Channeling Students’ Passion for Sports Into Social Awareness and...

Voices | Diversity and Equity

Channeling Students’ Passion for Sports Into Social Awareness and Bringing Change

By Toni West     Jan 7, 2019

Channeling Students’ Passion for Sports Into Social Awareness and Bringing Change

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

How do you turn a student’s passion into a purpose that serves our global community?

That was the challenge that confronted me when I took over the Sports and Society Class at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, Calif. As part of our mission statement, we are committed to preparing our students through academic, social and spiritual learning experiences that form and transform them into responsible citizens of our global community.

I wanted to refocus the elective class from one that was known for having a relaxed atmosphere, where students watched “ESPN 30 for 30” documentaries, to one that more closely aligned with our mission.

While many students in the class loved sports, I wanted them to channel their passion to enact change. They were already aware of some athletes and headlines at the intersection of sports and society, such as Colin Kaepernick, Jemele Hill and the World Cup.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sports as much as anyone else. (I was a basketball coach at the high school and collegiate levels for many years.) But sports are a microcosm of our society, and issues like race, gender, sexual orientation and assault transcend both spheres of our lives. Once students realize that, then they can understand how sports can shape and change issues that plague society.

I knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get 30 students to change their mentality about this class, so they would take on a challenge as opposed to coasting through. I needed to create an environment that would allow students to figure out what was important to them, how to communicate their perspectives, how to conduct research—and most importantly—how to tackle issues that shape society.

Respect and Critical Thinking

As in sports’ matches, the opening quarter is about setting the tone and helping players figure out how they can best communicate. For this class, it was essential to create a space where students could feel open enough to share their perspectives, learn how to research facts to support their opinions and communicate in a respectful manner.

But in order to do that, we needed to establish baseline expectations for critical thinking, communication and civil discourse. After all, in order to practice open-mindedness, students need to be able to speak, debate and disagree in such a way that no one feels intimidated about expressing opinions. I challenged them to go beyond mere tolerance, and to respect and encourage different points of views. This meant students needed to be careful about using loaded words and expressions and, most of all, to avoid verbal put-downs and derisive laughter.

After establishing those norms, students were asked to analyze their own ability to think critically about statements like:

  1. I do not simply accept conclusions; I evaluate and critique the underlying reasons.
  2. I recognize irrelevant facts and false assumptions, and I discount them.
  3. I am able to consider the strengths and weaknesses of my own point of view and that of opposing positions.

Understanding how to reason and debate critically allowed students to dive deeper into social issues in a way where they did not feel attacked, or felt like they had to attack someone else. These norms are key to fostering meaningful conversations where their worldviews would expand, but not necessarily change. That was an important piece to this class if we were going to tackle difficult subjects.

Exploring Tough Issues

Before learning what social issue in which they were most passionate about making a difference, they needed to learn about the facts and underlying context behind each problem. As students established a baseline for critical thinking and communication, they watched videos and led discussions about current events.

I still showed documentaries in class, but with more of a purpose. Early in the semester, we watched “Kicking It,” which follows the lives of five people from different countries who were selected to play in the Homeless World Cup. Throughout the film, there were statistics about a country’s homeless population, and students would learn the myriad reasons why someone became homeless. Another documentary, Sports Illustrated’s “Young, Gifted and Homeless” about homeless high school student-athletes, showed students how to weave facts into storylines to tell compelling stories that encouraged understanding and empathy.

Informed by documentaries, students then held debates that ranged from lighter discussions (like “What is the best sport?”) to more serious issues. We explored unequal pay between male and female athletes, rules around NCAA eligibility for student-athletes and how colleges have engaged in illegal activities to keep students eligible for team sports. (Many of the student-athletes were learning about NCAA rules for the first time in my class, and were struck by how this topic personally affected them.)

The discussion that became an eye opener for the students involved the topic of rape. Students were broken into groups and given different roles, including head football coach, women’s basketball coach, athletic director, college president and booster club president. Within their groups, they had to research their job title and how they may respond in a scenario where a women basketball player accused a football player of raping her at a college party. In those different roles, students had to think about how they might act differently to protect their jobs, or project those who they are supposed to protect. This exercise required them to research actual cases and statistics concerning rape on campus.

Many students realized that they felt more comfortable in roles that aligned with their existing beliefs. They learned how a job can shape an individual and can influence how one is “supposed” to respond that may not align with their values and beliefs.

Entrepreneurial Inspirations

Before the students started working on their projects, I invited The Young Vets, a nonprofit organization that aims to help student-athletes become prepared for successful careers outside of sports, to speak to the class. They shared how they created the organization to change the trajectory of young students’ lives, support their efforts to become social change agents and prepare them for college. I believe it is important for students to understand that powerful catalysts for social change often come from issues that have personal connections to their own lives.

In order for any social-impact organization to succeed—no matter how noble the goal—it needs to be sustainable. To that point, The Young Vets walked our students through its budgeting, marketing strategies, and sponsorship outreach tactics along with how the team aligns all these efforts to the organization’s mission and values.

After this visit, students were introduced to their final project: creating a new organization that focuses on fixing an issue that is important to them. Whether it involved using sports to raise money, or creating an organization to help athletes, or using athletes to raise social awareness, students were tasked to channel sports into a positive force for society.

From Ideas to Social Change

From creating a mission statement, to finding potential sponsors, to creating detailed itemized budgets and business plans, students had to apply the critical thinking and research skills they had learned.

One student wanted to create a nonprofit organization for student-athletes coming from a single-parent home, as he was raised by his mom and knew the struggles his mother went through. While doing his research, he found out that many professional athletes were raised in single-parent households, and how outside support was crucial in improving their outcomes. It helped my student understand who his target demographic was, and where he should start his nonprofit in order to have the desired impact.

Another student’s proposal involved holding a basketball tournament to raise money for breast cancer. During his research, he realized how many people were affected by breast cancer, which posed more questions including: Why isn’t there a cure yet? Why aren’t there more screenings in minority communities? Why do women in poorer neighborhoods have higher rates of dying? Would that change if they were diagnosed or treated earlier?

The passion with which he asked these questions touched his classmates. It opened their eyes to the impact that a simple basketball tournament could have in neighborhoods where early breast-cancer screenings are low and where death rates are high. What I found most inspirational was that this young man was transformed from someone who had been content hanging in the back of the class with his friends, to now sitting in the front and being fully engaged.

Another student talked about what it was like growing up with a father who suffered from alcoholism, and that he didn’t have a place to do homework nor internal access due to financial strains at home. While he shared his personal struggles, he never made himself seem like a victim, and made sure that his classmates understood that people who suffer from addiction are not bad, but rather in need of help.

The details with which he described how how he would create a safe place to support student-athletes truly made me take inventory on what students need that we, as teachers and adults, rarely think about. His presentation was the first time I had seen other students cry while someone shared his story and the why behind his organization.

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see how a school’s purpose could be implemented in the classroom, no matter the subject. Besides my desire for students to look at how sports can shape and transform our society, it also was important that students learn how to think, research and present information.

After hearing all the ideas the students presented, I felt inspired that they will use all that they learned—not only in this class, not only at Moreau, but also in their lives as they pursue their purpose and feel confident that they have the tools needed to become responsible citizens of our global community.

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