Sport and 20th-Century American Society: Viv Saunders Reveals How Sport and Society Are Intertwined

By Saunders, Viv | History Review, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Sport and 20th-Century American Society: Viv Saunders Reveals How Sport and Society Are Intertwined


Saunders, Viv, History Review


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Sport and the 'American Way'

'America', said President Clinton in 1998, 'is a sports crazy country, and we often see games as a metaphor or symbol of what we are as a people.' Many Americans considered that sport reflected all that was good about the 'American Way': both were supposedly characterised by the capacity for hard work, equal opportunities for advancement, competitiveness and frequent success. Team games and team spirit correlated with good citizenship, and all sports strengthened character: Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (19019) and Ronald Reagan (1981-9) praised sport as the preparation and proving ground for subsequent business or political challenges. Sport fostered a sense of community: Oakland's Mayor said the city's football team gave it 'the pride and identity' it needed.

However, some believed sport represented till that was had in the American character--excessive greed, commercialisation, violence, drug abuse and cheating.

Sport certainly reflected American society's preoccupation with making money. The second half of the twentieth century saw many teams dump their supporters and traditional homes and move to another city to earn more money. Suburbanisation, the car culture and declining city centres left baseball clubs such as the Brooklyn Dodgers with fewer paying supporters. Therefore the Dodgers moved in 1957 to Los Angeles, where city officials proved more helpful about their stadium. In 1980, the Los Angeles Times wanted football's Oakland Raiders to come to Los Angeles, 'to provide a sense of identity and some economic benefit'. The National Football League (NFL) tried to stop the move, but the circuit court ruled in favour. Such deregulation was typical of the anti-big government Reagan era.

Corporate America wanted to exploit successful athletes. World-beating cyclist Lance Armstrong, who had miraculously overcome cancer, had over 5 million dollars worth of endorsements in 2001, from companies such as Coca-Cola and Nike. Golfer Arnold Palmer, 1960 'Sportsman of the Year', exploited his massive fan following ('Arnie's Army') by creating best-selling clothing and even bug-repellent for golfers.

Money caused divided loyalties, as in the 1992 'shoe war' between Reebok, the official Barcelona Olympic Games sponsor, and Nike, whose stars such as Michael Jordan refused to wear the official Olympic logo because it advertised Reebok. The Nike stars were persuaded to drape themselves in the American flag at the medals ceremonies, in order to hide the Reebok logo.

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Not only was sport shaped by society, sport sometimes shaped society. The influence of athletes and advertisements was demonstrated when the $125 Air Jordan sneakers caused much youthful heartbreak and a surprising number of muggings and murders.

Late 19th-century Progressive reformers criticised college football for violence: in 1905, 18 players were killed and 150 seriously injured. President Theodore Roosevelt called a White House conference to try to clean up sporting violence, but the problem persisted. When the national violent crime rate doubled between 1965 and 1975, disorderly conduct by fans increased simultaneously. New York Yankees fans ended a 1976 game against the Dodgers with a riot. In a 1978 football game, a New, England Patriot bumped into an Oakland Raider, and suffered two fractured vertebrae, which left him a quadriplegic. In his autobiography They Call Me Assassin, the Raider said he did not feel guilty or sad about his opponent's fate, because it was 'what the owners expect of me when they give me my paycheque'.

In 1995-6, over 200 athletes were arrested for sexually or physically abusing women. Although athletes constituted only 3.3 per cent of the male university population, they made up 19 per cent of the students reported for sexual assault and 35 per cent of those accused of domestic violence. …

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