The Media and Communication department hosted sports media expert Dr. Samantha Sheppard in a virtual honors lecture given on Feb. 18. Dr. Sheppard’s talk was entitled “Glorious Bones: Race, Sports Films, and the Public Imagination.” The evening was filled with thought-provoking commentary from Dr. Sheppard, as she broke down the stereotypes, tropes, and struggles associated with Black athletes in both sports films and the sports industry as a whole. Dr. Sheppard is an Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. She has also penned several books including “Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen,” which was the basis for the lecture.
Dr. Sheppard began her presentation by introducing the audience of more than 100 attendees to the artist Esmaa Mohamoud. Like Dr. Sheppard’s academic work, Mohamoud’s art centers around Blackness in relation to athletics. Dr. Sheppard intertwined Mohamoud’s piece, “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams)” with the movie that Mohamoud took inspiration from, “Hoop Dreams.” This documentary film follows two young Black men as they attempt to escape poverty in Chicago and make it into the NBA. Dr. Sheppard notes that the movie perpetuates the idea of basketball “as a means of class ascension” and “ghetto escapism.” The Black male future, according to Dr. Sheppard, is becoming a professional basketball player. As a result, these Black athletes, along with their “Black sporting bodies,” are idolized. Urban struggles are aestheticized for film and Black stories are used as “canvases of representation.” Mohamoud’s art installation features 60 dented concrete basketballs. Dr. Sheppard recognized the juxtaposition in this work. The balls (representing new players drafted into the NBA each year) are crafted with concrete, symbolizing their strength. Yet they are dented, representing the physical and mental fragility that comes with having a Black sporting body.
Another one of Mohamoud’s pieces, “Glorious Bones,” was the namesake for Dr. Sheppard’s book, and featured 46 football helmets each of which were placed on a pole. The helmets were adorned in traditional African fabric and on the surrounding wall a quote from the movie “Remember the Titans” was written. Dr. Sheppard furthered her analysis by noting that films like “Remember the Titans” oversimplify the concept of race in sports. They warp public imagination and make Americans nostalgic for “a whiter time.” Dr. Sheppard says these movies “champion racial harmonies so much that we don’t know whether we’re cheering for touchdowns or [racial unity].”
Not only are the themes in these films oversimplified, the characters are as well. Dr. Sheppard recognizes the film trope of the “entertaining gladiator” when portraying Black sporting bodies. Dr. Sheppard connects her findings back to Mohamoud’s “Glorious Bones” art installation. The patterned helmets are placed on a pole, metaphorically raising Black football players up as if to idolize them. On the same token, the pole is piercing through them like a spike, showing the brutal lens that society views these individuals through.
Dr. Sheppard then introduced the audience to the film “Race.” The biographical flick centers around Jesse Owens, a Black track and field Olympian. During the movie, he makes the difficult decision to compete in the 1939 Olympic Games, which were being held in Nazi Germany. Dr. Sheppard observes that “Race” nullifies the significance of Owens’s participation in the controversial games by suggesting that sports are apolitical. The movie underestimates the constant obstacles that are faced by Black sporting bodies. For example, the film stresses that Owens’s skin color is negligible and that the only matter of importance is the result of the game. Another cliché Dr. Sheppard recognizes in sports media is the role of the paternalist, typically white, character. This trope is executed by Owens’s coach in “Race.” The use of these figures can be harmful because they imply that Black athletes need the aid of white people in order to succeed. This promotes Dr. Sheppard’s point that, “even Black film stories are told through the lens of white people.”
Once her presentation had concluded, Dr. Sheppard received a great deal of virtual applause. A panel of honors students majoring in Media and Communication led a Question and Answer portion. Dr. Sheppard responded to a query about whether one can ethically watch sports and its media, while knowing about its harmful nature and effects. Dr. Sheppard said that she can no longer watch professional sports but still does watch sports movies while acknowledging the narratives behind them. Dr. Sheppard recommended two sports films, “Hour Glass” and “High Flying Bird,” that she believes do a relatively good job dealing with the subject of race.
During the talk-back, Dr. Sheppard examined the nature of racial icons in the sports industry. She argued that the phrase “transcending race” only applies to non-white athletes. Racial icons, like Michael Jordan, are “marketed through their Blackness.” They “embody acclaim and degradation.” Sports fans will idolize racial icons, yet treat them like capitalist commodities or, in Dr. Sheppard’s words, “pieces of meat.” Society watches Black sporting bodies train and labor for entertainment. Then, when they are no longer able to play, it discards them. This is why Dr. Sheppard believes that we should “talk about sports as a job” instead of viewing athletes as heroes. Ultimately, Dr. Sheppard’s feelings surrounding sports and its subsequent media lie in realism. Dr. Sheppard prefers sports films that end in defeat, saying that, “being able to narrate failure as not equating a values system is really good.” Dr. Sheppard believes that, to watch sports content critically, it is necessary to acknowledge that not everything related to sports needs to be told in a fantastical narrative .
You can remain updated on Dr. Sheppard’s upcoming projects through her website, www.samanthansheppard.com.