Sports and Society

Through intimate stories told in moving images and on the airwaves, CONTESTED explores how sports in America bind us together while deepening our divisions—and help to shape, in surprising ways, how we think about success and defeat.


Sports occupy an outsized space in the life of the United States. They are part of the water we swim in. In forty American states, the highest-paid public employee is not the governor or the president of the university system but a football or basketball coach. TV viewers consistently rate ESPN the cable channel they value most. A majority of American children, boys and girls, now participate in an organized sport at some point in their lives.

Sports are a half-trillion-dollar-a-year entertainment industry that merits its own section in most newspapers—but media typically look at sports on their own terms: who won, who lost, who’s the greatest player. And almost all of that coverage is about the 1 percent of athletes competing at the highest levels of college and professional sport. We may be tempted to think of sports as a trivial sideshow, not part of the “real” business of building a society and working out our differences.

With our multi-year project Contested we set out to take a different kind of look, to tell stories exploring the role of sports in the lives of regular people; in particular, young people. Sports often play a huge role in the aspirations of kids, and their parents, as they pursue the American Dream. Contested suggests that sports mirror American society in ways both encouraging and troubling. The first major iteration of the project was a one-hour broadcast produced for NPR’s State of the Re:Union that tells Durham, North Carolina–based stories about young athletes and their families (scroll down for short video profiles). Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the work on Contested continues. Stay tuned, there’s more to come.

Thomas Schmidt & Family

Meet the family of Thomas Schmidt, a high school lacrosse player in Durham, North Carolina. Thomas earned an athletic scholarship to Boston University after years of determined effort — and after large investments of time, and money, by his parents. Multiple traveling teams, individual strength training, recruitment camps, a plan for a “post-graduate” year playing lacrosse at a prep school: the Schmidts have gone to great lengths to help Thomas achieve his dreams as a lacrosse player.

“We live in a society now where sports is everywhere, is inescapable, and where it’s linked to everything. … Our mythical heroes, the Odysseuses and Agamemnons of our age, are basketball players and football players.”—Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

La’Toya Taylor & Sons

Meet La’Toya Taylor, a single mom who shares a love of football with her five young kids. Two of her sons, Geonnie Brodie and Jalanie Taylor, are players in the local Pop Warner football league, the Durham Eagles. La’Toya, who works as a certified nurse’s assistant, struggles to pay the hundreds of dollars it takes for her sons to pursue football each season, but she does it anyway.

“Too many of our children have come to believe that it’s easier to become a black professional athlete than a doctor or lawyer. … In fact, there are more board-certified cardiologists than there are black professional basketball players.”
— Henry Louis Gates, Professor of English and Director of the W.E.B Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University

Callie Scher

Meet Callie Scher, co-captain of the women’s soccer team at Durham’s Jordan High School. A fiercely competitive athlete, Callie is also a passionate fan—of Duke men’s basketball, first and foremost, but of other sports as well. It’s not lost on her that girls have all but caught up to boys in rates of sports participation, but that sports in the public mind, and certainly in the media, are still a man’s world. That chasm plays out in the culture of her school.

Project Partners


“We turn to sports with the idea that it’s going to transcend these social issues, but sports winds up intensifying them more than transcending them.” —Gerald Early, Professor of English and African and Afro-American Studies, Washington University 


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