The (Social) Magic of Sport?

This Lesson Outline uses the analogy of top-level sporting achievement – and the economic, cultural and social resources needed to reach this level – to encourage students to understand and apply concepts of economic, cultural and social capital to explain how and why apparently “individualistic explanations” of behaviour can be more-coherently explained sociologically.

This is particularly useful to demonstrate how apparently “natural” individual attributes – such as sporting ability – invariably involve underlying social inequalities.

As a bonus, the Outline can also be used to introduce Bourdieu’s concept of social magic.

For many Modules in Sociology you will, at some point, invariably find yourself contrasting “naturalistic” explanations of behaviour with socio-cultural explanations:

  • family life – domestic labour as “natural” to women.
  • education – some children are just “naturally” more intelligent than others
  • social inequality – some people are born to be more successful than others
  • crime – some people are naturally predisposed to break the rules.
  • While contemporary sociologists are probably not as wedded to the kind of cultural determinism you find in some textbooks – there is clearly some interplay between the physical (biological, genetic) and social environments across a range of behaviours – it’s useful to be able to demonstrate how and why cultural factors have a massive part to play in explaining people’s behaviour.

    In this respect it makes sense to encourage students to explore how and why social factors underpin and influence apparently natural behaviours – and to do this in a way that can be repeatedly applied whenever they’re confronted by the claim that this-or-that behaviour is explicable by purely “natural” factors.

    In order to do this, this Lesson Outline uses an example of behaviour that appears to be wholly-natural – playing top-level (international) professional sport – to demonstrate how a variety of social factors have crucial roles to play in explaining how and why people come to play sport at this level.

    1. Setting the Scene

    Once you’ve chosen which professional sport(s) you’re going to feature in the lesson (I’ve chosen Cricket, Rugby and Football), ask your students to think about the characteristics people need in order to become top-level professional sportsmen or women.

    You’re likely to get a range of answers that focus on various “natural” physical and psychological factors (from body shape and mass to levels of grit and determination).

    In other words, the conclusion your students are likely to draw from a question like “Are top-level sportsmen and women born or made?” is likely to predominantly be the former.

    And in one respect, of course, this is true: no-matter how much I wanted to be able to play professional cricket or football, I just wasn’t physically or mentally talented enough to make the grade.

    2. Changing the Focus

    Having set this up you can now start to throw a few curve-balls into the mix in the shape of some statistical observations about the socio-cultural backgrounds of top-level players – and to do this you can use the example of their educational background. This serves as a general proxy for social class (the fit, for various reasons that need not detain us, is not perfect) and enables you to dig deeper into the various ways social factors start to influence sporting achievement.

    In this example I’ve chosen Rugby, Cricket and Football, partly because they’re 3 of the most popular male professional sports, partly because they all have English International teams and partly because, as you will see, of their contrasting educational backgrounds. A further reason is choosing a combination of Cricket / Rugby and Football produces some  interesting comparative data for your students.

    For this Lesson Outline I’ve used data for male professional sport mainly because it’s easier to attain, but you can use female professional sport (or both) if you prefer.

    Basic Data

    This is probably the minimum statistical data you need to feed to your students and it should be sufficient for our purpose.

    1. Education

  • Around 7% of pupils (approximately 540,000) are educated in English Independent schools. Around 8.5 million pupils are State-educated each year.
  • This rises to around 14% post-16.
  • Average school fees are £15,000 per pupil per year.
  • Excluding international pupils and those with SEND (the former are ineligible and the latter are unlikely to meet the physical criteria for English professional sport) this leaves around 400,000 privately educated pupils.
  • Post-16 there are slightly more boys and girls privately educated (roughly 55% – 45%) so only around half (i.e. 7% – 8% of total post-16 school population) would qualify for male professional sport (and vice versa).
  • 2. Distribution of Sporting Talent

    All things being equal, if playing high-level sport is merely a factor of natural abilities, we would expect the distribution of sporting talent at the top level of male international sport to roughly mirror the figures for educational background. In other words, across different sports we would expect to find roughly 1-in-10 internationals to have an independent school background (using the best-case scenario figures of post-16 attendance). The reality is, however, somewhat different…

    a. Cricket: Privately Educated

  • Nearly half (45%) of current County Cricketers.
  • In 2018, nearly half (43%) of the England Test squad..
  • In 2020, 9 of the 11 players facing Pakistan in a Test Match.
  • b. Rugby Union: Privately Educated

  • In 2003, 11 members (30%) of England’s 30-man World Cup squad.
  • In 2015, 23 (70%) of their 33-man squad for the World Cup.
  • In 2018, 17 (50%) of the 33-man England squad to play South Africa.
  • 2019: 44% of England Test squad.
  • 2020: 60% of English players in the current Rugby Union Premiership.
  • By way of comparison, Rugby League (a professional counterpart to Rugby Union, mainly played in Northern England) has, in the past 20 years, featured only 6 privately-educated players.

    c. Football: Privately Educated

  • In 2013, 10% of England international players.
  • In 2014, 13% of England International players.
  • In 2019, 4% of England international squad.
  • Although the above is just a sample of the type of data you can use (if you want more there’s plenty to find on the Web), it’s probably sufficient in this context to get the point across to students that something is happening here to skew representation at high and elite levels of sport. In the case of Cricket and Rugby Union, the privately-educated are hugely-overrepresented while in the case of Football (and Rugby League) they are massively-underrepresented.

    The next stage is to explore just what that “something” might be.

    3. How Do Schools Add Value?

    One way to do this is to look at the resources, economic, cultural and social, different types of school are willing and able to put into sporting development. This not only allows students to identify and understand some of the socio-cultural “background factors” that go into creating elite-level sportspeople, it also allows you to do this in a sociological way by thinking about different types of capital – by a happy-coincidence(?) economic, cultural and social – that combine to give students from different social backgrounds greater or lesser levels of sporting advantage through the various ways resources are distributed unequally.

    To help you, I’ve chosen two schools – “Kingsford Independent School” and a state-maintained counterpart, “Bishopsbridge Academy”* – and outlined a range of economic, cultural and social differences in the way they provide sporting resources for their pupils. These are contained in the “Adding Value?” document.

    4. Explaining the differences

    Using the information in the document your students should be able to:

    a. Identify and explain the relationship between educational background and sporting achievement sociologically.

    b. Suggest reasons why football seems to buck the general educational trend.

    These could include thinking about things like the general status of the sport within schools like Kingsford (there are no professional football coaches employed by the school, for example) and the fact top-level professional Clubs in England have their own scouting and Academy system through which promising young footballers are identified and nurtured at an early age (i.e. the Clubs provide the kind of economic, cultural and social resources that schools may provide for financially-flush sports like Cricket and Rugby Union).

    c. Revisit the initial question – “Are top-level sportsmen and women born or made?” – to see if and why they have changed their answer (or at least expressed it more-sociologically).

    3. Making Applications

    The exercise in relating how the economic, cultural and social resources supplied by schools can be used to explain differences in sporting achievement forms the basis for understanding and applying sociological concepts like social and cultural capital to real-world problems.

    The principles established through the sporting analogy can, for example, be applied to a wide range of social situations where you want your students to develop and apply sociological – as opposed to “naturalistic” or “psychological” – explanations for behaviour.

    Obvious areas where this lesson technique can be easily applied are things like differential educational achievement (why, for example, do Independent School pupils achieve more than their State School counterparts?) or explanations for social inequality – although your students will probably recognise many others once they actively start to look for ways to analyse apparently “natural” behaviour and explanations sociologically.

    Social Magic

    An additional idea that fits neatly with the work just done is Bourdieu’s (1999) concept of “social magic”. This, to put it very simply, involves the idea that what we tend to see as “individual behaviour” or “individual achievement” is actually the result of the kinds of complex economic, cultural and social “background processes” at which we’ve just looked.

    The social processes that supported and enhanced their ability to achieve are, however, simply “magicked away” whenever people come to explain how such achievements were made possible: the professional sportsman battled his way gamely to the top, therefore, through qualities of personal dedication, determination and “God-given” natural talents, while the CEO’s of major companies rose to the top on the basis of their educational brilliance, natural business acumen, personal ruthlessness and the like.

    Don’t try this at home…

    Using a further analogy, this is similar to watching the performance of a stage Magician. Their assistant steps into an empty cabinet, the doors are closed and with a wave of the Magician’s hand the doors open and the assistant has disappeared…

    If you knew nothing about magic tricks, you might be inclined to explain this as the result of the powers possessed by the Magician (i.e. there was something about the individual that enabled them to generate and use magic).

    Since, however, you know “magic” is an illusion (so to speak) you understand that the Magician’s “powers” are less to do with an ability to harness the supernatural and more to do with the hidden panels, trapdoors, ropes and pulleys that actually explain how the feat was performed.

    When we look at successful individuals in the world of sport, education, business we are, however, taken-in by the “illusion of individual magic” – the idea personal achievements were the result of individual merits, determination, dedication or whatever, rather than the culmination of a wide range of important, yet hidden, social processes.


    Pierre Bourdieu (1999) “Shattered Worlds”


    * While the names are fictional, the schools are real and co-exist in close physical proximity. The sporting resources they provide have been taken from their respective web sites. Kingsford School charges fees (2021) of just under £30,000 per year for day pupils (around £37,000 for boarders) which makes it one of the higher-charging Independent Schools.

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