From Ribery to Benzema, why do we stigmatize so many athletes?

Seghir Lazri works on the theme of the social vulnerability of athletes. In this column, he passes some clichés of sport to the screen of the social sciences, or how the social explains the sport, and vice versa.

Never has a steak been so much talked about as that recently tasted by Franck Ribery. The footballer, a favorite time, became in ten years the "black sheep", not football (he has a good career in Germany) but a certain part of French opinion. This raises the question: how, beyond the question of performance, can we explain the social stigma of an athlete?

Public Exhibition

Franck Ribery's steak or Karim Benzema's car collection is a conspicuous consummation. They do not respond to simple needs, but rather evoke demonstrations and a destruction of value, as the American economist Thorstein Veblen pointed out. While a priori, we could see a lack of moral values, this type of "excessive" behavior is mainly the result of a strong integration into the world of the sports elite. Indeed, according to the philosopher Isabelle Queval, the idea of ​​"excesses" characterizes modern sport, especially by the famous imperative of surpassing oneself; from then on, this notion will be at the heart of the athlete's socialization, fully influencing his champion ethos, both inside and outside the sporting world. The works of Christophe Brissoneau, Fabien Ohl and Olivier Aubel, on the sporting socialization of cyclists illustrate precisely that it is in fact a strong integration into the world of cycling and its learning which pushes the learners to adopt deviant behaviors, especially the use of prohibited products.

For the champions, an ostentatious attitude, especially through the public display of his privileges and his wealth, appears as the entry into a career and the consecration of a social trajectory originating in the world of high-level sport.

Edifying a conduct in social rule

Nevertheless, if these acts appear as quite "normal" for the athletes, since registered in a sports bubble, they can be considered as falling under the deviance by the public opinion, causing us to question the social norms, but also those who publish them. On this theme, the famous Chicago School offers us many elements of understanding. First of all, deviances always exist only according to pre-established standards according to the prestigious sociologist Howard Becker. Regarding sport in France, which was formed on a vision of bourgeois amateurism, the dominant norm of exemplarity is based on total dedication to practice as well as on material disinterestedness. In return for professionalism, the ideal athlete is the athlete detached material gains and dedicated to the task. But Howard Becker also explains that a norm is born and endures through action "Moral entrepreneurs", in other words, individuals who campaign to build social conduct. Thus, we can see in leaders of sports institutions (the first, like the Baron de Coubertin, being from upper social classes), moral entrepreneurs, including the establishment of a set of devices to avoid all sorts of deviances (various sanctions or setting up bonuses).

Sport as a political object invites us to consider other actors as moral entrepreneurs, especially politicians and journalists, directing the public opinion and the gaze of society. If the sociologist Stéphane Beaud qualified, for example, former Minister Roselyne Bachelot "Entrepreneur of republican morality" when she castigated the strike of the Blues and treated some of "Immature caiques", or the comments of the journalist Audrey Pulvar calling Franck Ribery on the use he makes of his wallet, also contribute to this moralization, socially blaming the behaviors of these athletes, and participating even more in their stigmatization in the name of a certain idea of ​​exemplarity.

So instead of directly targeting the athletes themselves, should not social actors, like some elected officials or some intellectuals, be more critical of institutions that structure high performance sport? Those who, through the game of marketing, push many athletes to invest excessively, the field of communication, in order to beautify their market image and build a reputation (being the right customer). The reputation, moreover, that beyond the performance is revealed, according to sports sociologist Anaïs Déas, a more than significant element to maintain a career at the highest level.

Seghir Lazri