Sports Spectacle, Athletic Activism, and the Rhetorical Analysis of Mediated Sport

Restricted (Penn State Only)
King, Kyle R
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 25, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Debra Hawhee, Dissertation Advisor
  • Debra Hawhee, Committee Chair
  • Cheryl Jean Glenn, Committee Member
  • Rosa A Eberly, Committee Member
  • Kirtley Hasketh Wilson, Outside Member
  • Jessica Lynn Schultz, Outside Member
  • rhetoric
  • rhetoric and sport
  • sport media
  • rhetorical genre
  • athlete activism
  • Billie Jean King
  • coming out narratives
  • sport documentary
  • Black Lives Matter
  • spectacle
Sports is widely regarded as a “spectacle,” an attention-grabbing consumerist distraction from more important elements of social life. Yet this definition underestimates the rhetorical potency of spectacle, as a context in which athletes may participate in projects of social transformation and institutional reform. Sport Spectacle, Athletic Activism, and the Rhetorical Analysis of Mediated Sport engages a set of case studies that assess the rhetorical conditions that empower or sideline athletes in projects of social change. The introduction builds a working vocabulary of four key terms—form, style, medium, and genre—that are central to the rhetorical analysis of mediated sports and mobilizes those concepts throughout the dissertation’s case studies. “We’ve Come a Long Way Maybe: Billie Jean King’s Feminism and the Battle of the Sexes” contrasts the bodily material feminism of King’s 1973 victory over Bobby Riggs with the strong emphasis on financial equity that King advocated in interviews and memoirs and notes how King has attempted to leverage control over public memory of the match to position herself as a figure of social transformation. “Three Waves of Gay Male Athlete Coming Out Narratives” considers how the genre compels athletes to reconcile their identities as athletes with their identities as gay men while tracing the evolution of common argumentative appeals for the fitness of gay men in sport since the 1970s. “Black Lives Matter and the Decline of the Decline of the Activist-Athlete” argues that if the Black Lives Matter social movement is viewed only through the prism of athletic activism, some of the central issues that the movement continues to face—its emphasis on horizontal models of organization and leadership, its skepticism toward working through established levers of governance, and its ambivalent relationship to the politics of respectability—are further obscured and refracted by the institutions of sports and sports media discourse and particular instances of athlete-activist protest, even as these athletes overturn longstanding assumptions about the political quiescence of elite athletes. “‘Absent Athletes,’ Athletic Agency, and the Sports Documentary” considers how the genre of the sports documentary often gives athletes a sense of social importance while simultaneously stripping them of the agency to make such arguments themselves. Through analysis of the sports documentaries of Steve James and Amir Bar-Lev, I argue that documentary is uniquely positioned as a genre that subverts the spectacle of sports and transforms spectators into deliberative civic agents. The conclusion assesses how sports spectators can act as deterrents of athletes’ civic energies through an analysis of the ideograph and sports media hashtag “#sticktosports.”