FOOTNOTES April 2001
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Can the Sociology of Sport Go for the Gold?

by Carla B. Howery, Deputy Executive Officer

In the season of March Madness, the Masters, and “opening day,” sociologists of sport have little need to find interesting research and teaching topics. The North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) reflects the lively inquiry into the micro and macro world of sport.

The Association celebrated its 20th annual meeting in 2000 and has a lively meeting planned for October 31-November 3, 2001 in San Antonio, TX. The group formed as a result of a conference of the Big 10 Symposium on the Sociology of Sport, held in 1978 at the University of Minnesota. About 20 sociologists of sport—such as Eldon Snyder, Susan Greendorfer, Lee Vander Velden, and Andrew Yiannakis— assembled at the conference and talked of ways to continue this work. They planned a newsletter and another conference, which was held in 1980, and NASSS was born.

The Association’s journal began in 1982, the Sociology of Sport. It serves as the primary outlet for scholarship in this specialty, a complementary publication to the Journal of Sport and Social Issues (published out of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport and Society). “Our intellectual agenda mirrors some of the trends in sociology more broadly,” says current NASSS President Michael A. Malec, Boston College. “Areas of race, class, and gender are common topics of concern. Sport in the post-WWII era is a powerful social phenomenon – our time and money go into sport; sport has implications for formal education, media, socialization of children; our cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity are shaped by sporting experiences, for better or worse.” In recent years, he notes more attention to critical studies, postmoderism, sociology of the body and sociology of emotions, and possibly less emphasis on race and class work. “For whatever reason, the heart of our scholarship centers on the collegiate level of sports,” notes Malec, “even though these topics could apply to K-12 or professional athletics as well.

The Association currently has 350 members and 250 participants attend the annual meeting. “We have been fortunate to have many people from fields of physical education, kinesiology, leisure studies, American and Canadian studies, and cultural studies participate,” says Malec. Malec does not yet see a tremendous amount of growth within the field of sociology or for NASSS. “Usually there is only one person in a department with an interest in sociology of sport, and it might not be the primary research interest,” he adds. In the ASA Guide to Graduate Departments, only three U.S. and two Canadian departments offer a specialty in “leisure, sport, or recreation.“ Malec encourages students with an interest in sociology of sport to become a good general sociologist with sport as an area of application and a teaching interest. Malec came to the field like many faculty do, through an interest in teaching a course. He was very taken with Harry Edwards’ text Sociology of Sport which first carved out this new specialty in the 1970s. “Sociology of sport is a wonderful hook to attract undergraduate students to sociology,” he notes. If it is offered as a freestanding elective, students will come from all corners of the campus. “Sociology of Sport is the course where I get the most ‘ah-ha’ experiences with students who now see the world, or at least the world of sport, through the lens of the sociological imagination.”

Of course sociology of sport has some predictable image problems that the NASSS hopes to remedy. It is not a well-funded specialty. At the moment, most scholars receive support from such places as the Amateur Athletic Federation, a spin off of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Women’s Foundation in New York City has funded some research. “On the one hand, there are some excellent recent books on sport, such as Shulman and Bowen’s The Game of Life, “ says Malec, “but, because the authors are not sociologists, the acclaim does not feed back into our discipline.”

NASSS seeks to strengthen its place within sociology and in the larger society. The Association has a list of experts on its website as part of its commitment to reach out to the media and offer a new slant on sporting events. Recently, NASSS members have been tapped to comment on NASCAR races and the strong identification fans have with them. Sociologists of sport have a strong identification with NASSS, enjoy the camaraderie and exchange of ideas, and consider themselves an important part of the sociology team.

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