In the Locker Room with Yago Colás, Professor of English


Photo by Alex McNicoll, Sports Editor

Yago Colás, Professor of English at Oberlin College.

Alex McNicoll, Sports Editor

This week, the Review sat down with Associate Professor of English Santiago (Yago) Colás, who enters his first year teaching at Oberlin. After a 25-year career at the University of Michigan, Colás decided to make the switch to Oberlin, where he can be closer to his family and offer his unique view on sports culture and society to students. His new book, Ball Don’t Lie, breaks down basketball’s various intersections with other parts of society, and his class, 13 Ways of Looking At Sports, tackles the different ways that people perceive and interact with sports and how that shapes their role in our lives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As someone who writes predominantly about sports, how did you wind up coming to Oberlin?

Well, the first reason is that my wife is a faculty member here and we’ve been commuting for nine years, so we’ve been looking for opportunities to end that situation.

I gave a lecture through the Athletics department a few years ago about integrating athletics and academics on college campuses, and that attracted the attention of some faculty members, including some faculty members in the English department who were interested in my approach to sports as a kind of culture generator. [From there] we began to pursue the possibilities of getting a position at Oberlin in the English department.

How does the nature of your job change as you move from one of the biggest Division I athletics programs in the nation to Oberlin?

There is a shift in size, obviously. I think on the athletics side, one of the things I’m really excited about at Oberlin is that because it is a Division III program and there are no athletic scholarships, it is easier to keep athletics in perspective and to release the positive potential that athletics has within an institution of higher education. Whereas at a place like Michigan, because of the size and the money involved, it can be easy to lose sight of what athletics are there for.

On the academics side, I have only been here a short time, but [so far] I am very impressed with the students’ work ethic, [as well as their] interest and curiosity to engage in topics that may be familiar to them from an unfamiliar perspective.

Considering you have a background in sports literature, what do you offer Oberlin that other professors may not?

[Laughs.] Well, comparisons are odious, so I don’t necessarily want to put that in terms of comparisons to other professors. [With that being said,] I think it’s clear that sports as a topic of academic study is not widely done on this campus. I think there have been a few exceptions here and there, but to have somebody on campus who is teaching primarily about sports and its various cultural accompaniments is something new. I think the opportunity for students, whether they are athletes, sports fans, or hold negative concepts around sports — it’s an opportunity to understand their experience to a central human activity in deeper way. In that sense, just like in any class, they get to know themselves and their relationship to the world in a more complicated and encompassing way.

Sports also offers us an opportunity to scrutinize, discuss, and take action on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, something I’ve already seen from [my] own class is an important issue both to students who are varsity athletes at Oberlin and to those who are not.

Right now, your class 13 Ways Of Looking At Sports is predominantly comprised of athletes. Are you looking to change that going forward?

I like to have a mix. I would hope that over time, students that aren’t varsity athletes come to see the value of studying sports from an academic view [because] it is such a central aspect to the human experience, and also because I think it’s an excellent topic for developing critical and intellectual abilities in a variety of disciplines. Sports involve economics, the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. I think there’s a lot for students who aren’t [varsity] athletes to gain from [sports studies], so I would like see that proportion shift a bit. I enjoyed [having a mix] at Michigan, and I think that it’s an important way for students to cross gaps that might separate them because of their different interests and experiences. In-class conversations are a great way to build community.

Where do you see Oberlin’s sports culture fitting in with the greater Oberlin community? How do the social, cultural, and political aspects of both sides of campus interact?

I think that’s an open-ended question that could go in a lot of directions. Oberlin is an institution of higher education, so students come here to learn, to learn how to learn, to learn how to think, to learn about themselves in the world, and to develop abilities to equip them for the futures they want to create. The role of sports on campus should be to contribute to that mission. Now, I also understand that at Oberlin there is a strong tradition of commitment to social justice, and I think that sports can also play a role in that. There is a long history in sports of that being the case. Figures like Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick or Megan Rapinoe have been outspoken athletes on [all sorts of cultural issues, from war to civil rights]. I think that that’s something we can talk about on campus, that students can learn about, and that students that are athletes and non-athletes can come together around.

I also think, and this is something that we’re trying to do in the Sports Culture and Society cluster, that we can really bring it home. There is a great need in the city of Oberlin for resources, mentoring, and services of various sorts. In the cluster, we have students who are out in the community working in the elementary and middle schools and with the Parks and Recreation department to mentor the Oberlin youth who are underserved by public resources at the moment. Going back to the 19th century, there is a very strong tradition at Oberlin of physical education and athletics playing an important role in the formation of young people in a holistic way. Students who come to learn and students who come to pursue social justice interests are not just brains in vats — they have bodies. Understanding those bodies and incorporating them into their sense of themselves is a vital part of higher education.

Correction 9/13/17: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Colás is an associate professor. He is a professor.