Sports History

Beyond the Field: Sports’ Impact on Society and Culture

Sports have always played a vital role in society. The ubiquity of sport and its carnivalesque fandom, commercial deployment, and state regulation, along with its often sexy, sexualized culture, have all made it one of the most significant arenas in which human life is lived. Moreover, it has become an influential form of popular culture, rivaling rock music as the dominant expression of youth culture. The heightened profile of contests pushing physical limits has brought with it, to an extent, a new level of public fervor for personal health and fitness. This has, for example, fueled a demand for community sports facilities and elite institutes of sport. At the same time, governments have embraced sports as sound investments in peoples’ future health and longevity.

This has, in turn, fueled a growing articulation of sporting values with neoliberal ideology. While professional athletes may be the alluring face of sports, they are far from the whole picture. Behind them lies a powerful sports industry, comprising equipment and clothing manufacturers, advertising agencies, media companies, peak sporting organizations, management firms, administrative and training bodies, and privately and publicly funded research scientists. As such, sports has become a highly contested terrain of social relations and power, where a range of recurrent and intensively reported problems have emerged, including financial impropriety (such as match fixing in association football and cricket, secret inducements to International Olympic Committee members to award host cities for the Summer and Winter Olympics), drug use in the pursuit of performance enhancing goals, and the privileging of ends over means.

Furthermore, the multifaceted, mediated nature of sports is a fertile terrain for a wide range of discursive reinterpretations that bridge the sports and wider cultural worlds. Personal indiscretions by sports stars, ranging from the criminal (like rape) to the individual ethical (like infidelity), have helped to erode the hermetic barrier that once separated sports and celebrity culture. This richly diverse and complex terrain has attracted the interest of many sociologists who have sought to understand how sports intersects with a broad range of broader social issues and phenomena.

While there has been a long history of resistance by the mainstream social sciences to engaging with sports as a sociocultural phenomenon, recent and anticipated trends in scholarly engagement are encouraging for a revitalized sociology of sport and culture. This will require a greater sensitivity to the complex, socially mediated ways that sports interact with and exert influence on the wider societies of which it is a part. The articles in this volume are intended to contribute to this effort by focusing attention on the dynamic, culturally and socially mediated nature of sports. The authors are grateful to the reviewers for their constructive feedback and to the editors of Perspectives on Politics for their guidance and support throughout the process of editing this volume. The author also wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Lee Ann Fujii and a number of anonymous reviewers to this volume.

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