Photo by Steve Tulk via flickr CC
Photo by Steve Tulk via flickr CC

The following is a guest post written by Kyle Green and Alex Manning. Kyle and Alex are sociology Ph.D students at the University of Minnesota. Kyle is a member of The Society Pages graduate board and co-host of the Office Hours podcast. His research focuses on culture, sport, gender, and the body. Alex researches race, youth, parenting, and sport.

This World Cup, soccer is on American’s minds at levels never reached before. Fans are filling bars, coffee shops, and even massive stadiums to cheer on the US national team. World Cup fervor has led many in the U.S. media to ask the once every four-year question, “has soccer made it in America?” Large television numbers, a sizeable number of American fans supporting in Brazil (Americans bought 7% percent of world cup tickets, only trailing Brazilians), large participation numbers, and increased youth consumption of the game, have all contributed to public discussion about the game’s popularity and place in the United States.  While there has been much excitement surrounding soccer and the World Cup, some have reacted to the popularity of the tournament with fear, dismissal, and outrage (here and here).

Audience: This activity would work well in a number of courses including Introduction to Sociology, Race, Class, & Gender, Sport & Society, and Sociology of Consumption.

Summary: In this activity the class works together drawing on personal experiences and associations with soccer to think about the social spaces the sport fills and to connect the participation and consumption patterns of the sport to larger social trends. In doing so the students will use their sociological imagination to begin to understand the fervor, both positive and negative, surrounding the World Cup.

Suggested readings:
Alan Tomlinson, Andrei S. Markovits, and Christopher Young. “Introduction Mapping Sports Space.” American Behavioral Scientist 46, no. 11 (2003): 1463-1475. 

While not the easiest article, it provides an excellent introduction to the ways that sociologists have discussed the relationship between sport and society and how sports, including soccer, come to occupy particular cultural spaces. 

David L. Andrews, Robert Pitter, Detlev Zwick, and Darren Ambrose. “Soccer, race, and suburban space.” Sporting Dystopias: The Making and Meaning of Urban Sport Cultures (2003).

This chapter examines the suburbanization of the world’s most popular game. In particular, the authors demonstrate how the growth of the sport in the United States owes much to its appeal to middle-class, white suburban sensibilities. We recommend assigning this reading before class.

Andrei S. Markovits, and Steven L. Hellerman. Offside: soccer and American exceptionalism. Princeton University Press, 2014.

The book provides a detailed historical contextualization of soccer’s growth, or lack of growth, in the United States. It would be an excellent reading to assign after the discussion or to recommend to students particularly interested in the topic.

*We avoid specifically referencing the articles in this activity to make it more accessible to courses that are currently underway or looking for an activity not requiring additional readings. 

Discussion Guide:

Part I

Begin by conducting three quick class surveys:

  1. Who played soccer (at any level)?
  2. Who watches soccer?
  3. Who plays soccer video games?

Get people’s immediate reaction to those numbers. Did the numbers or relationship between the three types of participation surprise anyone in the class? Why?

As a group work through the following sets of discussion questions based around the students’ experiences and associations with the game:

  1. (a)Have some of people who played soccer talk about why either they, or their parents, chose for them to play soccer. (b)Was soccer the only sport they played? (c)How did they think the sport was perceived by others? (d) Did they play the game in a rural, suburban, or urban environment? (e) Did they travel to play the sport?
  2. (a) Have some of the people who did not play soccer talk about how they perceived sport. (b) Was soccer perceived as a secondary sport? (c) Was soccer perceived as a less competitive sport?
  3. (a) As a group, free associate about the types of people who play soccer in the United States: who comes to mind? Are there particular class, gender, racial, ethnic background, nationality, region of the United States, urban/rural/suburban, and any other characteristics that come to mind. (b) Do you think this description would have fit 10 years ago? How about 20 or 30? What has changed?
  4. (a) When you think of the types of people who watch soccer in the United States, who comes to mind? Class, gender, racial, ethnic background, nationality, region of the United States, urban/rural/suburban, and any other characteristics that come to mind. (b) Are there types of soccer fans who consume in different ways? (c) Do you think this has changed? How so?
  5. (a) Why do you think the World Cup is more popular and visible now in comparison to the past? (b) Is it soccer as a whole or World Cup soccer that is more visible?

Part II

Have the class read:


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think is soccer seen as a threat and who might perceive it as such?
  2. Nationalism and patriotic pride often transcends political allegiances and is particularly associated with more conservative groups. What about this celebration of nationalism different?
  3. Did the Atlantic article make any points that you had not thought of before or found particularly convincing? Did the article miss or overstate anything?
  4. What might the argument over the place of soccer in the United States teach us about role of sport in society?
  5. Do you think soccer will continue to grow (participation and/or fandom)?
  6. Will cultural tensions continue to exist?
  7. Do you think it could rival or even replace any of the other major sports in the United States? Why or why not?

We are looking to make teaching TSP a home for lists of useful films, documentaries, memoirs, and books of fiction to be used when teaching sociology (see our post on Sport and Society Films).

If you have a request for a specific topic or course, let us know in the comments. And, if you have a list to share, definitely let us know in the comments.

The following is a collection of films, both fiction and non-fiction, that have been recommended for use in a Sport and Society course.
We encourage you to recommend additional films, readings to be used alongside the films, or tell us about your experience.

*Special thanks to the NASSS community for providing so many suggestions.

Sport Films (Non-fiction):

  • Go Tigers! (2001)
  • Jump! (2007) – Awesome jump rope documentary
  • Rocks with Wings (2002) (dir: Rick Derby)
  • 100% Woman:  the Michelle Dumaresq Story (2004)
  • Golden Gloves (or the Real Million Dollar Babies) (2007)
  • A League of Their Own (the documentary film) (1993)
  • Training Rules (2009) – It concerns the scandal around former Penn State Women’s Basketball Coach, Rene Portland. Maybe available on Hulu.
  • When We Were Kings (1996)
  • Playing Unfair (2002)
  • Chasing October
  • Football Under Cover
  • Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011) – Samantha King
  • A Hero for Daisy (1999) – a documentary about Title IX and rowing
  • PBS series “American Experience” has an episode on Jesse Owens – you can screen it online.
    Ahead of the Majority – It covers Patsy Mink’s political career and includes a section on her involvement in the politics of Title IX.
  • Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008) – examples of hegemonic masculinity and how the media influences males’ self-images (not just females, as is so commonly discussed).
  • Hoop Dreams (1994) – [can be combined with the chapter by C.L. Cole and Samantha King, “The New Politics of Urban Consumption: Hoop Dreams, Clockers, and America,” in Ralph C. Wilcox, ed., Sporting Dystopias: The Making and Meaning of Urban Sport Cultures, pp. 14, 221-246.]
  • Viva Baseball
  • Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
  • In Whose Honor
  • Not Just A Game (2010) – Dave Zirin provides a sociological analysis of how sport influences our society, particularly the parallels between the institution of sport and the military.
  • Pursuing the Perfect 10 – This was a CNN documentary that is available on YouTube in several parts. I used it as a review after lessons on youth sports and deviance in sports
  • An Enforcer’s Story – This is a documentary style video available in conjunction with a piece that ran in the NY Times about hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard’s death.
    Link: )
  • Murderball (2005) – documentary film about tetraplegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby. It centers on the rivalry between the Canadian and U.S. teams leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games.
  • Junior –documentary that follows a Canadian Hockey League team from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League called Baie-Comeau Drakker
  • Head Games (2012) – related to concussion and sport.
  • More Than a Game – Documents the early career of the heralded LeBron James’ high school experiences.
  • FIT: Episodes in the History of he Body (1991). This focuses on the history of the how we understand a ‘fit’ body, including analysis related to race, social class, gender, disability and age.
  • The Journey of the African American Athlete” (Parts 1 and 2)
  • Blood on the Flat Track – documentary on the rat city roller girls
  • Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team
  • Joe Louis – America’s Hero Betrayed
  • Two Days In April – follows four NFL prospects through the process of preparing for and participating in the 2006 NFL Draft
  • 4th and Goal – Tale of six men trying to make it to the NFL
  • Undefeated – Oscar-winning 2011 documentary directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. The film documents the struggles of a high school football team, the Manassas Tigers of Memphis, as they attempt a winning season after years of losses.
  • Born and Bred – documentary following young latino boxers in LA
  • The Morgan Lacrosse Story (pbs) – This film tells the story of the nation’s first and only college lacrosse team at a historically black institution.
  • Gridiron & Steel – Western Pennsylvania and football
  • On the Shoulders of Giants – Story of the Harlem Rens
  • Bra Boys (2007) – A movie about a particularly hyper-masculine group of male surfers (the Bra Boys) in Sydney, Australia. A good example of a fratriarchal sporting group, and all the problematic aspects associated with such groupings. Can be used in conjunction with the critique from Clifton Evers in the Sydney Morning Herald:
  • Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) – The development of skateboarding in Southern California, great for revealing subcultural dynamics.
  • First Descent (2005) – A history of snowboarding and insight into the gender and age dynamics within core action sport groups.
  • This Ain’t California (2012) – In German with English subtitles, but offers a fascinating perspective on the development of skateboarding (and youth counter cultures) in East Berlin during the 1980s.
  • STRONG! – an awesome new documentary on Cheryl Hayworth, Olympic weightlifter. It deals well with questions of athleticism, gender, and normativity.
  • Offside (2006) – from Iran. Interesting to look at cross-cultural understandings and expressions of gender. It looks at how gender is used to define spaces of sport: specifically the soccer stadium.
  • Fearless (2012)  – about Sarah Burke and top athletes who risk their life for high performance sport
  • The Legacy of Brendan Burke (2010) – about Brendan Burke, homosexuality, hockey.
  • The Code (2010) – about hockey’s unwritten law of fighting and the men who live by it.
  • The Rise and Fall of Theo Flury – (Part 1, 2008) (Part 2, 2010), about sexual abuse, homosexuality, masculinity in Junior A hockey (and professional hockey)
  • The Other Final – Made by two Dutch filmmakers who were dismayed that the Dutch national team did not make the 2002 World Cup, they arranged to have the then two bottom-ranked (by FIFA), Bhutan and Montserrat,  to play a match.
  • A State of Mind (2004) – on the mass games in N. Korea.
  • Sumo East and West
  • The Game of Their Lives (2002) – by Daniel Gordon on the N. Korean 1966 World Cup Team.
  • Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball – On high school teams competing in Japan’s famous national “Koshien” tournament.
  • Tokyo Olympiad parts – great for considering how Japan sought to represent itself during the 1964 Games.
  • A Normal Life: Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler (2009)
  • Gaea Girls (2000) – on female wrestlers in Japan.
  • Brighton Bandits (2007) – first ever in-depth documentary about a gay soccer team
  • Justin (2008) — about gay footballer Justin Fashanu and a campaign against homophobia
  • Algorithm (2012) – gorgeous film about blind chess players in India
  • River of Life –about the breast cancer survivor voyageur canoe team  “Paddlers Abreast” competing in the Yukon River Quest wilderness canoe race – 740 kms/460 miles in three days. Available for purchase (about $20 or so) through the NFB of Canada and free here:

30 for 30 (ESPN series) – many documentaries that could be useful for teaching. 

Sport Films (Fiction):

  • Friday Night Lights
  • North Dallas Forty
  • Girlfight
  • Eight Men Out
  • The Fighter
  • Invictus
  • Sugar – You can use this to talk about sports migrants, race, and ethnicity
  • Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings
  • Varsity Blues
  • Coach Carter
  • Hurricane Season
  • Bend it Like Beckham
  • Chariots of Fire – discuss sport and early 20th century nationalism