Posted by on February 16, 2016 at 7:25 am

Dr Duncan Stone is in Australia for five months as a visiting scholar/researcher with Victoria University. During this time he will be delivering lectures and public seminars on his research interests of amateurism in elite sports, the social and cultural history of cricket.

The academic year is still some three weeks away here at Victoria University, and yet the College of Sport and Exercise Science is well ahead of the field having already hosted two significant public events relating to sport and society. It was with some mirth that I noticed the first of these was a public lecture on Sport and Race by Professor Kevin Hylton of Leeds Beckett University. Having travelled halfway round the world I’d not have expected to see someone who works twenty minutes down the trainline from Huddersfield.

Fawkner Park (c) Duncan Stone

Fawkner Park © Duncan Stone

Professor Hylton, a sociologist who employs Critical Race Theory (CRT) in his research, explained the origins and aims of the ‘theory’. Despite the name Hylton noted that it is a ‘framework’, and on the assumption that the audience already were aware of the problems of sporting racism, he spent much of his time explaining how scholars may use this framework rather than providing examples. There is no doubt however that institutional racism pervades sport, and sports related organizations of every type – I myself have briefly referred to the institutional structures within the England and Wales Cricket Board’s Clubmark scheme that discriminate against teams (most often those composed of ethnic minorities) without their own private grounds in the past.

More broadly, what Hylton described was not, from my perspective, a ‘theory’ of racial discrimination, but simply discrimination – racial or otherwise. While I agree that it is not helpful to privilege one form of discrimination over another, and here comes the history, I do believe a historical appreciation of the origins of the structures that are used to, consciously or unconsciously, discriminate against non-white athletes, coaches and administrators is crucial, for these administrative structures were put in place – in the case of English cricket certainly – to discriminate against other groups (the working classes and women) first.

Knowing, or at least considering, the origins of these structures and the deliberate and planned way they were erected can only assist in breaking them down. I cannot help but think (on Hylton’s presentation at least) that the practitioners of CRT are missing an opportunity in their vital campaign to eradicate racism.

Race was obviously one of the many subjects arising in a panel discussion at the second event ‘Sport and the Sociological Imagination’. Like the debates in sport history I instigated at the University of Huddersfield in 2011, the sociology of sport also appears to be at a crossroads. The same questions posed by sport historians applied. Specifically, how do sociologists of sport make their work more ‘relevant’ to the so-called academic ‘mainstream’, and the public beyond? Unlike sport historians who, I would suggest, wish to make people understand or think differently about the past and how it applies to contemporary sport and society, the general consensus among the panel, and the audience, was that the sociology of sport needs to be more interventionist.

Using research to actively campaign for, or influence, change in sport and society is, superficially at least, a noble cause – who would not want for less racism, more access to facilities and support for women, the disabled and those who might self-identify as all three of those things? And here comes the ‘but’. Where do you draw the line? In the US the National Football League (NFL) has been visibly pro-active in terms of the generation of more equal employment opportunities for black coaches via the Rooney Rule and, despite the contested efficacy of this innovation, a similar ‘Rooney Rule’ for women is to be implemented. So far, so good, but the NFL, like other extreme ‘contact’ sports, has a problem with drugs, domestic violence and brain injuries.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has led to a number of deaths – including the murder / suicide of ex- Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend – the most recent of which was an accidental overdose of painkillers by Tyler Sash in September 2015. These tragic, and avoidable, events are, bearing in mind the tens of thousands of players who risk similar injuries only to never reach the professional ranks of the NFL, surely not worth the risk? But do ‘campaigning’ sociologists (or historians if so inclined) have the right to interfere with long-established sports on health and safety grounds? Rugby union and rugby league have similar issues and an inquest into the early death, due to CTE, of West Bromwich Albion and ‘Fantasy Football League’ legend Jeff Astle concluded he died as the result of repeatedly heading the ball (much heavier and more absorbent in the 1960s and 70s).

The issue, like doping, homophobia or racism, is a crucial subject for present-centred research and discussion, but all have historical precedents across a range of sports. Perhaps this in itself may provide a research opportunity – if not, obviously, to ban or change the essential competitiveness of the sports themselves? Sport hurts in physical and emotional terms but it is always worth remembering the reasons why, in the beginning at least, people choose to take part in, or support, sports. As Professor David Rowe suggested, sociologists do not want to be solely associated with the ‘bad’ elements of sport!

Research methods © Duncan Stone

Research methods © Duncan Stone

As for my own burgeoning sporting career here down under the weekend rains finally relented and I made my much-anticipated debut for the Yarras. And what a debut it was! A wicket with my very first ball for the club no less, but I should have feigned injury there and then to protect my ‘average’ (strangely synonymous with my sporting career that word) as my fourth ball sailed over mid-wicket for a six. Feigning an injury would have only, as it turned out, delayed what was to come however.  As us ‘Poms’ are not used to wearing ‘thongs’ (flip-flops) out and about of an evening I did myself a mischief and ended up in A+E. No matter what the weather does in the coming weeks, I’ll not be playing due to a very badly damaged big toe.

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