During January, I was fortunate enough to journey across New Zealand with an intern from the Center for Global Learning and nine students. My course, Sport, Media and Society: New Zealand, examined the important cultural, social and political roles of sport in contemporary New Zealand society. From Auckland to Queenstown (and many locations along the way), we attended events and visited museums, media companies, training locations and club headquarters. By the conclusion of the trip, I hoped my students might think more critically about sport, and more specifically, mediated sport.
Early in the term, I presented them with the following quote:
"Sport is not a bunch of kids playing pickup ball while blowing off their homework. Sport is commerce. Sport is human drama. Sport is entertainment. Sport is a means by which many people improve their lives, either directly or vicariously." -Jim Souhan, Star Tribune, Sept. 11, 2011
How do commerce, human drama and entertainment pertain to sport in New Zealand? To dig a bit deeper, what about the intersection of sport and topics such as race, gender, sexuality, globalization and national identity in the country?
While our experiences–from watching yachting national championships in Nelson to assessing stadium controversy in Dunedin–allowed us to engage these questions, our visit to the New Zealand Rugby Union in Wellington was particularly salient.
Over the course of a one-hour tour of their facilities, we learned of the country's passion for the sport, including their commitment to encouraging personal growth and development through rugby and their focus on contributing to the growth of rugby worldwide. More specifically, we discovered that the New Zealand Rugby Union's "Vision for rugby is inspiring and unifying New Zealanders."
This phrasing ("inspiring and unifying") immediately struck a chord for me and led to a spirited discussion in which we touched on a number of things, including the effect the All Blacks winning of the 2011 Rugby World Cup had on Kiwis, particularly those reeling in Christchurch from a devastating earthquake that took pace just months before the start of the World Cup.
There's little doubt sport can be good, bad and ugly, but can (and should) it be inspiring and unifying?
Thomas C. Johnson, assistant professor of communication studies, has taught critical media studies and media production courses at Luther since 2011. Along with teaching, his research interests include pedagogy, sport media, television studies, gender studies and documentary film.