Why We Should Have a Sports Studies Major

I’ve been fortunate to get to expand my repertoire of courses in sports studies over the past few years from Cultures of Basketball to Global Sports Cultures to Writing the Sporting Body.  In this time, my colleagues in the Residential College and the Department of Comparative Literature at Michigan have been supportive and for that I feel both fortunate and grateful.  But it’s important to emphasize that their support is neither a matter of chance nor of charity.  My colleagues are all exceptional scholars and teachers, with rigorous standards for research, pedagogy, and the curriculum.  Their support for the courses I’ve been developing has come because—not despite—their intelligence, integrity and commitment to higher education.  In other words, these courses exist and flourish because scholars with no special personal interest in athletics per se believe that athletics is a valuable object of study for humanities students.

I’ve written and spoken about the presence of (sometimes high-profile) athletes in my courses, specifically about the value of their presence to their classmates, to themselves, and to me.   In terms of intellectual content, while these courses deepen their understanding of the cultural terrain they’ve inherited and so empower them to shape the future of that terrain, their first hand experiences enriches and humanizes everyone’s understanding of the culture of sport.  Beyond this, their mere presence as adolescent human beings in a college classroom, alongside peers who might previously view them more as objects of media consumption not only makes us all consume sport in a different way, it permits us a glimpse of the broad and powerful potential for connection that humanities education can offer.

But these courses have also attracted a much broader and more academically diverse pool of university students who are not athletes as well.  Some of course are humanities majors and much like the students I’ve always taught in my literature and philosophy courses, some are non-humanities students looking to fulfill a humanities breadth requirement with a topic of personal interest, and some are students majoring in some non-humanities aspect of sports studies like sport management or movement science. All these students contribute something uniquely valuable to the classroom.  The “lit types” offer their disposition and skills to help amplify the courses’ emphasis on the critical analysis of narrative and society; the non-humanities students bring a fresh and skeptical eye toward some of the more speculative interpretive flights we literature people often take.  And, as the number of the latter group has increased over the years, I’ve come to appreciate their expertise in areas of sport, economics, law, science, with which I’m really not very familiar.

Already shortly after I first offered Cultures of Basketball in Winter 2011, I was beginning to fantasize about the existence of an integrated, interdisiciplinary major in sports studies.  But as I’ve learned more about the excellent sports studies work of scholars in other disciplines, at Michigan and elsewhere, as I’ve expanded my own teaching interests in the area, and, especially, as I’ve gotten to know a much larger and more varied pool of students interested in the topic, this fantasy has become something more substantial.  It still doesn’t exist at Michigan, but I’m increasingly convinced that it should.

Recently, Professor Erianne Weight, a professor at the University of North Carolina who also directs the Center for Research in Intercollegiate Athletics there, bravely proposed, in an Op-Ed piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that the scandal at North Carolina (like others elsewhere) might prompt us not to to attempt to simply cut away athletics from the university like some malignant tumor, but to more fully and systematically integrate athletics into the university curriculum.  Professor Weight concluded her piece by suggesting

Perhaps when we embrace athletics as a true part of the academy and build an academic culture and organizational structure that values education through athletics, we can foster the collaboration and transparency that have never fully existed between athletics and the academy. When we can assist our students in the pursuit of their passion through legitimate academic structures, as we do in every other discipline, the shame in college sports will subside. By embracing the art and science of athletics, we may have no more athletic-academic scandals because athletics and academics will be one and the same. Let’s take a first step by bridging the divide.

I applaud Professor Weight’s bold initiative in general terms, even if perhaps not every detail of her imagined configuration seems workable to me and though I believe she underemphasizes the role that humanities disciplines can and should play in an interdisciplinary study sports major.  Indeed, already back in October 2011, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins asked “Why shouldn’t we let kids major in sports?,” arguing that

High-performance athletes study a craft, with a science, theory, history and literature, just like music or dance or film majors do. Varsity athletes deserve significant academic credits for their incredibly long hours of training and practice, and if they fulfill a core curriculum they deserve degrees, too.

I might differ with respect to the details, but I concur completely with this general way of seeing the issue.  At Michigan, for example, students in the creative writing program must take a comprehensive array of courses in the history and theory of literature, likewise students who wish to become filmmakers or architects or actors or musicians.  Jenkins is right that athletes study a craft (and, I would add, an art) and if we admit that, it becomes hard for me to understand why there should not be a major available to them whereby they may supplement their practical development with study of the various economic, legal, moral, scientific, and cultural dimensions of that craft.  Moreover, at the same time, other students with specific interests pertaining to sports could follow those tracks as part of a balanced, integrated course of study in a sports study major.  They’d no longer have to find ways to work their passion for sporting culture in alongside the demands of majors such as English, History, Sociology, or Economics.  Such a major could even include hands on participatory sporting experiences for majors who aren’t varsity athletes, thus enhancing their academic understanding of sporting phenomena within a more embodied experience.

Some object that this would further segregate athletes from their non-athlete peers.  But this simply betrays, in my opinion, an ignorance of how the academic study of sports actually works in the classroom, as my own experience above suggests. These courses actually integrate these two populations.  Others may object that sports are not a legitimate field of academic study.  Again, I believe that this can only come from an ignorance of the depth and breadth of scholarship in the discipline, as I once had to argue to a skeptical colleague.  Sports may not be a traditional object of academic inquiry, but neither was, at one time, cinema, or American literature or engineering or, really, anything other than grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  The onus, it seems to me, is on those who object to explain why, rationally, athletics should be singled out as unworthy of organized, concentrated study.

Many who object to this (judging from the comments on Professor Weight’s Op-Ed piece) also object to paying student athletes and sometimes conflate the two issues. But it seems to me that if you believe that a college education is adequate compensation for student-athletes, then you have a strong responsibility to provide that education. At our Values of College Sport symposium at Michigan last fall, my colleague Rob Sellers, as part of an argument against paying college athletes, argued that we should, instead, make good on our promise to actually educate the students who represent the university in intercollegiate sports.  Those of you who follow me will know that I don’t see this as an either-or situation.  We can pay athletes and make good on our promise to actually educate them.  But, regardless of whether we pay them, our integrity as educators depends on our offering a challenging, relevant, and coherent educational opportunity for all our students.

I believe that creating an interdisciplinary sports studies major would be an ideal first step, at an institutional level, in fulfilling our obligation to these students, just as we already fulfill our obligation to aspiring filmmakers, writers, architects, musicians, and, indeed, scientists, doctors and engineers.  It would, moreover, represent a real attempt to remedy a problem many academics lament: the segregation, at the levels of both student life and academic experience, of athletics from academics. If my experience teaching hundreds of Michigan students in such courses over the past few years is any education, all of us—professors, athletes and students who are not varsity athletes—have everything to gain by undertaking the experiment.

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