Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 11, 2013

Examining the Games He Once Played

Robert Podhurst, an athlete-turned-sociologist, has a unique take on his field.

Michael Gluckstadt

It's easy to lose sight of just how young a phenomenon the modern athlete is. Before the sports-industrial complex took off in the last few decades, the line between athlete and civilian was much blurrier. Star players like Sandy Koufax and Wilt Chamberlain took jobs in the offseason, not to expand their personal brand empires, but because they needed the cash.

Robert Podhurst
"It is important to recognize that sport involves a number of elements inherently antagonistic to play."

Robert Podhurst

It worked the other way, as well. One day in the late 1960s, Robert Podhurst was shooting hoops on a kibbutz in northern Israel. The next, he signed to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv, a perennial Euroleague contender.

Today, Podhurst's experience as an athlete informs his current job, teaching the sociology of sport at Montclair State University in New Jersey. "It sensitized me to the complexity of the subject, beginning with the inherent conflict between play and sport," he tells Gelf.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Podhurst tells Gelf how the game was different when he played; why soccer and baseball have taken off in select areas of the globe; and which Jewish ballers you wouldn't want any part of.

Gelf Magazine: How did you come to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv?

Robert Podhurst: I was a volunteer in the Six Day War; when the war was over, I was on a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee shooting baskets on an outdoor court. A fan with some connections recommended I take the four-hour bus trip to Tel Aviv and contact Maccabi Tel Aviv. I followed his advice; fortunately, the coach was there with a team manager. I auditioned for an hour, signed a contract, and moved into an apartment that evening. I wound up starting and played several seasons.
After leaving Israel to complete my PhD, I returned in the mid-'70s and elected to play for Maccabi Ramat Gan, another team in the Premier League. Two years later, we moved to the Upper Galilee, I bought a farm (which we still own) and signed with Hapoel Galil Elyion, a team situated in the 2nd league. Two years later, we were undefeated and moved up to the Premier League. I played another four years before returning to the States.

Gelf Magazine: What was life like for an athlete in that era compared to today?

Robert Podhurst: There are several important differences between basketball in the 1960s through the mid '70s and today's athletic scene: a) extremely modest salaries; b) quality friendships forged with teammates; c) opportunities to compete against NBA stars in postseason tournaments; d) at that time, college and NBA teams consisted of a head coach and one assistant and few players engaged in weight training; and e) relentless commercialism defines the modern sport scene.

Gelf Magazine: How have your experiences as an athlete informed your career as a sports sociologist?

Robert Podhurst: It sensitized me to the complexity of the subject, beginning with the inherent conflict between play and sport.

Gelf Magazine: Interesting. In what way are "play" and "sport" at odds?

Robert Podhurst: I apply Weber's methodological construct ideal type when examining play, game, and sport, i.e., each of these social forms are defined by specific characteristics. For an activity to be defined as play: It must be fun and enjoyable; participation must be voluntary; typically, nothing of value is produced; location and duration of the activity is decided by the participant(s); there is none of the means-ends dichotomy that frames all sport.
Games are distinct from sport but are inherently competitive and winning is the primary objective. I will omit the half-dozen features that distinguish games from sport.
It is important to recognize that sport involves a number of elements inherently antagonistic to play; the familiar phrase "playing a sport" makes little sense because nonparticipants called coaches dictate the time "players" are allowed to compete; winning alone validates the experience. Unlike several categories of games, for an activity to be classified as a sport it must require a physical component. Games such as chess and all card games, though requiring stamina, are sedentary.

Gelf Magazine: You've spoken in the past about the differences between American and European approaches to sports. What makes for a uniquely "American" athlete? And is there a European counterpart?

Robert Podhurst: There are many important differences between the American and European sport models: a) there are no "student-athletes" in European colleges; b) the European model promotes mentoring of teen athletes by older players; c) coaches are certified.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned that Europe has no "student-athletes." Is there anything lost in muddling the purity of amateurism? Or is the NCAA running a large-scale scam?

Robert Podhurst: Amateurism is an ideology that excluded working-class athletes from competing in athletic competition (e.g., golf, track, crew, tennis, etc.). Decades before the NCAA was established, the guardians of sport were keen on restricting participation to white male gentlemen. The ideological construct "student-athlete" has nothing to do with education.

Gelf Magazine: Is there a sociological reason why the rest of the globe is more soccer-crazy than the US?

Robert Podhurst: In the mid-19th century, soccer and rugby were combined into one game; by the 1880s, two separate sport associations were formed and soccer soon became the No. 1 sport throughout Europe. Successive waves of immigration into the US from the 1880s to the onset of World War I elevated sport into becoming a primary institutional vehicle to promote assimilation, i.e., the rapid "Americanization" of the millions of newly arrived immigrants. Not surprisingly, Italian immigrants from Berra to Rizzuto gravitated to American baseball while soccer was viewed as foreign baggage.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think baseball is extremely popular in some countries in Latin America and Asia, but not elsewhere?

Robert Podhurst: The popularity of baseball in Japan, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and from Mexico to the Dominican Republic is a consequence of US military occupation and religious pastors who introduced the game. Over the past 30 years, several MLB teams have recognized the benefits derived from promoting the national pastime in these countries. One Robinson Cano validates a multimillion-dollar investment. In that vein, a growing number of MLB teams have pooled their resources in developing baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to train and identify youth with potential.

Gelf Magazine: One of the books that'll be featured at our event is Jewish Jocks, in which many prominent writers select and write about a Jewish athlete of their choosing. Who would you say is your favorite Jewish athlete? And why that person?

Robert Podhurst: I probably would say Sandy Koufax; for several consecutive years his performance and "mound presence" were extraordinary. Adding a bit of humor: After reading the book, I might have added a chapter entitled "A Thumbnail Sketch of Outstanding Jewish Athletes You Never Want to Play With or Against." Three individuals who make this list were all-American college-basketball players with personalities that produced abbreviated professional careers: Alan Seiden (St. John's); Steve Chubin (Rhode Island); and Art Heyman (Duke). I played against all three and can say with some confidence that they never missed an opportunity to antagonize. Their overall behavior precluded their having productive NBA careers.

Gelf Magazine: What do you make of the increasingly international makeup of the NBA player pool?

Robert Podhurst: The growing number of international players drafted into the NBA is a deliberate strategy conceived and implemented by Commissioner Stern for reasons which, to my knowledge, are studiously avoided by the press.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think are Stern's reasons for wanting more international players in the league? How is he implementing that strategy? And why do you think the basketball press isn't reporting on it?

Robert Podhurst: This goes back to the Second Dream Team and the growing dislike of the "street" side of the NBA, highlighted by black stars with tattoos, rap, street attire, and jewelry. In response, Stern insisted that high-school superstars would be required to wait one year before opting out of college and entering the NBA draft. The growing number of European players is more complex. Currently, close to 20% of NBA rosters consist of European imports. Race and marketing are two relevant factors. But there are few sport journalists who will take on the commissioner.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Sports
- posted on Sep 26, 14

You were out of line criticizing Heyman, Seiden and Chubin. They were All Americans and Pro players. You at best were a "B" player
and you should of done a little more research about them.

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.