Sixty thousand fans squeezed tightly into the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum on a late December afternoon, arriving in armor, black and silver body paint, skull hats, and even a few Darth Vader masks. This was the Black Hole on a normal NFL Sunday, and arguably the rowdiest fans in all of sports had come to cheer, cuss, scream, intimidate—anything to push their Raiders to victory.
And in the thick of all the madness sat history professor Frank Guridy—listening, observing, and soaking everything in.
Guridy, now a second-year associate professor in Columbia’s history department, specializes in sport, urban, and Afro-Cuban history. He’s brought that expertise every Tuesday and Thursday this fall to Sport & Society in the Americas, a history course that explores how athletics interact with nation, race, gender, and sexuality.
“I love to go to games. I’m just there to observe,” Guridy said. “I’ve always wanted to go to a Raider game. I wanted to see the Black Hole, the fan experiences in the stadium, and I thought that’d be a great case study. And it was.”
This is the first time Guridy has taught the course in Morningside Heights after stops at Occidental College and the University of Texas at Austin. And according to a member of Columbia’s Committee on Instruction, it’s the first non-seminar, undergraduate sport course to ever be offered.
“You see sport as a title and it gets you interested,” junior football player Michael McGrath said. “That was pretty much it for me.”
Several other student-athletes have flocked to Guridy’s course, including sophomore football player Charlie Flores. He noted that by engaging with the sports-driven social and political movements from past and present, the course motivated him to reflect on his own situation.
“The role Latinos played in integration [in baseball]. I thought that was huge,” Flores said. “Being a young Latino myself, I didn’t know if they were discriminated against or what role we had in society. But we, Latinos, helped integration. [We] got the opportunity to play baseball before everyone else.”
But athletes such as Flores are far from the only students enrolled.
According to Guridy, the 100-person course is designed for anyone, ranging from sports junkies to novices, or even individuals only fascinated by culture or history.
“We can take any conversation about sports and put that in a historical context, or take any discussion on history in the Americas and somehow intertwine sports,” sophomore Michael Leone said.
At their core, sports consists of just wins and losses, yet their implications in community, economics, race relations, and legislation are far-ranging.
“Looking at all these things in the new light of sports allows us to understand the social contracts of what was going on in the past,” Leone said. “There’s a reason why sports have been such a popular phenomenon throughout history, and to ignore that would be ignoring a good chunk of history.”
General Studies student Sharisse McClure, a non-sports fan, echoed the notion that the study of sports has merit in academia. She explained that at Columbia, athletics impact the entire institution, even citing how alumni funding is often tied to the results of the University’s 31 intercollegiate teams.
Guridy added that recent years have seen a reemergence of sports figures as prominent activists, after a dormant period in the 1990s. Stars like Colin Kaepernick, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James have used their platforms to speak out against police brutality and other race issues.
That trend is something Guridy hopes to capitalize on, as he spoke of plans to organize a conference at Columbia to further these conversations.
“You’re going to see how sport can contribute to community formation, and to see sport as an intellectual, knowledge-producing enterprise,” Guridy said.
Students appear to support this burgeoning of sports studies as a legitimate academic discipline. “It’s interesting seeing the same situations play out over and over again, and it goes to show that sports is just a representation of humanity and humankind,” McClure said. “So I think that resonates with me to see new outbreaks, new controversies.”
Guridy has traveled into uncharted waters in his short time at Columbia, advocating for ideas and ways of knowing oft considered taboo in academia. If his insatiable thirst for understanding is any indicator, it seems his Sport & Society class is just the start.