The Sportocratic Apparatus

Michel Foucault suggests that an apparatus "has as its major function at a given historical moment that of responding to an urgent need" (1980, p.195, emphasis added). I would argue that the demands of twentieth-century capitalism, particularly the Fordist system of mass production, created an urgent need for an apparatus that could effectively stimulate consumption and sell mass-produced goods; here I will introduce the concept of the sportocracy as one apparatus that evolved to meet this urgent need.

The first task is to define the sportocratic apparatus. Foucault (1980) describes an apparatus as "a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions — in short, the said as much as the unsaid" (p.194). Each of these elements contributes to the formation of the sportocracy and will be examined in turn.

As Shogan (1999) notes, there are many discourses that influence sport and the production of sport products, but the two that are most relevant to this discussion of the sportocratic apparatus are the discourses of sportification and the star system.

Sportification is a term used to describe the transformation of pre-modern ritualized play into modern rationalized sport (von der Lippe, 2001). Modern societies reproduced existing sports and created new sports in the fashion of the rationality seen in early capitalism; characteristics of these sports included secularism, equality of opportunity, specialization of roles, rationalization, bureaucratic organization, quantification, and the quest for records (Guttman, 1978). The sportification process standardized rules, the dimensions of playing spaces, etc., so that clubs from different towns could play against each other in a rational pre-determined fashion. While the rationality embodied in sportification may essentially be a non-universal construct of hegemonic masculinity (von der Lippe, 2001), it is nonetheless an essential element in the genesis of modern sport and the creation of the sportocracy.

As modern sport became commodified and developed a symbiotic relationship with the media, there arose a modern class of sports celebrity, the superstar athlete (Andrews & Jackson, 2001). While sports heroes had been feted in other historical eras, the rise of the modern sport superstar occurred at precisely the time in capitalism that a mechanism was needed to sell goods. The mass media discovered that sports games, and the heroes who played them, were an excellent means to sell more newspapers, which in turn also increased the value of advertising. These economies of scale achieved by the recognizability of the star athlete have increased with the introduction of new media into society, from radio and television to the Internet.

The institutions that sustain the discourses of the sportocratic apparatus include the professional sports leagues and their corporate sponsors, the media conglomerates and the videogame production companies, the sporting goods manufacturers and athletic footwear businesses, the International Olympic Committee, NCAA, and other sport governing bodies around the world, athletic therapists and orthopaedic surgeons, nutritional supplement manufacturers, player agents, and other related interests. Given the economic impact of sport globally, these institutions exert great force in sustaining sportocratic discourses.

Physically speaking, the sportocratic apparatus is supported (in the context of the sportification/superstar discourses) by a televisually panoptic stadium architecture. The evolution of the modern stadium created a class of disciplined spectators that allowed sport to be commodified (Bale, 1993). The addition of video cameras to this architecture accomplished two tasks: first, closed circuit television monitors made rowdy spectators more docile (Bale, 1993); second, television cameras broadcast games as highly-immersive mediated sports products beyond the confines of the stadium, which disciplined athletes and spectators at the stadium to act in disciplined fashions.

In keeping with Foucault's definition, the sportocratic apparatus also consists of a host of regulatory decisions, such as baseball's antitrust exemption and free agency, as well as scientific statements of score and statistics that allow for philosophical statements of Truth, which are based on winning and "putting up numbers". Moral propositions abound, but may be summarized in the debate surrounding "unethical" performance enhancers: the problem with the latter is that even though many of these are naturally-occurring substances, they undermine the essential philosophical premise of modern sport, a search for Truth.

The idea that sport represents some objective Truth is characteristic of modernity, and the heterogeneous elements of the sportocratic apparatus have evolved to support that idea. As Foucault notes:

"The apparatus is thus always inscribed in a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain coordinates of knowledge which issue from it but, to an equal degree, condition it. This is what the apparatus consists in: strategies of relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge" (1980, p.196).

I would argue that the rational nature of modern sport, and in particular its preoccupation with equality, quantification, and the quest for records, has created a sportocratic apparatus in which a particular type of knowledge — numerical score and statistics — is the determinant of Truth; in turn, the ensemble of forces within the sportocratic apparatus support this type of knowledge, most notably through economic reward. Athletes, then, are conditioned by the sportocracy to discipline their bodies in ways that most efficiently produce the numerical output that supports the rationality of modern sport. In doing so, a third discourse is beginning to make its presence felt in the world of professional team sport: the hybrid identity of the cyborg.


Andrews, D.L. & Jackson, S.J. (2001). Sport stars. the cultural politics of sporting celebrity. London: Routledge.

Bale, J. (1993). Sport, space and the city. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Harvester Press.

Guttmann, A. (1978). From ritual to record. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shogan, D. (1999). The making of high-performance athletes: discipline, diversity, and ethics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

von der Lippe, G. (2001). Sportification processes: Whose logic? Whose rationality? Sport History Review, 32. 42-55.


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