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Is sport really good for society?
by Nick Piercey in Sociology

Germany vs Poland, Euro 2016. By George M. Groutas [CC BY 2.0]

The medical effects of sport seem to be well understood, there being a consensus that it is good for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But what about its non-medical effects? For example, are the effects of sport on society generally positive? Nick Piercey shares his views.

narrated by Vidish Athavale

music by Kai Engel, Dexter Britain and Lee Rosevere

Nick Piercey

Nick Piercey

Nick is an Honorary Research Associate at the UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society. His research focuses on the interactions between sport, culture and society. Nick's first monograph, Four Histories about Early Dutch Football, 1910-1920: Constructing Discourses, will be published by UCL Press in open access.

One of the most important questions concerning sport is whether it is entirely good for us. We often hear about its medical benefits; how it can be a key part of developing and maintaining a healthy body, of managing weight and as a way of helping with a range of medical issues. It is said to encourage healthy habits, like reduced alcohol intake or not smoking. Despite the instances of injury, illness or worse, sport seems to be generally promoted as a healthy activity.

But there are also many non-medical aspects of sport. How does it shape our society? Is sport something that promotes happiness, well-being and liberty, or perhaps something that has more concerning effects?

Sport is often said to have a ‘cathartic’ effect on those who participate; it gives a place to let out the stresses of everyday life. This idea was a focus for many functionalist sport researchers, including Stephenson and Nixon in 1972, who were interested in developing a theory of how sport contributed to social well-being.

They said that, for individuals, sport was useful because it acted to provoke, manage and soothe extreme passions. It removed fears of the abstract social experience by providing regular, stable structures, and it helped in the creation and maintenance of friendship and normative behaviour. Sport was a part of culture that was able to transfer accepted social norms and beliefs. It linked the individual to the wider nation-state and created a form of collective identity. International sporting success could provide a sense of emotional satisfaction, pride, and even superiority in the nation or group.

But this positive view wasn’t shared by all. In 1981, Jean-Marie Brohm, influenced by broadly Marxist ideas, proposed a radical critique of sport. Sport, he said, was a form of self-abuse in which the body of the individual was twisted and manipulated. For Brohm, sport served to alienate the individual from their own body.

While sport created an identity, it wasn’t one which helped promote peaceful societies, but one fuelled by nationalism and imperialism. Sporting ceremonies were more akin to fascist rallies than to expressions of peace and camaraderie. They provided a catharsis that didn’t alleviate tension, but masked it, hiding the inherent class conflict within capitalism.

One problem with both of these theories is that they don’t consider how sport relates to different societies in time or place. Since the 1980s, research into sport and society have produced a range of proposals about how the two have been interlinked in different places and periods. My interdisciplinary historical research is part of this effort.

I consider how sport was part of constructing ideas and perspectives of the world in the early twentieth-century Netherlands. The proposal is that sport was of fundamental importance in constructing and reproducing discipline, order and authority in the Netherlands after 1900.

In the late 1800s a range of cultural organisations and clubs emerged in the Netherlands; sporting organisations were one part of this. Such organisations were places where ideas were contested and where authority became intimately linked to disputes about how the world should be constructed. The dominant discourses of values were linked to entrepreneurship, self-sacrifice, the nation, male superiority, and respect of authority. Clubs and organisations became part of a disciplinary mechanism which spread such ideas and sport, with its ability to focus on bodily movement, became a particularly important focus of this attempt to shape the future.

This concept of discipline is outlined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. He says that after the eighteenth century the implementation of authority and power began to focus on the body on an increasingly small and intricate scale. Rather than punishing individuals’ misdeeds with physical pain as had been common before this point, the disciplinary mechanism focused on movements and gestures. Individuals internalised rules and began to police their own behaviour. By doing so they became more docile, useful and productive. Daily life became permeated by a series of regulations, organisation and permitted practices, which were governed by ‘infra-penalties’ aimed at changing actions. This disciplinary mechanism operated in schools, factories and prisons, and created a more microscopic form of control than before.

Football in the Netherlands was also part of this disciplinary mechanism. Administration became a fundamental aspect of the sporting process, especially in its control over time. Sporting organisations regulated the length of games and when they would be played. Football developed a regular rhythm, with training, matches and media reports occupying regular places in the week.

Training instilled the need for certain bodily actions and how one should respond to opponents and authority. The body became used to responding to whistles rather than to force. Through sport, who, how and where we may use our own body was being coded and restricted. This process was reproduced with every game.

With the growth of football came a whole new set of data; including league tables, membership lists, medical records and addresses. With this knowledge came an ability to rank, to differentiate, and to compare against an idealized norm. As interest in football grew in the media, the means of reproducing tables and rankings in everyday life grew.

All these aspects of discipline culminated in the match. As football became more popular, matches played in newly built stadiums became the most effective tools of mass observation in society, where fans, police, the referee, administrators and players could all be observed by each other.

My research suggests that early Dutch football was intrinsically linked to the reproduction of power in wider society, to an attempt to shape how we may use our own body, when we can use it and who gets to decide this. It constructs an environment where discipline, order, and authority become engrained in the body on the minutest level and where we can be examined and observed on a regular basis.

So, to finally return to the question: is sport good for society? There is no easy answer. The proposal outlined here is influenced by the way sport helps to reproduce certain discourses in society today, discourses that favour authority, organisation, and those with an interest in order and docility. I don’t believe this is good for us.

However, this research also suggests that sport has the capacity to change society — the constructs attached to sport both in the early twentieth-century Netherlands and today aren’t fixed. Sport can be an agent for change and can benefit us all.