A League of Fans Special Feature

Jay Coakley

Jay Coakley is a former athlete who became one of the nation’s preeminent sports sociologists.  Coakley grew up in the Chicago area and evolved into an all-state basketball player.  He moved to Colorado to play for famed hoops coach Joe B. Hall at Regis College.  After his college basketball career, he went to grad school at Notre Dame and earned a Ph.D. in Sociology.  He began his academic career at the University of Nothern Arizona.  However, he spent the bulk of his career at the University of Colorado, Colorado Spring.  He was the first editor of the Sociology of Sport Journal and is the author of the leading sports sociology text, Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies.

KR: How did you become a sports sociologist?

JC: Well, I went to Notre Dame to study sociology in grad school.  Being on the Notre Dame campus, I became interested in sport as a social phenomenon.  This was 1969, and there was nothing in the U.S. that really constituted the “sociology of sport” at that time.  So, I just kind of felt my way around in the area.  When I went to Northern Arizona, I co-taught a “special topics” course whose subject was basically sport sociology.  I’ve been active in the field ever since.

KR: How do you see the state of sports today in the United States?

JC: Well, there are many different sports forms.  Sport is tremendously diversified.  On the whole, however, I’d say it’s highly commercialized, highly organized, and catering to elite athletes.  It’s the prolympic model (focusing on professional, Olympic, and elite athletes).  The prolympic model is so dominant that it has significant impact on other sports models.  Americans of all ages tend to look at the prolympic model as the ideal and aspire to it – whether it’s football, BMX, or Ultimate Frisbee.  Popular non-traditional sports quickly become commercialized.

Sport is consistently appropriated by commercial interests and we’ve lost control of the playing conditions.  Sports have moved to emphasizing the spectacle aspect of sports in order to cater to spectators.  These characteristics have worked against sports on their own terms.

KR: How can we change things?

JC: I think we have to start at the youth level.  I’d like to see organized sports empower athletes more.  Today, young people have to fit into very constrained, established structures when it comes to sports.  I’d like to see situations in which young people are encouraged to create structures that match their interests in what they like to do physically.

Change is always going to come relatively slowly on things that are so sewn into our culture.  The only way things will change in youth sports is if enough parents decide they’re going to use another model.

The research on concussions could be one thing that leads to significant change in sports.  It’s the hottest issue in all of sport in terms of potential implications.  Things will change in youth sports when parents begin to focus on the well-being of their kids.  Concussions could be the trigger.

KR: I know coaching has always been an area of interest for you.  What are your thoughts on the state of coaching today?

JC: There’s heavy reliance on the Control Model of coaching.  There are two ways to produce excellence:  1) the Control Model; and 2) the Responsibility Model.

With the Control Model, coaches create a form of dependence.  Athletes are trapped in a routine dictated by the coach.  They have very little input in how things are done on the team.

Coaches can have success with this model if the people under their control don’t get used up first.  You can control people and their actions.  Vince Lombardi is an example.  Lombardi kept adult men at the level of high school sophomores.  Hitler used this model.  The Control Model could be called the fascist approach.

The Responsibility Model, on the other hand, empowers athletes.  It provides conditions in which people see what it takes to achieve excellence and then are allowed to develop those necessary characteristics on their own.

I think an interesting way to look at coaching styles is this:  If, as a coach, you knew you had to play the last two games of the year without a coach on the bench, how would that change your coaching approach from day one?

Don Hellison does a good job outlining the key differences between the Control Model and the Responsibility Model in his book, Teaching Responsibility Through Physical Activity.

KR: Given the increasing commercialization and professionalization in big-time sports today, would you encourage one of your children to seek a Division I athletic scholarship today?

JC: No.  Even the so-called “minor” sports at the Division I level are too controlling of athletes’ overall college experience.  I think Division III sports are a legitimate possibility, if a young person has the interest and ability to play sports at the college level.  But even at the Division III level, I would only encourage young people to pursue athletics if they are able to combine sports with a variety of other interests that have nothing to do with sports.

KR: If there were one thing in your sports sociology career that you are the most proud of, what would it be?

JC: I guess I would have to say my sports in society book (Sports in Society:  Issues and Controversies, Tenth Edition). It’s rewarding to know that it has been used in sociology of sport-type courses for nearly 37 years now.


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