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'Sport and Political Ideology' No Joke

By Sandy Cardin

Just the title was enough to send even the most scrutinous gut-seekers flocking to the Owen Room of Winthrop House last September. "Sport and Political Ideology" were the magic words which drew self-proclaimed sports aficionados to the relatively obscure course.

But, alas, the multitudes were soon disappointed as the seminar leader, John Hoberman, uttered the words heard so often in the week following registration: "This course is not an easy one. Simply because it deals with sport does not mean it's a gut."

The reading list was Exhibit A of the hirsute instructor's presentation. Containing authors more properly suited to a philosophy course--Huizinga, Ortega Gasset, and Mishima, among others--the list had enough clout to frighten away more than half of those who showed up for the supposed joyride.

And the philosophical overtone of the material was more than a coincidence since Hoberman's other courses include one which studies the philosophy of Kierkegaard, an author Hoberman quotes almost as often as English 160a's Robert Chapman mutters "George Bernard Shaw."

So by the second week, just eight of us remained to brave the diatribes of a man frustrated by the fact that he is probably the only professor alive teaching about sport and political ideology.

Hoberman, it must be understood, is an intellectual in the truest sense of the word. He is not like your everyday Harvard professor who has a couple of pops and enjoys the tenured existence--the refugee from Berkeley is not yet a professor but rather an aspiring one who works out of his Scandanavian Department office in Boylston Hall.

And he frets about the decline of his scholarly class. The true intellectual is a dying breed, he implies, and he offers himself as a Maginot Line in its defense.

Hence, the class treated the sport part of the course analytically, not devotionally. All preconceived notions of sport were dropped since the subject had to be approached in an intellectual manner.

Sport and What?

If it all seems a bit abstruse to you, well, you are not in the minority: the question asked by most people outside the course was, "What in hell does sport have to do with political ideology?"

The reminder of Berlin, Hitler, and the rest of the 1936 Olympics provides a pretty solid answer. And if that's not adequate, ponder the Marxist-capitalist disagreement over the superiority of play or work.

Other aspects of the relationship between sport and political ideology, however, are not so straightforward. For example, the course examined the complex sports views of the cultural conservatives on the French Right as well as those of the Communist world, which claims a correlation between superior Communist Olympic performance and a superior Communist way of life.


Of course, Hoberman's subject matter is not without its drawbacks. The novelty of his arguments are so new that the class, as naive as anyone else when the course began, was virtually unable to question the ideas Hoberman presented. Although we learned, we really only learned what he wanted us to.

I do not mean to slight the teaching abilities of the instructor, but rather indicate the problems encountered in the presentation of new ideas. Virtually everything taught in the weekly sessions is contained in an essay presented by Hoberman at UMass last year. The field, obviously, is largely unexplored.

So what happened every Tuesday night was lecturing on a novel subject by one of Harvard's true intellectuals. Rather than a gut, the course was probably as informative as any other given in the fall.

Who Needs it?

But what most people scream about is relevance, and few see the subject of this article as being relevant. Yet sport is one of the most pervasive aspects of our society--hence, its relevance exists beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Political ideology is certainly relevant or the entire faculty of the Government Department would be unemployed. Why, then, should the mention of sport degenerate any discipline to that of superficiality? It shouldn't. And even though the subject taught by Hoberman required no calculators, it is nonetheless important.

As for the grades given in the course, all one needs to know is that Hoberman is tough but fair, forcing the students to formulate their own ideas--albeit ones the Hoberman originally posed himself.

As for the instructor himself, he won't appreciate this article because he won't agree with some of the things I've written. All I can say is that I'm tough, but I'm fair.

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