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“Are you serious?”: Sports Criminology: A critical criminology of sport and games: A Review

Nic Groombridge: Sports Criminology: A critical criminology of sport and games. Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 2016, ix + 193 pp, ISBN: 978-1447323167

In August 2007, a Russian expedition descended in two submersible vessels (known as Mir-1 and Mir-2) more than two and a half miles beneath the North Pole and deposited a one meter-high titanium Russian flag on the seabed of the Lomonosov Ridge, staking a symbolic claim to billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves. Under international law, nation-states with territory inside the Arctic Circle—Canada, Denmark (via its control of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States—have a 200 nautical mile economic zone around the north of their coastlines. Russia claimed an extended continental shelf, arguing that the eastern section of seabed passing close to the North Pole—the area known as the Lomonosov Ridge—is in fact an extension of Russia’s landmass. Despite ridicule and skepticism from other Artic nations, as well as assertions that it amounted to a colonial land grab, the geopolitical move by Russia called attention to the melting of Artic ice due to climate change, which is expected to make the region more navigable—and its valuable resources more accessible (Chivers 2007; Demos 2016; Parfitt 2007; Reuters 2007).

In many respects, Nic Groombridge’s Sports Criminology: A critical criminology of sport and games is a stake-in-the-seabed kind of book. While it does not make new discoveries—Groombridge himself acknowledges that criminological engagement with sport(s) existed avant la letter (p. 111)—the book does serve to highlight historical, ongoing and emerging issues of “sport(s)” and “crime,” which Groombridge circumscribes with the moniker “sports criminology.”

Like the other books in the Policy Press’s New Horizons in Criminology book series, Groombridge’s Sports Criminology contains eight chapters. Chapter One, “Introduction: just men fighting?,” is divided into five sections: “Sport”; “Criminology”; “Sports law”; “Sociology of sport”; and “Sports criminology.” One might expect these sections to offer definitions or describe the parameters of an area of study. Despite Groombridge’s claim to consider “what sport is” (p. 1), readers may feel unfulfilled, as Groombridge tiptoes around and through the categories and concepts, rather than identify core features. Even in the section “Sports criminology,” Groombridge shies away from offering a definition, making the rather odd admission that “[o]ne of the difficulties in defining a sports criminology might be the absence of the term in standard criminology texts” (p. 14) after having “laid claim to the term ‘sports criminology’” in his preface (p. viii). Whether Groombridge comes across in this chapter as a father wanting acknowledgment of paternity without the responsibilities of child-rearing depends on the reader: those new to criminology or with only a passing interest in sports may feel frustrated; more seasoned criminologists or sports fans may treat these undefined concepts and unanswered questions as food for thought or fodder for argument.

Chapter Two, “A criminological history of sport,” offers a survey of sports affected by issues of crime, criminal justice and social control. Groombridge leapfrogs—or wakeboards, to return to the nautical analogy above—from field/blood sports (e.g., cockfighting, fox hunting) to horse racing to boxing to football (soccer) to cricket, baseball and sumo. The pace is dizzying and as one pauses to consider such nuggets as the relationship of sports to Weberian rationality or the question of whether participation on competitive sports teams builds model citizens or fosters selfishness and anti-social behavior, Groombridge has moved on to the next sport.

“Sports stars are often held up as role models, and, role models or not, are celebrities, which makes their crimes and victimisations more newsworthy” (p. 16), Groombridge maintains. The majority of scandals, Groombridge observes, involve men, and he begins Chapter Three, “Celebrity and corruption: case studies of sports scandals,” with the case of O.J. Simpson and the accusations of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant. Groombridge does not unpack the gendered dynamics of sports scandals or develop “the now established template of sports/celebrity rape accusations” (p. 38). There is no mention, then, of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic springer convicted of killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in February 2013, or the questions about racial fears and violence against women that transfixed South Africa’s post-apartheid society following Pistorius’s arrest and during his 2014 trial (Cowell 2017; see also Biber 2018). Instead, Groombridge focuses on scandals on the field, ice, pitch, etc., many of which are accorded the suffix “gate”—“Badmintongate,” “Bountygate,” “Bloodgate,” “Crashgate,” “Eargate” and “Skategate.” The chapter ends with two catchall sections: “More sports scandals” and “Other sports, other scandals.” While we learn that no sport has been free from scandal—although some continue to “profess[] a certain moral sanctimony” (Wigmore 2018)—and that sporting authorities vary in their approaches to violations of policy and law, Groombridge’s parting thought is far more provocative: “[s]port may be part of an ideological state apparatus, but is often nakedly repressive” (p. 52). The author says no more, but if one thinks back to the previous chapter’s notes on the importance of sports to the Victorians—and the Puritans aversion to it—one can start to develop a sense of the varying purposes of sports in different societies over time and perhaps an understanding of the latest chapter in the Russian state’s involvement in Olympic doping and sports fraud (see, e.g., Longman 2017; Ruiz 2017).

Chapter Four, “Game of two halves: mainstream criminological theory and sport,” is the first of two chapters devoted to the relationship of criminological theory to sports—with Chapter Four examining mainstream theories of crime and Chapter Five, “The second half: critical criminological theory and sport,” devoted to more radical accounts. In Chapter Four—one that mirrors the speed of Chapter Two—Groombridge demonstrates his quickness and agility, darting from Gothic Criminology to Classicism to Administrative Criminology to Positivism (including Biological Positivism, Psychological Positivism and Sociological Positivism) to the Chicago School to Differential Association to Subculture to Neutralisation to Control theories to Right Realism and Labelling. The order is bewildering and the discussion uneven. Some criminological theories (e.g., Differential Association, Neutralisation) are used to explain phenomena, such as cyclists and doping. Other connections are metaphorical, such as how “[t]he celerity that Beccaria demanded for punishment can be seen in the speed with which most decisions are made [by judges, referees, umpires] in sport” (p. 57) or how the line of scrimmage in American football can be likened to “a capable guardian of the quarterback victim that the outside linebacker or defensive end aims to ‘sack’” (p. 58). Groombridge might have organized his chapter chronologically or genealogically, beginning each section with an explanation of the theory, followed by its relevance to sports, in general, or to a particular sports phenomenon or scandal. Instead, Groombridge plays the role of scorekeeper, noting, for example, Thrasher’s (1927) twenty mentions of the word “sport” in The Gang or Hirschi’s (1969) sole inclusion of the word in Causes of Delinquency. The effect is to create an “argument from silence” in support of the entire sports criminology endeavor, rather than a case for how criminological theory might explain crime, deviance and rule-breaking by athletes, fans and others on and off the pitch.

Chapter Five, “The second half: critical criminological theory and sport,” follows the same pattern of the previous chapter, noting instances where key scholars of certain theoretical camps (e.g., New Criminology/Radical Criminology, Marxism, Left Realism) mention sports in previous writing, rather than applying the explanatory power of those theoretical orientations to sports crime phenomena. This task is left to the reader and, as in Chapter Four, Groombridge assumes a fair degree of familiarity with criminological theory. Thus, much of Chapter Five functions as an extended literature review of “who mentions what.” While his section, “Left realist theories,” is a little anemic, his discussion of masculinities and green criminology (the study of environmental crimes and harms) is far more robust, owing perhaps to Groombridge’s (1998) early contributions to both. Despite Groombridge’s claim, readers may not gain an understanding of “why athletes commit crime” (p. 95), but they may find it fascinating to learn that China once banned golf as “bourgeois” and that the game is now the focus of environmental concerns.

Whereas Chapters Four and Five explore the relationship of criminology to sports, Chapter Six, “Red card: sport, justice and social control,” examines what Groombridge calls “sport criminal justice” (p. 16) or “the operation of the criminal justice systems of sport” (p. 107). Here, Groombridge’s concern is not with why athletes might commit crime, but with the policing and justice systems of various sports organizations and entities—how sports associations and governing bodies seek to prevent or deter, detect and punish criminality and on- and off-field infractions. In the first half of the chapter, Groombridge looks at the justice systems of sport through the eight lenses offered by Kraska and Brent (2011) in their reader: Criminal Justice as Rational/Legalism; Criminal Justice as a System; Criminal Justice as Crime Control vs. Due Process; Criminal Justice as Politics; Criminal Justice as Socially Constructed Reality; Criminal Justice as Growth Complex; Criminal Justice as Oppression; and Criminal Justice as Late Modernity. From here, Groombridge considers the operation of the criminal justice systems of sport in two contexts—the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and corruption (between which there is considerable overlap).

Groombridge’s discussion of PEDs is somewhat abstruse. After devoting more than six pages to the topic, Groombridge steps back to ask why the use of PEDs differs from “other forms of assistance that are not seen to be ‘cheating’, from natural biological differences through high altitude training to the sort of technological and psychological advances made by UK’s Olympic cycling team” (p. 113). Groombridge indicates that the focus must be on drugs because they represent a shared (but not identical) concern of sports law, sociology and criminology. As he contends, “[t]o make a crude distinction, sports law and sports sociology usually deal with legal, allegedly performance-enhancing, drugs (doping), whereas criminology deals with illegal often performance-impeding drugs (that is, dope)” (p. 113). While the turn of phrase here is appealing, the separation does not convince. Most sports have witnessed (or been plagued by) players’ use of both legal drugs (that are forbidden by their sport’s sanctioning bodies) and illegal drugs (that are prohibited by both the sport and the state)—for both competitive advantage and recreational use. Not all drugs that are legal, but still prohibited by a sport governing body, enhance performance; not all drugs that are illegal and necessarily prohibited by a sport governing body impede performance—indeed, in the case of certain amphetamines, they may do the opposite. Wrapped up in all of this is the concept of “deviance”—shared by law, sociology and criminology—wherein one can inter alia conform to the social norm of a group and disobey the law (e.g., snorting cocaine with one’s teammates if they are all partaking; committing violence as member of a gang); defy a social norm and obey the law (e.g., eschewing drug use or an act of violence as part of a team or gang if violating the law is condoned or encouraged by the team or gang); or reject a legal but harmful social norm to bring about broader positive social change (e.g., a black person refusing to give her seat on a bus to a white person, as in the case of Rosa Parks; an environmentalist declining to eat meat or drive a car or have children for ecological reasons). Despite having devoted some attention to PEDs, Groombridge now seems willing to cede the subject to sports law and sports sociology in order to secure recreational drugs for the domain of sports criminology—a curious concession (if it is one that he is making—it is not clear) that reflects neither the reality of drugs, which pockmark the legal-illegal and conventional-deviant spectrums, nor the capaciousness of criminological enterprise, which has been touted as a “rendezvous” discipline or subject (see South et al. 2013: 28).

Rather than fault Groombridge for the ambiguity of his surveying or cartography in this chapter (or the book as a whole), we should relish two particularly insightful observations of Chapter Five. First, midway through the chapter, Groombridge notes how the actor, Ben Foster, when cast in the film The Program (2015), underwent a rigorous training regime and took PEDs in order to better perform the role of Lance Armstrong, the champion cyclist found to have engaged in long-term doping. Groombridge explains that while Foster’s PED use may not have been healthy, it was not illegal. More significantly, while Armstrong experienced ignominy and disgrace—and the results of his races, including his record seven Tour de France victories, were voided—Foster received praise for his commitment to his art. This provokes a fascinating question: Why, for example, do we consider it “cheating” if a professional football player takes legally prescribed Adderall to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [which is banned by the National Football League (see Bradley 2013)], but not a college student who ingests the same drug prior to a course examination? In both instances, performance may be enhanced. Why, then, is the enhancement of physical activity treated differently than that of mental acuity? Groombridge does not say, but in Chapter Eight, he does ask whether it would have been considered “cheating” if he had used Modafinil (a wakefulness-promoting drug used to treat narcolepsy, sleep apnea and shift work sleep disorder) to write his book. Groombridge dodges his own question, but does indicate that he did not use this drug due to “lack of opportunity and distrust of proffered sources on the internet” (p. 152).

Second, in the concluding section to the chapter, entitled “‘Extra-territoriality’ versus globalisation,” Groombridge states that “[e]ach sport seeks to act like a nation state even while nation states face further pressures from the neoliberal demands of capital, the feudal demands of terrorism and the apolitical, but politicised, threat of global environmental issues” (p. 119). Groombridge seems to be suggesting that sports associations/organizations have grown in influence, power and status to the level of nation states (perhaps as a result of international neoliberal capitalism)—and often seek to resolve athlete wrongdoing internally or independently from the geopolitical entity in which they reside—at the same time that nation states have become less insular, their borders more porous, and the world more interconnected. While ostensibly a statement about sports and crime—or the administration of justice within sports—the more salient lesson to be learned is that regarding the importance of global engagement and the undesirability of isolationism.

In Chapter Seven, “Retraining: crime prevention and desistance through sport,” Groombridge considers the role of sports in preventing crime—an issue first raised in Chapter Two. Groombridge begins with boxing, noting that for every fighter who claims that without the sport, he would have gone to prison, there is the boxer that did—some before, some after—leaving Groombridge to observe, “[p]overty and troubled early life are often mentioned as influencing factors, as are fast living and substance abuse on achieving success” (p. 123). Whether boxing allows individuals to channel their aggression and energy in legal ways (in the gym, rather than on the street) or whether it fosters or catalyzes a propensity for violence that the boxer then has difficulty harnessing outside the ring is debatable, and Groombridge notes literature in support of a range of positions, before leaving us with the unresolved question of “whether crime prevention projects that use sport work more on masculinity and not so much on criminality” (p. 131). From here, Groombridge offers three short sections—“Motor sports,” “Crime prevention through sport in general,” and “Football”—followed by three sections that pose questions—“What works?,” “One sport better than another?,” and “Does sport work for women?” Those looking for straightforward answers may feel deflated, but Groombridge’s goal is to disabuse readers of the simple assumption that “sport ‘works’” (p. 146) and to leave us with the tools to consider further whether, how and the extent to which sports might prevent crime, aid to rehabilitation, or encourage desistance, by differentiating, for example, between team and individual and contact and non-contact sports.

In Chapter Eight, “Conclusion: no such thing as crime, no such thing as sport,” Groombridge offers a summary of his book and some ideas for ways forward. In some respects, the conclusion—or, at least, the first part of it—is more aspirational than accurate. To be fair, Sports Criminology has drawn parallels “between sport and crime” and “discussed the links with masculinity, the idea that sport is a cause of, or cure for, crime and the overlaps where crime occurs in or near sport, or have nothing to do with sport but simply feature sportspeople as victims, offenders, witnesses or even bystanders” (p. 147). But Groombridge’s assertion that he has “practice[d] reflexive critical sports criminology, a criminology that questions the basis of its own production, constantly asking what sport is and what criminology is” (p. 156) is less persuasive. Groombridge does offer a brief history of sports, crime and the law; he does explore a number of cases of violence and “cheating,” often reported by the media as “scandals” and to which the suffix, “gate,” has been attached and attributed; he does contemplate what various criminological theories might say about crime and sport, and note instances of criminological use of sport as a metaphor; and he does examine performance-enhancing drugs, corruption, issues of sports “extraterritoriality,” and “cures” for, or ameliorations of, crime through sport. But the introspective analysis of what constitutes “sports” or “a sport” (as opposed to “games” or “a game”—and the title of the book suggests that a distinction exists in Groombridge’s mind), what criminology is (or what its ambit is or could or should be), and what “sports criminology” is—as distinguished from a critical “sports criminology”—and in contrast to or overlapping with “sports law” and “sports sociology”—are all issues largely missing from the book.

Numbers are important in criminology (see, e.g., Garland 2012; Lynch et al. 2017; for a broader discussion of metrics in neoliberal higher education, see Marzec and Carruth 2014: 285–286). They are also important in sports—especially in Major League Baseball (MLB) (see generally Araton 2013), as evidenced, for example, by the fury surrounding the revelation that some of the sport’s most hallowed records or accomplishments (e.g., most homeruns in a season; most lifetime homeruns; membership in the “300 win club,” “500 home run club,” and “3000 hit club”) were broken or achieved by players later suspected of or found to be using PEDs. (The scandal surrounding the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative’s (BALCO) involvement in the supply of a steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG)—nicknamed “The Clear,” for being undetectable at the time—receives passing mention in Groombridge’s book; former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell’s (D-ME) twenty-month investigation into the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) in MLB, which resulted in the Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball, does not appear in the book, nor do the athletes named in the “Mitchell Report,” as it has come to be known.)

Groombridge’s book is not mired in a sea of statistics. And a tome on sports criminology need not be. But given that Groombridge questions the prospects of his own endeavor—in the section, “Ways forward for sports criminology” in Chapter Eight, he laments the anticipated future direction of sports criminology [“[it] will likely come to be about football hooliganism” (p. 155)]—it would seem appropriate to suggest a more promising outlook for sports criminology with a number. With apologies to Garland (2012: 418) and his fondness for the number ten (10), three (3) is a good number. It was worn by the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth and the great footballer Roberto Carlos and can, for present purposes, serve as the number of suggestions for future directions in the study of sports and crime.

Sport(s) and/as Environmental Crimes

Many sports or so-called “sports” are directly or indirectly harmful to the environment and nonhuman animals. While some, such as certain kinds of animal baiting, have been outlawed in many countries [for a discussion, see, e.g., Lawson (2017), Nurse (2013) and Squires (2017)], other activities often referred to as “sports” (or a “sport”) continue to enjoy legal status, despite their huge (negative) environmental impacts. For example, golf courses, noted above and mentioned only briefly in Groombridge’s book, “pervert the natural habitat”—replacing “real forest[s]” with “imitation” ones—and divert water resources, which can result in water scarcity (Adler 2007). To offer another example, an average of twenty-four (24) horses die each week at racetracks across the United States (Bogdanich et al. 2012; see also Ferguson 2014; Mullan and Boren 2016). Although some safety measures have been enacted, both horses and riders remain at risk (see, e.g., Walker 2016; see generally Blackburn 2017; Gustafson 2014; Sabin 2017). According to Bogdanich and his co-authors (2012: A1), “the new economics of racing are making an always-dangerous game even more so. Faced with a steep loss of customers, racetracks have increasingly added casino gambling to their operations, resulting in higher purses but also providing an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.” Rather perversely, then, horseracing’s declining popularity (for a discussion, see Barker 2016; Kruse 2016: 3) might be contributing to increased harm to thoroughbreds and their mounts—what Young (2017: 279), borrowing from Elias and Dunning (1986), might consider as evidence of de-civilization.

In a different vein, Dosumu and colleagues (2014) demonstrate that sports generate a tremendous amount of waste and pollution, albeit in different proportions depending on the sporting event. As they explain,

[w]hen considering materials used by spectators and participants engaging in sport, it is evident that resources from water, energy and other consumables are required. Inevitably, sport leads to the generation of waste and pollution, which releases emissions of greenhouse gases. There is now a growing recognition that waste is one of the major environmental problems associated with mega sporting events such as the World Cup, the Olympic Games, and Football Association (FA) Cup final. [2014: 643 (internal footnotes omitted)]

Examining waste management practices in order estimate landfill waste greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from eight football (soccer) tiers in England, Dosumu and colleagues find that “football spectators generated large quantities of waste over a season” (2014: 648), but suggest that “[s]ports organizers in general and football clubs in particular should be at the forefront of better waste management with the result that GHG emissions are reduced. Since the worldwide popularity of football continues to grow, the industry can contribute positively to the environment by being responsible for the environmental management of all aspects of the game” [2014: 649 (footnote omitted)].

Soccer is not nearly as popular in the United States as it is in England, but American football is just as wasteful, if not more so (see generally Breech 2014; Farberov 2014; Messenger 2010). Nevertheless, there have been modest efforts by football teams in the United States to address environmental sustainability. For example, the GameDay Recycling Challenge (GDRC) is a nationwide competition among universities to increase recycling and composting efforts during home football games (http://recyclemania.org/participate/gameday-recycling-challenge/; see also Szczepanski 2018; cf. Platt 2011).

Essentially, some sport(s) and games are inherently harmful to the environment and to nonhuman animals. Groombridge admits that “all car use, not just that for ‘sporting’ purposes, might be seen from a green perspective to constitute a harm that might be criminalised” (p. 94). Golf courses will continue to require enormous amounts of water, while disrupting fragile ecosystems with their use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides (see Adler 2007; Funt 2018). Until equines can verbalize their consent to ingest drugs to mask pain from a preexisting injury and enhance performance in order to run in circles with pint-sized humans on their backs, horseracing will remain barbaric (see Young 2017). [And hunting will be neither a “game” nor a “sport” so long as the activity involves the survival of only one of the participants (see Squires 2017).] A sports criminology attuned to the issues of green criminology might investigate the environmental impacts of various sport(s) and games, while bearing in mind the potential for some sports to improve their environmental management practices, in addition to the possibility for some sports figures to influence positive change [as might be the case with professional racecar driver Leilani Münter, who uses her car to promote messages about renewable energy in front of millions of fans (http://www.leilani.green/)].

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Violence and Biological Explanations of Criminality

In 2005, Omalu and colleagues (2005) published the first report of CTE in a retired American professional football player. The results of the autopsy of the retired player revealed neuropathological changes consistent with long-term repetitive concussive brain injury. Omalu and colleagues’ observation has led to additional (postmortem) studies and concerns regarding the link between “mild traumatic brain injury” (“MTBI”)—otherwise known as “concussion”—in contact sports, in general, and football, in particular, and degenerative brain disease (see, e.g., Rabinovici 2017). While CTE can, at present, be diagnosed only at autopsy (Belson 2018f; Kounang 2017; Larrabee 2018; Omalu et al. 2005; Rabinovici 2017), retrospective clinical evaluations (conducted by researchers with family members of the deceased) and prospective assessments of at-risk patients (those exposed to repetitive head trauma from contact sports, as well as military service or domestic violence) have revealed behavioral, mood and cognitive symptoms, including depression, impulsivity, explosive and sometimes violent behavior, and suicidality (Mez et al. 2017; Omalu et al. 2005; Rabinovici 2017; see also Wilson 2017b).

While research on and fears about the relationship between CTE and prior participation in football continues (see, e.g., Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru 2013; Furness 2016; Grano 2014; Kercheval 2018; Miller 2014; Mulvin 2014; Samaha 2018; Wilson 2017b; see generally Breech 2018b), such attention and concerns have sparked stark reactions. For example, Larry Fedora, the head football coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who has questioned the link between football and brain trauma, has asserted that football is “under attack” and that efforts to make the game more safe would render it unrecognizable, leading to a decline in American values and prosperity and the downfall of the country (Patterson 2018; Timms 2018; Wise 2018). Meanwhile, Dr. James Andrews, the famous orthopedic surgeon who has performed numerous elbow, knee and shoulder surgeries on many high-profile athletes, has speculated that football would be outlawed if it were invented today. “‘It’s a collision sport’” Andrews has said, “‘If we started a new sport today and we wrote up the rules and regulations and we called it football, they probably wouldn’t allow it’” (quoted in SI Wire 2016). Rugg (2016: 27) summarizes the situation nicely:

The discovery in the past decade of… C.T.E. in many former NFL players places the game’s long-term future in doubt…. As the link between football and C.T.E. eventually proved incontrovertible, the league [the N.F.L.] began to institute a bevy of controversial rules to mitigate the most violent and visible hits to the head in the game. In doing so, it has incurred the wrath of players, commentators, and fans that see the game as losing its compelling violent edge. As these rule changes increasingly undermines the relationship between masculinity, violence, and football that has long centered the game within cultural discourses of masculinity (Messner 1990).

To this brew of “masculinity, violence, and football,” we might also add the dynamic of race, for as Samaha (2018) notes, “Football reflects this country’s [the United States’] racial caste system: mostly black players sacrificing their bodies for the entertainment of a mostly white audience.” Groombridge makes only passing reference to concussions (on p. 151 in the context of boxing)—and says nothing about either CTE or the racial composition of American football teams—but a sports criminology attuned to masculinity, race, sports, (the risk of) brain injury and violence might contemplate: (a) broadly, the extent to which sports operate as a “social barometer of ‘civility’” and the degree to which “the level of tolerated violence in a sporting pursuit adjusts over time to match the level of violence tolerated by the broader community” (Young 2017: 278, 280 [citing Morrow 2009)]; and (b) more specifically, the implications of the findings that CTE can promote changes in the brain that bring about many of the characteristics identified by some criminologists as criminogenic (on the link between crime and biological factors of nongenetic origin, see, e.g., Berryessa and Raine 2017; Ling and Raine 2017; Peskin et al. 2013; Posick and McBride 2017).

Of these two avenues, the latter is particularly provocative for those interested in the etiology of criminal behavior. For example, after Aaron Hernandez—the former star tight end with the New England Patriots, who was convinced of first-degree murder in 2015—hanged himself in prison (in April 2017), he was found to have suffered the most severe case of CTE (Stage 3) ever discovered in a person his age (27) (Belson 2017; Gonzalez 2017; Kilgore 2017; Koungang 2017; Marcin 2018). Because CTE is “often marked by problems with controlling aggression and impulses, and some degree of dementia, as well as mood swings, lapses in judgment and disorganized manner” (Belson 2017), the results of the study of Hernandez’s brain has raised questions as to whether the violent behavior that led to his imprisonment could be blamed on CTE (see Cullum 2017; see also Belson 2017; Marcin 2018). Researchers, however, have been careful not to draw a direct link between Hernandez’s brain disease and violence, with Dr. Ann McKee, Chief Neuropathologist at the National VA ALS Brain Bank and Director of the CTE Center at Boston University, who examined Hernandez’s brain, asserting “‘We can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior, but we can say collectively that individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behavior’” (quoted in Gonzalez 2017; Kilgore 2017). Similarly, Dr. Munro Cullum, the Pam Blumenthal Distinguished Professor in Clinical Psychology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, has contended that “we cannot infer that microscopic findings in a brain at autopsy prompted someone to commit a specific act such as murder several years earlier” (Cullum 2017).

Both McKee and Cullum seem to suggest exercising caution regarding the relationship between pathological findings and behavioral changes in those with CTE so as not to draw premature conclusions in the absence of rigorous research and scientific evidence. While Henne, a critical criminologist, in an interview with Shore (2018), shares McKee and Cullum’s reluctance to draw causal connections between CTE and criminality, her reservations about biological explanations for criminal behavior stems not from concerns over insufficient data or unsupported science. Rather, Henne asserts that attempts to uncover biological explanations for criminal activity “‘direct attention away from interlocking systems of inequality and structural violence’” (in Shore 2018: 23). As Henne maintains, “‘there’s little discussion about the multiple forms of violence that Hernandez experienced [growing up in a tough neighborhood] and how they evidence larger criminological concerns’” (in Shore 2018: 23–24). A sports criminology oriented towards the association between contact sports, brain injury and violence could contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the pitfalls of privileging individualized explanations of criminality over relevant social issues.

Sports and Protest

On February 4, 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots by a score of 41–33 to win Super Bowl LII. 67,612 people attended the football game, which was played in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The game, which saw the Eagles earn their first Super Bowl trophy, brought in an average viewership of 103.4 million for NBC, making it the tenth-most watched program in U.S. television history (Pallotta 2018). While many reports focused on how this figure represented a 7% drop from the 2017 Super Bowl (see, e.g., CBS/AP 2018; Otterson 2018), the fact remains that an impressive number of people watched this particular game. Even more people—3.6 billion, by some estimates—watched at least one minute of the Rio Summer Games in 2016 (Roxborough 2016), although news reports also seemed to fixate on the downtick in viewership.

Whether fewer people are watching sports—and, if so, why—is subject to some debate (see, e.g., Armour 2018; Belson and Davis 2017; Branch 2018a, b; Futterman and Mather 2018; Hill 2018a; Lawrence 2017; Oates 2016). Regardless, professional sporting events—from the daily to the weekly to the annual to the quadrennial—attract large numbers of spectators and even more television viewers. It should come as no surprise, then, that athletes might seize various moments at sporting events to publicize particular political messages or to engage in some form of protest (see, e.g., ABC 2018; Belson 2018e; Futterman and Mather 2018; Intravia et al. 2018; Montague 2018; Smith et al. 2018; Underhill 2017; cf. Reuters 2018). It should also be of little revelation that when athletes interject politics into sporting events—which are supposed to offer singular moments of confined suspense (see generally Branch 2018a) and thus breaks from the vicissitudes of daily life (see Benjamin 2018e; Okwonga 2018a, b, c; Philip 2018; Senkul 2018)—controversy and debate follow.

For example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos—the U.S. Olympians who won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City—raised black-gloved fists during the medal ceremony. Both took off their shoes as they walked to the podium in order to protest poverty; Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, while Carlos unzipped the top of his tracksuit, in defiance of Olympic etiquette, to display solidarity with blue-collar workers and wore a necklace of beads to commemorate those who had been lynched. When the national anthem played, they lowered their heads in defiance and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. Smith and Carlos were booed and ordered to leave the Olympic Stadium, and when they returned to the United States, they were suspended from the U.S. track team and received death threats (Brown 2017; see also Cauley 2018).

Despite the iconic photograph by John Dominis of Smith and Carlos’s raised fists during the anthem—and the subsequent ostracism by the U.S. sporting establishment—the salute does not make it into Groombridge’s book. Neither does former National Basketball Association player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the national anthem on the grounds that the American flag is a symbol of oppression and that standing for the flag would conflict with his Muslim faith (Washington 2016).

More recently, National Football League players have refused to take the field for—or have taken a knee, remained seated, or raised a fist in the air during—the playing of the national anthem prior to games to protest systemic racism and police brutality (Belson 2018a, d, e; Belson and Davis 2017; Belson and Hoffman 2018; Benjamin 2017, 2018a, b, c, d, e; Branch 2018a, b; Breech 2018a, c, g, i, j; Boone 2018; Casey 2018; Editorial 2018; Futterman and Mather 2018; Hill 2018a; Intravia et al. 2018; Lawrence 2017; Leonhardt 2017; Maske 2018; Murphy 2017; Perry 2017; Prather 2018; Sullivan 2018; Wagner-McGough 2018b, c; Wilson 2017a, 2018a, b, c, d, f, h). Their actions, however, have been misinterpreted widely and seen by some as disrespecting the flag and a rebuke to the armed forces (see Belson 2018e; Belson and Davis 2017; Benjamin 2018c; Boone 2018; Branch 2018a, b; Breech 2018c, f; Brinson 2017; Editorial 2018; Futterman and Mather 2018; Hill 2018a; Lawrence 2017; Murphy 2017; Prather 2018; Wagner-McGough 2018b; Wilson 2017a, 2018a, d)—and thus an affront to the “sport/military complex” (also known as the “football-military complex” and “military-sports-entertainment complex” (Rugg 2016: 21, 22, 26; see generally Branch 2018b). Indeed, as Cauley (2018) points out, mischaracterizing the protests as “anthem protests”—rather than “what they are—‘protests against racist police violence’”—not only suggests that “protesting police violence is inconsistent with patriotism,” but is “a dishonest way to change the conversation from systemic issues that the protests have raised again and again.” While none of these athletes have committed a crime for their “free think[ing]” (Timms 2018) and their attempts to call attention to social inequalities, some have suffered repercussions for their actions and expressions (Belson 2018c, e; Belson and Hoffman 2018; Benjamin 2018a, b; Branch 2018a, b; Breech 2018a; Hill 2018a; Leonhardt 2018; Underhill 2017; Wilson 2018e, h; cf. Belson 2018a; Belson and Davis 2017; Breech 2018f; Brinson 2018b; Dubin 2018). President Donald J. Trump has excoriated such players, referring to them as “son[s] of… bitch[es],” encouraging owners to fire them, and questioning whether athletes who do not stand for the anthem “should[] be in the country” (Belson 2018b, d, e; Belson and Davis 2017; Belson and Hoffman 2018; Benjamin 2017, 2018d, e; Boone 2018; Branch 2018a, b; Breech 2017, 2018d, e, g, h, j; Brinson 2018a; Cauley 2018; Editorial 2018; Florio 2018; French 2018; Futterman and Mather 2018; Hill 2018a, b; Intravia et al. 2018; Leonhardt 2017, 2018; Maske 2018; Perry 2017; Prather 2018; Underhill 2017; Wagner-McGough 2018a, b; Wilson 2017a, 2018c, d, g, h).

As Intravia and colleagues (2018: 1066) remind us, “A unique and defining feature of American culture is the freedom to engage in civil protest. And while athletes have long engaged in public protests against the USA during the playing of the nation anthem, the visibility of such protests in one of the most watched sports in America has brought this issue to the fore of mainstream attention and public scrutiny.” Indeed, while protests against police violence and racial injustice during the national anthem did not become much of an issue until after the publication of Sports Criminology, the protests of Smith and Carlos, as well as Abdul-Rauf and many others, predate the book. Groombridge mentions none of these, but a future project of sports criminology might contemplate sports as an arena for resistance to social injustices and the logic behind why such expressions are often viewed so negatively. (Hint: It may have something to do with the fact that, as Timms (2018) puts it, “pro football today is run by profit-seeking vampires with little regard for anything beyond the business’s bottom line. The sport has become an exercise in pure commercial maximalism”). In other words, if part of the criminological endeavor is to contemplate and explore how crime, harm and injustice are perceived and understood (see Brisman 2014), then it would seem that a sports criminology might embrace the opportunity to investigate the platform offered for such expression by the sports stage—the court, the track, the field, the pitch. Even more fundamentally, such an examination might raise questions about epistemology and authority. As Haisley (2016) asks, why does anyone care what athletes have to say about politics?—or any other social issue, we might inquire? Indeed, why should we care what “cosseted and ill-informed young rich people” (Haisley 2016) think about police shootings or structural racism—or the shape of the Earth (Blackburn 2018; Boone 2017; Moore 2017; Pandian 2017; Rohrbach 2017; Skiver 2017; Wolfman-Arent 2017) or whether dinosaurs used to be pets for “Paul Bunyan-sized humans” (Ward-Henninger 2018)? Our interest in athletes’ opinions on matters other than sports may also stem from the fact that while sports may serve a diversionary purpose (see, e.g., Rugg 2016), we are also titillated by challenges to this diversion—in much the same way that we honk our horns incessantly while sitting in traffic only to contribute to the phenomenon when we slow down to stare at the gruesome accident and torqued vehicles that have caused the disruption in our commute. Haisley (2016) suggests that athletes’ “takes aren’t any more meaningful (even if they aren’t less so) than anyone else’s; they matter simply because they’re perceived to be more influential. The situation exists entirely as a matter of celebrity culture, a remnant halo effect that links entirely unrelated phenomena—an athlete’s level of fame and sporting prowess with their assumed political weightiness, say—and makes you grant them power in the political sphere that far outstrips their knowledge and engagement.” Or as Bruni (2018: SR3) summarizes, “[g]enius in one arena doesn’t necessarily guarantee competence in another.”

Whatever the reason for our “lazy deference to celebrities in these fame-made times” (Bruni 2018: SR3), the absence of any substantive discussion of sport(s) and protest in Groombridge’s book—whether on racial, religious or social justice grounds—raises the question of whether Sports Criminology is really a “critical criminology of sport and games”—one that might be an exploration of sport(s) as a site for minority oppression and injustice, as well as an opportunity for voicing or addressing economic, political and social inequalities. Towards the end of Sports Criminology, Groombridge proposes that his book has been an attempt at “a reflexive critical sport criminology, a criminology that questions the basis of its own production, constantly asking what sport is and what criminology is” (p. 156). The book actually does neither—nor does it come anywhere close to really interrogating sport(s) as a repressive state apparatus—a point alluded to above. A sports criminology attuned to the dynamics of sports and protest might not only unpack the underlying issues that athletes comment on or talk about, but the larger question of expertise in a narcissistic era in which “[f]eelings have been accorded as much currency as facts” (Bruni 2018: SR3)—where “You don’t need a diploma, just the right amount of anger and enough brain power to produce 140 characters, most of which can be grammatically unsound” (Gad 2013).

In sum, Groombridge’s Sports Criminology: A critical criminology of sport and games is a thought-provoking book, although one driven somewhat by suspense. The concluding pages offer little in the way of resolution. Indeed, rather than a resounding final buzzer, the last few pages—and the book as a whole—seem more like an opening bell or a starting pistol. Or, to switch metaphors, Groombidge has thrown out the first pitch. It is now up to us. Batter up.


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Correspondence to Avi Brisman.

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“Are you serious?”: Dick Vitale, American basketball sportscaster (see Akelson 2010).

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Brisman, A. “Are you serious?”: Sports Criminology: A critical criminology of sport and games: A Review. Crit Crim 27, 373–392 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-018-9424-9

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