Impressive account of American sports, albeit with less sociological theory than expected

Anders Östnäs
Lunds universitet

Christopher B. Doob
Great Expectations: The Sociology of Survival and Success in Organized Team Sports
306 pages, paperback, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018
ISBN 978-1-138-48896-0

Christopher B. Doob is professor emeritus of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and has for many years worked with key concepts such as stratification, social inequality and class as a modern interpreter of neo-Marxist thinking. One of his most important books is Race, Ethnicity, and the Urban American Mainstream from 2004. He has also actively participated in the struggle for welfare rights and in two local adult education programs.

In his new book, Doob has examined team athletes in the United States from various sociological perspectives – from youth sports to the most outstanding elite. Some basic questions are: What is it like to act in a team? What is the dynamic of being a participant in a team? Benefits and problems? What does your career look like? What happens at the end of the career?

In addition to a foreword, acknowledgements and an introduction, the book contains the following seven chapters:

      1. In the Beginning: Is it enough just to have fun?
      2. Teen in triumph and turmoil: Adolescents’ organized sports
      3. One level down: College and minor-league sports programs
      4. Scaling the heights: Players in the four major leagues
      5. Without fame and fortune: Pro team sports at the margins
      6. Stars who weren’t supposed to make it
      7. A new playbox: The challenge of retirement from professional sports

Each chapter concludes with summary and Class Discussion Issues plus an abundance of references. Sociological concepts and indices form a conclusion. Thus, the book is commendably pedagogical. The focus is, of course, on American sports with few international perspectives.

I will address a few points from each chapter and offer my own reflections.

Chapter 1 addresses the development of sport chronologically – starting with children’s sports, where play becomes serious. Historically, it took time for sports to gain a foothold in American society. It was mainly children of financially affluent parents who from an early age devoted themselves to sports. Many of them – 70 percent – quit before the age of 13. Early injuries were one reason for this. Historically, initiatives from the country’s presidents have been important: The President’s Council on Youth Fitness was initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, and was continued by President Kennedy. The latter was startled by an international comparison with countries in Europe, where the American children in a study of physical tests came off badly. The initiative was probably also a result of President Kennedy himself being very interested in sports. President Obama similarly implemented potentially constructive initiatives focusing on the physical activity of children. In the US today, 13.5 million children between the ages of 6 and 13 are engaged in organized sports – a number which, in comparison with, for example, Sweden, is low.

A central question in Chapter 2 is how children are socialized into the world of top athletes. American studies show that parents’ socioeconomic status is important as well as their own previous experiences of sports. Other important socialization actors/agents are siblings and others in the young person’s vicinity. This is in line with what Professor Göran Patriksson presented in his dissertation from 1978. Socialization and involvement in sport (in Swedish).

Many youngsters are faced with the difficult choice of continuing with high school sports or invest in a professional career – if they qualify. Unlike e.g. Sweden, sports in the United States is concentrated to school environments – high school or college. School sports in Sweden had its heyday during the 1950s and 60s with, among other things, the Crown Prince’s Cup (football) and the Schoolchildren’s track and field competitions at Stockholm stadium. My personal experience of this latter event is that my school in Kristianstad in 1959 won the trophy as Sweden’s leading grammar school in sports. Today, Swedish school sport is rather inconsequential.

President Kennedy was startled by an international comparison with countries in Europe, where the American children in a study of physical tests came off badly.

In Chapter 3, two branches of sports are compared: College Sports (CS) and Minor League Sports (MLS), i.e. school sports versus sports in lower leagues or divisions.

Central to this is the focus on the major American sports: baseball, ice hockey, (American) football, and basketball. In addition to the Big Four, soccer and volleyball are popular, as well as lacrosse. The latter sport is relatively unknown in Sweden, where it was introduced as late as 1987. However, there are clubs throughout the country and Sweden is relatively successful internationally. The origin is Native American, and lacrosse is mostly played in the United States and Canada, while also being popular at UK universities.

Which path is most advantageous for a sports career – via CS or MLS ? In most sports, future top stars have gone through college with the exception of baseball and ice hockey. In this context, MLS has been most valuable.

Chapter 4 focuses on the four biggest American sports and their players: football (NFL, founded in 1920), basketball (NBA, founded in 1946), ice hockey (NHL, founded in 1917 in Canada) and baseball (MLB, founded in 1903). All four leagues were reserved for white Americans until 1947, when baseball player Jackie Robinson was the first African American to break the race barrier. He played ten seasons in MLB, and all that time for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Los Angeles. He became an icon and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Today, a mix of white and black Americans appear in three of the major sports –ice hockey is still mainly a white sport. However, Canadian Willie O’Ree pioneered when he became the first black player in the NHL in the 1950s. Even today, the number of black players in the NHL and also in European hockey is very low. Why is that? Ice hockey culture was originally based in white Canadian middle class. It may be one of the reasons that hockey has not become generally accepted in the black population. Attempts from the NHL have been made with various projects, but with scant results.

What stands out in this chapter is the success of the Dominican Republic in baseball. Recently, they won the World Cup and the country has over a hundred players in US Major League Baseball. Worth mentioning is that baseball is also very big in Japan – almost a national sport. It was initiated by the American soldiers who monitored Japan after World War II.

In addition to the four major sports, there are also what Doob calls marginal or niche sports. This is discussed in Chapter 5. He mentions, among others. MLS, Major League Soccer (start year 1996), WNBA, Women’s National Basketball Association (start year 1997), NWSL, National Women’s Soccer League (start year 2013) and MLL, Major League Lacrosse (start year 1999).

It is obvious that these sports are completely in the shadow of “the big four”, with poorer organization, lower wages and more injuries. It is also significant that where football (soccer) is concerned, the national teams are prioritized. For example, the American women’s national team is world-leading, while the men’s national team is around place 35 on the FIFA ranking. This, by extension, means that the national team – above all the women’s – can spend more time and training ahead of major championships compared to Europe, where the leagues are prioritized in a completely different way.

I was expecting a more distinct theoretical framework around his survey of American team sports. Instead, the sociological input appears to be more indirect.

In Chapter 6, Doob focuses on unexpected elite careers – suddenly going from Mr. Nobody to Mr. Somebody. This can be done in different ways. Some players end up in the ‘wrong’ sport from the start – maybe because of disadvantageous preconditions, maybe because of poor leadership. An example is Jimmy Graham, who played basketball for the University of Miami with moderate success. He was also relatively short of stature. However, his speed was noted and he was scouted by talent agents in American football and eventually became a valuable player in both the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks .

From the world of basketball, the late international big stars Dennis Rodman and Scotty Pippin were fairly short in early adolescence, but grew rapidly around the age of 15–16. A quote from Rodman illustrates this: “It was like I had a new body that knew how to do all this shit the old one didn’t.” This is in line with the Swedish sports model, where young people are encouraged to test different sports in order to concentrate on one particular sport around the age of 15–16. And that particular ‘sport’ may well be something other than a sport; it may for instance be music. It is well-known that the Swedish musician Ted Gärdestad was a very promising tennis player in his early teens – almost in parity with Björn Borg, born the same year. Then he dedicated his life to composing and singing. Mats Wilander was a promising ice hockey player before deciding on tennis. The examples can be multiplied.

What happens when the sports career is over? How do top athletes handle the drastically reduced interest and media buzz? How do you prepare for a life after a successful sports career? These questions are dealt with in Chapter 7. In order to  reduce the stress of leaving an active sports life with great attention from the media, supporters and others, the NFL and the NHL have various forms of training programs in preparation for the transition to another life. Many continue in sporting life as coaches, managers, TV commentators, and not least agents. The latter applies for instance in Sweden, where several old football stars continue as agents. An example is Martin Dahlin, since long established in the football market as an agent. But in the United States, as in Europe, many are completely unprepared and go into more or less deep depressions. This is especially true for athletes who are forced to quit because of injuries.

This is indeed an impressive account of American sports – from children’s play and games to elite career peaks. Doob’s sociological household god is C. Wright Mills (1916–1962), who was quite popular in sociological circles in Swedish in the 1960s. His foremost writings were The Power Elite (1956) and The Sociological Imagination (1959). Some sociological concepts that are central to the book are socialization into the sports culture, but also concepts like stratification and class.

However, I note that sociological perspectives and sociological concepts are relatively sparse in Doob’s presentation. I was expecting a more distinct theoretical framework around his survey of American team sports. Instead, the sociological input appears to be more indirect. To me it seems that Doob left sociology early in the book to adopt a more narrative perspective. Notwithstanding this, the book’s content has both breadth and depth and you gain an increased insight into American team sports. I can definitely recommend this book!

Copyright @ Anders Östnäs

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