Skip to main content
K12 LibreTexts

15.1: Sport as a Social Institution

  • Page ID
    3427
  • Objectives

    • Explain the factors that have contributed to sport being a social institution.
    • Describe the norms and the realities of sport emerging as a social institution.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Sports can be found in almost all societies..
    • Sports involve games where there is always a winner and a loser.
    • Competition is at the core of most sports.
    • Physical games have been part of cultures for thousands of years.
    • Not all games that involve competition are considered sport.

    Guiding Questions

    • What constitutes a sport?
    • What characteristics do human culture and sport have in common?
    • What characteristics define sport as a social institution?
    • Should children's games be considered a sport?

    Sport as a Social Institution

    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.

    According to sociologist Allen Guttmann, sport as a social institution is characterized by the same characteristics that distinguish modern industrial society. These characteristics include secularization, equality, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratization, and quantification.

    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:

    • Is fishing a sport?
    • Is bull fighting a sport?
    • Is college football a 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 exists 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 recognition.

    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.

    Women in Sport

    Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a short and simple federal law:

    "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

    The Impact of Title IX

    One of the great achievements of the women’s movement was the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The law states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Most people think Title IX only applies to sports, but athletics is only one of ten key areas addressed by the law. These areas include: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology.

    Western High School Girls' Basketball, Washington, DC, 1899. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Western High School Girls’ Basketball, Washington, DC, 1899. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

    It’s hard to imagine that just forty years ago, young women were not admitted into many colleges and universities, athletic scholarships were rare, and math and science was a realm reserved for boys. Girls square danced instead of playing sports, studied home economics instead of training for “male-oriented” (read: higher-paying) trades. Girls could become teachers and nurses, but not doctors or principals; women rarely were awarded tenure and even more rarely appointed college presidents. There was no such thing as sexual harassment because “boys will be boys,” after all, and if a student got pregnant, her formal education ended. Graduate professional schools openly discriminated against women.

    In every area of athletics, girls and women faced discrimination, racism, homophobia, prejudice, and ridicule. Women were warned that physical activity was not only unfeminine but proof of lesbianism. Female athletes were depicted as physically unattractive and women were told that competitive sports would hurt reproductive organs as well as a woman’s chances of marriage. Women were seen as more “selfish” and not as team-oriented as men. Marginalized and trivialized, girls’ teams had to raise their own money through bake sales or carwashes, wear their school gym suit or make their own uniforms. School cheerleaders received more attention than female athletes. Girls played in empty gymnasiums. Parents who would come to see their sons wouldn’t watch their athlete daughters.

    However, as part of the backlash against the women’s movement, opposition quickly organized against Title IX. Worried about how it would affect men’s athletics, legislators and collegiate sports officials became concerned and looked for ways to limit its influence. One argument was that revenue-producing sports such as college football should be exempted from Title IX compliance. Another was that in order for schools and colleges to comply, they would have to cut men’s sports such as wrestling. Others argued that federal legislation was not the way to achieve equality or even parity. Finally, conservative opponents of women’s rights believed that feminists used Title IX as an all-purpose vehicle to advance their agenda in the schools. Since 1975, there have been twenty court challenges to Title IX in an attempt to whittle down greater gender equity in all fields of education—mirroring the ups and downs of the women’s movement at large. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, female students received 1.3 million fewer opportunities to participate in high school athletics than their male peers in the 2006–2007 school years. Yet as a result of Title IX, women have benefited from involvement in amateur and professional sports and, in turn, sports are more exciting with their participation.

    An award-winning, student-created documentary about the historic 1966 NCAA Championship game between Kentucky and Texas Western. This is the game that Pat Riley has called "the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966" because of it's social impact on the desegregation of college basketball.

    • Was this article helpful?