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Critical Sport Scholars: Navigating an Uncomfortable Space

Being a college sports fan while also studying college sports is a difficult space to navigate.

College sports has some issues. College sports has racial and social justice controversies, such as low graduation rates of Black male athletes in football and men’s basketball. College sports’ flaws regarding gender equity were also on display in March when the athletes competing in the women’s basketball tournament called out the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for a dinky weight room that paled in comparison to what the athletes in the men’s tournament received. Concerns over college athlete rights and exploitation have been called into question with the recent court case of Alston v. NCAA and the current testimony of athletics stakeholder to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about athlete access to name, image, and likeness (NIL).

As the instructor of an introductory course on intercollegiate athletics, Athletics in the University, I find myself cheering for the athletes in my class, while also struggling because I know so much more is at stake than what happens in a competition.

I want my athletes to succeed on the court, field, pool, and track and to make lifelong memories with their teammates and coaches. I want them to develop their leadership and time management skills and establish their moral compasses. I want them to hoist conference or even national championship trophies.

Molly HarryMolly Harry

However, after years of studying this area, I am still at odds with myself as both fan and emerging scholar. It’s hard to reconcile this love of sports as a fan and athlete-ally knowing so many of my athlete students will struggle to develop their identities outside of sport. It’s challenging to reconcile this love of sports as a fan and athlete-ally when I know most of my athlete students will leave college with lingering injuries such as torn ligaments, hurt backs, or potentially even chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s difficult to reconcile this love of sports as a fan and athlete-ally when I talk to my athlete students about mental health issues that can be exacerbated by competing in college athletics. It’s challenging to reconcile rooting for my athlete students as they compete, knowing that they are denied rights provided to every other student on campus.

Other scholars who share this research space with me have voiced these concerns, too. So how, as supporters of athletes’ endeavors, but also critical thinkers, can we resolve these tensions of knowing both the good and the bad that sports can bring? I have a few ideas.

First, we need to acknowledge and even embrace the discomfort that stems from our dueling roles as athletics supporters and critics. I’ve discussed this topic with peer researchers and students across the country, and our candid exchanges about this seemingly taboo subject prompted me to even consider writing about this topic.

After acknowledging this, we can have honest conversations about why this tension exists, how to understand and manage it, and how to improve intercollegiate athletics and its place within higher education. Part of the problem likely stems from the wall between athletics and academics on campus, so finding ways to bridge that divide could be part of the solution.

Second, to further our understanding of this complex phenomenon, scholars and practitioners should continue to read scholarly works about sports, politics, and fandom. Two important starting points for me were Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport by Nathan Kalman-Lamb and Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan by Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson. While these books primarily focus on professional sports, they offer examples of how sports can provide positive and negative pressures that create a psychological disequilibrium. These examples can be extended to college athletics, too.

Finally, these discussions should also be held with the athletes we know and support. If we, as scholars and practitioners, have an internal conundrum when it comes to criticizing and enhancing sports, it is likely that athletes, particularly as they go through college, will experience something similar.

I’ve seen this in my athletics course at the University of Virginia. While the athletes in my class are always appreciative of their scholarships, educational opportunities, and ability to compete at a high level, those in their third and/or fourth years are more discerning, skeptical, and challenging of the culture and structure of athletics than are the first and/or second year athletes. As they experience more in the world of sport and academia, they, too, are exposed to some of the issues critics so often discuss (i.e., athlete exploitation, hyper-commercialization, mental illness, etc.). Including athlete voices in this conversation is one of the best ways we can recognize and work through the mental tension.

As intercollegiate athletics continues to grow, criticisms and issues will only grow, too. So, scholars and practitioners must learn to grapple with the dichotomy of challenging and supporting athletics.

We should not give up our love of sports and support of athletes, nor should we stop viewing athletics from a critical lens.

Molly Harry is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia studying higher education with a focus on intercollegiate athletics and teaches the course Athletics in the University. Her research interests include education through athletics participation, academic reform for college athletics, and the college athlete experience. You can follow her on Twitter @mollypageharry

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