Sports & Literature Class Examines the Storytelling of Athletics
Read about a sports and literature class being offered at Saint Leo University this fall in which students examine the action as a narrative.
When thinking about a football or baseball game, the idea of relating the on-field action of an athletic competition to literary narratives might not seem natural. However, Dr. Kathryn Duncan, a professor of English at Saint Leo University, has been able to connect the dots in a unique undergraduate course at University Campus this fall.
Formally known as ENG300: Sports and/in/as Literature, the special topics course has just six students, allowing for an intimate classroom setting. Duncan details her personal connection to the world of sports.
“I’m a longtime Florida Gators football season ticketholder,” Duncan shares. “I grew up in a Gator family. My dad got his master’s there, my parents got married while he was in graduate school, and I got my bachelor’s degree in journalism there.”
In fact, the family has had the same three seats in the south endzone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 1988. Duncan even puts up a Gator tree for Christmas each year. While her love of the orange and blue is certainly a big factor in her appreciation for sports, she has dabbled in athletics as an adult as well.
“I didn’t really play sports in my childhood per se, but I later got interested in swimming, running, and triathlons,” she says. “I’m training for my 10th marathon now.”
Duncan shares how she pulled together a variety of written and visual works for the course curriculum.
“In our department, we focus on literary and cultural studies,” she says. “We aren’t just looking at traditional literature. We are interested in narratives overall. For this class, I wanted to incorporate a mix of print, film, and TV series because so much of sports is visual.”
The students started off the semester by reading about Super Bowl XVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots. They also watched highlights from the game.
“We talked about how an event like this is a narrative,” she says. “We examined the chosen location, the use of lights and music, and the stories set up around the players and coaches in the game.”
Another work on the football front they read was The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, a 2006 book by Michael Lewis. They watched some clips from the 2009 film adaptation as well.
Duncan admits she got hooked on Ted Lasso, a sports comedy grama series streaming on AppleTV+. The show tells the story of an American college football coach who is hired to lead an English soccer club.
“It demonstrates how sports can be more of a vehicle to tell the story of human psychology,” she says.
Looking at basketball, they read The Crossover, a Kwame Alexander novel told in verse about twin boys who are basketball players experiencing the ups and downs of life.
For women’s sports, they explored several works. One example is Bend It Like Beckham, a film about women’s soccer. Plus, they watched the 1992 version of A League of Their Own and a few episodes of the new Amazon Prime Video series of the same name.
“We discussed how the women had to wear skirts and always display proper conduct. There is also an element of racism in the series.”
The students also read a book called Ghost: The Track Series from author Jason Reynolds.
“This book explores how sports are beneficial to young people, but also how demanding they can be,” Duncan explains. “A boy is struggling emotionally. When he stumbles upon a track team and learns of his natural gift of running, he forms close bonds with his runners and coaches.”
In addition to reading and watching these works, the students had to write journal entries reflecting on each text, film, or series. They also conducted primary research for a scouting report project. They had to attend one Saint Leo University athletic event and either watch or read the accounts of other larger sporting events. They wrote down observations about what they noticed, from the action of the competition to advertising to fan engagement. In addition, a research paper and presentation are part of their final project in the class.
Thanks to these assignments and the course as a whole, Duncan thinks all of this has opened the minds of several students.
“Most of them are not sports fans,” she explains. “They have really learned how to think about cultural events themselves as stories. This is an important life skill because life is full of stories. What matters is learning to create these stories or framing experiences in our mind and looking at stories from different perspectives.”
Aaliyah Moore, 22, is a student in the class. A 2019 alumna of Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, FL, she attained her associate degree from Pasco-Hernando State College before transferring to Saint Leo University in the fall of 2021. She is a senior working toward a BA in English with a concentration in literary and cultural studies.
“I chose this major because I really like English and gravitate toward writing and analyzing literary works,” she says. “I wanted to earn a degree with lots of flexibility that would give me the opportunity to go into multiple fields.”
And why did she choose this course on sports and literature?
“The topic sounded really interesting to me,” she says. “There is a real deep connection between sports and literature. There is also a big difference between watching and reading about sports.”
Football is her favorite sport. She is a big fan of the Ohio State University Buckeyes football team and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. She sat down to watch an entire Browns game, but she focused on observing the experience from a different kind of lens.
“We looked deeper into what these games actually convey,” she says. “I focused on the ads that run throughout the broadcast and the narrative the announcers were trying to convey.”
She also attended a women’s soccer game on campus to experience going to a sporting event in person and how it compares to following a game on TV.
“There was a lot of cheering at this game, especially these little chants. On TV, you don’t hear all of that as much. Also, the people around you will try to explain the rules to you, and this creates a sense of community versus watching a game on TV by yourself.”
For her research paper, her topic is on the toxic behavior of NFL fans and how fans of one team are often encouraged to be negative toward fans of other teams.
“I think fans feel like they have some form of ownership of a particular team,” she says. “This can create an unhealthy environment because the NFL is kind of feeding this delusion into people.”
She adds that the class has given her the chance to explore numerous perspectives on sports as a business that she had never considered before.
“We have learned how the sports industry is very corporate-oriented. They try to get as much money from fans by feeding into their desires.”
This is Moore’s fourth class with Duncan.
“She’s a really cool professor,” Moore says. “I like that she holds us accountable for our work and is very critical. Sometimes professors try not to offend you, but she will give you honest and helpful feedback to make you a better student. She wants all of her students to succeed.”
In addition, she is a member of Duncan’s book club on campus and says she has been a helpful shoulder to lean on as she searches for graduate school programs.
Jonathan Barnes, 40, is a nontraditional student taking the course. An Army veteran who worked as a specialist E-4, he served for seven years and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Now on his GI Bill, he is a senior working toward his bachelor’s in English with a concentration in creative writing. He previously attended two other universities before finally finding his home at Saint Leo University after moving from Tennessee to Florida.
In terms of sports, he says he did play baseball as a youngster.
“I played Little League and never understood why the boys played baseball and the girls played softball,” he says. “The boys pitched overhand, but the girls threw underhand. We have talked about gender roles in sports in this class, and that discussion brought back this memory for me.”
He admits he is not a big sports fan and prefers sports that aren’t as popular in the U.S. such as rugby and sumo wrestling.
“I lived in Japan for a few years and got interested in their sports,” he explains. “The beauty of sumo wrestling is its simplicity.”
For the scouting report project, Barnes went to a women’s volleyball game on campus in which the Lions faced the University of Tampa.
“I enjoyed the game,” he says. “Watching a women’s sport didn’t seem much different to me than watching a men’s sport. I did take notice of the emotions of the players and coaches being there in person.”
He also viewed the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Other events he watched included a soccer match between England and Germany, the 2008 Southeastern Conference football championship game between the University of Florida and University of Alabama, and a football game between Marshall University and Bowling Green State University.
For his research paper, Barnes is analyzing how patriotism is displayed in sports.
“From the military flyover to the national anthem to honoring veterans at certain games, you see a lot of these things at sporting events,” he asserts. “Looking at the Olympics, you definitely see even more of this. I feel like with football especially, each game is a microcosm of a patriotic celebration of American culture.”
Like many of his professors, he has a glowing review of Duncan.
“Dr. Duncan has always been really good with communication and is able to easily create a safe space in the classroom where students feel comfortable to share their opinions, even if they aren’t necessarily popular opinions,” he says. “If I were to get into teaching, I would look at her as an example to follow. She has the patience of the Dalai Lama, and she always maintains such a positive environment.”
Along with Duncan, he is incredibly grateful for Dr. Chantelle MacPhee, chair of the Department of Language Studies and the Arts, who went above and beyond to help him maximize his transfer credits to the undergraduate English program.
“If it weren’t for them, there is no way I would be on track to graduate,” he says.