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North American sports, and particularly as it’s played out in the US, is structured in way as to seem almost exotic to the outside observer. Moreover, the space occupied by the four American national sports leave but little room for other sports, in the media coverage as well as for a share of the audience. And then there is the inescapable lack of football – that is, what the rest of the world calls football and the Americans know as soccer. American literature in the field of sport studies and sport science tend to be regarded as quite irrelevant by European readers; there are few common traits and comparative analyses are difficult and unrewarding. There are of course exceptions, which the diligent reader of the Forum review section will have noted, and on paper a book entitled Sociology of North American Sport should be of interest to a sport sociologist of any nationality. Which is why that particular volume was selected for a review by two sociologists of sport working in Norway, Steven Connolley and Jon Helge Lesjø. This classic work, now in its 8th edition, written by D. Stanley Eitzen and George H. Sage and published by Paradigm, turned out to slightly less than meet the expectations of our two reviewers, by lacking in sociological stringency and critical perspective.

Good on sport, but needs more distance

Steven Connolley & Jon Helge Lesjø
Lillehammer University College

D. Stanley Eitzen & George H. Sage
Sociology of North American Sports: 8th Edition
386 pages, pb., ill.
Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers 2009
ISBN 978-1-59451-575-0

This textbook by two recognized scholars in the field is well established, demonstrated by the fact that it is now in its eighth edition and that it has been in the market for several years. While the two first editions were focused on sport in American society, the following ones were broadened to include sport in Canadian society as well. This new edition is updated in content as well as with new references and web resources, pedagogic shaping, and several box features. The authors, D. Stanley Eitzen and George H. Sage, are established scholars in the field of the sociology of sport and have published widely; both now professors emeriti at Colorado State University and University of Northern Colorado, respectively.

The book is organized in 15 chapters with topics familiar to this kind of introductory textbooks, including, youth and sport, intercollegiate sport, social problems connected to sport, sport and religion, politics, economy, the mass media, stratification and mobility, racial-ethnic minorities, gender and sport, etc. The introducing chapter presents the sociological framework in general and sociological approaches to analysing sport, as seen by the authors. The presentation of different paradigms and theories in the field divides the sociological landscape into functionalism, conflict theory, critical theories (several positions), and interactionist theory. These may be sufficient for an introductory book. The authors adhere to a pluralistic view on theories but with a preference for critical theories in a broad sense, owing to a normative stand on the need for reform, through which they feel “committed to moving sport and society in a more human direction”. 

The authors have divided the sporting world in North America into three levels: informal sport, organized sport, and corporate sport, and this categorization may obviously also be helpful. But despite the ambition of destroying myths, they may have moved close to producing new ones by exclusively connecting the pleasure and delights of the participants in the first two, and alienation and struggle in the last. As a concluding chapter, the authors present a discussion of contemporary trends and possible future for sport in North America.

Now, the sporting world of the most powerful and influential nation on earth and its neighbour to the north often arouses the curiosity of the rest of the world. Besides the conspicuous absence of soccer, the external observer can see a range of unusual practices that may be difficult to understand, say, the crowd of around 10 000 to watch a game of American football at the level of secondary school, accompanied by team prayers and impossibly chirpy cheerleaders, or the astounding millions of dollars involved in big-time university sports. 

The Sociology of North American Sport is a textbook with a title that would appear to promise to the curious some answers. But does it? Actually, because the authors lard this work with countless anecdotes and quotations from famous North American sporting figures, the reader is left with the distinct impression that they wrote this book primarily for fans of North American sports. The outsider, then, will have to do some extra research to find out the significance of many of the examples.

Perhaps the weakest chapter is on the value system of North American sports, in which the authors try to show parallels with the “American value system” and sporting values.
Yet, it is precisely this extra effort required of the outsider that would have produced a more sociological treatment of the subject. A textbook on this subject aimed at an international readership would have entailed the raising of more fundamental questions. There is no question of the authors’ dedication to the state of sports in that continent, but this deep commitment is perhaps what makes it difficult for them to address more fundamental issues that the outsider would like to have seen addressed. Perhaps, then, it is the outsider who, in the spirit of an anthropologist, would be best disposed to giving a better sociological account of the relatively insular world of North American sport.

Let us take the chapter on intercollegiate sports, for instance. The authors are intent on dismantling the myth of the ‘student-athlete’, that is, the notion that participants are students first, and athletes second, and other illusions generated by university sports.  While they are quite justified in exposing the problems connected with this fictive and much abused idea, they give scant attention to the question of why sports on such a gargantuan scale exist within educational institutions at all – and that is a question of deeper sociological significance. The bewildered outsider would certainly not have failed to raise this question, and the critical one would have wanted to have seen a discussion on whether the whole thing is an overblown spectacle.

Perhaps the weakest chapter is on the value system of North American sports, in which the authors try to show parallels with the “American value system” and sporting values. The problem here is that they appear to have founded this chapter on the idea that sport is a “microcosm” of the North American society in general, and this assertion commits the authors into making gross generalizations. Instead, a chapter that ties certain theories of ideology with North American sports would not only have been more useful, but also more consistent with the author’s leanings for a conflict perspective.

Besides our critical remarks, we are quick to recognize the book’s strengths as well, especially a fine chapter on history and the social and cultural sources for the rise of sport in North America. One of the goals of the book is to tear down myths and to give young readers a critical understanding of sport in contemporary society. For many users of this book in its main market, the authors’ obviously strong knowledge of sport and use of sociological perspectives on the sporting industry will give students a chance to see in a new light practices often taken for granted. But, in our view, for American readers and especially for Scandinavian students, a more detached and outsider perspective would have produced a better understanding of the distinctive character of sport in North America.

© Steven Connolley & Jon Helge Lesjø 2009.

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