Social Theory: Social Theory through the Case of Sports

SYA 4011, U01.  Fall 2016


Class Location: GC 279B Time: 12:30-1:45 PM, Tuesday and Thursday

Instructor:  Benjamin Smith   Email:

Office: SIPA 305 Office Phone: 348-2074

Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 11:00 AM -12:15 PM (or before or after class)

Teaching Homepage Which You Must Check Frequently:


I Absolutely Promise You Do Not Need to Know Anything about Sports, or Even Like Them to Learn, Enjoy and Succeed in this Course.


Full disclosure: I like sports.  I could babble on and on about sports, in particular fantasy sports, in ways that could bore this entire campus into a coma.  But I fully recognize that my interests are not everyone’s.   Sharing my interests is not a perquisite for success in this course – it wasn’t the last two semesters, it won’t be this semester.   That being said…


Sports are Pretty Darn Prominent…


Consider the following:

·       As an FIU student, you pay a $20 “Athletic Fee” every year whether you attend a sporting event or not.

·       Between the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, $500 million dollars was pledged for construction of a stadium in Little Havana for the Miami Marlins, which could end up costing as much as $2 billion once all the debt is serviced.  

·       Live sports channels (led by ESPN) makes up 20% of the average cable bill whether you watch them or not.


I could keep on going with the dollar figures, but you get the picture.   But of course, sports are more than that.  A significant percentage of all the news consumed and reported in this (and most every) country concerns sports.   For some, sports fandom gives their life meaning (or annoys the heck out of them); for others, it is participation that offers direction and hope.  Perhaps nothing invokes national or local pride among so many like sports. Sports are a major part of contemporary social and economic space. Which means…


Sports reflect, impact and are impacted by major social processes…


Thus, they can be analyzed with social theory.   Is there economic inequality in sports?  You bet.   What about race?  Of course.   Gender?  Sexuality?  Embodiment?  Globalization?  Migration?  Political Economy?  Big Data?  Discipline?   Nationalism?   Discourse and ideology?  Neoliberalism? Affirmative on all accounts.  Although the analysis of sports is not a prominent strain of research in Anthropology, Geography or Sociology – generally, there is a bias against researching anything considered enjoyable (like tourism, fashion, etc…) – such research is out there and it utilizes many of the same theories used by scholars studying other parts of sociocultural space.  For example, we will be utilizing many readings from the journals: Journal of Sport & Social Issues and Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics.



Every instructor who teaches SYA 4011 is tasked with picking a topic to act as a lens to make social theory come to life: to me, there was no other (potentially) interesting topic where such a wide range of social theory could be applied than sports.



The Goals of the Course


1.     Gain exposure to a range of major scholars in interdisciplinary social theory by reading their work.   In most of my courses, I tend to favor providing exposure to a wide range of topics over a narrow focus.   This will be the case here.  While we won’t cover the huge amount of ground that my 2000 and 3000 level courses do, this course will move to a different topic each week.   The idea is that everyone in the course should find some author/topic with whom they connect.


2.     Understand how theory is used to make sense of and analyze data.  While “big name theory” is fun on its own, what is critical is that you come to understand how theory can be used to make sense of the data that social scientists are able to gather.  Thus, along with “big name” theorists, we will be reading work by scholars and even some reporters who take those ideas and apply them to data sets and problems encountered in the world – in this case, data sets and issues related to sports.  


3.     Practice writing in a theoretically informed way.  In this course, you will have to write responses to the readings every week, in addition to producing a theoretically informed analysis paper of a topic related to sports as a semester project.  You will also have to present it.   In other words, it will be a light version of what you would experience in a graduate seminar.


Required Texts


Readings will be provided in links from the course Blackboard site. 



Important Dates


Tuesday, October 4 – Short Test One

Thursday, November 3 – Proposal Due

Tuesday, November 15 – Short Test Two

Tuesday, December 6, 12:00-2:00 PM – Scheduled Final Exam Period (likely nothing happens that day).




There will be 500 total points available in this class, broken down as follows:


Weekly Reponses:                                        100 points (11 weeks (plus one skip) x 10 points each – note: Golf/Research Proposal Week has no response due).

Weekly Questions:                                          15 points

Attendance and Participation:                       100 points

Mini-Exams:                                                 150 points (2 exams x 75 points each)

Proposal:                                                        15 points

Oral Presentation:                                            30 points

Written Presentation:                                      90 points




The grading scale is A = 100-93%, A- = 92.9-90%, B+ = 89.9-87%, B = 86.9-83%, B- =82.9%-80%, C+ = 79.9-77%, C = 76.9-70%,  D = 69.9-60%, F = 59-0%, which translates to, in points:


A :  500 thru 465 points

A-: 464 thru 450 points

B+: 449 thru 435 points

B:   434 thru 415 points

B-:  414 thru 400 points

C+: 399 thru 385 points

C: 384 thru 350 points

D: 349 thru 300 points

F:   299 thru 0 points            



Mini Exams


Primarily, this is a discussion and writing driven course, much like a graduate seminar.   However, this is still an undergraduate class and graduate seminars are not for everyone.    Therefore, to help provide a cushion of points not related to writing and help encourage precision regarding terms and knowledge gained, there will be two short exams.    Each mini exam will have around 10-15 multiple choice questions and a long list of short essay questions, of which you choose 3-6.



Weekly Questions and Thought Pieces


Starting in Week 2, by 9 PM Wednesday, you will need to login and click on the link for this course.    Find the current week. 


In the “Discussion” forum, you need to put a single post in the proper forum that includes two things:

1.     A 450-700 word “thought piece” which touches on ALL the assigned readings for the week, including readings assigned for Tuesday and/or Thursday (more on this below).

2.     One question for discussion in class.  These questions can be points you were unclear on, or perhaps something you think would get a cracking good discussion going. 


To make this post, hit the “Create Thread” button.   In the “Subject” box, please type your name.   In the message box, please copy both your thought piece and questions.  You can type directly into the box, but I would suggest using another program like Word to type your response and questions first, and then simply copy the text into the message box.


A couple of DO NOTs

1.      DO NOT make your initial post as a reply to someone else’s post.  Hit the “Add a new discussion topic” button to make your first post.   However, you are of course free to reply to each other’s posts if you want (although it is not required).

2.     DO NOT include your thought piece and questions as an attachment.   It just takes everyone more time to look at yours if you do that.


Once 9 PM has passed, you should take time to read over each others’ posts, so we are ready to discuss.


This writing and sharing is probably the single most beneficial part of the class – it allows you to collect your own thoughts and learn from the thoughts of your fellow students.



More on Weekly Thought Pieces


To make sure you have thoughts to share each week, each of you are to write a single 450-700 word commentary each week, focusing on all the assigned readings.   A commentary should give a brief informal abstract(ie summary) of EACH AND EVERY ONE of the readings assigned for the week (a few sentences on what it is about, what the author argued, what it speaks to, etc.).  In the summary, tell what the topic is, what the main theoretical lens is, what evidence the author used to make their point, and what is the main point the author wanted the reader to come away with.


The Weekly Thought Piece must also contain some original thoughts, analysis and/or criticisms on whatever you found striking in the readings: maybe how they connected together (or disagreed), or maybe a way a particular theory or method was used, or maybe a novel interpretation, etc.  Maybe they shed light on something in the world and gave you a new way of thinking about things.  These thoughts don’t have to be incredibly refined – they do have to be there.  


Again, to repeat, I only want one commentary from you each week.  The exact format is up to you and whatever works best for you is fine (e.g. one long flowing essay, more distinct sections for each reading, following by a paragraph that makes connections and analysis, etc). However, that one commentary must address all the readings, while also showing some original thoughts.  


I expect them to be ready 9 PM Wednesday.   I am not expecting you to turn out a flawless piece of analysis, but I do expect you try your best to be grammatically correct, in complete sentences, analytically bold and to not just babble on with no structure. Continually sub-par work will be rewarded as such – and apparent to all your hard-working peers.


Each week is worth 10 points.   As long as there is sincere effort, you should expect all or nearly all of these points.   Lateness, bad writing, bad effort, or failure to respond to feedback from the professor will result in lost points.


Additionally, once (and only once) during the semester, you are allowed to pass on a week’s readings.   To use your pass, you still have to make a new post in the forum, but just write “Pass” in the message box


Critical Essay, Proposal and Presentation

Although more details will follow, for now it is important to know that the assignment will be a 2000-3000 word critical analysis essay on some topic related to sports (defined very broadly) that will also be presented to the group at the end of the seminar.[1]  


To make sure you are on the right track, you must do a proposal.   In that proposal you must write a one paragraph abstract including: what theory you plan to use, what real world example/case you are analyzing, and what your evidence/source material is.   You also have to provide three properly formatted citations: two from authors read as part of class; the other which you have found on your own.   The journals Journal of Sports and Social Issues and Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics will be the best places to search.


Also, so everyone in the course knows what you are thinking, you will be presenting a short version of the essay in class.  This will be done during the last few sessions of the course. 



Teaching Website, On-Line Articles, and Updates


At the top of this document, you will find the address for my teaching homepage, which is .  There will be a copy of the syllabus there, as well as the course schedule and instructions regarding the projects.  In addition, I will post any announcements (such as the unlikely event of a class cancelation), on this page as well.  Thus, if you have a question about the structure of the class (due dates, test structure, etc.), check the website, because the answer will probably be there. 


Remember, readings will be posted on 


Office Hours & Making Contact


My office hours are posted at the top of this document.  If you are having trouble at all, I strongly encourage you to stop by or call during office hours, or make an appointment to do so.   My job is to make sure you learn the material, not just to assign grades.   If you have quick questions, seeing me before or after class is a good option, as is email.    Please do not call outside of office hours – it is easier for me to answer an email than to play phone tag.  If you e-mail me, please put “SYA 4011” or “Social Theory” in the subject line – so I know what class you are in.   Also, pretty please put your name in the email, so I know who I am replying to.  As GSS Grad Director, I get a ton of email everyday – putting those headings on really helps me to keep things straight.



Earning the Grade You Want & (Lack of Significant) Extra Credit


If you are doing poorly in the class, the time to ask how you can do better is not right before, and especially not right after, final projects are turned in.  If you do badly on the first or second test PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE come to office hours or make an appointment to see me as soon as possible after that test, and I will help you devise strategies to study more effectively.


If there are events on campus (e.g. lectures) that are related to the course that I announce in class, I may give 2 or 3 points extra-credit if you attend.   Other than that, I will not give extra credit – so there is no point in asking.   Nor will I go back and change grades after the semester is over and grades have been submitted – you earn what you earn.   It is the only thing that is fair to all students in the course – I cannot give advancement opportunities to one I do not give to all.


Academic Integrity, Cheating and Plagiarism:


Cheating and plagiarism are done by pathetic and desperate people – don’t be one of them.    If you plagiarize on your project, weekly responses or cheat on an exam – you will receive at minimum a zero on that part of the course, which instantly drops your score for the course by about 1.5 letter grades.    If you find yourself in a desperate situation while taking a test or up against a deadline – turn in the best work you can do at the time.  Getting an F usually means you will get some points – getting caught cheating means you get zero.  Furthermore, depending on the severity of the case, I can choose to pursue harsher penalties, including assigning an F0 for the course or pursuing your expulsion from the university.


It is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the FIU student handbook’s sections on cheating and plagiarism.  Also, if you need to know more about how to not plagiarize, please check out the following websites.


1) “Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It (Indiana University)” at

2) “Paraphrase: Write it in Your Own Words (Purdue University)” at


Absences & Make-Up


Excused absences include serious illness; illness of a spouse or dependent; death of an immediate family member; University-sponsored trips; and major religious holy days.  It is your responsibility to inform me of the absence in advance of class by e-mail (and within 2 weeks of the start of class if it is a university trip or holy day), but no later than two class sessions after the missed class.  In order to have an absence excused, you must provide original documentation which I can keep.   If this is done, and I determine the absence to be excused, I will do my best make sure you make up what you missed.


Make-up exams will only be given in extreme circumstances.  The make-up exam will not be the same one given to those who took the test on the established date, and will be given during the final examination period, during which time you will take both the make-up exam and the final.    To sit a make-up exam, you must 1) provide documentation to me in class within two class periods of the missed exam addressing why your absence qualifies as excused 2) have that documentation accepted by me 3) email me asking to be given a make-up exam and 4) receive back an email from me confirming a make-up exam will be given.


Your choices to attend or not attend have consequences – just like they would at work.    I take my responsibilities and role as a teacher seriously; I hope you hold your role and responsibility as a student in equal respect.




This syllabus is intended to give the student guidance in what may be covered during the semester and will be followed as closely as possible. However, the professor reserves the right to modify, supplement and make changes as the course needs arise.  



[1] This idea of the expanded thought papers, and suggestions on how to write them, come from a Concepts in Geography syllabus by John Paul Jones III created in Spring 2001.