Ask any fan what they love about the University of Michigan, and chances are you’ll hear about football or basketball as much as academics. Because sports are such a big part of campus life, LSA’s Sport and the University theme semester hopes to paint a clearer picture of the relationship between the two—both the awesome and the controversial aspects—in much more detail.
“Sports cuts a broad swath across every department,” explains David Gerdes, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and a theme semester co-organizer. “Even highly specialized disciplines on campus can contribute to sports.”
“The theme semester is designed to show how people think about sport in rigorous ways,” agrees Anne Curzan (M.A. ’95, Ph.D. ’98), an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English, a theme semester co-organizer, and the NCAA faculty athletic representative for Michigan. “We’re studying sports historically, and through the lenses of, for example, physics and engineering. We wanted to capture that scholarship, and we wanted this theme semester to be playful and thoughtful at the same time.”
Curzan and Gerdes hope the semester’s events might not only open up new aspects of the game to die-hard fans and devotees, but also introduce fans to a broad collection of disciplines related to sports. The most dogged basketball fan might discover she has an intuitive understanding of estimation methods from studying standard box score statistics, for example, or gain a new appreciation for a jump shot after considering the physics behind it.
The ties between sport and academics are deeply rooted. In ancient Greece, every important city had a gymnasium where athletes trained to develop both their minds and their bodies.
During the theme semester, students can study sport in the ancient Greek world through the Department of Classical Studies or the art of yoga through the Department of History of Art. North Quad will air a series of international films about sports covering such topics as transgender athletes in international competitions and the bodybuilding renaissance in Afghanistan. The free Saturday Morning Physics program, which will be held in 170 Dennison from 10:30 to 11:30 A.M., offers lectures on the physics of everything from fly fishing to running.
“We were excited to have a theme that was so inclusive,” says Curzan. “It was really fun when we started approaching departments about participating. The energy was remarkable.”
Out in Front
While celebrating sports is certainly part of the theme semester, participants aren’t planning to shy away from some of the more contentious aspects of sports’ history at U-M. Among other things, it will provide several events and opportunities to take a look at women in sport.
As late as the 1950s, U-M would not sponsor female athletes in national competition. Throughout the 1960s, women’s athletics were supported by proceeds from special events and from selling items like calendars and apples. In the 1970s, men were given the Block M for participating on intercollegiate teams, while women were offered a blue M, a script M, or class numerals—but not, according to a letter signed by the football and basketball coaches, “the same Block M that [football and basketball athletes] have sweated and bled for.”
“That took me by surprise,” said Gerdes, “and made me think about how that would seem to students who’ve grown up with the expectation that women’s sports are as viable and legitimate as men’s sports. We’re so proud of our women’s teams today; it’s strange to think women were once disinvited by the whole process.”
“It’s not even that long ago,” says Curzan. “Women who are our students’ parents’ age or a little older had to fight to play sports. This is very recent history.”
The theme semester also creates the space to have a campus-wide conversation about some of the headlines and pending questions about athletics and universities.
“There’s a national conversation about intercollegiate student athletes happening right now,” Gerdes says. “There’s a new awareness about traumatic head injuries. We felt like Michigan should be out in front of that conversation, helping it to happen here—not in a scolding, binary way, but critically and thoughtfully.”
“Universities are good at talking about difficult, controversial issues,” says Curzan. “We host conversations that encourage different points of view. Michigan should be hosting that conversation, and I’m glad we’re doing it.”
LSA Theme Semester: Sport and the University