Seeing The World Through The Lens Of Sport: Pedagogy And Study Abroad

By Benjamin Dettmar


Adrian College students and professors pose in front of the Olympic Rings at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Photo by Bekah Martin.

Teaching Your Passion

A chance to teach a topic about which we are passionate is perhaps the most exciting thing that can happen to any academic. This year I had the opportunity to teach a class on sport history and take thirteen Adrian College students on a tour of London, Manchester, and Glasgow in the UK on perhaps the greatest field trip ever!

The reason for the class, and this blog post, however, was not simply to spend three weeks in the UK watching sport, seeing the sights, and having a fantastic time (which we all did); rather it was to show how the cross-section of sport and society is a lens through which we can begin to understand the world in which we live.

Sport plays a huge role on most US college campuses. At Michigan State University, where I attended graduate school, the mood of my students on Monday mornings was very much related to how the football team had done on Saturday. Things have gotten better in the Dantonio years! Similarly, trying to give a lecture at the end of March was almost impossible if Tom Izzo’s Spartans were playing a tournament game. This didn’t change too much at Adrian College, a small Liberal Arts College where the majority of students are also athletes; only now it was their own performance and that of the team on which they played that dictated the Monday morning mood. Using this love of sport to our advantage we (myself, a Chelsea fan, and Dr. Cedrick Heraux, an Arsenal fan) set out to create a class where every tour we took, every game we watched, and every place we visited was an example of how sport and society are intertwined.

Sport, Stadiums, and Mega-Events

We began our tour in London when in between West-End Shows, sight-seeing, visiting Wimbledon, touring Wembley Stadium, going to Premier League soccer games, frequenting pubs, eating fish and chips, and wondering why every meal comes with peas, we visited the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. Our tour gave us an insight into how sport can transform a city. As our official blue-badge tour guide informed us, the area of East London in which the Park was built had been blighted by crime, poverty, and decay. It was, according to our guide, a “wasteland” and in “dire need of renovation.” Indeed, we saw the green spaces that had been created, the brand new stadium (that we couldn’t enter due to its transformation into a soccer stadium), the Lee Valley VeloPark, the Aquatics Centre, the parks for local children, the flats that were the remnants of the Olympic Village, as well as the Media Centre and other venues. It was impressive, and it was obvious that our Tour Guide and the British Olympic Association were very proud of what they had achieved.

What was really interesting for me, and the students, however, was the historiography of the London Olympics. We had already discussed the effect that the 2004 Athens Olympics had on the Greek economy, and the burden on the Canadian tax payers after the Montreal Olympics in 1976. This led to questions such as what happened to the residents of this part of East London who could no longer afford to buy or rent a flat in the area? Are local people really shopping in the flag ship John Lewis and Apple stores? Should a soccer team get, essentially for free, a stadium built with taxpayer’s money? Is one person’s urban renewal another’s gentrification? These were all questions posed if not to the Tour Guide then to the class and, hopefully, gave students an insight into why the building of new sports stadiums and the promise of “Urban Renewal” is always fraught with controversy, argument, and risk. As most Adrian College students are Detroit Red Wings fans, I am hoping that many of the issues we discussed in class and saw first-hand in London will come to the fore as the Detroit Red Wings move into their new arena in 2017.


Adrian College students and professors outside The Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Photo by our appropriately named Tour Organizer Steve English.

A few short days in Manchester ensured that we got time to tour both the Ethihad Stadium (a stadium built for the Commonwealth Games and now home of Manchester City), and Old Trafford (home of Manchester United). Both stadiums were impressive, gave rise to questions about funding, legacy, and urban renewal; both also played heavily on the history and culture of the teams that played there. The famous Munich clock at Old Trafford, for example, was the focal point of a poignant display that commemorated the 8 Manchester United players, 3 members of staff, and 8 journalists who died in the Munich air disaster of 1958. The Busby Babes, as the team was known, are a part of the Manchester United legend and a great example of how a society can be so deeply affected by a sports team, and in this case a sporting tragedy. Whilst in Manchester we also toured the National Football Museum and took in a Twenty20 cricket match—this seemed to equally perplex and delight the American audience.


The Munich Clock at Old Trafford. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From Manchester we went north to Scotland where from our Glasgow base our sporting journey took us to various sites of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Hampden Park (the Scottish National football stadium), the Scottish Football Museum, Ibrox (home of Glasgow Rangers), and Celtic Park (home of Glasgow Celtic). The students also got to see the cities of Edinburgh and Stirling, took a day-trip of the highlands, climbed Ben Lomond, and almost began to understand what the locals were saying! Glasgow, with its history of sectarianism and its recent revitalization, was the perfect place to see the positive and negative impact that sport can have on a society.

Fandom: The Myths and Realities of European Sport

For many Americans who have never been to Europe or to a professional soccer game, the stereotype of hooliganism, fan violence, and over-zealous supporters is one that has proved hard to shake. Why is this the case? Is it fair? These were all questions that were discussed in the lead up to our UK trip. Popular culture such as the (admittedly terrible) movie Green Street Hooligans plays a role, as does society’s glorifying of a far-away misunderstood culture. But as Heruax has suggested in his chapter in “Soccer Culture in America” the perception of European hooliganism by an American audience is outdated and no longer the reality. The students saw first-hand how Swansea’s fans mocked the Arsenal supporters as they won a game in the impressive Emirates Stadium (prolonging Heraux’s streak of never seeing Arsenal win live). They saw those same Arsenal fans celebrate a late equalizer at Old Trafford (which although a cause for celebration also prolonged Heraux’s streak of never seeing Arsenal win live), and they saw and heard some very colorful language between fans of the Glasgow Rangers and Hibernian. But the violence was nowhere to be seen. There were no street battles, no throwing of punches, no gangs or firms looking to fight each other or the police. In reality, you will see similar scenes of mocking and taunting when the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers, or the Portland Timbers play the Seattle Sounders. In Europe, as in the US, rarely does this spill over into actual violence.


There were instances that harkened back to the days of hooliganism, though. For example, the (presumably) Glasgow Rangers fans driving through the center of Glasgow with “No surrender to the IRA” blaring from their car stereo and the “no football colours” signs in certain pubs.


“No Football Colours Allowed” A common sign in many Glasgow pubs. Photo courtesy of Robin Zebrowski on flickr.

Most of what we saw was light-hearted—“1:0 to the Sheep-Shaggers” sung by the Swansea fans at the Emirates Stadium, for example. Or passionate—a spine-tinging rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Celtic fans at Celtic Park. The reality of myths, stereotypes, and essentialism, and how these are developed and promulgated over time by the media and society, were taught and viewed through the lens of sport giving us all an incredibly important lesson on the realities of life and how we view others.


Adrian College students and professors outside the famous Glasgow Rangers Ibrox Gates. Photo by Cedrick Heraux.

Why Teach Sport?

For me, as a historian whose focus is on sport (I research the impact that Mega-Events have on local communities with a particular emphasis on the Olympic Games), it is natural to want to teach the impact and importance of sport. Yet even within the discipline of history at times sport is seen as an outlier. It is perhaps seen as fun and interesting but not as important as heavy-weight topics such as political or economic history. Yet in one semester in a small-town in Michigan along with three short weeks in the UK, our intrepid bunch of students learned about economics, sociology, politics, race, class, gender, memory, passion, violence, and much much more. All through the lens of sport. Sport and travel are integral to me; having the ability to combine these two facets of my life into a pedagogical framework that helped others to view the world they live in was the opportunity of a lifetime. I urge all of us who teach and have a passion for sport to continue using it as a way to get sometimes complex and difficult issues across to students by using a framework in which they are naturally interested. Teach your passion, your students will thank you.


Professors Dettmar and Heraux representing their teams at Wembley Stadium. Photo taken by Bekah Martin.

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at, or on Twitter @olympicsprof.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s