More students studying sports as academic subject

As educators readied a Penn State lecture hall for last month’s Sports Ethics Conference, marketing students half a campus away were scrutinizing Pittsburgh Pirates’ customer data, an agricultural class was testing NFL field surfaces, and a kinesiology department lecture focused on drug use in athletics.

At the state’s largest university as well as colleges all across the nation, sports have moved beyond their traditional boundaries and into the academic mainstream. Serious educators who once sniffed at sports are now examining the games’ intersection with business, history, law, philosophy, literature, journalism, and more.

In addition to courses in traditional PSU majors such as physical education and golf course management, students can choose from such classes as Philosophy of Sport; Sports Marketing; Introduction to the Sports Industry; Sports, Media, and Society; Women and Sports; Sports, Ethics, and Literature; and the Historical, Cultural, and Social Dynamics of Sports.

At Penn State, experts say, this trend reflects both America’s ongoing obsession with sports and the realities of a campus and a small college town that derive much of their identity from the success of Nittany Lions athletics.

“It makes sense to use sports” as a teaching tool, said John Affleck, who heads Penn State’s Curley Center for Sports Journalism, “because our students are really interested in sports. You immediately have their attention.”

Affleck recently joined other academics here in sports-related fields to form the Center for the Study of Sports in Society, an effort to synthesize and improve disparate teaching and research efforts.

“Just look at the course I teach,” said Steve Ross, a sports law professor and the driving force behind the center. “You can’t focus on sports law without knowing what is sound public policy toward sports. And you can’t figure out sound public policy without drawing on many disciplines.”

And it’s not just students and researchers who are benefiting. The NFL and artificial-surface manufacturers profit from – and often contribute financially to – turf studies in the College of Agricultural Studies. Marketing students have helped baseball teams understand and solve issues of attendance and promotion. And several strapped news organizations in the state are getting assistance from eager PSU sports journalism students.

This growing connection might even be more pronounced at Penn State if not for the last decade’s social earthquakes.

In 2008, the business school had a commitment from ESPN to fund an analytical sports research center. But the recession later that year killed those plans. Three years later, the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal struck, and funding for anything sports-related virtually dried up.

“That just devastated this place,” said Wayne DeSarbo, a Business College professor who has linked marketing and analytics courses to sports. “You mentioned sports and people just wanted to run away.”

‘Prominent space in society’

As notable as the development has been here, Penn State has taken a more cautious approach to sports curriculum than many schools. It is not, for example, one of the hundreds that offer sports management degrees.

According to the North American Society of Sports Management, nearly 500 schools have sports management majors. At Ivy League Columbia and 131 other colleges, students can get a master’s in the subject. At Temple, they can earn a Ph.D.

“In the last decade, the number of academic offerings related to sports has grown rapidly,” said George Cunningham, a Texas A&M professor and NASSM president. “Sports continue to occupy a prominent place in our society.”

There were almost 25,000 sports management students this school year, Cunningham said, a number many fear can’t be accommodated by the industry.

It is that potential disconnect that has made Penn State more cautious than most when it comes to diving into the academic sports pool.

So instead of adding more sports-specific majors, Penn State has seen these new courses as supplements to traditional areas of study.

“I could fill up courses all day and night if we had suitable facilities to find them jobs,” said DeSarbo. “Since we don’t, our philosophy is to make sure these people who graduate have a thorough training in some functional area of business. Then they can augment that with whatever interest they have in sports.”

Penn State doesn’t offer a sports major, though a plan to create a minor is moving through what one professor termed “the glacial-like university bureaucracy.” If approved, it would be housed in the kinesiology department but require sports-related courses in many disciplines.

What makes all this notable is the historical animosity that has existed between sports and those academics who saw fun and games as unworthy topics for serious scholarship.

“It’s academic snobbery, and there’s been a lot of it at major research institutions like this one,” said Ross, who also heads the Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research. “Because of that, those schools haven’t looked much at sports. Those that did tended not to be the elite universities, and often their work wasn’t very good. That in turn confirmed to the major universities that sports was beneath them.”

Because of its agricultural-school roots, Penn State has been a place where subjects shunned elsewhere have been more welcome in the curriculum.

When, for example, more established and prestigious schools such as Cornell saw it as beneath it, Penn State started the nation’s first agricultural program. And when in the 1890s those same institutions ignored American literature, Fred Pattee created a pioneering course in the subject here.

“Sports have been vastly understudied,” Ross said. “Lots of people have opinions, but the amount of rigorous, research-backed thinking that goes into those opinions has been minimal.”

Guarding their turf

According to its lofty sounding mission statement, the new sports center is meant “to incubate and facilitate discussion between academics, industry executives and policy makers about research, regulation and reforms with regard to professional, intercollegiate, youth and club-level amateur sports.”

Ideally, Ross said, if one of his law classes were to tackle the debate about paying collegiate athletes, the marketing department might look at what it would mean for sports’ commercial future. History researchers might examine its potential impact on women’s athletics. Education students might focus on how the broader university would accommodate paid athletes, and athletic department officials could provide specialized insights.

The center’s dream of interdisciplinary synthesis would be a departure from the way things work at many large universities, where departmental fiefdoms jealously guard their turf.

“We’re all in our own buildings, and it’s not easy to talk with one another or know what someone else is doing,” said Affleck, who, like Ross and DeSarbo, is a member of the center’s executive committee.

DeSarbo suggested that in the past professors of these various sports courses might be exploring similar topics and competing for the same grants, all independent of one another.

“Every school in the university wants to have its own little empire,” DeSarbo said. “But the competition for funding is so tough that two people can’t go to alumni with requests for research on the same thing. So it’s probably best to merge it all so we don’t have to compete against each other for limited resources.”

Another sports-related center on campus is the Center for Study of Sports Surfaces in the College of Agriculture, where research into playing field and golf course turf has been going on for decades. And while ag-school research has focused on living organisms, the center is funded by Field Turf, the world’s largest artificial-surface producer.

“The tie-in is a little tenuous,” conceded Andrew McNitt, the center’s director, who is a professor in the department of plant science and the technical adviser to the NFL’s Groundskeepers Organization. “But we’re doing research on real grass all the time. So we’re always looking at how the artificial turf compares to real grass and how we can make both better.”

Among the issues being studied there are ways to improve a field’s traction and melting functions as well as the relationship between surface hardness and concussions.

Very responsive

In Affleck’s sports journalism classes, 100 or so students a semester study in what is a certificate program within the College of Communications. Many get hands-on experience covering Penn State’s 31 sports for print, TV or radio, and some, through internships and other programs, are doing professional work.

“There are a lot of opportunities in struggling industries for these kids to help out,” said Affleck.

Since sports touch on so many aspects of American life, it’s easy to use them as springboards into broader issues. That was evident last fall, Affleck said, when San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick created a firestorm by kneeling during the national anthem.

“That gave us an opportunity to work through a lot of issues,” said Affleck, “like how we feel about patriotism, race, community relations with police.”

Sometimes these courses are as broad as sports law. Other times their focus is narrow. In the Liberal Arts College last semester, for example, there was a class called Is Football Immoral and Other Questions of Sports Ethics.

The Sports, Ethics, and Literature course focuses on the way American sports depend on narratives. History of Sports looks at the “forces, institutions, and personalities” that have shaped and guided physical activities from ancient Greece through the 20th century.

The more of these courses and the more funding that institutions like Penn State’s new sports center attracts, Ross said, the deeper once-trivialized issues will burrow into academia.

“We’re going to be very responsive to providing resources to do valuable research,” said Ross. “We’re hoping to tap into the Penn State community and foundations to provide something of the equivalent for sports to what the [National Institute of Health] does for medical problems.”- by Frank Fitzpatrick, The Philadelphia Inquirer