The characteristics of competitive sport

Professor Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D.

Posted: July 27, 2014

This is an extract taken from Ziegler’s book: Sport in America – Builder of Character or “Characters”? (published by Fideli in 2014)

Having stated that “sport” has become a strong social force or institution, it is true also that there has been some ambiguity about what such a simple word means. In an earlier study I recall uncovering that the word “sport” was used in 13 different ways as a noun. Somehow this number has increased to 14 in the most recent Encarta World English Dictionary (1999) (p. 1730). In essence, what we are describing here is an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess. It is typically of a competitive nature as in racing, wrestling, baseball, tennis, or cricket. For the people involved, sport is often serious, and participants may even advance to a stage where competitive sport becomes a semi-professional or a professional career choice.

For a multitude of others, however, sport is seen more as a diversion, as recreational in nature, and as a pleasant pastime.

A Social Institution Without an Underlying Theory.

Viewed collectively, I am now arguing that at present the “totality” of sport appears to have become a strong social institution—but one that is without a well-defined theory. This fact is being recognized increasingly. Yet, at this point the general public, including most politicians, seems to believe that “the more competitive sport we have, the merrier!” I believe, however, that we in the sport management profession need right now to answer such questions as (1) what purposes competitive sport has served in the past, (2) what functions it is fulfilling now, (3) where it seems to be heading, and (4) how it should be employed to serve all humankind.

How Sport Serves Society.

In response to these questions, without very careful delineation at this point, I believe that sport as presently operative can be subsumed in a non-inclusive list as possibly serving in the following ways:

1. As an organized religion (for those with or without another similar competing affiliation)

2. As an exercise medium (often a sporadic one)

3. As a life-enhancer or “arouser” (puts excitement in life)

4. As a trade or profession (depending upon one’s approach to it)

5. As an avocation, perhaps as a “leisure-filler” (at either a passive, vicarious, or active level)

6. As a training ground for war (used throughout history for this purpose)

7. As a “socializing activity” (an activity where one can meet and enjoy friends)

8. As an educational means (i.e., the development of positive character traits, however described) sport as a …

My listing could undoubtedly be larger. I could have used such terms as (1) sport “the destroyer,” (2) sport “the redeemer,” (3) sport “the social institution being tempted by science and technology,” (4) sport “the social phenomenon by which heroes and villains are created,” or, finally, (5) sport “the social institution that has survived within an era characterized by a vacuum of belief for many.” But I must stop. I believe this listing is sufficient to make the necessary point in the present discussion.

I am hoping that you agree that sport managers truly need to understand what competitive sport has become in society, as well as why many of its promoters are confronted with a dilemma that most don’t even recognize. I assert this since I believe that sport, also, as is happening with all other social institutions, is inevitably being confronted by the postmodern divide that is steadily being created. In crossing this frontier, many troubling and difficult decisions, often ethical in nature, will have to be made as the professor of sport management, for example, seeks to prepare prospective professionals who will guide sport and related physical activity into becoming a responsible social institution. The fundamental question facing the profession is: “What kind of sport and physical activity do we want to promote to help shape what sort of world as we look ahead in the 21st century?”

About Professor Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D.

Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D., LL.D., D.Sc. is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. After 73 years of professional service divided equally between both countries, he writes primarily on North American human values, ethics, and personal decision-making. A past president (and Hetherington Award winner in 1989) of the National Academy of Kinesiology in America; an Honor Award winner of Physical & Health Education Canada (1975); a past president of the International Association for Philosophy of Sport; hon. past president of the North American Society for Sport Management (1986), and Recognition Award recipient of the No. Amer. Soc. For Sport History (2008), Zeigler was also Gulick Award winner (1989) and second Scholar-of-the-Year Award winner of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (1975-76).