport, the underlying thesis as a whole attempts to explain the problems created by neoliberalised sport from a global context. Although it would be nigh on impossible to adequately explain and explore neoliberalism and sport in every country in a three hundred-page text, the editors could have been slightly more inclusive in their global perspectives. Scholars from the United Stares, Canada, Great Britain, and Mexico served as chapter authors for the book, leaving out contributions from the continents of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South America. Equally surprising is the choice not to further develop Miller’s comments in chapter two on the changing face of cricket and the realities of the subsequent commercial “Indianisation” of the sport, whilst football surprisingly is completely excluded from the text.

Atkinson, the author of the chapter perceptively notes that free runners do not seek the extrinsic benefits of sport, such as competitions and awards

One area in which the editors excelled, is inclusion of a wide variety of sport issues and sport settings. To some sport management academicians, the field can at times seem over-focused on American male professional and collegiate sport to the exclusion of the plethora of other types of sport, yet, the authors explore neoliberalism in a variety of sport settings and its impact on various sport issues that are either marginalized or ignored by sport scholars. This will certainly help to generate a wider audience for the text, particularly those concerned with environmental and women’s issues.

As the environment is an increasingly global concern, Wilson’s chapter entitled “Growth and Nature” focuses on sport organizations’ engagement in sustainability and environmentally friendly efforts, whilst highlighting the neoliberal influence on these organizations’ motives, positing that some sport organisations assume that economic growth and progress on environmental issues are compatible and can be mutually reinforcing, which he explains is not necessarily accurate. He also critically calls on sport sociologists to advance the limited line of research that currently exists on this topic, which he refers to as one of the most pressing issues of our time, in order to encourage a debate with wider ranging viewpoints.

Chapter 13 offers insight on women’s professional sport. The chapter discusses the Women’s National Basket Ball Association (WBNA) management’s efforts to present its athletes and league as images of traditional femininity, citing examples such as WNBA marketing campaigns focused on beauty, motherhood, and domesticity. Additionally, McDonald reports that the league held seminars in which the players were taught how to apply makeup and shape their eyebrows. The chapter also explains how some teams attempted to appeal to lesbian fans, which seemingly contradicted the heteronormative focus of the league’s marketing efforts. Still, McDonald points out that the message sent to gay and lesbian fans was one of achieving equality in terms of their product and service purchases, but not equality from a civil rights perspective. McDonald concludes, “the WNBA narratives do little to challenge dominant neoliberal assumptions while bolstering a broader agenda of privatising and the depoliticisation of bodies and pleasures”.

Equally interesting and oft-ignored in sport management literature is free running, also some-times referred to as “Parkour”, a post-sport involving running, gymnastics, and martial arts throughout city streets or in an uncontrolled setting. However, Atkinson, the author of the chapter perceptively notes that free runners do not seek the extrinsic benefits of sport, such as competitions and awards, yet hints of neoliberalism have seeped into the sport with the emergence of free-running sport federations, official work-out kits and instruction classes emerging within fitness and leisure centres.

The conclusion, surprisingly not written by one of the editors, succinctly summarizes the previous chapters whilst invoking a sense of responsibility in the reader to take action against neoliberalism’s detrimental effects on sport and society and to influence positive change. Denzin argues that we have “a moral obligation to police the global crises created by neoliberalism; to confront the current situation; to speak to the deal of lives, culture, and truth; to undo the official pedagogies that circulate in the media” (p. 301), adding fuel to the need for the volume to have a separate chapter on this topic.

This addition to sport literature is insightful and invaluable and serves as a strong call to action for sport management researchers. Though based more on idealistic notions than on a sense of how policy-makers may be cajoled and persuaded to alter their thought processes, the words are powerful, setting the agenda for critical sports cultural studies in which neoliberalism continues to play a powerful and potentially highly destructive role.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2016


Table of Content

  1. Sport and the Neoliberal Conjuncture: Complicating the Consensus by Michael L. Silk and David L. Andrews

Part I: Structures, Formations, and Mechanics of Neoliberalism

  1. A Distorted Playing Field: Neoliberalism and Sport through the Lens of Economic Citizenship by Toby Miller
  2. Advanced Liberal Government, Sport Policy, and “Building the Active Citizen” by Mick Green
  3. Race, Class, and Politics in Post-Katrina America by Michael D. Giardina and C. L. Cole
  4. Nike U: Full-Program Athletics Contracts and the Corporate University by Samantha King
  5. Growth and Nature: Reflections on Sport, Carbon Neutrality, and Ecological Modernization by Brian Wilson
  6. The Uncanny of Olympic Time: Michael Phelps and the End of Neoliberalism by Grant Farred

Part II: Government, Governance, and the Cultural Geographies of Neoliberalism

  1. The Governance of the Neoliberal Sporting City by Michael L. Silk and David L. Andrews
  2. Governing Play: Moral Geographies, Healthification, and Neoliberal Urban Imaginaries by Caroline Fusco
  3. Neoliberal Redevelopment, Sport Infrastructure, and the Militarization of U.S. Urban Terrain by Kimberly S. Schimmel
  4. Economies of Surf: Evolution, Territorialism, and the Erosion of Localism by Leslie Heywood and Mark Montgomery
  5. Free Running: Post-sport Liminality in a Neoliberal World by Michael Atkinson

Part III: Consuming Pleasure: Citizenship, Subjectivities, and “Popular” Sporting Pedagogies

  1. Out-of-Bounds Plays: The Women’s National Basketball Association and the Neoliberal Imaginings of Sexuality by Mary G. McDonald
  2. Pedagogies of Fat: The Social Currency of Slenderness by Jessica M. Francombe and Michael L. Silk
  3. Technologies of the South: Sport, Subjectivity, and “Swinging” Capital by Joshua I. Newman
  4. Hijacking Canadian Identity: Stephen Harper, Hockey, and the Terror of Neoliberalism by Jay Scherer and Lisa McDermott
  5. Global Smackdown: Vince McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment, and Neoliberalism by Ted Butryn
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