Muhammad Ali, Sports and a Platform for Change – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Muhammad Ali, Sports and a Platform for Change

A collaborative, interdisciplinary Maymester project “opened up a powerful and vital dialogue” says Associate Professor of Media and Society Leah Shafer of an assignment that traced the impact of Muhammad Ali’s protests in the 1960s to Colin Kapernick’s kneeling against police brutality and the work of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The project overlapped Shafer’s course on video essays and Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Ben Ristow’s course on long-form sports writing. Shafer and Ristow, who have previously collaborated on “The Video Essay” and other courses, “wanted to create something that would allow us to take the students a little bit out of their everyday classroom comfort zone, do something innovative and allow the two of us to continue to collaborate as teachers, even though we were teaching separate virtual classes,” Shafer says.

Within the virtual classroom model, students from both classes watched the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, which chronicles the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.

Alongside Ali’s legacy as an activist, explored in readings like David Remnick’s book King of the World, the classes “had the opportunity to revisit discussions of Colin Kapernick and his protests against police brutality during the national anthem. His protests, like Ali’s protests in the 1960s, made him a pariah and outcast, and eventually, demonstrated that his cause and convictions were larger than his sport,” Ristow explains. “Kapnernick and Ali represent figures willing to sacrifice their livelihood for a cause, and in their powerful statements, students were able to understand sports as a forum where athlete reflect political and personal values that move beyond the fields they play on.”

Students divided into groups to research secondary materials such as music from the documentary, still photography of Ali, interviews and written materials from journalists who had relationships with Ali or Ali’s own words. Students from both courses who worked on the same research topic met in breakout sessions to discuss their findings, a collaboration that helped them “connect with digital modalities (film and video essays) and an athlete who transformed the landscape of sports culture in the 20th century,” says Ristow.

Against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests, the COVID pandemic and the absence of live sports, “students examined sports through the lens of feature writing and through the social and cultural movements that are moving now beneath their feet,” Ristow says. “We read James Baldwin on Sonny Liston and listened to the Burn It All Down podcast, hosted by four feminist journalists/academics; these experiences moved our discussion of sports beyond the lionizing that is common in our celebration of star athletes or favorite teams and the collaboration drew students toward an understanding of sports as a context where athletes can seek power and advocate for liberation and equality.”

At the conclusion of the project, both classes gathered online to share the written work and video essays they produced for their respective classes.

“It was really productive for them to see each other’s projects, to see other interpretations of the same research area,” says Shafer. “I think their conversations with each other about the material were rich and rewarding.”

As for the faculty, “Ben and I really enjoy the bidisciplinary approach to teaching, as we each bring our own strengths to the classroom,” Shafer says. “Working together creates a rich learning environment for the students, even when we’re teaching separate classes.”