Rethinking Sports as Scholarship
November 7, 2017
Tyler Sloan ’17
Whether you’re a die-hard fan or go into hiding during the Super Bowl, chances are you have an opinion on sports. A new course this fall, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sports, provides an innovative platform to talk about sports’ dynamic role in society.
The name of English Professor Yago Colás’s course, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sports, derives its title from Wallace Stevens’ poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Stevens’ work is divided into 13 stanzas, each of which describes the experience of seeing a blackbird from a different perspective. This approach to understanding a subject through a wide range of lenses underscores the primary goal of Colás’s class.
As part of the course cluster, Sports, Culture, and Society, Colás’s syllabus explores philosophy, literary and cultural study, sociology, economics, and science to analyze sports and their cultural significance. His course is taught in conjunction with Associate Professor of Sociology Daphne John’s Sports: Contested Contests, and Sport and Community, led by Associate Head Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory.
“About seven years ago, I got a bit tired of doing literary studies,” Colás says of his transition into focusing on sports as an academic concept. “At the same time, I was thinking about what I’d always really been passionate about, and it was athletics—both as an athlete and as a spectator. I realized that the tools I’d acquired to do literary studies were useful in thinking about sports culture and thinking about sports as a machine, that among other things, generates cultural forms, narratives, images, and quantitative discourses.”
The course material challenges students to reconsider preconceived notions about sports, whether existing beliefs lean toward relishing sports culture or wishing it didn’t exist at all. The topic is pertinent to Oberlin’s student body, which often grapples with everything from the role that athletics plays in campus culture to if student-athletes should replicate protests occurring on the national stage. The idea is not so much to change people’s minds, but rather, for students to appreciate just how far-reaching sports are in our society.
“There is an assumption that intellectualism and sports don't go together, that somehow sports can't stand for itself in the classroom,” says first-year Leah Ross, who is enrolled in Colás’s course this semester and is currently working on strengthening support networks for women athletes within the college. “Yago has forced us, as a class, to push beyond our relationship with athletics as it pertains to physicality. He has encouraged a critical and mental focus, one that has developed into a deeply personal questioning of my own sports habits, values, and purpose.”
One of the most important aspects of the course and its accompanying out-of-class events is that students have the opportunity to engage in discourse about the subject no matter where they fall on the love-hate sports spectrum. As part of this effort, Colás has brought notable figures to campus such as NPR and ESPN commentator Kevin Blackistone, and held multiple forums, including, “Hate Sports? We Want to Hear About It.”
Outside of the classroom, the course cluster’s community-based learning component partners students with local public schools and youth recreation programs, where they have the opportunity to tutor, coach, and teach. Already, they are developing intramural leagues, pairing student-athletes with mentees, and facilitating sports such as lacrosse and field hockey, which may not be offered or accessible to youth within the community.
“The community-based learning gives students a real-life opportunity to experience different aspects of an academic course, and helps them better apply what they learn to an actual action,” says McCrory. “Students are in the community so they really have a sense of what’s going on. Oberlin College to them not only means the college but the community too.”
The cluster’s next affiliated event is Marcia Mount Shoop’s talk, “(E)Racing the Lines: Marks of White Culture in College Sports,” this Thursday. The free, public lecture will discuss how white privilege and culture “help to cultivate and entrench racialized disadvantages in ways that are often invisible in college sports.”
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