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At the start of the twentieth century notions of white European supremacy were simply assumed to be an objective, unquestionable fact. Given the importance of sport in reproducing dominant forms of hegemonic masculinity, it is not surprising that boxing, and heavyweight boxing in particular, came to be regarded as one of the prime avenues for demonstrating the attributes of white male strength, power, and courage.

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The symbolic significance of black and white athletes competing against each other in public as equals, and the fear of black success in the sporting arena, was such that sporting encounters began to take on wider political significance. In Johnson became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. The later achievements in the s, s, and s of African American athletes such as the boxer Joe Louis, the athlete Jesse Owens, the baseball player Jackie Robinson, and the tennis player Althea Gibson, were subsequently seen by black people throughout the African diaspora as victories in the struggle for freedom from racial oppression.

Sport as a form of political resistance can be seen in the example of cricket in the Caribbean.

Race and Sports - Sociology of Sport - iResearchNet

While the imposition of European sporting forms led to both the extinction of indigenous games and an attempt at colonial governance over local populations, these very same conditions led to sports becoming a site for cultural contestation and ideological struggle. Campaigns for equality within the game of cricket thus paralleled wider struggles for freedom and emancipation from colonial rule. Thus, the campaign to allow a black player to captain the West Indies national cricket team — previously only white West Indians were deemed intelligent enough to assume such leadership roles — was achieved in when the captaincy was finally given to Frank Worrell.

Increasingly, from the s onwards, former colonized countries gained their independence, giving further impetus to the symbolic significance of international sporting competitions, especially against their former colonial masters. The politics of protest through sport continued into the s and s as sport became an important vehicle through which racial oppression and injustice could be highlighted. Their simple but powerful protest also portrayed the ideological role of black athletes who were now able to compete in international arenas for western countries; when athletes succeeded on the field they were hailed as heroes at the same time that black people were denied full rights as citizens.

The radical black athletes of the s, best personified perhaps in the figure of Muhammad Ali, revealed the previously ignored racial politics of sport. This enabled a generation of black athletes to speak out, as previous generations dared not do, against discrimination in sports and society at large. The Gleneagles Agreement led to a sporting boycott of the regime.

Thus, sport — in Caribbean cricket squares, American sporting arenas, and South African rugby pitches, among other sites — has been central to the wider story of black diasporic struggles for freedom throughout the twentieth century. A persistent legacy of nineteenth century racial science is the ideology of absolute racial difference and its alleged effects on human behavior.

Stereotypes attributing to black people natural advantages compared to whites when it comes to running and jumping have affected structural and strategic dimensions of sports.

In American football, for instance, this supported a stacking pattern in which there was a disproportionate number of white quarterbacks and black wide receivers. This pattern reproduced a racial ideology focused on innate biological differences and led people to overlook socially produced conditions in which coaches and school teachers selected and encouraged players from different racial backgrounds to play in certain positions. Such stereotypes persist in the face of evidence to the contrary.


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Rarely is white achievement in sport explained by biological or genetic racial attributes. Success in sport has been one way for subordinated racial and ethnic minority groups to register protests and fight discrimination in the wider battles for recognition and inclusion. The message is clear here, as similarly voiced by Noel Dyck and Hans Hognestad, and with Thomas Carter: the anthropology of sport has powerful potential for applied research and more is necessary.

Additionally, though sport is an entrenched feature of contemporary societies, there are few considerations of the dimensions of sport participation and increasingly organized sporting infrastructure and professionalization of sport. The same lack of focus on race is seen in the very useful reflections on the utility of and need for more anthropology of sport from Allen Guttmann, Noel Dyck and Eduard Archetti, Roberts Sands, and Thomas Carter. Sport, particularly as practiced at the local level, is frequently perceived as a tool of integrating groups and assimilation.

Explorations of community, identity, gender, economic transition, and language acquisition have selected local sporting spaces and groups as their foundation. However, by its nature and enactment in Western contexts, sport is also, as a project, generally both hierarchical and exposes divisive beliefs including racism and other exclusionary practices. Sport in Western contexts may also be viewed as an agent of specific meanings determined as a result of exclusionary practices.

Anthropologists offer value to the study of sport and race as their training encourages them to look deeply at popular sports, as well as those that have less participation but may be locally preferred. The disciplinary boundaries of anthropology have at times shifted, expanding to include new methodologies and technologies, and integrate analytical lenses including feminism and other critical theories.

Race and sport continue to be defined by oscillating terms and contexts, through a range of examples in varying locales. What are the signposts for the anthropology of race in sport? The resulting analyses offer valuable insights, as well as approaches to research.

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The studies are organized below in relation to several ways in which anthropological methods and lenses have approached anthropology of sport, race, and ethnicity. This is by no means an exhaustive list; for example, I do not detail the ways studies have explored sport as a vehicle for symbolic status or wealth. Also prominent in sport studies, but beyond the scope of this chapter, are engagements with and resistance to the nation. To start, ethnography and methodological considerations and the organization and cohesion of small groups through and around sport.

Then a look at the use of boundaries and drawing difference and the ways sport has been interpreted as a vehicle for meaning making and establishing status. Finally, I close this overview by looking at the ways anthropologists and others have encountered the political, economic, and social flows of the local to the global and colonialism and racism in relation to sport.

While not all of these studies are explicitly anthropological, each offers valuable starting points and methods of investigating race and sport that can be adapted for anthropological research. The majority of anthropological forays with sport have touched on ethnographic and methodological considerations.

Sport has been a physical site, a site of discourse and knowledge exchange; a space of contest over prowess, identity, and boundaries. Ethnographies offer firsthand accounts of behaviors for those that derive community or identity from supporting the sporting competition of others. This may include appropriate sets of behaviors for particular places, contests, or interactions, whether supporting baseball or other sports.

Sociological research and other ethnographic accounts of fan and supporter communities offer excellent starting points for grappling with constructed, and sometimes temporal, identities. Anthropology has detailed the expressions and utility of ethnic identity in political and social contexts, as well as surfaced nuanced accounts of the effects of racism.

Paul Richards has employed ethnography to understand the ways soccer has been a mechanism for reintegrating adolescents into society following extreme violence and ethnic and political divisions. Here, there are starting points to understand identities, their changes in connection with sporting spaces, shared regional and national interpretations of teams and athletes as they conveyed constellations of values relating to region, class, masculinity, and race.

Her findings question the integrative potential of sport, but highlight the constant negotiation of affiliations for Bolivian and Ecuadorian migrants. Therefore, it is reasonable that we would locate the anthropology and investigations of the effects of racism and race-based inequality in sport.


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In particular, studies have explored where and how identities have been constructed. Thangaraj employed ethnographic methods to understand the negotiation of race, gender, and class in basketball courts by pulling apart the ways South Asian Americans navigate a space strongly marked by black—white racial dichotomies. The men in his study constantly defined minority identities by consuming dominant racializations in this specific site of sporting performance. With an ethnographic approach, Fletcher investigated the intersections of socioeconomic status, leisure time, and resources for the expression of fandom — plus the dangers inherent in passionate support of sports in racialized settings.

Also in South Africa, Connie Anderson, Troy Bielert, and Ryan Jones have shown the ways sports such as soccer, cricket, and rugby have represented and resisted White supremacy. Thus, sport remains a complex social enterprise, whether played or consumed as a spectator. The next way studies of sport have engaged with aspects of race, ethnicity, and nation is with a sense of nation.

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The structures of power inherent in colonialism are readily connected to the sport within those colonial contexts. Sport was enacted as a tool for enculturation of colonial values and a means of disciplining the bodies of local populations — and particularly through cricket and association football in the British imperial context.

As a result of sporting codes being adopted at local levels, populations were exposed to both Western ideals and adapted sports to mesh with their values. The results included hybridization of sporting codes and forms of performance that were distinct to these regions. While not exclusively anthropological lenses, studies have specifically explored diffusion, acculturation, and adoption of Western ideals.

Adaptations of sporting codes reveal intersections with other social relations that are dictated and guided by race-based inequalities.

'Race', sport and British society

For example, Leite Lopes traces how the history of class identities and racial divisions guided the boundaries of professionalization of football in Brazil from the s onward. Further connecting history with ethnographic work could unpack this nationalist discourse to understand the ways local experiences resists this narrative of the collective. Sport is, of course, also integrated at lived and local levels while referencing the national and global.

Thus, for each site and study of sport, there are economic and political flows at play that can intersect with racial identities, class, gender, and age. Some issues to which anthropological lenses might be applied include: Exploring the intersections of race and ethnicity, and even nationalism with gender, class, and sexuality. Anthropological focus might turn toward the performance of sport and athlete identities as resistance to racism and racialization; or the adoption of ethnic identities through learning and exposure to specific sporting cultures, which may support or exclude participation by certain groups.

These explorations would push at the permeability of boundaries in comparative contexts and draw out discussion of global flows. Unpacking the codification and professionalization of traditional sports, once perceived to be rituals, enculturation; also their role as vehicles for the diffusion of specific cultural, religious, or political values. Defining the contours of racism and racialization in projects of development instigated or promoted through sport, as well as their levels of success and failure in local contexts.

Extending comparative forays into understanding contemporary expressions of community and the constellation of the self in the midst of global flows and ascriptions of hybridization. This approach could be extended to unpack the layers of the local, grounded experiences as they are built through exchange with the complex and even contradictory of the global: whether imagined, spectacle, or mediated.

Launching ethnographic studies of the racialization and divisions of physical spaces and structures of sport, such as shared-use recreational facilities, and the ways meaning is made in relation to the infrastructure that supports rotating large-scale entertainment events and the experiences of racism and inequalities of the labor supporting and the people consuming these events.