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Crying Foul

Crying Foul
Scholars examine the consequences of sports marketing
By Ronald Roach

In recent years, scholars have increasingly joined with activists to challenge marketing aimed at children. It is a widely accepted belief that marketers have sold unhealthy foods as well as questionable toys and games, to the detriment of American children. Motivated by declining measures of child well-being, such as heightened obesity rates, increased anxiety and stress levels and decreased exercise levels, some scholars have become outspoken opponents of commercialism in the lives of children.

In addition to criticizing food, toy and game marketing, scholars have questioned the marketing of sports apparel and athletic shoes. Long before the childhood obesity issue began to gain traction as a public health issue, the marketing of athletic shoes to inner-city youth had already dramatized the perils of unbridled consumerism. Starting in the 1980s, reports of violence with teens assaulting other teens over shoes and clothes revealed the alarming degree to which coveted brands provoked destructive behavior.  

“I remember during the mid- to late eighties there were a lot of media reports of youths assaulting one another, stealing from others … when the very expensive sneakers came to be marketed. That’s what caught my attention, and I was just baffled by this kind of phenomena,” says Dr. Velma LaPoint, a professor of human development in the school of education at Howard University in Washington.

“(My colleagues and I) began to review the literature and there was virtually nothing there that related to this kind of phenomena,” she adds.

LaPoint says the athletic shoe obsession among Black youths represented part of a larger trend that extended to athletic apparel and designer label clothes. Concern over the larger trend pushed LaPoint and her colleagues to study how the requirement of school uniforms might improve the K-12 environment for inner-city kids. Research showed that having children wear school uniforms helped lessen the tension around youth consumer culture and created a healthier social climate within schools, according to LaPoint.

In 1999, LaPoint’s interest in the dress and fashion issue among Black children led her to organize a conference at Howard, bringing together a broad coalition of researchers and activists looking at all aspects of marketing’s impact on children. That 1999 meeting proved pivotal to a group of researchers and activists who would later form the core of what is now the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). Serving on the CCFC steering committee, LaPoint helped bring the CCFC’s fourth annual summit to the Howard campus just last month. Also serving on the CCFC steering committee is prominent psychiatry professor Dr. Alvin Poussaint of the Harvard  Medical School and the media director of the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.

Image Versus Activity 
As a researcher who studies the participation of children in after-school programs and youth sports teams, Dr. Billy Hawkins, a sport studies professor at the University of Georgia, decries the tendency in sports marketing to promote objects for conspicuous consumption rather than for their intrinsic value to foster athletic activity. The marketing focus is too much on image, rather than on kids actually playing sports, he contends.

“I think you can see that with the rate of childhood obesity on the rise, shoe companies seem to be interested in pushing an image with their shoes more so than actual participation in sports,” Hawkins says.   

Hawkins points out that the conspicuous consumption approach to selling athletic shoes and apparel has flourished over the past two decades while there’s been a simultaneous decrease in publicly supported and school-based athletic and recreational activities for children and teens in American society. He also points out there’s been a rise in private and corporate-sponsored, club-based sports team activity, which often compete for the most athletically talented kids in a community in a given sport.

There’s an increased demand that talented young athletes in club sports and high-school teams show allegiance to particular brands, says Hawkins. Apparel companies have stepped up sponsorship of local sports camps, high-school teams and sports clubs, and “they expect loyalty.”

Dr. Stephen McDaniel, a kinesiology professor at the University of Maryland, says that once companies develop successful advertising campaigns to introduce and promote their shoes and apparel, they also work hard to craft marketing strategies that create brand loyalty. Part of creating the effective advertising campaign begins with establishing a certain image, or “street credibility” for a product.

“I think today everybody’s looking for the next Michael Jordan. Not only do they look out for rising college stars, but companies have signed up high schools where they have cultivated relationships with the coaches,” McDaniel says.   

No More Stereotypes
Another criticism leveled at sports marketing is the lack of balanced images in advertising campaigns. Dr. C. Keith Harrison, the director of the Paul Robeson Research Center for Leadership, Academic and Athletic Prowess and faculty associate at Arizona State University, indicts American sports marketing for what he describes as its ongoing failure to craft advertising that go beyond stereotypes of the athletes endorsing sports merchandise.

“Look at the ad with (Atlanta Falcons quarterback) Michael Vick. His body is portrayed as a rollercoaster. There’s nothing in it that focuses on the cognitive aspect of him being a quarterback,” Harrison says. “We’re never told about the academic and intellectual feats of athletes.” 

He says a common stereotype of Black athletes is that they perform by instinct rather than using their minds to make decisions on the playing field. That image of the Black athlete as instinctual is pervasive in marketing campaigns, Harrison notes.

 Dr. Lynn Kahle, the James H. Warsaw professor of sports marketing at the University of Oregon, says that while he has “no problem with tasteful and appropriate marketing efforts, even ads targeted at people who live in inner cities” he would like to see a broader range of images, individuals and ideas featured in sports advertising.

“I just wish more of the ads would promote role models, such as Bill Cosby, from more career choices than just sports. Or maybe promote Michael Jordan the businessperson as well as Michael Jordan the athlete,” Kahle says.

Kahle cites the current trend in sports marketing with the selling of “retro” shoes and jerseys as one relying not so much on stereotypes but rather memories of an earlier and more innocent time. “Retro marketing works because people view other times in our history as at least in some respects better than now. Especially since 9/11, many consumers have shown nostalgia for a safer, simpler time when the pace of change and modern trends were more hopeful. People may want to imagine or pretend that they have returned to the happier time,” he says.

Harrison says he believes it’s critical that scholars and others concerned about stereotypes and negative images in sports respond with initiatives aimed at breaking them down. To that end, Harrison is one of the developers of the “Scholar-Baller” program that can be adapted by college teams to boost the academic performance of their student-athletes. The program title unites the academic “scholar,” with “baller,” a popular hip-hop term meaning successful.

“We got it established in the Arizona State football program in 2001,” Harrison says. “And we’ve gotten 40 players, which is nearly half the team, making at least a B average this academic year.”

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