Taking the Knee

by Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell, co-authors of The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Recent headlines about NFL players “taking the knee” during the national anthem to protest racism in the United States remind us just how important sport can be in our contemporary times. Donald Trump’s irate Twitter responses are clear indications that sport, and what happens in and around sport, places politics front and center, no matter how strenuously some insist that sport should only be about fun and entertainment. It is evident from the furor that the athletes’ actions are not just about conflict between powerful, wealthy white male team owners and the black athletes who play for them, but more importantly about the structures of inequality that run deep in the U.S. and are, if anything, becoming more entrenched.

We need anthropologists to help us make sense of all this—and to serve as watchdogs over the burgeoning global sport industry, headed by non-governmental organizations such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee with budgets and political clout that dwarf those of many nations of the world. Anthropology Matters!, the theme of this year’s annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), encourages anthropologists to talk back to the media pundits, disingenuous politicians, and self-assured economists who dominate public discourse.

This is what The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics, just out from the University of California Press, aims to do. The product of a collaboration between three senior anthropologists (Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, and Thomas F. Carter), the book marks a new phase in our understanding of sport, a sphere of human activity that gained attention in the discipline in the late nineteenth century, but that has not fully coalesced until now. At the AAA meetings, a panel on “Did the Olympics Change Rio? Anthropological Contributions to the Public Debate about Olympic Legacies” demonstrates the importance of micro-level ethnographic research in achieving a deeper understanding of headline-grabbing issues, such as the favela pacification program, urban renewal, security and surveillance, Brazilian nationalism, and massive expenditures of taxpayer money on mega-events.

Two Cameroonian soccer players in the front of the disused roadside tavern they share as living quarters with fellow migrant soccer players in rural Poland, winter 2015 (Paweł Banaś)

The Anthropology of Sport highlights how tried-and-true anthropological concepts shed light on the world of sport—particularly the areas that the bright lights focused on star athletes and sports spectacles throw into deep background shadows. Ethnographic approaches to the gift economy, labor migrations, kinship, gender, sexuality, ritual, nationalism, consumption, capital, and precarity all provide new perspectives on sport in all its manifestations, big and small, festive and tragic, global and personal—explaining practices that often make little sense to other observers. While seeming disconnected, the extravagant cost of Olympic Games and the precarious lives of migrant athletes pursuing contracts in professional clubs are in fact enabled by one and the same structure of global capital, which both underwrites sport mega-events and creates the conditions under which increasing numbers of young men (and sometimes women) and their families in places like Fiji, Cameroon, and Kenya are pinning their hopes for better lives on careers with professional sports clubs in the developed world.

The Anthropology of Sport argues that, ultimately, the ethnographic approach to sport is a particularly productive lens through which to understand the workings of social life and contributes toward a better understanding of the challenging world in which we live.


Niko Besnier is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He has written extensively on gender, sexuality, migration, economic relations, language, and sport. He is editor-in-chief of American Ethnologist.

 

Susan Brownell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She is an expert on sports and Olympic Games in China, Olympic history, and world’s fairs. She is the author of Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic.


Complicity

This guest post is published as part of a series related to the American Sociological Association conference, which occurred from August 12 – 15 in Montreal, Quebec. #ASA17

By Cynthia Enloe, author of The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy

I grew up a Yankees fan. My mother, who couldn’t tell a home run from a quarterback sneak, gamely took 10 year old me and my pals to Yankee Stadium. Now I’m a Red Sox fan. I still love major league baseball. Today, though, I’m far more conscious of the insinuation of militarized patriotism into the game, and, more discomforting, the likelihood that as a fan, I am complicit in that risky process.

Last week I was among the 36,000 fans soaking up Fenway Park’s special beauty on a glorious July afternoon. The stands were full, the grass green, and the bases white. Red Sox fans are a boisterously friendly lot, so I felt I had to stand up with everyone else when a teenage girl sang the national anthem. I cringed when a mammoth stars and stripes was unfurled in the outfield down the beloved Green Monster wall. I kept my cringes to myself.

Around the 6th inning, during a lull in the action, the Fenway announcer drew our attention to the Jumbotron, where we saw a giant version of a middle-aged white man who, in human proportions, was with us in the stands. He was identified as a veteran of recent U.S. wars. Invited to give him a hero’s welcome, a wave of grateful applause erupted. I sat stingily on my hands, still saying nothing.

I love singing at Fenway. Joining thousands of other fans in “Take Me out to the Ball Game” and Boston’s own “Sweet Caroline” is to experience sheer joy. But when at the bottom of the 8th came “America the Beautiful” and everyone around me stood, I sat quietly. My friends smiled down at me sympathetically.

Patriotism, especially militarized, masculinity-heroicizing patriotism, is escalating at American sporting events. It may be most prominent at NFL games and NASCAR races, but it is in full bloom at most major league baseball games—not just the national anthem, but also the ubiquitous lauding of military personnel, and additional patriotic songs in the middle of the game.

Complicity. I have become more interested in complicity, and aware of its subtleties, but I’m not sure how to research it. Feminists in other countries might be our tutors. Japanese feminists today track the singing of their nation’s anthem and displays of the national flag. Bosnian feminists chart ethnicized patriotic symbols as they dominate masculinized soccer games in all parts of the now-rival states of the former Yugoslavia.

I think we need to explore how exactly ordinary women and men—and girls and boys—get personally drawn into militarized masculinized patriotism. To do that, we need to investigate the gendered responses of individuals to both pressures and the allures. I suspect that complicity in militarized masculinized patriotism is camouflaged as mere entertainment or sentimentalism, as well as collective appreciation and gratitude. Gratitude is so often feminized. It becomes an extension of dependency. Women, therefore, are popularly expected to be grateful to men and to the masculinized state for offering them militarized protection. In a militarized society, a woman who refuses to express that gratitude (staying seated when the male veteran is being cheered) risks being deemed unfeminine.

Appreciation can be either masculinized or feminized. In its militarized masculinized form, appreciation is imagined by many men to be an expression of their own special understanding of what it takes to be a manly soldier. By contrast, when feminized, that militarized appreciation is an expression of recognizing that an ordinary woman would be unable to perform these soldiering feats.

Sentimentality, entertainment, appreciation and gratitude—each are routinely gendered. To the extent that all four can be mobilized to serve masculinized militarized patriotism, patriarchy will be perpetuated. It will take researchers and analysts with patience, imagination, stamina and feminist curiosity to understand the myriad deep social processes being entrenched today at a baseball game on a sunny summertime afternoon.

Why did I sit during “God Bless America,” but say nothing?

Other titles from Cynthia Enloe:


Cynthia Enloe

Cynthia Enloe is Research Professor at Clark University specializing in critical studies of militarism and transnational feminism. She has appeared on the BBC, Al Jazeera, and NPR and has written for Ms. and the Village Voice. She is the author of more than fifteen books and was awarded the Howard Zinn Lifetime Achievement in Peace Studies Award from the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA).


Hilary Levey Friedman on the Evolution of Competitive Childhood Sports

Hilary Levey Friedman’s Atlantic article about the increasing prevalence of childhood competitive sports has spurred a discussion at the New York TimesRoom for Debate. The Times assembled a team of experts to debate how competitive youth sports should be, and whether sports overwhelm childhood or enhance it.

Friedman’s article gives historical context to the phenomenon of childhood sports and class, noting that “not until after World War II did these competitive endeavors begin to be dominated by children from the middle and upper-middle classes. The forces that have led to increasing inequality in education, the workplace, and other spheres have come to the world of play.” Read the full article at The Atlantic.


Why the World Needs Benchwarmers

Playing to WinHarvard sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, author of the forthcoming book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, is now a featured blogger at Psychology Today. Her first installment, “Qualities of the B (aka Bench-Warming) Player” talks about why it may be more advantageous for a child to be a benchwarmer than a star player.

“Every team—whether it is athletic, artistic, or academic—needs members who support the others, strengthening the glue that holds the team together and making the group more successful as a whole,” writes Friedman. “In some contexts individuals may excel, and in others they may fall short. Children need to learn how to adapt to both situations.” Read the full post at Psychology Today.

 


Secrets of Successful Women Coaches

Michael Messner
Michael A. Messner is Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and the author of several books including Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports. His latest title, It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports, will be published by UC Press in March 2009. Below, is an excerpt from the conclusion of his blog entry entitled, Secrets of Successful Women Coaches, from the youth sports website, MomsTeam.

“These successful strategies can be summed up in a single quote from a woman softball coach: ‘You gotta be tough.’ As I spoke with these women, I came to see them as courageous pioneers.
But I also concluded that the individual strategies they developed are very limited. Not all women are willing to be ‘tough,’ just to be able to coach their kids. Nor should they have to be. Moreover,
the women who did act more competitive, tougher,and more assertive than many of the men found that they ran head-on into the same sort of double-standard that women face in corporate life or the professions: if you are not competitive and aggressive, you are not taken seriously; if you are overly so, you are seen as pushy, or as having, as one woman told me, ‘a chip on my shoulder.'”

To read the entire blog entry and other subsequent blogs, please visit, Messner’s MomsTeam blog.


Including More Women Coaches in Youth Sports: Why it Matters

Book Page
Michael A. Messner is Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and the author of several books including Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports. His latest title, It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports, will be published by UC Press in April 2009. Below, is an excerpt from his blog entry entitled, Including More Women Coaches in Youth Sports: Why it Matters, from the youth sports website, MomsTeam.

“Unlike in my day, when all of the kids playing Little League were boys, there are now a substantial number of girls playing. Today, LLB/S is an organization that boasts 2.7 million children participants worldwide, 2.1 million of them in the United States. There are 176,786 teams in the program, 153,422 of them in baseball and 23,364 in softball. But the dramatic growth of girls on the field has not been matched by a growth of women coaches.

In the community I studied for eight years — South Pasadena, California — only 2% of boys’ baseball teams were coached by women, while 11% of girls’ softball teams had women coaches. I discovered
that prospective women coaches faced barriers—mostly informal and unspoken — that diverted them away from coaching.  Most of the few women who did coach left after a year or two, after finding the league to be dominated informally by a less-than-supportive “old boys’ network” of coaches. I came to see this as a problem.

To read the entire blog entry and other subsequent blogs, please visit, Messner’s MomsTeam blog.