What Can Sports Reveal About America?

Dr. Kevin Thompson shares the lessons he’s learned by studying the connection between sports, politics and culture in American society.
Kevin Thompson, PhD, Director of the Communication & Media Studies program in Jefferson's College of Humanities and Sciences. Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

From neighborhood Little League practice to Super Bowl Sunday, sports are deeply embedded in the social fabric of American culture. At their best, they can entertain in times of despair, unify across socioeconomic groups, and teach important life lessons. But at their worst, sports can also shine a light on the uglier parts of society, politics, and human nature.

It’s exactly this complexity that made Kevin Thompson, PhD, interested in dedicating his career to studying sports. As the newest addition to the Communication & Media Studies program, he uses an academic lens to understand how sports influence society, particularly in the contexts of race, mental health, and politics. In this Q&A, Dr. Thompson explores some of the issues in sports he’s most passionate about and discusses his own personal connection to the research.

Q: How would you describe your research to the person riding the elevator with you?

A: In the words of the legendary athlete activist Billie Jean King, “sports are a microcosm of society.” Like Mrs. King, I truly believe that we can learn a lot about our political, ideological, and cultural landscape by studying sports. Generally, I study how sports and sport fandoms influence our society. Specifically, I enjoy critically analyzing how we as fans remember our sport heroes, and how those memories shape cultures and politics in and out of sport.

Q: Is there any particular “sport hero” whose legacy you’re interested in?

A: In my dissertation that I intend to turn into a book, titled “Inescapably Everywhere: Mythic, Ideological, and Material Public Memory of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant,” I critically analyze museums, historical markers, and other sites of public memory pertaining to the infamous college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant is known for his decades of on-the-field coaching successes, but he also oversaw the entire University of Alabama athletics program as the program’s Athletic Director during the university’s storied integration of Black students and athletes. As a result, Bryant is heralded today for integrating University of Alabama athletics. However, those praises, which make up a lot of the contemporary discourse and memory of Bryant, do not tell the full story.

Q: What did your research process for learning more about Bryant look like, and what else did it reveal?

A: The most striking memory I have in conducting my dissertation research was traveling from Alabama to Texas, where Bryant held the fabled “Junction Boys” football camp. I traveled to Texas to visit the site where Bryant held a notoriously abusive football training program and spent hours talking with locals in the small town of Junction about how they remember Bryant’s two-a-day workouts. I also spent hours in the local archives digging through reports and spending time with Junction residents who had first-hand accounts of the horrors Bryant subjected his players to. Since the story of Bryant’s abuses have been the subject of a dramatized ESPN film and a New York Times bestselling book, I felt it was time to set the record straight regarding Bryant and his problematic history using academic, peer-reviewed means to convey how brutal the coach was to his players and his culpability in not integrating the athletics program much, much sooner.

Dr. Kevin Thompson. Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

Q: What problem does your research try to solve?

A: The belief that sports are exclusively supposed to be vessels of entertainment is damaging. Sport has never been and will never be apolitical. Sports, like any other industry, is made up of laborers who have real emotional, mental, and material needs. When people espouse beliefs that players should “shut up and dribble” when those players are speaking out against injustice, they’re essentially saying that the player’s value should only come from their ability to play a sport, and their opinions on issues outside of that sport are erroneous. My research tries to combat such narratives by showcasing the value activism has within sports, and how politics and sports are inseparable.

Q: You have a lot to critique about sports. Are you a sports fan yourself?

A: When I say I am a critic of sport, a lot of people assume it is because I hate sports. Nothing could be further from truth. I love sports. I am a passionate fan. I live in Philadelphia now, and I get to root for my Texas Tech University and University of Alabama alumni in professional settings just miles away from my home. The reason I am a critic of sport is because I believe it can be much better. Exclusionary discourse is not unique to sports, but it often gets a pass because of sport’s competitive nature. It is my belief that in order for sports to be more inclusive, and to have a better product for athletes, coaches, and fans, it requires sharp criticality and even sharper accountability.

Q: What first sparked your interest in sports?

A: I moved a lot growing up, and that exposed me to different coaches, sports, and fandoms. I also played a variety of sports growing up, I am the son of a former coach, and some of my earliest memories were watching Texas A&M football games with my Aggie family. Sports have always been part of my life, and for the most part it has been a force for good in my life. However, sports have also been a personal source of conflict and pain, particularly interactions with coaches or other sport figures in positions of significant power. These experiences have shown me how sport can be an excellent source of community, and thus my goal as a critic of sport is to make sport better, more accessible, and friendlier to those involved in the industry.

Q: What’s something you’re passionate about outside of your research?

A: I am extremely passionate about teaching. Interactions with students and helping students learn are why I love doing what I do. Studying sports, especially in a place like Philly, is an incredible privilege. It is even more of a privilege to get to interact with the students, faculty, and staff at TJU who all have the common goal of promoting student learning. Getting students excited about research, media, writing, archives, and life outside of school all support my love for what I do.

Q: Who’s your role model?

A: My dissertation co-advisor, Dr. Meredith Bagley, was and still is instrumental in my success as a researcher. She embodies what I think an academic mentor should be: Rigorous, understanding, brilliant, and most importantly, kind. She is my academic role model for a myriad of reasons, but one specific piece of advice has stuck with me throughout the ups and downs of academic research is that research is always a marathon, not a sprint. While researchers will always be rushed at deadlines, it is important that we embody our work every day. I try to pass this advice onto junior researchers because of how challenging and time-consuming research can be, especially when we researchers try to make our work as contemporary as possible.

It is my belief that in order for sports to be more inclusive, and to have a better product for athletes, coaches, and fans, it requires sharp criticality and even sharper accountability.” Dr. Kevin Thompson

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