by Jeffrey Standen. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009. 344pp. Paper $30.00. ISBN: 9781594604584.

Reviewed by Curtis Fogel, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph. Email: cfogel [at] uoguelph.ca.


Jeffrey Standen’s book provides a thought-provoking account of many controversies in American sports from hyper-competitive little league baseball coaches to brawls in the National Basketball Association. Readers who are expecting dense legal discussions of the judicial aspects and processes of sports law may be disappointed in this book, as this does not appear to be Standen’s aim. Instead, Standen discusses a long list of issues in American sports and proposes his solutions for these problems. For Standen, the crux of mending the social ills of sport lies in taking sports seriously, rather than carelessly. He writes, “our carelessness about the rules of sport has yielded predictable results: our sports landscape is littered with problems, misbehaviors, bad incentives, misunderstandings, and inept rules” (p.xix).

Jeffrey Standen is a Professor of Sports Law at Willamette University in Oregon. He has taught and published extensively on various legal aspects of sport. Standen also hosts a popular website, the sports law professor, where he blogs about contemporary issues in American sport. Much of this book appears to be drawn directly from these blogs. The style, tone, and structure of the writing are as one would expect of a blog or newspaper opinion column. Sections of the book are short, to the point, and ripe with opinion. Standen’s writing, while certainly not typical of academic literature, is lively, engaging, and accessible to those who do not have a legal background. This book should be of interest to anyone – scholars, lawyers, and lay-people alike – who want to critically explore the numerous problems in American sports. This book, or sections thereof, would be particularly well suited as a text for introductory courses in sports law, socio-cultural aspects of sport, or sociology of sport.

In total, Standen details over sixty specific issues and controversies in American sports. One particularly interesting discussion pertains to the disciplining of athletes who commit deliberate acts of injurious violence during play. Debates have long surrounded the place of the law in instances of on-field violence. Typically, sports in America have existed in a state of exception to the laws on violence and assault. However, in two recent incidents in the National Hockey League, players faced criminal charges in Canadian courts for violence on the ice. Standen argues that fines within sport might actually produce superior deterrents compared to legal penalties. For instance, a National Basketball League player named Latrell Sprewell was suspended for 63 games without pay for choking his coach, which essentially resulted in a fine of $6.4 million. According to Standen, Sprewell’s fine [*698] “may have been the largest monetary penalty in human history for assault” (p.78). Standen does not, however, think that suspensions are the answer because they disproportionately penalize higher paid players, can hurt the success of the team, and can have a negative effect in the larger community. Instead, Standen proposes that simple monetary fines could produce the same deterrent without the collateral effects.

Another interesting issue that Standen discusses is the increase in drug testing in American sports. Standen argues that league commissions have developed their own addictions to drug testing and are gradually overstepping their ethical bounds. Most major amateur and professional sports leagues in the United States now have testing procedures. Standen raises three central concerns with the way this testing is being handled. First of all, many leagues test for street drugs like marijuana and cocaine without having a rationale for doing the tests. Secondly, players are forced to consent to year-round testing which can be an invasion of privacy, as they must always make their location known in the event of an off-season test. Players must urinate in front of a testing officer, which could also be perceived as an intrusion of privacy. Thirdly, typical drug policies have mandatory suspensions for positive tests of banned drugs, which do not allow for explanations or mitigation. Building on the previous discussion, suspensions also disproportionately penalize higher paid players. That is, a 10-game suspension for steroid use is not the same penalty for a player making $1 million a year as it is for a player who makes $13 million. Given these concerns, Standen suggests that testing procedures in American sport should be reassessed, and the unquestioned powers of drug-testers should be reeled back.

Possibly the most thought-provoking discussion in the book is of the ever-increasing role of the law in regulating sport. According to Standen, “law is taking over sports, and I’m not happy about it” (p.299). Standen argues that lawyers and non-lawyers alike are increasingly looking to the law to regulate sport morally. A problem with this approach, according to Standed, is that most lawyers and legal officials receive little training to assess what is and is not moral. A reliance on the law moves discussions away from what is right and wrong, toward what is legal or not. For Standen, laws are not inherently moral. To illustrate this point, Standen provides the example of Title IX, an Act that is commonly used to guarantee women’s equal access to sport. When women are denied equal access to sport in American universities, discussions move straight to debating whether it falls under Title IX; non-lawyers try to act as lawyers and resolve the case, rather than simply debating the question: “what’s best for the women’s team?” (p.300). Non-lawyers have moved away from debating moral issues from which the law can be derived and are, instead, turning to the law to create morals. Standen urges sport practitioners and scholars to say more about important issues in sport, such as gender equality, rather than citing federal statutes.

As these discussions illustrate, Standen’s book covers an array of controversial issues in American sports, and explores how these issues might be remedied. While the style and the tone of the book, written as a series of blogs or opinion [*699] articles, is a highlight of the book, this approach does have limitations. Oftentimes Standen’s opinions and solutions are somewhat crass, uncritical, and could be offensive to some readers. For instance, when reviewing some sport literature, Standen includes a section on the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition. Rather than critically examining gender representation in sport, he jesters that he did not read a single word of the magazine but rather, “only looked at the pictures” (p.102). Standen also comments on the presence of a semi-nude man in the magazine as follows: “It’s hard to describe a more disheartening moment of confusion when a man, expecting to ogle nearly naked women, sees an entirely naked man. SI should be ashamed of itself, publishing such images” (p.104). Some such opinions compromise the book as a whole, as they appear uncritical and not particularly thought provoking.

Overall, while some of his discussions may be off-putting, most are interesting, insightful, and lead the reader to think in new ways about the central role of sports in American culture. In a sense, this book provides a glimpse into the thoughts and opinions of one of the foremost scholars of sports law in the United States. As such, this book makes a unique contribution to the literature on social issues in sport, filled with ideas for scholars, legal professionals, and sport managers to further explore and discuss.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Curtis Fogel.