Cricket with the Taliban

Who could have predicted that a regime that banned music and television, and had withdrawn from the world community, would yearn to belong to an international sports organization?

No one, probably.

Yet a few months before the September 11th attacks, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, became the 74th member of the International Cricket Council [1, 2].


I believe those who continue to underestimate the power of sports, likely do so at their own peril. While those who learn to engage with sports analytically will be amply rewarded.

On a daily basis we are all bombarded by output from a massive media sports complex [3]. In most developed societies, and especially in the US, sports are almost inescapable. Through its unholy alliance with media, sports is now embedded into the fabric of the lives of sports fans and innocent bystanders alike.


Surprisingly, most people continue to buy into the myth that sport is an innocent pastime that exists outside the realm of economic and political forces [4]. Few recognize that sport is now one of the most powerful cultural institutions in America, already shaping our understanding of race, class, and gender, and even of the purpose of life [5]. Fewer yet recognize that thanks to an explosion of related data, and to an ever expanding and complex web of relationships, sport offers unique opportunities to explore valuable critical frameworks and analytic technologies [3]. Hard to imagine it was not always this way.


Although there is evidence that sports have been around for thousands of years as part of every known culture [6, 7], the role of sports in society began a radical transformation during the 19th century. Some believe it may all have started when Massachusetts made schooling compulsory for children in 1852 [8], because it forced a profound shift in the structure of the daily life of American children. This shift put a new focus on leisure time. What should children do with their “free time” became a critical question in the minds of parents and educators alike. Participation in competitive sports leagues emerged as the preferred answer, but because adults did not trust boys to play unsupervised, organized sports prevailed over a free format.


Also, with its rules and specialized roles, sport was seen as a good way to prepare children for their eventual roles in the emerging industrial society. As children grew, interest in sports expanded into older age groups, and later into ethnic groups [8]. In the decades that followed, new sports such as Basketball were invented while others such as Hockey were imported from Europe. National professional leagues for all the major sports were established by the beginning of the 20th century. The stage was set for sports to become a dominant element in American culture.


Culture can be defined as the sum of activities and of the artifacts that enable humans to survive in nature, together with the ideas that include the purpose of this survival [5]. The institutions, values and norms of a society make up its culture. Western societies are said to have entered a modern period after the Industrial Revolution. During this period market forces began to drive the development of new institutions, norms and values that eventually replaced traditional elements. These forces also helped to further define and differentiate the meaning of leisure time, and they drastically increase its perceived value [5]. As the influence of civic and religious institutions weakened, the market learned that sports were particularly well suited to fill the void. You see, sports have an extraordinary ability to produce high volumes of rare acts, and because these acts are easy to understand and consume by ordinary citizens, the market recognized that sports could be a rich source of valuable social capital they could exploit, if they could find a way to reach consumers [5]. Find they did.


The media platforms that emerged in the late 20th century now make it possible for sport to reach virtually everyone on the planet, and market forces are increasingly ensuring that it does. Sport occupies vast tracts of electronic, print, and cyber media space. Directly and indirectly, sport produces a diverse range of goods and services for people to consume [3]. Also, through such media texts as sports books, statistical databases, televisions and radio documentaries, video sports highlights, photo-essays, and films of both a fictional and non-fictional nature, sport acts can be kept alive across generations, and new technologies offer novel ways to represent them, and make them ready for commercial consumption [3]. Crucially, ideas about important subjects such race, gender, and class are constantly being transmitted through sports media, and are easily absorbed and internalized for maximum impact. As a combined entity, media sport is now a dominant force shaping American culture, and as responsible citizens, we should consider it our civil duty to become smart consumers of sport [3].


Few recognize the degree to which our society is being shaped by the media sport complex [3], and even less are willing to engage with sport analytically. From a young age we are being fashioned by the biases embedded in sports media, and indoctrinated into a world view that some of us would never accept where we to judge it critically. For instance, dominant sport narratives currently reinforce meritocracy as the natural order of things, helping justify and reproduce social class structures that can encourage extreme economic inequalities [4]. Similarly, women athletes are underrepresented and routinely portrayed in ways that emphasize their femininity versus athletic competence [9]. Women make up about 40% of all sports participants, but receive less than 10% of all sports coverage. Mainstream accounts frame narratives in terms that privilege one identity while ignoring others [4]. For example, achievement and productivity are goals of both sports and capitalism, and these features are often used to glorify a model of white manhood [4]. We need to ask whose voices and perspectives are being portrayed as valid in sports media. We need to analyze whom the media gives attention, and ask why?


Until relatively recently, many factors conspired to keep sport as an academically marginalized discipline. Its emphasis on the body, spectatorship and competitive performance is the opposite of the refined culture traditional scholars wish to cultivate in the wider population [3]. Also, the potential claim of any citizen to be an expert on a form of popular culture that daily surrounds them makes it curiously difficult to study. Attempts to assert the authority of a serious scholar are often met by ridicule, hostility, or both [3]. That said, the increasing volume of data produced, its expanding web of relationships, and its ability to snare billions of eyeballs, have made sport an irresistible subject for academic exploration and commercial exploitation. Scholarly and market institutions are finally starting to apply powerful frameworks and analytic technologies to the task of better understanding sports as a global cultural phenomenon, and working to manipulate it in search of new breakthroughs and profit [10, 11]. In some instances these are tested tools borrowed from other disciplines, but increasingly they are original, and used in sports first.


Sport currently offers a landscape of opportunity to serious thinkers willing to overcome traditional biases and prejudices. Those ready to engage sports analytically will be rewarded with a chance to shape a new and more just narrative, while the rest may one day find themselves day playing cricket with the Taliban.


[1] Wigmore, T. (2017). “Afghanistan and Ireland Are Poised to Join Cricket’s Elite”. The New York Times. June 20, 2017. Retrieved from

[2] Miller, T. (2003). “The Overproduction of US Sports and the New International Division of Cultural labor”. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38, no.4:427-40. Retrieved from

 [3] Rowe, D. (2004). “Introduction: Mapping the Media Sports Cultural Complex”. Critical Readings: Sport, Culture, and the Media. 2003. Retrieved from

 [4] Birrell, S. (2000). Reading sport: critical essays on power and representation. Northeastern University Press. 2000. Retrieved from 

[5] Pelis, M. (2006). “Modern Society, Sport, and Lifestyle – Together Forever”. Movement – the Art of Life II – preprint . June 2012. Retrieved from 

[6] Wood, R. (2012). “A Brief History of Sports”. Topend Sports. June 2012. Retrieved from

[7] Lenz, T. (2014). “67 Human Universals”. Design Anthropology. 2014. Retrieved from

[8] Friedman, H. (2013). “When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhod?”. The Atlantic. September 20, 2013. Retrieved from

[9] Kane, M. (2011). “Expanding the Boundaries of Sports Media Research: Using Critical Theory to Explore Consumer Responses to Representations of Women’s Sports”. Journal of Sports Management. 2011, 25:202-216. Retrieved from

[10] Steinberg, L. (2015). “CHANGING THE GAME: The Rise of Sports Analytics”. Forbes. August 18, 2015. Retrieved from

 [11] MIT. (2017). “Sports Analytics”. MIT Sloan Management Review. October 2017. Retrieved from





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