Sports and Politics: Q&A with Lawrence Glickman on Developing A New Course

By Andrew McGregor

This semester Lawrence (Larry) Glickman is trying something new with his students at Cornell University. He is teaching a class on “Sports and Politics in American History.” Over the course of the fall and winter Glickman reached out to me and other Sport in American History contributors for help navigating the field of sport history and putting the course together. Now that the class has nearly reached its halfway point, Glickman graciously agreed to chat with me about the process of developing the course and share his syllabus.

Andrew: You’re an intellectual and political historian and much of your research investigates consumer culture, what led you to sports? And how does this background shape the way you teach or think about sport history? How do you think engaging with sport history will affect your other areas of research?


That’s a great question and the road has been twisted.  I’m a sports fan and have been collecting materials at the intersection of sports and history for many years.  For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about a project on “sports radicalism” of the 1960s and 1970s.  This reflects the confluence of several different topics that I’ve thought about studying, including:

a) Jack Scott, the author of “The Athletic Revolution,” who was, briefly the Athletic Director at Oberlin College and who also roomed with the basketball great, Bill Walton, in Portland.  Scott had his 15 minutes of fame as an accomplice of Patty Hearst, but I’m most interest in his ideas about sports as a site of participatory democracy, to use a keyword of the era.

b) I’ve long been interested in Walton himself, and plan to write an article exploring the contrast between how Walton presented himself as a young player–extremely political, lived in a vegetarian group house, gave interviews to alternative and radical newspapers, etc.–and the image he presented in his 1995 autobiography. In that book, he literally silenced himself by saying that, as a stutterer, he really didn’t talk much at all until he became a broadcaster.  In this memoir, he downplays his political activities as youthful hijinks and of a piece with his Deadhead-loving brash personality.

c) I was also intrigued to discover that the radical journal, Ramparts, had a sports section, as, famously, did The Daily Worker.

d) As a young person, I read many of the memoirs of disaffected athletes of this period–like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four–and have thought about studying these texts collectively.

e) As a runner, I’ve also been interested in the pioneering female marathoners of this era and the intense misogyny they faced.

f) Finally, the connection between African American athletes and the Civil Rights movement is intriguing and I’ve been interested in the discovery of the “black athlete” by Sports Illustrated and other mainstream publications in the late 1960s.

As I developed the syllabus, as noted below, I wound up putting more focus on both the immediate present and the deep past.  But the heart of my intellectual interest remains the relationship between sports, the counterculture, and radical politics in the postwar years.

Another factor for me in crafting the course was my desire to find a way to draw students.  As in other institutions of higher ed, Cornell is seeing a drop in history majors and in course enrollments more generally. I wanted to offer a popular, introductory course that would hopefully serve as a “gateway drug” on the beauty and fun of the historical method.

Andrew: We chatted off and on while you designed the course. It seemed that you had a pretty good idea what topics and ideas you wanted to cover. How did you go about selecting these? What guided you as tried to limit or define politics to keep the course manageable? What is the overall “thesis” of your class? 


I wanted to open up two questions–what is sports? what is politics–by looking at how the two have intersected historically in the United States.  I decided to start the course in the present by spending the first week on the Colin Kaepernick controversy. We moved from the “history of the present” to “deep history”–two concepts that I employed in lectures–next to talk about the role of sports in human and cultural evolution.  Then, we moved into a unit on what exactly is a sport, with a focus on NASCAR, pro wrestling, Roller Derby, and, in a fabulous guest lecture by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, fitness and aerobics.  Drawing on the brilliant work of Brian Ingrassia, we also discussed the relationship between sports and higher education in the United States, with a nod also to John Higham’s extremely insightful article on the “Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s.”  The rest of the course considers a series of case studies in twentieth century US History.

I hope this brief discussion highlights one point that I’d like to emphasize.  I have been able to introduce seemlessly into the course many historiographic and methodological frameworks that both have been incredibly useful for them in analyzing sports but that I hope will show them the ways in which all interpretative enterprises draw are enriched by knowing a variety of analytical explanatory devices.  In many ways, it has been easier and less forced for me to do this in this sports history class than in some of the other courses I regularly teach–say, the history of Gilded Age and Progressive era.

Andrew: As a newcomer to the field, what did you find the most challenging about putting together the syllabus


The biggest challenge for me was not knowing the field very well and trying to find a balance between primary and secondary sources. I should mention that you and your colleagues at US Sports History on twitter have been incredibly generous to this interloper and I got many ideas from you and other scholars in this emerging field.

I also wanted to avoid focusing too much on one sport or one time period.

Finally, while many works of sports history deal with what we can broadly construe as politics, most of the scholarship, in my view, was not always explicit about that connection.  Many of the works I’ve assigned, like Ingrassia’s book, are not really conceived of as works of political history.  I actually like this because it leads to great discussions and writing from the students about the politics of seeming “non political” topics.

Andrew: Beyond the topics, your syllabus has a few unique assignments. The one that most interests me is the “Reader-Response Journal.” It seems like a useful tool to force students to not only engage with material, but reflect on how it alters their understanding of sports. Is this a new approach or something you have used other courses? What do you expect to see from your students in these journals? 


I’ve used reader response journals in course before. And I should say that like most of my good teaching ideas, I stole this one from a friend, Craig Lapine, who shared with me his instructions to his high school students.  I think these kinds of assignments work particularly well in courses in which students have a particularly personal stake in the material.  One of my best experiences with these journals, for example, came in a course that I co-taught with my friend and colleague, Greg Forter, at the University of South Carolina on “Consumption and its Discontents.”  Greg and I asked the students in the class to keep a “shopping journal” and these turned out to be amazing documents.  Initially, many of their entries simply recorded things that they bought.  But over time, their journals included deep reflections on how acts of consumption (or non consumption) tied (or alienated) them from friends, family members, and lovers. These journals elicited some surprisingly intimate and powerful writing.

So far, we’ve collected the journal once–there will be three more collections over the course of the term.  Both I and my excellent TA’s (Kwelina Thompson and Ryan Purcell) were super impressed with them.  They contained thoughtful discussions of race, gender, power relations, authority and many other topics–but rather than being abstract as they might be in a traditional class assignment, they are concrete and unique.

I should note that I am a fan of research based on primary-sources as well and that the other required writing in the class is a short (6-8 page) research paper.  In fact, their one-page paper proposal is due this Friday and so the students have begun to think about topics that will be meaningful for them and that will be doable over the course of the remainder of the semester. I’ve told the that because this is a new field, that I have no doubt that many of them will write about topics that have not been explored before, or with new perspectives.

In terms of what I expect to see, I’m usually very open. Occasionally, I give them “prompts”–so far, we have had three–but more often they are free to write whatever they want as long as they write at least two entries (300-500 words each) per week.  I want to see them critically reflect on the readings and lectures but am just as happy to see them use the tools of the course to analyze topics that we are not treating that may be very close to their hearts.   I gave them the option of keeping and old-fashioned paper journal or word processing them and I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that probably less than 10% have opted for the handwritten approach.  This disappoints me slightly but it makes their entries easier to read and also allows them to keep writing while we are grading them.

Andrew: While sport history has been around for a while (The North American Society of Sport History was founded in 1972), when Richard O. Davies conducted a national survey of upper-level and graduate history courses in 1999, he found that few included sports. This trend seems to be changing as history departments realize the potential of high-student enrollment in these course. What advice would you give other historians looking to teach sport history? 


I would encourage them to do it! And to share their syllabus. As someone with interests in intellectual, cultural, political, and consumer history, I’ve found sports history to be a great lens through which to view all these things.  And students who might shy away from classes on on those topics seem to flock to sports history courses.

I would also tell them to push the boundaries of sports. My student I think have been most interested in the lectures and readings that surprised them.  For example, Elliott Gorn’s article on the social significance of fighting in the the Southern backcountry is not explicitly about “sports” at all. And yet both me and my students keep coming back to many of the issues that he raises in this pioneering piece.  For example, he introduced the idea of the “magic circle” in that article and we have come back again and again to issues of time and space in the analysis of sports.  Ideas drawn from anthropology and literary criticism–liminality, rites of passage, the carnalesque–have all proved valuable and we’re referred to them frequently. One of our week’s, we held our discussion section in Cornell’s fabulous Johnson Museum of Art.  Thanks to the wonderful curator, Leah Sweet, we were able to show the students about five pieces–paintings, prints, photographs–from the museum’s permanent collection with sports-related themes.  I was so impressed with the student’s ability to interpret visual culture and to draw in themes and frameworks that we had read and discussed in lecture.

So my main advice is do not feel constrained by the subject.  It is a great jumping off point for a fresh exploration not only of key themes in US history but also for what it means to be human in the modern world.

Lawrence B. Glickman is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor in American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. He is the author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Cornell University Press, 1997), editor of Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (Cornell University Press, 1999), and co-editor of The Cultural Turn in U. S. History: Past, Present, and Future (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Glickman is currently working on a cultural history of the free enterprise systerm. You can find him on Twitter at @LarryGlickman.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

One thought on “Sports and Politics: Q&A with Lawrence Glickman on Developing A New Course

  1. I’ve taught history of sport and society at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Of all the assigned texts, I had the best results from Buford’s Among the Thugs, which is a book about soccer hooligans but winds up being so much more. Also a great read.

    As a final project, i asked students to find 10 current news articles on how sports expressed politics, race, class, or gender and write a couple of paragraphs on how.

    Sounds like you have a great class


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