The Mobilization of ‘Common Sense’ in Sports

The Mobilization of ‘Common Sense’ in Sports

Marty Clark

For my first Left Hook entry I’m resisting the urge to wax philosophical about the Blue Jays or the Jets – although there might be the odd hockey metaphor.  Instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to write about a much bigger issue I’ve been thinking about over the past year: the power of the so-called ‘common sense’ ideas about sport that we accept as ‘truth.’  These are often referred to, within the social sciences, as dominant sport discourses and my goal, in understanding these dominant ideas about sport, is to offer an angle into challenging them and making the sports world a better place for everyone.

To enter into this discussion I’m going to reflect on my recent experience teaching my first ever course at Queen’s University, a first year undergrad class called the “introduction to the sociology of sport,” and talk about the resistance I encountered when I brought up the idea that the sports world can be unfair to women, an issue that was raised by Ellie Gordon-Moershel’s piece last week on so-called ‘big babe’ tennis.

Unlike ‘real’ science or math courses, the sociology of sport is not about learning the multiplication table or filling up a beaker or two.  Rather, it’s about teaching students to use sociological theories to investigate issues in sport and society such as:

  • why certain physical activities and not others are identified and designated as sports;
  • how sports impact our ideas about masculinity, femininity, class inequality, race and ethnicity, work, fun, achievement, competition, individualism, aggression, and violence;
  • how the organization and meaning of sports is connected with social relations in groups, communities, and societies;
  • how sports are connected with important spheres of social life (such as family, education, politics, economics, media, and religion).

The overall aim is to get students to think critically about sports and society.  In order to do this, I introduced a different topic each week, such as gender and sport, race and sport, disability and sport, etc.

I decided early on that lecturing on sport sociology for two hours a week was going to be nothing but uplifting and rewarding.  My projected formula for success was simple: take my Jeremy Roenick-esque public speaking skills (if you’ve seen him, you know I’m kidding), combine that with a dash of humour and charm (see above), add some of that education and training that has anchored me with debt (it’s still growing!), and teach those undergrads a thing or two about sport and society (my “World’s Greatest Prof” mug was in the mail).  However, the majority of the 142 students were resistant to the very first topic: gender and sport.

I introduced several terms and ideas under the broad topic of gender such as: gender ideology, gender as a social construction, issues of gender equality and equity, and the (re)production of traditional masculinity and femininity.  I used different examples from the sports world to help illustrate these (often new) terms and ideas.  For example, I discussed the difference between men’s and women’s hockey – rules in women’s hockey prohibit body checking and players must wear full face shields, despite the fact that most women playing hockey can handle a bodycheck and I’m sure many would love to don a half-shield.  Men, I argued, are supposed to be physcial and rough, and scars only help show this.  However, women are supposed to be delicate and smooth, and scars only go against this.  This example, and others like it, helped illustrate how sports are gendered and how unequal the sports world can be.

Sports Illustrated only featured one woman on the cover in 2011: predictably, they presented U.S. national soccer team goalkeeper Hope Salo wearing a lot of makeup and featuring the tagline “Heart and Heartbreak.”

During a talk on the sexualization of women athletes I mentioned that unlike representations of male athletes in sport magazines – which feature muscular, sweaty men ‘doing’ their respective sport – women athletes are usually ‘made up’ and posed for the camera, often in a sexually suggestive manner.  “Isn’t it interesting,” I remarked, “that men are represented as athletes while women are represented as sexual objects.”  In response one student stated, “but, women and men are just different.”  The majority of students, it seemed, just weren’t buying it. The general reaction to the three classes on gender and sport is perhaps best summed up by another student who offered up this explanation as to why men dominate the sports world: “men are just better at sports…they just are.”

Encouraging my students to think critically about the male-dominated sports world and the marginalization of women was hard to do, because it ran counter to certain ‘truths’ we learn about sports.  We are taught that sport is war and games are battles.  Athletes have to be tough, big, and rough.  You have to bleed, sweat, etc.  All these things – which we think we know – fit nicely with the dominant construction of masculinity and often clash with the dominant construction of femininity.  And on top of all of it sits the widely held notion that sport is inherently good.  Sport, don’t you know, is always healthy, always good for you.  How dare I say something bad about sport when sport isn’t bad!

Getting my students to think critically about sports did not mesh well with what they had learned from the media, their families, friends, teachers, coaches, teammates, and through their own experiences.  But, I’m happy to report that by the second half of the course students began to challenge what they thought they knew about sport.  For example, many female students wrote excellent self-reflexive essays on how they were encouraged to participate in “female appropriate” sports like figure skating and dance while their brothers played hockey or football, while other women wrote on the extreme social and peer pressures to be thin in swimming and dance.  Interestingly, many male students wrote on the unfair sexualization of women athletes, while others reflected on the hyper-masculine subculture of their own dressing rooms.

How and why did their perspective begin to change?  My persistence probably helped, for sure.  But ultimately, I think many ‘common sense’ ideas or ‘truths’ about sports start to crumble when we take a step back and think about them critically.  When we choose to accept the ‘knowledge’ that “men are better athletes,” we fail to think about the history of sport, how it has been constructed to privilege physicality, strength, etc, and how women were almost always excluded.  For instance, women were discouraged from riding bicycles in the late 1800s because medical authorities thought that they would damage their reproductive organs.  It took a long time to convince people otherwise, and perhaps we haven’t yet?  After all, women still aren’t allowed to throw bodychecks in hockey.

Beware the dangers of women on bicycles!

From my first teaching experience I observed the power of ‘common sense’ ideas about sport and gender, ideas that help perpetuate sport as a male preserve.  ‘Common sense’ ideas about sport also privilege many other groups like white people, heterosexuals, the able-bodied, etc.  In future Left Hook entries I want to keep challenging these understandings of sport because they privilege certain groups and marginalize others.  It’s unacceptable to simply assert things like “men are just better athletes.”  We need to think critically about such statements and that requires asking important questions about the social and material foundations of the sporting world and sporting culture, in order to determine how those kinds of ideas have come to possess such power and how we can work against them.

Marty Clark is originally from Winnipeg, MB and now teaches sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON.

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7 Responses to The Mobilization of ‘Common Sense’ in Sports

  1. Xtina says:

    Great piece! A lot of ‘common sebse’ ideas about gender and sports are certainly ridiculous, and I’m glad students are beginning to see that. Another big problem is the medicalization of gender in sports – as we saw in 2009 with Caster Semenya, and as we are seeing being raised again as the olympics are approaching –

    I read parts of the handbook that talk about gender verification and Hyperandrogenism – it’s pretty disturbing and sounds incredibly humiliating for female athletes.

    Anyways, looking forward to more great pieces.

  2. Good stuff Marty! I’ve TAed similar courses and bumped up against similar challenges with getting students to think critically. It’s definitely tough (especially if you are teaching a lot of current or former athletes for whom sport is a big part of their identity) but can be rewarding when some students do start questioning their “common sense” assumptions. I’m teaching a course for the first time next year, called Hockey in Canadian Society. Should be an interesting challenge…

    • Marty says:

      Hi Mark, wow that course sounds awesome. I pitched a similar course to Queen’s, but I didn’t meet the deadline for new course proposals. Please keep me informed about the course (I’m sure we will sit down at NASSS to discuss).

  3. Left Hook says:

    Mark, that sounds like an amazing course. I would love to teach that sometime. Send me an email so I can get you writing for Left Hook!

    Also, this from the Star today, reinforcing much of what Marty (and Ellie last week) said about women in sports:–the-naked-truth-about-women-s-rugby#article

  4. Pingback: Weekly Links: NHLPA and owners begin CBA negotiations; Social media and hockey analytics; Plans for new arena in Markham « Hockey in Society

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