Profit for Whom: Analyzing the Commodified Athletic Body in The Sports Industrial Complex
In China, mainstream mass media has not only racialized masculinity, it has created masculinity in sport. Historically, Asian athletes have looked to media portrayals of what strength and masculinity should look like. During the Cold and Vietnam wars, Bruce Lee became an Asian icon and martial arts star that was the exception to the rule of Asian male masculinity. This portrayal not just offered Asian American men a new kind of athletic representation, but this tight, small and powerful man struck a blow against white racism. During the late 20th century, a reemergence of Asian athletes as powerful, competitive, physical, large, wealthy and disciplined proved to be the new masculine. This new idea offered a mainstream, highly visible representation of male power and “global body” that could easily be commodfied. This made male bodies not just commodified but marketable. Athletes and celebrities like Yao Ming’s entry into the U.S market was legitimated by his capitalist profit potential. His 7’5” body was labeled as a “walking marketing machine,” and the “face of globalization” in basketball in U.S. sports. He not only represented a metacommodity, but operated transnationally through multiple markets and channels, to sell everything from credit cards to sports paraphernalia. Given Yao Ming’s foreign identity and national ties, he still had to pay Chinese taxes. Commodfied athletes like Yao Ming were encouraged by corporate and national interests because this could create profits through commercial promotion of national pride and loyalty. “This transnational display of nationalism benefits the sports industrial complex in East Asian countries and the U.S by shoring up new television and commercial markets through production and strategic assertion of national desire” (Joo 124).
Global brands like Nike have done more than just revolutionize a culture or create a global aesthetic, they have commodfied footwear and material goods to the point that their representative commodfied athletes are little more than a new shoe on the market or a new piece of clothing. The iconic athletes that have grown from Nike’s expansion in the 1980’s and the 1990’s have represented a cultural shift that includes exercising for enjoyment, or wearing exercise clothing for leisure purposes. Then, anyone can be Michael Jordan, now, anyone can be Steph Curry. While these massive sports figures are powerful and rich on their own, they are owned by their corporations. Their bodies are just as commodfied as if they were a marketable good, but now, they are representing not just a brand, but an ideal, a value set and a way of life. Nike is more than a brand, it is strength, excellence, victory, and exception. Mainstream and media masculinity have been shaped by brands like Nike. For instance, female athletes are expected to have the same character traits as male athletes. Serena Williams is strong, powerful, dominant and a winner. These characteristics about athleticism and dominance are power related, and have global repercussions. While strength and victory started out having relevance only when it came to sports or games, it has now been reflected in almost any aspect of life with the Nike swoosh is visible.
Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell tell us “Sport is a human activity in which the body is the object of most intense scrutiny: trained, disciplined, modified, displayed, evaluated, and commodified, the sporting body is the focus of not only the person who inhabits it but also spectators, trainers, and owners.” (2012:444) Sports not only place high importance on the individual, but also so the social interactions that take place in a much larger context. When we look to analyze sports we have to take into account its development over time. Our authors split the entity know as sport into a traditional lens as well as a modernization lens. The traditional view of sport was centers the body as a biological entity. On the other hand, as modernization paradigms developed, sports became seen as more and more of a cultural construction. An in depth analysis of the development of sports allows for connections among larger concepts such as nationalism, modernity, globalization, transnationalism. In this article Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell seek an anthropological approach to the development of the sports industrial complex, which they believe will offer unique insight into the social issues of sports.
Pride, Entertainment, and Cosmopolitanism
The Premier League is arguably the most famous soccer/futbol league in the world, and it’s popularity has no exception in China. Many Chinese soccer fans enjoy being cosmopolitan fans of the teams in this league since they know the quality of futbol is much higher than that which is played in China, as well as following global trends and fads, and the presence of televised games from the Premier League making it easier to watch (Lozada, 2006). It is the global appeal of the Premier League that has created a Cosmopolitan culture around it, and Chinese people have been sucked into the mix with no real soccer/futbol league to match in terms of quality. This is a contrast from the homogeneity that makes up the majority of the Chinese population.
However, this cosmopolitan culture surrounding the Premier League has not necessarily changed race relations between Chinese people and the rest of the world. Though cosmopolitanism suggests the blending of cultures, it is only a very surface level, which presents legitimate deficiencies when real problems are engaged (Lozada, 2006). Nationalism and pride around China’s own national men’s soccer team, as well as local leagues and their teams, has experienced a lot of up and down moments. Enthusiasm and vigor are usually high during the world cup games for the national team. However, year round, throughout the different leagues in China, games are poorly attended and even cared for in general. There’s a myriad of reasons for the Chinese to not care about their local teams, but it doesn’t change the fact.
Cosmopolitanism is essentially making the local global, where multiple cultures come together, and blend/mix to create a culture that can be understood anywhere in the world. The Chinese already have a heavy cosmopolitan culture in terms of the things they choose to consume, whether that be food, media, clothes, etc. However sports seems to be something that is still waiting to be picked up. “There are many fans, but few players” (Lozada, 2006). China is willing to follow the global trend of soccer, but the interest only goes so far. Making soccer big amongst themselves is something of a far off dream, and it seems many sports face the same challenges in China. Cosmopolitanism is working on the surface, but not necessarily in any depth, and cosmopolitanism is no real solution to addressing race relations, doesn’t the failure to embrace even the most cosmopolitan sport say something about China’s willingness/desire to address race relations.
Here are the readings for our case study:
From our textbook:
Commodity Chains and Marketing Strategies: Nike and the Global Athletic Footwear Industry by Miguel Korzeniewicz (in 5th ed. it is Chapter 21, page 175)