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Socially speaking: Sports have the power to influence change

Students see how communications and the sports industry shape American culture

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

​Students in a sports and communication class at Central Michigan University have a different perspective on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of wrongdoings against minorities.

Sports help shape how Americans understand culture and complex issues such as race, gender, sexual orientation, capitalism and national identity. This long-held conclusion among sports communications scholars is at the core of this special topics course taught by communications faculty member Cory Hillman.

Hillman challenged his students to think beyond whether Kaepernick is right or wrong and instead discuss why the National Anthem is sung or played before every high school, college and professional game.

"Why are sporting events the only place where the National Anthem is part of the event?" Hillman asked as he used this example to demonstrate the influential power of communications within and outside of the game. "We aren't looking into the sports and games themselves, but instead we are looking at American society and culture through the lens of sports."

Students examine how communication influences the ways sports organizations function. This includes coaches using communication to motivate their players and sports organizations using crisis communication strategies to repair their public image during scandals. Through the communications process, students also see how sports affect and set the tone for greater social and cultural issues.

From the water cooler to social media, sports talk radio and major events such as the Super Bowl and Olympics, people in American culture continually discuss and are surrounded by sports. This is why the lessons learned in sports communication will help shape students' perspectives.

Jalen Eason, a junior from Flint majoring in mechanical engineering and nuclear physiology, already is seeing how the influences of sports and communication will relate to his career in engineering.

"The communications lessons connect with my career because the engineering and science fields are much like sports," said Eason, who also is pursuing a communication minor. "Engineering has a ranking system similar to sports, like college would be similar to an entry-level position, and the NBA would be like a top-tier engineer. It just shows that you have to work that much harder to compete with the best."

Such a mindset of competition in sports and the workplace is quite common, and Hillman is familiar with connecting sports and competition to American social issues. He has researched and co-wrote an article published in the Communication and Sport Journal that looks into why "extreme" marathon races, such as Tough Mudder, are becoming increasingly popular among white-collar professionals. In short, Hillman and his co-author argued that participating in these events communicates one's ability to succeed in the professional world.

"Competition is good, but there has to be a balance," he said. "It's one thing to push yourself to do better, but you can push yourself beyond the point where you start to see your competition in the race or in the workplace as your enemy."

And this is why communications are key factors in the professional world and the sports world, which has the power to connect with millions and influence social change in America.

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