A Case for Studying Sports

Yesterday, in a large, public meeting with university colleagues from a variety of disciplines that was devoted to a discussion of intercollegiate athletics, especially as these pertain to academics, it emerged that I offer a course on the Cultures of Basketball.  Near the very end of the meeting, one colleague surprised me by saying something along the lines of “You teach a course called Cultures of Basketball? I’d like to know how that is a legitimate course for academic study.”  He insinuated that because athletes take the course it must somehow be not a real course and expressed a concern about “public perceptions.”  Numerous colleagues in the meeting stepped up, in various ways, to call out the question as inappropriate.  Today, the colleague wrote me to apologize and to ask if he might sit in my class when I offer it next term.  I mulled over various possible responses, but finally decided that this was an opportunity to educate a colleague about what I do and why it is in fact not only legitimate but valuable.  So I wrote him.  A friend has asked me if I’d be willing to share my reply.   I want to be clear: I’m not sharing this to inflame or to shame, but rather to educate.  I believe my the assumptions my colleague held about sports studies courses are probably widely held, both by university faculty and administrators and by the general public.  I’m hoping that this brief explanation can help erode those assumptions.  So here it is, below, redacted only to preserve the anonymity of the colleague and to eliminate a few errors.

“Thank you for your message. It’s not easy to apologize and I appreciate that you took the initiative and time to do so. And I’m happy to accept your apology.

To respond to your candor in kind, I must say I felt taken aback, and then insulted, by your question. And if you will indulge me, I’d like to explain. I was taken aback, I think, because the academic field of which my course represents a part is actually quite a long-standing and well-established one. Going back more than a half a century, sociologists and economists and then scholars from a variety of disciplines (philosophy, political science, history, literature, anthropology) interested in the critical study of culture have developed an extensive interdisciplinary scholarly area of sports studies including professional associations, numerous peer-reviewed journals, annual conferences, academic units in universities and special series in academic presses and so forth. I’ve only turned to this field in the past five years, but the intelligence and depth of the many scholars working within it is already evident and in some way second nature to me. My course grows out of that academic field and so I was a bit taken aback that someone wouldn’t be aware of it. Of course, there are numerous specialized areas of study in which my colleagues around the university work of which I am totally ignorant so that I don’t feel that such a lack of awareness alone is in itself a problem.

The problem, and what caused me to feel insulted, was that given your lack of awareness, your assumption was that it must not be a legitimate course (or, by extension, part of an existing and legitimate academic field). I’m sure you can imagine how it might feel for someone to presume, simply because they are unaware of your field of expertise, that courses you offer in that field might be illegitimate. I, to give you a random example, am completely ignorant of pharmaceutical science and of what might happen in a pharmaceutical science classroom. But imagine if out of that ignorance and, say, thinking only about a television series like “Breaking Bad,” I made assumptions that such courses offered drug dealers an opportunity to learn how to make or improve their product. I’m sure that professor would feel insulted. I’m also sure that it would never occur to that professor that someone might make that assumption because the legitimacy and value of pharmaceutical science goes unquestioned in the academy. Sports studies, and many other humanistic disciplines, however, are frequently questioned, especially in today’s higher education environment, which tends to place a premium only on those fields that are conventionally considered to lead to well-paying careers.

Sports studies scholars like myself frequently suffer from the perceptions of colleagues, familiar only with salacious stories in the news media, that we aren’t real scholars or teachers. And yet sport, going back to classical civilizations, has played a significant and varied role: both reflecting and influencing cultural and political trends and events. In that sense, studying sports can help illuminate one aspect of civilization. For example, yesterday, before our meeting, I lectured in my Global Sports Cultures class. In order to talk to my students about the culture of boxing in the United States, we had to talk about slavery, post-abolition segregation and Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. In order to help them understand the significance of a figure like Muhammad Ali, moreover, we had to talk about the Olympics, religion, Vietnam War, anti-colonial movements in Africa and campus protest here at home. Of course, we also had to reflect on the ways in which the kinds of qualities—intelligence, courage, perseverance—that helped make Ali a successful boxer might carry over beyond the ring and enable him to take the various stands he took on human rights and political issues outside the ring. I could do all this because excellent, rigorous scholars specializing in sports studies had done the necessary legwork to establish important connections, that I could then share with my students.  I trust you’ll agree with me that it’s important for our students to graduate from the University with an understanding of American history and the role that issues of race, international relations and political dissent have played in that history. And of course, that’s just a small sample of the kinds of things we can— and that I do—get our students to learn about and to learn to think critically about by studying the role of sport in society.

As for the presence of athletes in such courses, I sometimes compare it to the presence of performance musicians in courses on the history of music. It seems natural to me that when you’ve devoted a considerable part of your life developing a proficiency in an activity, you’d like to know more about the history of the activity you’re involved in. Creative writers take courses in the history of literature, artists in the history of art. My late father, who was a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin, spoke to me often of the importance that understanding the history of medicine and science had for his research and teaching. So why wouldn’t athletes be in a course like this, and why wouldn’t we want them to be, if they have humanistic inclinations? Why would their presence make a course any less legitimate than a course on the modern short story in which a certain percentage of the students were aspiring creative writers?

Regarding public perceptions, we may discuss and reasonably disagree about the degree to which we in the university should concern ourselves with public perceptions. My own feeling is that when these perceptions are uninformed and those holding them show no interest in becoming informed, they are not my concern. If, on the other hand, the perceptions are either informed or those holding them show a clear interest in becoming informed, I take it as one of the most important parts of my job to communicate with members of the public about what I do, why it matters to my students and me, why it might matter to them as well, and why it’s a valuable part of the university curriculum.

I hope all this makes sense to you and helps you understand better how the situation felt from my side of the exchange.

Moving forward, I would certainly welcome a visit to my course. As you might expect, in order for your visit not to disrupt the classroom dynamic, I’d prefer if you could be a silent observer. But if that’s agreeable to you then by all means let’s touch base as the time approaches to find a mutually convenient date for your to attend.

Thank you again for your apology. I’m grateful that you were open to the opportunity to better educate yourself.”

The colleague replied to this quite graciously, again expressing his regret and his gratitude for my explanation.  He plans to visit my class in the next semester.

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