The Three Fields, Part 2: Sports

In the penultimate post we (‘the royal we’) discussed the first of the three fields where my (our?) research takes place: nature. This week’s post is a follow-up on that, and this time the topic is sports and, more specifically mountain sports, since that is what my own research concerns. However, to be able to provide any kind of new analysis to the field of sports studies, one needs to look beyond one’s own niche and first get a thorough grounding in what has been studied in the field before, so as to not inadvertently spend inordinate amounts of time trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’ so to speak. ‘Sports studies’ is obviously a huge concept and can include research from such diverse fields and starting points as sports medicine and performance physiology on to sports sociology and critical humanities studies on the various repercussions of the modern sporting phenomenon. Being a humanities scholar my work is situated more in the latter fields.

Now, I’m actually not much of a sports fan in general these days (I even missed the latest  Super Bowl, despite having played the game for years in my misspent youth), and I was a bit worried when I initially started my research project that a combination of men’s studies and sports studies would somehow signal me out as a bit of a meathead (sans the muscle of course) in the humanities department. However, when I embarked on my research and delved deeper into my respective fields of research I quite quickly came to realize that despite my prejudices, these issues actually are important, and that the theory on them, while highlighting their societal importance, also enables one to have a critical look on them. Below I’ll cite and introduce some of the previous research on sports (both on mainstream and alternative sports) that I have found to be the most relevant to me.

Roger Horrocks, in his 1995 book Male Myths and Icons, historicizes sports. He traces modern sport’s birth to “the nineteenth century [when] the male body […] was to be subordinated to the ‘discipline’ and ‘team-work’ required on the sports field” (150). This discipline and physical prowess were then harnessed to facilitate the British colonial project, not only in very concrete ways but also indirectly through  feminizing and othering the non–white male bodies of ‘The Orient’. Horrocks’s work is already somewhat dated since it was published in the 1990s but his analysis of, e.g. how English football star Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne’s “proletarian male body” fascinated the 1990s British football audience to the point of “fetishization” (162–163) is rather interesting, especially when considering which modern–day sports stars might be fetishized in a similar way.


Picture: ‘Gazza’ (right) receiving one hell of a fetishization by ‘hardman’ Vinnie Jones. Credit:

Michael Messner is a researcher who has also done much work in the intersection of gender and sports. In ‘Studying Maculinities and Sport’ (2005) he examines sports from a gendered perspective and claims that men “created modern sport as an institution that affirms the categorical superiority of male bodies over female bodies, as well as men’s centrality in public life” (314). As regards my current writing project on protest masculinity and extreme sports I found especially useful his claim that there is “a structured channeling of disproportionate numbers of men of subordinate social classes and racial/ethnic groups into the more risky and violent sports” (317). This, however, means specifically the more traditional team sports and is not necessarily directly applicable to alternative sports such as the mountain sports that my own research concerns, as already Wheaton & Tomlinson (cited in Messner 2005) in 1998 cite studies which suggest that in alternative sports gender identities are not as simple and divided as in mainstream sports.

Examining Identity in Sports Media (2010), edited by Lundley and Billings, is another valuable resource in sports sociology. The book deals with “mediasport” identities and especially provides an interesting, critical look on issues of ethnicity, class, and gender in sports. Meân, for example describes how “media now comprise a predominant site for the construction and maintenance of the central social discourse that is sport”, and how this means that “sport remains a powerful site in the re/production of the traditional, hegemonic gender order” (67), and Denham and Duke take this claim further by showing how “mediated sport texts tend to reproduce dominant conceptions of masculinity, idealizing independence, physical strength, emotional stoicism, strict heterosexuality, and the capacity to overcome adversity and physical pain” (110), thus creating a “masculinity grounded in strength and stamina” (111). This leads to “masculine” sports being thought of as including “danger, violence, speed, and endurance”, while women athletes and their sports are “expected to be aesthetically pleasing” (111). This is a familiar dichotomy. It is something that I have written on earlier but also something that I would like to contest in the future.


Also, Brummett’s Sporting Rhetoric (2009) is interesting, as it looks at sports from the point of view of rhetoric, and acknowledges how “sport and games are major ways in which people form personal and social identity” (Brummett & Kraft 11). Brummett and Kraft also offer food for thought for contesting the above-mentioned dichotomy in their discussion on the case of Dennis Rodman who “rejected the traditional images of masculinity” (16), both in his athletic career and since then. He has, with other sporting superstars, also participated in PETA‘s ‘Ink Not Mink’ campaign, which I find interesting because it plays with hypermasculine imagery yet the campaign’s basic premise flies in the face of traditional notions of men not being expected to care of such ‘feminine’ issues as animal welfare (I know, the idea that it is ‘unmanly’ to care is ridiculous, yet the idea’s prevalence in mainstream culture has been verified in many studies as well as being discussed in popular media: for example, just try googling ‘vegan unmanly’ or some such shit).


Sporting Rhetoric further has a couple of articles that were especially interesting to me. The first, by Webster, discusses bodies and style. She claims that “[s]tylistic images of professional athletes position the body as the locus of athletic style” and further, that this style is a “coalescing of [these] signs on the physical body” and that these include “artifacts adorned on the body such as clothing, hairstyles, and tattoos as well as gender, race, and socioeconomic class.” Thus, to her “[t]he body represents the site of meaning and the performative site of style”. I found this interesting because referring to the body as performative draws on Judith Butler’s work but also, by implicitly recognizing its discursive nature, echoes Michel Foucault’s ideas.  She further posits that “[b]y reading the athletic body, we begin to uncover meanings, contradictions, intent, and lack thereof” (48-49). To complement this, Winslow’s article discusses hegemonic masculinity and the “hierarchies of power” (97) that hegemony aims to uphold. Winslow, too, shows how attributes such as “courage, toughness, and physical strength” that some sports require of their participants result in those sports, and their participants, to be seen as more masculine than other sports and their participants (94).  This, too, is interesting to me at the moment.

This concludes the overview of some previous sports studies. Next up is the third research field that my PhD project belongs to: gender studies. Also, the 36th International VAKKI Symposium takes place here at the University of Vaasa this week and I’m looking forward to listening to some interesting presentations. Til’ next time!


Billings, Andrew C. and Heather L. Hundley (2010). Examining Identity in Sports Media. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Brummett, Barry (Ed.) (2009). Sporting Rhetoric. Performance, Games, and Politics. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Brummett, Barry and Rachel Kraft. “Why Sport and Games Matter: Performance Rhetorics in Popular Culture”. In: Sporting Rhetoric. Performance, Games, and Politics. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 9-25.

Denham, Bryan E. and Andrea Duke (2010). “Hegemonic Masculinity and the Rogue Warrior: Lance Armstrong as (Symbolic) American”. In: Examining Identity in Sports Media. Los Angeles: Sage Publications. 109-131.

Horrocks, Roger (1995). Male Myths and Icons. Masculinity in Popular Culture. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: MacMillan.

Meân, Lindsey J. (2010). ”Making Maculinity and Framing Femininity: FIFA, Soccer, and World Cup Web Sites”. In: Examining Identity in Sports Media. Los Angeles: Sage Publications. 65-86.

Messner, Michael A. (2005). “Still a Man’s World? Studying Masculinities and Sport.” In Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities. Eds. Michael S. Kimmel, Jeff Hearn and R.W. Connell. London: Sage. 313–325.

Webster, Sunshine P. (2009). “It Is a Girl Thing: Uncovering the Stylistic Performance of Female Atheticism”. In: Sporting Rhetoric. Performance, Games, and Politics. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 48-63.

Winslow, Luke (2009). “Bull Riding and the Performance of Masculinity”. In: Sporting Rhetoric. Performance, Games, and Politics. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 86-102.

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