The Sociology of Sports

Studying the Relationship Between Sports and Society

Fans cheering at American football game
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The sociology of sports also referred to as sports sociology, is the study of the relationship between sports and society. It examines how culture and values influence sports, how sports influences culture and values, and the relationship between sports and the media, politics, economics, religion, race, gender, youth, etc. It also looks at the relationship between sports and social inequality and social mobility.

Gender Inequality

A large area of study within the sociology of sports is gender, including gender inequality and the role that gender has played in sports throughout history. For example, in the 1800s, the participation of women in sports was discouraged or banned. It was not until 1850 that physical education for women was introduced at colleges. In the 1930s, basketball, track and field, and softball were considered too masculine for proper women. Even as late as 1970, women were banned from running the marathon in the Olympics—a ban that wasn't lifted until the 1980s. 

Women runners were even banned from competing in regular marathon races. When Roberta Gibb sent in her entry for the 1966 Boston marathon, it was returned to her, with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running the distance. So she hid behind a bush at the start line and snuck into the field once the race was underway. She was lauded by the media for her impressive 3:21:25 finish.

Runner Kathrine Switzer, inspired by Gibb's experience, was not so lucky the following year. Boston's race directors at one point tried to forcibly remove her from the race. She did finish, in 4:20 and some change, but the photo of the tussle is one of the most glaring instances of the gender gap in sports in existence.

However, by 1972, things began to change, specifically with the passage of Title IX, a federal law that states: 

"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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Title IX effectively makes it possible for female athletes attending schools that receive federal funding to compete in the sport or sports of their choice. And competition at the college level is very often a gateway to a professional career in athletics.

Gender Identity

Today, women’s participation in sports is approaching men’s, though differences are still present. Sport reinforces gender-specific roles beginning at a young age. For instance, schools do not have programs for girls in football, wrestling, and boxing. And few men sign up for dance. Some studies have shown that participation in “masculine” sports creates gender identity conflict for females while participation in “feminine” sports creates gender identity conflict for males.

The problem compounds when dealing with athletes who are transgender or gender neutral. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Caitlyn Jenner, who, in an interview with "Vanity Fair" magazine about her transition, shares how even when she was achieving Olympic glory as Bruce Jenner, she felt confused about her gender and the part it played in her athletic success.

Media Revealed Biases

Those who study the sociology of sports also keep tabs on the role various media play in revealing biases. For instance, viewership of certain sports definitely varies by gender. Men typically view basketball, football, hockey, baseball, pro wrestling, and boxing. Women on the other hand tend to tune in to coverage of gymnastics, figure skating, skiing, and diving. Men’s sports are also covered more often than women’s sports, both in print and on television.