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Good Sport

USC College’s Michael Messner teaches and studies the sociology of the athletic world, picking up awards and building a legacy along the way.

By Kirsten Holguin
January 1, 2008

Good Sport

Listening to a lecture by Professor Michael Messner, students learn there is more to sports than winning and losing. The playing field also presents an important reflection on society.

For more than 20 years, Messner, a sociology and gender studies professor in USC College, has focused his research on gender and sports.

He examines how sports re-create inequalities between men and women, how sports sometimes exacerbate race relations rather than improve them, and how violence is celebrated in sports.

“I try to convey to people that sports can be a location where people can enjoy themselves, but it’s not separate from real life,” Messner said.

Last fall, the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) recognized Messner’s decades-long contribution with the Distinguished Service Award, the society’s highest honor.

Six of his former students nominated him and presented the award at the annual NASSS meeting. In the nomination letter, they wrote, “The accomplishments of his students are testimony to his mentorship and to his influence on up-and-coming scholars in the field. His students contribute to the field of the sociology of sport well after they graduate and are another extension of Messner’s invaluable contributions to NASSS and to the field of sociology of sport.”

Messner was surprised by the honor and recalled of receiving the award, “I really couldn’t concentrate on what my former student, who had nominated me, was saying because I was just looking at my students all standing up there and thinking, ‘This is so nice to see them up there for me.’ ”

Talking about his former students, he said, “I’ve gotten to an age now where, like a parent whose children are out in the world, I have enough students who are finished and out in assistant and associate professor positions. It’s very, very gratifying, seeing them publish articles, write books and become important in the field. That’s every bit as gratifying as having a book of my own.”

Messner, who just finished an appointment as chair of USC College’s sociology department, will have the opportunity to mentor students and junior professors outside of the College. He has been elected chair of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Sex and Gender, the organization’s largest section.

He also has been elected president of the Pacific Sociological Association (PSA), a professional organization that covers the western region of the U.S. including Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Washington, as well as British Columbia and Alberta in Canada and Baja California and Chihuahua in Mexico. Messner will be the third USC sociologist to serve as PSA president.

After six years of research, Messner is completing a book focused on youth sports and the parents who volunteer to be coaches and team parents. His work delves into why, 35 years after Title IX, 90 percent of coaches are still men, and women instead primarily serve as team moms.

A believer that playing sports leads to lifelong lessons and can offer children positive growth experiences, Messner does see an overemphasis on competition and winning.

“I am interested in being an advocate for social change. I am interested in bringing about a reduction in inequality, a reduction of violence. I think sports are a place like many other social institutions where social inequality gets reproduced, where violence gets reproduced and celebrated in some cases,” Messner said. “So first and foremost, I try to develop a critique of how and why those things happen, but on the other hand I also try to connect with people’s love of sports.”

Messner has clearly been successful on both counts. The Institute for International Sport, which is affiliated with the University of Rhode Island, named Messner one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators. Compiling this list constituted a three-year project for the institute, and Messner was picked from amongst a field of 1,500 nominations.

Making that roll call held a thrill all its own for Messner. “It was neat to see my name on the list with some of my childhood and still current sports heroes like Billie Jean King, Bill Russell and John Wooden,” he said.