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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Critical race theory and sport – who won?

Race and sport usually go together when ‘race’ has another meaning! But in this case, the nonsensical debate in US about the so-called perils of critical race theory provides another example of how scientific illiteracy has taken root in public discourse.

In this post I suggest that social science research generally and critical theory research specifically are important to coaches and sport scientists. Research aims to solve problems and enhance our knowledge of the world about us. The long-established ‘scientific method’ has been good for world. The bench sciences apply this method with a rigour and help discover new drugs, new technologies, phones, materials, explanations for disease and so on. Such research is systematic, logical, empirical, reductive and replicable. Training and coaching methods increasingly draw on the disciplines of the physical sciences so our athletes can run faster, jump higher and become stronger, – citius, altius, fortius.

But as many sports now find, this “no stone left unturned” approach to high performance sport, ignores a critical group of less visible stones: those discovered through the social sciences. Pervasive and unacceptable experiences of elite athletes, often girls and women, which have their foundations in embedded attitudes to gender-based assumptions and grossly unscientific understandings of human behaviour and the lived experience of athletes.

The empirical model of research lends itself to a research world prioritising measurement and observation. Social sciences challenge the appropriateness of such a systematic empirical view of the world for answering questions about society and social behaviour. For coaches – that means answering the why questions and understanding the reality experienced by elite athletes.

Too many coaches dismiss the challenge of understanding the athlete’s reality as the athlete’s own problem. If only they would “toughen up”, “pull their socks up”, “get with the programme” and so on. Sport science has become overwhelmed with the empirical side of science, sometimes not well supported by the data. We need to balance up current approaches with a commitment to understand the social sciences – specifically in the training and development of coaches.

So where does critical race theory fit into this discussion. First and to be clear, it is one amongst many theories of qualitative inquiry that seek to explain social behaviour from different perspectives. Such research theories occupy the world of post-graduate research. Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s over concerns about the pace of racial reform in the United States. It asks questions about whose story is legitimate. Who has the power to shape the public perception about the logic and worth of the event? It was a development from what was known as critical legal studies. It goes without saying the moral panic over critical race theory occupies the minds of people late to the world of research. Too late ..... that ship has sailed. For those still panic-stricken, I refer you to social constructionism, critical realism post-structuralism, post-modernism and critical ethnography to keep you up at night and hunting through school libraries.

But what has any of this to do with coaching? Racism has a corrosive affect on society general and sport in particular. Given the significant contribution to elite sport of Māori, Pasifika and increasingly, Indian and the wider Asian populations, all coaches need to think about how their own behaviours might feed into racial stereotypes. Racism is often pass off racism on the field as “it’s part of the game” (no it isn’t), yet its impact is rarely studied further in coach education.

Critical theories of research mostly centre around gender, class and race. If we believe that society and sport will be better for maximising opportunities for and the sporting talents of girls and women, Māori, ethnic communities and poorer communities – then coaches and coach educators need to understand what the research tells us. It’s no different to research on the training of aerobic systems, speed, strength and skill. Critical theories help us to understand the voices of participants that don’t normally rise to the top. If we listen and learn, we will all do better.

Is this easy work? Absolutely not because it draws on the lived experiences of those affected by issues of gender, class and race.

In 1983, critical theorist William Morgan suggested that “sport is essentially an instrument of the social order whose central function is to further the economic and political interests of the various nation states”. Morgan wrote this at a time when researchers were seeking explanations for sport’s complexities as professional sport was emerging as a significant economic force. This was also at a time when western liberal democracies were trying to understand Socialist sport manifestos of the late 1920s. In 1984, American author John Hoberman reminded us of the Marxist view that “Only sport seems to move the masses in really massive ways” In his classic study of workers’ sport in 1929, German sports official and politician, Fritz Wildung asked “What is it that can carry away these ordinary people, that can whip up their passions to such a pitch? It is sport!” And we thought all these ideas were part of what made modern sport different in liberal democracies!

Investigations into abuse of women and girls in elite sport programmes, of young athletes in swimming and gymnastics, the financial exploitation of young male athletes from poor backgrounds and athlete doping programmes head a litany of entirely avoidable excesses attributable to poorly trained and ill-supervised adult leadership. The Guardian’s Gabi Hinsliff recently drew attention to “a recent survey by the World Players Association which found 13% of elite athletes across all disciplines experienced some form of sexual abuse as children in sport, while half reported emotional abuse.”

It is only recently that health professionals started to pay attention to patient stories and modify professional practice. Now it's time for coaching directors and coach educators to start listening to the critical theorist researchers as they enable athletes to tell their stories from which we might learn to improve the sport experience for all.

(Image source: The Brown Liquor Report – Critical Race Theory podcast)

For more information on critical race theory check out the research of Richard Delgado in the 1990s and more recently, Kevin Hylton.

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