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According To Coakley

According to Coakley (Coakley 2015) the “great sport myth” is that sport is essentially good and pure, and that pureness is transferred to the people that participate in it. In general, this leads to a lack of critical analysis of sport. More importantly, it acts as a barrier for the request for that analysis. Questions of race, class, and gender are said to be “political” and outside the realm of sport. Because of this great sport myth, there is little inspiration to change the greater structures of sport.

In many cases, this myth is carried on when interpreting the changing nature of sport. The progress that has been made in changing the gaps in gender, racial, and class ideology frequently are used as tokens of equality being “achieved”. In this section I will discuss further sport as a social space that reaffirms and recapitulates ideologies of gender, race, and class. I then evaluate sport as an institution in terms of equity, access, power, and inequality.

Positive Values Attributed to Sport

As mentioned initially, there is a “great sport myth” that involves sport being essentially pure and good (Coakley 2015). The reasoning behind this is complicated. Part of the reason that sport is such an affirming form of culture is that it is widely recognized to be a meritocratic venture. Meaning, that the people who are best at sports deserve to be playing at the highest levels. Conversely, those who lose frequently have it attributed to personal characteristics. As an example of this type of idea, Chambliss (1989) looked at elite swimmers to study “the mundanity of excellence”. Chambliss wasn’t hoping to reaffirm any ideologies behind sport, but merely states that is convenient to study stratification in swimming because:

“…success in swimming is so definable, and the stratification system so (relatively) unambiguous (so that the athlete’s progress can be easily charted), we can clearly see, by comparing levels and studying individuals as they move between and within levels, what exactly produces excellence.” (Chambliss 1989: 70)

But the fact that some of the clearest forms of stratification come from sport is what makes sport a unique site for looking at inequality. Winning and losing are clearly defined outcomes. In many cases, there are rankings. This is unique because unlike many other professions or activities, there are objective measures of excellence. It is much more difficult to study excellence in art, or music. Productivity, sure. Popularity. But in those categories “excellence” must be defined subjectively by the popular culture or by those who have the cultural capital (elites or authorities) to define something as “excellent”.

Without going to deep into the stratification of sport, it is worth discussing the implications of a clearly defined stratification system. Sport is one of the clearest reifiers of the dominant social class ideologies in America: meritocracy and the American Dream. By “meritocracy” meaning that people who achieve a certain social class or status deserve it, and have achieved it through hard work (not luck or support from a system that benefits them). The American Dream compliments the meritocratic ideals by concluding that anyone can be whatever they want to be. Being the “land of the free” means as much. The base level of support for these two things are key in understanding what follows.

The State of Sport

Simply put: there is no equality in sport. There never has been. The road to it is a steep hill to climb. In some ways things are better than they ever have been with regards to equality in sport. But, as I will describe further, the insidious forms of inequality that continue to be pervasive will be much more difficult to change than the initial changes in opportunities for oppressed groups.

Gender, race, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexuality all intersect at the axes of sport. Rather than try and give a comprehensive breakdown of the changes over time of each of these areas, which would likely require a whole text, I will focus on some of the main points from them all. Considering their overlapping nature, it will provide a more concise look at equity, access, and power.

Gender equality in sport has been progressively happening over the past century. Initially, women were thought to be too fragile to play sport, and that it would impact their biology. Once those concerns were invalidated, women slowly gained entry to the sporting field by calling themselves “ladies”, to stymie the increasing feeling that they were invading the male dominated arena of sport. Race operated similarly at that time, with baseball teams (Indianapolis Clowns) and basketball teams (Harlem Globetrotters) having to operate as “clowns” or entertainment that whites would pay to see, without challenging white normativity in the arena (Coakley 2015). Women today are still not able to break through the orthodox gender ideologies in sport that are male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. Male dominated meaning that being qualified in sports is related to masculine characteristics. Male identified meaning that women’s sports must be pushed to the periphery. This is why there is the WNBA, or Women’s World Cup. Linguistically, this may also be why NCAA women’s teams have to have qualifiers like “ette” or “lady” (Eitzen 2001). Finally, male-centered means that men are expected (as the core of sport) to be heavily covered. Women’s games, records, events etc. are pushed “out of bounds” (Johnson 2006). These concepts are heavily interlaced with ideas sexuality. If someone, man or woman, challenges the orthodox gender practices they may be “gay” or a “lesbian”.

As women continued to challenge the orthodox gender ideologies (at the time) they continued to gain access. But the line of demarcation for women’s sports happened in 1972 with the passage of Title IX by congress. Title IX declared that:

“no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” ((Congress 1972)

The “teeth” behind Title IX was that it was supposed to be able to take away funding from schools that didn’t cooperate accordingly. The initial reaction was that men were more “naturally” suited for sports, so of course they had higher rates of participation (again with meritocracy). But the numbers prior to Title IX are truly staggering.

In 1971 3.7 million boys played high school sport. This is compared to 295 thousand girls. A 12.5 to 1 ratio. Not to mention that boys got 99 cents of every dollar that went to funding high school sports. Intercollegiate sports weren’t much better. In 1971 there were 180 thousand men in intercollegiate sports, and only 32 thousand women. Put another way, one out of every ten men was an athlete, compared to one out of every hundred women. Unsurprisingly, only 1% of athletic budgets were going to women. (Lapchick 2016)

Over the 45 years there have been many legal challenges to Title IX, and some changes in enforcement. Initially, compliance required a school meet one of three conditions/tests. 1) Proportional participation — meaning the number of women on sport teams is similar to the proportion of women as full time undergraduates. 2)History of progress — meaning that a school can document that it has a clear history and continued practice of expanding sport programs for females. 3)Accommodation of interest—schools can prove they’ve effectively accommodated the interests of female students enrolled and potential future students.

Eventually, due to the extremely lax and subjective nature of 2 and 3, the proportional participation test became a major indicator of compliance. In 2005, President Bush modified the criteria so the accommodation of interest for easier compliance, requiring only a survey to female students indicating their interest. President Obama reversed that decision later, but years of progress had been stymied (Brake 2012).

With the difficulties of enforcement in the early years and the Bush years, Title IX has not been completely able to achieve equality. In the 2016-2017 Year, 4.5 million boys played high school sports. Compare this to 3.4 million girls. (National Federation of State High School Associations 2017) Although the increase from 295 thousand girls to 3.4 million is great progress, the amount of girls playing isn’t even at the level of boys in 1971. Not to mention population increases over the past 45 years. Collegiate athletics isn’t much better. In 2016, the proportion of males to females was 56.4 % to 43.6% for all divisions of NCAA. (Lapchick 2016) Even with this increased participation in women’s sport, it remains much less visible than their male counterparts (Cooky, Messner, and Hextrum 2013).

Similar to the gender gap, there is a considerable issue with race access in sport. In 2016-2017, only 22% of division 1 male athletes were black, compared to 57.9% who were white. In total (Div. I, II, III), 64.9% are white, and 17.3% are black. It is increasingly clear that sports are not only male dominated, centered, and identified. They are also white dominated and centered. Of course, this isn’t the discourse that follows the discussion on race. The two highest profile sports (football and basketball) are dominated by African Americans. There are multiple explanations for the disproportionate amount of black athletes in basketball and football.

One is Hoberman (1997) asserting that sport is more important to black men of all economic classes. Another is Brooks and McKail (2008) who make connections to economic theory and look at the push-pull of structure and culture for black men, saying they become seen as preferred workers to fill those positions. Regardless, Edwards (1969) states that Black student athletes have to deal with social exclusion, discrimination in the classroom. Also, Adler and Adler (1991) develop the concept of role engulfment for college athletes, saying that they end up making sacrifices by only having a singular role at the university. It forces them to put their academic and social selves on the backburner.

For females, the rates listed above are even more disparate. 66% of division 1 female athletes are white. Only 12.6% are black. When considering all divisions, 72.6% are white, and only 9.3% black. This speaks to the intersectional nature of oppression in structures of sport. Barriers to access don’t equally impact people from all backgrounds. It is important to understand these consequences fully, but as Douglas and Jamieson (2006:126) suggest, a sizable portion of the critical sport scholarship ‘that deals with race considers the experiences of African-American men, while analyses of gender and sexuality examine the experiences of white women’. Not only do we need to interrogate the intersectional oppression of Black and Latino women, but we also need to understand further the linkages of whiteness to gender and class.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the discourse around athletics, the “unmarked” sports at the university end up being the ones most dominated by white athletes. Because of this, the scholarships that are easiest to get happen to go to white players. The most popular sport with high school boys is still football, and then basketball. Both have extremely huge pools of athlete “labor”, so competition is high. For white dominated sports, access is much easier.

For black women, access is the most difficult. The barriers operate on multiple fronts. Not only are there gender barriers, but also race. Some data that isn’t as easy to get to, but is well known by sociologists is the correlation between race and wealth (Oliver and Shapiro 1995). Social class, the underlying and unspoken aspect of race and class access is a large driving factor. Again, the sports that are dominated by whites are usually ones that have higher costs to enter. Consider hockey as an example. Getting access to rink time, equipment, and training is crucial and also very expensive. There is no wonder that sports like hockey, golf, tennis, and NASCAR are dominated by relatively affluent whites. Universities rarely deal with Title IX compliance issues in sport, and even more rare is a funding pull because of the issue. This is mostly related to a lack of resources by the civil rights division of the United States government to pursue such complaints.

Although Title IX deals solely with students and players at these federally funded schools, it’s worth noting the differences at other levels by race and gender. For Division 1, 86% of coaches and 87% of athletic directors were white. For the power 6 conferences of women’s teams, only 43% of head coaches were women, and only 10% of athletic directors of women. To hammer this point home, 88% of campus leadership positions at FBS (the largest football schools) were white, and 76% of president positions. Women only filled 17.5% of those positions. (Lapchick 2016)

Research has continued to show that opportunities in administration, coaching, and ownership fall behind participation in elite sport (Rhoden 2006; Shropshire 1996). Rhoden goes as far as coining the term (and the title of his book) forty million dollar slaves because black athletes have little capacity to becomes owners. Over a decade later, and that still holds true. Only the biggest athletes have any chance of getting to that level of power, like Michael Jordan, (owner of the Charlotte Hornets) Erving ‘Magic’ Johnson, (part owner of the LA Dodgers, and LA Sparks) and Shaquille O’Neal (minority owner of Sacramento Kings).

The biggest disparities still exist at the highest levels of sport. Women athletes are rarely paid. When they are, they generally make much less than men. Pay equity doesn’t exist in any of the team sports. The salary floor of the NBA is higher than the maximum salary in the WNBA. Many of the best women athletes have now decided to play internationally, as they can make much more playing in places like Turkey and Russia.

The marketing of these women athletes is generally trivialized as well. As is the discourse centered around women’s sport. Women have historically been asked to display “heterosexual femininity markers” such as ponytails and skirts to maintain gender boundaries. Today, we continue to see this with sports like beach volleyball, where women have to wear less functional clothing to attract the male gaze. Not to mention whole industry that is developed around the sexuality of women, such as lingerie leagues. Other arbitrary rules like ball size, field size, time of play, and contact rules are adjusted for men and women’s sports.

Today, Hendley and Bielby (2012) say athletes use a “reformed apologetic” to simultaneously express their toughness and assertiveness with traditional forms of femininity. This balance is difficult, if not impossible, for athletes of color to maintain. Black athletes like Serena Williams are consistently compared to animals, with discussion of physical prowess. Other athletes, like Maria Sharapova, are able to succeed based off of traditional forms of white sexuality. If you compare the records and the correlating endorsements of the two, there is a stark contrast. Layers of race, class, gender, and sexuality operate at the level of marketing.

When we begin to discuss some of the changes that scholars make related to broader constructions of femininity and gender, it truly is a double edged sword. We know that human bodies are diverse in terms of sex chromosome characteristics as well as genetic, cellular, hormonal, anatomical (Fausto-Sterling 2000). Recent popular athletes like Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner have contributed to a breaking down of the orthodox gender boundaries in sport. In the past few decades there has had to be increased discussion about gender, sex, and biology with regard to access to sport.

I would argue, that operating simultaneously to these deconstructive conceptions of sex and gender is an equal pushback from the orthodox gender hierarchy. Sports continue to be sites that reaffirm male and female difference, as a binary, and legitimate power and dominance (Paradis 2012). The study of hegemonic masculinity, that has been “nurtured” by the subfield of sport, is about the dominant forms of masculinity that emphasize power and violence (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Much culture work goes into maintaining this gender boundary, and punishing those who fall outside of it. Hartmann (2015) puts it best when he says:

“[Sport] makes male advantages and masculine values appear so normal and “natural” that they can hardly be questioned. Therein may lie the puzzle connecting men and the seemingly innocent world of sports: They fit together so tightly, so seamlessly, that they achieve their effects—learning to be a man, male bonding, male authority, and the like—without seeming to be doing anything more than tossing a ball or watching a Sunday afternoon game.” (p.20)

This dominant form of orthodox gender ideology, or hegemonic masculinity, creates a clear divide in the gender order. There is an attempt to keep sport a “male space” regardless of the gains made by women or LGBTQ individuals. Some argue that the more territory that women are able to gain in sport, the more men will retreat to sports that are “manly” or ones that maintain their athletic superiority (Nelson 1994)

What is clear, is that new cultural shifts are related to the challenging (contested terrain) of sport, ability to challenge the dominant narratives about race, gender, sexuality (Messner 1988).

Some barriers to continued inclusion based on race, class, and gender are multidimensional. One may be that it has been found that women work a “second shift” (Hochschild and Machung 2012) that involves doing more work around the house and other duties associated with upkeep than men. This is coupled with the historically increasing amount of women who are in the workforce. With that in mind, it has been found that men are more likely to compartmentalize and workout/play sports than women (Taniguchi and Shupe 2014).

Another continued barrier is the clear effects of neoliberal agenda in America, where sport at all levels in increasingly privatized. The related budget cuts to public sport programs, resistance to regulation like Title IX, and privatization of sport at all levels increases the barriers to athletes of color and women. As the prices of sports become more expensive for youth, barriers are put up based on social class. A “pay-to-play” system develops. We especially see this in elite forms of youth sports. It is not unheard of to pay thousands of dollars a year on youth sports.

There is also the simple issue of coverage. The connection between commercialization, the media, and the popularity of sport are closely linked. Knowing that what we see more impacts choices highlights the importance of having gender equity in coverage. Of course, this is not the case. Multiple studies highlight the disparity in coverage of women’s and men sports (Cooky et al. 2013). This is also important because traditionally there has been that mediator of the sports network that gives you a limited amount of options to access. As time moves on, and sociologists study digital communities, it will be interesting to see if the increasing importance of the internet and social media can create alternatives for women in sport.

I recognize that I have also possibly contributed to a level of reaffirmation of orthodox gender concepts here. For nearly this whole section I have posited “male” vs “female”. We know, as sociologists, the much broader spectrum of gender identity that exists in society. For the purposes of brevity and to outline the main arguments across race, class, and gender, I was not able to delve deeper into those areas. But the issues of homophobia and the trans community are foregrounded in research increasingly, and will no doubt be an area of sport to pay attention to.

In conclusion, I have attempted to outline the positive values of sports as they are often attributed. First, I gave some historical background on gender inequity, and provided data for the shifting nature of inequality in sport. I then turned to multiple issues of inequality, equity, and access. Finally, I discussed some of the barriers to change that still continue to exist. The initial question of a cultural shift is interesting. It is possible, that through sport we have seen a cultural shift in ideologies around gender. But the fact that the vast majority of sport continues to be male dominated, identified, and centered creates doubt that it has had a significant impact. Sports remain an environment ripe for the reproduction of dominant forms of white masculinity (Ferber 2007).

The concern is that, similar to Bonilla Silva’s (2014) ideas on tokenism with regard to president Obama and colorblind ideology, a similar thing will happen in sport. People break down boundaries and then it is argued that equity has clearly been achieved. When you see women do this in refereeing, coaching, and other male spaces, how easy will it be for the following women to be the second? Continued questioning of the gender gap and constructions of femininity on all levels of sport is important to understand whether a cultural shift has truly occurred.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.