For William Bradley
I’m not the sports fan I used to be. The combination of getting older and busier and moving away from the New York of my Knicks has turned me into the kind of fan who opens the sports pages and wonders what happened to all the players he used to know and who the hell these guys are. Outside of watching English soccer on weekend morning TV and traveling on the endless circuit of my sons’ soccer games (and writing some poems about youth soccer that accidentally got published), my interest in sports is not a rooting interest. What it has become is a cultural interest—an interest in what sports means to people and to the communities they live in.
So naturally I’m planning a new course for spring semester called “Sports/Writing.” It will be about sports in American culture and all kinds of writing about sports—fiction, poetry, essays, reporting. I’m also revising my literature textbook, Literature: The Human Experience, and am trying to put together a couple of clusters of selections on sports as, well, part of the human experience. This seems like a happy synergetic moment from which all sorts of reading selections should flow, and I’m gathering a giant pile of good ones, but it turns out I’m developing a case of syllabus/table of contents block.
I want to muster the usual suspects that I use as excuses for writer’s block, but I think there’s something more interesting going on. Next to the growing stack of possible selections, important sports-related events keep happening. Just this past week saw the explosion of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial inequality in policing and in American life into a multiple sideline, multiple player protest. This already knotty situation was then complicated by team owners responding to Donald Trump’s angry social media comments saying team owners should fire kneeling players by joining in a linked-arm gesture alleged to be about unity, a unity cynics might characterize as the response of rich white men to another rich white man telling them what to do with their property. A scandal involving sneaker companies, coaches, recruiters, and agent erupted in college basketball. Further evidence emerged of the seriousness of brain injury in football.
It seems like there’s no talking about sports these days without talking about money and race and politics. This should be a good thing—an embarrassment of riches for me, really—but it’s making it hard for me to put together a selection of works that I can imagine teaching.
I’m not a teacher who shies away from political and social issues in the classroom, and I’m not a teacher who pretends not to have opinions about these things; what I am is a teacher who makes it very clear that all I ever want from my students is that they think hard and that they form conclusions from evidence and solid arguments, and I have never had reason to believe that students felt seriously pressured to agree with me about anything.
But I do live in a Midwestern state (as some point out, a Southern Midwestern state) that was targeted by David Horowitz on his “intellectual diversity” tour of state houses a few years ago, a tour that resulted in the presence of a form on my university’s web site that students can use to report their professors for having opinions about these things. And I do teach at the university where in 2015 the football team threatened to sit out a game as part of a protest of the university’s handling of racial issues, a development that has cost the school funding from state legislators who cynics might characterize as white men telling other white men what to do with their property. These legislators also got a friend and colleague fired for her small involvement in this protest. So I’m always aware of how reports of my teaching would play on social media.
Similarly, I don’t shy away from including political works in LHE and 50 Essays, but I am aware of the reality that there are textbooks that don’t sell in Texas because of the kinds of things I select and, much more importantly, I’m aware that the instructors who use these books will have to deal with teaching selections that touch on issues that some readers will be sensitive about.
It turns out, knowing who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students and students who use my textbooks doesn’t make this any easier. The more I think about it this week, as I stare at my screens and watch America twist itself into knots over the posture of athletes whose games haven’t started yet, the more I’m coming to realize that what’s getting in my way is the same obstacle we all come up against when teaching literary works about any of the things that people love: when people are devoted to things, they don’t want to hear them criticized.
The word fan, of course, comes from the word fanatic, which means a person with excessive zeal—a zealot. A turn of phrase people use when they say they love someone or something: I’m crazy about it. This fanaticism, this craziness, is part of what makes sports so important in culture (in addition to economics, institutions, identity); it’s also what makes it hard to examine sports critically—that is, to not simply negatively but with an eye toward understanding that requires not unthinkingly accepting the common wisdom, the things people who work in and around sports says about sports. When we look at what people are worked up about this week in American sports, we see the intersection of two institutions that people love—sports and nation—and the inextricable presence of race and money. It’s hard, beyond the most innocuous of pieces of literature—“Casey at the Bat?”—to think of selections for teaching that don’t quickly become about more than the thrill of pure athletic competition.
The same is true when you teach works that brush up against ideas of America, of romantic love, of heroism. We are all attached to these things, and have strongly held and largely unexamined beliefs about them. When we ask our students to read works that reflect critically about them—asking them to think about darker moments in our national history, about how ideas about gender sexuality shape the way people are allowed to love each other, about what acts by which kinds of people get called heroic—we are encouraging them to do something that they don’t necessarily want to do. But the things we unquestionably love and hold dear might be the things—the institutions, the beliefs, the ideas—we most need to look at if we are to develop ourselves as thinking, contributing members of our communities. Which in one model of higher education is the goal of all of this.
In the end, if you value making your students think about the things they read and the world they live in more than you value protecting them from discomfort and the things they believe in from scrutiny, you assign reading that questions the things they love and believe in. You don’t force answers on them; you lead them to questions. And yes, I’m talking to myself.