British Studies Web Pages


Click on the picture to enlarge

Book Review

Andy Hansen, The British Council's new Sport consultant reviews "The British at Play" by Nigel Townson and explores issues around sport and society. The review first appeared in British Studies Now in January 1999.

Sport is a powerful social force. It relates to a number of other social processes and debates. It confirms, re-inforces and sometimes challenges stereotypes and myths around nationhood, race and gender.

All over the world, people take part in it and watch it in ever larger numbers. An estimated 3 million Britons take part in some sort of sporting activity every week. Globally, a cumulative audience of around 37 billion people watched France '98. Sport is big business in the United States. It is the eleventh largest industry; in Britain, it employs over 400,000 people.

But these figures don't get to the heart of the social power and significance of sport in the modern world. Sport runs through our language and our culture. Sport is a major topic of conversation for people at all levels and in all roles. Images and metaphors from sport permeate our language: 'the game-plan'; 'is she a team player?'; 'it's not cricket'.

Why is sport so important in society? Why does it matter so much to people, why do so many people do it, watch it and talk about it? How does it connect to other social forces?

The British at Play - a Social History of British Sport from 1600 to the Present sets out to examine these issues and in doing so, becomes far more than a book about Britain and sport. Precisely because sport is so much a part of society, The British at Play raises issues about social class, gender, violence, commercialism, race and national identity. The material is aimed primarily at students on undergraduate or postgraduate courses in Cultural Studies, although, as we shall see below, it can be of much wider interest.

The book is a social history, which means that the development and change of power relations in and through sport can be studied over time. This is immensely valuable, since it gives a wider and longer perspective to the themes it examines and also makes clear just how long issues such as hooliganism and discrimination in sport have been with us.

The reader is introduced to these changing issues under a number of thematic chapter headings 'Festive Traditions', 'Sport and the Middle Classes', 'Sport and the Working Classes', 'Sponsorship, the Media and Football Violence' etc. At the end of each chapter, tutors and students are given notes and suggestions on how to make best use of the material in pairwork, small groups and individual research. These worksheets link in to answer keys at the back of the book, thus providing an integrated and flexible resource.

One advantage of sport as academic subject-matter is that most people are interested in it - it should therefore spark lively debate and individual exploration. The British at Play is a good, entertaining read. I found myself picking it up and reading it out of interest, not only because I had to review it. It provides excellent ideas and guidance for tutors and students. It introduces complex issues and themes in a simple and straightforward way.

For example, The British at Play highlights, in a very simple and understandable manner, the way in which sport contributes to the creation and definition of oppositional groups - 'in' and 'out' groups as the sociologists call them.

The well documented phenomenon of football hooliganism is the most extreme expression of this. The author handles this issue well, by refusing to perpetuate tired stereotypes of beer-bellied yobs on the rampage. Instead, he looks at the issue of soccer violence as it relates to, and is amplified by, media coverage of fan behaviour. Thus the media can set a climate in which xenophobia and violence are more likely to flourish, such as the infamous campaign run by The Daily Mirror before the 1996 England-Germany European Championships football semi-final. And when trouble does break out, the media, with its hunger for sensationalism and close-ups of violence, helps to amplify it and create an atmosphere of moral panic.

A less sensational, but equally significant consequence of the way in which sport contributes to the formation of 'in' and 'out' groups is the way in which sport relates to the social construction of 'race'. Ill-informed or lazy coaches, media and public opinion have always ascribed certain sporting characteristics to certain nations or 'races'. The case of English football is particularly interesting here.

So, for example, there is a widespread cultural belief that South Asian boys' are not interested in football. However, recent research indicates that there are higher rates of participation in football among young men of South Asian descent than among their white or black counterparts. So - why are there no South Asians in professional football? Why are there no Asian Premiership referees or managers?

The changing story of black British footballers might provide a clue. Their story provides a vivid example of how sport not only re-inforces social stereotypes, but also how it can just as powerfully achieve the exact opposite and challenge social stereotypes. Their story makes clear that no set of myths or stereotypes is static and that one day Asian football players may well be a common sight in British football.

Black players began to feature prominently in English football in the 1970s and early 1980s. At the time the prevailing cliché was that black players were instinctive, fast and mercurial, but lacked the 'bottle' (physical courage), commitment and cool head traditionally associated with the white English player. Black players therefore tended to feature overwhelmingly as wingers and strikers and were kept away from the more combative and responsible midfield and defensive positions. Players like Vince Hillaire, Laurie Cunningham, John Barnes and Mark Walters fitted this mould. One consequence of playing largely as wingers was that players such as Barnes were on the whole closer to the crowd and thus more exposed to the abusive chants, monkey noises and banana skins which elements of the crowd would throw at them.

And yet, as more black players came into the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became clear that the hue of a player's skin bore no relation to his physical or mental attributes. Midfielders and defenders like Carlton Palmer, Paul Ince, Michael Thomas and Sol Campbell all specialise in delivering steady, muscular and typically 'English' performances for club and country - and in doing so, have laid to rest the myth of the skilful but soft and erratic black player. Almost all English League clubs now have a number of black players on their books and even the most prejudiced white fan can see the contradiction between hurling bananas at the blacks in the opposition and cheering when your own black star scores a goal. The incidence of overt racism at football matches has declined dramatically since the early 1980s, although there remains much to be done, particularly in attracting black referees, managers and spectators to football.

So sport can challenge as well as confirm social stereotypes. The changing role of women in sport highlights this dynamic relationship. In the words of The British at Play 'Women have taken over new roles.... and are entering fields of activity which would have been closed to them just a generation ago; there are a number of women football commentators working for the BBC, and women are producing more sports programmes for radio and television: Karen Buchanan is founding editor of the football magazine Four-Four-Two... The trend in the nineties is one of female involvement in leadership and organisation' (p. 166). There is no doubt that female participation in sport, traditionally a 'male preserve', has a huge impact on wider power relations between the sexes.

If there is one message contained in The British at Play, it is therefore this - the relationship between sport and society is never static and never simple. It is part of the wider process of globalisation, in which money, people, ideas and images flow ever faster across borders, mixing, merging, evolving and creating ever new variations of fashion and behaviour. Sport is part of this global interchange. It has become closely bound up with gendered and consumer-driven notions of 'the body'. Images of the 'ideal' male and female body are constructed, consumed and sold in close association with images of sport, health and fitness. The worldwide 'health and fitness' boom has in part been driven by the perceived importance of acquiring the 'right' body shape.

Sport - fits in perfectly with the emerging transnational, consumer-driven global TV world a world seemingly peopled by beautiful and perfectly-muscled young people, pumping iron, roller-blading and cross-training in the latest Nike and Reebok gear. Sport cuts across all language and cultural barriers. The consumption and replication of sport images on TV and the press does not depend on the written word just pure, strong images, reaching directly out to the feelings and emotions of the viewer - the perfect medium for advertisers.

So sport becomes big money. Rupert Murdoch's international T.V. empire has been built largely on the back sport. Sky Television recently offered 623 million pounds for Manchester United Football Club. Sport attracts ever more commercial interest and investment. Nike's worldwide sales were over 9 billion dollars in 1996 60% of the global sponsorship market goes to sport (SRi Prime Consulting) and so on...

So what does The British at Play tell us about sport? It tells us that sport is an arena for racism and sexism but also for challenging racist and sexist myths. It tells us that sport can be violent, that sport is used by commercial interests, that sportspeople take drugs - in short, it tells us that sport is played by people, watched by people and run by people. Sport is part of society. The old and cosy myth that sport and politics should not mix was in itself a piece of pure politics, designed to keep the disenfranchised in their place.

And since it is so much part of society, sport should be taken seriously as an area of academic investigation and study. In the last five years, the number of UK Higher and Further Education courses in sport, recreation and leisure has more than doubled. The British at Play is welcome confirmation that the educational establishment is beginning to take sport more seriously not only as education for the body, but also as an area that deserves academic investigation.

And yet all of this somehow misses the point. I have studied sport, worked in sport and written about sport for over fifteen years. All of this cerebral activity, interesting though it has been, is a very poor substitute for the real thing simply doing it. Brain work engages only a small part of the person. Sport, on the other hand, engages the whole person. In the words of Anita de Frantz, Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee, 'Sport is a sophisticated form of thinking, in which we use our brains to move our bodies through space. It is a form of thinking which gives us great joy'. Sport is a sensuous experience, a form of 'deep play' which, quite simply, makes us feel good. That is why we do it. That is why it is so popular.

And if I have one criticism of The British at Play it is this - despite its title, the book is not about play. It is an excellent work, of great value and interest to a wide range of audiences. What it does not do though, is ask the most basic question of all - why do people do sport? Why is it so popular? The book did not, for me, transmit the power, the energy, the passion, the emotion and yes - the joy of sport. The social power of sport ultimately rests on this psycho/physical appeal - the way it engages the whole person, the way in which it allows us to play.

So, sport is socially important. By all means examine sport academically. By all means read about it, write about it, study it. But don't forget: sport is ultimately about getting involved, getting sweaty, out of breath and physically committed. If we forget this, then we are missing out on the real power of sport. Above all then (and here I need to borrow from my friends at Nike plc.) - Just Do It.

The British at Play - a social history of British sport from 1600 to the present is written by Nigel Townson and published by Cavallioti Publishers, Bucharest (1997). It is part of the British Council series British Cultural Studies produced by the British Council in Romania. Available from Mona Dobre-Laza, the British Council, Calea Dorobantilor 14 71132 Bucharest, e-mail: (30,000 lei within Romania, US$4 including postage for international orders).


COAKLEY, J. Sport in Society, 4th edition, St Louis, Times Mirror, 1990

DUNNING, F. and ROJEK, C. (eds) Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process, London, Macmillan, 1992

DUNNING, F., MURPHY, P. and WILLIAMS, J. The Roots of Football Hooliganism: an historical and sociological study, London, Routledge, 1998

ELIAS, N. and DUNNING, F. Quest for Excitement: sport and leisure in the civilizing process, Oxford, Blackwell, 1986

HARGREAVES, J. A. Sporting Females: critical issues in the history and sociology of women's sports, London and New York, Routledge, 1994

HARGREAVES, J. A. Sport, Power and Culture, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1986

JARVIE, G. (ed) Sport Racism and Ethnicity, London, Famer Press, 1991

Adapted and reproduced by kind permission from Cavallioti PUBLISHERS

Produced in Poland by British Council © 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.