2010 Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports. Northampton MA: Media Education Foundation.
Notes: DVD, 62 minutes
Reviewed 22 Apr 2011 by:
Thomas Stevenson <email@example.com>
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Sports - Political aspects - United States - History
Sports - Social aspects - United States - History
Sports - United States - History
ABSTRACT: We've been told again and again that sports and politics don't mix. In this documentary, Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine, takes viewers on a tour of the good, the bad, and the ugly of American sports culture -- showing how sports have helped both to stabilize and to disrupt the political status quo throughout history. He explores how American sports, at their worst, have reinforced repressive political ideas and institutions by glamorizing things like militarism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, as well as looking at a history of rebel athletes who dared to fight for social justice beyond the field of play.
The bromide ‘sports and politics don’t mix’ with which this video begins raises corollary questions. What is the place of sports in American society? Are sports merely contests between opponents as many claim? Do games reinforce cultural notions? Can sports promote social change? Although anthropologists/sociologists of sports know the answers to these questions, most Americans do not. They perceive sports as merely entertainment. In this film Dave Zirin elucidates the political role sports play in creating, reinforcing and sometimes changing American cultural attitudes.
Zirin is an unusual commentator, being both a fan and progressive critic of sports. In this video he challenges the staid image of the athlete as simply performer and reveals how sports inculcate and perpetuate cultural ideologies of racism, militarism, sexism and homophobia. Indeed the moment that Zirin recognized how deeply sports were a political arena was watching a professional sports club’s mascot beat up a character dressed as an Arab while the crowd was whipped into frenzy. That set his analytic course, one which viewers retrace in the film.
Zirin’s thesis is that sports are a venue for contesting cultural values. Sports express the dominant narratives in society, creating and legitimizing what is ‘normal.’ They promote and reinforce ideology, yet they can also be a means of challenging and resisting these social forces.
Zirin then lays out the evidence for these claims, beginning with an examination of how sports represent American cultural value on maleness. Athletes are expected to be tough, team oriented, and willing to do whatever is necessary to succeed. The social message is that real men serve and don’t question. Not surprisingly the ‘never say die’ quality coaches seek from their players is strongly tied to militarism. Football creates a sanitized version of the military by masking the long-term consequences of injuries. Further, the language of sports, especially of gridiron football, relies heavily upon military phrases and euphemisms. By masking the long-term consequences of injuries, football may be creating a sanitized version of the military.
Moreover, the military is never far from major sports events with fly-overs, dramatic flag unfurlings, and national anthem performances. Yet, because it evokes their ideology, Americans do not question these linkages. Spectators are taught to see the ties between games and the military as ‘natural’ and apolitical while being discouraged from questioning the sports/nationalism/militarism connection.
The ‘maleness’ ethos automatically defines those who do not fit its parameters as outsiders. Thus women, generally labeled girls, were and are excluded because they were not physically up to the rigors of real competitions. Women’s sports were to be governed by new rules to prevent their challenging men. Women were seen as unfeminine when they played sports; sweating women were unattractive. Worse, vigorous physical effort could lead to infertility.
These attitudes changed only because a few sportswomen made a political move and actively resisted the dominant male ideology. The exemplary case was the Billie Jean King tennis match against Bobby Riggs. While King beat Riggs, her greatest victory was insuring women’s purses equaled those of men. Women challenging the dominant order led to the passage of Title IX, the federal law requiring that women’s and men’s sports are equally funded. Despite these important victories, women athletes have yet to escape sexist imaging such as how well they fill out bikinis.
In somewhat less depth, Zirin addresses sexuality and race. Maleness means being straight. Athletes, especially male athletes, cannot be homosexual. Homosexual women are more tolerated as athletes but not as spokeswomen for products. This dominance of this straight ethos and fear of the consequences has prevented gay athletes from ‘coming out’ while playing, and for most, even afterwards.
Race used to relegate African Americans to second-class status because they were believed to lack the mental toughness to compete at the highest level. Jackie Robinson’s performance punctured some aspects of this myth but real acceptance was an extremely slow process, an issue Zirin does not address. Still African American athletes do not easily transition into sports management.
Finally, and in a thematic shift, Zirin compares pioneering African American athletes’ participation in political campaigns and civil rights movements with the crass commercialism and branding of contemporary African American stars. While today’s athletes rarely challenge the power structure, this is not merely an African American issue.
Media Education Foundation films are technically superb, well-constructed and focused; ‘Not Just a Game’ meets this high standard. The visuals are nicely selected and presented. Zirin’s script is extremely thoughtful and well organized. Many of his comments would be great starting points for classroom discussion.
This is an ideal video for introducing students and others to the unacknowledged role of sports, both as a microcosm of societal values and political arena where ideologies may be challenged. The topics presented parallel those in most Sociology of Sports texts. Screening the video at the beginning of a course would be a good introduction to the material. Some of Zirin’s remarks are intellectually sophisticated and will require explanation and will dispel some students’ notions that sports are not a serious subject. Finally, the video introduces many social change pioneers with whom many students will be unfamiliar.
Anthropologists have been slow to recognize that sports provide a window into culture. This film will not only open their eyes but show students what their games really represent.
To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the following style:
2011 Review of Not Just a Game: Power, Politics, and American Sports. Anthropology Review Database April 22, 2011. http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/cgi/showme.cgi?keycode=4002, accessed May 26, 2013.
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