Understanding Sports Culture

Tony Schirato, Understanding Sports Culture, Sage Publications Ltd, 2007. 150 pp. Price not stated.

Review by Alan Tomlinson

Tony Schirato has written an ambitious book in which we are conducted on a worldwide tour of the history of sport, from the ancient Greeks to the contemporary world of globalized international sport. It is a story that has been attempted before, most notably and even more ambitiously by Allen Guttmann in Sports: The First Five Millennia (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). Schirato does not attempt a synthesis as comprehensive as Guttmann’s and indeed, Guttmann is one of his major authoritative sources – of which more later. What Schirato brings to his integrated history and sociology of sport, though, is a deep immersion in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, and a background in literary theory and the cultural analysis and theorisation of visual culture. These are undoubted strengths, and embody a welcome contribution to the understanding of sport from the perspective of what we have come to see as the cultural turn in socio-cultural studies.

The book begins with an extended analysis of a Nike advertisement featuring male sporting superstars of the early twentieth century. Well-trodden paths are then taken through definitional typologies and debates: the sports of ancient Greece, ancient Rome and Byzantium, and the European Middle Ages and Renaissance (‘forerunners of football and other ball games’ and aristocratic tournaments, tilts and jousts’ [p. 33]), before Western European pre-modern societies are re-discovered at various rustic and far from standardised forms of play. And then we enter the modern period of industrialization, which sees the formation of more organised forms of sport – very much seen to be influenced by an Anglo-Saxon, or British, model; and discussed in Bourdieu’s language as ‘sport as field and habitus’. Various directions of diffusion – or spread – of sports are then identified (sport is shown, following John Hargreaves’s work, to have developed as a form of surveillance in 19th century England; the USA’s distinctive story is summarised, with a revealing vignette of sports entrepreneur Albert Spalding). Chunky chapters are then dedicated to the political, business/economic, and media-related influences upon contemporary sport. The high points of the book include the bold theorising of the history, which constitutes many astute insights and generates numerous cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparisons and claims: for instance, semiotic concepts from Claude Lefort and post-colonial insights from Homi Bhabha are brought to bear on Byzantine factions and British imperial administration respectively (pp. 31 and 64). Problems are inevitable, though, in undertaking a problem of this scale and boldness.

Schirato makes no claims for historical originality, and the book is a textbook, not a research monograph. I can imagine Schirato in the lecture-hall, stimulating undergraduates on the basis of his wide reading and his enthusiastic syntheses. He is also honest about his sources, generous in citation of those on whom he is most dependent: his students, and now his readers, would know his indebtedness to Guttmann for some of his summaries, and to seminal histories by the likes of Denis Brailsford and Richard Holt. But this can create serious scholarly problems. If the accounts of ancient Greece and Rome, or of the violence of crowd factions at the Hippodrome in Byzantium Constantinople in the late 4th and early 5th centuries A.D. that we have here are essentially Guttmann’s accounts, but we are not told on what Guttmann’s account is based, this is scholarship based upon summaries of summaries. Obviously in introductory books and texts we want to engage students, and ambitious and condensed syntheses are a way of doing this: but is the summariser adequately concerned with the source of the initial summary? Schirato talks of Byzantine sport without saying where Byzantium was, or when chariot races of particular types flourished there On some of these topics, a few tips on further reading (for an in-depth understanding) would have been useful for students and lecturers alike.

Where Schirato is at his best is on the media/communications themes. In chapter 7 he subjects Guttmann’s ‘definition of a spectator’ (p. 92) to a sympathetic but rigorous critique, and develops his own take on the relationship between the spectator and new media forms form the 19th century onwards. Here, drawing upon his own previous work on visual cultures, he talks of the nature of the cultural literacy brought to bear by the sport fan in the interpretive process: ‘… the human visual apparatus doesn’t give us the world in an unmediated form. It effectively decodes it.’ (p. 93). Chapter 8 is dedicated to the consideration of the move from ‘sport to spectacle’, conceived as sport’s transformation into a ‘field of business’ – the sport spectacle as an attractive form of consumption to the individual, a commodified capitalist product. The final chapter surveys new media and multi-media forms of watching, interacting with and engaging with sport. The concluding chapter includes some discussion of Michel de Certeau’s work on strategies of everyday living, cites Arjun Appadurai, and provides more engagement with Guttmann, and Bourdieu: the book is actually ‘dedicated to the memory of Pierre Bourdieu’. The final word from Schirato is that, despite the influence of ‘governments, media and capitalism’, sport can be seen to be a ‘set of sites’ continuing to ‘value, provoke, and provide occasions for the disposition to play’ (p. 138). It’s a widely shared conclusion increasingly arrived at by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and cultural studies scholars, a version of the structure-agency problematic at the heart of the social scientific enterprise: whatever the determining structures that mould, re-shape, or reconfigure our sporting practices institutions and cultures, people continue to carve out their own meanings in social and cultural spaces of their own making (with apologies and indebtedness to Karl Marx). Schirato does not cite Marx in this book, but his Bourdieu-inspired framework goes a long way towards confirming this general position.

Professor Alan Tomlinson
University of Brighton
August 19th 2008

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