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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 281-285
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Reflections on Teaching Sports Literature in the Academy
Tracy J. R. Collins
To write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization—what it is, or should be, to be human.
—Joyce Carol Oates (1987: n.p.)
The role of sports in the academy is increasingly troubled. To keep athletes eligible to play, especially in gate-revenue sports, colleges and universities allow rampant cheating, lower their standards, and concoct bogus programs. Indeed, we have let institutional cynicism obscure how serious education should embrace sports. At the same time, the votary discourse, literature about sports, has acquired a sometimes doubtful status, and we can use assurance that it has integrity and high-cultural import.
I taught "Sports and Literature," a 200-level general-education English course whose students tend to come from outside the humanities and read little literature. In my section, many said that they took the course because they liked sports and had to meet a literature requirement. A number of them also played a university sport.
Sport is a complex phenomenon that acts as an agent for both social change and social control. It works on an individual level, because so many young people search for a personal identity through it. It can also describe a ritual of banding and social immersion that meets the need for community membership and safety. Our readings exposed this collision between sports as both a liberating and a subversive activity for individuals, as well as one that galvanizes groups in society (see appendix). Sports literature concerns athletics, of course, but it can be used in any literature course to understand racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and the combination of these biases as a living mythology. From a menu of possible conceptual agendas for the course (myth, discourse analysis, literary-critical, literary-historical), I assembled a loosely deployed cultural studies approach whose antecedents could be found in a duel between Nietzschean and Marxist visions. Nietzsche's celebration of the [End Page 281] triumphant individual's self is one paradigm for the role of sports in society. A Marxist paradigm endorses the behavior of individuals (fans and teammates) homogenized through a blissful, anodyne ritual as though members of a herd. My students and I also found that feminist theory helped us understand the liberation of female protagonists through sports.
We started with two very different basketball novels: In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, by Madeleine Blais (1995), and The Basketball Diaries, by Jim Carroll (1963). In These Girls follows the Amherst, Massachusetts, Hurricanes girls' basketball team to a state high school championship in 1993. The girls acquire the behaviors associated with team success; at the same time, the story shows how basketball is culturally liberating for them. It allows them to explore their physical and mental selves beyond the usual gender paradigms. The Basketball Diaries is the coming-of-age story of a rebellious, streetwise teenager in New York in the mid-1960s. In this autobiography Carroll tells how basketball saved his life. It gave him discipline and structure in the midst of chaos, and it spared him from a desperate existence on the streets by socializing him and giving him realistic aspirations for an ordered life.
Next we read On Boxing, by Joyce Carol Oates (1987), and End Zone, by Don DeLillo (1972). On Boxing is a series of essays about boxing and women, boxing and racism, and boxing literature. Most important, according to Oates (1987: n.p.), "no other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing." Her essays explain how sports are a social analogue and a crucible-like environment for the individual. The conformity-liberation dichotomy established with the first two books we read is explored more complexly in Oates's book. Boxing becomes a metaphor for war, business, family, love, and art. Meanwhile, war is more central to DeLillo's novel, which features members of a college football team who play war games in their free time. For my students, the association...