An Interview with Obermann Arts and Humanities Symposium Co-Directors Tom Oates and Travis Vogan
Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Sports, Power, & Resistance: Legacies and Futures

In the ever-evolving landscape of sports, media, and culture, two distinguished University of Iowa scholars, Tom Oates (American Studies and Journalism) and Travis Vogan (Journalism and American Studies), have been instrumental in shaping critical discussions and interdisciplinary explorations. As part of their ongoing commitment to advancing the understanding of sports within broader societal contexts, the two are directing the Obermann Center’s 2023 Arts and Humanities Symposium, “Sports, Power, and Resistance: Legacies and Futures.” With a shared vision of bringing together diverse perspectives, their efforts highlight the important role of sports in contemporary culture and politics.

With a joint appointment in American Studies and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Tom Oates embodies the synergy between sport, media, and culture. His research delves deeply into the relationships that emerge when sports intersect with new media and neoliberalism. By examining how contemporary sport articulates notions of race, gender, and sexuality, Oates underscores the transformative power of sports as a cultural force. His scholarship has been featured across communication, sport studies, and cultural studies journals, and he is the author of Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL and co-editor of The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives and Playing to Win: Sports, Video Games, and the Culture of Play.

At the nexus of media, sport, and U.S. culture, Travis Vogan’s scholarship explores film, television, media industries, and documentary forms. With an impressive collection of authored books, including the forthcoming LeRoy Neiman: America's Favorite and Most Hated Artist, Vogan examines how perceptions of "high" and "low" culture contribute to our understanding of these realms. His work has reached a wide audience through media outlets such as the New York Times, NPR's Marketplace, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. Vogan serves as associate editor for the Journal of Sport History and co-edits the University of Illinois Press book series Studies in Sports Media.

The Sports, Power, and Resistance symposium on September 21, 22, and 23 will serve as both a tribute to the intellectual groundwork laid by Oates’s and Vogan’s academic predecessors and as a testament to the field's ongoing growth and significance. By establishing a platform for meaningful interdisciplinary exchange, the event is poised to reshape dialogue around sports, media, and culture.

How did you two come together to work on this project?

We have been working closely since we both joined the faculty in 2012. Last year, with our colleague Jen Sterling, we initiated a plan for a new undergraduate major titled "Sport Media and Culture." The new major is open this fall, and we thought this symposium might be a good way to let people across campus know about the growing body of amazing scholarship on the history and present of sport. Those of us who work in the field know that there is brilliant and important work that challenges us to reimagine sport as a social, economic, and political force, and this was a way to highlight that work.

Who are you creating this event for? What kind of audiences do you hope to attend?

We hope to attract a broad range of audiences, from scholars and students to community members with an interest in what sports are and what they could be. We have organized a number of events to highlight these concerns in ways that we hope will be interesting and challenging, but also accessible.

What do you hope the audience and participating scholars take away from the symposium?

Sports have been used to assert ideas about power and justice since their creation, and we are living through a particularly fraught period in which sports are front and center in these discussions. Whether you love sports, hate them, or are ambivalent about them, we hope that you will come away from the event with a greater appreciation of how important sports are to contemporary culture and to politics. We also hope that people will be able to conceptualize debates and issues in sports in new ways, better understand problems that have been ignored or marginalized in sports coverage, and maybe even glimpse some of the exciting possible futures that people in sports are fighting for.

Can you tell us about the role that the UI has played in the field of sports scholarship?

This symposium is focused on critical humanistic inquiry into sport, and the University of Iowa has been an important place that made such work possible. As feminists advocated for women's sport in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Iowa provided many of that movement's most important leaders. Christine Grant, Bonnie Slatton, and Peg Burke, who all worked at the University, were instrumental in creating the athletic opportunities that girls and women now enjoy around the nation and the world. Our colleagues Susan Birrell and Tina Parratt insisted on taking sports seriously from a critical, humanistic perspective when such voices were rare. Their influence on current scholars is difficult to overstate. In many ways, this symposium is a tribute to the intellectual groundwork they laid.

What is your hope for this project beyond the symposium? What do you hope the University of Iowa's role in sports studies will be in the future?

This symposium brings together scholars from many different disciplines: history, sociology, kinesiology, media studies, and rhetoric. Although these scholars learn from and build on one another's work, they rarely have the opportunity to meet in person, since they often attend different conferences. We hope that this symposium will be the first of many opportunities for scholars working on sports from across the humanities to have an opportunity to meet, talk, and shape each other's thinking. The talks that will be delivered at the symposium will eventually appear in print as an edited book collection. We have worked toward the goal of interdisciplinary exchange through our ongoing Iowa Colloquium on Sport and Culture, an online lecture series featuring work on sports by people across the humanities. We hope that the connections forged there and at ICSC will broaden and deepen our engagement with sports.

Symposium events are free and open to all.