A programme of action that is good to think with, but that misses an opportunity

Malcolm MacLean
University of Gibraltar; The University of Queensland

Ken Reed
How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan, with a New Introduction
206 pages, paperback
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2023
ISBN 978-1-5381-7697-9

One of the category errors we often make when exploring sports cultures is to distinguish corporatized performance sport from recreational sport as leisure. In academic, journalistic, and other forms of commentary it often seems that for every time we explicitly criticise achievement, performance and corporate sport but exempt recreational sport, we make that implicit distinction a dozen times or more. At the same time, we are often also acutely aware of the falseness of that distinction, and seldom need to go much further than the side-lines of any kids’ sports event and the way parents talk, often to their kids, more often to match officials, to hear just how deeply interwoven those sports cultures are.

For the most part, Ken Reed does not fall into that trap, recognising the vertically integrated character of sport systems and sport cultures, even if he is not explicit about the differences between systems and cultures. This results in a remarkably comprehensive critique, splicing together policy, media, coaching styles, sport in educational settings including physical education, injury, and ownership models of professional teams. All of this is woven through an action oriented, equity driven, approach with clear suggestions for practice, ways to effect change, and a powerful sense of who matters (and just a hint – it’s not sports’ big business forces…).

Reed is Policy Director at the League of Fans, a project initiated by US-based consumer advocate Ralph Nader, described on its website as “a sports reform project … to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture”. These comprehensive goals are shored up by this book that is a valuable addition to the arsenal of any sports reform advocate.

The League of Fans is a US advocacy group – it seems to be a think tank, there does not seem to be a membership option on its website; the book is written in that context, and there lies its major limitation. The USA’s sport system is distinctive, both for the extent of its corporatisation, and its shape, marked here by two distinguishing features. First, most of its professional sports are built around closed cartels. Second, multiple tiers of its education systems play a much greater role in corporatized sport than we see in many other places, including a role in those closed cartels.

The first is the argument he makes that the central problem of the US sport system is that it is driven by ethics of win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC).

Those of us outside the USA are left with a challenge of the book’s usefulness and how to make it more than academically interesting. There are three ways to use Reed’s analysis to think with. The first is the argument he makes that the central problem of the US sport system is that it is driven by ethics of win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC). This framing appears on the first page, and is the book’s key organising principle – problems that he calls ego and greed. This gives the book a solid materialist base grounding its systems, structures, and cultures and presenting the problems of sport as driven by success as domination, leading to financial and psychological gratification. Those ethics of WAAC and PAAC are increasingly present in many other sport-worlds.

The second way this is good to think with lies in the kinds of issues Reed identifies, and while he draws almost exclusively on US evidence, he makes a compelling case for many of sport’s problems. As readers, as advocates, the question then becomes two-fold. First, is this an issue in our sport system? Second, what is the evidence and what are the local manifestations of this concern? For instance, in his discussion of professional sport ownership models in the USA, Reed makes a case for community ownership citing the distinctive model at the NFL’s Green Bay Packers as limited by the NFL’s constitution to that team alone. Asking the same question in English football, however, presents us with a range of models across multiple professional and semi-professional leagues, but also gives very different answers than if we’d asked that question in German football or of sports clubs as community cultural networks in Buenos Aires. If we turn to other aspects of his analysis, humanistic coaching, the place of physical education in schools, concussion and brain injury, or removing adult egos from youth sport, it’s likely we’d finish up with answers not that different to Reed’s.

The third way to think is about how to effect change. Each chapter concludes with several pages of recommendations for action – seldom more than five or so, but with some contextualisation, justification, and specific points. Again, here there are two questions. First, is this an issue in our sport system? Second, how does the structure of our system, our policy contexts, and specific sports cultures mean we can best act on this problem? These questions, similar to the analytical questions Reed’s case prompts finish up being quite different. Reed’s recommendations concluding each chapter might come with some elaboration, but the specificities of the US sport system, its distinctive forms of commercialisation, and the highly devolved and divergent character of the US state and public sector mean that at best he points us to issues where action is likely to be necessary. He alludes to this point on pp. 182–4, arguing that what he calls “citizenship-through-sports action” does not mean acting on all his recommendation. He states, for instance, that some of the calls to action are beyond the means of individuals and small groups. Instead, he outlines some principles for deciding on action and says, “If one of the recommendations strikes a chord with you, grab it and run with it”. For those of us outside the USA, those principles could as a minimum encourage us to make connections not usually seen by pushing us to make strange the familiar. The one place where there is likely to be considerable overlap is in the classed, raced, gendered, ableist, corporatized, achievement sport emphasis of dominant sports cultures.

(Shutterstock, various creators)

While, for those of us outside the USA, this is very much a book that is good to think rather than one to do, there remains one major challenge to work around in that thinking. This challenge is the effect on sport systems and sport cultures of the highly but unevenly commercialised cultures of college sport, and the effects that culture has on sport at other educational institutions. Reed quite properly reminds us of the unevenness of that commercialisation, and the dangers of generalising from football and men’s basketball. While that commercial distinction is clear, and helpful for those of us in different contexts to unpack his analysis to reflect on our local conditions, he is less consistent or assertive in exploring the effects of those highly commercialised sports on sport cultures more generally.

While we might see the distinctive form of sport in educational institutions as a significant issue to work through and around, there is an equally problematic feature of this edition of the book. It is a reprint of a 2015 publication rebranded by the publisher as a new edition, when all that has changed is the introduction. Aside from being deceptive, this is also a missed opportunity. When it came out in 2015 the book was right up to date, current, and for those in the USA a contemporary guide to both the conditions of the sport industry and action. Eight years later, in some key areas, the book has lost that currency. For instance, on pp. 87–88 Reed discusses court cases that affect college athletes’ commercial interests in their image rights, citing key judgements from late 2014, and indicating that college sport would need to change: there is no indication of what has happened in the intervening period. Elsewhere, the decision to retain almost all of the 2015 text leads to embarrassing errors, such as Reed’s reference on p. 177 to points made in the introduction that now no longer holds because the introduction has been rewritten. Rowman and Littlefield should not have let this kind of basic copy edit error through. This missed opportunity doesn’t significantly weaken the ‘good to think’ character of this book for those of us outside the USA. I doubt that it helps the ‘good to do’ aspects of the book within the USA, and it just seems sloppy on the publisher’s part.

Even so, How We Can Save Sports is an example of the kind of critical, action-oriented assessment of the sport sector we need more often if we are to build a sport world that is inclusive, participatory, and encourages more of us to stay active members for longer. The notions of PAAC and WAAC are solid places to begin our critique, even if our local circumstances and therefore action plans finish up looking quite different to Reed’s.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2023

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