Artboard 1 apply Artboard 1 copy 2 Mount_Logo_Primary_RGB Mount_Logo_Primary_RGB give Artboard 1 copy 3 info link Mount_Logo_Primary_RGB Artboard 1 Artboard 2 Artboard 1 visit

The Big Debate: Sports Controversies

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

Murry feature

Any historian will tell you that studying history requires debate. Without healthy debate, it is difficult to get to the root of important events, how they affected those living in the past, and how they impact today’s world. In his newest course, Chair of the History Department Gregory Murry, Ph.D., is applying this idea to an understudied area of history: sports controversies. Sports Controversies in History asks students to research events that had a wide cultural impact. Then they will take sides and debate each topic, creating a perfect course for sports fans with a passion for history.

“I was watching a few episodes of ESPN’s First Take,” Murry explained. “And I realized ‘Wow, there’s a lot of history here.’” The critically acclaimed television series features panels of ex-athletes and sports pundits who spend the hour-long time slot debating current and past sports topics. Avid fans appreciate the lively conversations that take place between experts, but a historian like Murry recognized the historical context that was embedded in the topics discussed. “I was thinking about how elements like contingency, context and even prediction change the meaning of each particular event,” he stated. “Almost always, First Take raises questions of causality, which got me thinking how much history is rooted in sports debates.” Murry began planning Sports Controversies in History from there, and he is now teaching the course for the first time.

The course includes incidents of cheating, violence, institutional corruption, geopolitics and activism by athletes. Throughout the semester, students will examine issues such as gender equity and the U.S. women's national soccer team, Colin Kaepernick and the Baltimore Ravens, Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball, the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal, the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War. In addition to researching such topics, participants are tasked with teaching their classmates in the debate format. “The course is set up is so that sometimes students will be debating and sometimes they will be judging,” Murry explained. While some students try to persuade the rest of the class from separate sides of a formal debate, those who are not debating will weigh the evidence and vote the side that is most convincing.

Murry challenges his students to suspend their own hindsight about each controversy. He said, “In order to understand what people thought at the time [of an event], a lot of historical research involves pretending not to know things that you know.” The historian used the example of the Big Ten Conference’s reversing its decision to cancel the football season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Murry stated that the information we had at that time impacted the general public’s opinion about college sports returning. Our subsequent knowledge impacts how we view the issue currently.

As with most history courses offered at the Mount, students will be taught the five Cs of historical thinking: context, causality, contingency, complexity and change over time. By the end of the semester, they will enhance their ability to “think historically” as they examine controversial moments in 20th and 21st century sports history.

In addition to chairing the Department of History since 2018, Murry serves as the Mount’s director of academic programming. He earned a Ph.D. from Penn State University in 2009 and held a Fulbright research fellowship to Italy in 2007-08. His primary scholarly areas are the relationship between religion and politics, historically based games, and early modern Europe, including Renaissance Florence. The author of The Medicean Succession: Monarchy and Sacral Politics in Duke Cosimo dei Medici’s Florence (2014), he is preparing a second book titled Divine Right and the Consent of the People in Sixteenth-Century Europe.

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts