Review: ‘Sports Criminology: A Critical Criminology of Sports and Games’

By Katinka van de Ven and Kyle J.D. Mulrooney

We have recently been invited to review the book ‘Sports Criminology: A Critical Criminology of Sports and Games’ by Prof. Nic Groombridge. To our knowledge, this is the first book to explore the connections between sport and crime from a critical perspective. More importantly, by giving this venture a name and tracing some of its boundaries, this book invites those interested in a critical criminology of sports to unite under the banner of sports criminology. The book covers a broad range of topics, from sports scandals to the possibility of crime prevention through sport. In the book numerous examples are explored from a range of countries and from sports such as American football, boxing, soccer, skating and sumo wrestling. Nic has an international reputation for his writing in sport and criminology and also reflects on his work and own sport experience throughout the book where relevant. He also draws influence from the sociology of sports and sports law, but concludes that sports criminology can add something new from a critical perspective. His enthusiasm for the subject is evident in his popular blog http://www.sportscriminology.blogspot.co.uk/ and tweets @criminology4u.

The book looks at sport and crime from two perspectives: (1) how criminology might add to sports studies beyond sociology and law, and (2) how the study of sport might add to criminology more generally. It argues for the need of a sports criminology and sets out some of its potential connections and contributions. The first chapter highlights the possibilities of sports criminology and also looks at areas involving sport and crime that might be regarded as less central to sports criminology such as crowd violence or crimes by or against sports stars. This chapter specifically details what might fall under the umbrella of sports criminology. Chapter two looks at a variety of sports and how issues of crime, social control and criminal justice affect them. Nic not only discusses the more obvious issues such as football violence or the use of performance and image enhancing drugs in athletics but also engages with the crime and corruption found in sports such as sumo wrestling and cricket. In chapter three Nic examines crimes and victimizations in relation to sports stars. For example, the ‘skating scandal’ in which Tonya Harding, together with her husband, arranged an off-rink assault on her ice skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. In chapter four and five a variety of criminological theories are introduced that either directly or indirectly have relevance to sport and vice versa. Chapter four covers the more mainstream criminology theories, such as classism and positivism, while chapter five assesses the contributions critical criminological theories, such as masculinity studies and cultural criminology. Chapter six looks at issues of sport and criminal justice covering topics such as crime control, politics, socially constructed realities, corruption and performance enhancing drugs. In chapter seven aspects of crime prevention and desistance are explored. For example, the use of organized football in prisons or the use of boxing as part of rehabilitation programs. In the final concluding chapter Nic reflects on the nature and extent of sports criminology and what a critical criminology of sport has to offer.

In our latest commentary Kyle and I note that ‘sport is in crisis’: from the involvement of organized crime, illegal betting and corrupt judges, to the socio-economic impact of the Olympics on host cities and the use of performance and image enhancing drugs by professional athletes. We need to confront these issues head on and it is clear that sports criminology has the ability to breathe new life into these debates and aid in the development of realistic ways to confront these issues. This is therefore a much needed book. However, after reading this book we were left with some questions. So, we approached the author for a ‘Q and A’ and he was more than willing to oblige.

Thank you Nic for doing this ‘Q and A’. We are just curious what inspired you to write this book?

“N: As the preface notes, I’ve always been a keen participant in and spectator of a wide variety of sports. I’ve always used sporting metaphors in my teaching to illustrate criminological issues but was always aware that sport can be very excluding, particularly around gender and sexuality. Moreover as a criminologist I tend to see crime and deviance in everything even the mundane and close to hand, even in the personal. Looking back over some of my work from nearly 20 years ago I see I was hinting at this work.

In the book you describe the kinds of sports issues would fall in the category ‘sports criminology’, and discuss the relations between sport, law and criminology, but do not provide a clear definition. How would you define ‘sports criminology’?

“N: I like to think I’ve had a hand in the genesis of both green and queer criminology and in surveillance studies. As I came late to academic life after 20 years in the Home office and have worked almost entirely at a teaching-centred University my research has been sporadic, self-directed, multi-disciplinary, even ill-disciplined. My experience has been that these sub-criminologies have gone off in directions that I could foresee but were more narrow and partisan than I hoped. I expect the same of sports criminology.

I try to define what it is and what it isn’t with this in mind but a) I’m reluctant to be pinned to the mat and b) am politically disinclined to attempt to direct or to gain followers. I do worry that it will just become rebadged football hooliganism studies or just concentrate on drugs in sport. Worse still would be to incorporate these into a correctionalist or administrative criminology.

Also my intention for green, queer and now sports criminology is not to create sub-fields but to enrich the wider subject.

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You note in the book that it has been more about boxing than intended. Although you do use quite a few boxing examples, we actually were impressed with the wide range of topics you cover in this book. However, the focus seems to be on crimes committed by or to the athletes including, but not limited to, the use of doping, cheating within games, corruption and the use of (legitimate) violence. While you address some wider sport-related criminological issues, such as illegal betting, this seems to receive little attention in your book. For example, state-sponsored doping programs (e.g., East-Germany and Russia) and the negative impacts of hosting mega sports events such as the Olympics (e.g., people forced out of their houses and economic loss) are only mentioned in passing. Is this something you consider an essential part of sports criminology and will you expand on this in any future editions?

You are right I see the emphasis on crime/deviance/harm within sport not so much crime by sports people though there may be links or overlaps. I only had limited space and felt that reference to the work of others might assist. So on doping I mention Paoli and Donati’s book (2014) ‘The Sports Doping Market: Understanding Supply and Demand, and the Challenges of their Control’ and Haberfeld and Sheehan’s book (eds.) ‘Match-Fixing in International Sports: Existing Processes, Law Enforcement, and Prevention Strategies on match fixing’, along with Brooks, Graham, Aleem, Azeem and Button, Mark’s work (2013) ‘Fraud, Corruption and Sport’ as sports criminology. However, I note these need a more critical edge.

I am aware too that I’ve missed much and hope that both what I say and fail to say will prompt further contributions before a second edition or collection.

I mention many sports and theories and examples over historic time. Also at the same time as I was writing even more about doping/corruption and the nexus of them came out. I had to leave those for tweeted commentary.

In chapter seven you discuss the use of sport to prevent crime, as an aid to rehabilitation or encourage desistance. While crime prevention is not the primary objective of sport and physical activity, it may have a positive influence in steering (young) people away from trouble. For example, in Project Oracle, a study on sport and youth violence in London, it is noted that sport can act as a distraction from violent and criminal activities and also as a way to bring young people into contact with opportunities for achieving wider goals such as furthering their education or finding work. On the other hand, sports-based intervention can also have a negative impact on youth violence. For instance, Project Oracle also found “that the programme had the unintended consequence of possible violence during practice sessions and matches. It was thought that opposing gangs would clash during the activity, illustrating how the presence of a specific social group (gangs) could alter intervention dynamics” (McMahon & Belur, 2013: 11). This is just one example of sport-based interventions and in your book you, for example, you also mention boxing interventions for offenders. In your experience, do you think that sport can play an important role in preventing crime and/or rehabilitating offenders? Are there any drawbacks?

As is clear I like sport. I also like art and culture. All should be available to all. When sport or art is expected to do more than be its own justification – i.e. to cure crime, health or save the economy or national mood – then problems can occur. I particularly know from my time in the Home Office that good projects frequently had to recast themselves to obtain grants. Project oracle exists to properly assess such claims as are made. But we all know and the Kids Company case shows that charisma and good anecdote can trump the evidence base. I try to be fair in that chapter but am largely agnostic. Indeed, I think that if motor projects or boxing ‘work’ it is not necessarily the car and driving or fighting but perhaps addressing issues of masculinity (often heterosexual but homosocial).

As is clear I’m squeamish about boxing but believe that if it is legal then it should be available in prison.

In addition, in the book you cover many different criminological topics related to sports. You mention that particular topics are quite extensively studied. Football hooliganism being one of them and as you note in your book people often even assume that when you mention sports criminology you mean the study of football hooligans (or the involvement of sports starts in crime). Outside of these more ‘obvious’ topics, what do you think is currently an emerging issue that has not received the attention it deserves? What topic would you like to see explored further?

Think I’ve covered much of that but clearly fallout from FIFA and Olympic revelations still ongoing should be followed up by those who see themselves as Corporate or State Crime oriented. Further just to note the sporting in crime and to tackle tricky issues like the conflicts and contradictions raised by claims by some that hunting animals for sport might help young men turn away from crime.

The act of hunting can shift, channel and redirect an integral need in all of us. We are wild to the core, and this wildness – disciplined, focused and integrated – can be a force for transformation and healing for us all.’ Caspar Walsh The Guardian 15 November 2015

Finally, we of course are wondering, what’s next? What are your plans for getting sports criminology on the map?

Obviously trying to sell the book but not necessarily the concept. I want to speak to non-sports people and to criminology more widely. As you note it is broad and shallow. Whilst I don’t want followers I would like some people with deeper knowledge to fill in the gaps.

I think I should mention that in addition to trying to cover every sport and every criminological theory including my own takes on queer, green and even gothic criminology I conclude with a provocation

In earlier chapters I’m sceptical of the sport-cures-crime claims I’m also sceptical of the sport-causes-crime claims too. In the conclusion however, I do suggest that consent is a crucial element in sport which is deeply underplayed but that work on it might help sports men think through some of the on and off field activities.

Thank you Nic for your time and for answering our questions.

To summarize, this book is a good start for those seeking to get familiar with the crime and deviance that may occur in sports and how the field of criminology can aid in explaining these phenomena. It does well in offering insights into a wide range of issues including but not limited to; surveillance, drug use, policing, social control, race, gender and sexuality within sport – which is of interest to many criminologists. However, it is here where sports criminology’s limitations are revealed. As the book tries to cover so many different aspects of and possible areas of exploration under the banner of sports criminology, it lacks a deeper and in-depth knowledge and understanding of the criminological issues related to sports. Nevertheless, as we have highlighted above, this is the first book of its kind and therefore such a broad scope is necessary when sketching the contours of the rapidly emerging sub-field that is sports criminology. The book does a fantastic job of introducing readers to sports criminology and offers a starting point for those interested in a critical criminology of sport.

On a more personal note, we thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The writing style is very approachable and the content is engaging throughout. We would particularly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get familiar with sports criminology: not only criminologists and other academics interested in sports but also to individuals who want a new perspective on deviance, crime and social harm and its relation to sport.

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