While concerns about brain injuries in sport are not new, the current “concussion crisis” is unique in that it is a broader cultural crisis. (photo via Popular Science)

There is a concussion crisis in sport. In some ways, concern about brain injuries in sport is nothing new. Over a century ago, medical journals started campaigning against the dangers of sport, and there were specific attempts to ban U.S. college football in the early 1900s and abolish tackle football in the 1950s. But the current crisis is different in four key respects:

  1. It is a multisport injury crisis, spanning combat sports, various forms of football, hockey, and lacrosse to name but a few.
  2. The crisis is global in nature, with debates in North America paralleled in most other English-speaking nations and, increasingly, mainland Europe.
  3. The crisis extends beyond one type of injury—concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI)—and is now inseparable from concerns about second impact syndrome and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It even includes concerns about the influence of barely perceivable “sub-concussive” impacts.
  4. The crisis is distinct in terms of its penetration into the popular cultural imagination, notably through the book and documentary League of Denial and popular movie Concussion.

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lists indicating that the current landscape of sports podcasting is dominated by content focused on a narrow set of professional sports, produced and hosted almost exclusively by men, with little perspective through a critical lens.
The current landscape of sports podcasting is largely dominated by content focused on a narrow set of professional sports, produced and hosted almost exclusively by men. However, there has also been growth in sports podcasts that provide a more critical perspective. (photo via Resonate Recordings)

The field of podcasting has experienced rapid growth. Since its coinage in 2004, hundreds of millions have listened to podcasts—digital audio files available on the Internet, which are usually part of a themed series. As of 2019, over 64% of Americans were familiar with podcasts, a dramatic increase from 22% in 2006. In 2018, Google had indexed at least two million podcasts created around the world. According to Edison Research, over 700,000 active podcasts and more than 29 million podcast episodes were available on the Internet in 2019, rising from an estimated 550,000 active podcasts and 18.5 million episodes in 2018. In the United States alone, 51% of the population aged 12 and above have listened to podcasts. Internationally, a 2019 Reuters digital survey reported that 36% of international respondents recently listened to podcasts.

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An offseason trade has united sisters Nneka (left) and Chiney Ogwumike as teammates for the Los Angeles Sparks
A trade prior to the 2019 WNBA season has reunited sisters Nneka (left) and Chiney Ogwumike as teammates for the Los Angeles Sparks. (photo via Irfan Kahn / Los Angeles Times)

With the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) season underway, one storyline that made waves this offseason was the controversial trade of Chiney Ogwumike to the Los Angeles Sparks. The trade re-united Chiney with her sister, Nneka, in one of the biggest media markets in the United States. Through their success in sport, the sisters have built their social profiles in different ways, with Nneka finding more success on the court (WNBA MVP and champion in 2016) and Chiney in media working for ESPN.

As successful athletes and burgeoning media personalities, the Ogwumikes present themselves as figures of sociological interest, primarily because they exist at the intersection of an increasingly diverse Black America as second generation Nigerian immigrants.

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Members of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team at the 2019 World Cup.
Members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team at the 2019 World Cup. The costs associated with youth sports in the U.S. create barriers for many young athletes who hope to reach the elite level. (Photo from U.S. Soccer)

The success of the United States (U.S.) Women’s National Team (WNT) has encouraged millions of young female soccer players. With television viewership records being shattered at the 2019 World Cup, these elite athletes may inspire today’s young players to pursue the next level of their game, with the hopes of earning a college scholarship, signing a professional contract, or maybe donning that coveted red, white and blue jersey. However, the opportunity to achieve those dreams remains beyond reach for many girls due to the expenses associated with youth sport.

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Fan with a sign that reads, "we hated Kaepernick before it was cool (fot football reasons, not because we're racists)"
Many fans who object to protests by NFL players during the US National Anthem insist their opposition has nothing to do with race (photo from Idaho Statesman)

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick continued a tradition in US sports by staging a protest against racial injustice during the playing of the US national anthem. Following his initial protest, Kaepernick said:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick’s comments were in reference to a series of deaths of unarmed Black American men, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Reactions to Kaepernick’s protest were split. Within the NFL and beyond, many Black athletes, performers, fans, and even some coaches and officials joined in the protest against state violence in Black communities. At the same time, many others vociferously objected while claiming to not be racist. The image above illustrates the color-blind racism of the objectors; an anti-black statement of on-going hatred (“We hated Kaepernick before…”) is modified by a racially neutral phrase (“For football reasons”). The denial of racism when protesting an anti-racist protest obscures the ongoing operation of racism as a multifaceted construct that disproportionality targets Black Americans. Moreover, it prevents understanding of the US’s failure to provide equal protections for all citizens when state violence and poverty disproportionately affects Black communities.

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Calgary Inferno’s Zoe Hickel (L) and Tori Hickel celebrate winning the 2019 Canadian Women’s Hockey League Clarkson Cup after beating Les Canadiennes de Montreal.
Calgary Inferno’s Zoe Hickel (left) and Tori Hickel celebrate winning the 2019 Canadian Women’s Hockey League Clarkson Cup after beating Les Canadiennes de Montreal. The league discontinued operations on May 1, 2019. (photo by Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Women’s professional team sports seem to be flourishing, especially basketball in China and the United States (WNBA), and various soccer leagues in Europe. The news is not so good for women’s ice hockey in North America.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) discontinued operations on May 1, 2019. In the U.S., the recently established National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is in a vulnerable position. Many of the players are hoping to develop a more stable women’s league by partnering with the National Hockey League (NHL), following the model established by the WNBA and the women’s soccer leagues in Europe.

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Les Canadiennes de Montreal vs. Toronto Furies. (Photo by Courtney Szto)

On March 31, 2019 the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced it would officially cease operations on May 1, 2019. Here’s what you need to know.

The CWHL began in 2007 and, up until 2015, was the only professional women’s hockey league for players who wanted to compete in North America. In 2015, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) began operating as a rival league in the United States (more on that later). The CWHL did not pay its players because it was not financially able to do so; therefore, the vast majority of its players played for the love of the game. Most CWHL players worked full-time jobs or were graduate students (or both) and gave up their weeknights to practice and their weekends for games and travel. The 2017-18 season saw the CWHL expand to China with the addition of two teams, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays. Chinese investment enabled the league to pay players modest stipends for the first time ranging between $2,000-$10,000 CAD. When the league announced its closure it was a six-team league with clubs in Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Markham (Ontario), Boston, and Shenzhen (China – the Vanke Rays and Kunlun Red Stars merged to form the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays after the 2017-18 season). Click here to read the full article...

Arthur Ashe reaches for a backhand
Arthur Ashe took an active role in the U.S. Civil Rights movement and in efforts to end South African apartheid. (image via CMG Worldwide)

In recent decades, sport has become recognized increasingly as an important site through which to examine broader society, including its history, culture and politics. Since the 1960s, sociologists and historians have been researching sport and leisure practices in a serious, scholarly way, with their attention initially drawn to the global, mass-spectator team sports of soccer, baseball, cricket, rugby, (American) football and basketball. The sports of golf, track-and-field, ice hockey and horse-racing also received scholarly attention, but the omission of tennis from early academic scrutiny was one “research gap” that caught the attention of social scientists. In 1983, historian William J. Baker, in a summary paper on the state of British sport history, described the scholarly marginalization of tennis as “one of the most baffling gaps in the entire literature.” The same was certainly true in North American sport history, yet only modest advances were made in the initial years following Baker’s astute observation.

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The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team celebrates victory in the 2015 FIFA World Cup.
The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team celebrates victory in the 2015 FIFA World Cup (photo via US Soccer).

On March 8, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, claiming gender discrimination. This was only the most recent step in the team’s two-year old fight for more equitable resources, a fight that has inspired women athletes to push for change in other sports as well.

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NBA Player Delonte West
Former NBA player Delonte West’s mental health was a prominent topic in media coverage of his career (photo via Slam).

Professional athletes in the United States and Canada are increasingly discussing their personal struggles with mental health on commercial media outlets. Notably, National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Love has received praise for his “courageous fight” to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in sports. In a March 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune, Love detailed his bouts with panic attacks during the NBA season, writing, “Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.” As a successful athlete, Love has accrued lucrative endorsement deals with Banana Republic and the Built with Chocolate Milk campaign. Following the public stories of other NBA players like Channing Frye and DeMar DeRozan, national media outlets framed Love’s essay as a “courageous decision to speak candidly on mental health.”

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