Sports Culture Among Undergraduates: A Study of Student Athletes and Students at the University of MichiganSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Our project has a well-established intellectual pedigree and forms an essential component of a larger academic concern. Since the late 1980s, Andrei Markovits has worked on what he has called “sports cultures” by which he has meant the large framework wherein people “follow” sports. As such, his work has concentrated more on the consumption of sports—their “followers” or fans or supporters—as opposed to their production, that is their “doers”, their participants.
To be sure, there has always existed a major overlap between “followers” and “doers”. People follow sports in good part because they also played them at some point in their lives or continue to do so, even on a rudimentary and amateurish level. However, this link has become ever more tenuous, particularly regarding the very few sports that comprise a society’s “sports culture”. Crudely put, one need not have played one second of football in one’s life to have developed into a rabid and highly knowledgeable football fan. Indeed, most American football fans have never played football on any level, let alone the two levels that define football’s presence in America’s sports culture: the National Football League and college. And this characteristic pertains to all other modern sports that comprise a society’s “sports culture”. As a major characteristic of modernity in sports, the followers have gradually—and massively—come to outnumber the doers. More important still, it is the followers that really define what Markovits has called a society’s “hegemonic sports culture” that comprises its “sports space”.
Markovits’s work has analyzed these concepts both in an historical as well as a comparative context. In particular, his research and publications have focused on explaining in what ways America’s sports culture is similar to that of the rest of the world but also how—and why—it is noticeably different.
Hegemonic sports cultures, so Markovits has argued, do not only differ by geography and history, but also by factors such as gender, age, class, religion and ethnicity. In some of his more recent publications, Markovits has compared these cultures to languages. Just like with languages, the earlier one learns and internalizes these cultures, the better one knows and speaks them, the more one appreciates their nuances, the greater an expert one becomes. Just like languages, these sports cultures create communities which include as well as exclude. American sports languages, so Markovits has argued, have remained largely confined to the North American continent and have by and large excluded North Americans from the absolute lingua franca of global sports cultures—the world of soccer. Moreover, these sports cultures—like all other languages—have been massively gendered. Until recently, women were much less advanced and skilled sports speakers than men; and now, that they have acquired the cognitive structures of these sports languages and become skillful in them, it seems that they use them quite differently, in their own voice so to speak.
Upon his arrival at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1999, Markovits designed a course that was to teach students about sports in the context of Markovits’s scholarly approach. From its very beginning, the course—appropriately entitled “Sport as Culture in Advanced Industrial Democracies: The United States in a Comparative and Historical Context”—has analyzed how sports developed as an integral part of public life in all industrial societies.
It was by meeting with students in this course over the years—inside and outside the classroom—that Markovits began to learn how students at the University of Michigan construct their sports culture, which sports they follow, what teams they love, whom they adore as a star. Markovits became curious as to what—if any—differences existed in the sports cultures and their construction on the part of student athletes and “regular” students. Did male and female Michigan students exhibit marked differences in their respective sports cultures? Did other social characteristics of Michigan students lead to variations in sports cultures? If so, how did they and why? If not, what explained their commonalities?
Markovits’s interest became concretized through lengthy discussions with Eric Ambinder who had enrolled in Sociology 212 as a freshman. Ambinder visited Markovits in his office hours on a regular basis and the two discussed this topic for months before they decided to construct a questionnaire and have it submitted as a survey to Michigan’s student athletes as well as its students. By the end of the summer of 2002, the questionnaire was completed. The study could commence.
Seeking—and receiving—approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) to conduct this study (IRB number B03-00002782-R2, please consult the survey instrument included in full at the end of this document), Markovits and Ambinder then sought the permission and help of William C. Martin, the University’s Athletic Director. Without his enthusiastic endorsement and the dedicated support of his staff, the researchers would never have been able to reach 24 of Michigan’s 25 varsity teams and have their respective athletes participate in the survey in such large numbers. Our only regret remains that the University’s vaunted football team did not participate in our study for reasons that were never explained to us.
The survey was conducted during the academic year 2002/2003. By the time everything was coded and analysis of the data commenced in earnest, Eric Ambinder had been graduated from the University of Michigan and enrolled as a student in the University of Florida’s Law School. In his stead, in stepped Amy Duvall who, in the meantime, had also been graduated from Michigan’s undergraduate college and enrolled in its Law School. Lastly, David Smith, a doctoral student in Michigan’s Department of Political Science, who had become a teaching assistant in Markovits’s large sports course, joined the project. As such, this work represents a product that involved the participation and collaboration of representatives of the University of Michigan’s three core constituents: faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.
With the main focus of our study being the real or putative differences in how gender continues to shape the consumption of sports—especially of what we have termed “hegemonic sports culture”—we searched the literature for studies that featured analyses in the perception of sports by male and female fans mainly in the United States, particularly among university-age cohorts. It is to a very brief review of some relevant literature that we now turn.