Thorstein Veblen and the Higher Learning of Sport Management Education

By Lambert, Thomas | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Thorstein Veblen and the Higher Learning of Sport Management Education


Lambert, Thomas, Journal of Economic Issues


Since 1999 marks the 100th anniversary of Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, it is both interesting and informative to consider how much (or how little) American society has changed since the publication of this economics classic. This paper focuses on three areas dealt with in Leisure Class: sports, higher education, and the mingling of the two institutions.

In 1966, there was only one degree program in sport management/administration offered in the United States. By 1993, the number of colleges offering degrees in this field had grown to 193, with degrees ranging from the associate to doctoral level. These programs have their own accreditation associations and are usually taught and administered collectively by colleges of business, education, and arts and sciences [NASSM and NASPE 1993]. These programs provide the professionals required, as sports, fitness, gaming, and related activities have grown into multibillion dollar industries.

In this paper, I offer a brief review of Veblen's understanding of the institutions that promote sports, predatory prowess, conservatism, and leisure class values in American society. Growth in sport management education will be examined as an extension of these institutions into modern day higher education and the sports industry. The essay then concludes with a few observations on the possible impacts of the growth of sports and gaming on contemporary American culture and values.

Veblen on Dominant Leisure Class Values, Sports, and Higher Education: How the 1990s Resemble the 1890s

Leisure Class Values

In the first chapter of The Theory of the Leisure Class [1899], Veblen delves into the area of economic anthropology by speculating about the "barbarian" lifestyles of the upper, non-productive leisure classes that have existed since antiquity. Veblen writes that in his time:

The normal and characteristic occupations of the class in this mature phase of its life history are in form very much the same as in its earlier days. These occupations are government, war, sports, and devout observances. Persons unduly given to difficult theoretical niceties may hold that these occupations are still incidentally and indirectly "productive"; but it is to be noted as decisive of the question in hand that the ordinary and ostensible motive of the leisure class in engaging in these occupations is assuredly not an increase of wealth by a productive effort [1899, 40].

Non-productive occupations and endeavors are sought because of status and pecuniary considerations. Even the lower and middle classes of society, who are often engaged in productive and industrious activities (such as civil engineering, farming, etc.), are prone to engage in what Veblen calls modest conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and wasteful behavior because these classes emulate the leisure class.

Institutions slowly evolve and do so in response to novelty and to pressures from vested interests. Historically derived customs and mores unduly influence current, as well as future, thought and customs, even though the past may not be applicable to current or future situations [Eby 1998]. This conservatism is associated with "social inertia" [1899, 191]. Veblen adds, "The leisure class is the conservative class" [1899, 198].

Sports

Social scientists have written much on the influence that sports has had and continues to have on various cultures [Hoberman 1984]. According to Veblen, the glorification of sports and gaming in general is a powerful leisure-class value that shapes and influences all social strata and encourages institutional conservatism. This happens in several ways. First, just as the lower classes try to emulate the leisure class, sports fans admire and try to emulate their sports heroes. "Be like Mike" (Michael Jordan) was a popular commercial jingle designed to influence children to be like the NBA superstar and to consume a particular product that he was endorsing. …

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