People wearing ranbow colored masks hold signs reading, "let kids play" and "the public says no to HB 1041"
People gather to protest Indiana HB 1041, a bill to ban transgender women and girls from participating in school sports (AP Photo/Michael Conroy).

For the first time since tennis player Renee Richards in the 1970s, transgender (trans) women athletes, including Lia Thomas and Laurel Hubbard, received major media coverage in 2021. However, these athletes weren’t spotlighted because of their athletic abilities per se, but because they became political targets caught in the crosshairs of arguments about fairness and competitive advantage in sport.

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A man on a skateboard performs a trick on a cement wall. A cellular phone on a tripod is pictured in the foregroud.
While professional skateboarders may seem to have a “cool” job, their employment is often precarious. Skaters rely heavily on social media to build a personal “brand” and secure the sponsorship of companies in the skateboard industry (skateboarder Andras Alexander pictured; photo by Dane Haman).

Tracing its origins back to 1960s California, skateboarding represents both a popular “lifestyle sport,” and an irreverent subculture that exists in a space between mainstream notoriety and obscurity. Highlighting its progression into the “mainstream,” the International Olympic Committee included skateboarding events for the first time in the delayed 2020 Summer Games. Today, people of all class backgrounds, age ranges, genders, and racial identities enjoy rolling around and performing tricks, such as kickflips, 5-0 grinds, and melon grabs, on nearly any architectural feature that is accessible, including sidewalks, streets, stairs, concrete ledges, rooftops, warehouses, and parking lots.

Further demonstrating the growth of skateboarding, a $2 billion industry supports the lifestyle sport, producing apparel, equipment, and media. Skateboard companies from Alien Workshop to Zero Skateboards sponsor talented riders at the professional and amateur level. Acting as ambassadors for their brands, these riders comprise a promotional “team.” They wear clothing emblazoned with logos, appear in advertisements, try to gain exposure, and compile clips for skate videos. In many cases, skateboard companies release videos of their riders performing impressive tricks as a form of advertising. Existing alongside these actors is an ecosystem of legacy and digital media that likewise promotes companies and their riders, such as the physical Thrasher Magazine, and the Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts of The Berrics, which have millions of followers. Foregrounding the money and business behind skateboarding is important, because it allows us to see pro skaters as workers who perform athletic labor; as I explain below, part of their job is to promote and brand themselves on social-media platforms. Upon further investigation, we find that these alternative athletes face precarious employment, as well as an industry that discourages discussion about their working conditions.

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A person wearing blue jeans hits a hockey puck with a hockey stick while skating on a backyard ice rink.
Backyard ice rinks have been celebrated as a “Canadian way” to enjoy winter while many community rinks were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pete Thompson licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

“What do you do in the middle of a pandemic, when winter weather has arrived and almost every form of recreation is banned? Build an outdoor ice rink.” This was the question CBC Manitoba asked its readers—and answered for them—in December 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave. A month later, firefighters in rural Ontario were filling backyard rinks for residents, and CTV highlighted pandemic induced backyard rinks from Ottawa to the Maritime provinces.

Outdoor ice rinks play a significant social and cultural role in the construction of a collective Canadian identity; from the romantic images of children scrimmaging on frozen ponds in commercials for Tim Hortons coffee shops, to the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic games, outdoor hockey is painted with nostalgia and innocence, as the game in its purest form. So, when backyard rinks had a renaissance during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not surprising the Canadian media viewed such a development as worthy of celebration. Yet, as we face another winter marked by the pandemic, it is important to consider that, despite these media images, many Canadians have not been able to stick-handle “around the pandemic on [their] backyard rink.”

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In the stands of a soccer stadium, fans of the rival clubs Rangers and Celtic can be seen displaying their respective team colors, white and green for Celtic, red, white, and blue for Rangers.
The rivalry between Scottish soccer clubs Rangers and Celtic is infused with political meanings related to religion, ethnicity, and nationalism (photo via International Business Times).

Elite soccer in Scotland operates within a relatively small financial domain compared to wealthier soccer countries like Italy, England, Spain, and Germany. Nevertheless, soccer remains the country’s dominant team sport, with attendances in Scotland’s top league the highest in Europe when population size is considered. Soccer in Scotland is largely dominated by two famous institutions: Rangers, a club and fanbase with a definitive anti-Catholic history and tradition, and Celtic, a club founded by Irish Catholic immigrants. Approximately 70% of fans in Scottish soccer devote allegiance to either of these two clubs. The histories of Rangers and Celtic, and the rivalry between them, also means they have millions of supporters around the globe, especially, though not solely, where Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant immigrants have settled during the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.

From a sociological standpoint, it’s important to understand how communal memory contributes to this great and storied rivalry. For many supporters of Rangers and Celtic, such memory is infused with politics, religion, history, ethno-religious discrimination, colonialism, and anti-colonialism.

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A collage of six group images featuring Black women in running gear before or after going for runs.
Black Girls RUN! has more than 70 local community chapters across the United States (photo via Black Girls RUN!)

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated fundamental changes in people’s everyday lives. For example, social distancing measures drove changes to individuals’ fitness routines, leading to the popularization of home workout equipment such as the Peloton spin bike and treadmill. Part of Peloton’s growing ubiquity  is likely due to the social aspect of its platform and the sense of community many users feel through the use of hashtags and Facebook groups based on shared interests and identities. As a sociologist, I am interested in how fitness not only improves health, but also provides spaces for belonging. For example, a study published in 2016 about women who participate in Zumba reported that it had a range of benefits, including serving as a means of socialization and camaraderie. Social circles focused on physical activity can nurture fitness engagement and help people stay motivated to achieve their health goals.

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A group of Qatari soccer officials, one holding the World Cup trophy, stand next to FIFA President Sepp Blatter after being named the host nation for the 2022 World Cup.
In December 2010, FIFA awarded Qatar the rights to host the 2022 men’s World Cup (photo by Getty)

From the day Qatar was awarded an opportunity to host the FIFA men’s World Cup in 2022, Islamophobic coverage of the Qatari state has proliferated in Western media. The Western media discourse has been heavily focused on highlighting human rights issues, immigration laws, climate, and bribery accusations while obscuring possible successes of the first Muslim country to hold the FIFA World Cup. For example, an article on Bleacher Report with the title “6 reasons why the World Cup should be taken away from Qatar,“ led with concerns about scorching heat in the small Gulf State, followed by criticisms of how the event would cause a “disruption to European leagues.” At the same time, other sport media analysts have questioned why an Arab country (approximate population of 2.8 million) with little soccer history succeeded in becoming the host nation. Such reporting serves to cast doubts on the acceptability of holding a mega-sporting event in a Muslim country.

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Lebron James, wearing a Miami Heat uniform, dribbles a basketball past a defender
In a 2010 ESPN television special known as “The Decision,” LeBron James announced that he would be signing with the Miami Heat. (photo by Mark Runyon, licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the high-stakes world of NBA free agency, players coming and going is never simply transactional. Free agency is a source of hope and intrigue for fans and a rite of passage for players who are theoretically liberated to select the team that empowers them to fulfill their goals. It is also a major media spectacle, with each player coming, going, and staying the subject of analysis and scrutiny by journalists and media commentators. With free agency underway again, we ought to reflect upon the legacy of sports media rhetoric surrounding the most impactful free agency in NBA history: that of LeBron James and “The Decision.”

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A drawing of the Olympic rings with the word "CANCEL" written above it. A magnifying glass is positioned in front of the rings.
Numerous groups have called for cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games (image by Henry Wong, South China Morning Post)

Does holding a sporting mega-event like the Tokyo Olympic Games amidst a pandemic and the continuing environmental crisis of global warming exemplify the “death drive” of 21st century capitalism? By “death drive,” I am referring to recent work by the Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who argues that the capitalist system’s “compulsion of accumulation and growth” is driving global society towards environmental and human catastrophe. Han extends from the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the “cruel aggressiveness” of humans could be attributed to our propensity for self-destruction and our “drive to return to the inanimate condition” of death. Han uses Freud’s notion of the death drive to explain the destructive tendencies of capitalism. It is the human’s “unconscious fear of death,” he writes, that feeds the capitalist order: people pursue and accumulate capital as a way of escaping the grips of death, believing that more growth, more power, and more capital “means less death.” The result is a “frenzy of production and growth” as capitalism prioritizes unrestrained entrepreneurialism and the accumulation of capital over the global ecosystem and the well-being of life on Earth.

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A factory with multiple chimneys emitting clouds of smoke into the air
Companies in the oil, gas, and mining industry often use sport as a part of their efforts to create a positive corporate image (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1970, American economist Milton Friedman wrote that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” If Friedman were alive today, he would scarcely recognize the contemporary corporate social responsibility (CSR) landscape. Indeed, in the 21st century, CSR initiatives—that is, the integration of social and environmental concerns within business operations—have become so commonplace that their absence from a corporate portfolio would seem strange. An often-cited example of contemporary CSR practices is that of TOMS shoes: For every pair of shoes purchased, TOMS would donate a pair to a humanitarian organization in the global South. The calculus here is not difficult to figure: At a small investment cost, CSR allows a corporation to showcase a desire to be a “good neighbour,” affords it a social license to operate, and enables it to reap the benefits of favourable media coverage.

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Naomi Osaka, wearing a white visor and colorful shirt, stands reads to hit a tennis ball
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open after she was fined $15,000 for not appearing at a press conference following her first round match (photo by Carine06 CC BY-SA 2.0)

Professional Black athletes navigate a fine line between being autonomous, independent, wealthy elites and undervalued, replaceable workers in a larger sports industry governed by logics of racial capitalism. The late Cedrick Robinson’s Racial Capitalism theory sees the systems of capitalism and racism as interconnected and inextricably linked. Robinson, a political scientist, argued that economic and social values are ascribed to individuals differently according to race. With this in mind, Black celebrity athletes occupy a seemingly powerful, yet precarious status. Journalist William Rhoden used the term “40 Million Dollar Slaves to highlight the ways in which Black athletes’ accumulation of wealth does not fully alleviate their oppressed status in an anti-Black American society.

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