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Sports Literature Course Scores By Analyzing American Culture

(Posted March 1, 2010)

Amy Mathur, assistant professor of English


HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Reading about sports has always been a popular pastime, but there aren't many who see it as a topic relevant to the classroom. Juniata College's course, "Sports Literature," creates a new outlook on sports, stretching students to think about athletics from a cultural perspective.

"I want the students to be aware that sport is more than just a game," says Amy Mathur, assistant professor of English at Juniata, who created the course in 2009. "Our culture's development is mirrored in athletics and students will see that once they begin to argue positions and have debates on sports issues that have been chronicled in the past."

Each student begins the semester by pairing up with a classmate and choosing a topic, such as a significant athletic event, sports controversy, or athlete. By the end of the semester their responsibility is to determine how that event or person contributed to or represents American culture in a significant and lasting way.

A few articles that are assigned as readings for the course include an inspirational story about Matt Steven, a blind high school basketball player; a Chronicle of Higher Education article about Perry Reese Jr., an African-American basketball coach in the middle of Amish country who changed a town's idea about race; and Jesse Owens, a victorious African-American runner in the 1936 Olympics.

"Owens's performance in front of Hitler prompted a still-racist American society to cheer for a man with whom many wouldn't share a water fountain at home," explains Mathur. "It makes us look at the interesting phenomenon of how Americans, when faced with competition from the outside, often will prioritize nationalism over race."

"The course can really ride on what's happening at the moment, which makes it continually interesting and exciting. The material is always changing."
Amy Mathur, assistant professor of English


To give some structure to the course's final project, the students must complete three major parts: a historical portion, literary portion, and an argumentative portion. After the major research parts are complete, the students present a final lecture for the class in which they are required to both teach their peers and engage them in meaningful discussion.

The course is designed to branch away from textbooks and concentrate on features written in newspapers, magazines, autobiographies, case studies, and other media coverage.

"The course is not really meant to teach content," explains Mathur, "but rather to teach the students how to think and argue positions through class discussions and debates."

The class does not shy away from controversial or current topics over the semester. Segregation and integration, gender equality (Title IX), body image, criminal justice, homosexuality, and brand obsession are a few of the more serious topics in the class.

What makes the debates even more dynamic is the freshness of the material. "The course can really ride on what's happening at the moment, which makes it continually interesting and exciting," says Mathur. "The material is always changing."

She adds, "Studying the language of sports writing reveals the extent at which media affects American perception."

For instance, imagine how different a project focused on Tiger Woods would be from fall semester compared to researching him after his well-publicized family problems.

Because of its higher focus on cultural implications and how sports reflect and affect the progress of American thinking, Mathur plans on applying the course as a cultural analysis elective, a requirement of Juniata's liberal arts program.

"I learned a lot about athletes that have cheated in sports, and how in today's culture it is okay to 'cheat,'" says John Almquist, a sophomore volleyball player from Lancaster, Pa. "For example, Alex Rodriguez used steroids, and is still many fans' favorite player, and most definitely a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame."

Since it is an optional course, not surprisingly the class has drawn many athletes. "Sports Literature" enrolled 21 students last semester. Nineteen of them were Juniata varsity athletes. The other two were students who have played sports in the past.

"This course gives students a chance to use their own athletic experiences in an academic way," says Mathur. "It's a great class for discussion because students bring a lot of their own experiences and love for sports."

The students aren't the only ones enjoying the course. Mathur is a self-described sport fanatic. She played basketball for Juniata from 1992-1995 and was the assistant basketball coach at Carnegie Mellon from 1996-1997.

"My two great interests are sports and reading, and this is such a great way to put them both together," she says. "Now the athletes who see me in the stands as the crazy person cheering can see another side of me in class."

Mathur finds personal interest in many of the topics the students choose to research. When asked which topic she would choose she said, "It's a toss-up between Jackie Robinson and Title IX. What Jackie Robinson did for minorities is the same thing Title IX did for women."

Last semester students chose topics such as Pete Rose who was banned from baseball's Hall of Fame because of gambling; Ernie Davis, the Syracuse University running back struck down by leukemia; Vince Carter, a basketball player; The 1980 USA-Soviet hockey game known as "The Miracle on Ice;" and Jackie Robinson.

Bringing such a widely known phenomenon into the classroom not only gives students a change of pace for academia, but also helps them realize the great extent at which sports are embedded into American culture.

"While there is the obvious love of competition and winning, we also love the underdog, we love when hard work pays off, the rags to riches stories and more," says Nick Talisman, a sophomore former tennis player from Bethesda, Md. "Even though these are present in all walks of life, there are not many concepts to which more Americans can relate than to sports."


Written by: Molly Sollenberger
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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.