New free online Stanford course analyzes relationship between sports and universities in the United States

Co-instructed by Stanford professors Blakey Vermeule and Susan Stephens, a new massive open online course examines the history of sports at American universities and fosters thoughtful debates over the issue of payment for student athletes and other controversial topics.

Football team

Stanford freshman football team in 1932, known as the “Vow Boys” after pledging never to lose to USC. (Image credit: Stanford News Service)

The history of athletics at American universities and the issues and opportunities student athletes face is the subject of a new, free Stanford class offered this winter quarter.

Designed for anyone who is interested in college sports, Sports and the University provides students with a broad, comprehensive understanding of the unique relationship between sports and universities.

“As a humanities professor, I’m always looking for ways to help my students to connect deeply and intuitively with ethical scenarios,” said Blakey Vermeule, a Stanford professor of English. “Students know and care a great deal about sports. They often speak about sports with tremendous authority, since many of them are world-class athletes. So talking about sports gets all kinds of tough questions on the table very quickly, allowing students to debate often very technical ethical and philosophical issues at a deep level.”

The class will reopen as a self-paced course in the spring quarter on Stanford Online, which offers free online courses taught by Stanford faculty to lifelong learners worldwide. Most of the interviews and lectures from the class are also available on iTunes.

Vermeule co-developed the course with classics Professor Susan Stephens. The two worked in collaboration with the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) as well as with PhD classics student Stephen Sansom and former Stanford PhD student Morgan Frank, who is now a visiting assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University.

The class is split into six sections that range from the history of ancient athletics in Greece to the tradition of college sports in the U.S. today. Other topics also include the role money plays in sports as well as current issues of race and gender.

The course team developed the idea for Sports and the University about three years ago after noticing that several humanities and social sciences faculty on campus conducted classes on the importance of athletics and its place in culture. Stephens teaches an ongoing classics class, Ancient Athletics, and Vermeule has taught several English seminars, called Sports and Culture, in recent years.

“Through our own fields of research and teaching about athletics, we’ve become increasingly fascinated by the very idea of the intersection of these two things – of sports and the university – and the huge issues at stake in that combination,” Stephens said in an introductory video for the course. “It seems that every week there are new developments – new findings, new problems, not to mention new scandals – about how athletics are part of college life.”

Stanford's women’s soccer team

Members of Stanford’s 2017 women’s soccer team. (Image credit: Al Chang/Stanford Athletics)

The class, which is made up of audio and video interviews, lectures and various reading materials, is unusual in bringing together authorities from different fields at Stanford to create an online teaching hub of information on a central topic.

“It is exciting for us to bring together this range of expertise and resources into one place online,” said Kenneth Ligda, the VPTL lead on the project. “Discussion is the bedrock of humanistic inquiry, and MOOCs provide a way for universities to offer up their expertise to foster a civil debate around the world.”

The course also features interviews with Stanford athletes and with Tara VanDerveer, head coach of Stanford’s women’s basketball team; Roger Noll, an economics professor emeritus whose research focuses on the economics of sports; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a professor of comparative literature who analyzes the sports experience through aesthetics; the Rev. Joanne Sanders, associate dean for religious life; and other scholars.

As hundreds of people took the online course at the same time last quarter, David Pickel, a doctoral student in classical archaeology, posed questions and moderated discussions to engage learners on different topics addressed during the class.

Pickel said he saw a good share of interesting ideas emerge from the conversations, including a heated discussion about whether student athletes should be paid. One class participant suggested a trust fund, backed by proceeds that either universities or organizations like the NCAA collect, be set aside for those students. The idea took off with other participants, who both challenged and expanded on it, he said.

“Some of these topics definitely engender conflict,” Pickel said. “But it was great to see how learners were willing to engage with each other and share their thoughts and perspectives despite their different beliefs.”