Sociology of Sport

A Summary of Issues by Reginald Green

revised December 1998

Extra Sport Readings


Sociology - the scientific study of human interaction (i.e., human organization and function.) Human interaction can be divided into work, family and leisure interactions. Sport activity is a subset of leisure activity. All though a small portion of the population directly participate in sport in highly industrialize societies many people are interested in the activities related to sport.

What is Sport?

A formal sociological definition of sport is a physical activity which is fair (fair meaning honest in that the contest is structured for all contestants to have a reasonable chance to win), competitive, non-deviant, and is guided by rules, organization and/or tradition.

Based on the sociological definition of sport:

Why is sport important to society?

Sports are deeply embedded in the American culture and institutions. Superstar, home run and slam dunk are phrases with generally understood meanings both in sport and in general conversation. These non-material elements of culture are examples of the influence of sport on the culture. Halls of fames exist in all major sports at the professional, college and high school levels which exist as monuments to the worship of sport by society and to chronicle the deeds of sports heroes for the youth of society. Sports stars are perceived as role models for young people in the society. Sport at the professional and college levels are major economic vehicles for cities.    For about one hundred educational institutions sport is a multi million dollar a year enterprise. For example each school which makes it to the NCAA  Basketball Tournament receives a half million dollars per game.

Educational institutions and sport are unrelentingly intertwined.  Sports teams can gain national recognition for an institution like no other aspect of education.  Effective presidents and principles maintain close supervision over the major sports programs.  Most institutions CEOs are closely involved in the hiring of coaches.  Many principles learned their administrative skills as coaches.  The significance of school and sport is demonstrated at the main entrance of most high schools built in the first half of this century  contain a trophy case with sports recogintion.

Sports has an intense relationship to significant sociological elements including education, leisure, social stratification, social mobility, race and gender issues.

Examples of the Significance of Sports in Society

Media spends a great deal of it's resources on sports. Major news papers dedicate at least a quarter of it's pages to sport. The sports columnist and reporter staffs are as large as the news staffs of many major newspapers. Television and radio sports commentators achieve a high level of notoriety beyond the sports world such as Howard Cosell, John Madden and Frank Gifford. ESPN, ESPN2 the Golf Channel and Sports Channel are cable television networks dedicated to sports programming.

Business spends a great deal of money on sports. Including financial contributions, advertising associations as well as ownership of some professional teams. Many companies sponsor local professional and college sports teams. All of the major college bowl football games except the Rose Bowl trade the corporate sponsorship for the naming the bowl for the company.

Cities spend millions of dollars on sport stadiums for the exclusive use of major and minor league professional teams. The city government and corporate leaders claim that such arrangements are beneficial to the local economy by adding jobs and bringing tourist dollars. However, the jobs created and supported by a new professional sports arena are low paying seasonal service sector jobs. Additionally, the local and national governments develop exclusive laws to protect the interests of sports teams. These special laws include anti-trust protection, tax exceptions and low interest loans.

Public schools use sports to socialize students and demonstrate the significance of the schools to the community. With a winning team the students have an issue around which they can find a common bond. School focus on the differences among students in most of it's activities but all students are expected to be "true to their school."

Sport and Sociological Paradigms

Structural Functional Approach

The culture is created and reinforced through the participation in sport in the following ways

The manifest functions of sport in a society are represented by physical fitness and the socialization of individuals to the value of hard work, team work (cooperation ) and competition. Latent functions include character development from participation in sport and an emotional release from the physical activity. Sport provides the motivation to be physically fit. To play the game well one needs to be in shape. The desire to play well is a product of the social belief in winning or being first in a valued activity. Further sport provides members of a society with a controlled method of emotional release of aggression. In modern life humans have few acceptable ways to release feelings of aggression generated by the frustrations of modern life, sport is believed to be a harmless way to "let off steam." The value of hard work leading to a win (the belief in a meritocracy) is a cornerstone of participation in sport. The individuals and teams which credit their work ethic for wins are greatly admired.

Sport is valued in as a method of building character, developing strong minds and bodies, teaching team work and self discipline which are all highly valued in American society.

Functional theorists also recognize dysfunctional consequences as well. The "win at all cost" strategies which some teams use has been generally condemned by the general public. The recruitment of athletes based on athletic ability rather than academic ability, falsify grades, majoring in eligibility, demanding athletes participate in unauthorized practices leaving them little time for their studies and under the table payments are all examples of dysfunctional consequences of sport.

Representative concerns in study which structional functional theorist study and analysis of sport include a) How does sport contribute to the integration of schools, communities, and society? b) How does sport serve individuals positively (work habits, upward mobility) ? c) How does sport inspire?

Social Conflict Analysis

The social conflict view sees sport as a reflection of the inequalities in society and that it masks the true nature of the human condition. Sport serves as the "opium of the masses." Sport is seen as a social institution which the more powerful oppress, manipulate, coerce and exploit the less powerful.

For the worker a capitalist economy means laboring at unexciting unsatisfying jobs. Sport provides an exciting diversion from thinking about their own condition. People discuss the team for which they follow in first person terms as if they are members of the team. Such as, "for us to win.." or "we need a point guard..."

Each sport team works to maintain or achieve an advantage over other teams. Major league baseball does not share the profits of league pay. Teams in larger markets do not share the television revenues or stadium deals. At the professional, college, and high school levels the signing, releasing, cutting or trading of a player is influenced by impact such a transaction will have on other teams in the league.

Sport exploits the poor athlete in many ways. College grant in aids for poor athletes are not charitable gifts to people who would have no opportunity for higher education. The poor student can receive financial aid and not have to work 40 hours or more each week for a multi-million dollar agency in return. The cost of an athletic grant in aid is a small price for a full time worker.

Conflict theorists see the racial integration of sport as the exploitation of minorities. The inclusion of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in to modern baseball fifty years ago was financially motivated. The inclusion of minorities would increase the fan base as well as expand the talent pool for the progressive teams which helped them have an advantage over their opponents. Currently, minorities dominate the playing positions which have the least interaction, prestige and rewards. In college minority athletes are recruited from communities and schools in which non athlete students would not be considered. The minority athlete brings a talent on which the school can achieve wealth, power and prestige, the non athlete student is not likely to provide such rewards to the institution.

Sports are racially segregated based on their appeal to the public. Mass appeal sports such as football, baseball, track, boxing and basketball are favored by the working middle class. The appeal of these sports can be capitalized on financially. Sports such as tennis, golf and polo have few minorities participants. These sports appeal to the wealthy upper class. There is little to gain by including the less wealthy minorities.

Representative concerns in study which social conflict theorist study and analysis of sport include: a) How does sport maintain the interests of the power elite?  b) How does sport contribute to alienation manipulation of the masses, violence, racism, sexism and unethical behavior? How are the goals of sport distorted by commercialism, nationalism, and bureaucracies?

Symbolic Interaction Paradigm

The motivation to play a sport varies for each individual. Persons are socialized to play particular sports which they believe reflect their status. Women do not play "rough" sports such as football and boxing. Bowling, billiards and softball are expressive outlets for the lower class while polo, cricket and snow skiing are upper class sport activities.

The symbolic nature of sport is evident through out society. Terms with sport origins such as Super Bowl, Superstar, blitz, sack, slam dunk and home run are integrated into most other institutions jargon. Further, run like a girl, throw like a girl or swing like a girl serve as social controls for male behavior in sport. Wearing the team colors is a significant symbolic material sport culture.

Wearing a special t-shirt, sweat shirt, hat and jacket in the exact team colors, logo and name are significant when attending a sports contest. A person can vicariously feel as if they are a part of the team while wearing their symbolic uniform. This behavior shows a persons support for their team. Sport has also been symbolic of war between communities which brings group cohesion. Being a fan of the team representing the community reflects public support for the community as a whole. Non supporters are shunned and ridiculed.

Representative concerns in study which symbolic interaction theorist study and analysis of sport include: a) How is sport experienced by the participant and observer?  b) how is society created through sport?  c) How social reality is created through sport (team chemistry, crowd behavior)?

The Value of Multiple Paradigms

Each paradigm provides an understanding and has short comings in the sociological analysis of sport. The functional approach focuses on the positive elements of sport in relation to the society as a whole but fails to acknowledge the conflict of interests among different segments. The conflict approach is helpful determining the appropriate place for sport in society but ignores the personal satisfaction people gain from their participation in sport. Finally, the symbolic interactionalist approach demonstrates how sport is experienced but lacks an explanation of how and why sport functions for society as a whole.

A Brief College Sport History

Is Sport a Fair Exchange ?

College Athletics can be characterized as a free education for a full time job. Do athletes learn academic skills, gain knowledge and receive career direction for the efforts put into their sport? Many professional athletes played for four seasons in college but are years away from a degree. Some athletes major in eligibility, that is to say they take the minimum of what is needed to compete in their sport but nothing more. Some blame the athlete for not being responsible other blame the system for putting the athlete in a school situation in which they are un prepared to compete so they just get by until they can play no more.

It could be said that the school gains an employee who performs with the schools name on his/her uniform on national television. The school pays very little compared to other employees, no retirement contribution, social security or family health plan. The school further gains in alumni contribution when a mass appeal sport does well. Most institutions fund raising operation is closely associated with the athletic department either unofficially or with shared personnel and planning. The homecoming event is a significant weekend for the fund raising department of a college but just another contest for the athletic teams.

Status and Role Conflict for Student Athletes

The following observations demonstrate the status conflicts experienced by athletes.

For the general college student the following values are promoted:

However for athletes the following values are promoted:

Racism in Sports

Explanations of observed differences in performance of races in sport: Biological explanations of minority dominance in basketball, football and boxing have been the key explanation for the dominance of blacks in these sports.

These theories have the same short comings at explaining racial dominance of a sport as explaining intelligence, poverty or deviance. Since race is socially defined and controlled it is impossible to determine what biological characteristics are common among any one racial group. The physical variance within a racial category is as varied as between racial categories.

Biological explanation aside, what then explains the following statistics?

Racial makeup of Division I Athletes 1992-93

(From NCAA News 1994)

All students















All Other



Basketball Athletic Aid
Black 64.10%
All Other 35%

(Historically boxing has been a social ladder for Irish, German and immigrants through most of the 1900s however currently these groups have had other ladders opened for social mobility.)

- Few minority group members in tennis, golf, ice skating, gymnastics or swimming.

- Track and Field has a large minority participation.

Physiological differences do not explain distribution of minorities in athletics compared to the general population. Social economic factors which influence the athlete selection process, subjective vs. objective measures and social power/value are better explanations of racial dominance in sport. Minority athletes have been socialized to see the financial advantage of possible professional athletic careers via media coverage and encouragement in school. Other prestige career options are not encourage for these students by society. Colleges invest in seeking out the best minority athletes with little competition from other fields. Further, colleges believe in the concept of "black speed." This erroneous biological concept that white athletes are slow while blacks are faster and quicker. When coaches subjectively expect to find specific talents in selected racial categories their judgment is influenced.

Racial Discrimination in Sports -

Methods of Stratification

A. Quotas

A quota system has long been the method of limiting minority athletes participation in American sports. This tactic has been used over the years to limit blacks, Jews and women in sport. Simply stated, it is believed that there is an acceptable proportion of minority group persons on a team. Until 1947 the quota for blacks in Major League Baseball and the NFL was zero. College basketball limited the recruitment of targeted group members and agreed upon a limit of minority players. In the game today, if a team has at least a couple of white players there will be more acceptable to the fans.

B. Stacking or Position Segregation

This method consists of arranging for the same racial category of players to occupy the same playing position. This process marginalizes the influence of that racial category of players within the total team structure. At the same time, this method assures that at any one time there are a limited number of minority players in the contest. Stacking also lessons accusations of racial discrimination by the public and the athletes because a significant number of minority athletes can be members of the team. A second or third team minority player is less likely to complain of racism by the coach if the person playing ahead of them is a minority person.

Stacking in the NFL Percent of African American Players by Position  
(Lapchick & Benedict, 1994 Racial Report Card, 1994 Boston: Center for the Study of Sport in Society)
Position Percent in 1983 Percent in 1994



Running Back



Wide Reciever









Tight End


















Defensive End



Defensive Tackle



Nose Tackle






C. Centrality Theory

This principle holds that centrality of job situation is determined by the following four factors. 1) spatial location on the field 2) the nature of task performed on the team 3) frequency of interaction required with other players When examining where minorities play based on this theory it is observed that minorities in more likely in positions on the parameter of the team formation, performing more specific specialized simple tasks and with limited interactions with others on the team positions. This model was developed for the general work environment but works well to explain uneven distributions of minority athletes (Loy and McElvogue) Curtis and Loy and Leonard offer a refinement of the centrality principle. Concentration of black players in positions tend to 1.) Be at peripheral locations on the playing field 2.) Functions are peripheral to the decision and strategy sport process 3.) Has by design the least contact with (interaction) the other team members.

Football Team Spatial Location Graphic

Baseball Team Spatial Location Graphic

Percent Black in Major League Baseball
1983 1994






First Base



Second Base



Third Base