5 for the Fab 5 @ 25

The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago.  The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond.  In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA.  The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.

Until now.

The Fab Five are returning to campus on at 2 pm, October 8th to discuss their experiences in Hill Auditorium.

In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.

1.“Free the Banners, Free Discussion” – (2013)
Op-Ed piece I wrote for The Michigan Daily in which I called for the kind of public discussion we will finally be holding this Saturday.
2.“Uphold the Heart” – (2012)
A reflection on Jimmy King’s first visit to my Cultures of Basketball course, and on the impact of the Fab Five.
3.“Where is 1968?” – (2013)
On some of the lessons about race and social activism we can draw from the Fab Five. Never more urgent than now.
4.“Alphabet Soup” – (2013)
On hype, names, and numbers.
5. “_______________” – (2013)

Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.

I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates.  Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.

But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past.  And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past.  I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.

There has been enough erasure and denial.

“An Open Letter to Chris Webber”

“Beauty” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 3)

What are we saying when we say that an athletic play is “beautiful”? This is the question to which Hans Gumbrecht turns in the second subsection of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty. You might recall that in the preceding section he defined “praise” as speech or writing, motivated by gratitude, that lays bare the complexity of forms exhibited in athletic performance and relates these to their function and effect.  How, he’s now asking, should we understand “beauty” in the context of athletics?

Gumbrecht begins by observing that, at least among intellectuals or those he calls “cultivated people,” use of the word “beauty” tends to be reserved for canonical objects of high culture such as poems and novels, paintings and sculptures, musical compositions and dramatic performances.  Aesthetic experience, he considers, is thereby reserved for an intellectual elite and divorced from everyday life experiences.


Immanuel Kant, Sporty Dude

This leads him into the first of the two major parts of this chapter, in which he turns to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who authored a highly influential treatise on aesthetics.  For those who have tangled with Kant’s famously difficult prose, this might seem like a strange resource to bring into a battle to make a common vocabulary for describing aesthetic experience available to sports fans.  But Gumbrecht contends, correctly I think, that Kant’s treatise, called Critique of Judgment, was undertaken as “an attempt to understand the implications of the everyday use of the word ‘beautiful'” (p. 39).

Though, I must say that I think Gumbrecht offers one of the most lucid summaries of Kant’s work that I have encountered, one that even my group of undergraduates with next to no experience in the humanities seemed to be able to grasp, I think there are more promising sources in the history of aesthetic philosophy for this task.  John Dewey’s Art as Experience comes to mind as a more contemporary (it was written in the 1930s), more accessible, and more persuasive attempt to redress the same cultivated aversion to the beautiful the experiences of daily life.  And, indeed, Dewey’s work has inspired some contemporary philosophers (to name just a few: Joseph Kupfer, Drew Hyland, Randolph Feezell, and indirectly Richard Shusterman) who have undertaken to understand the aesthetic dimensions of sporting experience.  That said, I do think Gumbrecht pulls off the use of Kant quite effectively.

To do so, Gumbrecht attributes to Kant four defining qualities of what we call beautiful, or, to put it slightly different, of aesthetic experience. First, it is “disinterested,” meaning not that we don’t care about what we find beautiful, but rather that in experiencing and valuing something as beautiful we are not motivated by instrumental concerns such as making money, or finding a better job, or even winning a game.  That doesn’t mean that those concerns may not play a role in creating something beautiful (Steph Curry is trying to get paid, after all, as he should be), but rather that success or failure in that regard have no impact on our judgment of the thing as beautiful (pp 40-41).

Second, aesthetic experience is felt (“an inner pleasure or displeasure”), rather than grounded in or aiming at conceptualization.  This speaks to the material basis for aesthetic experience (the very word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek word meaning simply “sensation”; so that “anesthesia” is a substance that deprives us of sensation).  Before we can think about it, we call beautiful that to which we are drawn (and “ugly” that by which we are repelled) (p. 42).

Third, aesthetic experience partakes of what Kant calls “subjective universality.”  It is an irreducibly subjective, even private or intimate, experience, but one that invites others to share in them. In Gumbrecht’s words, “our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even then invitation, for everybody to agree” (pp. 42-43).

Lastly, those objects (or activities or experiences) we tend to call “beautiful” exhibit what is usually summarized by the formula: “purposiveness without purpose” (p. 44).  It need not have a purpose, let alone the purpose to be considered beautiful, but it appears to have had a purpose or design to it.  You can think of ocean wave or an oak tree in full autumn colors.  And, indeed both Kant and Gumbrecht stress the kinship between the properties of what we call beautiful in, say, art (or sport) and what we consider beautiful in nature (p. 45).

Before moving on from Kant, Gumbrecht devotes a few, mostly dismissive words, to what Kant called “the sublime,” distinguishing it from “the beautiful.”  The sublime refers to objects or experiences that, in contrast to the formally limited nature of the beautiful, generates an experience of limitlessness, of “that which is absolutely great…in comparison with which everything else is small” and that which may threaten to overwhelm us.  Here, following Kant directly, you can think of “nature in its chaos and in its wildest and most unruly disorder and devastation.”  Gumbrecht considers that, despite the interest of many sports lovers in records which would seem to suggest an investment in quantitative greatness, the “sublime has less of an affinity with sports than does the concept of beauty.”


If this is sublime…

Maybe or maybe not.  But my students and I found ourselves thinking that Gumbrecht underestimates the role of the sublime in our aesthetic experience of sports.  We considered that action sports offer superb opportunities for spectators to experience the sublime.  And moreover, that certain exhibitions of unparalleled domination (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, for example) or of simply superlative performance under severe duress (Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” Isaiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter in a playoff game on a badly injured ankle, Curt Schilling pitching with a torn achilles tendon) can also stimulate this experience: a deep sense of awe at the overwhelming magnitude of the play or performance we’ve just witnessed.


isn’t this?

But regardless of that minor difference, the point of what Gumbrecht has done with Kant was to convince readers that “watching sports may be a case of what philosophers call aesthetic experience” (p. 48).  And in this I believe he succeeds.  But he worries that Kant may be too dry—ya think?!—and so he moves to what I find the most inventive part of this chapter.

122fffdc20137d7ba2a92016abef1310Recalling an autobiographical account by Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales of his experience as a spectator watching Evelyn Ashford running the anchor leg of the women’s 400 meter relay in the 1988 Olympics, Gumbrecht seizes on Morales description of what he saw in Ashford.  She was, the swimmer said, the “lost in focused intensity” and the power of that brought Morales back, despite reservations about the sacrifices involved, into competition after a four year layoff.  Gumbrecht breaks this phase down, riffing off each of its component terms, as a way, he hopes, to get a little closer “to an understanding of the specific beauty of sports among all other varieties of aesthetic experience” (49).

“Lost” Gumbrecht understands to be the equivalent of Kant’s “disinterestedness,” the athlete “alone with herself, lost to the world, disconnected from all the goals that made up her everyday life, even from the goals that—extrinsically or intrinsically—belong to the athletic event in which she participated” (p. 52).

“Intensity,” in the first place, refers what Morales believes describes Ashford’s feelings, “both her emotions and the perception of her own body” (p. 52).  Gumbrecht interprets this term to suggest an intensification or “heightening of qualities and impressions that always already exist for us” and concludes that “athletic experience—and aesthetic experience in general—is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” only that in this case “our physical and emotional capacities are operating close to their maximum” (p. 52).

That’s nice, and I agree wholeheartedly.  But I (nerdily) kept wanting to say “John Dewey! John Dewey!” for this is the entire point of Dewey’s own aesthetic treatise, Art as Experience, which takes as its points of departure and as the core of all aesthetic experience “the live creature” in its environment, citing as examples of the aesthetic in daily life:

“the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders. . . . the tense grace of the ball-player.”

But okay, that’s enough of my riding for Dewey. For whatever reason, Gumbrecht prefers Kant.

Lastly, the “focused” part of Morales’ formula suggests to Gumbrecht the stance that Drew Hyland has called “responsive openness” in the chapter on “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic” in his 1991 work, Philosophy of Sport.  Here, though, Gumbrecht adds something useful (and likely to be recognizable to anyone with athletic experience) by pointing out the seemingly paradoxical combination by which an athlete both excludes potential distractions and remains open to the unexpected.  There is here a hint of what Gumbrecht will dwell on in the next section defining athletics as “presence.”  But that grounded presence in the here (space) and now (time) makes the athlete available to respond gracefully to what may arise unexpectedly from elsewhere (space) in the next unfolding moment (time). A bit later, he’ll sum this up by saying “great athletes make things happen by letting things happen to themselves” (p. 56).

I find Gumbrecht at his most compelling here in his way of describing what Andrew Cooper, following athletes themselves, describes as “playing in the zone” (linking it to spiritual practices) and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.”  But we’re talking about watching sports, not playing them, remember.  So Gumbrecht brings us back to that by simply recalling his own experiences as a spectator in which that feeling of being “lost in focused intensity” have taken over: “moments when my attention grows sharper and my emotions become overwhelming” but that are ‘always accompanied by a feeling of composure” (p. 55).  He’s capturing an experience of spectatorship that encompasses partisanship (wanting your team to succeed) but goes well beyond it to include an absorption in the unfolding action that allows Gumbrecht at least to “feel I can let go and let come (or not) the things that I desire to come. I am open to the next experience, whatever it may be (p. 56).

With this passage, Gumbrecht gets at something I’ve experienced myself and that the philosopher Steven Mumford has analyzed thoroughly in his book Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion.  Though Mumford, to his credit, attempts to make room for a question raised by one of my students:  can we still call a play beautiful if the athlete making it is, off the field or court or ice, ethically repulsive (say, like Schilling)?  What is or should be, in other words, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  As I explained in my earlier posts on Gumbrecht, he’s so averse to what he dismisses as socio-cultural interpretations of sport that he really leaves no room to consider this question, which I consider a perfectly valid one.

To pivot, finally, to the next section of the book, Gumbrecht reminds us that all of this has really been about the “subjective conditions” under which “we call sports beautiful.”  But we also need to discover “whether there is anything intrinsically specific about athletic performance as an object of aesthetic experience”; anything, he wonders, “that could ‘objectively’ account for its irresistible appeal and for its so often overwhelming impact.”  But I’ll leave my account of his response to that line of questioning for my next post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of the classroom whiteboard diagram reflecting my Writing the Sporting Body students’ discussion of this reading:




Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty

Once again I’m teaching Writing the Sporting Body and once again the core text for the course is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty.  I’ve made reference to this work in some other writing on here.  But it’s a dense book, one that I consider in equal measures important and limited.  And so I’d like to use the occasion of teaching it and this space to work through some thoughts and develop my understanding of it.

For today, I’d like to just work out a kind of overview of the text by summarizing what seem to be aims and giving you an outline of its structure.  After that, I just plan to offer my readings, which is to say my understanding, interpretation, and questions concerning, the different sections of the book, in order, over the course of a number of posts.

The Book and Its Author

The book actually first appeared in a German-language edition under the title Lob des Sports in 20015.  An English edition appeared in 2006, published by Harvard University Press.  I haven’t seen the German and so I can’t speak to whether the English is a translation or substantially different book.

As for the author, Gumbrecht is a German-born (1948) Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.  In this capacity, he writes about national literatures in the Romance Languages and about European philosophy, especially French and German and especially of the 19th century.  I’m not familiar with most of Gumbrecht’s work, but what I have encountered has been very impressive to me for its erudition, its breadth and scope, the quality of its writing, and the focused attention on the relationship between everyday experience and cultural artifacts and events.  His book on sports seems primarily to grow out of his experience as sports fan, an experience that is informed by his familiarity with European philosophies of art and aesthetic experience.

What is the book about?

If you look at the book jacket, it will tell you that Gumbrecht’s book proposes “a powerful and provocative” argument that “the fascination with watching sports is probably the most popular and potent contemporary form of aesthetic experience.”  Where we fans might simply call certain athletic moves or plays “beautiful,” Gumbrecht’s book is supposed to provide “the means to explore, understand, and enjoy even more acutely the untamed aesthetic experience that our words-in-passing barely suggest.” I’m not certain who wrote this prose. But my own experience with academic publishing leads me to guess that Gumbrecht himself at least provided its main lines.

(I haven’t decided yet, but it may also be important that the blurbs for the book come from Walt Harris [at the time Stanford’s football coach], Myles Brand [then President of the NCAA], and Diana Nyad [marathon swimmer and journalist].)

How is the book structured?

The book has four main parts, preceded by a short introduction.  In outline form, it looks like this:

  1. Everyfan
  2. Definitions (theoretical reflections on the key terms involved)
    1. Praise
    2. Beauty
    3. Athletics
  3. Discontinuities (capsule histories of key periods in the history of Western sports, from classical antiquity to the present)
    1. Demigods
    2. Gladiators
    3. Knights
    4. Ruffians
    5. Sportsmen
    6. Olympians
    7. Customers
  4. Fascinations (descriptions, illuminated by examples, of some of what he believes we are drawn to in sports)
    1. Bodies
    2. Suffering
    3. Grace
    4. Tools
    5. Forms
    6. Plays
    7. Timing
  5. Gratitude (a kind of existential meditation on some of the deeper life issues that the aesthetic experience of sports can lead us to encounter)
    1. Watching
    2. Waste

I’ve organized the first seven weeks of my course around sections 1, 2, 4, and 5 (omitting “Discontinuities” from the syllabus because we’ll be getting our history in other forms). But I’m interested in the book for reasons that go beyond this course.  So here I’m planning to share my experience of reading through all twenty sections of text, section by section,  in however polished or rough a form my notes, reflections and questions may appear.  I hope it will be of some use to some readers and, as always, I welcome responses and dialogue.

What I Did in 2015

This felt like a productive, and pivotal, year for me.  So I thought I’d gather together the links to some of my professional activities during 2015…because, well, I feel proud.

In my teaching, I continued to refine Cultures of Basketball, developed an entirely new course called “Writing the Sporting Body,” and completely revamped my large lecture course “Global Sports Cultures.”

Over the summer, I had a few successful blog posts, two of which seemed especially to strike a chord: my thoughts on the deeper cultural forces that might drive the collective love affair with Steph Curry and my commentary on LeBron James and coaching.

These led to some fun media appearances: one at Over and Back on the meanings of the late Darryl Dawkinsone discussing NBA narratives with Seth Partnow, another on coaching with Nick Hauselman, and what can only be described as a cameo in Tom Goldman’s NPR story on Steph Curry.

I published a couple of academic articles, one, related to my book, on the meaning of the phrase “Ball Don’t Lie” and another, long-coming, on the cultural and political significance of Manu Ginobili’s style of play. Another article, on the myths surrounding the invention of basketball, will be published in the Journal of Sport History in Spring, 2016. I also was honored to accept a position, alongside some scholars I’ve long admired, on the editorial board of the Journal of Sports and Social Issues.

Most exciting to me was finishing up my end of the production process for my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which will hit bookstores in the spring and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.

I also began new administrative appointments at Michigan related to college athletics, which brought me new perspectives on some controversial issues such as athlete compensation and faculty involvement, both matters that I plan to get more involved in, both as a researcher and administrator.

Now, as for the pivotal part, I’m excited to announce that, with the support of Deans Andrew Martin and Angela Dillard of the Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Jimmy King and I began to plan a public symposium dedicated to examining the legacy of the Fab Five to mark the 25th anniversary of their 1991 arrival on campus. We’re still figuring out the dates and details, but it will happen sometime in 2016 and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted.

Lastly, I’ve kicked off two new essay-length research projects.  The first, in response to a call for papers on the topic of doing sport history in the digital era, is a history, contextualization, and cultural review of the rise of basketball analytics and its impact on various issues pertaining to basketball history.  The second will be something like a map of the hoops historical imagination of ESPN’s 30 for 30 basketball documentaries.

It’s been a lot of work, but the most rewarding work of my life, and I’m grateful to everyone who has played a part in this.  Thank you.

I hope you all have a prosperous, peaceful, and joyful 2016.


To go or not to go? A View from Inside Big-Time College Sports

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from the Athletic Director (AD) at the University of Michigan, inviting me and other members of the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics (ABIA) to join the “University Official Party” on a trip, courtesy of the athletic department, to watch the University’s football team compete at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida on New Year’s Day.

I have decided to decline the very generous invitation. It is not, I want to emphasize at the outset, that I think I have a complete understanding of this industry, and less that I believe mine is the only reasonable or morally appropriate response.  Far from it.  In fact, as I’m not a big football fan and the trip falls at a somewhat inconvenient moment, I really don’t think of my decision as having been primarily a moral one.

However, that’s not to say that I don’t think there are moral questions at stake, questions that go well beyond the specific issues and choices raised by this particular invitation.  Among these, I’m most interested in what role university faculty members, entrusted with the intellectual growth and overall well-being of their students, should have in relation to university athletic departments. So I share this information and, below, the feelings and thoughts that informed my decision about it in the hopes that it sheds light on the tensions at work in one small, but perhaps telling, corner of the massive entertainment industry that big time college sports has become.

Let me first share my reflections on sharing this information in this format, which I considered carefully. First, the fact that the athletic department offers this benefit to ABIA members is a matter of public record.  Likewise, all the information that I’m sharing concerning ABIA’s constitution and function come, as you’ll see if you follow the links, publicly available documents.  This is, I believe, as it should be: we are a public institution and I think our discussions regarding how to administer this institution should be available to the public. I don’t think we as a board should take positions or make decisions that we wouldn’t stand by publicly.  That said, I also respect my colleagues. Everyone I’ve worked with in this capacity has impressed me as sincere, thoughtful, and well-meaning, even when I disagree with them, and I do not wish to embarrass them or cause them discomfort.  For this reason, I have not here and do not intend in the future to share the remarks or views of my colleagues on the board, even in anonymized form.  I hope this will be sufficient to assure my colleagues of my intentions.

Now, I’m new to the ABIA and to the Academic Performance Committee (APC; a subcommittee composed of the faculty members on ABIA), having just started my first three-year term this Fall, so I confess I’m still fairly ignorant of how all this plays out in actual practice. But as I understand it, the ABIA’s role is to provide faculty input into the decisions made by the AD concerning the athletic department and the APC’s role is to provide faculty oversight concerning matters pertaining to the academic experience, performance, and eligibility of athletes—all this subject to the final authority of either the President or the Provost. There have been questions raised in the past at Michigan, and elsewhere, about whether this really constitutes adequate faculty control. (For details on the constitution and function of the ABIA and APC, and their history at Michigan, you can jump to the end of this post. As I say, everything there is drawn from publicly available documents to which I’ve provided links.)

But, seeing aside the historical details of ABIA at Michigan and beyond the specifics of the particular issue of the invitation to attend the Citrus Bowl, there remains the underlying, substantive issue, which I’ll frame in personal terms since that’s how I best process such questions: what (speaking now as a Michigan faculty member with a scholarly interest in matters of sport and society who regularly teaches students who are also athletes, and who know holds an administrative position on the only university agency through which faculty have input on the activities of the athletic department) should my role be?

I’d like, in part at least, to be the kind of person who, finding himself in this situation, can draw upon a set of stable, consistent, rationally derived moral principles to guide my decision making.  To my mild disappointment, however, I’m not locating such principles within myself.  Mostly, in fact, I’m encountering what feels like a pretty unstable mire comprised of visceral pulls and aversions, feelings, conscious and unconscious investments,  (some quite idiosyncratic, personal, and narcissistic), sparsely mixed with opinions whose strength is not quite matched by my still-growing knowledge about the issues.  It’s kind of a mess, and a mess that I find points my actions in different and sometimes contradictory directions at different moments depending on the the specific circumstances facing me.

That said, a promising, because relatively solid, starting point I find is my strong feeling of care for my students.  I’m not talking about students in general, nor about all students who are athletes. I’m saying I find I care very much about the well-being of my students, including those who are athletes.  But what does it mean, in this case, to act on that feeling? Some of my students are on the football team. I care about them and I remember that when I was an athlete, it meant a lot to me that teachers came to my games. I don’t mean to exaggerate the importance of this, but I’m sure that my football-playing students would feel some version of this.

On the other hand, they are also my students, some of whom have during this semester in my Global Sports Cultures course heard me describe the current state of research on the harmful effects of sub-concussive brain trauma sustained regularly by football players in the course of practice and games; or the vast sums of money that the NCAA and its member institutions, media conglomerates, and apparel manufacturers make off their efforts.  I’ve asked them, as I’ve asked all my students, to consider carefully their position in relation to these dynamics. What lesson—and I don’t mean this rhetorically, but genuinely—might they draw by my going to the Citrus Bowl—where they will collide with other young men as millions watch and millions of dollars are generated? I wonder.

Moreover, I care about my students not only as athletes or students, but in a holistic way; perhaps most of all in a holistic way. I feel responsibility for their growth and development and well-being as adolescent human beings.  As such, I’m concerned about the toll that their participation in college sports, as currently configured, may have on them. I don’t just mean the physical toll, but the psychological and intellectual toll. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that most of them would say that playing college sports is one of the most physically, psychologically, and intellectually satisfying parts of their life experience.  That may be true from their point of view and perhaps that is where my rumination should stop.  But I’m their teacher and mentor, not to mention their elder, with all the differences in perspective, for better and or worse, that comes with that. From that perspective, my concern only heightens precisely because they seem so innocently unaware of it. I worry, in other words, about their futures.

But I’m also a sports fan and have been for as long as I remember. What does that mean to me? It means that I’m drawn to the aesthetic beauty of athletic performance as a form of art and to the suspenseful narrative micro-dramas that unfold in the course of sporting events. It means that to some degree I’m identified with and invested in the success of particular teams, like those that represent Michigan, and to individual players, some of whom I know personally.

It means also, in my case, that I feel a desire to be in the close proximity of sports and of athletes.  I feel a rush from my personal acquaintance with athletes that others know only as distant objects, two-dimensional figures on a television screen or dots on a field or court far below their perch in the nosebleed seats.  Of course, I also know this is childish and perhaps foolish. I know—I just said—that they are just human kids and that their being constructed as heroic objects of veneration by fans, the media, and their institutions is part of the problem. In fact, this dimension of sports culture is part of what makes me averse and somewhat ashamed to be a sports fan when I’m talking to people who are not. And yet, there that childish, foolish feeling is, rising up and nudging me toward the thrill of seeing a bowl game in person (never mind that I’ve probably watched no more than a dozen of them on TV in my entire life).

Finally, what about my role as a faculty member on the ABIA? Can I really perform the independent advisory functions I have been appointed to perform when I am also accepting a gift from the university agency that I’m supposed to be independently advising and overseeing? Honestly, I feel that accepting the gift wouldn’t cause me to pull any punches I’d otherwise be inclined to throw. But maybe I’m wrong. Yet, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a structural conflict of interest involved, nor does it mean that this conflict of interest should be ignored.

Some of my students, when I shared the situation with them in class the other day, suggested that I should go because, after all, that would put me face to face with decision makers and augment the scope of my influence over them.  Maybe.  Though, if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t really believe it.  For one thing, I’m not sure that a bowl game is a place where any matters that matter are going to be discussed. As I told my students, it’s not as though I imagine getting Jim Harbaugh drunk in the hotel bar and convincing him to agree, with tearful relief, to blow up the whole system like some NCAA Mikhail Gorbachev presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet Union. My wife, who has a talent for storytelling, thought this would make a great short story, especially if it ended with me, having broken him down, berating him to “get it together, man, ’cause, after all, you got a ballgame to win tomorrow!” I wish, kind of, but I don’t think that’s how it would go down.

In fact, since I’m being honest, I’m somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of anything that matters in college sports changing as a result of the discussions and decisions that are made in the meetings of the ABIA. That’s not because of anything that has occurred in my experience so far.  And part of me understands that meaningful change in human history has sometimes occurred in piecemeal fashion.  But I also understand that these sorts of piecemeal changes don’t always add up to meaningful structural changes; indeed, that sometimes they defuse the energies that might drive more significant changes.

In this case, though I reserve the right to contradict myself and change my opinion, I see college sports changing in ways that significantly address what I see as the injustices in them only because athletes rise up collectively and threaten, as the Missouri football team did a few weeks ago, to refuse to play unless changes are made, which is why I actively support the work of the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Coalition (CARE-FC).  In the long run, I suppose my hopes for change lie in the belief that subsequent generations of athletic and university administrators, if drawn from the ranks of the more politically conscious of today’s younger generation, will imagine and implement a new system.  Maybe.

My therapist asked me today to imagine going to the game and sitting next to our AD, Jim Hackett, who in my few encounters with him has struck me as a sincere and caring person, one who has in his short time as interim athletic director left the program in better shape than he found it. What, my therapist asked me, do I imagine myself saying to him as we munch on Buffalo Wild Wings and watch, comfortable behind the plexiglass walls of a skybox, my students bashing into some Florida professor’s students on the field far below under the Florida sunshine? I had an answer straightaway. “Man, Jim, I love sports and I love my students, but I’m finding it hard to watch this.  They’re hitting each other so hard and I just can’t forget what I know may be happening to their brains on every play. What do you do with that?”  My therapist thought that would be a good thing to say. He said it sounded empathetic and inviting.  Maybe that would be good.  Certainly, I’ve found Jim to be an empathetic person.

But I must admit that the fantasies my imagination has generated—with and without therapeutic prodding—in response to this invitation suggest an investment I have in being important and being recognized as such; in being uniquely suited to somehow say the right thing, push the right button, and save the day.  “Bad Prof Fixes College Sports” the headlines in my imagination might read.  Those fantasies and the insecurities and investments they bespeak don’t feel like very promising ground from which to be making decisions.

So all this messiness might disqualify me in some eyes from holding the positions as professor, as scholar, or as board member, that I hold. I confess I feel that way myself sometimes.  But I wind up feeling that it shouldn’t be so.  On the contrary, I feel that faced with the enormous complexity of the situation called big-time intercollegiate sports in this country, and the powerful cocktail of emotions that situation stirs in just about everyone (even those who hate them and feel they have no place in universities) it might actually be better if more of the participants and decision-makers were honest with themselves and publicly forthcoming with others about their uncertainties and ambivalences.

It’s not that I’ve encountered any individuals who I’ve felt were insincere or deceptive in the their words or actions.  It’s more that I feel that there are systemic pressures in place that subtly lead all of us involved to disregard certain concerns or uncertainties as either out of place or unworkable or for some other reason not worth considering or not safe to say.  Airing these, as I’ve tried to do here might not lead to any immediate solutions. It might lead to some ultimately unproductive discussions.  Perhaps, even, it would create some chaos.  But imagine a conversation in which various “stakeholders” were free to say, “Man, we really love college sports, but this is a bit of a cluster fuck right now, isn’t it? Let’s try to do better!” or whatever their version of that might look like. Things could get interesting.  In any event, I guess I’m feeling that a little honest chaos would be preferable to what seems to me to be a somewhat dishonest order.

A History of ABIA, APC and Faculty Control Issues at Michigan

In accordance with the University of Michigan Regents’ Bylaws (section 11.58.1), I was appointed to the ABIA by the president from a panel of senate members chosen by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, subject to the approval of the Board of Regents. The ABIA also includes two members of the faculty senate, the University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), two student-athletes, two alumni, the AD (who has no vote), and an executive officer of the University.  The Bylaws also specify that the faculty members on ABIA, myself included of course, will constitute—together with a representative from the  Registrar’s office—a separate committee, now known as the Academic Performance Committee (APC).

The ABIA’s functions are also defined by the Regents’ Bylaws. First, the ABIA advises the AD, who is supposed to seek and consider our advice on “all major financial and policy decisions with respect to the program on intercollegiate athletics.” Then, the ABIA makes, adopts, and enforces—”subject only to the ultimate authority of the president and the Board of Regents”—”the necessary rules and regulations governing all questions pertaining to the eligibility of players, intercollegiate relations, and membership in associations of universities and colleges organized for the regulation of athletics” (11.60)  As for the APC, its function is—”subject to the final authority of the provost”—”to examine and appraise the academic performance of intercollegiate athletes, to determine their eligibility for competition in intercollegiate athletics, and to take any other action regarding such candidates as may seem necessary or appropriate under the circumstances (11.59).”

Now, according to “Rule 3. Membership” from the Big Ten Conference’s 2011-2012 Handbook, “Only a university having full and complete faculty control of its intercollegiate athletic programs may hold membership in the Conference. Faculty control is achieved whenever authority over a university’s intercollegiate athletic programs is vested in a university agency composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority.” I first encountered this passage before I’d been appointed to the ABIA and, at the time, I wondered whether Michigan had any such agency (i.e. “composed entirely of faculty members or in which faculty members are in a majority” vested “with authority” over the university’s intercollegiate athletic programs).

Colleagues with greater knowledge of our institutional history weren’t sure, but they explained to me that up until 2001, there was an agency with a faculty majority called the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics.  This body appears to have been replaced by the ABIA and APC through amendments to the Regents’ Bylaws proposed by then University-President Lee Bollinger. Bollinger said at the time that “All of this is to make sure intercollegiate athletics don”t get out of control. The Athletic Department is not an independent body within the University but is subject to University policies.”  He went on to explain that the “Board in Control should be, and has been, unmistakably advisory the name should be changed to reflect that.”

According to The Michigan Daily‘s article on the change, “Bollinger said he wants to limit the authority of the Board in Control to issues in which academic and financial concerns collide, such as extending the sports season for playoffs even when such a move could compromise students” academic life by conflicting with exams,” but, quoting Bollinger now, “the question of whether our football players should practice in a national playoff should not be rested [sic] in the board.”

Apparently, some members of the faculty-comprised Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs voiced concerns that this put the University’s policies at odds with both the Big Ten and the NCAA’s membership criteria.  Of even greater concern to the faculty at the time was the codification of the merely advisory function of the newly constituted ABIA: “‘If the president is the one making the final decision,” one faculty members asked, “is there a reason why the president should seek the advice of the Board in Control?'”   Bollinger, according to the article “said that although changes to the bylaws will place more power in the hands of the president, he does not believe the Board in Control’s concerns will be ignored or that the University”s Big Ten membership will be compromised.”  Some might argue that the APC’s authority over academic standards and eligibility or the President’s final authority on all these questions satisfies the membership criteria concerning “complete faculty control” described in the Big Ten Handbook.

I’m not so sure it does. But—surprise!—that might be okay with me since I’m not even sure that “complete faculty control” over athletics is a principle I support without qualification. I believe faculty with expertise in the matters constituting the intersection of athletics with the university’s mission (education, health and well-being, economics, ethics and culture) should be represented as the majority on a board that collectively has complete control. But I also believe that students (both non-athletes and, especially, athletes) should be on that board. Finally, I think it’s important to have representatives of the athletic department administration and the university’s central administration on the board, without a vote.




Free Running: How to Fix the Sports Machine

parkourtease2_0Today I wrapped up my second go around with Global Sports Cultures (a/k/a Comparative Literature 100) with a final lecture on free running, specifically on the youth group known as PK Gaza.

Throughout the semester we’ve been using a variety of lenses to look at the intersection between sports, society, and culture (including art).  In the process, I introduced the idea of the “sports machine” to refer to this complex and to get students to think pragmatically and critically about what they use this machine for and how they might engage it in ways that maximize its positive outputs while minimizing, or at least becoming more conscious of, its negative byproducts.

I wanted to use the example of free running as a way to suggest what I think of as one exemplary way, if not to fix the sports machine (as I provocatively titled my lecture), then at least to operate within it in a way that augments the possibilities for human freedom, joy, and beauty that sports promises and can deliver. Students viewed a video that PK Gaza posted (which I show in the lecture below) and read some journalistic and scholarly accounts of parkour and free running.

I think the lecture is pretty self-contained, but if you there are some references to previous lectures, most of which you can find here (I still have one from last week to add, on power and autonomy at the 1968 Summer Olympics).

I was very proud of this lecture, which I felt really did a great job of tying together and shedding new light on a number of recurrent themes from the course, while leaving students with some thought provoking challenges to take with them.

Here is the link to the lecture.

Writing the Sporting Body

This semester, I’m excited to be teaching two sports-related courses in the same semester for the first time.  First, I’ll once again be teaching “Cultures of Basketball.”  I taught it for the first time in Winter 2011, with few qualifications other than that I loved basketball and stories and had some tools for thinking about both of them.  That course sparked my interest and prompted me to learn more about the work of others who were thinking about basketball and culture within the academy.  Since then, in light of what I’ve learned, I’ve continued to teach and refine Cultures of Basketball every year.  Doing so has both informed and been informed by essays on the topic I’ve begun to publish in scholarly journals.  For this semester’s version, I’m reorganizing the course to follow more closely by book manuscript, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which I should complete—it’s about 75 % done right now—by the end of the semester. In addition, my experience with Cultures of Basketball and people I’ve met in the broader field led me to want to broaden my range, at least, for now, as a teacher.  So, last fall, I rolled out a new, large-lecture format course at Michigan called “Global Sports Cultures” and, this semester, I’m inaugurating another new undergraduate course in Comparative Literature.  Under the general, preexisting course rubric “Literature and the Body,” I will be teaching “Writing the Sporting Body.”  I want to walk you through the idea behind the course and what we’ll be doing in it. Read more

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.

Read more

Values of College Sport Symposium

As some of you know, with my colleagues Silke Weineck and Stefan Szymanski I’ve organized a two-day symposium devoted to a discussion of the question: what that we value do we gain and lose by virtue of the current model of incorporating athletics into the university?

The event, free and open to the public, will be held on Friday November 14th and Saturday the 15th in Room 100 of the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan campus.  It kicks off with a dual keynote address featuring Amy Perko, the Executive Director of the Knight Commission and Taylor Branch, author of The Cartel at 4 pm and 5 pm Friday, respectively.  There will be a q and a and discussion following Mr. Branch’s remarks.

Then, beginning Saturday at 10:30 a series of panels will zero in on the guiding question from the perspectives of Economics, Well-Being, Education and Ethics.  Each panel will consist of three speakers and will include time for discussion.

So, at 10:30: Rod Fort, Lawrence Kahn and Stephen F. Ross will comprise the Economics panel.  Following this at noon will be the Well-Being panel featuring Rebecca Hasson, Jane Ruseski and Billy Hawkins.  After a lunch break, the Education panel will begin at 2:15 with me, Jimmy King and Rob Sellers.  And the final panel of the symposium, Ethics, will include Jack Hamilton, Bruce Berglund and William Morgan.

I hope those of you near Ann Arbor will be able to make it for all or some of the event and that all of you will spread the word.

Here’s the full program with the titles of the talks.

There is No GOAT and Why that "truth" Will Set You Free


I approach teaching Cultures of Basketball with the hope I can make the course and each class meeting more than just a forum for the kind of discussion a fan might have in a dorm room or sports bar with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, I want the passionate energy that kind of discussion contains and, after all, I am a fan too. But then I also want that kind of discussion to be something that students can step out of, and look at with a critical eye; I want them to come to see what sort of broader cultural purposes – often collective and unconscious — are served by particular positions in that discussion and even by the topic itself. Because this is when actual learning, self-understanding, and growth occur.

Yesterday was “LeBron Day” in class and it generated a great opportunity for this sort of thing. For, inevitably, within minutes the topic was raised: Is LeBron James the Greatest of All Time (the common acronym for non-hoops-nerds is GOAT). This question quickly narrowed to a single comparison: “LeBron vs Michael” (as in Jordan), which is when things got really animated. Read more