In my research and teaching on the culture of sports, I’ve oriented the intellectual tools of my discipline toward helping my readers and students understand and reflect critically upon how the language and stories that prevail in the culture of sports have taken shape, how and why we consume and purvey them, and, above all, how we may empower ourselves to become, as Nietzsche put it, the poets of our lives; how, I mean, to take a more active and creative role in shaping the language and stories, including those pertaining to sport, that circulate around and through us.
“Cultures of Basketball,” which was my first effort in this regard, is an advanced undergraduate humanities course with a typical enrollment of around twenty five. Because demand for the course is high, and given the way registration operates at Michigan with athletes and more advanced students having priority in course selection, the course usually has a high percentage of seniors from a variety of disciplines and varsity athletes including members of the men’s varsity basketball team.
Here’s what I see when I walk into Cultures of Basketball on the first day: a certain number of “basketball players,” whose names I usually already know, and a certain number of “students” or “non-players,” whose names I don’t. I’m certainly not proud of this, but I think it’s worth reflecting upon. To begin with, it’s clear to me that I’m not alone. The students who aren’t basketball players (including many who are athletes in other sports) appear star-struck to varying degrees, somewhat disoriented by the flesh and blood presence of these young men who until now, as fans, they’ve primarily seen on a television screen or from the stands in the Crisler Center. The basketball players, meanwhile, tend to sit together, as do the athletes from other sports. But unlike those other athletes, the basketball players seem shy and almost suspicious, or at least cautious. Perhaps they are aware of their status in the eyes of other students, aware that they are—on this campus anyway—public figures, who must weigh their words and actions carefully. Perhaps they have internalized or are at least sensitive to the common public view that they are somehow not “real students.”
All in all, that first day feels tense to me, fraught with division and a kind of defensive, mutual wariness that strikes me as emblematic, if not symptomatic, of the strain that our model of intercollegiate athletics and the social values it expresses can place on education. For it’s not just a matter of a simple, superficial impression. Rather, undergirding that superficial impression, a number of other dichotomous categories are at work. I’m thinking, for example, of how those “students,” as fans of the players, are consumers in the entertainment industry and thus relatively passive, whereas the players, in that same industry, are producers and so relatively active. I’m thinking, too, of the presumption that the students at the University are primarily there to do something with their minds, and the basketball players to do something with their bodies. Finally, it’s difficult and probably undesirable, not to notice that the majority of the basketball players are African-American (and, moreover, that the majority of the African-Americans in the class are basketball players), and that the vast majority of the rest of the students are white.
The Conceptual Toolbox
In a lecture first delivered in 1909, when basketball was really taking off, the American philosopher William James warned against what he called “vicious intellectualism” or “the abuse of naming.” He defined this as “the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name’s definition fails positively to include.” Offering an example of how it works, he said you might as well argue that “a person whom you have once called an ‘equestrian’ is thereby forever made unable to walk on his own feet.” James is describing how we turn partial impressions of things and people into confining pseudo-definitions. So, we might as well argue that a person whom we have once seen as a ‘non basketball player’ is thereby forever made unable to shoot a ball at a hoop. Or we might as well argue that a person whom we have once seen as a basketball player is thereby forever made unable to write an academic paper or formulate an argument in a class discussion.
I think James nicely captures the deforming impact of the way my students and I see at the start of class. We basically strip away from all the students all the capacities and potentials that are not positively included in the labels we’ve placed on them. I sometimes think of these names or labels as filtering lenses. And whatever change I need as a teacher to make in myself is a change I need to make also for them, one that entails getting my own deforming, reducing lenses off so that I can do all the other things I’m supposed to do as a humanities professor: get them to see that they have lenses too, get them to see where the lenses come from, get them to see the goodness that is obscured by those lenses, and then help them to cultivate and draw forth—through the layers of fear, the inhibition, the shyness—all those abilities, capacities, potentials, and desires that the lenses kept me (and to various degrees each of them) from seeing, knowing, and activating.
A kind of philosophical teammate of James, John Dewey (who, incidentally, was teaching philosophy at Michigan around the time that James Naismith was inventing basketball), argued for the need to come up with a better way of modeling how we know things. The problem, as he saw it, was with what he called—so aptly in this context—“the spectator notion of knowledge.” In that way of defining knowing, we would-be knowers imagine ourselves standing outside the world, passively observing the stuff we would like to know about; the way we might watch and analyze a basketball game on television. That stuff becomes a fixed object to us and we figure that by analyzing it deeply enough, perhaps by running it through some experiments to see how it behaves under different conditions, we will come to know it.
Let me return to my class: player versus student, producer versus consumer, active versus passive, bodies versus minds, black versus white: I think it’s fair to say that these make a good start on a list of troublesome dichotomies defining intercollegiate athletics; certainly, but perhaps not only, the revenue-generating sports. At least, that’s how economist Roger Noll seemed to see it when he wrote that big time college athletics were a system whereby “poor, primarily black students are used to finance the educational and athletic activities of wealthy white students.” I see overcoming these dichotomies as they operate in all of us in the classroom as one of my primary educational responsibilities in the course.
To do so, I find useful Dewey’s description of the alternative he proposed to the spectator theory of knowledge: “the self becomes a knower . . . in virtue of a distinctive way of partaking in the course of events. The significant distinction is no longer between the knower and the world; it is between different ways of being in and of the movement of things.” In other words, Dewey proposed valuing knowledge as a hands-on process of getting mixed-up in the things we want to know about, and recognizing and reflecting upon the different ways we have of doing so. In that sense, the significant distinctions to be explored in Cultures of Basketball lie not between so-called players and so-called students, but among the two dozen or so different ways of being in and of the movement of the culture of basketball as it unfolds in real time before our eyes in our classroom.
Fixing the problem: the classroom
It seems obvious to me that facilitating this process of becoming knowers ought to begin with me. That means, first of all, sharing my initial perception with my class, as well as sharing why I believe that perception is something to struggle to overcome I’m talking about calling this out in an informal way: “I can’t help but notice that I’ve already divided you up mentally into ballers and fans. And I assume you see yourselves the same way from the way you’ve segregated yourselves in the classroom. I hope that through this course we can figure out why we’ve done that, what’s wrong with it, and how not to do it in the future.” In doing so, I’m trying to model for them the kind of openness and desire for integrity that I hope they’ll be able to achieve in their own class participation. Of course, I’m also beginning to draw attention to the fact that in this particular course, our own attitudes and experiences are inseparable from the ostensible subject matter of the class and that this is a good thing, not a problem.
Meanwhile, I try to create conditions in which all students themselves can practice fixing what might be wrong with their way of seeing. This entails some of the practices that most people probably think of as at least reasonably appropriate for a college classroom in the humanities. In other words, students read scholarly perspectives, listen to lectures, and participate in discussions about the history of the culture of basketball and the ways in which it has put lenses in front of our eyes that lead us to see what we see when we walk through the classroom door for the first time. They also select from a menu of individual and collaborative assignments, including both traditional papers and more unconventional tasks, to begin to practice doing for themselves what they, hopefully, are noticing that I am modeling for them: the effort to take the lenses off, exchange them for others, or at least polish them up a bit.
In this way, students, who are also fans, transform themselves into active producers, rather than merely passive consumers, of the culture of basketball and, in the process, perceive the celebrity athlete in their midst as a peer, a student, a human being, a vulnerable adolescent in transition like themselves. Meanwhile, those “basketball players” become the students they always have been, challenged to reflect intellectually on what they do and the broader social and cultural context in which they do it and to articulate their positions in discussion with classmates or in papers for me. Everyone learns to craft their own story and to respect the story of others. But, as indispensable and valuable as these activities are, they aren’t in my view the most important way that we in the class become active knowers.
Fixing the problem: the court
I’m pretty sure that probably nothing we do in Cultures of Basketball looks less academically rigorous or important than the intra-class 3 on 3 tournament we hold at the end of each semester. That’s right. And yet if we take seriously Johan Huyzinga’s argument that play, which he saw as the substrate of all human civilization, is, essentially, freedom, you might begin to see why I feel that our little tournament embodies, culminates and, eventually, supersedes all the “traditional looking” academic work that has come before. So that I’ve come to believe also that perhaps nothing I do as a teacher does more towards realizing my educational goals as a humanities professor.
For the sake of brevity, let me quickly summarize how the tournament works: first, the idea comes from the students and is not a course requirement; second, the students organize the tournament entirely, forming themselves into committees in charge of creating teams and brackets, selecting nicknames, securing a venue, designing logos, printing jerseys, documenting the event, and creating and distributing awards; third, I play in the tournament; fourth, the UM basketball players and other, especially large elite athletes who volunteer, are distributed evenly among the 3 member teams; and finally, the tournament is played during our free time after the semester has ended.
The tournament takes what we’ve been doing in the classroom all semester and shows students that this same thing can happen on a basketball court, with our bodies and with fewer words. In that sense, it is, as I sometimes jokingly call it, the laboratory or workshop component of the course. But that’s not really right. It’s really just an extension of the classroom: we sit at desks, we read books, we write and talk with words, we set picks, we catch bounce passes, we shoot jumpers, we help on defense, and we talk with dunks. We think and act, we cooperate and compete. And then it expresses our overcoming of deficiencies in our perception, our thought, and our practice. It becomes a celebration of humanity, growth, connection, and friendship.
I’d like to conclude by sharing three brief anecdotes that I hope will convey what this experience can mean.
Fixing the problem: three stories
A couple of years ago, for the 2013 version of the tournament which the student naming committee had dubbed “CoB 2.0: Unleashed,” I walked into the Central Campus Recreation Building with my teammate, nicknamed “Jam” and also known as Jimmy King, member of the famed University of Michigan freshman class of 1991 known as the Fab Five. Jimmy, who had visited the class as a guest lecturer a few weeks before, shook his head and said something along the lines, of “Damn! I haven’t been in here like twenty years! We used to have some great games in here.”
Of course, the two teams Jimmy played on that reached the NCAA championship game have received from the University no official acknowledgement or recognition for their achievements. On the contrary, the banners remain tucked away, a reminder, former President Coleman said, of a shameful period in Michigan history. But walking on campus with Jimmy, its obvious to me that he is moved in complex ways by this visceral reminder of his college experience.
And official disregard notwithstanding, it’s also obvious that Jimmy and his teams still mean a great deal to people at the University. At our tournament, he was asked to sign countless autographs: by other students in the CCRB, by parents of my students who were attending the tournament, and even by CCRB staff members. He did so not only patiently but with enthusiasm, posing for pictures and engaging everyone in conversation. Here’s Jimmy signing one of I don’t know how many autographs he was asked to sign by current UM students, parents, staff members who recognized him instantly.
Our team, Old Skool Ballers (Gil aka G-Baby Naamani, and fourth man and Cultures of Basketball alumnus Ron “The Professor” Beach joined Jimmy and me), made a solid run. We went into the semi-finals having won our first three games. In the semi’s we faced WTF Are You Ewing? also undefeated, consisting of Lauren Brandt, Mitch McGary, and Evan King. But we were stiff, tired and really our bodies just couldn’t keep it up.
Now, at a certain point in one of our games that year, Mitch McGary, at that time a freshman on the UM team whose breakout performance during the NCAA tournament put him in a position to make a decision about whether to turn pro or not during our last week of classes, inbounded the ball to his teammate Lauren Brandt who began the semester as a non-player in my eyes and whom I was guarding. Mitch, guarded by Jimmy, cut around Lauren, who dropped off a little bounce pass to him as he passed her. Jimmy followed Mitch, but was partially screened by Lauren. I remained rooted by age and infirmity to my spot on the floor, thus failing to provide help defense. Mitch saw that he’d gained a step on Jimmy along the baseline went under the basket and then up for a reverse dunk. Mitch, who had been idolized by his classmates, in turn idolized Jimmy King, proudly telling me later that Jimmy was following him on Twitter. Mitch, Lauren and their teammate, tennis player Evan King went on to win our tournament championship and the awards committee named Mitch Most Valuable Player.
But it wasn’t just Mitch’s time. One of his teammates, Lauren, also known as Sweet n LoLo, wrote me that she’s always loved basketball but for most of her life she’s been a spectator and when she does get to play it’s shooting games like horse or around the world. Here is Mitch placing the Championship medal around her neck:
She told me:
I loved that I didn’t feel like I was letting anyone down in this tournament. I could shoot and miss and that was okay. I tried. We were in it together. The last game, Mitch told me I was “clutch”. That’s right! He also kept saying that it was the team and not him (which I am not so sure that is true…like at all, but he really made me at least feel like the three of us did it together).
After the tournament the first thing she did was call her dad, who called her Champ and Sweet n LoLo (her official nickname) for three days. That weekend, after the tournament was over, she went home and she and her dad went down to the park on the corner to shoot hoops.
At the end of the tournament, after the awards have been handed out, after everyone has friended each other on Facebook, we all pose for a class picture.
I’m proud that when I look at that picture, all of us squeezed together, sweating and smiling, in our brightly colored jerseys with the tournament logo printed on the front, I really have to try hard to pick out the basketball players in the group. I just see “Speedy” and “Ratboy Genius,” “Wild Bill” and “Chicago,” “C-Love” and “Cage” and, well, you get the idea.