– By Julie Brice
Julie Brice is an M.A. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“School”: Such a loaded noun. It’s something so familiar, yet so complex and confusing. Since I started my education, I’ve attended four schools, had twenty “first days” of school, over one hundred teachers, and thousands of hours in the classroom; I even thought I was good at school. And yet today as I sit in graduate school, I find myself in a foreign land of academia. I started graduate school a year ago and since then it’s been a roller coaster of highs and lows. I find myself confused, bewildered, and challenged almost daily, and just when I think I’ve reached some minuscule sense of clarity, a curve ball comes my way and I’m back to the beginning. This has been my experience of Physical Cultural Studies thus far—a constant parade of questions and challenges to my beliefs and opinions. A question posed by one of my high school teachers accurately summarizes the effect of PCS: How do I know what I think I know? Well, how does anyone learn anything? School? Textbooks? Parents? Friends? Government? TV? History? Sports? As I’ve spent more time exploring the PCS discourse, the question has morphed into: How influential are sports in shaping knowledge? This core question has served as the underlying catalyst for my thesis.
Before embarking on my thesis and research on others, it’s only fair to look into how sports have shaped my psyche. I started playing sports at a young age and can remember back to the night my dad came home from work and told me he signed me up for rec soccer. I was so upset and angry until I learned my best friend’s mom was the coach and my dad the assistant. I came home from the first practice and the first thing I asked my dad was if we could do this again to which he replied, “Oh don’t worry, we’re doing it again next week.” Well the smart little four year old I was, I responded with “NOOOOOO, I mean when the papers [registration] come around.” So there it was, I was hooked. Sports intertwined themselves into my life; I played on multiple soccer teams simultaneously, picked up volleyball and softball, attended all my brother and sister’s sports, had either practice or a game every day of the week, met all my friends through my teams and even majored in a field focusing on movement of the body. Yet, even with all this involvement, I never really looked at how sports affected my understanding of the world around me. I could go the cheesy college essay route: sports taught me about teamwork, about hard work and determination, about fair play, etc., etc. And yes, many of the skills I learned playing sports transferred to other aspects of my life. After being in PCS for a year, however, I have come to realize sports do more than provide generic life skills. As Andrews and Silk (2011) state, “PCS is dedicated to the contextually based understanding of the corporeal practices, discourses and subjectivities through which active bodies become organized, represented and experienced in relation to the operations of social power” (p.7). Looking at sports from this perspective, I’ve begun to question how my involvement in sports have shaped my understanding of the organization, representation and subjectivities of social power.
When I was playing sports, it never dawned on me that it was a privilege to be a part of these teams. Although the teams were racially diverse without one dominant group, all of the players were from the upper, middle class neighborhoods of Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Through retrospection, I realized although it was rather expensive to play on travel teams, the cost was certainly never discussed in my family nor was it a pertinent one to discuss at team family meetings. It was simply assumed and common knowledge that everyone on the team could afford to play. I never acknowledged the cultural and social capital I was building through sports, instead assuming it was a choice, not a privilege, to play on teams. It’s a prime example of the concerted cultivation parenting style in which middle class children receive a great amount of support and are funneled into various activities (Lareau, 2002). These activities allow the child to build capital used later in life to go to college, get a well-paying job and other privileges that are then passed onto their children and the cycle continues. My involvement in sport was the starting point for the path of privilege I’ve followed from leadership opportunities in high school to scholarships for college to my entrance into graduate school.
The privilege that came with playing soccer in suburbia extended beyond economic inequalities into gender equality. Although it is highly possible I have been discriminated against because of my gender, growing up in a very liberal and progressive area, I was unaware of gender inequality. In my family, my dad coached me and my mom coached my sister=equality. In middle school, both the boys and girls team played on the same terrible fields=equality. In high school, all the teams had car washes and fundraisers=equality. Yet, looking back on it, especially after having read multiple feminist pieces, sometimes it’s not the blatant inequalities that are most dangerous, but the subtle ones. The daily occurrences that become so common sense prove to be the hardest to overcome and the most damaging for women. Growing up, girls played softball, volleyball, soccer or basketball. There was never any discussion of a girl playing on the football team, or wrestling: girls just did not engage in sports that were very aggressive. In high school, I played lacrosse for a total of two weeks before I realized the mass difference in rules between men’s and women’s lacrosse. Not only did women have to wear skirts (NO THANK YOU!), but they were not allowed any physical contact, reinforcing the notion that women are the weaker, more fragile sex. In the moment, the differences frustrated me, but I never thought more about it. However, after maturation and retrospection, these differences are important and ripple out from high school sports to every facet of life, from domestic roles in the household to the pay gap to men holding positions of higher power as the leaders of society. Gender inequality is real, alive and the small “common sense,” little unfair aspects of sports that I ignored and didn’t see growing up are the pillars upon which inequality stands.
So I’ll take it back to the beginning: How do I know what I think I know? I know that I love sports and will continue to love sports. Yet, I also know that sports are just one of many arenas in which systems of inequality, oppression and discrimination thrive. The new question then becomes, What to do with the knowledge you think you know?
Andrews, D.L. & Silk, M. L.(2011). Toward a physical cultural studies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 28(1), 4–35.
Lareau, A. (2002). Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families. American Sociological Review, 67(5), 747–776. http://doi.org/10.2307/3088916