Sports: The Common Language

By Misty Mathews
Photos by Zach Riggins

Billings displays his enthusiasm for sports communication in this photo illustration.
Billings displays his enthusiasm for sports communication in this photo illustration.

By the time the 2012 Summer Olympics ended in August, a strange phenomenon had occurred: It seemed the public had spent as much time discussing the coverage of the events as the games themselves.

Whether that involved television, social media, Internet streaming or text messaging, people were communicating about sports in a new way.

Sports communication is a growing area of academic research and public interest, and faculty members in The University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences have capitalized on that by launching, in fall 2012, The University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication.

Dr. Andrew Billings, a UA professor and internationally-known sports communication researcher, has spearheaded the project, serving as the inaugural director.

“With the amount of sports research we already had here, and also with the athletic reputation of the University, this seemed like a natural fit,” said Billings.

“As a leader athletically in sports, it seems like we could also be leaders academically in sports, that we could partner very well and continue to burnish the image of the University, its sporting image and academic image,” said Dr. Lance Kinney, an advertising and public relations professor, serving as one of the program’s faculty fellows. “As a faculty member, I appreciate the recognition it can bring the College and the University and the cohesion it can create among colleagues. Rather than all of us just sitting on our own floors, in our departments, working on sports, we are creating an opportunity to collaborate to advance our overall academic interests.”

Billings and other researchers within and outside of the College of Communication and Information Sciences began discussing the prospect in the fall of 2011; the idea quickly gained momentum, with an official kick-off in October.

Former ESPN president George Bodenheimer, the longest holder of the position, spoke to a crowd at the Ferguson Center Theater. The program features about 20 faculty fellows — faculty members and a group of graduate students — whose research areas are related to sports communication. The faculty members also serve as mentors for students interested in those areas.

“We’ve had several people doing research kind of broadly in sport and communication,” said Dr. Kim Bissell, assistant dean for research in the College. “The beautiful thing is that it is very cross-disciplinary. The area is blowing up in our discipline in terms of research, and it’s also blowing up on the pedagogical side. Sports isn’t going to go away, and the way we are involved in sports research isn’t going to go away either.”

Bissell, left, Billings, middle, and Brown stand inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The trio is among UA's approximately 20 researchers with sports communication expertise.
Bissell, left, Billings, middle, and Brown stand inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The trio is among UA’s approximately 20 researchers with sports communication expertise.

The University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication features campus-wide events while also promoting existing undergraduate major options within the departments of journalism and telecommunication and film.

“The program is a wonderful way to expand the expertise available to our students majoring in our existing sports programs,” said Dr. Jennifer Greer, chair of the journalism department. “It brings us together in new ways that will only enhance the strong course and internship offerings already available in the two departments.”

Dr. John Vincent, a professor in the kinesiology department whose main research area focuses on sport media and national identity, said the importance of his research is underpinned by the pervasive influence of the global media coverage of major international sporting events, such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA soccer World Cup.

“For a few weeks every four years over half of the world’s population become mesmerized,” he said. “The symbiotic relationship between sport and the media became intense as both print and electronic media compete to attract readers, viewers and advertisers. Few cultural phenomena produce such outpourings of popular support and evoke such strong, visceral emotions as international sport.”

The program will host well-known sports communication speakers, provide mentoring for students interested in sports communication and create a consortium for sports communication-related research.

“Right now I think we’re more concerned with building a collective, trying to build a shared or common place digitally where these professors that are doing this type of research can come together and share our work with interested students, faculty members at other universities, professionals who are wanting to come in and provide some practicality to our work,” said Dr. Kenon Brown, an advertising and public relations faculty member who has assisted Billings in getting the ball rolling for the new program.

Faculty fellows for UA's program in sports communication represent more than a half-dozen academic departments.
Faculty fellows for UA’s program in sports communication represent more than a half-dozen academic departments.

“With the collective in place, it’s easier for graduate students to realize that if they do come to The University of Alabama and are interested in sports, we have a lot of faculty members for them to choose from to work with,” Brown says. “It’s a definite advantage in drawing students in who are interested in sports communication.”

Billings said a research symposium is scheduled for March 20.  Overall, he says, the program centers around a subject that seemingly crosses all barriers.

“Sports represent one of the few remaining areas of our lives that permeate virtually all demographic groups: young and old, men and women, and virtually any ethnicity or nationality,” Billings said. “It’s a common language we can still speak. We may all be watching different TV shows, renting different movies, and listening to different music, but we’re all generally a part of the same mainstream sporting conversation.”

For more information about the Alabama Program in Sports Communication, visit its website at Dr. Billings is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting in UA’s department of telecommunication and film.  Dr. Greer is an associate professor of journalism. Dr. Kinney is an associate professor in the department of advertising and public relations. Dr. Bissell is the Southern Progress Corporation Professor of Journalism and director of the Institute for Communication and Information Research. Dr. Brown is an assistant professor in advertising and public relations, and Dr. Vincent is an associate professor in the department of kinesiology within UA’s College of Education. 

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.