A complex subject matter and a slim volume makes for an important but deficient book

Jan Ove Tangen
University of South-Eastern Norway

Richard L. Light & Steve Georgakis
Sociology for Physical Education and Sports Coaching
122 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2023
ISBN 978-1-032-44513-7

The book Sociology for Physical Education and Sports Coaching was written by Richard L. Light and Steve Georgakis. The intention is “… making the relevance of the sociology of sport to teaching physical education or coaching children’s and youth sport clear and understandable for undergraduates, teachers and coaches working with children and young people. In doing so, we also aim to help physical education teachers and youth coaches better understand socio-cultural, economic, and institutional contexts they work in and how they influence young people’s learning in and through sport.” (page x). After reading, I have concluded that the book is important but deficient.

The book is important because the authors clearly emphasise that focusing only on what happens on the pitches, in the sports centres, and locker rooms is not enough. Students, teachers, and trainers must deal with the fact that different social conditions and cultural frameworks largely influence physical practices such as sports and physical education to a greater extent. Put another way: instructors in such bodily practices must take it upon themselves that what they are doing must be seen in the light of “The Big Picture”  – a picture the authors try to draw through the book’s ten chapters, five illustrative comments and 122 pages.

The book is well written and easy to read, and in my opinion, well suited as a first introduction to sociology and sociology of sport for students, teachers and coaches. However, initially I wondered if it is even possible to cover the size and complexity of the field of sport sociology in a small book like this.  My worry was confirmed. I  find the book lacking compared to the authors’ ambitious goals described above. They succeed to a certain extent, but I have some rather critical objections to content, structure, choice of literature and ontological and epistemological starting points.

Therefore, to avoid repetition, I have presented each chapter’s content separately while supplementing it with my main objections. It is the “Introduction” and chapters 1-3 that I have the most objections to. My objections are primarily to some basic themes, concepts and discussions that, in my opinion, an introductory sociological book should also contain. Therefore, my review can also be regarded as a supplement to the book as it currently stands.

However, initially I wondered if it is even possible to cover the size and complexity of the field of sport sociology in a small book like this.  My worry was confirmed.

The book’s purpose is described in the “Introduction”, and the perspectives and concepts that underlie their angle on the topic are described. They highlight social constructivism in the light of Vygotsky and Bruner and cultural practices in line with Bourdieu’s theory of practice as relevant perspectives on practice and learning. They then describe how the training pedagogy within physical education and sport has changed over time. Finally, in this chapter, they draw the big picture, pointing to the importance of socio-cultural environments such as culture and language, economy and politics for sport and physical education.

I agree with all of this, but I would have liked to have seen that the authors also emphasise the importance of gender, class and ethnicity in this introduction  – something they partially address later. I also think that the authors here should initially have positioned themselves to other textbooks on the sociology of sport in general (e.g., Giulianotti, 2015) and the sociology of sport for teachers and coaches in particular (e.g., Jones, Potrac, Cushion & Rongland, 2011).

Chapter 1, “.The Origins of Sport,” briefly describes the history of sport. The authors more or less establish that sport as we know it today is quite different from past sport-like practices. Without being explicit about what they mean by sport, they claim there are “… long histories of games and activities as forms of competition with varied histories, but they are generally difficult to directly link to sport today.” (p. 1). Further in this chapter, the development of sport is connected to the Industrial Revolution as well as to how sport became a vehicle for education and war, and to how sport is used for ethical and moral issues. The Olympic Games and the Olympic values ​​are also given a place, unknown for what reason. On the other hand, world Cups of different sports and other mega-events are hardly mentioned. It is somewhat surprising.

This chapter raises several objections from this reviewer. Firstly, the authors should have been clear about what they believe characterises sport and what possibly distinguishes sport from other bodily practices “… that looks something like sport” (p. 1). Not least, they should have been explicit about what they mean by “physical education” compared to “sport”. Are “sport” and “physical education” the same social field or phenomenon, or is “physical education” only a characteristic feature of “sport”? Similarly, does “sport as business” indicate that sport and business are synonymous, or does sport have features similar to ‘business’?

On the one hand, it may seem the latter since they choose formulations such as “sport as education” and “sport as business”. On the other hand, they write about “sport as a vehicle for education” (p. 3), implying that sport and education are separate and autonomous fields or institutions. But when the authors write, “… there is no doubt about the different doxa of the field of business and the field of sport for sport’s sake, or sport as education.” (p. 18), they indicate that they are talking about three separate phenomena. Further confusion is created when the authors formulate themselves in the following sentence: “When the field and business intrude into the field of sport as education….” What do they mean? These ambiguities strongly indicate that the book should have had a section that explicitly discussed the unique nature of the sport, i.e., “sport as sport” or, as they formulate it, “sport for sport’s sake” and then specify the relations to the other two fields, e.g., in the form of terms such as ‘vehicle’ and ‘intrude’.

(Shutterstock/Drazen Zigic)

The above illustrates that the authors use “similes” and “metaphors” in uncritical and unreflective ways. Similes are used, e.g., in formulations such as “sport as education” and “sport as business”. Metaphors such as ‘vehicle’ and ‘intrude’ are used to say how sport becomes a means for and influenced by other social fields and institutions. Although it is unavoidable to use both similes and metaphors in scientific texts, the use of language, i.e., their lexical semantics, should be clarified and followed up with a reflection on the fact that “language is power”. Authors acquire power of definition over the reader by using certain words, similes, metaphors, semantics, etc. In addition, this is ultimately about the fact that words, concepts and perspectives imply ontological and epistemological choices. The choice of words, concepts and perspectives opens the way to seeing the world in specific ways while excluding others. Based on one definition of sport, chess can be seen as a sport. From another definition, chess would be something other than a sport. Formulations such as “sport like chess” would open the way to seeing chess-like features in sport without it being claimed that “sport is chess”. Unfortunately, most social scientists and natural scientists are too little concerned with clarifying the words, meanings and concepts associated with a topic and the ontological and epistemological status and consequences of their concepts (Tangen, 2004).

Thirdly, the authors should have reflected and discussed that during the rise of sport and most of today’s modern social fields and institutions, sport was increasingly used as a means for other social institutions. In addition to being used to transfer skills, knowledge, and formation of character traits (education) and to increase investment and profit (economics) on which the authors focus, sport also became a means of distributing social goods and burdens, as well as exercising power and influence (politics), recruit young people to various religious organisations (religion), explore human performance (science) and create entertainment and engagement (media). Precisely, as a means for other social fields and institutions, sport could develop its uniqueness and autonomy, making the Olympic Games and various world championships possible. Perhaps the chapter should have been entitled “The Origins of Sport and Its Development in the Modernity”. Such an extension would also have legitimised the other chapters to a greater extent.

Not least, the authors should have reflected on the propensity of sports in modern times to push boundaries  – i.e., fulfil the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius  – a motto that pushes sports to turn over all stones to improve performance and enter into cooperation with many social institutions and systems to acquire the necessary resources and competences to acquire “The Edge” (Schimank, 2005, Tangen, 2010, Pielke, 2016). As I see it, this is perhaps the most essential piece of “The Big Picture”.

The description of the sociology of sport is, in my opinion, far too superficial in terms of themes, concepts, perspectives and contributors.

Some of the same criticism can be directed at Chapter 2, “Sport Sociology”. The chapter begins with a section on sociology in general, where the subject’s origins, historical context, and some of its “founders” are discussed. Next, concepts such as “agency”, “structure”, and “agency-structure relationships” are highlighted as key concepts. Next, “The Sociology of Sport”, its history and some of its ‘founders’ and contributors are presented before the chapter ends with bullet points about sports sociology research topics and the role of sport sociology in society.

This chapter is particularly deficient, and the perspectives and concepts presented are insufficiently justified. The chapter could have benefited from a more thorough review of other sociological contributors and their concepts and perspectives. This critique also applies to the presentation of the sociology of sport. In addition to Comte and Durkheim, Marx and his concepts of “class, inequality and alienation”, Weber’s theory of “the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”, Merton’s concepts of “social deviance”, Goffmann’s analysis of “the presentation of self in everyday life”, Luhmann’s concepts of “the self-formation of social systems and structural links”, and Rosa’s books on “Acceleration” and “Resonance” could have been introduced given the book’s purpose (presenting the big picture). Not to mention essential contributions from female sociologists such as Harriet Martineau (c. 1850), Jane Adams (c. 1900), Marianne Weber (c. 1920), Dorothy E. Smith (contemporary), Judith Butler (contemporary), Donna Haraway (contemporary) and Michel Lamont (contemporary), to name but a few. Many female and male sport sociologists have used concepts and theories from these prominent authors in their work. Introducing some of them in this chapter would have given the book’s readers an excellent supply of sociological perspectives and concepts that could help them draw the big picture in a sport context.

For male and female students, teachers and coaches, such a gender-balanced introduction would also provide a better basis for understanding the authors’ “Commentary 4”, where they discuss “Feminist pedagogy for masculinist sports?”. As the authors later in chapter 10 discuss “cultural transitioning” (p. 105–111), they should also refer to sociologists who have contributed to this form of culture-sociological insights.

The description of the sociology of sport is, in my opinion, far too superficial in terms of themes, concepts, perspectives and contributors. Many readers will probably be left with the impression that the subject is insignificant and thus unnecessary. To better understand the sociology of sport, readers should look closely at Giuliannotti’s (2015) “Routledge Handbook of the Sociology of Sport”.

Chapter 3, “Sport as Education vs Sport as Business”, is an essential chapter on how sport is used as a means of two central social fields: education and business. Topics covered are “Fields of sport as education and business”, “The financial power and influence of sport”, “Sport, money, morals, and crime”, and “The dominant message in sport”.

Jan Ove Tangen

There is little doubt that modern sport is primarily characterised by the tension between these two sets of values. And it is very timely that the topic is raised and discussed in a book like this. But as mentioned before, it is unclear whether “education” and “business” are characteristic features of the sport itself or whether the sport is used as a “vehicle” by both the education field and the economic field. The need for clarification is particularly evident in the authors’ moral criticism that sport is used as a means of making money at the expense of sport as a means of moral and ethical learning in the form of “sportsmanship, commitment to the team, fair play, abiding by the rules”, and “humility in victory and grace in defeat” (p. 18). As a reader, I get the impression that education is a central part of sport itself (sport is education), while sport is only a means for business (sport as business). Put another way: The lack of clarity is due, as I see it, to a flawed discussion of epistemology (“sport as …”) and ontology (“sport is …”) in chapter 1.

The above emphasises what I have already suggested, that the book should have had a section on “sport as sport” in chapter 1, which discusses the uniqueness and autonomy of sport since the authors choose to use formulations such as “sport as…” i.e., using similes as a linguistic tool. Since the authors choose such a style of writing, in addition to discussing “sport as education” and “sport as business”, they should also have chapters on “sport as politics”, “sport as science”, “sport as media” and “sport as religion”, indicating that also these social fields influence, and are influenced by, sport. This chapter would then give students, teachers and coaches a better understanding of modern sport and its consequences for individuals and society  – i.e., the big picture. Unfortunately, they don’t, and the reader doesn’t know why.

Chap. 4, “The Commodification of Sport”, is easy to read and thought-provoking. In part, the authors discuss how commodification characterises sport  – not least how “… commodification is leading to a decline in regard for sport’s altruistic nature that threatens its ethics.” (p. 31). They use the example of how the tennis Davis Cup has changed dramatically due to commodification. Besides, the authors highlight the Australian tennis star Ash Barty and her marketability as an indication of commodification. Other topics in this chapter are the growing tendency towards private equity, the corporatisation of clubs, the professionalisation of players, and the athletes’ salaries. A short concluding section (4.7) emphasises the threat commodification poses to “the ethos of sport”, i.e., “that of traditional sport as education and for the development of positive moral and ethical development.” (p. 36). Again, the epistemological and ontological question of “sport as …” and “sport is …” reappears and calls for clarification.

The biggest threat from globalisation is the impact of sport on the climate and environment, primarily through the extensive travel activities that sport entails at local, national, and international levels.

Chapter 5, “The Globalization of Sport”, is an indispensable topic in a sociological introductory book. In my opinion, the authors illuminate the most central features and consequences of this historical and socially created development in a good way. They describe the historical development of globalisation in general and how it affected and affects sport in particular. Also, the sport of rugby is used to show some of the consequences of globalisation. The authors are to be commended for elucidating – albeit very briefly – how globalisation affects the local game of rugby. In a concluding, critical comment, they emphasise how globalisation has become “… a growing network of political, economic, cultural and social interdependencies…” (p. 44), which also affects our personal perceptions, knowledge and actions.

I share this concern, but I would have liked to have seen that the authors had also included a section about “sport as sustainability”. The biggest threat from globalisation is the impact of sport on the climate and environment, primarily through the extensive travel activities that sport entails at local, national, and international levels (Goldblatt, 2020).

In chapter 6, “Sport, Health, and Sponsorship”, the authors direct justified criticism of the use of sport as a health-promoting means in sponsors’ marketing of products that are far from health-promoting. Initially, they point out that sport is not necessarily as beneficial to health as is usually thought. The authors refer, among other things, to how some sports cause head injuries such as concussions and brain damage. Then they criticise sponsors who use sport to market unhealthy food and drink. Further, they point out the excessive and harmful alcohol consumption in sporting contexts. Sports gambling is another theme with significant consequences in the form of ruined lives and families, particularly affecting low-income households. The chapter concludes that it is ironic that “… positive images of sport are used to promote activities and products that are so unhealthy, damaging and dangerous for the individual and society.” (p. 57).

I also share this concern, but I would have liked the authors to have criticised sport itself and the fact that it accepts this form of sponsorship. The athletes as well as sport organisations and federations can refuse money from gambling. A discussion of this would inform and help students, teachers, coaches, and sports leaders become more aware of and critical of the ethical challenges indisputably linked to sponsorship in sports.

(Shutterstock(Drazen Zigic)

Chapter 7, “Media-Sport”, emphasises in the first sentence the strong link that exists between sport and the media: “Media and commodified sport are mutually dependent with media being central to the commodification of sport and commodified sport essential for media with the relationship so strong that the term media-sport is often used.” (p. 59). With this starting point, the authors focus on why the media are so interested in sports, how the development of sports visual broadcasts strengthened the link between the media and sports, and what kind of message about sports is conveyed in the media. Next, they try to briefly describe the influence the sport-media relationship can have on children and young people. In conclusion, the authors suggest that “… physical education teachers need to be vigilant in being aware of and accounting for the powerful yet often implicit influence that media-sport has on their students.” (p. 66).

Again, the authors fail to criticise sport itself and its responsibility, and thus, the responsibility for the current situation rests on athletes, students, teachers, and coaches. The sport’s leaders and organisations are also in positions where they can criticise the media for published reports, just as much as they can regulate what contact athletes and teams should have with sport media. I think the authors could also have given instructions for how sports could relate to and act concerning this symbiotic relationship. Put another way: based on the authors’ discussion of “agency-structure relationships” (p. 10-12), they could have formulated some advice on how the actors’ own “agency” could be strengthened to change this “sport-media structure” the authors describe.

The topic taken up in chapter 8, “Sport and Gender”, is the topic I and many other male researchers, teachers and coaches regrettably know little about. This lack of knowledge indicates that the topic must become even more critical in teaching physical education and sport, given that women are almost as much involved as athletes, but unfortunately, to a far lesser extent on the teachers, trainers and managers. The authors start by stating that ‘sex’ is determined biologically, while ‘gender’ is mainly socially constructed. With such a starting point, it is reasonable that they focus on sport and masculinity, hegemonic masculinity and women and sport. The latter theme is elaborated through a discussion of the barriers that must be broken for women to be able to participate on an almost equal footing, how the number of female spectators is increasing at sporting events, examples of how women receive far lower financial rewards than men, and how women are exposed to sexual harassment and mistreatment. The subsequent “Commentary 4” directly elaborates on the existing challenges and discusses possible strategies to break the masculine hegemony in rugby and sports in general.

With my lack of expertise, I do not find it proper to criticise the book for any shortcomings in this chapter. Other competent researchers may do this. However, I applaud that this theme receives almost equal treatment as the other themes in the book.

The authors start by stating that ‘sex’ is determined biologically, while ‘gender’ is mainly socially constructed. With such a starting point, it is reasonable that they focus on sport and masculinity, hegemonic masculinity and women and sport.

Nick Maitland is the author of chapter 9, “The Anti-social Foundations for Lifestyle Sports”. He starts with the fact that skateboarding became an Olympic sport in 2020 and shows the reader how athletes in this sport were initially disobedient and unconventional in both clothing, language and attitude to drugs but ended up as “fresh-faced and polite teenage prodigies, readymade for the media spotlight and easily digestible for the mainstream public.” (p. 87). The process is described in three sections: “Lifestyle sports: creative responses to structured environments”, “Spotlight on skateboarding: from homemade toy to world industry”, and “Skateboarding added as an Olympic event”. In conclusion, he asks what effect the inclusion in the Olympic program will have on original skateboarding.

In many ways, this example, like many other chapters, illustrates how capitalism invades sport in general and the individual disciplines in particular, with dramatic consequences. That in itself is an important message and essential knowledge. But I wonder why this chapter is even included. Given the authors’ somewhat superficial description of the origins of sport and sports-like games and play, one could perhaps argue that skateboarding is not basically a “regulated and rule-governed competition performed in defined spaces” (p. 1), i.e., not seen as a sport, and thus not qualified to be included in the book. What about chess and poker, which obviously fall under this notion?

Chapter 10, “Transnational Athlete Migration”, is motivated by the fact that increased mobility and the transnational movement of athletes directly result from globalisation processes. The authors initially claim that the many financial rewards that are offered to the athletes are a contributing factor to this mobility. But this has also led to several cultural, climatic and health-related challenges for the athletes. These consequences are thematised in sections such as “Transition”  – the challenge of adapting to new cultural conditions, and exemplified in “Fijian rugby players  – cultural transitioning into New Zealand.

For me, the chapter is worth reading and thought-provoking. However, I object to the idea that much of the text is arranged as bullet points that are too scarce and superficial to provide an understanding of the problem and challenges. I also think this chapter would have benefited from being moved forward in the book, between chapters 5 and 6, i.e., become a new chapter 6. Then, “Commentary 2” would also have become more relevant and understandable.

As a teacher at a university that offers education in sports and physical education, I miss a concluding chapter 11, where the authors tell in plain text how students, teachers and coaches should use the book to take in the big picture that sociology offers to become better students, teachers and coaches. I would think that this is missed by other readers as well.

Finally, let me conclude. The book is important because it recommends that students, teachers, and trainers take the big picture into their reflections and practice in these two fields. It is flawed and incomplete because the authors leave out too many of the essential pieces of the big picture, not to mention how they obscure the understanding of the social fields they choose to present  – sports, education and business  – and the relationships between them. If it’s any consolation, this also applies to other sociological books on sport.

I know that my objections would have resulted in a more complex and comprehensive text and, therefore, not as suitable for the audience for which this book was written. On the other hand, the authors have themselves set the bar so high that it is reasonable that I, as a reviewer, point out what is needed for them to clear it.


Giulianotti, R. (2015). Routledge handbook of the sociology of sport (Routledge international handbooks). London: Routledge.
Goldblatt, D. (2020). Playing against the clock: Global sport, the climate. Rapid Alliance.
Jones, Robyn & Potrac, Paul & Cushion, Christopher & Ronglan, Lars. (2011). The Sociology of Sports Coaching. 10.4324/9780203865545.
Pielke, R. (2016). The edge: The war against cheating and corruption in the cutthroat world of elite sports. Roaring Forties Press.
Schimank, U. (2005). “The autonomy of modern sport: Dangerous and endangered”. European Journal for Sport and Society2(1), 13-23.
Tangen, J. O. (2004). Hvordan er idrett mulig?: Skisse til en idrettssosiologi. [How is Sport Possible? A Sketch to a Sport Sociology]. Kristiansand: Høyskoleforlaget.
Tangen, J. O. (2010). “Observing sport participation: Some sociological remarks on the inclusion/exclusion mechanism in sport.” In: Wagner, U., Storm, R.K., & Hoberman, J. (eds). Observing sport: Modern system theoretical approaches, 131-161. Schorndorf: Hofman-Verlag.

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