Literature Review: Neoliberalism, Surveillance, And The Masculine Capital Of Sports

[Ok, just as a warning, I do not think this paper was very good because I was rushed to finish it last night, or this morning rather...but I don't think I'm going to rewrite the parts I don't like. I could have organized and expressed what I was really thinking a bit better given the time, but hey...that's life. See what you think.]

Neoliberalism, Surveillance, and the Masculine Capital of Sports:

In this paper, I will first discuss my reasoning in choosing the books I chose and how I tie them together in this paper. Then I will address each book separately, examining the main topic and/or themes and background information about the researcher(s) and research of each book. And following the general overviews of the four books I will discuss the common ideas I found in them through the examination of school and youth sports culture and professional sports culture. And lastly, I connect these ideas together into a section about sports culture as a whole in neoliberal societies. The main theme that these four books have in common is that they all challenge a dominant discourse about sports which promotes the idea that sports are unquestionably good for all involved (morally, emotionally, physically, and socially), and even, in fact, for the very places and economies in which they exist.

This paper explores four ethnographic books about modern day sports culture. These books were chosen based on their shared general theme of sports, but also because of their differences. I could have chosen four books that dealt solely with children’s sports, gender-based issues in sports, sports from a medical or emotional perspective, or the economics surrounding sports. In doing so, however, I felt I would have limited my perspective on the topic as a whole. Therefore, I chose books which seemed to address different angles of the broader topic in order to allow the commonalities to appear from which I would formulate my own opinions. 

The first of these four books is Fields of Play: An Ethnography of Children’s Sports. I chose this book because I wanted to see what common threads as well as what differences could be observed between professional sports (which feature more prominently in the three books examined later in this paper) and community level sports. Author, Noel Dyck, a Canadian practicing anthropologist, developed his interest in studying children’s sports from his personal involvement in community sports as a parent. Later he decided to conduct ethnographic research on the topic which primarily comprised of interviews with “a range of child and youth athletes, coaches, officials, and parents about their respective involvements in and views about community sports for children and youth” (6).  He also subsequently researched the awarding of American athletic scholarships to young Canadians, a subject which is discussed only in the latter half of the book.

The second book of the four is In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. I chose this book because I wanted to examine the role that gender plays in sports cultures as well, which is this books primary focus. Author, Eric Anderson, has an interesting background in that he was an openly gay high school track coach himself before earning his PhD in sociology and later being appointed Professor of Sport Studies at the University of Winchester in 2011. In fact, according to his autobiography, he was the first openly gay high school coach in the U.S.  In his book, In the Game, he illustrates the role of sports in the continuation of the hegemony of a heterosexist society.  His field research, which formed the basis of this book, consisted of interviewing a variety of openly gay as well as closeted gay team-sport athletes. 

Sport, Professionalism and Pain: Ethnographies of Injury and Risk is the title of the third book. Written by English anthropologist P. David Howe, this book examines “the relationship between commercialism, medicine and the body, in order to establish the importance of pain, injury and risk in the contemporary sporting world” (1). The author developed his interest in researching this relationship after suffering a serious sports injury himself. And his research for this book consists of “ethnographic case studies of Welsh rugby players, British distance runners and a sample of Paralympians” (1). This book provides a more professional athlete centered approach, focusing on their own experiences as athletes, as relayed through interviews with different kinds of professional athletes.

The final book this paper examines is Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture edited by David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk.  This book is the only one of the four which is not written by one author, but rather is an edited collection contributed to by 21 different authors. Each chapter examines the political and/or economic aspects of sports in a neoliberal age. I chose this book because I was interested in the role sports plays in our modern world.  I also felt like this would be the best book for the job because it has many different perspectives and areas of research, and also for the simple fact that it is as relevant to today’s world as possible, being published only just this year.


School and Youth Sports Culture

Children and youths’ involvement in sports is dominated by a discourse which holds that sports create better citizens.  And, as naturally follows such a discourse are implications about parents who unquestionably believe themselves to be the makers and molders of the future adults these children will become, as well as the implication on what childhood itself means.  With this discourse children are viewed not as citizen-children of the present, but as “citizen-workers of the future” instead (Green, 44).

It is implicitly held that these future citizen-workers are “entities to be organized and acted upon by adults” (Dyck, 5).  These adults include parents, coaches, and sport officials who assume that their involvement is obviously what ‘good’ citizens ought to do by contrast to other adults who are, for whatever reason, not physically, financially, or socially invested in the same way. Dyck criticizes these ideas and states that “Implicit in this formulation is the notion that the rearing of children in contemporary Canada will remain incomplete and faulty unless supplemented by the beneficial effects of participation in organized sport” (34). It is also interesting to note that this phenomenon has not always existed, “This sort of involvement was neither expected of parents nor generally the case in previous generations” (Dyck, 50).  Nor is it the only discourse operating today; Atkinson writes about “post-sport physical cultures” which subvert “modernist ideologies and practices” and which emphasize “autonomous forms of athletic movement…Post-sport is…decisively anticommercial, cooperative over competitive, rejectionist of advanced material technology, socially inclusionary rather than hierarchical, process-oriented, holistic, and internally differentiated on their orientation and engagement” (193).

However, with the implications of competitive sport discourses also comes the dichotomy of supervising and micromanaging children’s lives, while at the same time expecting and requiring qualities like self-reliance and independence in children. And sports, it seems, is where these parents turn to foster these qualities. Dyck explains this phenomenon below:

Beneath the canopy of…romanticized ideals of sport and childhood exists a vast complex of formally structured community sports activities, organizations, and leagues that are unambiguously shaped and operated by adults for children and youth in Canada. In contrast to pond hockey, community sports organizations are substantially defined and driven in terms of the dutiful commitment and meritorious tasks performed by parents and other adult participants…Along with this reliance upon parent participation is an inclination on the part of more than a few mothers and fathers to employ children’s sports as a means for, among other things, building better children. (40-41)

However, in many ways sports may foster opposing qualities such as strict adherence to rules, denial of one’s own feelings/health, surrender to authority, conformity, and acceptance of surveillance/monitoring of one’s actions/choices.

One reason sports are seen to foster such qualities of self-reliance and independence is because they require that children work hard to develop their skills in order to win, where winning is defined in a very specific, zero-sum way. Anderson states that, “Rather than viewing competitors as agents in cooperation to bring out the best in individuals and groups, other teams are viewed as obstacles in the path of obtaining cultural and economic power” (33). The morality or benefit of promoting the definition of success goes largely unexamined, perhaps because it is believed to be what future-citizens will need to carry into life when they grow up to become so-called ‘successful’ citizens.

These strict definitions of success and failure extend also to what Anderson calls the homosocial policing of children. This, he states, is evident from early childhood: Elementary school playgrounds have been shown to be highly contested social terrains in which children explicitly define an activity or group as gendered. Social sanctions already serve their purpose of intimidating boys from transgressing gendered space (or behavior) by the second grade, as boys begin to adhere to the mandates of orthodox masculinity modeled to them by older males. (25)

In this sense, boys who do not adhere to the gendered behavior modeled to them, are viewed as having ‘failed’.  Thus, “Boys who are less willing to put up with the highly masculinized attitudes are deselected for the next round of competition or labeled as loose cannons. Being told that one is not a team player is a mark of shame that is likely to drive nonconformists away from the sporting terrain” (Anderson, 72).

On the other hand, association with the masculine qualities of sport is seen as beneficial for all (who have it) male and female alike. For example, when “their” team wins a sports match their status is increased. Anderson calls such desirable masculine status associations “masculine capital” and claims that those whose masculinity is not obvious or those whose social standing is not very high use masculine capital to enhance their position. Anderson gives several examples of the use of masculine capital to increase one’s status such as the following: “Athletes, particularly those with low self-esteem or poor social support networks, are willing to risk their health because they are so eager to be accepted by the team and their peers” (35).  He also claims that homosexual men use sports as masculine capital to protect their masculine identities.

This valuation of ‘masculine capital’ gives rise to hegemonic masculinity which one can observe in school sports:

The contestation for masculine stratification is played out on flat sporting fields and courts in the institutions of both sport and public education where sport, through physical education, is made compulsory and those on sporting teams have their associations glorified publicly. Jackson Katz calls this type of school environment a jock-ocracy, because the high school (and often university) culture is stratified around athletics, not academics. (Anderson, 30-31)

Thus, social status in a hegemonic masculine hierarchy can be changed by increasing or decreasing one’s ‘masculine capital’ which gives rise to the valuation of sports as a means to increase social status as well.

Such hierarchical structuring is not just seen in social situations however. Our society as a whole is divided into an economic hierarchy which increasingly separates the haves from the have-nots. And the institution of organized sports illustrates that divide clearly.  “In 2005 members of families in the income range of $80,000 and over were twice as likely to participate in sport than those with household incomes of less than $30,000” (Dyck, 28).  Thus, while some children are able to obtain the benefits of sports and the possibility of rising its ranks, others do not have the option. Dyck tells us that:

Children are increasingly set aside in places separated from the rest of society where, if their parents have money, their incorporation and ‘development’ are closely supervised by adults, but, if poor, left to roam on their own. Institutional processes to define and separate children as a group demonstrate the control that concepts of childhood – that is, what is thought proper and correct for children – hold for children’s experiences at any point in time. (51)

Furthermore, the social capital associated with sport can increase not only the status of individuals, but can also economically benefit those seeking ways to promote their image to a group of people, as Dyck illustrates:

 In effect, amateur sport in Canada – of which, community sports for children and youth represents one of the larger segments – has become an entrepreneurial zone for politicians, bureaucrats, sport advocates, and corporate and media groups. They, in tandem with a new class of sport professionals, are busily engaged in spinning a cornucopia of claims concerning the benefits of sport. (38)

This then leads us to the sport professionals who promote such claims.


Professional Sports Culture

Just as the role of adults in children’s lives has changed in time, so has the institution of organized sports changed. Howe explains this process as a shift from “amateur pastime to ‘professional spectacle’ as increasing numbers of businesses began to see the potential of sport as a tool for marketing their products” which in turn “transformed them into commercial enterprises” (33).  He describes this change as first taking place in the U.S. by the turn of the twentieth century and later in the U.K. This shift parallels the intensification and professionalization of youth sports which Dyck writes about as well.

With this shift came an increase in the role of personal responsibility. What his translates to is athletes being personally responsible for their health and well-being in a field where “the rate of disabling injuries in the NFL is over three times higher than the rate of men who work construction” and which is, in the case of professional contact sports “the nation’s most violent workplace” surpassing that of construction (Anderson, 35). Despite this fact, in the public eye, “elite amateurs and professional athletes” are “prime examples of fitness” (Howe, 25-26). And just as the many perceived benefits community sports are marketed as providing to children and their communities, professional athletes’ “healthy” lifestyles are marketed too. In fact, Howe tells us that “Mass participation in sporting activities over the past two decades has created a more health-conscious society;” even so, the perceived link between athletes and health is often used to sell alcohol and tobacco because “consumers draw a parallel between the success of the athlete and the product the athlete ‘must’ be using to achieve success” (50). 

In professional sport, the high rate of injury can be attributed to the intense nature of the sports. Sports professionals are taught to value pain (what Howe calls positive pain) in their training and also to “suck it up” when injured. Furthermore, “An injured body to those who control professional sport may not be treated as if it were of value, because while most cultures value human well-being, some sporting cultures limit concern to those individuals who are able to perform on the day of competition” (Howe, 56). Thus, individuals are valued as utilitarian for the success of the team or coach, or simply for their own sporting success, but their physical health is often compromised, and pain, is ignored as a body’s way of signaling harm, and either numbed with medication or therapy or played through.

Another shift that has impacted professional sports is the acceptance of psychology as a veritable scientific field of research. With this shift has come the incorporation of a new medical paradigm, the ‘psychosocial subjectivity’. Howe says that the acceptance of this new paradigm “can create new problems, particularly as it relates to the treatment of pain,” because “pain, as a result of its psychological component, can now be  interpreted as an issue that can be controlled by a strong-willed individual” (79). In other words, if there is no structural or physiological damage observed in an athlete’s injury, the pain “may not be taken seriously by those in a social environment where personal management of pain is highly valued” (Howe, 79).

As with community level sports and increased levels of surveillance on both parents and children, Anderson describes higher-level sports as a near-total institution, and defines a total institution as “an isolated, enclosed social system (such as a prison or a mental hospital)” with the primary purpose “to control most all aspects of a person’s life” (66).  From the strict gender roles to the strict training regimes and medicalization of professional sports we can see the ways in which an athlete gives up his or her autonomy in exchange for conformity to a culture of sports and a hierarchy which single-mindedly values “success” over all. Another parallel can also be drawn to total institutions in that “other than jails and mental hospitals, few other institutions segregate men and women so perfectly” (Anderson 71).  This is justified by the idea that segregation is required for fairness and equality in competition, but Anderson challenges this by pointing out that segregation exists “even in sports where there is no physical danger to men and women competing together and there is no gendered advantage (like golf or bowling). Therefore, sports and the way we do them remain largely segregated because people fear that desegregating sports will lead to women being excluded or injured by masculine violence” (71).  This gendered division is harmful to women in sports, whose segregation means they are rendered near invisible and “allows men to exist in a homogenous, highly masculinized, homophobic, and sexist arena without the voices of women to contrast their conservative understandings” (Anderson, 71).

This gendered divide is also seen when we examine impaired individuals in sports. The Paralympics is a major international sporting event for athletes with a range of disabilities. Howe’s research with paralympic participants shows the gender divide clearly: 

Living in one’s impaired body is a gendered experience. Men who have physical, sensory and intellectual impairments face a threat to their masculinity, but once they have come to terms with their impairment, society is traditionally more accepting of men being involved in sport, impaired or otherwise. This is highlighted by the fact that women involved in the Paralympic Games are a minority and, at both the 1992 and 1996 Paralympic Games, less than a quarter of the competitors were women. The complete and strong, aggressive, muscular body is the most tangible sign of maleness. As physicality has traditionally been considered an admired male trait, sporting bodies represent a pivotal form of ‘physical capital’ for disabled men, more so than for disabled women. (Howe, 171-172)

Thus, the differences between the strong and the weak, the masculine and the feminine, the rich and the poor can be seen in stark contrast when we observe those who participate and/or succeed in sports versus those who do not. 



Discourses of self-regulation, surveillance, risk management, and self reliance are typified by the ideals of neoliberalism and of a sports culture which has grown to unimaginable proportions in an age of neoliberalism. These ideals contribute to what we believe about the roles, bodies, and success of people of all ages within society.  And furthermore, they contribute to our beliefs about cities and even entire segments of our society which are deemed worthy or unworthy of praise under neoliberalism.  Anderson tells us that “Sports are political because they are about the distribution of the power that comes with masculinity in a homophobic and misogynistic culture” (33).  This aspect is but one of a multitude of directions from which one could view sports as political. Here, I will discuss them from the direction of neoliberalism and the inequalities which arise from and are ignored by it.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the disparity of poor black families there was exposed, though simultaneously glossed over. In the news they were portrayed as looters and criminals on the loose. In reality, they were a people in desperate need of assistance. They were the losers, the failures in a neoliberal age. They gathered in the Superdome, a place they’d never had the luxury of stepping foot inside before. And after the storm, officials breathed a sigh of relief that their dirty neighborhoods had been destroyed, and their renovation projects could be undertaken. These displaced people, many of them, were forced to move to other places, often other states (Texas for example).  After the storm, another renovation project was underway as well, the renovation of the Superdome. Cole and Giardina describe it:

Federal coordinating officer Scott Wells said, ‘[The Superdome’s] rehabilitation is essential to New Orleans’ recovery’. Yet the Superdome was not just repaired: it received numerous technology upgrades in the form of state-of-the-art LED scoreboards; fan comfort was stressed, as club-level seats (among the most expensive in the stadium) were replaced with leatherette seats; all 137 luxury seats were remodeled (including the addition of plasma televisions in each); and so forth. (68)

Amongst all the inequality, this was considered progress for the city of New Orleans. But this case is not an atypical scenario. It is the commodification and marketing of culture, sports culture in particular, which is a staple to the growth of cities in today’s world. Schimmel calls these strategies ultimately destructive though, for the fact that “they heighten the competition between local areas for capital investment and place local tax bases under further strain” (164). This competition is what underlies neocapitalism’s most fundamental principals. It is what creates an “urban status hierarchical structure” and creates an endless cycle of investment into the competition, even among so-called ‘failure’ cities.  Paralleling the definition of success used in the sport world, the game is ruled by “zero-sum competition and also by the seeming absence of ‘realistic’ local alternatives” (Schimmel, 164).

Interestingly enough, while these cities seek to promote local culture and “differentiate” themselves, they all turn to sports to do so. 

As anchors of broader redevelopment schemes, massive sport stadiums are the featured set pieces (replacing the ubiquitous festival malls of the 1980s) cities use to attempt to differentiate themselves from one another. In the late 1990s there were approximately 113 major sport franchises in the United States, each requiring a stadium or area…With so many stadiums dotting the urban landscape across the United States, it is logical to ask how stadiums ‘differentiate’ one city from another…Thus, hosting a major-league team means a city can represent itself as a ‘major league city’ vis-à-vis other cities of lesser status. (Schimmel, 164-165)

Here again appears the hierarchical structure which is a fundamental aspect of sports and sports culture. Also, Schimmel tells us that franchisers create an “artificial scarcity in major leaguer sport” so that they “can move to more desirable locations. Therefore, cities engage in a veritable ‘arms race’ to build more massive and modern (and profitable to owners) stadiums, thereby holding (or attracting) franchises in an increasingly high-stakes gamble in which fewer cities can compete” (164-165). The race to success for cities (and local governments) comes at the cost of both increasingly riskier investments in the game (like the athletes who risk their health in order to increase their social status among their peers). Since 1990 they have spent “more than $10 billion to subsidize major sport facilities” (Schimmel, 164).

To sum up, under the ideals of neoliberalism, sport has become one method of control through the use of hierarchical ranking and limited distribution of “rewards” to those deemed deserving, both on the large scale (cities) and the small (individuals).  However, where this creates problems and inequalities is with the discourses of competition and self reliance in particular, because these discourses tell us that some people are more deserving than others when they do not fit the standards to which we are taught to believe are the norm, where the norm is often defined by unattainable standards to large portions of the population including women, the old, the poor, the handicapped, homosexuals, the physically unfit, and all kinds of non-conformists in general. 

Capital and currency in an abstract sense resurface in different ways throughout each of the books. Green tells us that “older people who, unlike children and young people, have marginal currency in a future-oriented world” (52).  Anderson discusses the masculine capital of sports, Howe discusses physical capital of sporting bodies, and people’s social capital is repeated by several of the authors. Perhaps this is because in a neoliberal and capitalist society currency is the unquestioned standard of success by which we measure all things, so if it is not for the pursuit of money, we may unquestionably assume that it is of no consequence, like health in the pursuit of athletic success, or like personal freedoms and equality in the pursuit of higher social status. But perhaps there is benefit to questioning such discourses as the normalization of the entrepreneurial self: “one who is willing to take action to improve his or her health status” (Fusco, 145). The normalization of an entrepreneurial self is but one aspect that the dominant sport discourse uses to promote itself. Francome and Silk in their investigation of the normalized body image promoted in reality tv shows such as The Biggest Loser illustrate several ways that the neoliberal discourse normalizes certain individuals while, in effect, ignoring all others: 

While the doses vary, the basic menu for this new neoliberal governance is the same: purge the system of obstacles to the functioning of free markets; celebrate the virtues of individualism; recast social problems such as drug use, obesity, and inadequate health insurance as individual problems; foster economic self- sufficiency; abolish or weaken social programs; include those marginalized (often by this shift in the role of government) or the poor in the labor market; and criminalize the homeless and the urban poor (subject this population to curfew orders, increased surveillance, or ‘zero-tolerance’ policing). (237)

Thus, the neoliberal discourse which touts the benefits of sports on the one hand, subjects all who do not conform to the ideals it promotes to marginalization.

In conclusion, the neoliberal discourses about sports which are promoted claim that people create their own success. This success is defined in a very narrow way that creates a hierarchy between the winners and the losers, and the losers are deemed to have brought failure on themselves for not conforming to the promoted ideals despite the fact that such ideals are exclusionary. Those who cannot or choose not to fit such ideals are conveniently ignored in the discourses which promote them. However, alternative discourses do exist as we can see in the appearance of a new activity called “post-sport,” (a solution to what is absent from ‘sport’) and in the social inequalities which are becoming harder and harder to ignore. The main theme that these four books have in common is that they all challenge a dominant discourse about sports which promotes the idea that sports are unquestionably good for all involved (morally, emotionally, physically, and socially).


Anderson, Eric. 2005, In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Andrews, David L. and Michael Silk, eds. 2012, Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Atkinson, Michael. 2012, “Free Running.” Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Ed. David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 193-208.

Cole, C. L. and Michael D. Giardina. 2012, "Race, Class, and Politics in Post Katrina America." Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Ed. David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 57-74.

Francombe and Silk. 2012. “Pedagogies of Fat.” Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Ed. David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. pp. 225-241.

Fusco, Caroline. 2012, "Governing Play." Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Ed. David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. pp. 143-159.

Green, Mike.  2012, "Advanced Liberal Government, Sport Policy, and ‘Building the Active Citizen." Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Ed. David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 38-56.

Howe, P. David. 2004, Sport, Professionalism and Pain: Ethnographies of Injury and Risk. London, New York: Routledge.

Schimmel, Kimberly S. 2012, “Neoliberal Redevlopment, Sport Infrastructure, and the Militarization of U.S. Urban Terrain.” Sport and Neoliberalism: Politics, Consumption, and Culture. Ed. David L. Andrews and Michael L. Silk. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 160-176.


shannonymous shannonymous
18-21, F
Dec 11, 2012