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Sport in American History and Society

Ryan Swanson,

Course Description

We live in a sports obsessed society. The sports connection starts young. Millions of American boys and girls spend their afternoons and weekends playing in soccer leagues and on t-ball teams. The kids might do it for the post-game popsicles, but their parents yell at the referees and spend increasing amounts of money for these supposedly formative experiences. Beyond the kiddie realm, high school, college, and professional sports serve as powerful community building institutions. These athletic endeavors help define American identity, perhaps as powerfully as political, religious or media constructs do. Take the Super Bowl for example. Super Bowl Sunday is a treasured American holiday. It demonstrates Americans’ fondness for (among other things) competition, violence, consumerism, and good food. The day has become such a ubiquitous part of American life that I always wonder who these people are that reportedly don’t watch the big game. What are they doing? 

In this course we will explore the role of sports in American society from a distinctly interdisciplinary perspective. We will approach sports through literature, economics, history, government, and health studies, just to name a few approaches. How, we will ask, did sports become so important? What positives and negatives result from America’s unique sporting construct? In doing so we will read several lively books, investigate primary sources such as sports contracts and statistics, and we will assess the role of Hollywood in creating American sports lore. While one might argue that a game is just a game, I think you’ll be convinced by the end of the semester that sports are an invaluable lens by which to examine American society.

Readings and Texts

Elliott Gorn. The Manly Art: Bare Knuckle Prize-Fighting in America. 1986. 
Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: An American Legend 
Don Van Natta Jr., Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias 
Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Films and Other Course Materials

Knute Rockne All-American 
The Jackie Robinson Story 
Rocky IV 

Course Fee


Student Requirements

Students will be required to write two analyses papers for the course, make an oral presentation, and attend a sporting event or two. You will end the course be producing an original, interdisciplinary research project. Much of the class is predicated on working together to assess American sports history. We will be analyzing documents and discussing the merits of particular theories and sports phenomena. As such, robust participation is expected.

About the Instructor

Ryan Swanson earned his PhD in History at Georgetown University. He is a historian who studies sports and the US 19th century primarily.