History and sociology courses give students the opportunity to connect sports to larger forces.
CLARKSVILLE, ARK. (Feb. 3, 2006) - Two University of the Ozarks professors are offering courses on sports in America, taking students on a tour de force in the classroom through some of the most exciting games and fascinating sports figures. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, history professor Steve Oatis’ students engaged in a spirited discussion that wound its way from the early development of college football at Ivy League universities and the University of Chicago through the debate over special treatment accorded college athletes. “(People) act like it’s a new thing. ,but it was even worse back then,” said Lee Short, an Ozarks junior from Little Rock. Oatis pointed out that the universities that laid the framework for modern college football have abandoned big-time competition, and challenged the students to answer the question as to whether today’s college sports powerhouses would always be so. “What if the president of the University of Arkansas decided to shut down the football program?” said Oatis. The discussion moved on to sports as spectacle and the creation of athletes as celebrities, as the class examined a reading on the 1892 heavyweight boxing match between John Sullivan and Jim Corbett, two of the first larger-than-life sports stars. “Nobody remembers (President) Grover Cleveland,” said Oatis, “But they remember the Sullivan-Corbett fight.” Sociology professor Jesse Weiss sounded the same theme in a more contemporary tone, telling his students that Michael Jordan, arguably the biggest sports figure of their youths, was the equivalent of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. “You never saw them play,” said Weiss, “But you know who they are.” A lively argument soon broke out over sports and technology, after Weiss brought up special contact lenses used by some professional baseball players that supposedly allow them to focus more sharply on a pitched ball. Some students said using such lenses would constitute cheating. “What about knee braces?” said Weiss, pointing out that such support devices were once considered high-tech. “Knee braces are okay, but contact lenses aren’t?” He asked students to consider the issue of steroids in sports, which he predicted will be the biggest issue in sports in coming years. “(Steroids) will change sports just like Jackie Robinson changed sports,” said Weiss. “Fifty years from now, people will be talking about (steroids) and how they changed sports.” Oatis and Weiss are each including in their courses the book and movie, respectively, “Friday Night Lights,” which examines the phenomenon of high school football by focusing on the 1988 season of the Permian High School Panthers football team in Odessa, Texas. “The reason (“Friday Night Lights”) is such a great book is, it places sports in such a political and historical context,” said Oatis, pointing out that H.G. Bissinger’s book unfolds against a backdrop of cold war politics and the economic situation of small towns in the 1980s.