Black History Conference
The 11th Annual Black History Symposium
Sport, Media and Race
Commemorating the Legacy of Wilma Rudolph
Decorah, IA 52101
February 19-20, 2014
Description of Symposium
Sport, Media and Race explores the popular perception that when it comes to athletics, genes and cultural background predict the relative advantages and disadvantages that athletics have in particular sports. The work of sport researchers, cultural theorists, and investigative journalists is to complicate this perception. Their research and the personal stories of black athletes raise the key questions this conference intends to explore. Is there a race code in sport that reinforces simplistic explanations for black athletic ability? Is the stereotype of natural ability for black athletics exploited by sport media, and if so, how? Do the media portray athletic and intellectual excellence as mutually exclusive?
Sport, Media and Race encourages participants to think beyond the global appetite for sports celebrities and explore commonly held beliefs about the athletic abilities of African-descended people. Our goal is to consider how sport and the media both challenge and reinforce racial assumptions in American society and world culture.
The symposium begins with a Plenary Lecture by David Epstein author of the New York Times bestseller, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. The event also features a lecture by Douglas Hartman, a sport sociologist whose research explores race, sport, politics, and public policy. The symposium concludes with a Respondent Panel that explores the themes presented in the lectures from the perspectives of media scholars and the experiences of professionals in media and athletics. A student art exhibit that visually explores athletics, race, gender, and embodiment will be available throughout the symposium.
Wilma Rudolph was chosen as the legacy honoree for this symposium because of her athletic ability and her personal story. Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1040 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. She weighed 4.5 pounds. At the age of six, she lost the use of her left leg due to polio and was fitted with metal leg braces. Although Rudolph grew up in a poor family, her brothers and sisters took turns massaging her crippled leg every day and her mother, a domestic worker, drove Wilma 90 miles round trip to therapy in Nashville once a week.
Wilma did much more than recover the use of her leg. In the 1960 Rome Olympics, 5’11” Wilma Rudolph became the fastest woman in the world and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100 and 200 meter races and anchored the US team to victory in the 4x100 meter relay.
Prior to her Olympic career, Wilma was an all-state girls’ basketball player at Burt High School where she set a state record by scoring 49 points in one game. After watching Wilma play basketball, the Tennessee State track coach decided to make her a world-class sprinter.
During her Olympic career, the media referred to Wilma Rudolph as ‘The Black Pearl’ and “The Black Gazelle’. She was enormously popular in Europe and fans in Greece, England, Holland, and Germany made her a celebrity. “She’s done more for her country than what the US could have paid her for,” her coach once said. For example, when Wilma returned from Rome, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, a staunch segregationist, planned to head an all-white welcome home delegation; the plans had to be changed because Rudolph refused to attend a segregated welcome home event.
In her post Olympic years, Wilma worked as a track coach at Indian’s DePauw University and served as a US Goodwill ambassador to French West Africa, now Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger.
Wilma Rudolph was voted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. Wilma Rudolph died of brain cancer at age 54 on November 12, 1994 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Background for the Symposium
Discussing the intersection of sport, media, and race is topical and timely. Whether we remember the career of Olympiad Wilma Rudolph or Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball whose life and career were recently portrayed in the film, 42, we note how far the nation has come in its treatment and portrayal of black athletes. For example, mindful of the blatant racial discrimination that characterized the Robinson and Rudolph eras, sport media does not use racial descriptions like the ‘Black Gazelle’ or the ‘Colored Comet’ to describe athletes of African descent. Although racial descriptors are not used, race is coded in sport and media in various ways. Contemporary scholars of sport and media have explored how race is implicated in athletics as well as in the popular perceptions that sport performance is basically genetic or that athletic excellence can primarily be attributed to racial background. When social meaning is attached to the phenotypes and genetic markers of athletic prowess, the relationship between ethnic identity and athletic excellence becomes a kind of orthodoxy. These beliefs substitute for more explicitly racial descriptors and cultural narratives about race in America.
Today, race and ethnic identities are fluid and continually revised but media coverage of racial incidents in sport can undermine the idea that race is situational and variously defined. When the media represents racial differences but ignores differences in how athletics may perceive underlying racial narratives, there is confusion. For example, fans may be surprised to see that players are not offended by a teammate’s racial characterizations but bristle when fans express similar attitudes. To further complicate the situation, when print and visual media avoid mentioning explicit biological differences, athletics can paradoxically become hyper visible. When this occurs, cultural differences can signal racial or class distinctions that fans and teammates use to justify racial targeting or slurs.
Plenary Lecturer—David Epstein
Senior Writer David Epstein writes about sports science and medicine, Olympic sports, and athletic performance. He is an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated. His science writing has won a number of awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists 2010 Deadline Club Award for an article on the genetics of sports performance, and Time Inc.'s Henry R. Luce Award for an article on the dangers of dietary supplements. He also won the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association's Big Hearted Journalism award for his story “Following the Trail of Broken Hearts” on sudden cardiac death in athletes.
Featured Lecture—Douglas Hartmann
Douglas Hartmann is a professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Race Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete.
A respondent’s panel will talk about how the ideas discussed in the lectures relate to their own work in sport, media and sport scholarship. Panelists include: Thomas C. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Emerald Jane Hunter, Luther alumna, and five time Emmy-nominated producer for Windy City Live— the number one talk show in Chicago and Benny Boyd, a former Luther College football couch now entering his third season as a defensive and special teams coach with the University of North Dakota football program.
Student Art Exhibit
Ian Carstens’ Honors Senior Project that will engage the Luther community in a dialogue about the intersection between Sport, Media and Race by curating a student art exhibit. The advisor for this project is David Kamm, Assistant Professor of Art and Art Gallery Coordinator. The project explores the relevance of sport to black history, art history, curatorial practice, and visual media.
About Luther College
Luther College is a private, selective enrollment, residential, liberal arts college located in Decorah, IA. Luther’s enrollment is about 2400 students. Approximately 9% of the college’s student population is multicultural, 5% is international and 20% of Luther students are first-generation or low-income. Decorah is a small Midwestern town of 8,000 located in northeast Iowa about 70 miles south of Rochester, MN.
Departments of Africana Studies, Art, the Luther College Diversity Center, Luther College Galleries, the Center for Ethics and Public Life and the Nena Amundson Lifetime Wellness Program.
For More Information:
Contact Sheila Radford-Hill, Ph.D. Executive Director, Luther College Diversity Center.
firstname.lastname@example.org. For the agenda, click the attached document below.
- Black History Conference Agenda (28 KB Word Document)Agenda for 2014 Conference