On Monday, undergraduate students around Columbia gathered to listen to this week’s “Talks With Professors” with Dr. Frank Guridy. Staff Writer Solomia Dzhaman is here to give you the summary.

On Monday night the Undergraduate Committee on Global Thought (UCGT) organized another “Talks With Professors” event, this time featuring Professor Frank Guridy. The talk, titled “Sports and Politics in a Time of Political Polarization” was part lecture part discussion about political activism in sports, activist-athletes as societal figures, and the history of sports activism. Dr. Guridy is an Associate Professor of History and of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University, and teaches classes in a multitude of subjects, including “Sport and Society in the Americas” and “Transnational America”.

Dr. Guridy began the talk with a short history lesson about sports activism: beginning with modern figureheads such as Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, mentioning the WNBA’s protests in 2016, and outlining broader trends such as the debates over college athletic compensation and the white elephant status of Olympic Stadiums. He then dipped back in time to different sports activists of the 1960s-90s. He named figureheads such as Mohammed Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Billie Jean King, but also athletes-turned-activists such as Harry Edwards, Dave Meggyesy, Jack Scott, and Cecilia Martinez. All of the latter began as athletes, but after seeing the unfair or exploitative nature of their various sports, turned to the social sciences to analyze and bring attention to the various problems.

Dr. Guridy then opened the floor up to questions. The first, posed by UCGT organizers, was “Why sports?”. Dr. Guridy went into detail describing the massive all-encompassing business of sports and how an institution that huge is able to reach audiences across all backgrounds. He also explained the American ethos of painting sports as a true meritocracy, where any person could have a rag-to-riches American-dream story. Both of these elements, paired with the inherently interesting aspect of watching humans face challenges, make sports easy for viewers to invest themselves into.

The discussion continued, raising questions of historic vilification of athletes in the media (from Ali to Kaepernick), the current system of athlete micromanagement (where athletes are expected to “just shut up and play”, in addition to constantly represent the message of their college or team), and the involvement of key political figures in athletics (such as President Donald Trump’s famous condemnations of kneeling during the National Anthem). Students in the room then brought up questions of possible limits as to how radical athletes can be – given that they rely on sponsorships, and are still largely capitalistic giants far removed from average people.

The talk turned to discussing the current fixation on nationalism in sports, as events like the Olympics aim to foster mutual solidarity and understanding but end up fueling nationalistic antagonism. Dr. Guridy brought up the post-9/11 shift to militaristic patriotism in the US, which made sports more nationalistic and acts such as kneeling for the National Anthem more poignant and symbolic.

The final discussion topic was the inherently racialized relations of majority-white NFL and NBA team owners and the majority-black NFL and NBA team players. Dr. Guridy mentioned the lack of non-white or female coaches, even on majority-non-white or female teams. Students brought up echoes to master-slave relationships, and Dr. Guridy provided a nuanced analysis of how those relationships changed post-emancipation, and the evolution since.

With a final note about recent debates over the inherent toxic masculinity of sports such as football, the talk finished after spilling five minutes over the allotted time. As some students filtered out of the room, many stayed behind to continue discussion about this complex and ever-evolving issue.

event photo via my phone