The events of 2020 and the ongoing fight for racial justice have made one thing clear: classroom discussions of identity, intersectionality, and social justice are no longer optional. As the dialogue about race and marginalized identities evolves rapidly, it's been challenging to lead and identify starting points into these conversations within the classroom. Fortunately, many outlets are working to address the lack of content that fills these gaps — and one of the most unique ones is ESPN’s The Undefeated, a publisher that uses sports stories as an entry point into discussions about race, culture, and society.
Jennifer Coogan, Chief Content Officer, Newsela
Monique Jones, Deputy Editor, The Undefeated, ESPN
Lima Abdullah, Executive Editor, Newsela
Sports As a Bridge to Core Skills
Educators know that one of the most valuable resources for sparking that curiosity is high-interest content that resonates with students’ lives. Sports content is exactly that — and it becomes even more powerful when it breaks away from conventional storytelling about athletics, and instead centers the stories of marginalized people, told from their own perspectives.
Monique Jones and Lima Abdullah explained that The Undefeated approaches this by telling the stories of young people who are working to make positive social change. Figures like 10-year-old Dakota Adeyemi, who created an online school to teach about Black history, give students a relatable, and empowering role model who not only represents who they can be in the future, but concrete actions they can take today. Abdullah also pointed out that The Undefeated’s audiences “go gangbusters” on content about gymnastics, and particularly articles about young athletes like Simone Biles. When learners see their own excellence and potential reflected in instructional content, they are not just engaged, they are excited — and educators can harness that excitement to motivate them to explore core academic skills.
Sports Can Help in Approaching Complex Topics
As educators expand the array of social justice topics addressed in the classroom, they need tools to address these complex subjects with sensitivity and rigor. Abdullah and Jones shared how sports stories can support educators as they do this — and there is special potential in stories about sports that usually receive little media coverage. For instance, Jones noted, the representation of people of color in gymnastics has increased by 15% since 2008, and half of that change has been driven by Black women. She added that while sports media coverage has heavily focused on male athletes’ achievement, women athletes have been achieving equal and sometimes greater levels of excellence. Their stories are an opportunity for female students to not only see themselves in instructional content, but also reflect on why these voices have been underrepresented. Abdullah noted that upcoming stories about Naomi Osaka will be another opportunity to not only spotlight an accomplished female athlete, but also to introduce the concept of intersectionality.
Sports As a Starting Point for Conversations About Race
Best practices for discussing race in the classroom are changing by the year and even by the month, and many educators need solid foundations on which to start these lessons. As Jennifer Coogan put it, these conversations need to “start with a student’s own understanding of their personal racial identity.” Exploring the stories of real sports figures is a great way to open this exploration. Jones shared that one of The Undefeated’s major upcoming stories focuses on the underrepresentation of Black coaches in the NFL, despite the fact that the league’s players are 70% Black. This topic pairs well with discussion of the new New York Jets coach Robert Saleh; Jones noted that conversations about him explored whether he is a person of color, as well as the intersection of race and ethnicity in how the world reacts to him as a brown person. Football discussions can also explore the naming controversy around Washington’s football team and give Indigenous teachers and learners an opportunity to have their voices heard, Abdullah said.
“If we’ve learned anything,” Coogan said, “we know that this is work and it never stops.” Sports content is just one tool toward building more nuanced, empowering, and productive instruction on racial and other social justice issues--but it is a powerful one.
Hear more from the panelists from Newsela and The Undefeated here.