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The Redefined Definition of Sport

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The Redefined Definition of Sport

Brendan McGann

Module 1: Defining Sport Essay


“Sports teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose-it teaches you about life.”

~Billie Jean King

        Sports have been around since the start of civilization. There are questions of them being for play, like today, or for survival. However, as civilizations progressed through time and industrialized, so has sport. It has gone from an undefined pastime/survival instinct for all citizens, to a prestigious activity for the upper classes, to a pastime for most but a career for the most elite today. The sport that exists today is considered “contemporary sport” and is very crucial to our society. The cruciality is explained through C. Wright Mills’ concept of sociological imagination. Mills created this concept by explaining that any seemingly unconnected event, thing, or person does in fact connect in a very complex fashion. A professor in Australia at the University of Queensland, Jim McKay, wrote in affirmation, “After grasping Mills’ main precepts, I discovered there were affinities between his standpoint of ‘studying up’ power structures and other critical epistemologies. For example, there are strong similarities between connecting personal troubles with public issues and the feminist premise ‘the personal is political’” (McKay, 2015, p. 549). Many people, however, fall into the aspect of thinking sport has no connection to society. This aspect is known a sporting fetishization that distracts from the societal construct that sport has. This societal construct is not just a one-way effect on sport, but an influence that goes both ways. To explain further, sport and contemporary society affect each other equally through modernization. Even with all these concepts in play to help define sport, it is one of the few concepts that is very popular in society today but cannot be specifically defined. The most specific definition of a sport comes from B. D. McPherson, J. E. Curtis, and J. W. Loy, who defined sport as “a structured, goal-oriented, competitive, contest-based, ludic physical activity” (McPherson, Curtis, Loy, 1989, p. 15). Even with this extremely specific definition from twenty-nine years ago, sport has evolved since then to defy it. The old traditional “sport” of chess and the new installation of e-sports both defy the “physical activity” part of the definition. Another problem with this definition is that it does not capture the effect that sport has. Billie Jean King, a phenomenal tennis player that won thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, scraped the surface of the effects that sport has, explaining the player point of view. Along with player aspects, the other aspects that help shape the definition of sport are media, economics, and politics.

        Media and sport has evolved rapidly throughout these recent years, along with technology. Best described by French situationist, Guy Debord, media has evolved to having the “Society of Spectacles”: monumental, individual, and commodity. Debord describes monumental spectacles, “The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification” (Debord, 1994, p. 12). In simpler terms, these are the mega-events. For example, Super Bowls and World Cups call the attention of all society and the media, through personally attending, connections to attendees, and, the largest field, television. The first televised World Cup was in 1954, television being 29 years old at that point. It took another 13 years after the first televised World Cup for the Super Bowl to finally be televised, and for football’s championship game to acquire the famous name, Super Bowl. The first ever football championship in 1933 had an estimated attendance of 25,000 people. Once television was introduced, an estimated 51.2 million people alone watched the Super Bowl from home. Today, we can expect well over 100 million people to watch the Super Bowl on television alone. The second spectacle is individual, and according to Debord, “Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles” (Debord, 1994, p. 38). The use of social media largely affects this spectacle. With social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, professional athletes can post about their lives and post their opinions on topics like everyday people. Through this form of media and communication, players set a role and win over fans, along with networking out to people who do not usually watch them. This spectacle affects all sport equally, however, soccer is the most affected. Seven of the ten most famous athletes on social media are soccer players, two of them are and were wresters, and the last is Michael Jordan. The final spectacle is commodity, which Debord described, “The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity” (Debord, 1994, p. 29). This spectacle captures the effect that brands have on sport and society. Bente Ovèdie Skogvang, Sports Science professor at Hedmark University College in Elverum, Norway, gives a more in-depth explanation on what happens in this spectacle. “When the cooperation between sport, the media and the sponsors develops into a symbiotic relationship it is defined as ‘the sport/media complex’. This so-called complex shows a shared commercial interest in sports participants, sports organizations, sponsors and the mass media” (Skogvang, 2009, p. 443). Athletic apparel brands are very pronounced throughout every sport, with every jersey of every team being produced by one of them, either Nike, Under Armour, Adidas, Jordan, or another brand. These brands are seen all over social media, television commercial, public advertisements, and consumers that freely advertise the brand they bought. Hidden within all spectacles that Debord set up is an economic system within media. Media has no specific interest in sport whatsoever, but since the viewer base does have that interest, they can turn sporting events into high revenue opportunities. Televising these events can also boost the revenue even further with advertisements. During NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics in London, it cost companies $725,000 for a thirty second commercial. Four years later, it cost $5 million for a thirty second commercial during CBS’s coverage of the Super Bowl. Media and sport affect each other equally, with media giving more publicity to sport and sport creating an economic system for media. However, this is not the only economy that sport is involved in.

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