Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC
Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Seven years after the New England Patriots were caught cheating by video taping other NFL teams’ game signals, football fans are wondering if the team intentionally deflated the footballs in the AFC championship game that qualified them for the Super Bowl they went on to win. The controversy brings into question a long-held idea that sports foster teambuilding, hard work, and integrity.

Sociologist Eric Carter tells the Huffington Post that, although sports teach characteristics valued in American society to youth across the country, as the stakes become higher, players are more likely to exhibit unethical behavior. The desire to win at all costs can stem from arrogance or self-importance, but cheating often has less to do with players’ self-perceptions and more to do with the behaviors of others. For instance, when players think other teams cheat, they are more likely to break rules to “stay competitive.” Additionally, coaches who frequently reward star players and emphasize winning over technique and skill create an environment that may push athletes to bend or break the rules.

“The NFL has a great responsibility to check itself,” Carter said. “It’s one of the most powerful entities in American society.” Because millions look to professional football players, NFL stars become role models for young athletes, he explains. If officials turn a blind eye to cheating in the big leagues, high school and college athletes may internalize a culture of dishonesty that runs contrary to the ideals Americans value and believe are built in sports.

Much of 2014’s sporting news happened off the court or outside the stadium. As described by Dave Zirin in The Nation’s “Why 2014 Will Be Remembered as the Year the Sports World Turned Upside Down,” incidents involving sports figures’ off-the-field conduct created a new era of public accountability and showed social media’s ability to effect change. The article quotes Dr. Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sports sociologist:

I’m not sure that institutionally, this nineteenth-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up. I just don’t think that they’re organized or developed to absorb and handle the situations we’re going to be confronted with.

As, say, fans saw NFL player Ray Rice punching his partner (now wife) in an elevator and heard NBA owner Donald Sterling hurling racist epithets at his girlfriend, the news spread like wildfire online. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice after security footage went viral, despite the fact the NFL leadership, including Goodell, had turned a blind eye to domestic abuse in its ranks many times before. Similarly, Sterling, a billionaire with a long history of racist comments in his 30 years of basketball ownership, was this time disgraced, forced into selling his team as pressure mounted via social media mobilization.

As Edwards told Zirin, “[W]e’re moving into utterly uncharted waters and again, I’m not sure that these nineteenth-century institutions can function within a twenty-first-century cultural and technological context, without utterly changing their structure, management and, in some instances, even their goals.” Sport may look quite different in the coming years—and sports sociologists will have definitely have to keep their eyes on the ball.

Photo by Christopher Pacquette via Flickr CC.
Photo by Christopher Pacquette via Flickr CC.

From OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, America has no shortage of highly anticipated and hotly discussed trials. At the moment, Boston is a hive of judicial, legal, and media activity surrounding the trials of two infamous, if unrelated defendants: Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and New England Patriots tight-end and homicide suspect Aaron Hernandez. An article from ABCNews by Denise Lavoe uses sociology to explain why some trials can gain so much attention and how that affects the ideal of trial by a jury of peers. In each of the Boston cases, jury pools reached well over 1,100 people until a group of potential jurors who hadn’t already reached a conclusion about the case could be found.

Quoted in the article, Northeastern University sociologist Jack Levin explains that each trial attracts interest and media attention in a specific way. People are interested in the Tsarnaev case because of “a widespread feeling that people have that they are vulnerable.” The fear of terrorism drives public interest rather than the fame of the defendant. The Hernandez case is different, as Levin explains, because the trial of a popular sports figure attracts its own kind of attention. Society, he says, places “tremendous value on athletes, and when one of them commits a serious crime like homicide, it shocks the public.” The trial of a disgraced, once-popular player draws public attention partially because the narrative seems to run so counter to prevailing perceptions of sport and athletes, as well as the gloss of fame. Tsarnaev is felt keenly as a physical threat to everyone, while Hernandez represents a more abstract threat to assumptions and values. Both cases will likely remain front-page news well into the future, but different social processes lay beneath their infamy.

All eyes have been on LeBron James. Despite some predictions, he hasn't---yet---disappointed.
All eyes have been on LeBron James. Despite some predictions, he hasn’t—yet—disappointed.

When ESPN began broadcasting LeBron James’ high school games to a national audience some years ago, basketball fans asked, “Is he the next Michael Jordan?” Last week, James capped off the 2012-2013 NBA season with his fourth MVP award, leading the Miami Heat to a second consecutive championship (he really did “take his talents to South Beach”). It only cause more people to wonder if James could equal—or surpass—Jordan’s legacy.

Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University, made a guest appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” to offer his perspective on the similarities and differences between the two basketball greats, both on and off the court.

As Dyson explained, social movements and commercialization combined when Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. The Civil Rights Movement had passed; communication technology which could carry photos, highlights, and live games around the planet was improving; and the NBA’s new commissioner, David Stern, was intent on expanding the league’s global footprint. In Michael Jordan, Stern had found a charismatic ambassador for basketball. Dyson notes, “Jordan comes along at a time when people began to celebrate a tall, dark, handsome, physically lethal specimen who also has the ability to commodify… So when you have the marketplace joining the morality of social advance, that’s something that’s incomparable.”

While “King James” follows in Jordan’s footsteps commercially, Dyson argues that they’re different types of players on the court. Jordan was known for his legendary competitive drive and “killer instinct,” while LeBron, particularly since teaming up with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, has earned a reputation as a facilitator who works to involve his teammates as much as possible, perhaps even to a fault.

Like MJ before him, LeBron James is now the global face of the NBA—some love him, some hate him, and most basketball fans are fascinated by him. The marketing of and commentary about the two men’s talents, bodies, and identities provide a rich source of study for social scientists interested in race, media, sport, and culture over time.

Soccer player Hope Solo covers Sports Illustrated in 2011
Soccer player Hope Solo covers Sports Illustrated in 2011

Title IX has had 40 years to flex its muscles in helping make sport a less gendered venue, and, indeed, more women are participating in and watching sports than ever before.  Oddly enough, the media representation of sports has not followed suit. A new study from sociologists Jonetta Weber and Robert Carini of the University of Louisville reconfirms a long line of research in media representations of athletes by looking at the covers of every issue of Sports Illustrated from the last decade. In an article for the website Jezebel, Madeleine Davies explains the scholars’ troubling results:

Researchers found that of the 716 SI issues published between 2000 and 2011, a mere 35 of them had covers featuring female athletes. That’s only 4.9%.

It’s extra bizarre since 12.6% of the covers from between 1954 and 1965 featured female athletes. And that’s not even the worst part. Only 18 of the recent covers actually had the female athlete as the primary image on the cover—that’s just 2.5%—and only 11 of the 35 issues showed non-white women on the cover. Despite a marked increase in women’s sport participation, one of the best-known sporting news outlets has been gradually phasing out female athletes and their accomplishments.

For more on SI’s troubled history of representing female athletes, check out The Atlantic’s 2011 piece “9 Ways Women Get on the Cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’.”

Photo courtesy Murray State University via

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Pargman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at FSU, poses this question. The answer, he seems to believe is, “Who knows?” Suggesting an improvement to the current “deep dysfunction of college athletics,” Pargman goes on to say that, since it’s plain that “student athletes want to be professional entertainers,” we should let “family members, friends, and high-school coaches acknolwedge and support that goal… to study football, basketball, or baseball.”

But how? Well, “higher education, for better or worse, purports to be a pathway to a vocational future,” Pargman argues, so let’s create a “sports performance major.” The first two years would look much like any other liberal arts education, with the junior and senior years offering specialized training in everything from physiology to heavy resistance training labs, elements of contract law, kinesiology, and an introduction to motor learning. “Such prescribed coursework would be relevant to the athlete’s career objectives,” Pargman writes, and, since the students would also be playing for school teams, their experience would be analogous to that of a musical theater student: “They study their craft and display their acquired skill before campus audiences.”

Of course, a great portion of the student-athletes would still not go on to be professional athletes, but not only is this true for many collegiate programs, the major’s design would allow students a chance to gain knowledge of other associated fields. If nothing else, the author closes, “What I propose would be infinitely more honest than the charade that now prevails” as students dreaming of a pro career so often “completely lack interest in the mandatory and largely arbitrary and convenient choice of major.” Essentially, a sports performance major might let students stop acting.

With states such as Minnesota and Maryland voting on same-sex marriage amendments in this year’s election, a surprising group is taking on the issue (and free speech): NFL players. In one early example, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly supported gay marriage in 2009. He was met with some shock and backlash, but remains outspoken on the issue. So much so that an elected official sat up and took notice this fall, leading to a rather public war of words.

Rep. Burns’s controversial letter to Ravens owner Scott Bisciotti.

Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to “inhibit such expressions from your employee.” In the letter, released by a local television station and republished by Yahoo! Sports, Burns goes on to state that “many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide,” and assert that he had no knowledge of any other players taking similar stances. Burns turned to familiar ideas about sport, saying Ayanbedejo had no place in the same-sex marriage debate because such political issues have no place “in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.”

Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe did not take kindly to Burns’s request for censorship. He went on to write an open, colorful, scathing, and, many would argue, entertaining response (in clean—but hilarious—and uncensored versions) to the Maryland delegate. In his letter, originally published by Gawker Media’s sport site Deadspin, Kluwe condemns Burns’s attempts to quiet Ayanbedejo, saying that not only do politics hold an important place in sport (as evidenced by athletes’ successful work to end segregation in their sports), free speech is a protected right, and, even further, stating simply “that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life.” He closed by refuting the politician’s note that players haven’t been talking about gay marriage: “I’ve been vocal as hell about [it.]”

Other players took to the papers and airwaves to respond to Burns, too. Ayanbedejo’s teammate (who has played with Kluwe in the past), Ravens Center Matt Birk wrote for the Star Tribune, defending his teammate’s right to free speech. Instead of backing Ayanbedejo’s beliefs, however, Birk articulately and respectfully voiced his opposition, stating that marriage should remain between a man and a woman because same-sex marriage would negatively affect the welfare of children. This time, Kluwe, too, responded in the Star Tribune, armed with facts rather than expletives. He delineated the problems he saw in Birk’s argument one by one, providing many well-honed arguments and citing various social facts, statistics, and a meta-study showing no difference between children of heterosexual and GLBT families as borne out by 17 social scientific studies.

In the end, all of these players demonstrated the power of free speech, showing they had every right to be on the field of public discourse. Why should they be forced to the sidelines when they can bring their opinions and even well researched arguments to an often heated and controversial public debate—simply because they play a game for a living? It’s certainly not news that politicians (from Emmett C. Burns, Jr. to Barack Obama and everyone in between) have used sport to their advantage for many years.

To follow the unfolding debates, you can find Brendon Ayanbadejo (@brendon310) and Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarCraft) on Twitter, Maryland State Representative Emmett C. Burns, Jr. at his official state website, and information about Matt Birk (including headlines) at his official NFL player page

Photo by pj_vanf via

The Twitterverse and blogosphere exploded after NFL replacement referees blew a call on Monday Night Football, costing the Green Bay Packers a victory. Even President Obama piped up on Tuesday, encouraging a swift end to the labor dispute between the NFL and its regular referees. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times agrees that we should all be paying attention to the unfolding drama, but argues that we might be missing the point:

Most news coverage of this labor dispute focuses on the ineptitude of the fill-in referees; this week there will be a lot of hand-wringing over the flagrantly bad call that turned a Green Bay interception into a game-winning Seattle touchdown, as if by alchemy. Occasionally you’ll read that the disagreement has something to do with retirement pay. But it’s really about much more.

It’s about employers’ assault on the very concept of retirement security. It’s about employers’ willingness to resort to strong-arm tactics with workers, because they believe that in today’s environment unions can be pushed around (they’re not wrong). You ignore this labor dispute at your peril, because the same treatment is waiting for you.

One issue at the heart of the conflict is the NFL’s goal to end the referees’ pension plan and move to a 401(k)-style plan, which Hiltzik notes is not unique among U.S. employers.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has argued that defined-benefit plans are a thing of the past — even he doesn’t have one, he told an interviewer recently, as though financially he’s in the same boat as any other league employee.

This is as pure an expression as you’ll find of the race to the bottom in corporate treatment of employees. Industry’s shift from defined-benefit retirement plans to 401(k) plans has helped to destroy retirement security for millions of Americans by shifting pension risk from employer to employee, exposing the latter to financial market meltdowns like those that occurred in 2000 and 2008.

It’s true that employers coast-to-coast have tried to put a bullet in the heart of the defined-benefit plan. The union representing 45,000 Verizon workers gave up on such coverage for new employees to settle a 15-month contract dispute.

But why anyone should sympathize with the desire of the NFL, one of the most successful business enterprises in history, to do so, much less admire its efforts, isn’t so clear. If you have one of these disappearing retirement plans today, don’t be surprised to hear your employer lament, “even the NFL can’t afford them” tomorrow.

Another common trend is an increase in the use of lockouts as a means of resolving labor disputes.

Lockouts have become more widespread generally: A recent survey by Bloomberg BNA found that as a percentage of U.S. work stoppages, lockouts had increased to 8.07% last year, the highest ratio on record, from less than 3% in 1991. In other words, work stoppages of all kinds have declined by 75% in that period — but more of them are initiated by employers.

The reasons are obvious. “Lockouts put pressure on the employees because nobody can collect a paycheck,” said William B. Gould IV, a former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and a professor emeritus at Stanford Law School. “In a lot of major disputes, particularly in sports, it’s the weapon du jour.” Think about that the next time someone tells you that unions have too much power.

While the spotlight is sure to remain on the ire of fans and players alike toward the botched calls by replacement refs, America’s Game may be showing us more about business as usual in the United States than we would like to see.

It’s been said that football simply replicates the rough and tumble of the real world, and in this case, sadly, the observation is too true.

May-Treanor vs Akers AVP Long Beach 2010
Photo by mario_d via

As the Summer Olympics draw near, all sorts of messages about women are surfacing.

Some messages pertain to female participation.  In March, we cited an article that noted this year might be the first time each country sends female athletes to participate in the Summer Olympics.  However, a recent New York Times article explained that Saudi Arabian women may not be allowed to participate after all.

Other messages are about what women will wear or how they will behave rather than if or how they will perform.  For example, officials of the International Amateur Boxing Association suggested that women try wearing skirts in competition.

The man in charge of the association—they are always men—said he had received complaints that spectators could not tell women from men beneath the protective headgear. Instead of referring these spectators to optometrists, he referred the boxers to the Ring Magazine spring collection.

Skirts will be optional, not mandatory, as women’s boxing makes its debut in London, though.

“It’s an interesting time for women,” said Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario. “The more they become involved in sport, the more it seems people feel the need to market female sexuality. It’s a tough bind for women—they have to look good and be attractive to the public, presumably a heterosexual male public, and be good athletes. That same standard doesn’t necessarily apply to men.”

Women’s athletic gear is being reconsidered on other fronts as well.  The International Volleyball Federation will permit more conservative outfits for beach volleyball, including shorts and sleeved tops, due to cultural and religious sensitivities.  FIFA (soccer’s governing body) is also reconsidering its ban on the hijab.

However, it remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will also reconsider the messages it’s sending by continuing to disallow women participants, something some defend by claiming that sports lead to immoral behavior and that virgin girls are too affected by jumping required by sports.

“That women in vigorous activities will upset their wombs, reproductive activity and menstrual cycle—it’s amazing they can put forth these arguments and be accepted with the science we have,” said Forsyth, the Olympic scholar. “My students laughed at that. They were shocked. That’s something we saw a hundred years ago.”

High School Rugby photo by Phillip Capper via
High school rugby photo by Phillip Capper via

Based on a year of field-work with 16- to 18- year olds, Mark McCormack, a sociologist at Brunel University (UK), argues that homophobic attitudes are on the decline in British secondary schools. As The Economist explains, McCormack’s new book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia, “describes an atmosphere of affection between male students both gay and straight, who no longer feel they need to act like sport-mad brutes to be accepted by their peers.”

Admittedly, some pupils still use the word “gay” to express disapproval -but they apply it to things like homework, and it is rarely a dig even when directed at people. Among these boys homophobia bore the same stigma as racism.

McCormack points to the media and the Internet as sources of the shift in attitudes:

First, there are many more openly gay performers, politicians and TV characters, which helps to normalise homosexuality. Second, the internet lets lonely provincial teenagers reach beyond their town limits. Social-networking websites encourage frankness about sexual orientation, and YouTube is a fount of videos featuring transgender confessionals and boys coming out to their mothers.

McCormack does not claim that harassment or bullying based on homophobia is no longer an issue, but that the situation has improved. And, he argues, “it is wrong and counter-productive to harp on about the dangers gay teenagers face, if it prevents many from coming out of the closet.”

In related research, our own Kyle Green reported late last year in Contexts‘ Discoveries section on research from Eric Anderson, who tracked high school athletes’ attitudes toward openly gay teammates over time, finding a dramatic drop in homophobia even in contact sports in just 10 years. It appears this trend is bearing out “across the pond.”