Social Control and Sport

D Stanley Eitzen. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

The Sociological Understanding of Social Control

The Concept of Social Control

A perennial question for many sociologists is: How is social order possible? For some sociologists (for example, Durkheim, 1949; Parsons, 1951) the answer to this question is that the vast members of a social organization share a consensus on the norms, laws and values. In pre-modern societies social order occurs because the norms are shared and legitimated by deeply held religious authority. In modern complex societies social order is maintained as citizens accept the legal order and the state, which are believed to serve the common good. Other social theorists such as Marx (1909) reject the assumption of normative consensus, arguing rather that social order is the result of economic dominants using the law (Quinney, 1970) or the media (Parenti, 1986), or other institutions to hold power over the relatively powerless. Postmodern theorists reject both of these grand narratives, arguing rather that unity within contemporary societies is a myth. The old views depicted society with a single powerful political and economic center, predictable and moving in a straight, progressive line. The postmodern view sees society as decentered, with multiculturalism and multiple realities depending on one’s class, racial, or gender standpoint. The social world is neither predictable nor moving inexorably toward a better state. Instead of normative consensus there are cultural wars and subgroup identities/loyalties that divide rather than unify society (see Lemert, 1993; Rosenau, 1992). Thus, postmodern theories reflect a fragmented and fragile society. If this view is correct, then social order rather than a given as the classic social theories postulated, is problematic. So, too, is social control, for it is the essence of social order.

Social control is a central concept in sociology (see, Berger, 1963; Horowitz, 1990; Janowitz, 1991; Liska, 1992; Wolff, 1964). Indeed, for some it is the central organizing concept of sociology (Gibbs, 1981, 1985). As Cuzzort has asserted:

A sociocultural system cannot rely on random individual responses to create the structure and the cohesiveness required for organized effort. A society cannot, in other words, rely on people simply ‘doing their thing.’ A society must, in effect, generate ways that ensure that what gets done is ‘society’s thing.’ (Cuzzort, 1989: 179)

Social control is fundamental because it focuses attention on three other essential concepts: social order, norms and deviance. Each social system (group, family, factory, team, school, hospital, prison, church, community and society) attempts to achieve conformity to the norms (the standards of right and wrong) of that social unit. If a social organization succeeds in controlling its members, then deviant behavior is minimized and social order is sustained. The irony is that attempts to achieve conformity in groups often meet with non-compliance, resistance or outright rebellion (Walton, 1990: 343-61). In short, social control is never perfect.

The Mechanisms of Social Control

All social groups have mechanisms to ensure conformity—mechanisms of social control. Peter Berger (1963: 68-78) has identified eight sources of social control: (a) force, the use of violence or threats of violence; (b) economic rewards or punishments, the promise or denial of economic rewards; (c) ridicule and gossip, fear of being belittled for acting outside group expectations; (d) ostracism, the threat or actual removal from the group; (e) fraud and deception, actions to manipulate (trick) others to conform; (f) belief systems, the use of ideology to induce individuals to conform; (g) the sphere of intimates, pressures from close friends, peers, relatives to conform; and (h) the contract, actions controlled by the stipulations of a formal agreement.

The mechanisms of social control can be divided into two broad types by the means to achieve it: ideological control and direct intervention. The former aims at control through manipulation of ideas and perceptions; the latter controls the actual behavior of individuals (Eitzen and Baca Zinn, 1995: 170-90).

Ideological social control manipulates the consciousness of individuals so that they accept the ruling ideology and refuse to be moved by competing ideologies. Other goals are to persuade the members to follow the rules and to accept without question the existing distribution of power and rewards. These goals are accomplished in at least three ways. First, ideological social control is accomplished through the socialization of new members. This socialization process could be referred to as cultural control because the individual is given authoritative definitions of what should and should not be done, which make it appear as if there is no choice. Secondly, ideological conformity occurs by frontal attacks on competing ideologies by persons in authority. Finally, there are propaganda efforts by authorities to persuade the members what actions are moral, who the enemies are, and why certain courses of action are required.

Ideological social control is more effective than overt social control measures because individuals impose controls upon themselves (Collins, 1992: 63-85). Through the socialization process we learn not only the rules of a social organization but also the supporting ideology. The norms are internalized in this process. To the degree that this process works, individuals are not forced to conform, they want to conform. As Berger has observed: ‘Most of the time we ourselves desire just that which society expects of us. We want to obey the rules’ (Berger, 1963: 93).

Direct social control refers to attempts to reward those who conform and to punish or neutralize (render powerless) individuals who deviate from the norms of the social organization. All but ‘belief systems’ from Berger’s list of social control mechanisms are efforts at direct social control.

Social Control through Sport

Social Control in Society: Sport and Societal Integration

Sport helps to maintain societal integration in several ways (Eitzen and Sage, 1997). First, there is the strong relationship between sport and nationalism.

Sport and Nationalism

Success in international sports competition tends to trigger pride among that nation’s citizens. The Olympics and other international games tend to promote an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ feeling among athletes, coaches, politicians, the press, fans and even among those normally not very interested in sport. Goodhart and Chataway (1968) have argued, for example, that one type of sport is ‘representative’ in that it pits the representatives of political units against each other. Thus, international contests are viewed as political contests, where nations win or lose in a symbolic world war. Because this interpretation is commonly held, citizens of each nation involved unite behind their flag and their athletes (Ball, 1972; Hargreaves, 1992; Heinila, 1985).

The integral interrelationship of sport and nationalism is easily seen in the blatantly militaristic pageantry that surrounds sports contests. The playing of the national anthem, the presentation of the colors, the jet flyovers and bands forming a flag are all political acts supportive of the existing political system.

Sport as an Instrument of National Policy to Unify 

More explicitly, sports can be used as a propaganda vehicle, as a mechanism by which a society’s ruling elite unites its citizens and attempts to impress the citizens of other countries (Frey, 1988; Strenk, 1977). A classic example of this was Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympic Games to strengthen his control over the German people and to legitimize Nazi culture. According to Mandell (1971), the festival planned for those games was a shrewdly propagandistic and brilliantly conceived charade that reinforced and mobilized the hysterical patriotism of the German masses.

Before the break-up of the Eastern bloc countries, the reunification of the two Germanies, and the demise of the Soviet Union, the Communist nations used sport for promoting their common cause. Their domination of the Olympics, the Communists argued, provided convincing proof of the superiority of the Communist politico-economic system (Rosellini, 1992). This heritage continues for one of the few remaining Communist nations—Cuba. Cuba spends about 3 per cent of its budget on sport. In the Pan American Games, Cuba generally wins about 15 times more medals than the United States on a per capita basis, allowing its premier, Fidel Castro, to proclaim that this is proof of the superiority of the Cuban people and the Cuban social system. Clearly, these victories by Cuban athletes are a source of collective pride and national unity.

National efforts to use sport for political purposes are not limited to Communist countries. International sports victories are just as important to nations such as Canada and the United States. Canada has a federal agency, Sport Canada, and similar organizations at the provincial level that work to promote sports excellence. There is a federal Athlete Assistance Program, which gives living and training grants to outstanding athletes. There is a network of national training centers, with professional coaching, and a calendar of events. These efforts are made to enhance Canadian nationalism and the Canadian state’s legitimacy (Kidd, 1991; see also, Macintosh et al., 1987; and Macintosh and Whitson, 1990).

Since 1972, the United States has organized sport to encourage athletic excellence in international arenas. Athletes have been subsidized by government and corporations, funds appropriated for the establishment of permanent training sites and eligibility rules modified to permit athletes to retain their ‘amateur’ standing while receiving money for appearances, performances and endorsements. Also, commissions have been formed to investigate the ‘problem’ of inferior international performances by US athletes. The clear assumption behind these efforts was that if the United States made the appropriate commitment to its athletes, they would prevail in international sports—proving the superiority of its politico-economic system. Not incidentally, such athletic superiority would have the added benefit of societal unity.

Sport is also an instrument of national policy among the developing nations. A study of the 133 members of the United Nations in 1973 showed that although 26 per cent of all nations had a cabinet-level post related to sport, 87 per cent of those classified as ‘developing’ had such a position (Goodhue, 1974). The probable reason for such keen interest is that sport provides a relatively inexpensive tool to accomplish national objectives of prestige abroad and unity at home.

As a final example of political elites using sport to unify its citizens, consider the racially divided nation of South Africa (Eitzen, 1995). Sport has been used to break down this division, at least in part. After the formal fall of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, the sports world lifted its ban on South African participation in international competition. In 1995 the World Cup in rugby was held in South Africa and Mandela used this opportunity to achieve greater national unity. Even though the nation’s team, the Springboks, symbolized white South Africa with a white sport and with white players, Mandela did what he could to get blacks to think of this team as their team. Speaking to a black audience, and wearing a Springbok’s cap, Mandela said: ‘This Springbok cap does honor to our boys. I ask you to stand by them because they are our kind.’ To which Sports Illustrated editorialized: ‘Our kind. Not black. Not white. South African. The rugby team became a symbol for the country as a whole’ (Swift, 1995: 33).

Sport as an Opiate of the Masses Sport

As we have seen, can unite a nation’s citizens because the people are manipulated by propaganda and the use of symbols, because they unite in pulling together to defeat ‘them,’ and because of a shared pride in their country’s athletic accomplishments. This unity stifles challenges to ruling elites and in so doing sport serves as an ‘opiate of the masses.’ For example, Janet Lever (1983) has shown how a fanatical interest in a sport (soccer) by Brazilians, enables the poor to forget partially the harshness of their lives and thus inhibits efforts to change the social conditions that oppress them. Similarly, in 1994, when Haiti was on the verge of a severe crisis, the embattled military ruler, Raoul Cedras, paid for the broadcasting rights to the World Cup soccer matches. The spirits of the Haitians were lifted as their adopted team, Brazil, was successful. Rather than massing in the streets to demonstrate against a political regime that oppressed them, the masses danced in the streets as their favorite team won. Moreover, as the games were broadcast on the government-owned station, the rulers used halftime to inflame anti-American feelings by showing footage of the US invasion of Panama in 1989, focusing on the bombing of residential areas (Squitieri, 1994). Thus, sport serves as both a temporary escape from the problems of world politics and as a safety valve for releasing tensions that might otherwise be directed toward disrupting and changing the existing power relationships in society (see Brohm, 1978; Hoch, 1972).

Sport also acts as an opiate by perpetuating the belief that persons from the lowest social classes can be upwardly mobile through success in sports. Although the chances of this occurring are exceedingly rare, most believe that sport is a mobility escalator. Again, poor youth who might otherwise invest their energies and talents in changing the system work instead on honing their athletic skills. The potential for change is thus impeded by sport.

Sport as an Agent of Ideological Social Control

Sport, as a social institution, is conservative. Sport promotes traditional values and societal arrangements. To illustrate this assumption, this section examines how social control mechanisms in sport are employed to foster the status quo in three representative areas: the transmission of societal values, traditional gender roles, and compulsory heterosexuality.

Sport and the Transmission of Values

Sport serves to control persons ideologically by reinforcing society’s values among the participants. In the United States sport transmits the values of success in competition, hard work, perseverance, discipline, teamwork and obedience to authority to participants and observers. This is the explicit reason given for the existence of children’s sports programs such as Little League baseball and the tremendous emphasis on sports in US schools. Coaches commonly believe that they should not only teach sport skills but that they should also promote values. Thus, there is the common practice by coaches of placing signs in locker rooms to inspire traits in their athletes such as hard work, never giving up and teamwork. Some examples of the messages on these signs include: ‘The will to win is the will to work’; ‘By failing to prepare yourself you are preparing to fail’; ‘Winners never quit and quitters never win’; ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ (Snyder, 1972).

Whether sport actually transmits these values or not is an empirical question. As sport is organized, it clearly makes the effort. According to Matza: ‘The substance of athletics contains within itself—in its rules, procedures, training, and sentiments—a paradigm of adult expectations for youth’ (1964: 207).

Sport and Traditional Gender Roles

Sport in its organization, procedures and operation serves to promote traditional gender roles. Most especially, sport advances male hegemony in practice and ideology by legitimating a certain dominant version of social reality. Bryson (1987) has argued that sport reproduces patriarchal relations through four minimalizing processes: definition, direct control, ignoring and trivialization. By definition, ‘dominant forms of sport in most cultures are played and organized in ways that work to the advantage of most men and to the disadvantage of women’ (Coakley, 1998: 232-3). Male standards are applied to female performance, ensuring female inferiority and even deviance. As Willis has argued: ‘[The ideal description of sport] is a male description concerning males. Where women become at all visible, then the terms of reference change. There is a very important thread in popular consciousness which sees the very presence of women in sport as bizarre’ (1982: 120).

Sports participation is expected for men. Sport is strongly associated with male identity and popularity. For women, though, the situation is entirely different. As Willis has stated: ‘Instead of confirming her identity, [sports] success can threaten her with a foreign male identity. … The female athlete lives through a severe contradiction. To succeed as an athlete can be to fail as a woman, because she has, in certain profound symbolic ways, become a man’ (1982: 123). Superior women athletes are suspect because strength and athletic skill are accepted as ‘masculine’ traits. Thus, since 1968 the International Olympic Committee has a mandatory sex test for women participants (Cahn, 1994: 263).

Women’s sport is minimized when it is controlled by men. This is the case in the gender composition of leadership positions in the International Olympic Committee, various international and national sports bodies, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the administrative and coaching roles in schools (Acosta and Carpenter, 1994).

Women in sport are minimized (and men maximized) when women’s activities are ignored. The mass media in the United States have either overlooked women’s sports or, when they are reported, the stories, photographs and commentary tend to reinforce gender role stereotypes (Eitzen and Sage, 1997, Chs 11 and 14). Regarding the former, studies of television coverage indicate that men’s sports receive about 92 per cent of air time. Moreover, 97 per cent of the athletic figures employed in television commercials were males (Turner et al., 1995).

Women’s sports are also ignored when cities and schools disproportionately spend enormous amounts on men’s sports. As Nelson has argued:

We live in a country in which the manly sports culture is so pervasive we may fail to recognize the symbolic messages we all receive about men, women, love, sex, and power. We need to take sports seriously—not the scores or the statistics, but the process. Not to focus on who wins, but on who’s losing. Who loses when a community spends millions of dollars in tax revenue to construct a new stadium and only men get to play in it, and only men get to work there? Who loses when football and baseball so dominate the public discourse that they eclipse all mention of female volleyball players, gymnasts, basketball players, and swimmers? (Nelson, 1994: 8)

Women are also minimized when they are trivialized in sport. As noted above, the media framing of the female athlete reinforces gender stereotypes. Considering photographs of women and men athletes, Duncan (1990) found that these images emphasized gender differences:

  • Female athletes who are sexy and glamorous are most common;
  • Female athletes are often photographed in sexual poses;
  • In the framing of photos, male athletes are more likely to be photographed in dominant positions and female athletes in submissive positions;
  • Camera angles typically focus up to male athletes and focus down on female athletes;
  • Female athletes are more likely to be shown displaying emotions.

As Messner has argued: ‘The choices, the filtering, the entire mediation of the sporting event, is based upon invisible, taken-for-granted assumptions and values of dominant social groups, as such the presentation of the event tends to support corporate, white, and male-dominant ideologies’ (1988: 204-5).

Another example of the trivialization of women’s sports activities is the naming of their teams. A study comparing the unifying symbols of women’s and men’s teams found that more than half of colleges and universities in the United States employ names, mascots and/or logos that demean and derogate women’s teams (Eitzen and Baca Zinn, 1989). Thus, the naming of women’s teams tends to define women athletes and women’s athletic programs as second class and trivial.

In short, the secondary treatment of women in sport culturally defines and perceives them as inferior not only in sport but also, by inference, as less capable than men in many areas of life. As Bryson has posited:

The dialectical element of the ideological processes underpinning contemporary sport is of crucial importance. These processes construct a form of dominant masculinity and in doing so define what is not approved. Each cultural message about sport is a dual one, celebrating the dominant at the same time as inferiorizing the ‘other.’ This dominant form of masculinity has been usefully called hegemonic masculinity, and the message it conveys renders inferior not only femininity in all its forms but also non hegemonic forms of masculinity. (Bryson, 1990: 173)

It is important to note that while this dominant ideology is perpetuated in many ways, it is also challenged and contested with some success in all institutional areas, including sport (Messner, 1988).

Sport and Sexuality

Sport has been socially constructed as a masculine activity. Young boys are inducted into a fiercely heterosexual world of male toughness and competitiveness that embodies a fear of effeminate and subordinates gay men (Hargreaves, 1994; see also Foley, 1990; Messner and Sabo, 1990; Pronger, 1990). In the United States boys learn to play (gridiron) football, where they develop both a social and a personal identity that is consistent with the hegemonic conception of masculinity (Sabo, 1987). This is the common pattern in other societies as well. In Australia, for example, virtually all boys are introduced to cricket, football (soccer) and rugby, which contributes to ‘the construction of hegemonic masculinity’ (Bryson, 1990: 175). Boys who do not participate in these manly sports are socially marginalized by peers as ‘sissies.’ Older boys and young men who do not fit the dominant behavior patterns of masculinity often face serious questions about their sexual orientation, with labels such as ‘fag,’ ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ used to describe them (Coakley, 1998: 236). A common motivational ploy by some coaches is to question a male athlete’s heterosexuality (calling him a ‘pussy’ or a ‘fag’ or placing tampons in his locker) if he does not play as aggressively as the coach demands. Curry’s (1991) research on the male bonding in athletic locker rooms found that the talk there focused on the affirmation of traditional masculinity, homophobia, and misogynistic slurs against women. Curry reasons that athletes do not want to be singled out as unmasculine in any way. Thus, the ‘expression of dislike for femaleness or homosexuality demonstrates to oneself and others that one is separate from it and therefore must be masculine’ (Curry, 1991: 128). Needless to say, gay males are not welcome in the masculine sports world.

Female athletes, just as other women who enter traditional male domains, especially those in sports that require strength, endurance and aggression, face the social control mechanism of slander.

Slander against female athletes usually takes the form of describing them as mannish, butch, musclebound, unpretty, unnatural, and otherwise unfeminine. It contains two related messages: one, that to be a female athlete is to be a lesbian (or at least in danger of becoming one), and two, that to be a lesbian is wrong. (Whitaker, 1982: 83)

Women in sport, more than men, endure intense scrutiny about their sexual identities. Many in society fear that women in sport transgress gender lines and that this disrupts the social order. ‘The lesbian label is used to define the boundaries of acceptable female behavior in a patriarchal culture. When a woman is called a lesbian, she knows she is out of bounds’ (Griffin, 1992: 252).

Lesbians are punished in sport. They are considered deviants. They are stereotyped by the media (Burroughs et al., 1995). Women (whether lesbian or not) sometimes face discrimination as they compete against men for coaching or sports administration jobs because of the assumption of homosexuality. Some coaches openly prohibit lesbian athletes from participation. Highly successful athletes (for example, Martina Navratilova) have lost millions of dollars in endorsement money after acknowledging their homosexuality. The Ladies Professional Golf Association has faced allegations, epithets and innuendo that its athletes were disproportionately lesbian in sexual orientation, which has damaged women’s professional golf through losses of sponsorships, television coverage and fan support.

The result is that many lesbian athletes and coaches stay closeted. Others develop a lesbian identity (Palzkill, 1990). Others resist and work with heterosexuals to overcome homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism in sport (Griffin, 1992). The larger consequence of homophobia in sport is that compulsory heterosexuality remains the norm. And, as with gender roles, the mechanisms of social control in sport have sustained ‘compulsory heterosexuality [as] part of a system of domination that perpetuates patriarchal relations and the wielding of power over other sexualities’ (Hargreaves, 1994: 261).

Social Control in Sport

Athletes engaged in sport beyond the informal play stage are subject to the authority of sports organizations. This section examines the organizational control of athletes and the roles within sport that control the participants.

Organizational Control of Athletes

Social order in sport is obtained through the establishment of sports organizations with the authority to establish and enforce rules for the play itself as well as the determination of participant eligibility. The key to social order is the term authority, which implies legitimate power. That is, the authorities are vested with power and this power is accepted by those affected, either because of tradition, the law, or charisma (Weber, 1947).

In the sports world there is a hierarchy of authority over athletes and individual sports (Harmer, 1991). Assuming that the athlete is in an ‘amateur’ team sport, the nearest governing organization is the club or school, followed, in ascending order, by league, district association, state association, national body and international body (for an analysis of international sports organizations, see Houlihan, 1994: 55-81). Another line of authority may involve specific events such as the Asian Games or the Olympic Games. Here, typically, political decisions have barred the athletes from various nations from participation (for example, the 1964-91 Olympic ban of the Union of South Africa). Professional sports have their own organizations (for example, the National Football League is divided into 30 teams, two leagues with subdivisions, and a commissioner, who is elected by the team owners). Political entities such as states or provinces and the nation-state constitute the final level of authority over sport. Legal authorities shape sports in many ways. They subsidize through the building of sports arenas and furnishing infrastructure such as roads and mass transit. They regulate (through licenses), restrict (through taxation) and insist (through legislation such as Title IX). They regulate television, provide anti-trust exemptions to professional sports leagues, and define criminal codes (Wilson, 1994). National leaders may also decide to prohibit their athletes from participating in an international event (for example, 34 Islamic nations prohibited their women from competing in the 1996 Olympics because participating violated Muslim rules for appropriate women’s dress).

Sports organizations serve several controlling functions. First, they provide the essential function of determining and enforcing the rules of a sport. Secondly, they decide who shall be allowed to compete: ‘From Little League to interscholastic athletic teams to the Olympic Games, entry into ever more competitive arenas is not predicated on an individual’s desire [or ability] to compete. Instead, it rests on the sanctioning of athletes by an appropriate sports authority body’ (Harmer, 1991: 24). The sports authority bodies establish the rules of eligibility. They do so to ensure fairness and equalize competition (weight classes in boxing, gender and age proscriptions, and minimal performance criteria). This gatekeeping function, while necessary, has been used, historically, to exclude or limit the participation of athletes from certain social categories. The notion of ‘amateur’ was used, for example, by the affluent to exclude members of the working class from their athletic activities (Guttmann, 1978). ‘Amateur’ has also been used as an exploitative ideology (Eitzen, 1989) whereby colleges and universities use ‘amateur’ athletes to generate considerable income for the schools and the sponsoring organization (Byers, 1995). African Americans were excluded from participation in mainstream US college and professional leagues, with rare exceptions, from the First World War until after the Second World War. This exclusion was a consequence of tradition, Jim Crow laws, institutional racism and even explicit rules in the bylaws of certain sports (for example, professional baseball, golf and bowling) (Chalk, 1975). Girls were excluded from participation on teams in Little League baseball until the ‘boys only’ clause was dropped as a result of a court case in the l970s. Women were kept from competing in Olympic track and field events until 1928 by the men running the International Olympic Committee. Slowly, and reluctantly, women’s events have been added to the Olympics, with women finally allowed to run a marathon in the 1984 Olympics.

A third function of sports organizations is to control the athletes’ behavior on the field. While these bodies vary in their rules and enforcement zeal, they attempt to control excessive violence (Eitzen, 1985), the use of banned substances to enhance performance (see Wadler and Hainline, 1989, and Figone, 1988, for the case in the United States; see Johansson, 1987, for the situation in Sweden; and Pilz, 1988, for Germany), and point shaving (the unethical efforts by a player, coach, or referee to keep the points scored within the point spread used by gamblers when they bet on a game or match). They also sanction negatively, again with considerable variation, off-the-field behaviors by athletes, such as criminal acts, use of recreational drugs and, most especially, gambling on sports.

The sanctions used by sports organizations on deviant athletes, coaches and teams include reprimands, monetary fines (for professional athletes), suspensions and expulsions (Lumer, 1995). While necessary, the imposition of these sanctions by governing organizations is not always fair (Yaeger, 1991).

Controlling Roles

Within each sport social organization there are positions whose occupants exert control over others. This section focuses on three: officials, coaches and participants.


A sports contest is governed by the official rules of the sport. Officials (rule enforcers) are assigned by leagues or associations to ensure that the rules of the sport are enforced during each contest. These officials (referees, umpires), interpret the formal rules of the game, assign penalties for infractions, and keep the game under control.

Research on officials has focused on their psychological traits (Fratzke, 1975) and profiled aspects of their subculture (Mitchell et al., 1982). Other studies reveal that there is a variation of rule enforcement within the fluid social context of a game (Askins et al., 1981; Snyder and Purdy, 1987).


Coaches have the formal tasks of teaching and training athletes to maximize their athletic performance and devising game strategies that maximize the chances of winning. Most important, the coach/player relationship is an asymmetrical power relationship. Coaches decide who makes the team, who plays and when. They divine the procedures for determining and enforcing team rules. Coaches determine training schedules. They sanction player behaviors that they deem detrimental to team goals.

There is a wide variation in coach-centered power over athletes (Pratt and Eitzen, 1989). A few coaches are open and democratic, allowing their athletes to make and enforce rules, and involving them in strategy decisions. At the opposite extreme, some coaches are tyrants, demanding total obedience to their authority. Except for the most democratic coaches, most are either paternalistic (Shogan, 1991) or authoritarian in their methods. With few exceptions, coaches impose their will over athletes. The result is that often the privacy rights of athletes are violated, their individual rights denied, and in extreme cases, athletes are subject to oppression, brutality and terror (Eitzen, 1992).

Why are so many coaches autocratic? Some have suggested that the coaching profession attracts those with inflexible and manipulative personalities but empirical research does not support this contention (the following relies on Coakley, 1994: 191-8). The key to understanding the tendency toward autocratic coaching behavior lies in the role of coach and the unique demands they face. First, the limits on coaching behaviors are set by communities and societies. Within the United States, for example, there is wide approval for demanding, autocratic coaches. Most players accept their subordination to higher authority (Hughes and Coakley, 1991). Ironically, a democratic society permits, even demands, undemocratic coaches (Eitzen, 1992).

A second and crucial basis for authoritarian coaches is the uniqueness of the coaching role. Coaches face distinctive pressures not found in other occupations. They are held totally accountable for game outcomes. The games are unpredictable, highly visible and the outcomes are objectively measured. Coaches react to their pressured situations in three characteristic ways. They seek public support by demanding that their athletes behave according to community norms (in dress, demeanor, patriotism and religiosity). Moreover, they generate community support by showing an absolute confidence in their methods and strategies. The other tactic is to control as much as possible. Thus, most coaches control on- and off-the-field behaviors, determine game strategy, and make all decisions during games.

Coaches are subject to social control also. Coaches are employed by clubs, schools and professional teams. When their behaviors go too far, they are subject to sanctions by those with authority over them. These outrageous behaviors include physical abuse of players, gambling, point shaving, drug abuse/alcoholism and insubordination. On rare occasions, coaches have been sanctioned because of the initiatives of aggrieved players who complained to authorities, threatened boycotts and brought grievances to the civil courts.


Social control is not just the result of actions from the powerful who supervise and manage those below them in a social organization. Most significantly, social control emerges from interactions among peers within the informal social order. Sociological research from such diverse settings as work (Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1939) and urban street corners (Whyte, 1943) have found that social norms, sanctions and roles emerge in informal interaction, resulting in social order. This social phenomenon has also been observed in sport settings where regulars participate as individuals with others they see during the activity but with whom they exchange few words. Nixon (1986) found, for example, that the regular participants in swimming constructed and maintained social order in that setting. This order involved an informal code of behavior, enforcement of rules, and role differentiation. The social control mechanisms by the participants included nonverbal cues, polite verbal prods and even aggressive retaliation.

Wacquant’s (1992) ethnographic study of a boxing club/gym located in a Chicago ghetto is instructive concerning the informal but elaborate social order maintained by the participants. These implicit norms of the club ‘are visible only in the conduct and demeanor of the regulars who have progressively internalized them, and they are brought to explicit attention only when violated’ (Wacquant, 1992: 236).

Children at play also exert control over each other. Peers may mock behaviors that go beyond their norms such as boys not being aggressive or girls who are tomboys. Thus, behaviors are channeled in approved ways and gender is socially constructed (Kunesh et al., 1992; Thorne, 1993).

Male locker rooms are a sports setting where the informal norms promote homophobia and sexism. Peer group dynamics encourage such talk since to avoid such behaviors calls into question their masculinity (Curry, 1991).

Ethnographic studies of sport subcultures (for example, among bodybuilders, surfers, climbers, gymnasts) reveal that new members engage in the deliberate act of identity construction; that is, they adopt the attitudes, style of dress, speech patterns and behaviors of the established members of the subculture (Donnelly and Young, 1988). In short, the behavior of these neophyte members is controlled even beforethey become full members in the subculture through a process called ‘anticipatory socialization.’

Future Directions for Research

As a central feature of social organization, social control has been studied and analysed by sociologists since the beginning of the discipline. Future research on social control will continue to be grounded in the fundamental social properties and processes of norms, values, socialization, deviance, social inequality, power, hegemony and bureaucracy.

Future research, while based on the connections between social control and traditional sociological concepts, will be inspired by new paradigms and epistemologies that will lead in new directions and toward greater insights and understandings. Research inspired by interactionist, critical theory and cultural studies frameworks is leading us beyond descriptive and correlational studies to interpretive studies. More attention in the future will be given to how decisions are made, the process of emerging norms and how socialization is related to control and power relations. New and renewed attention to human agency will lead away from a ‘top-down’ determinism toward a ‘bottom-up’ understanding of social life (Wolfe, 1991). This ‘bottom-up’ understanding requires that we do fieldwork, immersing ourselves in the social worlds we observe, engaged with people (Molotch, 1994). Moreover, it requires a new voice for the oppressed. The centered model of social reality that has dominated sociology will give way to the complexities of a decentered model of multiple realities. Complex realities require complex understandings, with contested terrains and different standpoints from which to understand social life.

Some examples of research questions involving social control in sport settings include:

  • Under what social conditions is norm/value transmission maximized in team sports?
  • How is social control experienced from different standpoints?
  • How do interlocking systems of inequality oppress women in sport?
  • How is oppression experienced by those who encounter double, and sometimes triple marginalization (Collins, 1990; Messner, 1992).
  • How do the relatively powerless in sport cope, adapt, resist, challenge and change oppressive social arrangements?
  • Under what conditions can the hegemony of the powerful be reduced or neutralized in sport?
  • As society becomes more decentered and traditional patterns of dominance change, what are the consequences for social control in sport?
  • What are the specific historical, social and material conditions that combine to socially construct the inequalities in power and privilege for women in sport?