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Anthropology of Sport
Dr. Jane Granskog


I. Introduction - The Anthropological Study of Sport

A. Reasons for the anthropological study of sport
1. Pervasiveness & significance within contemporary complex societies indicated by media coverage,
financial expenditures, number of participants involved etc. Fitness revolution of 70's - 80's -athletic lifestyle part of post-industrial society; significance expressed in language, basic values of
society (e.g., way of getting up corporate ladder in our society, measure of success, etc.)
2. Anthropological approach - unique in emphasis on cross-cultural analysis, focus on culture; sport
a significant element of cultural behavior that is adaptive and has survival value. Know the major
divisions within anthropology. Be familiar with major themes of cultural approach (cultural
relativism, concern w/ context, holistic study, emphasis on fieldwork/participant observation,
comparative method, focus on concept of culture); definition of culture and attributes (acquired
knowledge that people use to interpret experience & generate social behavior - learned, symbolic,
adaptive, componential, holistic etc.).
3. Know major objectives of the anthropological study of sport (Blanchard)
B. History of the anthropological study of sport
1. Definition of sport - physical activity that is fair, competitive, non-deviant & is guided by rules,
organization &/or tradition (key features -- competitive, human physical activity, governed by
institutionalized rules).
2. Major points noted by Calhoun summarize the changes that have occurred in modern sport since
WWII - from "fun to business" - and dissent expressed by jocks & coaches, the media &
promoters; problematic issues of health, education, gender & sport esp. w/ current emphasis on
competition, exploitation & violence in sport; also notes major aspects of jock liberation and the
rise of the counterculture (corresponds to emergence of post-industrial society).
3. Historically sport can be viewed w/in context of games & study of play - should be aware of the
work of Mooney, Culin, & Geertz w/in anthropology. Note characteristics of play as discussed in
class (can review also text by Calhoun on reserve, p.43-5) defined by Huizinga & Caillois (4
categories - contest/agon, chance/alea, mimicry, vertigo/ilinx; distinction between paidea & ludus);
development of games & sport (gentleman focus to commercial focus w/ industrialization,
formally organized play); also note Roberts' game categories - physical skill, strategy & chance-and relation between characteristics of culture and types of games/sport manifested.
4. As Sands notes, above covers early history of anthropological study of sport. 1960s brought in reevaluation, noted as the conceptual period, sport as a means of expressing social systems esp. w/r
to issues of race, power, and social inequity in U.S., comparison w/ other cultures re: impact of
sport on culture. By 1990s has been significant number of studies of sport but not w/in
anthropology; argues for the relevance of sport studies in line w/ issues of globalization and
cultural change; relevance to understanding intersection between sport and culture w/in new world
II. The Cultural Approach to Sport. Basic problem - defining role of sport w/in general cultural
framework particularly when comparing cultures (esp. preliterate societies w/ contemporary
complex societies); often is closely integrated with other aspects of culture. Definition of sport
carried out via analysis of seven major topics (Blanchard):

A. Work and leisure: Leisure = state of being in which activity is performed for its own sake or own
end; work = goal oriented, productive, purposeful activity. Distinction fairly clear in complex
societies, more difficult in primitive foraging societies; history of distinction emerges w/ onset of
agriculture; w/ industrialism, leisure devalued; gradually reemerged importance in 20th century,
post-industrial society - more developed "leisure ethic"
B. The nature of play - Definition (Norbeck): behavior resting on biologically inherited stimulus that
is distinguished by # of traits: voluntary, pleasurable, distinct temporally from other behavior, &
distinct in having a make-believe, transcendental quality; Czikszentmihalyi -- the "flow
experience" par excellence. Play: Bateson - quality of paradox, form of meta-communication.
Two kinds of meta-communication: (1) framing - cognitive boundary between play & not-play
(play face); (2) w/in play frame - sets up separate reality, commentary on ordinary life. Can be
viewed as a major source of creativity. Consequences: practice for real world (preparation for life,
less serious than "real life"); reversal of regular world; source of changing system of ordinary life
(satire, parody, clowning etc.); learning reality is relative to goals that cultures and individuals
C. Relationship between work and play as dimensions of sport - be familiar with chart (Blanchard
pp.46-48) comparing sport can involve different degrees of play/not-play, work & leisure. Be able
to give examples of each of 4 variations.
D. Sport as game: game = competitive activities that involve physical skills, strategy &/or chance;
may have varying constriction (rules) & may be more or less playful or work-like.
E. Relation between sport and ritual - are closely related aspects of culture, sport often assumes rituallike character; evolution of sport out of ritual activities, are closely intertwined in preliterate
societies. Ritual = patterned activity that expresses some basic social message of import to the
structure & ongoing cohesiveness of group; emphasis on symbolic nature; always reflects basic
values of cultural setting w/in which it is performed, thus functions as a "transmitter of culture".
Birrell - athlete represents community values (as hero/heroine) thru four attributes of character courage, gameness, integrity, & composure. Edwards - basic values expressed in sport reflected in
7 central themes of American Sports Creed (Calhoun, p.197-201): character, discipline,
competition (fortitude, preparation for real life), physical fitness, mental fitness (increased
educational achievement), religiosity (relate sport to traditional American Christianity),
nationalism -- correspond to Amer. achievement ethic (traditional political ideology). Sport may
also be viewed as setting for ritual processes not directly part of game. Be familiar w/ major thesis
of Laughlin (role of play/games as ritual in traditional societies - cosmological connection).
F. Sport as conflict - competition, form of conflict (indirect) in which two or more persons struggle to
attain object - struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources. Sipes - makes
association between frequency of warfare & existence of physically combative sports; ex. of
football. Conflict (Marxist) perspective - places emphasis on conflict as means of change (vs.
emphasis on consensus) - social progress result of conflicting or contradictory factors -- values,
ideologies, groups etc.
G. Sport, recreation and physical education - recreation, form of leisure, emphasis on active
component, prin. form expressed in sport in many societies (non-obligatory); physical ed - more
inclusive than recreation, has normative aspect, means of using leisure time effectively, maintain

III. Theoretical Models and Methods for Anthropology of Sport. Be familiar w/ definition of
theory and theoretical models - major characteristics of two basic types: explanatory & interpretive
models. Significance of experiential ethnography
A. Explanatory models - demonstrate significant relationships, suggest possible causative factors and
effects; make explicit less obvious dimensions of social events; etic (outsider's view) approach to
understanding culture
1. Evolutionism - focus on process and history by which sport has developed based on expression in
different societal types (classified according to form of adaptation to environment & corresponding
degree of complexity in social org.); closely allied w/ cultural materialism
2. Cultural materialism - extreme form expressed by Harris, focus on adaptation as the primary
rationale for culture, emphasis upon causative role of techno-environmental component upon rest
of culture; sport part of the sociopolitical component of culture which in turn is based upon
technology & economy - examination of sport in materialistic terms, issues of social stratification
(diff. access to resources & prestige) in sport etc.; Marxist analyses of sport may fit here to some
3. Functionalism - Malinowski - cultural phenomena understood in relationship to their roles in
meeting individual human needs (primary - survival; secondary - appropriate form of social org.;
integrative - solidarity of society); static approach, focusing on significance of continuity &
integration w/in culture. Ex.: sport participation associated w/ positive self concept (fulfills psych.
need); sport rituals serving to reduce uncertainty (Gmelch - baseball magic)
4. Structural-Functionalism - Radcliffe-Brown - emphasis on function of social institutions to
maintain solidarity & continuity of society (focus on social system vs individual needs). Static
approach, emphasis on continutiy of sys. Sport as an institution is understood in relation to other
institutions in society - eg. outlet for aggressive tendencies, means of reducing conflict, function of
sport as ritual; focus on role of sport in society. Firth's analysis of Tikopia Dart game fits here.
B. Interpretive models - focus on perspective for understanding phenomena, provide new insights
about culture & social structure; emic (insider's view) approach to understanding culture
1. Symbolic anthropology - 2 primary variations: (a) Geertz - culture is embodied in public symbols
thru which members of society communicate world view, value orientations etc. to others question - how do symbols shape ways social actors see, feel & think about world (eg. Balinese
cockfights mirrors important Balinese values); (b) Turner - focus on symbols in rituals, ways in
which they help move actors from one status to another in line w/ structural-functional school
(social functions of ritual via socialization & promotion of social solidarity by providing role
models, reinforcing shared values, reducing conflict etc); introduced concept of structure
(organization of statuses, roles, & norms) and anti-structure (segment of world where status, roles,
norms don't exist - outside structure, between structure - transition from one status to another, and
bottom of structure)
2. Ethnoscience - theoretical model & method - focus on culture as knowledge that individuals use to
make sense of experience; described in terms of various subsets - cultural domains.
3. Experiential ethnography (insider's approaches to sport ethnography - emphasis upon ethnographic
info. produced as a collaborative feedback process between anthropologist and informant;
emphasizes role of reflexivity (thinking about thinking) in ethnographic inquiry - problem
associated w/ approach - presumed lack of objectivity yet allows for greater insight into
significance for participants. Review points made by Sands (p. 20, 26-33) on major features.

4. Significance of understanding sport as ritual in contemporary society - know major points of "In
Search of the Ultimate" paper & Laughlan's analysis; Turner's concept of liminality & "liminoid"
C. Be familiar with major aspects of conducting ethnographic research - formulating research design,
data collection and analysis (cf. Blanchard and Sands). "Lurking" as an observational strategy. Be
able to discuss articles by Voight, Arens, Farrell, Beisser, Bianchi in terms of the type of analysis
(theoretical model) being used as well as the major points made re: significance of American
football - values emphasized, role in socialization (esp. males), compare w/ discussion of beer
commercials etc. Be able to compare and contrast American football with Trobriand Cricket.
IV. Character of Modern Sport - The Sport Establishment, Different Sports
A. Be familiar with the major features of the sport establishment as discussed in class based on
Calhoun (structure, areas of conflict) with particular attention to the characteristics and dynamics
of the athletic sub-culture (major values/ traits - authoritarian, sexist, racist, militaristic and
nationalistic also note the ideology of the sport creed & how it is violated
B. Sport and social power - correlation between sport achievement and socio-economic status and
residence; in U.S., note relation between sport & power of white male WASP's (football and ethnic
identity); false lure of upward mobility
C. Social character of different sports (see Calhoun) based on combination of territory/ non-territory,
time-bound/non-time-bound, body contact/non-contact, striking/non-striking, & parallel
competition vs. direct competition. Different sports focus on different values in different cultures:
baseball, (individuality vs. collectivity--Japan wa); football, intimidation; basketball, deception;
soccer, "football"; hockey, game of North; democratization of tennis; golf, ultimate self-control.
V. Self Actualization and the Autotelic Experience (Czikszentmihalyi) - Be familiar w/ main points of
articles by Geertz and by Macaloon & Czikszentmihalyi.; dimensions of sport freedom - deep play,
characteristics of risk takers. Major points of Czikszentmihalyi Beyond Boredom and Anxiety:
A. Study of Intrinsic Motivation - explore activities & their significance that contain rewards w/in
themselves; study of enjoyment here and now as an ongoing process; note problems w/ previous views that
focus on extrinsic rewards.
B. Rewards of Autotelic Experience - focus on people who devote significant energy to some activity which
yields minimal rewards of a conventional sort; study of rock climbers, M & F chess players, composers,
dancers, basketball players. Character of respondents - older people, females, those w/ higher SES &
education tend to perceive intrinsic rewds as more import. Note distinction made between autotelic
activities (maximize intrinsic rewards for participants), people/personalities (enjoy what they do regardless
of extrinsic rewards), and experiences (psychological state which acts as reward in itself Eight reasons for
enjoying activity (most to least important):
1. Enjoyment of experience and use of skills
2. Activity itself, pattern, action, the world it provides
3. Development of personal skills
4. Friendship, companionship
5. Competition, measuring self against others (least, dancers; most, basketball)
6. Measuring self against own ideals

7. Emotional release (most, dancers; least, basketball)
8. Prestige, regard, glamour
C. Structure of Autotelic Activities - activity is experienced as rewarding if it allows one to use sensory &
physical potential in a novel or challenging way and gives the feeling of being in control of actions. Most
important requirement - provide clear set of challenges (challenge of unknown or competition); 5 factors
of significance:
1. Friendship & relaxation - warm interpersonal experiences - loosening of ego boundaries (communitas)
2. Risk and chance ("vertigo" - allow one to transcend limitations by altering state of consciousness; need to
control the unpredictable)
3. Problem solving - purposeful goal directed action
4. Competition - basic need to pit oneself against others
5. Creativity - designing or discovering something new
D. Theoretical Model of Enjoyment - autotelic experience = flow: holistic sensation that people feel when act
w/ total involvement. Note major elements of flow experience :
1. Merging of action and awareness (tasks w/in ability to perform)
2. Intense focus, centering of attention on limited stimulus field, (aided by competition, structure of game,
possibility of physical danger)
3. Loss of ego, transcendence of individuality
4. In control of actions and environment
5. Contains coherent demands for action, clear unambiguous feedback
6. Autotelic nature - needs no goals or awards external to itself
E. Note structure of flow activities - provide opportunities for action which a person can act upon without
being bored or worried/anxious - depends on perception that opportunities for action are matched by skills;
note ways to return to flow if bored or worried
VI. Prehistory and Early History of Sport (Blanchard)
A. Focuses on role of archeology to help understand evolution of sport. A major problem w/ this
approach lies in questions of existence of sport in prehistoric societiesdealt w/ through use of
ethnographic analogy (eg. meaning of chunky stone in Am. Ind. SE; ball & pin game found at Eva
site, early Archaic - 7000 B.P.); major features of emergence of sport begins w/ early urban state;
new directions for examining sport thru archeology.
B. Major dimensions of pok-ta-pok/tlachtli -- Mesoamerican ballgame and extension into North
America -- basic features & major functions within various societies; explanations for significance.
and diffusion.
C. Be familiar w/ major features of a cultural evolutionary approach to understanding development of
sport as an institution. Three major variables considered: type of subsistence; sociopolitical
structure; and geographic & ecological variables.
VII. Sport in Culture: An Evolutionary Perspective (Blanchard)
A. Sport Classification - may be defined according to type of sport (componential definition.),
geographically, most unusual/unique sports etc. Most appropriate typology from an
anthropological standpoint is an evolutionary classification. Two "unusual" games discussed by

Blanchard in this regard include: Afghan buskashki (goat pull game on horseback, emphasis on
socio-political functions, and skills for waging war); and Tarahumara rarajipari (kickball,
associated w/ tesquino complex, need for endurance in particular environment). From an
evolutionary point of view, need to look at sports w/in cultural framework, in particular, sociopolitical level of complexity associated w/ adaptation to environment. In general, societies at
different levels define sport behavior so that they reflect features characteristic of their respective
degree of evolutionary development.
B. LEVEL I BAND - char. by small pop. (16-25), foraging &/or hunt. & gathering subsistence, family
is significant social unit, relations defined by kinship (patrilineal); informal leadership; egalitarian,
div. of labor by age & sex. Sport - equipment limited, competition at small, localized levels,
games played parallel basic economic activities. Examples:
1. Australian Aborigines - Arunta (Central Aus.) - basic polit. unit - local band (horde); complex
marriage exchange sys., complex ceremonial life esp. male puberty rites. Ample leisure time.
Games: spearing the disc; mungan-mungan (old men vs young. men, no holds barred keep-away
game, keep stick, young girl away from opposite. team); variety of ball games; wrestling (one of
most widespread human sports); prun tournament betw. local grps. means of settling disputes, men
show off to women). Sports, integral part of culture, focus on adaptive functions.
2. Eskimos (Copper Esk., N-Central Canada) - hunting and fishing, bilateral kinship, egal. relations
betw. M & F; complex religion. Sport: ring-and-pin game; harpoon throw; ring toss; foot races;
football (summer, all ages & both M & F play) & other ballgames; wrestling.
3. Yaghan (Tierra del Fuego, S. America) - hunters & gatherers - patrilineal bias; significant emphasis
on puberty rites for M & F; significant sport - wrestling; several types of ballgames; sports &
games strengthened social & survival skills.
C. LEVEL II BAND - collections of Level I bands; larger pop, includes horticulture & pastoralism w/
hunting and gathering; sport & games more complex but similar in structure and function to Level
I. Examples:
1. Navajo - orig. migrated from Canada to SW U.S., took on characteristics of neighboring Pueblo
groups - matrilineal clans & descent; historic focus, sheep pastoralism w/ raiding. Sport emphasis on fun; hoop & pole game, rodeo, chicken pull, foot races, wrestling; sport, a community
activity promoting social interaction.
2. Chukchi - N. Europe, Siberia, reindeer-herding, some fishing, nomadic; bilateral w/ paternal bias in
kinship, basic social unit - camps of 2-3 families (15-100 peo. w/ 200-5,000 animals). Sport reindeer racing, foot racing, wrestling (both M & F), emphasis on strength & endurance - reinforce
basic skills needed for survival.
3. Dani - New Guinea, patrilineal descent, horticultural, elaborate ritual life, preoccupation w/
avenging death of ancestors (ghosts), basis of warfare. Sport - question whether they do because
of lack of competition in games & play; can look at social warfare as form of sport reflected in
film Dead Birds. Dani warfare has many sportlike characteristics - battles, playful, competitive,
conducted w/ set of agreed-upon rules.
D. LEVEL III: CHIEFDOM - sedentary, larger pop., based on horticulture supplemented by h & g,
fishing. Are usually ranked societies (equal access to resources, unequal access to prestige ascribed statuses). Sport, more elaborate equipmt., more complicated rules, wider units of
competition than Levels I & II. Basic functions - social interaction, approved outlets for feelings
of rivalry, means of obtaining status & prestige, etc.; traditionally - preparation for war. Examples:

1. Choctaws - SE U.S. (Miss.), most forced to move to Oklahoma; traditionally were horticulturalists
w/ matrilineal clans & descent. 1980 - 7 major Mississippi Choctaw communities. Sport: trad. toli
(two-racket, stickball game, parent of lacrosse) and chunkey. Stickball played at different levels,
formal match - intercommunity - most import., setting for competitive ritual. Modern: baseball,
basketball, most recently, softball - redefined to fit norms & values. Emphasis on having a good
time (intra-communally & w/ whites) except for intercommunity games where emphasis is on
winning. Note central role of women in sport; athletics, legit. source of power & status for women.
2. Maori - Polynesia, New Zealand; root crop farmers supplemented by fishing; ambilateral descent,
patrilocal residence; 3 ranks - chiefs, commoners, slaves. Concept of tapu/tabu manifested in
power (mana) of individual. Sport - functioned to prepare men for war, spear throwing, wrestling,
boxing, running races, dart throwing. Modern - rugby popular.
3. Samoans - SW Polynesia; horticulturalists, slightly more complex chiefdoms than Maori; extended
family, basic unit, patrilineal descent w/ ambilocal residence, complex ranking system. Sport:
strongly competitive (dialectic between competition & cooperation), focus more on individual vs
team sports; most import. game - dart match (tika); functions & characteristics as described for
Tikopia more recently - cricket w/ modifications - both M & W play, variable team size,
competition between villages, major feasting celebration.
E. LEVEL IV: PRIMITIVE STATE - Based on agriculture, stratified societies (social classes unequal access to resources and prestige), diff. in that the state also monopolizes force.
Transitional phase to Level V, few examples in literature.
1. Zulus - S. Africa; state, result of consolidation against British - 19th cen.; trad. pastoralists w/
horticulture, patrilineal, patrilocal, head of state, king, authority thru district chiefs & standing
army. Sport: "public hunt" - means of refining skills for war; modern - soccer dominant, means
for relieving tension & increased hostility & aggression of urban life.
2. Ashanti - West Africa (Gold Coast, Ghana); state, result of consolidation against British;
traditionally were horticultural w/ root crops, villages up to 1,000+; basic unit, polygynous
household, matrilineal descent. Sport: importance of games of strategy (wari - board game,
capture opponents pieces); badminton game, loser punished; wrestling. More recent: soccer,
cricket etc., professional players. Sport viewed as means of developing physical skills,
maintenance of personal health, focus of patriotism & national unity - integrate disparate ethnic,
tribal groups.
3. Prehistoric Mayan State - Mesoamerican ballgame discussed earlier.
F. LEVEL V: ARCHAIC CIVILIZATION - Urban State - characterized by emergence of true cities,
large-scale (irrigation) agriculture, true govt. & bureaucracy. Sport - elaborate playing fields,
equipment., professionalism, extensive spectator involvement, class distinctions in sport institutns.
G. Sport Evolution - General Observations - Note that diff. in sport institutions at various levels are
quantitative, not qualitative; need to be careful about making generalizations, major characteristics
will reflect other features of society. Changes that occur in evolution of sport measured along 8
continua: (1) secularity; (2) bureaucracy (including inc. complexity of rules); (3) social identity
(intra-team more often extra-kin in more complex societies); (4) social distance (degree of
relatedness between two groups/individuals - the greater the variety of social distance spheres, the
greater the range of sport competition possibilities); (5) specialization; (6) equipment; (7)
ecological meaning (focus on adaptive significance of sport); & (8) quantification (record keeping

Review for Midterm. The midterm exam will be subjective w/ at least 8 essay questions. You will be
required to answer 2 essay questions worth 20 points each and 6 essay questions (10 points each)
Sample Essay Questions
Possible 20 point Essays:
1. According to Sage, "sport is such a pervasive human activity that to ignore it is to overlook one of
the most significant aspects of contemporary American society." Blanchard, Sands, Calhoun and
others argue the same point in their in respective summary characterizations of modern sport on a
global basis. Discuss the major ways in which you perceive the significance of sport in our society
is manifested. Include supporting evidence to justify your assertions.
2. Based on class discussion and the readings (Sands and Bolin and Granskog in particular), discuss
the major features of experiential ethnography (the "insider's approach" to sport ethnography)
including what you consider to be the major strengths and limitations of this approach. Include
supporting evidence to justify your assertions.
3. Based upon Czikszentmihalyi's research as discussed in class and in the readings, briefly discuss
the major characteristics of the autotelic experience - what are the main elements of the flow
experience. Have you ever experienced "flow" as described by Czikszentmihalyi? If so, describe
the circumstances and experience. If not, why do you think this is the case?
4. If sport is to be viewed as ritual and ritual defined as a transmitter of values and guide for behavior,
how do sports and your participation in them (as spectator and/or participant) affect your behavior?
What lessons do you learn about your culture? Be sure to cite evidence and/or examples to support
your assertions. You may use my analysis of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon and Birrell's concept
of character as a basis for answering this question.
Possible 10 point Essays
5. Laughlin argues that there is a significant difference between the ritual role of sport/games as
manifested in traditional societies versus modern society. Discuss this difference citing supportive
evidence from the readings. More specifically how does his discussion relate to Turner's concept
of liminality and the appearance of what Turner refers to as "liminoid" societies? How does it help
us understand the ritual nature of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon?
6. A friend has invited you over on Super Bowl Sunday to watch the game with about 5-8 other
people. You arrive about a half-hour before the game and stay until after the game is over. During
the game, a large amount of food -- mostly potato chips, dip and lots of beer -- is consumed. As an
ethnographer/anthropologist, basing your comments on your own observations, readings, and class
discussion briefly describe and analyze the major features of this social activity from the
perspective of symbolic anthropology. What new insights about the nature of American culture
have you learned from examining this activity? In what ways does American football reflect basic
values of American culture?

7. As discussed in Blanchard, Calhoun and in class, define and describe the characteristics and nature
of play and its consequences. Include in your discussion the significance of paradox (a form of
meta-communication described by Bateson and others) and the ways in which it may be expressed.
8. Blanchard describes sport in terms of variable combinations of work, leisure, play and not-play.
Discuss the relationship between work and leisure, play and not-play. Include a description that
contrasts an example of sport as leisurely play with an example of sport as non-playful work. From
your own experience, can you cite an example where a leisure activity was more work than play?
If so, what characteristics made it so?
9. Describe the ways in which the game of cricket, as played by the Trobriand Islanders reflects the
fundamental values and characteristics of Trobriand culture. What are some of the major
similarities and differences between Trobriand cricket and American football?
10. Based on the readings in Sands and Blanchard as well as class discussion, discuss what you feel
are the major objectives of the anthropology of sport that illustrate the unique contribution of
anthropology to the study of sport.
11. Consider your typical weekday. How much time do you spend playing? How much of that time
involves sport? Do you make a clear distinction between your play and work, or do you feel you
play at work during parts of the day? What does this say about the importance of sport and play in
your life?
12. In terms of the two types of theoretical models they represent, briefly contrast a symbolic
anthropological approach to sport with a materialist approach to sport using examples where
appropriate (e.g., Geertz's study vs. Blanchard's analysis of the evolution of sport vs. Calhouns
discussion of modern sport institutions).