Sports ‘no sanctuary from drugs, racism and corruption’ — but studying it can still be fun

For generations of fans and sportswriters — romantic hacks and ink-stained T.S. Eliots alike — the arrival of baseball season has signified revival, the renewal of hope, the spirit’s peaceful reawakening from the slog of winter and the barrage of adrenaline-fueled games that are, by design, metaphors for war.

Leora Lawton

Leora Lawton (Peg Skorpinski photo)

So it is, in a way, for Leora Lawton, who has devoted this spring semester to resurrecting “Sport as a Social Institution,” a course created here decades ago by the celebrated sociologist Harry Edwards. Lawton, an Angeleno-turned-A’s fan, has not only reconnected with America’s one-time national pastime, but with UC Berkeley (her alma mater) and teaching itself. Were she the type to wear her insignia on her sleeve, however — or her baseball cap, if she had one — it wouldn’t be that of the Blue and Gold, or even the green-and-yellows.

It would be — would have to be — that world-renowned emblem of death and rebirth, the Grateful Dead’s skull-and-roses logo.

“I wouldn’t say I was a hardcore tour person,” says Lawton, who discovered the Dead as a Cal undergrad in the mid-1970s, and then — after spending much of the next decade working and studying in Israel — picked up where she left off as a grad student at Brown University. Unlike the band’s true religionists, “I stayed in motels, and if there were conferences I stayed in hotels. There was one time when someone at a conference actually asked me, ‘How come the Grateful Dead always follow you?'”

The death in 1995 of Jerry Garcia, the group’s iconic leader, left “an entertainment gap in my life,” she notes wryly. She eventually filled it in part with baseball, a sport she’d enjoyed growing up. But it wasn’t until she lost a brother to lymphoma that Lawton — who’d earned her Ph.D. during the 1990s recession, when jobs in academia were hard to come by — decided she’d had enough of conducting market research in the private sector.

“You ask yourself what you’re going to do with your life,” she explains.

The answer, for Lawton, was to become the academic she’d set out to be. She hired on as an adjunct professor at Alliant International University in San Francisco, where she taught graduate research methods for several years. Hoping to play at a higher level, though, she wrote the chair of Berkeley’s sociology department to offer her services, and by 2007 was teaching deviance — supplementing her lecturer’s pay as a home-based research consultant (still her chief source of income) and, since 2008, as the part-time executive director of the campus’s interdisciplinary Berkeley Population Center.

After reading “30 or 40 books” about baseball — “I’m an academic at heart,” she laughs — she began to think about teaching “Sport as a Social Institution,” which hadn’t been offered at Berkeley since the 1990s. (Edwards, a sometime consultant for the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors, retired from the sociology faculty in 2000.)

“I thought it would be a good way to introduce students to the parameters of sociology of race, and ethnicity, and sex, and age, and class, and business, and politics, and all that perfectly wonderful sociological stuff we do, and do it in a fun kind of way,” she explains. “That was the goal of this class.”

The description recalls Edwards, of whom the New York Times Magazine once wrote, “No other single figure in sports has done as much to make the country aware that the problems of the larger culture are recapitulated in sports, that the arena is no sanctuary from drugs, racism and corruption.”

Lawton, whose scholarly papers include one titled “Why are there so many Jewish Deadheads — and why should we care?,” brings her own sense of playfulness to the class. The coursework this semester includes a field trip to see the A’s at the Oakland Coliseum, the venue for decades of Bill Graham-produced “Days on the Green.” (The Dead appeared there a number of times, and held forth regularly at the nearby arena.)

At one recent lecture — the class is held, coincidentally, in a chemistry lab in Latimer Hall — students were treated to a screening of the monster YouTube video “Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No,” an animated retelling of the Pittsburgh pitcher’s 1970 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, a feat he claimed to have achieved while psychedelically enhanced. That was the segue to a broader discussion of drug use by athletes, including Giants ace Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner, and swimmer Michael Phelps, who holds the record for most gold medals in a single Olympics. (Lincecum was fined $250 for buying a pot pipe after being stopped in his car with three grams of marijuana; Phelps apologized for “regrettable” behavior after a British tabloid published a photo of him inhaling from a bong at a party.)

First, though, came a homework review: an analysis of a chapter of Sugarball, sociologist Alan Klein’s 1991 examination of the complex social, cultural, and political implications of the growing importance of baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Contextualizing high performance

“In sociology, one of the mottos is ‘Context is everything,'” Lawton says. “Look at Dock Ellis’s experience. Here he walks up to the ballpark and there’s a woman sitting in the front row handing out speed. And why are the players taking it? It’s because of the expansion, they’re traveling to games across the country to accommodate the TV schedules.” (Four new teams, including the Padres, were added to the major leagues in 1969.) “So in order to simply be able to function, they’re strongly encouraged one way or the other to use these illicit drugs, which are not particularly good for you.

“When you realize that all that behavior happens not because of individuals trying to cheat, but because they’re simply trying to cope with the reality that’s been handed to them,” she adds, “you can start to look at steroid use differently.”

And while Ellis’s acid adventure was, by his own account, an accident of bad timing, he did perform sensationally — despite the fact that LSD is not, by most metrics, a performance-enhancing drug. Similarly, Lawton says, “you look at a Tim Lincecum or a Michael Phelps and say, well, if they’re using pot, maybe — maybe — our attitudes about marijuana use and what its problems are might be off.”

What she wants of her students, she says, is “to question assumptions, to understand the context in which behavior occurs, and the motivations behind it.” That, in part, is their field-trip assignment: “Choose some particular focus, for example, how families behave, what’s going on in terms of leisure for families at a baseball game. What are you seeing, how do you know that, what’s the evidence in what you’re seeing that leads you to that conclusion?

“That’s something one does in sociology,” Lawton says, “and I think it’s something one does in one’s career, almost regardless of what you go into.”

She notes that some of her students don’t care for sports, “but they’re fascinated by why other people like sports so much, and they want to get a sense of it. And I would say if there’s one area I need to focus on more, and that I want to focus on more, it’s why fans are fans. If I ever write a book, that’s my book.”

She’ll be teaching the course again come fall, when she hopes to have most of the kinks ironed out. “I knew it would take a heck of a lot of work, because every new-class prep takes a lot of work. I had a certain perspective on how I wanted to teach it, but I knew I’d be learning as I went along, and that’s certainly the feeling I’ve had,” she says.

“The way I’ve approached it is, here’s a way you can look at society with the tools of sociology. And we’re just looking at this one institution. But if you looked at education, if you looked at music, you’d be able to use this same approach,” Lawton says. “I think you can do it with anything. I just think sports is more fun.”

“And fun’s good,” she adds, “because life is short.”