The Social-Conflict Approach and the Sociology of Sport

As noted in the textbook, each of the three major paradigms may be applied to a wide variety of 

topics. The conflict perspective has been especially popular among sports sociologists. In fact,
Harry Edwards, who published the first major text in this area in 1973 while a member of the
faculty at San Jose State University, is a strong adherent of the conflict perspective.
More recently, Richard Lapchick, the director since 1984 of Northeastern University’s
Center for the Study of Sport in Society, has emerged as a second well-known conflict theoryoriented sports sociologist. Unlike Edwards, Lapchick is white and was heavily involved as a
civil rights supporter and anti-apartheid activist in his youth; he has repeatedly received death
threats and has also been physically attacked by opponents of his struggle for racial justice.
The Center began with an operating budget of $125,000, which has now grown to over a
million dollars a year. Lapchick and his twenty-one person staff have collected a massive amount
of data documenting the persistent discrimination against minorities and women in spo rts. Some
examples: Lapchick points out that African–Americans have a substantial share of players in
only five professional sports: boxing, track, basketball, football, and baseball. The share of black
players in major league baseball shows a notable decline, falling from 19 percent in 1995 to 8
percent in 2015. In all professional sports, the vast majority of team owners, managers, and head
coaches are white.
In a tradition established by Marx, conflict-oriented sociologists have commonly felt obliged
to go beyond merely documenting the existence of injustice. They actually work to overcome it.
Harry Edwards attempted to organize a boycott by African–American athletes of the 1968
Mexico City Summer Olympics as a protest over the lack of black coaches on the U.S. team and
related issues. Although the boycott failed, Edwards was instrumental in encouraging sprinters
Tommie Smith and John Carlos to publicize their political beliefs by bowing their heads and
giving black power salutes during the awards ceremony for the 200-meter dash.
Like Edwards, Lapchick is also an activist. His center has spent over twelve million dollars
in tuition assistance for students who have used up their athletic eligibility. The organization also
sponsors outreach programs such as TEAMWORK, which encourages professional athletes to
speak to schoolchildren about the realities of high-level sports. A favored theme: stay in school
and get your degree, because while almost half of black professional athletes believe that they
will make it in the pros, in actuality, only a small percentage actually do so.

Discussion Questions
1. Do you think it is appropriate for sociologists like Edwards and Lapchick to become involved
in reform efforts or would they be wiser to concentrate merely on studying society? Develop
arguments supporting each position.
2. Why do you think many people find Lapchick’s contention that African–Americans are widely
discriminated against in sports hard to accept

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