Education and Sports

C Roger Rees & Andrew W Miracle. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

The development of modern sport as a global entity has been inextricably linked to the concept of education. Modern sport originated in educational institutions primarily in Britain during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and was exported worldwide as an integral part of that educational system. Within these institutions, sport was originally seen as a device for building and demonstrating ‘character,’ a rather vague term which is still used as justification for its inclusion as an important extracurricular activity in schools and colleges today. As this review will show, sport in schools has been credited with teaching values of sportsmanship and fair play to participants, increasing athletes’ educational aspirations, developing a sense of community and group cohesion among students, helping to reduce dropout rates, and giving poor and minority youth access to higher education.

However the educational ‘effect’ of sport has not been confined to educational institutions. It has been used to justify participation at all levels of society from community youth leagues to professional clubs. To this day sport maintains a moral component and individual participation in it is seen as worthwhile, an uplifting experience. Even professional athletes carry the moral baggage of sport’s genesis. They are supposed to be role models for youth, and their behavior is often judged against a standard of morality rarely applied to other representatives of the entertainment industry such as film stars or rock musicians.

In a symbolic sense sport has become part of what historian Eric Hobsbawm (1983a) has called the ‘invented traditions’ of culture. That is, it demonstrates to us that certain characteristics (or myths) are true, and can be generalized at a societal level. When a few gifted athletes from low socio-economic backgrounds use interscholastic sports to advance their education and/or become extremely wealthy as professionals, many people use this as testament to the belief that society is ‘open,’ and that everyone has the opportunity to be successful if they follow ‘society’s’ rules. In American high schools these rules are literally written on the locker room walls. For example, slogans such as ‘there is no “I” in team,’ ‘quitters never win and winners never quit,’ and, ‘show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,’ teach us that we should sink our individuality into the greater goal of team victory and never cease to strive for this success. After all, America is a nation of ‘winners’ and we should be satisfied with nothing less than ‘Being No. 1.’ The failures of English soccer football and cricket teams in international competition in recent years has been interpreted as symbolic of a general air of pessimism in the nation, and a ‘willful nostalgia’ for what has been perceived as a more positive sporting era in the past (Maguire, 1994).

These introductory comments illustrate two problems with regard to the issues of education and sport, one substantive, the other organizational. First, although sport is a global concept, organized sport in educational settings is more evident in some countries than in others. For example, in Germany and some Scandinavian countries organized interscholastic athletics is almost non-existent. Furthermore, the issue of sport in higher education is primarily applicable to the United States where the educational value of quasi-professional sports in colleges is hotly debated. This means that a lot of the research reviewed in this chapter applies to countries that imported and adapted the original British model wherein sport was afforded such an important role in character development. Secondly, the ubiquitous belief in the educational value of sport has implications for the focus of this chapter, specifically the issue of interpreting ‘education’ in its broadest sense of socialization and enculturation versus the narrower sense of schooling. Although we concentrate on sport in educational institutions, we do recognize that the ‘education’ issue is important in volunteer programs (Fine, 1987; Landers and Fine, 1996), especially since children often enter these programs before they become involved in sports at school.

Underlying all these observations is the theme that sport as education has a very ‘modernist’ ring to it, and is very much part of the modernist tradition of progress and emancipation. The following review is a record of attempts by social scientists to interpret this tradition using a number of theoretical and methodological perspectives. These include empirical approaches designed to test the usually anecdotal evidence given to support competitive sports programs in schools and colleges. This research tries to assess what changes (if any) occur as a result of participation in interscholastic athletics. Other approaches from a Marxist and a critical theory perspective have challenged the underlying assumptions of ‘equality’ in society and shown how sport can help to perpetuate social class, race and gender inequalities, and encourage practices such as dieting, drug taking and aggression which endanger physical and mental health. In particular, feminist research has revealed the way sport can reinforce patriarchy as the ‘natural’ order of social relationships between males and females.

In the final section of the chapter we discuss what we consider to be the ‘isolated’ nature of the research on sport and education from several perspectives, and suggest research agendas to reduce this isolation. We advance three points: first, that sport and education are global concepts yet the research has largely reflected an ‘American’ perspective; second, that sport is an integral part of schooling which has largely been overlooked by educational sociologists; third, that the sociological research on sport and education has been virtually ignored by practitioners in the field of physical education. This field comprises the formal mechanism through which the ‘educational’ message of sport is delivered. The ‘message’ for physical educators and coaches is that we can no longer accept that the simplistic ‘Marie Antoinette’ approach by itself (‘let them play sport’) is successful in reducing social problems such as racism, sexism, delinquency and school dropout. Programs need to be developed which use sport as a medium through which to raise such social issues, and examples of such programs are briefly reviewed.

Historical Background

There is consensus among scholars (for example, Dunning, 1971; Guttmann, 1994; Mangan, 1981) that organized sport was first institutionalized in the private (euphemistically called ‘public’) schools in Britain in the nineteenth century.4 In this context sports were seen as an integral part of the curriculum because of their ‘character building’ properties. Sports, especially team games like cricket and rugby, were intended to teach ‘manly’ characteristics such as group loyalty, physical toughness and self-reliance. This cult of athleticism became so popular that by the 1880s compulsory games, sometimes every day, but usually three times a week, became the norm (Mangan, 1981). Such training was an integral part of the spartan discipline of boarding-school life, encouraging boys to think of themselves as socially elite, and preparing them for leadership at home and abroad. As Mangan (1981: 136) has noted, the athletic emphasis became the basis of the muscular Christianity movement—a fusion of Christianity and social Darwinism in which it was the duty (and the right) of English gentlemen to help civilize what they perceived to be the ‘less fortunate’ races which became part of the expanding British Empire. Muscular Christianity became popularized in the romantic novels of Charles Kingsley, and especially in Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, which did much to establish as part of popular mythology the idea that ‘sport builds character,’ at least for boys (see Anderson, 1985; Redmond, 1978).

There is also evidence that sport was part of education in girls’ private schools, although these physical activities were constrained by the educational myths of the time concerning female maturation. Victorian medical theories held that females had a limited amount of energy, which, during puberty, went into the development of the reproductive organs. Subjecting adolescent girls to the rigors of intellectual and physical activity during this crucial period would endanger their physical maturation and subsequently their ability to have children (McCrone, 1987). Moderate exercise however, would help develop moral qualities in girls, and help girls become ‘fit’ mothers and produce physically healthy and morally sound children (Park, 1987).

British public schools provided the model for education in the British empire, and school sports became a way of life for the sons of the elites. This was the case for cricket in the West Indies (Sandiford and Stoddart, 1987) and India (Mangan, 1986), soccer football in Argentina (Guttmann, 1994: 58-9), and cricket, soccer and rugby football in Africa (Guttmann, 1994: 63-6). In the United States exclusive private schools based on the British model were developed during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. In these schools sport was believed to perform the same function as in the British public schools, extending institutional control, allowing students contact with games masters who acted as surrogate parents, teaching ‘manliness,’ developing leaders, and preparing athletes for elite colleges and universities (Armstrong, 1984; Bundgaard, 1985). At the same time there was also great value attached to winning (Bundgaard, 1985; Mirel, 1982). As in the British model, morality was associated with sport, but in America this morality was really demonstrated through victory, because only through victory, it was thought, could one demonstrate character and moral superiority over one’s opponents (Mrozek, 1983: esp. ch. 2). The tradition of Americans as winners was ‘invented’ in the emerging ‘American’ sports of baseball and football. Football in particular ‘exemplifies all the best in American manhood,’ and became required activities in the schools attended by the future leaders of America (Park, 1987: 69).

As in Britain, school sports were perceived primarily as activities for males, although at least some American commentators did accept their importance in female moral and physical development. It was thought that mild physical activity could turn weak girls into fit mothers, and the emphasis on the role of motherhood among middle-class women was particularly strong given the great influx of (usually working-class) immigrants from Europe at that time. Moreover, middle-class wives who did not have children were held responsible for ‘race suicide’ (Smith-Rosenberg and Rosenberg, 1973).

The impetus to broaden the idea that sport builds character, which eventually led to sport becoming such an important force in American education, stemmed from concern with how to socialize the children of immigrants. The playground movement (Cavallo, 1981) was developed as a way to counter the perception that urbanization and immigration were threatening ‘American’ values. The city environment in which most of the immigrants lived was seen as having a corrupting influence on youth which could be countered by adult-supervised and organized play in city playgrounds and gymnasiums. These activities would help reduce juvenile delinquency, give a sense of moral purpose to youth, and allow them to break away from their ethnic roots and become ‘Americanized’ (Cavallo, 1981). Organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the Public School Athletic League (PSAL), helped to bring these organized games and sports to the masses.

Cavallo (1981: 48) has suggested that by the 1920s Americans were convinced that team games were essential for promoting ethnic harmony, physical vigor, moral direction, psychological stability and social skills in urban youth. As the 1920s began, athletics had been institutionalized in virtually every school district in America. That participating in sport (or in America, winning in sport) ‘built character’ was the accepted tradition or ‘myth’ which is at the root of the link between sport and education. Many contemporary coaches and school athletic administrators would endorse the social and educational value of sport in schools as strongly as their predecessors did. The educational value of athletics may have stood the test of time among coaches and athletes, but for many contemporary sport sociologists it is a controversial issue. This research is reviewed in the next section.

Sport in Educational Institutions

The role of sport in schools has been increasingly scrutinized by sociologists since Coleman’s landmark study of American high schools in the late 1950s (1961a). In this study Coleman acknowledged the value of sport as a source of identity and school spirit, particularly for non-motivated students. However, he also felt that, by placing too great an emphasis on sport, schools ran the risk of subverting intellectual goals (Coleman, 1961b). According to Basil Bernstein (1975) school life can be analysed from the perspective of two types of rituals: consensual rituals which sustain a sense of community, and differentiating rituals that mark off different groups within the school. Rees (1995) has applied this classification system to show how involvement in school sports effects the learning of knowledge via the subject matter of the curriculum and the learning of values. As Coleman’s comments suggest, sport can influence both of these areas. The organization of this section (loosely) follows Bernstein’s classification, dealing first with the research on the differentiating rituals and the relationship between sport and the academic life of the school, followed by the role of sport in the consensual rituals and the social values these rituals reinforce.

School Sport and Academic Life

Proponents of school sports suggest that athletics is a positive influence on the formal education of students. Their arguments claim that participation in sports develops skills that are useful in the workplace. Even if the dream of making a living using athletic ability in professional sport is unrealistic, the drive and determination, positive self-concept and self-confidence taught on playing fields and in gymnasiums are excellent preparation for the world of work. Sport increases high school students’ academic aspirations and provides them opportunities to further their education at college. For less academically motivated students, sport provides the motivation to stay in school and therefore reduces the school dropout rate. These positive claims are discussed in the following sections in light of empirical research studies.

Academic Aspiration and Achievement

In his study of ten Chicago area high schools in the late 1950s, Coleman (1961a) identified differences between adolescent peer culture and adult culture along three dimensions—career aspirations, popularity and friendship. He showed that boys preferred career choices as famous athletes or jet pilots to missionaries or atomic physicists, while girls chose famous actresses over schoolteachers. Also, male adolescents chose things like athletic prowess or being a member of the leading crowd as criteria for popularity with peers instead of academic achievement more valued by adults. Finally, adolescents and parents were at odds on the characteristics of an ideal friend or dating partner.

This view of youth puts adolescents in opposition to adults in general and parents in particular. But Brown points out (1990: 174) that there is much evidence for ‘congruence’ between parents and teenagers in political, religious and moral values, and that peers more often reinforce rather than contradict the values of their parents (see also Youniss et al., 1994). Coleman’s methodology of forcing respondents to choose between different statuses such as athlete or scholar was easily reproduced in subsequent research which tended to replicate his original findings (Eitzen, 1976; Thirer and Wright, 1985).

However, there are some puzzling inconsistencies in the research on sport and adolescent groups. For example, the wish to be remembered as a star athlete instead of a scholar might be seen as indicative of a peer culture running counter to adult requirements according to Coleman. However, the results of longitudinal studies on nationally representative samples of high school students consistently show that involvement in high school athletics leads to an increase in educational aspirations and a greater identification with school culture (Fejgin, 1994; Marsh, 1993; Melnick et al., 1988; Rees et al., 1990). Although these findings have sometimes been mediated by combinations of race and gender (Sabo et al., 1993), and prior academic self-concept (Marsh, 1993), none of the results shows a negative effect of sport on athletes’ involvement with school culture.

The results of participation in sports on academic aspirations must also be discussed in relation to actual academic attainment. Those who believe in the educational value of high school athletics would argue that athletes must study to attain the grade point average necessary to remain eligible for school sports. They would also argue that athletes have to practice efficient time-management skills because of the time constraints imposed by school athletics, and that the self-esteem supposedly gained from sports can transfer to academics. To support such claims they can point to studies showing that athletes have similar or higher grade point average (GPA) than non-athletes (Rehberg, 1969; Schafer and Armer, 1968), and to more recent longitudinal research showing that participation has a small positive effect on grades (Fejgin, 1994; Hanks, 1979). Skeptics might suggest that athletes could be graded more leniently than non-athletes, or could benefit from special tutoring, or might take easy courses so as to remain academically eligible. Different measures of academic achievement besides GPA need to be considered in this discussion (Miracle and Rees, 1994: 136-8). For example, Marsh (1993) noted that participation in sport favorably affected academic activities such as being in an academic track, school attendance, taking science courses and time spent on homework, but also noted that sports participation had little effect on changes in academic achievement over time.

Clearly the nature of the relationship between academic aspirations, academic achievement and school sports is unresolved. The longitudinal research has improved on the early cross-sectional research designs because it has been able to isolate athletic effects, instead of just comparing athlete and non-athlete groups. However, the results of these studies need to be considered in conjunction with research that describes the relative importance of athletics and education in the cultural milieu of school life, and which examines the ‘lived experience’ of students.

Dropout Rates

Advocates of school sports might also interpret the research on school dropout (Finn, 1989; McNeal, 1995; Melnick et al., 1992) as supporting the positive role of athletics in education. Participation in extracurricular activities has been seen as an important factor in reducing school dropout (Finn, 1989). In a study of the effect of extracurricular activities on high school dropout, using longitudinal data from the ‘High School and Beyond’ study, McNeal (1995) showed that participation in athletics and fine arts significantly reduced dropout rates, while participation in academic or vocational clubs did not. This relationship held after controlling for race, socio-economic status, gender and employment. When all extracurricular activities were examined simultaneously only athletic participation remained significantly related to dropout reduction. McNeal suggested that the importance of athletic status in peer culture, the frequency of peer interaction characterizing athletics, and the time commitment necessary for participation may all contribute to the effect, but warned against overemphasizing the power of sports as the principal antidote to school dropout. Although the effects of participation in fine arts activities were not as prominent as athletics, they ‘instill a less competitive focus in participants and foster a more “cooperative” environment,’ which McNeal saw as more conducive to finishing school (McNeal, 1995: 75).

In previous research, DiMaggio (1982) had advocated fine arts activities as a mode of attaining cultural capital and gaining access to the more ‘elite’ group of students who would have better school attitudes. However, McNeal’s results imply that the development of physical capital is equally if not more important to potential school dropouts. The concept of physical capital will be discussed in more detail in a later section, but if the only reason students stay in school is to play sports how is this helping their academic education? In some ways McNeal’s findings tend to confirm Coleman’s original concern that athletics in schools can subvert educational goals.

Interscholastic sports and higher education

The idea that male (and increasingly female) high school students can translate the physical capital developed in high school sports into the cultural capital of a college education is one of our greatest cultural myths (Miracle and Rees, 1994: ch. 6; Spady, 1971). Conventional wisdom has it that athletic scholarships give athletes (particularly black athletes of low socio-economic status) access to university that might otherwise be unattainable, and a ‘free ride’ for the four or five years it takes them to graduate. This idea combines two of our most sacred myths—the importance of education as a path to upward mobility and the essentially open nature of access to education within society. In this section the validity of these myths is examined in light of research that highlights athletes’ reasons for attending college, traces their academic progress, analyses graduation rates for different sports in different schools, and reports the difficulties experienced by some athletes when trying to balance the demands of their academic and sport schedules.

For example, Sabo, Melnick and Vanfossen’s (1993) analysis of the ‘High School and Beyond’ data set found that the effect of participation in high school athletics on post-secondary educational success and upward mobility depended upon the participants’ race/ethnic status, gender and type of school (urban, suburban, rural). Their results reflected the larger societal patterns of racial and gender stratification. In another analysis of the ‘High School and Beyond’ data, Snyder and Spreitzer (1990) showed that high school athletics had a positive effect on college attendance. However, controlling for the effects of race, socio-economic status and cognitive development revealed that the effect was strongest for students who had the lowest cognitive development, that is, the ones least suited for higher education who would have the most difficulty in graduating with a college degree. A National Intercollegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sponsored study of a sample of male undergraduate baseball players and female undergraduate softball players at Division 1 schools showed that academic concerns were not among the most important in their decision about which school to attend. Indicators of the colleges’ scholastic attributes (specifically, ‘academic program’ and ‘curriculum/major’) were ranked seventh and ninth on a list of ten reasons by the baseball players and third and seventh by the softball players. ‘Amount of scholarship’ was first choice for the males and second choice for the females (Doyle and Gaeth, 1990).

The results of these two studies confirm the rather obvious fact that athletic scholarships are given for athletic ability first (and academic ability second) to student-athletes whose primary interest is the amount of money they are receiving. This does not mean that student-athletes are not interested in their education, but that academic achievement and graduation is not guaranteed and may be problematic for some. One study of male basketball and football players at one NCAA Division 1 school showed that, in one academic year, 19 per cent were ‘passing easily,’ carrying an average of 15.3 credit hours per semester with a GPA of 3.22. Most of the student-athletes (55 per cent) were ‘getting by’ with a GPA slightly above the 2.0 required by the NCAA for athletic participation. The remaining 26 per cent were ‘struggling along,’ passing an average of only 5.1 credit hours with a GPA of 1.79 in the Fall semester and an average of 10.1 credit hours with a GPA of 1.78 in the Spring semester. This fell far short of the NCAA requirement of a 2.00 average for 24 credit hours for the academic year (Brede and Camp, 1987).

Research from case studies confirms that academics may be a special problem for some male athletes in Division 1 universities. In one such study the authors lived for four years with male college basketball players at one school. The players were mostly from lower- and middle-class backgrounds; 70 per cent of them were black. The dual pressures of big-time athletics and the demands of college work became too much for most of the athletes. Over the four-year period their early idealistic view that they would be able to use athletics to get an education was replaced by what the authors termed ‘pragmatic detachment’ towards academics. Turned off by hard courses, being pressured to win by coaches, and isolated in a ‘jock’ dorm where there was little peer support for studying, they became preoccupied with maintaining eligibility and the unlikely chances of a professional career (Adler and Adler, 1985). However, in-depth interviews with senior female basketball and volleyball players at another Division 1 school showed that these student-athletes managed to maintain a balance between sport and studying. The author argued that lack of professional outlets and public recognition for women’s sports, and the lack of a ‘jock’ mentality by female athletes, accounted for this commitment to education (Meyer, 1990).

The educational problem of college athletics has been a popular issue among sport sociologists in America. Scholars who adopt a critical theory perspective (for example, Sage, 1990: ch. 8) see intercollegiate athletics as a ‘quasi-professional’ system which makes money for the universities at the expense of the educational needs of the student-athletes. This view is opposite to the popular myth of sport as a way for low socio-economic students to achieve an education. In defense of the sceptics, there are plenty of anecdotes and case studies of the system failing. On the other hand, the focus of the criticism has been big-time college programs in Division 1 schools. It is of interest to examine the effects (if any) on athletes’ academic performance of recent NCAA reforms designed to reduce professionalism. Will the recent television exposure given to women’s collegiate basketball lead to an increase in academic problems? Also, we have almost no information on how male or female athletes in Division 2 or Division 3 schools handle academic pressures, or whether this is a problem.

The research reviewed in this section does show that we should be wary of accepting grandiose claims for sport enhancing the academic life of athletes. Participation in high school sports consistently raises educational aspirations, and may reduce student dropout rates, but its effect on general academic achievement in high school and in college is less clear-cut. The importance of sport in consensual school rituals, and the values reinforced by these rituals is the subject of the next section.

School Sports and Values

The evidence presented in the historical background section supports the idea that sports entered school life because of their perceived socialization value. Societies that adapted the original model from the British public schools continue to stress the importance of sport as consensual rituals which are supposed to teach ‘positive’ values, develop school spirit and provide a bond between the school and the community. In the United States rituals like pep rallies and homecoming perform such a function. These events have been vividly described by Burnett (1969), and more recently by Bissinger (1990) and Foley (1990a, 1990b), although there is no consensus on what values these rituals actually teach. For example, scholars using a conflict theory perspective (for example, O’Hanlon, 1980, 1982; Spring, 1974) agree that the importance of sport in education increases as schools assume more responsibility for social values such as ‘morality’ and ‘citizenship,’ but that the real lessons taught by athletics are to accept competition as the principal method by which the scarce societal resources could be allocated (O’Hanlon, 1980: 103). Or, in Doug Foley’s words, students are ‘learning capitalist culture’ through school sports (Foley, 1990b). Studies reviewed in the following sections deal with the consensual function of athletic rituals and what values (if any) are learned through these rituals.

Building Character

Social scientists have used a number of methodologies to move beyond the usual anecdotal evidence given in support of the belief that sport builds character. For example, Kleiber and Roberts (1981) introduced the ‘Kick-Soccer World Series’ to a random sample of boys and girls in two elementary schools. This event simulated the conditions of organized sports with scores kept of league standings, leading to one champion team which was rewarded with trophies. When the participants in the program were compared with a control group of their peers who were not involved, the boys’ scores on altruism were lower in the experimental group. The authors speculated that the emphasis on winning in organized sport might lead children to become more confrontational in interactions with their peers. The effect of participation in sport on personality development has also been examined in longitudinal research. For example, Best (1985) concluded that male athletes had the same values as their non-athlete peers when compared on such characteristics as social skills, self-control, honesty and independence. Rees, Howell and Miracle (1990) report similar findings in their analysis of the ‘Youth in Transition’ data set. While participation in high school sports increased self-esteem and the value attached to academic achievement, it also increased aggression and irritability and reduced the belief in the importance of being honest, the importance of self-control and of independence. However, these differences were the exception rather than the rule, and the general conclusion was that school sports did little to benefit or harm the social development of participants. The results of similar longitudinal research by Marsh (1993) and Fejgin (1994) showed that participation in sport at high school had no negative effects, and several positive influences on athlete’s academic and discipline behavior.

Further insights into the role of sports and character development have been provided by the work of Bredemeier and Shields and their associates. In their research they have compared the level of moral reasoning used by high school and college athletes in several sports with the level used by non-athletes (see Shields and Bredemeier, 1995, for a review). Among other things, they have found that involvement in collegiate basketball is associated with less mature moral reasoning than is usual in the general population. However, in the case of high school basketball there were no significant differences in moral reasoning between athletes and non-athletes (Bredemeier and Shields, 1984, 1986). In a study of elementary school students, the longer boys participated in high-contact sports and girls in medium-contact sports, the lower the level of moral reasoning (Bredemeier et al., 1987). This research has shown that people often see moral decisions in sport as different from moral decisions in daily life contexts such as school or work. In sport they employ ‘game reasoning,’ which ‘may, at times, be a form of moral rationalization that seemingly legitimizes behavior that would ordinarily result in self-censure’ (Shields and Bredemeier, 1995: 190). This concept of game reasoning, the idea that sport is a special domain where the normal social rules that restrain aggressive social interaction do not apply, is part of what has been called ‘positive deviance’ (Hughes and Coakley, 1991).


‘Positive deviance’ can help to explain inconsistencies in the research, which has examined the relationship between participation in school sports, and antisocial activities such as theft, drunkenness, drug abuse and violence generally labeled juvenile delinquency. To the extent that this behavior in males was caused by the need to assert masculinity, or as a reaction to frustration, or weak social controls, participation in school sports was suggested as providing a ‘deterrent’ effect to delinquency (Segrave and Chu, 1978). While some research has shown athletes’ delinquency rates to be lower than non-athletes’ (for example, Hastad et al., 1984), others have shown the opposite (Buhrmann and Bratton, 1978). Further research has shown support for a ‘reform’ effect of sport (Stark et al., 1987), particularly in non-conventional sports such as Outward Bound programs (Kelly and Baer, 1971), and the traditional martial arts (Trulson, 1986).

While deterrent and reform theories assume the positive effect of sport, the concept of positive deviance suggests that activities labeled ‘deviant’ in other social contexts may be part of the socialization process into sport, particularly for male athletes. It can help to explain why ‘athletes do harmful things to themselves and perhaps others while motivated by a sense of duty and honor’ (Hughes and Coakley, 1991: 311). For example, why would male high school football players copy a scene in a popular film and risk their lives by lying down in the middle of on-coming traffic (Bernard, 1993; Forrest, 1993)? Why would they initiate a competition to see who could have the largest number of sexual encounters (Didion, 1993; Smolowe, 1993)? Why was ‘improving athletic performance’ given as the number one response in a national survey designed to study steroid use in high school males (Buckley et al., 1988)? And why do college female athletes experience a higher level of eating disorders than non-athlete groups (Black and Burckes-Miller, 1988; Thornton, 1990)? Moreover, high levels of athletic ability have not deterred high school football players (Campbell, 1989) or college male swimmers (Snyder, 1994) from crime sprees. Incidents such as these and many more examples of date rape, theft and drunkenness have led sociologists to see deviance as part of the culture of sport, a culture which supports deviant behavior in the pursuit of victory and reinforces gender and racial stereotypes.

School Sports, Masculinity and Race

The theme of biologically based male superiority over females is one of the sub-texts of sport (Bryson, 1987, 1990) that is played out in the consensual rituals of high school athletics. For example, Foley (1990a) provided several examples of this theme in the school he studied. Football players prided themselves on being able to give and take physical punishment, play with pain and live promiscuous lifestyles. The ‘powder puff’ football game, in which teams of the most popular senior and junior girls put on football gear and played against each other for the amusement of the male athletes, actually reproduced male power. Ostensibly a role-reversal ritual, the game allowed the males to dress like female cheerleaders, and belittle the females’ attempt at serious ‘male’ sport in a ridiculous and demeaning manner. Other research by Curry (1991, 1998) has documented the routine sexist attitude of male college athletes in their locker room talk, and incidents of sexual aggression by male athletes.

Given that male athletes are usually at the top of the status hierarchy in school cliques (Caanan, 1987; Rees, 1995), their values and behavior are likely to be copied by non-athlete groups. For example, being able to accept physical abuse was perceived to be a high-status characteristic in the male adolescent groups that Foley studied. How a boy dealt with physical pain led to him being labeled either as a ‘real man’ or as a ‘wimp’ or a ‘fag’ (Foley, 1990a).

Foley’s study also showed little evidence of high school sport reducing racial tensions or helping the process of racial assimilation. In fact racial tensions in the community were replicated in the ritual of high school football. The racial ‘jokes’ of the white and Hispanic football players reinforced racial stereotypes, and decisions over starting roles and homecoming celebrations were interpreted as having racial overtones. Foley characterized high school football as reproducing racial inequality.

Mark Grey (1992) reached a similar conclusion in his study of a southwestern Kansas high school. Many minorities were recent immigrants (Hispanic and Southeastern Asian) whose children had had little experience with American sports. Although some played soccer and volleyball, their failure to get involved in football was taken by some community members as evidence that they were resisting assimilation.

In summary, this brief review of research on sport and the consensual rituals of school life calls into question the traditional view of sport as a positive force in school life. While the longitudinal research generally shows no negative (but often little positive) changes in the ‘character’ of participants, research that decodes sport’s symbolic role shows it reinforcing existing inequalities of gender and race, and perpetuating the status quo. These opposite views of social reality when it comes to the role of sport and schooling, and the implications for research and practice, will be discussed as part of the final section.

A Critique of the Research on Sport and Schooling

During the opening ceremony of the 26th Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, on 19 July 1996, Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee, proclaimed to the world that ‘sport is education.’ The ‘global’ image of sport education that he had in mind was probably very similar to the image of sport in upper-class British boarding schools described in the early part of this chapter. It was this image that had inspired the originator of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, over a century ago (MacAloon, 1981). It is safe to assume that findings from the empirical and critical research on sport and education reviewed in this chapter were not part of his vision, or the vision of most of the thousands of people in attendance, or the millions more watching on television. The limitations of sociology of sport knowledge about education are briefly discussed in the final section of this chapter, where we consider the ‘isolated’ nature of the research we have reviewed from several perspectives.


Samaranch’s image of the global nature of sport education notwithstanding, globalization research on sport and education is almost non-existent. Almost all the research reviewed in this chapter has been conducted in the United States. For example, we are aware of no comparative research studies focusing on the importance of school sport in countries that share sporting and educational traditions (such as, Britain and America). Is the perpetuation of class, race and gender differences that Foley demonstrated in a southwestern Texas school generalizable to other societies were the community involvement in school sports is less intense? To what degree are adolescents’ views about sport generalizable across cultures and subject to societal and/or regional differences? Such research might help to provide interesting data to test recent globalization theories (Maguire, 1994; Robertson, 1992).

Recent theoretical advances in conceptualizing the body as an important factor in modern life also may help to advance this research endeavor. For example, Shilling (1993: 4-5) places corporeal concerns at the center of the issue of identity, and describes the body as ‘an island of security in a global system characterized by multiple and inescapable risks.’ He has extended Bourdieu’s concept of capital to the body and has shown how Bourdieu’s theories can be used to explain gender inequalities in general (Shilling, 1991a) as well as in education (Shilling, 1991b, 1992). Preliminary results in a study comparing German and American adolescents using the concept of body capital show that young people from both countries share many similar attitudes about the importance of sport and the body. Data also indicate that in some cases gender differences function in a similar way in both societies, but also that racial differences in America exert an independent effect (Brettschneider et al., 1996; Rees and Brandl-Bredenbeck, 1995; Rees et al., 1998).

Sociology of Education

The field of sociology of education has largely neglected the importance of sport as an educational force in American schools. With the notable exception of Coleman’s work (1961a), and more recently that of Doug Foley (1990b), which came from both a sociological and an anthropological perspective, books on school life have failed to describe this important influence. Most of the research reviewed in this chapter has been published in sociology of sport journals, not in journals specializing in sociology of education. Much interesting information on the role of sport in the life of American schools has to be gained ‘second hand’ from recent journalistic accounts of high school football (Bissinger, 1990) and basketball (Frey, 1994; Joravsky, 1995). These accounts are extremely interesting and locate the importance of sport within the school and the local community. However, they are atheoretical and concentrate almost exclusively on the lives of the athletic stars. Consequently they often fail to examine the general importance of sport in education.

There is a great need for studies that place sport within the context of school life, studies that show how adolescents ‘make sense’ out of school rituals including sports rituals. This research could test the ‘disembodied’ empirical findings of longitudinal research reviewed above within the ‘lived experience’ of students at school. For example, how important is female sport in the social life of the school and the community, especially in communities such as Iowa where women’s basketball is taken so seriously? Can the phenomenon of successful female sport teams break down existing gender stereotypes that occur in school and community? What is the effect of gender and race in the production of physical capital among school children, and the translation of this to cultural and economic capital (Shilling, 1992)?

Physical Education

Perhaps more disturbing, from a practical perspective, is the fact that physical education practitioners, those teachers and coaches in a position to apply the research findings on sport and schooling, have paid scant attention to this body of knowledge, particularly in the United States. Pedagogical practice in physical education appears unaffected by the rather modest results from longitudinal research on the positive effects of sport, and warnings from critical scholars about sport perpetuating existing inequalities. The myth that sport encourages positive educational outcomes is still used to justify school athletics and physical education programs (Rees, 1997). Programs that use sport as a medium to teach self-control and self-responsibility (for example, Hellison, 1993; Hellison and Templin, 1991; Williamson and Georgiadis, 1992) or specifically to encourage moral development (for example, Romance et al., 1986) have been the exception rather than the rule.

Also of value is the sport education model developed by Siedentop, Mand and Taggart (1986) which uses physical education lessons to teach fair play in sports, and gives students the opportunity to practice sports-related roles such as coach, referee and manager. This program has been successfully tested and widely applied in Australia (Alexander et al., 1996) and in New Zealand (Grant, 1992).

If sport sociologists are really serious about the practical applications of this knowledge they need to study physical education curriculum process at work. Following Bernstein’s (1990) idea of the curriculum as a ‘pedagogical device’ through which interested parties decide what will become ‘the official pedagogical discourse,’ Evans and Penney (1995) showed how disputes over the National Curriculum for physical education in Britain affected how the body will eventually be schooled. Sociologists are usually absent from such struggles at the school level, and so knowledge from the sociology of sport is not often heard by practitioners. Sociologists need to work closely with sports practitioners in non-confrontational contexts (Rees et al., 1991) in order to improve the educational effects of sport.


This chapter reviewed the sociological research on sport and schooling—research that has tended to call into question the globe-wide myths that participation in sport inevitably provides positive social experiences and ‘builds character.’ We suggest research approaches should be designed to increase our knowledge about how children make sense of sport in schools. This research may reveal the contradictory nature of modern sport, and show that positive and negative influences exist side by side. If this is the case, the issue of education should become an important topic for applied sociology of sport. Sociologists, coaches and physical education teachers could cooperate in the goal of using sport to counter the problems of school dropout, gender and ethnic stereotyping, and parochialism.