PS 616 Comparative Politics of Sport

This course is an experiment, as any political science course devoted to the “trivial” and the
“nonpolitical” inevitably must be. It will explore the tentative theoretical proposition that, in certain contexts and cultures, political scientists should conceive sport as an integral part of the political sector. Long the province of historians, sociologists, and economists, political scientists have, for the most part, not envisaged the world of sports as falling within either the political sphere or their professional purview. After all, unless one is a professional athlete or involved in sports in some other professional capacity (coach, trainer, executive, writer, journalist, broadcaster, agent, lawyer, business contractor, and so forth), sport is at best a recreational activity. This holds true both for those who participate in some capacity, as well as for those who merely observe from the comfort of their couch or from the Olympian heights of a barstool. In other words, whether one is a participant, an observer, or simply not interested, almost by “definition” sport is trivial. Why should we study sport when there are far more critical issues crying out for attention? Indeed, in those rare instances when political scientists actively consider sports, they are usually inclined to consign them either to the “private” sector or to the domain of civil society.

Something is amiss, however.  Although there is no recognized sub-field of political science that focuses on the politics of sport, in most of the world there are ministries of sport and sports are an integral part of the public, political sphere even when teams and leagues are privately owned and operated.  Furthermore, depending on the time, place, and context, sports often evoke the intense emotions usually associated with nationalism, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and gender, as well as with the politics of identity more generally.  Trivial?  Nonpolitical?  This is politics writ large and this course will devote substantial attention to these broader issues.

Sport is also, and often, politics writ small. This means two things. The first is that sport may be seen as a microcosm of the larger society in which it is embedded and that, therefore, whatever political fault lines may appear in the wider realm of politics are also likely to appear in the smaller political arena of sport. Sport may thus be used as a point of entry to the study of various political forces in any society. The second way in which sport is politics writ small is that for many individuals, sport occupies a significant space in what we might call the subjacent, or “unthinking,” politics of daily life. This, for example, might well have something to do with how we relate to figures and structures of authority; how we understand “rules,” competition, cheating, and corruption; how we internalize and come to understand certain lessons of power; or how we think of subjects as varied as merit and reward, just and legitimate punishment, participation, inclusion and exclusion, and the proper parameters of the political community.