Preoccupations and Prejudices: Reflections on the Study of Sports Imagery

By King, C. Richard | Anthropologica, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Preoccupations and Prejudices: Reflections on the Study of Sports Imagery


King, C. Richard, Anthropologica


Keywords: anthropology/philosophy, cultural politics, identity, racialization, sports mascots

In November 2002, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) celebrated its centennial at its annual meetings. The massive convention, attended by several thousand students, academics, and practitioners, showcases the discipline, offering a ritualized display of its priorities, preoccupations, and prejudices at the start of the 21st century. While one could attend panels devoted to art worlds, immigration as a divorce strategy, posthuman media, hostess bars in Taiwan and the future of food studies, noticeably absent again was a single session on sport. In contrast, sport not only brought host city New Orleans, Louisiana, to life, but it also framed the meetings as well. The evening of my arrival at the conference, the driver, who took me, along with several colleagues, from the airport to our hotel, raced against the conclusion of a professional basketball game and the subsequent street closing. Throughout my stay, the local media pivoted around athletic events and exploits, devoting more attention to the popularity of the new basketball franchise, the Hornets, and high school football than to pending elections or economics. The meetings themselves were held in the shadows of the Superdome, home to the New Orleans Saints football team and host to the annual Sugar Bowl and regularly to the National Football League Championship game, the Super Bowl. And, in my hotel room, of the roughly 15 cable channels, 2 were dedicated exclusively to sports programming. Sport was literally everywhere but at AAA.

The pronounced presence of sports in the rhythms of everyday life, structures of urban space, and flows of public discourse in New Orleans, North American societies generally, and increasingly in communities and nations throughout the world, when contrasted with their virtual absence from the annual meetings of AAA is simultaneously telling and promising. Indeed, as I argue in what follows, although too often ignored within the field, sporting worlds afford important opportunities to fashion engaged, critical and public anthropologies.

In advancing this position, I build on the works of anthropologists, both the celebrated and the unknown, who have recognized in sports a powerful and privilege occasion to understand local communities, global processes and human conditions (see for instance, Appadurai, 1993; Blanchard, 1995; Dyck, 2000b; Geertz, 1973; Gluckman and Gluckman, 1977; MacClancy, 1996; Sands, 2000). In fact, anthropologists have seized upon sporting worlds. Clifford Geertz (1973) turned to the cockfight to unlock the meanings animating Balinese culture and character. In his attention to the subculture of bodybuilding, Alan Klein (1993) sensitively probes the workings of gender and identity. Similarly, Charles F. Springwood (1996) uses sport to disentangle a powerful ideological knot, namely the intersection of nostalgia and the new right in the Baseball Hall of Fame and the farming community that served as the setting for Field of Dreams. In a wonderful ethnography of sport and China, Susan Brownell (1995) discerns the linkages between nation, gender and the body. And, Arjun Appadurai (1993) examines cricket to grasp the significance of global shifts in the wake of decolonization in south Asia. For me, each of these ethnographers and many others underscore the promise of studying sport for anthropology.

I came to the study of sport, specifically racialized representations in athletic spectacles, media coverage, and public debates, quite by accident. I watched sports, but never would have thought to study them. That is, it had not occurred to me until I began to recognize Native American mascots as unnatural, hurtful, powerful, meaningful and racist, precisely as I came of age as an anthropologist at a time when the discipline struggled with the lingering legacies of colonialism, continental philosophy, textuality, reflexivity, the postmodern turn, cultural studies and questions of power. …

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