Tech professors merge global athletics, academia

Photo courtesy of Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

Survey a group of young children about their dream careers, and many aspire to be professional athletes. From Steph Curry to Lionel Messi, stars inspire kids hoping to follow in their footsteps.

An incredibly small proportion of those children will reach the pinnacle of their respective sports. But at Tech, two professors in particular have taken it upon themselves to channel their athletic interests in a way that suits them well: analyzing it through the lens of academia.

Dr. Mary McDonald, formerly of the University of Iowa, is also a former president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS), which takes it upon itself to analyze and better explain the interactions that “physical culture” — sports and their fandom — has on society as a whole. Her work at Tech focuses on the advantages that individuals of privilege — males and whites — purportedly enjoy when participating in or being analyzed within the context of sports.

In a chapter within the book Sporting Dystopias, McDonald co-writes a chapter with Alan
Ingham wherein she describes the expansive effect sports have had in an era of globalization. Team allegiances, she says, are no longer bound to specific geographic regions, despite the “distantiated emotional space” that one might expect accompanies following a team that plays its matches thousands of miles away. But with the advent of bustling online sports fora and 24/7 coverage by networks such as ESPN (and even niche networks for specific fandoms such as the Longhorn Network, a favorite among University of Texas fans), “virtual communities” have become crucial in defining the fan experience.

Yet McDonald also acknowledges that there exist inherent inequalities in the current paradigm, which emphasizes “commercialized elite male sport.” Indeed, all five of the United States’ most popular sporting leagues — the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League — are entirely populated by men. This inequity, she argues, is exacerbated by state and local governments’ willingness to support these sports franchises, subsidizing poor attendance performance and putting forward funding for new, often single-purpose stadiums.

Where McDonald leaves off in her discussion of the effects of sports in an interconnected world, Dr. Kirk Bowman picks up. Bowman is the Jon Wilcox Term Professor of Soccer and Global Politics in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, along with being an associate chair for the school. Along with leading a number of study abroad programs, Bowman’s primary interest is the effect of the sport in Latin American communities.

In “Fútbol, Identity and Politics in Latin America,” Bowman cites the sport as a progenitor of a democratic revolution. Brazilian player Sócrates, for example, led an opposition party to Brazil’s military government. The exercise he influenced as a major celebrity was a powerful factor in the country’s eventual liberalization. Soccer can equally be a force for negative social change; legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar curried much of his early favor by constructing soccer pitches for children in poor villages, and at the height of his infamy, he bankrolled the efforts of club Medellin Nacional.

In an interview with the Technique from a residence in the Los Angeles area where he is conducting research for an upcoming book, Bowman was quick to demonstrate that the influence of the sport has not been limited to these countries. In Ivory Coast, for
example, the sport has been used as a method of uniting Muslim and Christian populations.

Yet in Latin America, the effect of soccer is the most profound. There, he says, citizens “form
national identity at the same time as they form a sports identity.” Although such societies might be marked by racial tension and class inequality, “class and ethnic identities overlap with soccer identities.” The rich and poor, European immigrants and mestizos, can gather together to cheer for the same clubs on match day.

While in the United States, the pastimes that Bowman describes as “hegemonic sports” are regional ­ — college basketball in Chapel Hill and professional football in Green Bay ­— Latin American countries, in particular, are more homogenous in their preferences. Particularly, these sports are appealing due to their “democratic” nature, more specifically that the players’ physiques seem at least outwardly attainable and there is always hope of the local club
rising to the stardom, thanks to the relegation/promotion system.

The future of global politics will leave its mark on sports such as soccer, Bowman says. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU could be “brutal” at first to the English Premier League, as a weaker pound drives up transaction rates and it becomes more difficult to buy foreign players. If it results in an investment in local talent, the global athletic fabric will have changed.