Edition number 20; dateline 24 July 2009

Head of the class

If I said to you my favourite sport was dressage or I visit an art gallery on a regular basis what would your view of me be I wonder? If I then added that I was a boxing coach and I had recently enjoyed a visit to Blackpool would you be confused? I think, if you are honest, you would be because I think we generally see our equestrian-following friends and art gallery visitors as being from the high social classes and this wouldn’t match the boxing, Blackpool devotee who we would probably put into the box marked ‘lower social class’. For the record, none of the above is true of the Tubster; I’m just using it as an example.

I am led to believe that social class is a thing of the past and that it doesn’t impact on our society but I’m not so sure. As I travel around this fair country of ours and talk to people, particularly in the sports industry, I still see this categorisation, even if people do it in a jokey way. Different sports definitely seem to have different classes attached to them. Sailing, equestrian sports, golf, lacrosse and rugby union all tend to be categorised as ‘upper class sports’ while football (the national game?), rugby league, table tennis and boxing are seen as the sports undertaken by the ‘masses’ and comments such as “boxing/ football/martial arts helped me climb out of the sink estate/a difficult childhood” are still heard relatively regularly. Despite being someone who has ‘bucked the trend’ by becoming heavily involved in a sport which isn’t normal for my original social class, I still, if I’m honest, make judgements about how somebody will behave by taking their sport as a guide. I should and do know better.

But before I go on, I will stop and examine whether this categorisation is all bad. Well it is very bad when it stops someone from even having a go at an activity or it stops funding going to an activity because it is seen as being an activity of either the affluent or the under class. Very often the sports and, I have no doubt, other activities are held as being upper class because they are seen as only for the rich; and this because they are perceived to be expensive. I must admit that this frustrates me. I hear many parents of swimmers, which is not normally quoted as a higher social class sport, bemoaning, quite rightly, that it costs a fortune for their child to swim competitively because of pool fees, travel costs, constant buying of new kit. And yet I hear others talking about how reasonable it has been for little Jonny or Joanna (or should that be ‘Jack and Sophie’) to take up and play golf regularly. Why am I frustrated? Because I believe that it costs lots of money in all sports the higher you go up into the system and, if added up, there is probably little difference between many of the sports in terms of costs. It has very little to do with what ‘class’ a sport is categorised in but that dedicated training as you move through the system costs plenty.

The class categorisation can be also be bad if the perception we have of an activity and/or the people taking part in it stops us having a go at something which could become a real pleasure for us. What social class we come from doesn’t make us a good or bad person. As the Michael Jackson song goes (sorry, can’t remember which one) “there is good and bad in everyone” and there are certainly good and bad in all areas of society. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate this. As regular readers both know, I come from a traditional mining area and my kith and kin reflect the working class nature of the area with a liberal scattering of labour councillors, pigeon fanciers and flat cap wearers (although no whippets as far as I know) lurking in our family tree. Yet I found myself in my mid-twenties a director of the British Equestrian Federation. It was an interesting experience in many ways – we stopped a national committee meeting once to watch Trooping the Colour – but I was privileged to work with some wonderful, intelligent, committed people who all wanted as many people taking part in their sport from as many backgrounds as possible. Admittedly, if categorised, the people on the board were more likely to be seen as of the ‘upper classes’ but they treated me with respect and it didn’t matter where I came from. I felt the same way about them; after all they were, on the whole, good people. In fact, the mix of different backgrounds enabled us to bring variety to discussions and I am sure led us to more balanced decisions. If I had categorised all people from a higher social strata than me as ‘nobs’ then I would never have met some great people who were all committed to the same thing I was.

Coming back to the ‘good or bad’ argument, I am not sure that actively categorising sports and activities into social class bands is ever good as anything which restricts entry is always a worry. But acknowledging the history and tradition is still important as this has shaped and continues to shape those sports. I think we should welcome the diversity that different groups of people bring to any sport; as they say in my neck of the woods: “It teks all sorts!”

We have been incredibly successful in the international arena in what are seen as upper class sports and this is often sweepingly put down the fact that the people in the sports are posh and rich. It is true that there may be some individuals playing a particular sport who have plenty of dosh stashed in Coutts Bank but the sports themselves rarely have access to that money. A sport that some call our national game, association football, a sport for the masses, has developed huge differences between those who can access the premiership riches and its grassroots participants. Yet football is perceived as being OK to like because it is ‘for’ the lower social classes. We should look at the sports in which we have been successful and not just dismiss their success as being down to money and privilege. I suspect some of those ever-so successful Olympic sports, such as rowing, sailing and equestrianism in particular, are successful, at least in part, because of their approach to training, competitions and military precision to planning and not as a result of the competitors being from upper class backgrounds; many aren’t. In turn, I am sure that much can be learned by the so called higher class sports from the equally successful sports of boxing and martial arts who have huge experience at taking young people who are experiencing difficulties in their life and bringing them great success.

So, where are my ramblings taking me? To this: rather than sweeping the issue of class under the table, we should acknowledge the advantages and things we can learn from each other and use them effectively. And we shouldn’t negatively pre-judge a sport or an individual taking part in a sport by social class. Remember, the Queen is a very well respected and committed pigeon fancier.


Kay Adkins is an executive board member of a county sport partnership, chair of a CSN and a member of the interim board of the National Skills Academy for Sport and Active Leisure. Kay is also managing director of KAM Ltd, which offers a range of support services in the sport and leisure industry working in volunteer/workforce development and facility development.

To find Tales from a Tub in previous issues please visit the Comment page.


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“Rather than sweeping the issue of class under the table, we should acknowledge the advantages and things we can learn from each other and use them effectively. And we shouldn’t negatively pre-judge a sport or an individual taking part in a sport by social class.”

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