Game Changers: Paving way for a critical criminology of sport

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Tony B. Mickelsson
Södertörn University


Derek Silva & Liam Kennedy (eds.)
Power Played: A Critical Criminology of Sport
400 pages, inb
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press 2022 (Law & Society)
ISBN 978-0-7748-6779-5

Power Played – A Critical Criminology of Sport, edited by Derek Silva and Liam Kennedy, provides a detailed examination of the intricate relationship between sports and critical criminology. Divided into four sections comprising 16 chapters, the anthology explores various aspects of power dynamics, violence, inequality, and regulation within the realm of sports, and makes the case for a critical criminological contribution in relation to the sport field.

In the first section, the anthology opens with a forward-looking perspective, setting the stage for a critical analysis of sports within the context of criminological discourse. Contributors delve into various topics, from manifestations of sport violence, green cultural criminology within sports, and (de)civilizing processes. In the second section, contributors scrutinize the intersectionality of class, race, gender, sexuality, and power dynamics in sports. Through insightful case studies, readers are exposed to rituals like belt-whipping ceremonies in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the systemic barriers faced by marginalized athletes, such as racialized ‘others’ in hockey, and trans persons’ sport participation. In the third section, a sobering turn is taken as contributors confront the consequences and framings of head trauma and athlete violence. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) emerges as a focal point, shedding light on its legal and cultural implications, while discussions surrounding exploitative working conditions within professional wrestling underscore the complexities inherent in the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) sporting landscape. In the fourth and final section, the discourse then shifts towards the mechanisms of regulation and surveillance governing sports. From the culture of surveillance prevalent at events like the Olympics to the punitive measures imposed on incarcerated youths, contributors examine the systemic injustices perpetuated under the guise of discipline and control, with some of the main arguments being that many prison sport interventions have an overt emphasis on outcomes (e.g., recidivism), and fail in considering the youths’ perspectives and opportunities to partake in sport. The volume finishes with a ‘post-game’ analysis by a pioneer within critical criminology, Nic Groombridge, who gives his thoughts on the volume and what lies ahead.

Subsequently, in the first chapter, Kevin Young, a seminal researcher on sports violence, outline how sport as a site for violence has been wrongfully disregarded by other criminologists for a long time.

Taken together, this volume provides a comprehensive outlook on how (critical) criminology can inform our understanding of deviancy and crime within sports, and it does so through a myriad of ways. While all chapters are tied to the book’s core theme, they are also unique and cover diverse facets of the subject matter, thus, indirectly, displaying what a diverse endeavor this is.

While all chapters merit mention in some way, there are some that interests me more than others (and how they relate to one another), to which I turn to now. Firstly, Silva and Kennedy’s introduction chapter is an excellent overview on critical criminology’s general position, and different schools of thought therein. Subsequently, in the first chapter, Kevin Young, a seminal researcher on sports violence, outline how sport as a site for violence has been wrongfully disregarded by other criminologists for a long time. This chapter is very helpful to the reader, and Young demonstrates his vast and deep expertise to sports-related violence by offering the reader a quasi-historical roadmap on the subject matter, with specific focus on disciplinary and research gaps. Here, one gets a good sense of how sports-related violence has been largely ignored by criminologists, and when considered by sports sociologists, mainly been concentrated to a few subjects (e.g., athlete violence and crowd violence), while other themes are relatively underexplored. The chapter seems to be partially written out of passion, and partially frustration, with the concluding remarks that crucial criminological questions have, across time, remained unaddressed in sports sociology, and that a central mission of Young is to encourage new ways of thinking about “…sports behavior criminologically” (p. 67, italics in original). Young’s chapter function as a very nice extension of Silva and Kennedy’s introduction chapter, as it further outlines the need for sport sociology and criminology to cross paths more explicitly and directly.

In chapter 4, Dale Spencer somewhat, directly or indirectly, challenges the view on violence as inherently ‘bad’, and I find it rather refreshing. In a book concerned with critical perspectives, where a critical criminology challenges taken-for-granted assumptions etc., it seems fitting to challenge the (very strong) assumption that violence is deterministically and inherently detrimental, with no benefits whatsoever. As an avid BJJ-practitioner myself (thus revealing my position here), my interest was further peeked by Spencer’s focus on the belt-whipping ceremony. The belt-whipping ceremony is an act where a person who is promoted to a new belt, i.e., a higher rank, walks from one side of the room, to other, all the while other participants ‘whip’ the person’s back with their belts. Notably, from the context where I write, I understand this ceremony as forbidden, and considered as penalism by the federations. Nevertheless, Spencer concludes that the act in itself functions as a social glue. This is not a far-fetched claim, as much social psychological research also shows that ‘shared pain’ can be beneficial in fostering bonding processes and relationships between people, under the right circumstances of course. Sharing ideas and data from a (then) on-going project, Spencer endeavors to examine the subject matter from a quantitative point of view. Unfortunately, this quantitative data is limited to a brief outline on how many has taken part of such a ceremony or not, and not whether the ceremony in itself has any social benefits to it. The latter would, obviously, have been the most analytically interesting to take part of.

(Shutterstock/Matthew Jacques)

Other chapters that clearly caught my eye were the ones on utilizing sports for social goods (or, sport-for-development) in a criminological sense. These were mainly Norman’s chapter on prison sport, Meek’s chapter on sport interventions in prisons, and Crowther, Jump and Smithson’s chapter on a rugby intervention. These chapters all summarize thoughtful pros and cons with using sport as a rehabilitative tool for certain populations, and while I genuinely enjoyed all the chapters, I see it fitting to raise some minor weaknesses with Power Played, tied to these chapters’ particular theme (that in no way takes away anything from the book in general). Specifically, Meek’s chapter on sport interventions in prisons is informative and builds nicely upon the author’s extensive experience and has many meaningful takeaways. The chapter seems built around evaluation, program design, and other things known to those sport scholars interested in measuringsocial outcomes due to sporting participation. That being said, I am not particularly convinced that I clearly see the ‘critical’ in a critical criminologically oriented sport book in this very chapter. In other words, I truly enjoy the chapter, but I think it could just as well have been published in a realist evaluation type of book. In the next chapter, Crowther et al. guides the reader through their rugby intervention, but with a much more critical introduction, proclaiming that they do not view sport as a universal solution to social ills. Underpinned by positive youth development (PYD) theory, they go on about examining their intervention from this particular lens, and within this section I thought it be helpful, and again, appeal to the ‘critical’ in a critical criminology, to discuss PYD’s stance more widely.

To make a parallel: in the first chapter, Young briefly discusses the disciplinary-and theoretical divides in criminology, referencing whether causes of crime are ‘internal’ or ‘external’, meaning whether we should seek biological and psychological explanatory models, or sociological and anthropological explanatory models. In this divide, Young makes it clear to us what schools of thought are more oriented towards a critical criminology, and it came to me that perhaps the same discussion should be applied with regards to PYD-theory in sport. PYD has been criticized for not acknowledging structural factors and inequalities to any lengthy extent, and I think it could have been illustrative to say something about PYD in a critical criminological context too.

To finish: my overall impression of Power Played: a critical criminology of sport is that it is an impressive endeavor worth reading, with many strengths and only (very) minor weaknesses. It is my genuine hope that Silva and Kennedy will pave the way for a thought-provoking school of thought within sport criminology/sociology, with this book as its point of departure.

Copyright © Tony B. Mickelsson

Table of Content

Introduction: Toward a Critical Criminology of Sport
Derek Silva and Liam Kennedy

PART 1 On the Horizons of Critical Criminology and Sport

      1. Hidden in Plain Sight: Sports-Related Violence
        Kevin Young
      2. Sports and the Environment: Are They Incompatible?
        Avi Brisman
      3. The (De)Civilizing Process: An Ultra-Realist Examination of Sport
        Grace Gallacher

PART 2 On Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality

      1. Whip Me Please: Rites of Passage and the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Belt-Whipping Ceremony
        Dale Spencer
      2. From Mr. Hockey to the “White Way”: Masculinity, Colour-Bland Racism, and the Policing of Blackness in the NHL
        Stacy L. Lorenz and Braeden McKenzie
      3. Cheaters, Bullies, and Frauds: A Discursive Analysis of Opposition to Trans Women Athletes
        Bridgette Desjardins

PART 3 On Head Trauma and Athletic Violence

      1. Is CTE a Defence for Murder? Critical Insights into Violence, Crime, and Brain Trauma in Sports
        Matt Ventresca and Kathryn Henne
      2. From Field to Family: The Ripple Efects of Sports-Related Violence
        Deana Simonetto, Stacey Hannem, and Erica Fae Thomson
      3. Business as Usual: COVID-19 and Professional Wrestling in Florida
        Karen Corteen
      4. Looking beyond the Athlete “Offender”: Re-Contextualizing Violence and Harm in the NHL
        Victoria Silverwood

PART 4 On Governance, Surveillance, Security, and the Carceral

      1. Surveillance and Security of the Olympic Games: Globalization of Inequalities through Sport
        Vida Bajc
      2. Policing the Young and the Poor in Olympic Neighbourhoods: The Security Legacy in Stratford, London (2012)
        Jacqueline Kennelly
      3. Sport and the Carceral: Social Meanings of Sport within and beyond the Prison
        Mark Norman
      4. Measuring and Demonstrating the Impact of Prison- Based Sporting Initiatives
        Rosie Meek
      5. Kicking Crime into Touch: Rugby Union as a Context for Positive Youth Development in Youth Justice
        Jamie Crowther, Deborah Jump, and Hannah Smithson

Postscript: Post-Match Pontifcation
Nic Groombridge

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