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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

Does Sport Contribute To Social Inequality?

Intro

It is often unclear what constitutes sport. Sport can take many forms. Sport can be some children casually kicking around a ball outside their house or it can be the high-stakes cultural phenomenon such as the Olympics or Premier League. sociological impact, this essay considers sport to be professional competitive sport (e.g. professional football, baseball, golf etc…), and its broad effect on viewers, due to its profound sociological impact.

This essay will consider ‘social equality’ to broadly be equal access to opportunity and status for citizens within a society. This essay will broadly consider the effect of sport upon three types of inequality – socioeconomic inequality, racial inequality, and gender-based inequality.

Sport would at first seem to be disconnected from discussions of social inequality. At its face value, sport is nothing more than a recreational pastime. It is a fun event for fans and viewers to watch and enjoy. However, sport derives importance when regarding social equality from the dedication that it inspires in its viewers. Few other recreational pastimes have entire sections of large, respected newspapers such as The Guardian or The New York Times dedicated to them. The passion of viewers of sport, as well as the actual event of going to sports matches, gives sport broad sociological importance. Sport is broadly discussed within sociology and is extremely relevant for discussions of social inequality.

Sport as a vehicle for social solidarity

People from all walks of life come to watch sporting events. Sport firstly has the effect of often providing a special or unique cultural norm that defines a nation, separating it from others. For instance, the sport of cricket for a long time defined ‘Britishness’ and separated Britain and its colonies from others. This norm can in turn build a common purpose and solidarity which is irrespective of the group or class which viewers are in.

Moreover, the actual process of supporting a team can unite a local community or a nation. People unite under support for a particular team. For instance, in New York City, New Yorkers go to watch a New York Yankees baseball game. Rich and poor, black and white all come to the sports match with a common purpose and hope. This can build up community spirit and facilitate general integration among classes. This integration in turn has the effect of developing greater empathy for others, which can build up positive attitudes towards equality and be used to help remedy socioeconomic inequality. This solidarity equally can be helpful to eliminate racial barriers, as both white and black people will be in contact with each other when they ordinarily might not. This, like other social contact between different groups, generally has the effect of abating divisions and challenging racial stereotypes.

Sport and meritocracy

Sport’s broadly meritocratic selection process additionally can help to dissolve arbitrary barriers, most importantly racial and ethnic barriers, and challenge established prejudices. The way in which sport selects its candidates is broadly meritocratic. Sports teams and competitions generally select the candidates whom they believe are the most likely to be competitive within the sport, regardless of their racial background. This allows minority sportsmen to be selected primarily based upon their intrinsic and acquired talents. This in turn means that people of colour can rise to the top of the sporting field within sport far more readily than they can within society generally.

Minorities rising to prominence has several positive impacts. Firstly, it means that people of colour can have societally important role models who highlight to them the potential of people of colour and empower them to strive for more and achieve more in traditionally racially prejudiced systems.

Secondly, having great sportsmen of colour can demonstrate the excellence of minorities, and help to refute certain racist preconceptions and stereotypes. For instance, black Olympian Jesse Owens’s repeat victories at the 1936 Olympics gave life to more discussions about race within the US, and he received a triumphant welcome at home in Cleveland – very uncommon for a black man at that time. This had a broad impact of helping to change the racist paradigm of the time. As a more recent example, Tiger Woods has transformed the way race is looked at within golf, a typically quite conservative sport, and has helped to contribute to the broad dissolution of racial barriers and a change in golfers’ opinions towards black Americans. The very act of white people seeing sportsmen of colour within their everyday life helps to dissolve these barriers and combat conscious and subconscious racial prejudice.

However, the meritocratic nature of sport is not singularly positive. It equally has several limitations which can broadly be considered to exacerbate inequality. Firstly, the disparity between the ability of minorities to rise within sport and society as a whole can have some harmful effects on minorities. Their ability to achieve success is often wrongfully extrapolated to the false conclusion that minorities are able to achieve an equal outcome and only do not if they sufficiently lack talent – a broadly harmful narrative considering the countless obstacles people of colour currently experience. In an age where racism is less about overt claims that minorities are inferior and more about the institutional and societal structures limiting their rise, this is an acute problem and can lead to inadequate consideration of institutional racism.

Furthermore, meritocracy as a just selection process and ideal to strive for, in the opinion of this essay, impedes equality. Whilst meritocracy is preferable to systems that do not even strive for any form of equality, such as aristocracy, it is still fundamentally inegalitarian. It states that for generally morally arbitrary reasons, such as increased natural physical abilities, certain people should justly be in higher positions. Whilst doing so, meritocracy generally promotes hubris within those at the top, suggesting that they justly acquired what they have and that they deserve to have more. This in turn often leads to reduced compassion for the less well-off within society. If those at the top are perceived to be justified to have their elevated position and wellbeing, there is less of communal moral responsibility to serve those at the bottom. Sports embraces the system of meritocracy to the utmost degree, giving certain athletes such as Ronaldo or Messi upwards of €100M per year for innate physical attributes which confer no moral desert, whilst most sportsmen make next to nothing. This is broadly inegalitarian.

The Relationship Between Sport and Sexism

Whilst, in the case of racial and socio-economic equality, the influence of sport is somewhat unclear, the influence of sport on gender-based equality is quite clearly inegalitarian. In the near all of the most-watched sports in both the US and UK (soccer, American football, baseball, cricket etc…) there is significant inequality between men and women. Women’s sports receive less broadcast time (for instance, only 8% of runtime on ESPN, the US’s largest sports broadcaster), men are generally paid far more within these sports for similar levels of skill, and men generally occupy the highest managerial and administrative positions. An estimated 90% of sports anchors are men. This inequality is perpetuated by a failure to adequately market or promote women’s sports and television.

The inequalities outlined above persist at the social level. As has been discussed previously, sport is extremely influential societally and athletes can provide role models for people. The limited airtime of women’s sports deprives women of equal opportunity to have role models, which can often have a disempowering and dejecting effect.

Sport additionally often proves to be a breeding ground for misogyny. An estimated 65% of female athletes have experienced sexism within the sport (although drastically fewer report it) and female athletes broadly report that they feel a largely male coaching body fails to take them seriously. Sport, due to its traditional basis upon masculine ideals and rigid gender roles, as well as the ‘lad culture’ found within sports such as rugby, often fuels toxic masculinity and perpetuates ideas such as male dominance and aggression.

The issues of insufficient coverage, insufficient representation, and a frequent culture of misogyny thus lead to sport broadly being inegalitarian between the sexes, and contrary to the feminist movement. This is extremely problematic.

However, none of the problems stated above are intrinsically tied to sport. Sport very much has the potential to empower women, and in sports where women are even close to equally represented (e.g. tennis) sport does provide strong female role models who can help lead to the empowerment of women. However, considering that most sport currently does not have equal representation, and indeed is actively sexist in its composition, sport can currently be considered to perpetuate and worsen gender-based social inequality.

Conclusion

Competitive sport has the potential to both address and exacerbate existing issues of inequality. The solidarity which it can create is almost unequivocally beneficial and egalitarian. Social solidarity can help bridge racial and socioeconomic divides, promoting socioeconomic and racial integration and indirectly leading to greater equality. However, the overall positive effect of sport on racial and socioeconomic minorities is muddied somewhat by the inequality its broadly meritocratic nature can lead to.

Perhaps most importantly, however, sport currently perpetuates gender-based inequality. This is not an intrinsic problem with sport, but rather has to do with our current sporting systems and institutions. Considering the way in which sport has conflicting effects leading to only marginal improvements for socioeconomic and racial inequality, this is perhaps the most important effect of sport. Therefore, whilst sport has mixed but often beneficial effects on socioeconomic and racial equality, it right now broadly perpetuates gender-based inequality.


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