For many, sports may be a pastime, a form of entertainment, a competition or even way to form identity — and the study of sport is just as varied. For scholars in the sport studies field, sports are a lens through which to examine challenging social issues, from ethics and inequality to the interactions between individuals and for-profit corporations.
This interdisciplinary lens is at the heart of the Center for Critical Sport Studies at UCCS. Founded in 2015, the center has become a home for scholars across fields and disciplines to study sport from a critical social science perspective. Its faculty have published research on topics spanning the exclusion of transgender athletes from competition; patriotism, politics and religious expression in sport; the political forces that shape outdoor sports, like mountain biking and climbing; the wellbeing and mental health of athletes; and the appropriation of “woke” liberal values by large sports leagues, like the NFL, for political. financial and reputational gain.
The center’s interdisciplinary scholarship is critical, said Jeffrey Montez de Oca, director of the center and Professor of Sociology at UCCS, because of the many factors that shape and interact with the field.
“Sport itself, as a set of practices and institutional relationships, sits at the intersection of many of other institutions, such as mass media, health, education, business and commerce, politics and urban planning, to name just a few,” he said. “Therefore, a sport scholar needs to engage a variety of different fields in order to understand something that most people think of as ‘just entertainment’ and a banal aspect of everyday life.”
To learn more, we sat down with Montez de Oca to discuss the mission and vision of the Center for Critical Sport Studies at UCCS, and its goals for the future. Read Montez de Oca’s interview below.
1. Describe how and why the Center for Critical Sport Studies was started.
Late one night in 2014, Jeffrey Scholes from the Department of Philosophy here at UCCS called me up and said that we should start a sport sociology research center. Since it was not something I wanted to take on alone, I reached out to Spencer Harris, Associate Professor of Sport Management, to conceptualize and found a research center that would form a space for cross-college collaboration.
The problem we faced as sport scholars at UCCS was that we were individual scholars spread across the campus in different departments. Simply stated, we lacked a home where we could come together to create synergies. So, the goal from the start was to create a home for a group of interdisciplinary scholars who all studied sport from critical social science perspectives. The only requirement for membership is that a person needs to be associated with UCCS, whether they are a faculty or student, and be actively engaged in social science research on sport.
Since our founding in 2015, we have been joined by Jay Coakley in the Department of Sociology, Elizabeth Daniels in Psychology, Rebecca Wood in Anthropology and Jessica Kirby in Health Sciences, who has been a driving, dynamic force as the Assistant Director. And, in fall 2022, we will be joined by Brett Siegel from Communication.
2. How does the Center’s work align with your own background?
With a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a master’s degree in cinema studies and a Ph.D. in sociology, my training is profoundly interdisciplinary and grounded in the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies. As you can see, interdisciplinarity is a hallmark of both the Center and my own biography. I would add that it is also a hallmark of sport studies. This is appropriate because sport itself, as a set of practices and institutional relationships, sits at the intersection of many of other institutions, such as mass media, health, education, business and commerce, politics and urban planning, to name just a few. Therefore, a sport scholar needs to engage a variety of different fields in order to understand something most people think of as “just entertainment” and a banal aspect of everyday life.
3. Share a project, piece of research or initiative the Center has advanced that you’re proud of.
Since the initial goal of the Center was to create a home for a group of sport scholars housed in different departments, disciplines and colleges, I am most proud of how we have created a mutually supportive space. Our meetings are typically held off campus in convivial spaces where we can enjoy each other’s company as well as expertise. This allows us to support each other in a variety of ways but especially mentoring and professional guidance.
Several research projects have been launched from the Center, such as research on NFL marketing that Jeff Scholes, several students and I did, and the research Jessica Kirby did with Jay Coakley on women’s wrestling. We also organized a tremendous series on sport and ethics in 2016 as well as an event on eSports in 2018 that involved eSport scholars and a tournament played between college clubs from around the western states.
The Center for the Critical Study of Sport is not just an institute engaged in scholarly research, it is also a space where ambitious scholars come together to find healthful support and get re-energized for the many rigors of academic life.
4. What do you see as the next big topic or issue the Center will tackle in the next year?
Given the interdisciplinarity of CCSS and our diverse interests, it is not in our nature to take on a single big topic or issue. We like to believe that through our various projects, we collectively advance our mission to make sport more democratic, accessible and humane. You can see how we put our values and ethics into practice through a few of our current projects:
- Rebecca Wood and I engaged in an ethnography on mountain biking and climbing in the Colorado Springs area. One part of the study is to understand people’s subjective understandings and experiences of outdoor sports. Another part of the study is understanding the forces that create, destroy and recreate the mountain biking and climbing scenes in Colorado Springs. The third part of the study will focus on the spaces in which mountain biking and climbing occur. We are particularly interested in the political forces that shape the land, such as designation of parks and open spaces, resources invested in trail building (both sanctioned and unsanctioned) and rules regulating access. Ultimately, we are trying to show that while outdoor recreation is playful and fun, it also engages powerful political forces that shape the world we live in.
- Jess Kirby leads several collaborative projects, including a recent study funded by the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant. Dr. Kirby will collaborate with campus and community stakeholders in sport, health and wellness to develop and evaluate the Mountain Lion Strong program: a psychoeducation program to support the wellbeing and mental health of UCCS student-athletes, and to foster resilience. Dr. Kirby also continues to do research to better understand access to sport for girls and women and is currently studying the experience of girls competing on newly sanctioned high school girls wrestling teams, while serving as a research partner for the non-profit, Wrestle Like a Girl.
- Spencer Harris has more projects that advance the Center’s mission than I could list here, but I will draw attention to his project on the politics of exclusion. He is leading a team of researchers as they analyze how the 50 U.S. states are addressing transgender participation in school sport. He is also leading projects on political protest and Rule 50 in Olympic sport, which will evaluate the problems of and prospects for polycentric governance. In case you are unfamiliar with the IOC’s Rule 50, it is a contentious policy that bans demonstrations or political, religious or racial propaganda in any Olympic site, venue or other areas.
5. What is one of the most surprising things you’ve learned as Director?
I have really been surprised by our faculty’s need for authentic community and connection. I keep going back to how the Center for Critical Sport Studies provides a home. It is an intellectual home for sure, but it is also an emotional home as well. I think we oftentimes overlook how stressful academic life is, and that is not healthy. CCSS is not simply a springboard for scholarship; it helps to maintain our health so that we can continue to engage in high quality research and teaching.
6. Is there a project or program that never got off the ground that you wish you could reignite?
Back in 2014 when Spencer and I were first envisioning the Center, we were really invested in creating an internship program that would allow students to have firsthand experience in sport research. Sadly, a lack of resources and time has kept that part of our vision from coming to fruition. I hope that down the road we will have the time and capacities to secure the funding needed to make the internship program a reality.
7. What part of the Center’s work most excites or inspires you?
With emerging scholars — like Jessica Kirby, Rebecca Wood, Brett Siegel — and senior scholars — like Elizabeth Daniels, Spencer Harris, Jay Coakley and the “Jeffs” (Jeff Scholes and myself, Jeff Montez de Oca) — committed to mentoring, the Center for Critical Sport Studies will continue to serve as an integrative home for years to come. We also have several graduate students associated with the Center who are learning the tricks of the trade. This keeps us well-positioned to fulfill the Center’s mission of maintaining “an intellectual environment that supports high quality teaching and learning, and stimulates research focused on the critical study of sport while sustaining the reputation of UCCS” for years to come.
This article is part of a series of stories of UCCS’ academic centers. You can learn more about the Center for Critical Sport Studies online.