In the foreground, a woman with a pink shirt runs while carrying a medicine ball. In the background, other women and men also run with medicine balls.
CrossFit workouts incorporate a variety of high-intensity exercises, such a running with medicine balls (photo by CrossFit Fever licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Most brands, especially those that generate more than $100 million in annual revenue, don’t begin with a story about vomit. Yet, according to CrossFit, Inc. founder and former CEO Greg Glassman, the “eureka moment” of his now astronomically popular fitness program began just like that—with a teenage Glassman, having subjected himself to a grueling combination of barbell push presses and pull-ups, barfing on his garage floor. At the center of CrossFit’s origin story and its subsequent success is the human body at its most beautiful, its most playful, and its most grotesque. Indeed, in a previous article in Engaging Sports, Matt Crockett and Ted Butryn compellingly argue how CrossFit expresses a collective anxiety surrounding how our bodies atrophy in increasingly sedentary workplaces.

Other studies have examined the cultural and discursive dimensions of CrossFit in a similar vein—how Glassman’s business model, exercise regime, and community speak to the particular character of our times. Especially suggestive analyses describe CrossFit’s focus on individualism, competition, and self-sufficiency. These studies characterize the sport and its community as exemplary of what political theorist Wendy Brown refers to as the biopolitical imperative of “responsibilization,” whereby individuals are impelled to maintain and advance their own human capital via activities involving hygiene, self-care, and education. We are all entrepreneurial beings, hoping to maximize our human capital vis-à-vis market imperatives.

Yet, still understudied is one of CrossFit’s most palpable elements—its willingness to laugh at itself: the laughable team names, the multicolored socks, and the endless complaints about workouts. Given that humor, whimsy, and ironic self-awareness are central elements to our historical moment (a period evocatively labeled by some as “late capitalism”), it is surprising that such factors have been largely ignored in research on CrossFit. Dating to roughly the year 2000, Glassman’s now famous exercise routine has been around for almost a quarter of a century. But the emotions, celebrations, and jokes associated with CrossFit largely remain overlooked.

As an avid CrossFitter but also a scholar, my perspective on the sport is somewhat unique: informed by literary criticism, cultural studies, and critical theory. Specifically, I propose that Mikael Bahktin’s concept of the carnivalesque, as it is detailed in Rabelais and His World, serves as an ambitious and accurate toolkit with which to understand CrossFit. Born in Russia, Bahktin (1895-1975) was a philosopher and literary theorist who has had wide-ranging influence on various forms of cultural analyses—especially academic disciplines like communication studies, linguistics, and sociology. In Rableis and His World, Bakhtin forwards a notion of the “carnival” as joyfully ribald, profoundly democratic and ultimately, transformative. During a celebration, time stops, identities are upended, and social hierarchies are, at least for a fleeting moment, overturned. Like CrossFit, these carnivals are meant to include everyone. Bahktin explains:

Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators…Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it.

As an activity that promotes an extraordinary care for the self, CrossFit strikes a balance between agony and ecstasy, body and spirit—even soul and vomit. The culture associated with the sport challenges us to accept personal responsibility for the condition of our minds and our bodies—our health status and particularly in opposition to an inadequate healthcare system.

In this way, CrossFit aims to balance the earnestness of responsibilization with the ludic self-awareness of our ironic times. How can we crack a smile even while confronting serious health concerns, and finding ourselves abysmally alone in the world? As an early client of Glassman’s described the experience, CrossFit is “agony coupled with laughter.” Bahktin himself couldn’t have said it better.

CrossFitters expend their sweat, tears (and sometimes, even blood) in order to transcend the humdrum of everyday life. Workouts delineate a fleeting moment when we can leave behind our stultifying workplace lives. Like Bakhtin’s carnival, CrossFit, too, is understood as deeply democratic and barrier-breaking: it challenges both elite athletes and underdogs so that we may transform ourselves into something uniquely human. The most “advanced” or high-tech equipment found in so-called “globo-gyms” (namely, Universal Fitness equipment) is rarely used. Rather, CrossFitters seek excellence via everyday items lying around the house. As CrossFit legend Rich Froning Jr. explained in his 2013 autobiography, “One of the beauties of CrossFit—and one of the big reasons for its incredible surge in popularity—is that anyone can watch a video of CrossFit athletes doing a workout and then go do the same thing.” The fact that CrossFit has been so successful and has such devoted followers, too, adds to both its equalitarian and ritualistic character. As an anonymous CrossFitter explained in the 2009 Crossfit documentary Every Second Counts: “Fitters tend to only associate with other CrossFitters. Now, is it a good cult? It’s a fitness cult—it’s making you better. Is it a cult? Yeah, it is.” As ritual acts, Bakhtin’s carnivals remind us that structures can be questioned and (perhaps) even toppled. His ambitious toolkit (again, the carnivalesque) challenges us to make fun of institutions—to understand their transitoriness and vulnerability. Appropriately, in his biographical documentary The Fittest Man on Earth, five-time CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser recounts the first time he stepped inside a CrossFit gym, with its “chaos going on, with the loud music.” Previously, as he describes it, he had only exercised in traditional weightlifting gyms (think Gold’s Gym) where the heaviest lifts demanded solemnity and seriousness on the part of gymgoers.

A woman carries a weight overhead in an indoor CrossFit gym. Other men and women watch in the background.
CrossFit Gym (photo by IKjub licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

Like Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, CrossFit suggests the power of metamorphosis, while risking a type of death—when former selves are sloughed off and a new being is born. Every workout thus constitutes a celebration of life. Bakhtin asserts that the carnival is characterized by “a naked posing of ultimate questions on life and death.” Furthermore, for the Russian philosopher, death is not a negation of life but part of life as a whole—an indispensable component, the condition of life’s constant renewal and rejuvenation. Even death, Bakhtin explains, “becomes pregnant” within the carnival.

For both CrossFitters and Bakhtin, these birth-death processes happen through a type of initial degradation. As CrossFit’s founder, Glassman, tells it, his workouts were developed to leave gym goers “flat on [their] back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell happened.” Like Bahktin, CrossFit—with its focus on the squat as a staple movement—charges us to consider the lower stratum of the body, the belly, and the buttocks. To degrade something does not imply merely hurling it into the garbage, but also rescuing it from oblivion. In CrossFit-speak, this might be understood as a deep dive into the travails of a “butt-wink” in hopes of acing the perfect squat. Indeed, as claimed by George Bataille—a fellow philosopher and, tellingly, a contemporary of Bahktin’s—the body’s lower half, the bowels, and the viscera are all deeply associated with death. These nether regions are also central to CrossFit.

In order to gain life, CrossFitters risk death. As the community has known and debated for a long time, the programmatic breakdown of the body during exercises may even cause rhabdomyolysis. In an appropriately sarcastic (even rogueish?) way, CrossFit has embraced a buff, vomiting clown named “Uncle Rhabdo” as an unofficial mascot.

Recently, gyms have stepped away from being associated with zany, protein spilling cartoon jesters. Yet, as a CrossFitter myself, I wouldn’t count on tomorrow’s WOD—that is, the “Workout of the Day”—being any less challenging, less Bahktinian, or less low-minded. In an almost wholly non-ironic way, I believe that nothing tests my body more than getting up at 4:45 AM to lift odd objects. As I have proposed here, I also surmise that CrossFit explains much about how playful and focused on the body our historical moment really is.

Author Biographical Note:

Dr. Kevin M. Anzzolin, Lecturer of Spanish, arrived at Christopher Newport University in 2021, where he teaches a wide range of classes. His scholarship, mostly focused on Mexican cultural studies, can be found here, and his monograph on Mexican journalism will be published in 2024. He has been an avid albeit amateur CrossFitter since 2018.

People wearing warm winter jackets sit in the foreground watching the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Olympics in McMahon Stadium. On the white field of the stadium are people in red jackets standing in a large square formation.
The Olympic torch is carried into McMahon Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada (photo by Brian Woychuk licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ignorance is an activity, it isn’t simply not knowing but a form of knowing supported by the socio-political system. –Lisa Slater

It is well documented that youth sport teaches young people life lessons – about themselves, the importance of teamwork, etc. In this short reflexive essay (drawn from a larger book project), I consider another kind of education at work in youths’ encounters with sport in settler states – countries founded upon the theft of land from Indigenous peoples: it teaches young settlers, in particular, about their place in the world, their “right” to live on stolen lands.

Here, I take up selected fragments of my childhood and youth, interrogating how my encounters with sport (as both a participant and a consumer) shaped my understandings of myself and my belonging on lands claimed by Canada. I consider, in the words of social scientist Lisa Slater, some of the “dimly lit memories” that provide clues to my developing sense of self.

1986 (Or ’85. Or ’90. Or it doesn’t matter when.)

I sit on the hard bleachers of McMahon stadium, bouncing my legs as fast as I can to try to generate warmth while we watch a Calgary Stampeders Canadian Football League game. As Dad and I drink hot chocolate from a thermos, the “Stamps” score a TD, and a horse and rider run the length of the field in celebration. I scream in joy, looking around at the thousands of mostly white boys and men doing the same. My “home team” is playing their perpetual rivals, now called the Edmonton Elk.

A snippet like this could just as easily have come from an NHL hockey game between the Calgary Flames and the team from Chicago. On one hand, then, I encountered tropes of Indigeneity such as Indigenous team names and mascots in these hyper-masculine professional sport settings, normalizing this as part of my childhood, teaching me what kind of person I should (want to) be. On the other, attending these games – or fervently following the Flames, in particular, especially as part of the “battle of Alberta” in the heydays of both the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – produced a sense of belonging, tying me to this place, making it feel very much like home. It was my home, but was also produced as such in ongoing and banal ways.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s

I am playing a sport; I don’t even remember which one. Judging by the coaches I encountered in my high school years, I’d guess football. The coach is trying to get our attention: “Boys. Pow-wow over here!” He blathers on, something about putting in the work if we want to make it to the “top of the totem pole.”

1988

I am caught up in the excitement of Calgary hosting the Olympic Winter Games. I covet the Sun Ice jackets volunteers and others sport, follow the saga of Eddie the Eagle, attend a couple of medal ceremonies at Olympic Plaza downtown, getting choked up when I see Canadians atop the medal podium as “O Canada” plays over the loudspeakers. I collect pins, and consume many events, both in person and via the televised broadcasts.

As historian Christine O’Bonsawin articulates, the Calgary Olympics employed “Indigenous imagery” in numerous dimensions of the organization of the Games, marshalling the caché of the Calgary Stampede to garner international attention and construct the Games as of this place. Organizers, she notes:

utilized the international prestige of the Calgary Stampede and based their cultural programming around the Stampede’s symbolic use of the Mountie, the cowboy and the Indian… For example, the composition of the Olympic medals displayed winter sporting equipment protruding from a ceremonial headdress, an enormous teepee at McMahon Stadium supporting the Olympic cauldron, and the Calgary Stampede Board’s suggestion that an ‘Indian attack and wagon-burning’ be a part of the opening ceremony (this was ultimately rejected).

The Olympics, then, mobilized and marketed “Indigenous imagery” while, at the very same moments, hailing me – producing me – as Canadian, as rightfully belonging on these lands. Think here of the anthem, for instance, the notion of “home and native land.” (Also consider Jully Black’s recent act subverting these lyrics.)

Conclusion

Part of the ideological “[sleight] of hand” of settler colonialism is the illusion that it is a process that is finished as opposed to one that requires constant nurturing and reproduction. Similarly, my at-homeness as a settler was and is not simply a given, but one that was and is nourished in innumerable spaces and ways, not least through my encounters with sport as a youth. We are born into these positions, but we also encounter everyday teaching moments that shape our understandings of and relation to ongoing histories on these lands. Only if we recognize these teaching moments can we interrogate and, perhaps, refuse them as we come to understand, in the words of cultural studies scholar Mark Rifkin, “that the very terrain [we] inhabit as given has never ceased to be a site of political struggle.”

Author biographical note:

Jason (Jay) Laurendeau is a white, cisgender, settler scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge, Alberta, located on lands of the Siksikaitsitapii people, who are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. His research interests lie at the intersections of sport and physical culture, gender, settler colonialism, and childhood. He is the author of Sport, Physical Activity, and Anti-Colonial Autoethnography: Stories and Ways of Being.

A screenshot of the NBA Live video game shows WNBA players Brittney Griner and Maya Moore with smoothed muscles and an "hourglass figure".
A screenshot from the NBA Live video game with Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury and Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx (Photo owned personally by the author)

On March 6, 2023, video game company Electronic Arts (EA) announced the introduction of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to their FIFA franchise. This inclusion, just like with the WNBA in EA’s NBA Live franchise, was initially celebrated as a step forward to gender equality in sport and the video game industry. However, this celebration faced pushback from many athletes about the (un)likeness of their digitized counterparts and how the game rates certain athletes’ performances. Subsequently, athletes’ public outcry drew pushback on social media, with some users urging NWSL athletes to stop making this a gender issue, arguing that it is just a technical problem because men, too, have been misrepresented in video games. In this article, we provide a different perspective on the misrepresentation of female athletes. Instead of saying “yes, the misrepresentation is about gender inequality,” or “no, it is merely a technical issue,” we want to argue, “yes, the misrepresentation may be due to technological limitations, but how these athletes are misrepresented can be a gender issue that hinders the good intention of advocating for equality.”

A tweet sent by USA soccer play Sydney Leroux with an image of her from the FIFA video game. The text of Leroux's tweet reads "They had the headband, the braid, the neck tattoo, the overly plucked brows and someone even made me CHESTYYYY!!!!! Deflate my boobs a bit and put a different jersey on. I'll keep the brows at this point."
Sydney Leroux tweeted about her breasts being enhanced in FIFA. (Photo: Screencap of Leroux’s tweet on March 22, 2023)

“Realities” in Sports-Themed Video Games

Though contemporary sports-themed video games (STVG) often use technology such as full-body scans to produce their contents, the resulting images are never simply duplications of reality. Rather, physical reality is translated and coded into a digital existence—a process called remediation. There are two parts to the remediation process: immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy makes mediation appear invisible and aims to make gamers feel like they are actually present in the game. For example, in a remediated basketball game, the sounds of crowds cheering, the basketball bouncing while dribbling, and shoes squeaking on the arena floor all contribute to a sense of immediacy; hearing these sounds when playing a simulated basketball game makes us feel like we are actually at the game. The use of face and body scanning to bring more authentic likenesses and kinetic movements of real-life athletes to STVG is another example of immediacy. This technology makes the gaming experience of playing with/against/as known athletes seem more lifelike and believable. Hypermediacy, on the other hand, gives visibility back to the mediation process and reminds us that the reality we are experiencing through the gaming platform is indeed simulated. For example, performing athletic movements by pressing buttons and arrows makes us aware that we are not actually experiencing those movements. Another example of hypermediacy is the omnipresent EA logo at the corner of the screen that constantly reminds gamers that they are the authors of this “reality.”

Seeing video game content through this remediation process can help us understand that critiques of “misrepresentation” are rooted in demand and expectation for immediacy in STVG. If we cannot really see the digitized Sydney Leroux as the real Sydney Leroux, how can we feel like we are actually playing an NWSL game? However, we can also read this misrepresentation as a manifestation of hypermediacy. It reminds us that we are not actually playing in an NWSL game, we are playing a video game (of NWSL). It also reminds us of the current technological limitations on authentically simulating athletic bodies in digital form for video games. So instead of asking why misrepresentations happen, perhaps the more important question, when faced with these limitations, is how are these bodies reimagined in digital platforms?

There are two parts to this question. First, in what ways are athletes misrepresented? In other words, how are they different from their physical counterparts? Second, based on what discourses or social norms are these misrepresented digitized bodies designed? Exploring these questions helps us understand the implications that misrepresentation of female athletes in STVG may have for inclusion and gender equality.

The WNBA in NBA Live 18/19

Let’s use an example of misrepresentations of WNBA athletes in EA’s STVG franchise to show how we can begin answering these questions. Since 2017, EA’s representation of the WNBA has been ambitious. In that year, they made a move to include the full roster of all WNBA teams in NBA Live 18 and continued this approach with its successor, NBA Live 19. As researchers who study sport, we observed several notable misrepresentations in the visual appearances and kinetic capacity of the athletes while playing the WNBA components of these two games.

In both Live 18 and Live 19, the digitized selves of some well-known athletes are fairly recognizable. Details of their physical appearances, such as hairstyles, hair and skin colour, and noticeable features like tattoos are replicated relatively accurately. However, any resemblance that does appear in the games is mostly limited to features above the neck, whereas the bodies seem to be created without much reference to individual athletes. For example, the athletes’ muscles are smoothed out. We also observed a fairly universal body shape: an hourglass shape where the bust is amplified and the waist narrowed.

A screenshot of the NBA Live video game shows WNBA player Brittney Griner with an "hourglass figure".
Notice Brittney Griner’s waistline? (Photo: Owned personally by the author)

We then compared representations of kinetics capacity—in other words, the overall flow and movement of the simulated athletes’ bodies—across the WNBA and NBA portions of the game, and found that the simulated WNBA athletes could only move slowly before crossing the halfcourt line. In contrast, the simulated athletes in the NBA mode were able to sprint across the court.

Historically, the hourglass body shape (narrow waist and amplified breasts) has been common for female characters in video games. Although WNBA players’ digitized athletic bodies are not depicted as unrealistically and disproportionately as characters like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, it is revealing to see that the default female athletic body still corresponds to the stereotypical gendered and sexualized image of the female body. While the inclusion of the WNBA in a major STVG franchise was celebrated as a great step toward gender equality, the subtle undertone of normative, gendered discourse nevertheless persists. Against the backdrop of this gender discourse, we can understand the logic behind the smoothed-out muscles of these simulated women, even though they are elite athletes in a contact sport (how can they not have muscles?!). We can also see the circulation of gender discourse in the kinetic (mis)representations, where digitized WNBA players cannot sprint before passing the halfcourt line. This is not due to technological limitations, but rather to the game developer’s choice to cap WNBA players’ athleticism.

In a study analyzing fictional female characters in video games across 31 years, a group of media scholars found a correlation between the sexualization of women and the video game genres. Genres that usually aim toward a primarily male consumer market (such as fighting and action games) contain more gendered and sexualized female characters. Further, the researchers suggested that the sexualization of women in games could make women uncomfortable and deter them from playing. Along this line of thinking, we suggest that these milestones of inclusion in games like FIFA and NBA Live may fail to expand their target audience, and again, reinforce the stereotypical idea that women don’t play/belong in video games. This is why the misrepresentation of NWLS athletes is a gender issue, and why it matters.

Author Biographical Notes:

Judy Liao is an Associate Professor in Sport Study at Augustana Faculty, University of Alberta. Her research interests include gender and sport and diaspora sporting experiences and history in Canada. She is a big fan of the WNBA and has several publications on these excellent athletes.

Emily MacMillan worked as a research assistant for this STVG project while she studied at the University of Alberta. She has a BA degree in physical education and Indigenous study. Currently, she works as a Communications and Engagement Associate at First Peoples’ Cultural Council in BC, Canada, while also taking a Metis Women’s Leadership Program.

I sign with the words "RuPaul's Drag Race" written at the top, with an image of RuPaul below with black and white checkered flags in the background. RuPaul is wearing a red jumpsuit with a white belt and long blonde hair.
RuPaul’s Drag Race sign at San Francisco Pride (by Loren Javier licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) is a reality television show where drag queens—performers, who are typically but not always men, that dress up as glamourous and often overstated women—contend for the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar” and a $100,000 cash prize. In each episode, the queens compete in challenges that involve activities such as acting, sewing, dancing, comedy, and singing. The two queens who do the worst in the challenge that week compete in a lip-sync “smackdown” to a song chosen by RuPaul—the creator, co-producer and main judge of the show, who also is a drag queen—with the loser being eliminated from the show. The competition continues like this weekly until only four contestants remain, at which point they participate in a final challenge for the crown. The popularity of RPDR is evidenced by the fact it has spawned a variety of spin-offs in multiple countries.

Why Am I Writing About RPDR on a Sports Site?

RPDR is a pressure-filled competition with high stakes. The judges ask the contestants on the show to perform, labour, and risk their bodies in ways similar to athletes. The sport-like nature of RPDR is displayed prominently when we consider how the drag queens on the show are encouraged to play through pain and injury.

Athletes risk their bodies and play through injury because of a culture of risk in sport, where the sporting community (athletes, coaches, fans, management) rewards athletes who take risks and alienates those who do not. For instance, when athletes put their bodies at risk by making an impressive tackle on the field or hit on the ice, the fans erupt in cheer. The sporting community views injury as a masculinizing experience, where they tend to respect and idealize the athletes willing to play through injury and risk their bodies. In contrast, the sporting community will alienate and ridicule athletes who are unwilling to participate in this culture of risk. For instance, a study by researchers at McGill University who interviewed retired National Hockey League athletes who had left hockey due to concussions, reported that athletes were alienated and ridiculed by coaches and teammates for speaking up about their injuries or sitting out after a concussion. Given these cultural norms associated with sport, we see athletes risk their bodies and play through injury to maintain and assert the masculinity that the sporting community idealizes and values and to avoid alienation and ridicule. Notably, a similar dynamic exists on RPDR.

Risk and Injury on RPDR

On RPDR, the community (judges, contestants, fans) similarly idealizes and values the drag queens willing to risk their bodies and play through injury, while alienating and ridiculing those unwilling to do so. For example, on season 9 episode 2 of RPDR there is a cheerleading competition where the queens partake in a competitive cheer routine, which included tumbling, group choreography, and stunting. Notably, two major injuries take place on this episode. First, competitor Eureka O’Hara goes into a jumping split and tears her ACL, yet continues to get up and perform. In the voiceover of this moment, the audience hears Eureka say, “I feel my knee pop, but there’s no way I was stopping.” While RuPaul eliminated Eureka three weeks later because of the injury, Eureka is applauded for competing through pain: RuPaul invites her to come back the following season to compete, her fellow queens leave the stage in tears to say goodbye to Eureka after her elimination, and she has a significant fan-following on Instagram (584,000 followers). In this way, Eureka’s willingness to play through pain is rewarded and idealized by the drag race community.

The second injury on the cheerleading episode, meanwhile, happens to competitor Charlie Hides—when lifting up a fellow queen during practice, Charlie breaks her rib. The following week, Charlie made the decision to not “give it her all” during her lip-sync because of this cracked rib. Charlie is ridiculed by her fellow queens and RuPaul because she, unlike Eureka, refused to play through her injury. During a reunion episode, Trinity the Tuck compares Charlie to Eureka, highlighting the value of playing through pain in the competition: “I don’t like this bitch up here [pointing to Eureka], but she injured herself, and if she could do what she did after her knee injury, there’s no excuse for you [Charlie].” RuPaul also speaks directly to Charlie, “When someone doesn’t give it their all, I’m disappointed.” As this example illustrates, just like with athletes, the contestants on RPDR are expected to “give it their all,” which includes risking their bodies and playing through injury.

Scholars have often noted that drag is an opportunity for gay men to assert the masculinity typically denied to them in traditional sporting spaces. By playing through injury and risking their bodies for the competition, we see RPDR transform into a sporting space where contestants are able to assert traditional notions of masculinity in a queer space. Often, we hear discourses about athletes that claim the risk and injury are worth the reward (money, fame, contracts). A similar dynamic exists for the drag queens on RPDR, who receive international fame and fortune if they do well on the show and become a fan favorite. However, the problem is that this culture of risk is affective and circulates through sporting bodies and drag queen bodies. Drag is a beautiful art form and an opportunity for gender expression, but there is danger when a culture of risk teaches young queer generations that they need to risk their bodies and compete through injury to succeed.

Author Biographical Note:

Niya St. Amant is a Ph.D. Candidate at Queens University. Her research interests focus on risk and injury in sport, typically focusing on concussions and hockey. The full version of her article, where she expands on these notions by conducting a media analysis of season 9 of RPDR, is published online ahead of print in the Sociology of Sport Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @niyastamant.

Deion Sanders, a Black man who coaches the Jackson State University football team, is pictured on the sideline using a knee scooter due to an injury.
Coach Deion Sanders on the Jackson State sideline at the 2021 SWAC Championship (photo via 2C2K Photography licensed under CC BY 2.0)

For many people across the U.S., the summer of 2020 felt as if racial tension reached a fever pitch. The murder of George Floyd was met with anger, outrage, and a great deal of political banter among elected officials. Following the summer of 2020, there was a wave of discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the sporting/corporate world, along with a related “resurgence” of attention to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with a particular focus on athletics. But please don’t call it a comeback, ‘cause HBCUs have been here for years. It is only now that the national sports media has shone a spotlight on decades of systemic financial and racial inequalities that have led to top Black students and athletes being lured away from HBCUs to predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

Once Upon a Time…When We Were “Colored”

Ask almost any Black kid who was in middle or high school during the late ’80s / early ‘90s, and they will tell you thanks to the popularity of NBC sitcom “A Different World” (a spin-off of “The Cosby Show”), they wanted to attend an HBCU – and I was no different. But instead of the fictitious Hillman College, I envisioned myself on the campus of Norfolk State University, my mother’s alma mater, hanging out with people like Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne. The rising popularity of HBCUs during the “Cosby Show / A Different World Era” corresponded with a 24.3 percent spike in HBCU enrollment.

Significant growth in enrollment at HBCUs post-segregation is noteworthy because prior to integration, such institutions of higher learning were, for the most part, the only options Black folk had to attend college, particularly in the South. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation (on paper), there was no immediate mass exodus of Black students “opting out” of HBCUs for the hallowed halls of their nearest PWI. For them, HBCUs were still their only choice for college, so that is where they went, including some of the best athletes – and coaches – the sport world has ever seen. The list includes historical figures like Althea Gibson, Larry Doby, Doug Williams, Eddie “Coach Rob” Robinson, Sr., Earl Monroe, and Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Sr. It was a time when HBCU athletics thrived and was a great sense of pride for the Black community. But those glory days would not last.

In 1967, Nate Northington became the first African American football player at the University of Kentucky, officially desegregating the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Soon after, other SEC schools followed, signing one or two Black football players. But it is what transpired in 1970 that was a watershed moment in college athletics for both HBCUs and PWIs.

Same Script, Different Cast

Much like the past decade, in 1970 the University of Alabama had a dominant football program led by a powerful and influential coach, William “Bear” Bryant. History seems to recall the Alabama vs. University of Southern California Trojans matchup as a transformative game in the integration of college football due to the storied nature of the two programs. Though the University of Alabama admitted its first Black student in 1956 amid protests and court orders, the football team remained segregated. However, after an integrated USC team (3 Black players) humbled the Crimson Tide in a 42-21 trouncing, Alabama started its first Black player, John Mitchell, the following year. More PWIs in the South would follow suit, incrementally diverting top Black athletic (and academic) talent away from HBCUs.  As the 1970s came to a close, so did a period of undisputed excellence in HBCU men’s basketball and football. Fast forward to 2020 and over 48% of NCAA FBS teams and over 52% of Power 5 men’s basketball teams were comprised of Black players. On its face, this may appear to be progress for the Black community, but dig deeper to reveal the loss it has been for HBCUs.

To those who lived, experienced, and have a deep appreciation for HBCU athletics’ “golden years”, the decline has been painful. It is akin to how we rightfully herald the iconic Jackie Robinson for breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, while also lamenting the fact that his move to the majors marked the decline of one of the most successful Black-owned enterprises of its time – the Negro Baseball Leagues. At a time when MLB dared not have a “Negro” dawn one of its uniforms, the Negro Leagues thrived with legends like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron.

A black and white photo of six Black men posing with arms crossed on their knees in uniforms of the Homestead Grays.
Homestead Grays of the Negro Baseball Leagues circa 1946. Josh Gibson is third from left (photoby Al_HikesAZ licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

With Robinson’s success with the Brooklyn Dodgers, other MLB teams began using the Negro Leagues as their personal draft pool. Aaron and Paige were drafted soon after Robinson, and countless others followed. The Negro Leagues held on as long as they could, but with a depleted talent pool and low ticket sales, this once booming Black enterprise ceased operations in 1960.

The Resurgence of HBCU Athletics

Save a few late-round NFL draft picks and a handful of “bracket busters” in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the past few decades of HBCU athletics have been relatively quiet with respect to national media attention. Following the summer of 2020, however, professional athletes and league administrators publicly spoke about social justice – calling out racism, demanding police reform, and protecting voting rights.  WNBA and NBA stars like Renee Montgomery, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and LeBron James used their platforms to not only showcase and raise awareness about HBCUs, but also donate money to some of those institutions’ athletic departments. Even major corporations have sought to connect their brands to HBCUs, exemplified by Wells Fargo launching its “HBCU Legends Collection” of debit cards as part of their DEI strategy. But perhaps no event has brought more attention to HBCUs than the hiring of NFL Hall of Famer Deion “Prime Time” Sanders as the football coach at Jackson State University in September 2020. After being hired, “Coach Prime” brought national attention to Jackson State through countless media appearances, including Aflac® commercials alongside Alabama coach Nick Saban, the highest paid coach in college football.

In a recent appearance on the popular CBS news program 60 Minutes, Sanders unapologetically brought to the forefront the financial and structural crisis that has plagued HBCUs for decades. He has also sounded the alarm on ways in which HBCUs continue to be undervalued, figuratively and literally, with “money games” in which they are often outmatched by well-funded Power 5 programs. Probably most headline-grabbing was Jackson State signing the number one football recruit in the country, Travis Hunter in 2021. Additionally, Jackson State became just the second HBCU ever to host the popular ESPN College GameDay program in the 2022 season. With Sanders departing Jackson State after three seasons to take the head coaching job at the University of Colorado, the question now becomes “where do HBCUs go from here?”

As an HBCU alum, it would be amazing to see more top Black talent choose an HBCU over a PWI. Let’s face it, PWIs and their athletic departments have made big bank off Black bodies for decades, while HBCUs have struggled to keep their doors open. One can only hope this new interest in and resurgence of HBCUs into the national spotlight and larger conversations on racism, power, and exploitation of Black athletes in higher education is not a fleeting moment in time. Instead, this is a prime time (no pun intended) for HBCU leaders to chorale the sudden interest in HBCU athletics into a sustained commitment to restoring those institutions to a level of prominence they once held.

Author Biographical Note:

Dawn M. Norwood is an Assistant Professor and Sport Sociologist at Northern Illinois University in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Her research interests include strategies for overcoming constraints to swimming for African American women, social justice and activism through sport, and HBCU athletics. She is a proud alum of Grambling State University and former Assistant Professor at Florida A&M University. Follow her on LinkedIn or email at dnorwood@niu.edu.

A young softball players stand on base, ready to run. Two fielders stand in the background.
Currently, most sports take place in sex segregated settings, such as this girls’ youth softball league (photo by North Charleston, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0).

Sex segregated sport is increasingly untenable. As sports authorities and politicians enact flawed attempts to regulate who can and cannot participate in women’s and girls’ sports, the shaky foundations of the current system reveal themselves. Yet gender-integrated sports are perceived as unthinkable to many because they confront taken for granted beliefs about women’s inferiority to men. Sport is the only remaining institutional realm where sex segregation is permissible and, as such, it maintains and reproduces gender inequality. More than any other institution, sport showcases the cultural system of binary sex difference and makes it appear natural. Even people who, on all other fronts, believe in women’s equality to men, find themselves compelled by the argument that men are athletically superior to women. Gender expansive athletes, including trans, non-binary, and intersex athletes, threaten our social, economic, and political systems with disarray.

There are many dangers in uncritically accepting the claim that women need to be protected from male competitors to experience success. First, it reinforces men’s dominance beyond sport, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of men who occupy leadership positions throughout society. Second, it insidiously reifies women’s weakness, denying girls and women the opportunity to develop in competition with boys and men, thereby putting false limits on their capacity to achieve physical greatness. Finally, modern sport turns ideology into reality: our societal belief in female inferiority is mobilized via sex segregated sport to deny girls and women equal opportunities to develop as athletes.

Sport’s role in perpetuating gender inequality is not accidental. The history of modern sport in the West begins with the deliberate exclusion of women. Although women have succeeded in gaining inclusion, the limits of their inclusion have been severely circumscribed by male-dominated leadership of various sporting bodies. The legacy of Western patriarchal ideologies that view women –  at least white women – as “the fairer sex” who are not supposed to be too fast, too strong, or too muscular, continues to shape cultural attitudes. Women who transgress ideologies about gender difference are often severely punished, particularly in sport.

Although the practice of questioning the gender of successful sportswomen occurred throughout the early 1900s, it was not until 1950 and 1968 respectively that World Athletics, (formerly IAAF) and the International Olympics Committee instituted so-called gender verification processes. These formal “sex controls” were intended to ensure adherence to cultural norms regarding binary sex difference and female inferiority. This surveillance began with subjecting women athletes to genital inspection via “nude parades,” was followed by testing sportswomen’s DNA to exclude those with “male” chromosomes, and, most recently, for only those women who appear “suspiciously masculine” to measure their hormone levels. Each of these tests is scientifically flawed: decades of gender verification testing by sports authorities have only proven that sex is not binary but instead expansive. While the practice began with track and field, gender verification extended to several Olympics sports including canoeing, gymnastics, fencing, field hockey, rowing, swimming, volleyball, handball, and luge. In effect, there is hardly a sport in which women are not subjected to this dehumanizing and unscientific practice.

The gender ideology which frames the claim that women’s sports require protection from so-called male pretenders is also a racialized ideology. After all, today’s sporting environments are an outgrowth of the European colonial project that positioned sport as part of a “civilizing” project that was white supremacist and hetero-patriarchal at its core. We see this colonial gender ideology in the heightened attention directed at sportswomen from the Global South who are accused of being too athletically powerful, too “masculine” in appearance, to qualify for female eligibility. Prominent examples are South Africa’s Caster Semenya, India’s Dutee Chand, and Uganda’s Annet Negessa, athletes who were subjected to sex testing because they do not embody Western feminine ideals. To our knowledge, this level of surveillance has not been directed at women from the Global North, except if they are transwomen.

Transgender women are swept up in sport’s gender panic not because they regularly outperform cisgender women – they do not – but because sport is the one realm where cultural beliefs regarding fundamental sex and gender differences continue to be institutionalized. In the past several years, bills designed to delegitimize and exclude trans people in various ways have been introduced in many US state legislatures. Within this larger anti-trans campaign, bills designed specifically to block trans girls and women from participating in “female” sport have been signed into law in many US states and proposed in many others. Backed by a constellation of white supremacist, conservative and hetero-patriarchal organizations and movements in collusion with so-called “gender critical feminists,” these campaigns are stoking a gender panic by targeting trans girls and women for surveillance and exclusion. Increasingly, trans boys, men, and non-binary athletes are also swept up in this panic, highlighting how sports is being mobilized as a tool to exclude transgender people from full inclusion in society.

It is no accident that sport is a site for contesting the inclusion of transgender people in society because meaningful inclusion for gender expansive people, including intersex, transgender and non-binary people, threatens to undermine the commonsense bases for the gender inequality that is pervasive throughout society. People who consider themselves to be gender progressive and egalitarian are being recruited to anti-trans campaigns in sport that have significant effects beyond the playing field. This recruitment is possible because of widely held, taken for granted beliefs about male superiority in sport. Presenting trans sportswomen to the public as “male” interlopers who are a threat to cisgender women and girls simultaneously denies transwomen’s claims to womanhood and entrenches binary ideas about sex and gender in ways that also harm intersex athletes and other sportswomen who do not conform to Eurocentric gender norms.

Given the historical and contemporary reasons for sex segregation in sport, there is a heightened need to challenge this practice. To undo such de facto segregation is to redress a longstanding gender inequality in society. Of course, intentional mechanisms are needed to ensure that the legacies of white supremacist heterosexual patriarchy that have reified women’s inferiority are carefully attended to. This effort is well worth it if we want to create a more just and inclusive organizational structure for sport and society more broadly.

Author Biographical Notes

Anima Adjepong is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Cincinnati. They research, write, and teach about identity, culture, and social change and are particularly interested in how cultural struggles can bring about social transformation. Dr. Adjepong is the author of Afropolitan Projects: Redefining Blackness, Sexualities, and Culture from Houston to Accra. They are currently working on a project about women’s football, gendered nationalism, and state-sponsored homophobia in Ghana. You can follow them on twitter @animaadjepong

Travers is a Professor of Sociology at Simon Fraser University. Their recent book, The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution, situates trans kids in Canada and the US, white settler nations characterized by significant social inequality. In addition to a central research focus on transgender children and youth, Travers has published extensively on the relationship between sport and social justice, with particular emphasis on the inclusion and exclusion of women, queer and trans people of all ages. A current research program in this field focuses on gender equity in youth baseball. Travers is Deputy Editor of Gender & Society. You can follow them on twitter @DrBaseball

The FIFA men's World Cup trophy, a gold ball being held by robed figures, sits on the grass with blurred stadium seats in the background
How might a “thinking fan” go about watching the upcoming FIFA men’s World Cup in Qatar? (photo via insidersport.com)

The increasing public recognition of direct links between sports, social issues, and politics poses a challenging question: what should we watch? If we watched the 2022 Beijing Olympics despite concerns about IOC policy and China’s human rights record and repressive surveillance, does that make us bad people? If we watch the 2022 World Cup in Qatar despite concerns about FIFA motives along with the rights of migrant workers and LGBTQ people, does that make us complicit?

Or might there be ways of watching, and ways of being a sports fan more generally, that allow us to engage directly with what sociologist Peter Donnelly calls the ‘Janus-face of sport’ — the reality that a love of sport can bring joy and social goods while simultaneously enabling repulsive behaviors and ideologies? While I’m not a moral philosopher or ethicist (though I enjoy reading philosophical takes on the morality of sport fandom), I have recently written a book that is in part an effort to promote just such engagement.

In Soccer in Mind: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the Global Game I draw on sociology, psychology, and other related social science lenses to suggest that watching sports as a “thinking fan” is not only necessary in our heavily commodified and politicized world of sport, it’s also more fun. The book draws heavily on the sociology of sport to consider topics such as fandom, culture, talent development, mental skills, social impact, and sports for development in a way that makes clear any science of sport depends on social engagement — we have to watch with both curious and critical eyes. And while many students who’ve taken a sociology of sport class leave feeling as though the field is actively anti-sport, in its ideal form the sociology of sport should instead promote deeper and richer ways of engaging the games we love.

While my recent book is specifically about soccer, the way it explains “thinking fandom” can apply broadly:

I define thinking fandom as an approach that depends on a broad intellectual curiosity and an engaged critical consciousness. Thinking fandom is a natural outgrowth of the very social science of soccer. It is a way of thinking about the game with a scientific mindset while centering the messiness of human experience. It is something…anyone can use to enrich their own experience of soccer — and, just maybe, also as a way to make soccer a bit better for others…

Note first that when I refer to a “thinking fan” I’m referring loosely to anyone who cares about the game—whether players, coaches, administrators, or supporters. And care in this formulation means having concerns beyond profit. Global soccer in the twenty-first century is a heavily commercialized endeavor; many see soccer primary as a business concern. The commodification of soccer is also sometimes enabled by others who think of soccer as nothing more than a trivial pastime. Thinking fandom starts with a willingness to position one’s self in between soccer as a business and soccer as a triviality and to actively engage soccer as one of the world’s most broadly shared cultural forms with very social meanings.

The active engagement of thinking fandom is then primarily tautological: it is founded on thinking. This is not to question the aesthetic pleasure of watching players with special skills perform at their best. Nor is it to question the happiness that comes from seeing a team with which one feels a deep connection win, nor the elemental joy that comes from playing the game itself. In fact … thinking fandom dovetails well with play and can be complementary and deeply satisfying in its emphasis on learning and playing with ideas. Soccer can simultaneously trigger our most ancient as well as our most evolved instincts, providing us both reflexive joy and deliberate opportunities to better understand ourselves and our world…

Promoting some form of thinking fandom is certainly not a new idea. Ralph Nader was working on something similar in 1977 when he created an organization called “FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports)” and explained to the Washington Post that he was prompted to form the group because of the “acceleration of greed, arrogance and fraud” in sports. While Nader’s group may not have quite stemmed the tide of greed, arrogance, and fraud, there is still a “League of Fans” legacy organization that sees leveraging a version of thinking fandom as a way “to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports.”

More recently, sports journalists such as Dave Zirin have promoted a more public sociology of sport that speaks directly to fans and their “inchoate fear about what sports has evolved into, and what it continues to become.” Likewise, other critical sports journalists, such as Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson, have explored the dilemmas of modern fandom with ideas for “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back.” These sports journalists are, in other words, promoting a new type of thinking fandom that both depends upon and represents the value of watching the games we love with a curiosity that goes beyond the scoreboard and critique that goes beyond the binary choice of whether or not to watch.

So what is a thinking fan to do with an event such as the upcoming World Cup in Qatar? It is reasonable to debate whether or not to watch — as long as that debate doesn’t devolve into a crude moral absolutism that suggests “we” are all right and “they” are all wrong. But if you do decide to watch, it is also reasonable to think about watching like a sport sociologist — asking questions borne of a genuine intellectual curiosity about what it means that this will be the first ever global mega sporting event hosted in an Arab nation, about what successful teams tell us regarding talent development and human development, about the ways globalization is simultaneously homogenizing and hybridizing sports culture, and about the many more social issues on vivid display at a World Cup. And it is worthwhile to remember that a crucial part of changing the global power dynamics of sport is the power of fans themselves to think critically about what they want from their games.

Author Biographical Note

Andrew Guest teaches sociology and psychology at the University of Portland in Oregon, where he also directs the University Core Curriculum. His research focuses on youth and community development, particularly as reflected in sports and activity programs.

WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike stands on a basketball count holding a basketball while wearing a purple Los Angeles Sparks shirt
With much of her team stranded overnight in an airport, Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks issued a statement calling for a resolution to the WNBA’s ongoing travel issues. (photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via CNN)

Nneka Ogwumike, President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, released a statement on August 8 asking for a resolution to the league’s ongoing travel issues. The seven-time league All-Star wrote the statement at 4 a.m. in an airport terminal.

Following a 79-76 win over the Washington Mystics the previous evening, Ogwumike and her teammates had arrived at the airport, learning at 1 a.m. that their flight back home had been rescheduled to 9 a.m. the next morning. Local hotels had limited capacity and could only accommodate about half of the team, leaving the other half stranded at the airport.

The idea of professional athletes sleeping overnight at an airport would be almost unthinkable in men’s major league sports, which, unlike the WNBA, use chartered private flights. This gendered disparity represents a serious health and safety issue, as scientific evidence suggests that sleep loss negatively impacts athletic performance and increases the likelihood of injury and illness.

In a moment when good sleep is increasingly recognized as a vital component of athlete health and performance, being denied full access to the conditions and resources that support this form of recovery is an injustice that should be challenged. While the WNBA has embraced sleep technology, as evidenced by an ongoing league-wide partnership first signed in 2020 with Oura, a digital health company that specializes in sleep and activity monitoring, such technologies cannot remedy the systemic imbalances that drive exhaustion in the WNBA and may even camouflage unsafe and exploitative working conditions.

The myth of load management

Debates about “load management,” or how to balance rest and labor for optimal performance, have raged for years in the men’s National Basketball Association, but these same concerns have rarely been extended to the WNBA—a workforce predominantly comprised of African American women.

This omission is remarkable given the travel and performance demands of the league. Twelve franchises compete in a compact 34-game summer season, with teams averaging two games a week. Headlines regularly report on dysfunctional travel, high rates of fatigue-induced injuries, relatively low salaries, and off-season overseas contracts that mean most players compete year round, including superstars like Brittney Griner, who is currently imprisoned in Russia.

In essence, the WNBA attempts to approximate the performance and profit models of men’s professional sport but with fewer economic and material resources. And as for WNBA players, they are under no illusions about their situation. As league All-Star Chelsea Gray explains, “for [WNBA players], there is no load management…it’s a myth.”

Monitoring athlete sleep

The WNBA’s grueling travel and competition schedule may make sleep technologies look enticing. A growing number of tech and mattress companies and sleep advocacy organizations market sleep as if it is the easiest and most effective way to offset the harms of elite sport.

But sleep technologies focus on fixing athletes, not their working conditions. Such technologies encourage individual players to become more aware and responsible for being well-rested, helping them find new ways of optimizing their “off” hours. Some may decide to go to bed earlier or adopt new sleep and wake routines, while others may be mindful of what they consume through the day.

These small personal adjustments are an effort to “fix” athletes while leaving their exhausting working conditions in place. Sleep has too often been devalued in American society, but when sleep becomes a way to cope with excessive workplace demands, it can mask exploitative and unsafe conditions and leave underlying capitalist expectations of endless performance and profits hidden.

Sleep monitoring also subjects WNBA players to invasive forms of corporate surveillance. A growing body of social science research shows that within and beyond sport, devices that record daily activities represent a more significant burden in the lives of African Americans, sexual and gender minorities, and poor communities.

Growing concerns about the sleep habits of WNBA players may create a climate of suspicion and renew sexist, anti-Black racism that has long shaped African American women’s experiences in sport and physical activity. Athletes who deviate from the norms associated with good sleep may elicit extra layers surveillance from coaches, medical staff, sports writers, and audiences.

Rest, recovery, labor

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert continues to rule out chartered flights in the regular season, citing financial strain and the need for parity within the league. However, several team owners have requested to have their teams travel on private planes. In fact, Joe and Clara Tsai, billionaire owners of the New York Liberty, were even fined $50,000 after they personally paid for their team to avoid commercial flights last year. Players and their union have made their position clear against the requirement to travel via commercial flights, especially during a global pandemic.

Of course, canceled flights and sleep loss represent but one aspect of a larger and more complicated struggle to improve working conditions in the WNBA, a setting that remains proximate but unequal to the NBA. To improve the working conditions of the WNBA is to protect and value the athletic labor of African American women. It means countering long histories of exclusion and marginalization in sport. It means challenging mythologies about strong and resilient Black women that have sustained their exploitation in American society. At the very least, pay gaps need to be closed, year-around contracts offered, and chartered flights booked.

The WNBA reminds us that vulnerabilities to exhaustion are not evenly or fairly distributed in sport or society. Rest-related disparities often run along unequal racial, gender, and economic lines. The structural nature of exhaustion means that it cannot be remedied through individualized, market-based solutions. While sleep technologies are one way to approach to the problem of athlete fatigue, they are not sufficient to fully address the complexities of inequitable and exhausting sport settings. Collective bargaining and the voices of WNBA players are also necessary in the push for structural changes and protections related to pay, travel, and the collection of biodata that will ultimately create safer and more equitable working conditions in the league.

Author biographical note

Sarah Barnes is an Assistant Professor at Cape Breton University. Her research interests focus on sport and wellbeing in a rapidly changing society. The full version of Barnes’ recent study on sleep in the WNBA was published online ahead of print in Sociology of Sport Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @barnesarah

Thousands of discarded bicycles sit in a massive pile
While cycling may be an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation, bikes are commodities made possible by the extractive industries, and they ultimately end up in the landfill like other trash. (photo by VGC)

You’re probably thinking, “Duh! Of course bikes are good for the environment, we all know this!” But let’s take a minute to make an important distinction between cycling and bikes. The activity of cycling as a mode of transportation has been proven time and again to be beneficial for the environment; however, bikes are commodities made possible by the extractive industries, and they end up in the landfill alongside our diapers, toasters, and other trash. While sport sociologists who conduct environmental research have done an excellent job of highlighting the environmental cost of hosting mega-events, creating golf courses, and operating ski resorts, very few academics have asked questions about the environmental impact of our sporting goods. In fact, in 2009, in an article published in the journal Sports Technology, Subic and colleagues wrote, “The disposal of composite products in an environmentally-friendly way is one of the most daunting challenges facing the sports goods industry.” Thirteen years later, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this issue.

Capitalism rightfully gets a lot of blame for the waste management problems we face today; however, waste is inevitable in every economic system to varying degrees. In their recent book, Discard studies: Wasting, systems, and power, Dr. Max Liboiron and Dr. Josh Lepawsky argue that both waste and wasting are exercises in power and are not just simple externalities of economic production. They suggest, “people have to be taught to practice and accept disposability as well as other waste practices.” Moreover, environmental sociologist Dr. Myra Hird argues that “we know ourselves through waste.” If we apply these questions to sporting goods, and specifically bikes, how did we learn to accept the disposability of our sporting goods? And what do we learn about ourselves when we unpack the waste created along the bike supply chain?

Bike Manufacturing

In November 2017, Outside magazine exposed the fact that bicycle factories in China had been dumping production scraps into the ocean because of a lack appropriate recycling options. Western Europe was once the geographical base of bike manufacturing, but the majority of that labour and its accompanying environmental footprints have been outsourced to China and Taiwan. Whether you are riding a Trek, Giant, Specialized, or Cannondale bike, odds are it was made in a factory in Taiwan or China. Leo Kokkonen, founder of Pole Bicycles, explained to Outside that he was shocked at the amount of energy, labour, water, and chemicals used to make his supposedly sustainable bicycles. He detailed how his lungs burned while riding around the coal-fired factories that were building his prototype frames.

Last year, Trek released its own sustainability report and, unsurprisingly, the majority of its carbon emissions come from the production of its bikes. The average Trek bikes creates 174 kg of CO2 during its production. While the report is very thorough in its carbon emission analysis, the disposal aspect of bikes is still completely absent from it. Approximately 80% of a product’s “environmental burden” is determined during the design process. Thus, if we have not thought about the end-of-use stage at the earliest production phases, our downstream/recycling options become extremely limited.

To make matters worse, there are bikes, and then there are “bike shaped objects.” These bike shaped objects, as some mechanics refer to them, have been designed with the purpose of failure. They are so poorly made that they are lucky to last for 100 hours of riding, often cannot hold adjustments, and have parts that are incompatible with other components. Therefore, even if you want to repair your bike, believe in saving money, and want long-lasting products, many of the consumer level bikes available today are built for obsolescence. The problem has gotten so bad that bike mechanics across Canada and the United States have created a petition asking for brands to do better.

End-of-Use

At the other end of the life cycle, bike sharing companies have come under scrutiny for contributing a large amount of bike waste to the waste stream. For example, when Ofo, a Dallas-based bike sharing company, closed its operations in the summer of 2018 it left thousands of bicycles in a pile at a recycling centre to become scrap metal. Bike sharing programs are often touted as the answer to congested, car-centric cities, but when companies such as CityCycle in Brisbane, Seattle’s Pronto!, and Bixi Montreal go bankrupt, all of their bicycles end up in the waste stream. With an estimated 18 million new bikes purchased each year in the U.S. alone, the bicycle becomes an important cultural text that has largely managed to elide environmental criticisms even though it ends up in the landfill with our other garbage.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 from the United Nations is a call for more sustainable production and consumption. The sporting goods industry (and we as consumers) are overdue in critically analyzing and demanding alternative consumption patterns for our sporting goods. When the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) released its commitments to supporting achievement of the SDGs, nothing listed under Goal 12 actually addressed production or consumption. Six bullet points are listed and include actions items such as creating affordable and accessible facilities, promoting the use of public spaces for diverse and marginalized populations, integrating refugees and migrants into communities, raising awareness of people with disabilities, eliminating transportation barriers, and building more energy efficient facilities. However, none of these things really have to do with sustainable production and consumption. So why haven’t sporting goods manufacturers, brands, and consumers been called out as part of the problem?

As a way of spurring discussion (and hopefully action) about these issues, I produced a 15-minute documentary, Revolutions, which asks questions about the waste created by bike manufacturing, explores what happens when you donate your bike to a recycling outlet, discusses how waste is incentivized through crash replacement warranties, and offers alternative ways forward. For teachers interested in unpacking this topic with a class, please consider hosting a screening of Revolutions for students. Please contact Dr. Courtney Szto (c.szto@queensu.ca) to discuss screening costs and scheduling. As Revolutions is accepted to various film festivals, the viewing options will be updated on the website. You can watch the trailer for Revolutions below:

Author Biographical Note

Courtney Szto is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Her research broadly explores intersectional (in)justice in sports and physical activity. She is the Managing Editor of Hockey in Society and the author of Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the voices of South Asian Canadians. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.

A hockey player in a white jersey controls the puck near the goal with the goaltender close behind them.
While the number of men leaving college hockey to sign professional contracts increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been comparatively little discussion of women pursuing professional opportunities. (photo from Saint Mary’s University Huskies)

In 2022, Atlantic University Sport (AUS), a conference within Canadian university sport (U SPORTS), witnessed a significant number of its men’s hockey players sign professional contracts as a result of the uncertainty in their sport caused by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Deliberations about U SPORTS as a viable pathway to professional men’s hockey are not new; however, the number of athletes entering that pipeline increased significantly throughout the pandemic. In contrast, there was little to no public discussion of women having or pursuing the same opportunities. In this article, we discuss these issues by drawing on the first author’s research on AUS hockey athlete experiences of the pandemic and the second author’s personal experience as a former U SPORTS athlete who also competed internationally.

Inconsistency in the Atlantic Bubble

In a study of how the pandemic impacted AUS hockey athletes’ everyday lives and sense of wellbeing (publication forthcoming in a special edition of the Journal of Emerging Sport Studies), the first author employed an online questionnaire with men’s and women’s AUS hockey athletes, a content analysis of quotations from the same population in mainstream media articles, and a debrief interview with a player from a men’s team that graduated during the 2020-2021 season. In this data, we noted an unwelcome sense of uncertainty that called into question the limits of athlete patience and resilience (observed among 53% of survey respondents and 27% of content analysis material). The population was in a region known as The Atlantic Bubble, which permitted more—albeit inconsistent—competition and training than other U SPORTS conferences. Despite this, the athletes’ decisions to sign professional contracts was a by-product of the inconsistency. According to the interviewee, a man who had foregone a professional opportunity in 2021:

We thought we were going to start playing again after Christmas. Then we’re back at one point playing exhibition…Then Nationals are cancelled… So guys got tired of waiting and went pro—I think a couple women too…You only have so many opportunities left to play, so to not have to deal with that unknown, I understand that.

As it turns out, only one woman he mentioned transitioned to professional hockey and then returned to university hockey, but the authors were unable to locate local media coverage of her signing, apart from her Elite Prospects page. There are far fewer opportunities for women to play professional hockey, and this reality was highlighted by the lack of varsity-level women’s hockey athletes leaving their teams for the professional ranks. Nonetheless, the mention of professional hockey in the context of the study generated two streams of discussion: 1) why other competitive and professional leagues were operating while U SPORTS was not and 2) whether hockey is a bigger priority than education within U SPORTS.

Why were other leagues operating when U SPORTS was not?

An unexpected theme that surfaced in the AUS study was that many participants did not understand why non-academic hockey leagues were permitted to operate while U SPORTS was shut down. The authors flagged this as significant because study participants brought it up themselves and also due to the simultaneous push in Ontario to include university sport on the list of leagues that were permitted to operate. For the debrief interviewee, the fact that universities had more stringent regulations for sport participation than professional leagues was a reflection of education taking precedence over hockey. According to the interviewee:

Junior and professional hockey are a business first, and the university probably operates on higher ethical and safety standards. It’s not just about hockey here, it’s academics. I think the disappointment came from the fact that some of us were good enough to be in those leagues that were operating. I’ve got friends from AUS who are in the American Hockey League or the National Hockey League.

The interviewee’s response captures the frustration that ostensibly led athletes to pursue professional opportunities prior to graduation, which calls into question the extent to which education is a goal for them rather than a stepping stone to more hockey, if not both.

Does hockey take precedence over education for U SPORTS athletes?

In their study of the U SPORTS to men’s professional hockey pipeline, sport management scholars Cam Braes and Jon Edwards observed that, “although U SPORTS is not the most direct path to professional hockey, [interviewees] did not view it as a step backwards but as an alternative pathway to professional hockey while also gaining an education.” This is consistent with the second author’s experience, who in spite of valuing hockey over education while attending university, was committed to earning his master’s degree and going on to play on the international stage. According to the debrief interviewee, “it’s split in men’s hockey. You’ve got your people who are there because they want to go pro, you get people who are unsure, and you get people who are there for an education but also get to play hockey at the same time.” He also commented on the fact that several athletes enroll in university following Major Junior hockey (considered their best pathway in Canada to the formal professional ranks), adding: “remember that in Major Junior, hockey came first for us even though education was important, but here we’re ‘student-athletes’—we’re both—but not everyone balances it the same.”

The pandemic forced universities to move to online learning, which enabled many athletes to pursue professional opportunities while completing their education. At the same time, some athletes had to unpack their priorities between education and hockey. For men who had come from Major Junior, to play professionally meant that they would be giving up the scholarships they received from the Canadian Hockey League. Moreover, according to U SPORTS eligibility regulations, to play men’s professional hockey could possibly result in sitting out and losing a year of eligibility if the athlete were to return to U SPORTS. Conversely, women do not have the same Major Junior scholarship opportunities, and the eligibility rule does not apply to them, although they do not have the professional options that men do either.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted U SPORTS hockey athletes’ patience and resilience. One impact of this was an increase in men transitioning to professional hockey. For women, the pandemic further exhausted the virtually non-existent opportunities to compete. How the athletes will continue to negotiate their educational and athletic priorities as they move through and past the shifting options and realities imposed by the pandemic remains to be seen.

Author Biographical Notes

Cheryl MacDonald is a sport sociologist and Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Sport & Health at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests include university athlete support and development programming as well as various types of qualitative ice hockey studies. Visit her institutional web page and follow her on Twitter.

Michael Auksi is an Anishinaabe-Estonian PhD candidate at McGill University in the faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education. His research areas of interest include Indigenous hockey in relation to the Canadian residential school system, current pathways to high-performance hockey, and the use of technosciences in supporting community sport and wellness goals. He is accessible via email (michael.auksi@mcgill.ca) and Instagram:@mike_auksi.