How are sports and leadership intertwined?

Students in Dr. Thad Williamson's Sports, Leadership and Social Justice class this semester are counting the ways. Different coaches employ different leadership styles. There are issues of group dynamics. And there are players who lead and players who follow. 

But the class, one of 30 first-year seminars offered this fall, is using sports primarily as a lens for students to take a closer look at issues of gender, race and class.

"For this course the social questions are in the back of our minds all the time," according to Williamson, an assistant professor of leadership studies and political scientist. "We're reading narratives about different sports teams, looking at themes of leadership and justice and learning a lot about different cultures."

The syllabus includes everything from the book "Friday Night Lights" to reading about tennis great Arthur Ashe growing up in a segregated Richmond to Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics." "I've even had the students do Zen meditation like NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson," said Williamson, who is an avid sports fan and has written a book about University of North Carolina basketball.

Guest speakers for the class so far include University of Richmond women's head basketball coach Michael Shafer and Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, co-head coach of the VCU women's soccer team and a player on the team that won the 1999 World Cup.

The class has taken field trips to watch a women's basketball practice on campus and a women's soccer match that featured scholar-athlete Becca Wann, a student in the class, scoring the winning goals.

Students also have the option to attend a football game on campus in the new stadium.

"In this class it is becoming clear that the most successful leaders not only lead in the sports world but are often able to make a change in the mindset of the people around them," said P.J. Reinemann, '14. "This class truly promotes sports as an essential part of society, where we learn cultural norms and values that we can put forth and promote in everyday life."

It is also helping students see that sports is about more than fun and games.

"When people think about sports, they often only see the exterior aspects of it,” said Becca Essiaw, '14. "But this class has enabled us to dig deeper and consider the leadership, morals, personal growth, team environments, and everything that comes into play with sports. I'm an avid sports fan, and it has been neat to take one of my passions and dissect it to further my understanding."