Sports is not just about X’s and O’s or wins and losses; it’s also about ethics and economics, race and gender, science and technology, joy and camaraderie, and nearly everything in between. Sports allows us to admire the awesomeness of the human body and the artistry of athletes in action, and to explore stories of grit and resilience and our need for heroes and villains.
While it might not be immediately obvious to all teachers, particularly those who aren’t die-hard fans, sports is also an endless source of inspiration for making arguments and throwing down facts.
In this lesson, we explore how to use the world of sports to help students effectively develop evidence-based arguments. We suggest three categories for practicing the skill in sports contexts — from making a case for the G.O.A.T. to taking on current sports-world controversies to proposing rules changes to make a sport or tournament better. We end the lesson with a few strategies for bringing debate and argument writing alive in the classroom.
Do you teach with sports reporting? We’d love to hear your ideas. Post a comment or write to LNFeedback@nytimes.com.
1. Make a Case for the G.O.A.T.
Serena Williams after her victory over Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon women’s final in July 2016.CreditClive Brunskill/Getty Images
Who is the G.O.A.T.?
No, not those cute animals with the horns and the beard. The Greatest of All Time.
No matter how seemingly impossible it is to determine the G.O.A.T., it is a perennial favorite argument for sports fans and is debated regularly in The New York Times.
But how do you decide: Is it the accomplishments on the playing field or is it a player’s greater impact beyond his or her sport? How do you compare one era to another?
Is Tom Brady the greatest football player of all time? Who would you pick, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Is Serena Williams the greatest athlete of all time? Or is it Muhammad Ali?
Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the Munich Olympics in 1936, broke or equaled nine Olympic records, also set three world records and single-handedly shattered Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority; yet his record mark of 10.3 seconds in the 100 meters would today be 21 feet behind Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58. Would it be more fair to incorporate broader cultural accomplishments? Or should the Greatest of All Time focus solely on the numbers?
Student Challenge: Make your case for the G.O.A.T.
First, ask your students to decide which aspect of the G.O.A.T. debate they would like to tackle: greatest play, season, game, coach, athlete, et cetera.
Next, they should define their criteria for greatness: Does greatest mean the player you want to be up at bat in the seventh game of the World Series, two outs in the bottom of the ninth? Is it instead the number of an athlete’s victories? His or her longevity? The relative strength of the competition? The athlete’s impact within, as well as beyond, the sport?
Advance Evidence-Based Arguments and Tackle Counterarguments
Use a model text or two to help students move from mere assertion or opinion to rigorous, evidence-based argument. Here are a few excerpts to highlight how authors both support claims with evidence and anticipate counterarguments:
In “Is Russell Westbrook’s Season the Best Ever? Some Apples and Oranges to Pick From,” Jeré Longman supports his claims with evidence using sports statistics:
Westbrook’s season, while awesome, is not the greatest in N.B.A. history. That belongs to none other than Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 with the Philadelphia Warriors. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds that season and (this may be the greatest stat in all of sports) 48.5 minutes played per game. Regulation games last 48 minutes, but the Warriors played seven games that extended for at least one period of overtime. During that 80-game regular season, Chamberlain played 3,882 of Philadelphia’s possible 3,890 minutes.
On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain famously scored 100 points against the Knicks, but that was only the culmination of a four-game stretch in which he scored 67, 65 and 61 points in the three previous games, according to basketball-reference.com. All told, he scored at least 60 points 15 times that season, including a stunning performance on Dec. 8, 1961, against the Lakers, in which Chamberlain delivered 78 points and 43 rebounds.
In “It’s Time to Appreciate Serena Williams’s Greatness,” Christopher Clarey anticipates counterarguments:
In light of that and Williams’s enduring excellence, there is momentum building behind the concept of deeming her the greatest player ever. It is a subjective process, one in which it is always tempting to give too much weight to the great champion in front of you, the one whose victory under pressure is freshest in your mind.
What is beyond dispute is that Williams has not been nearly as consistent in regular tour events during her career as players like Navratilova, Chris Evert and Graf.
Navratilova won 167 singles titles as well as 177 doubles titles in an era when doubles was much more prestigious than now. Evert won 154 singles titles. Graf, who did not play as long as Williams has played, won 107. Williams, for the moment, has 67, which puts her in a tie for sixth on the career list with Billie Jean King. …
But if “greatest” means the player who would have beaten all the rest at their peaks, it is hard not to feel a strong pull in Williams’s direction. Her power serving and her serving under pressure are weapons that no other great player has possessed to the same degree. Modern equipment is certainly a factor, but she is also complete off the ground and, guided by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, improving her volleys, overheads and tactical variations.
Together, the class might analyze how these authors develop their case for G.O.A.T., for example, by defining their terms for greatness, providing evidence to support claims and anticipating and then considering potential counterclaims.
Here are additional resources, from The Times, and elsewhere, that can provide alternative mentor texts:
The Fine Line: What Makes Simone Biles the World’s Best Gymnast
Eliud Kipchoge Is the Greatest Marathoner, Ever
On Team of All-Time Greats, Pelé Shines Brightest
Golden State Warriors Are Closing In on History
Lindsey Vonn to Retire: Vonn Leaves as the Greatest Women’s Skier in History
G.O.A.T. Athletes: The Definitive List | Complex.com
Babe Didrikson, the Greatest Female Athlete of All Time? | The Guardian
Major League Baseball: The Case for Babe Ruth as the Best Ever | Bleacher Report
Tom Brady Has Surpassed Joe Montana as the G.O.A.T. | ESPN’s First Take (Video)
LeBron James Has Already Passed Michael Jordan as Greatest Player | Fox Sports – Undisputed (Video)
Ultimately, there is no right answer to the G.O.A.T. question. To some, Jesse Owens will always be the G.O.A.T. for his cultural impact; for others, Bill Russell’s 11 N.B.A. championships will trump all other measures. But that is the beauty of the debate. And in the end, it’s about the power of the argument to persuade others — at least for that day — who is the Greatest of All Time.
2. Debate a Current Sports Controversy
Should athletes who use steroids be barred from professional sports? Should players have the right to kneel during the national anthem? Should college athletes be paid?
These are just a few of the countless debates that come and go in the world of sports. Any one of them is ripe for students to investigate and debate to practice their inquiry and argument skills.
In this section we present three sports-related case studies to demonstrate how students can develop good research questions, assert a strong claim and study mentor texts as a way to improve their debate writing and speaking skills. And these three topics are just the tip of the iceberg; at the end of the section, we suggest another 11 current issues in sports for students to explore. And we’re confident your students would have plenty more topics to add to our list.
Case Study #1. Sports and Concussions
Sports are often associated with heroism — endurance, toughness, and valor. It has long been assumed that an athlete will have to make physical sacrifices to achieve greatness. But the sacrifice is now being questioned because of changes in our understanding of the impact sports can have on our bodies and minds.
The brain trauma sustained in football and other contact sports is now linked to long-term cognitive impairment, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. Although media coverage of concussions has focused on tackle football, these health issues are evident in many other sports like hockey, soccer, basketball, Nascar, skiing, snowboarding and BMX freestyle, among others.
The debate is not merely academic; it is causing significant changes to our understanding of athletes and athletics and is threatening the future viability of some of the world’s most popular sports.
Develop Winning Questions
Research generally begins with asking good questions. Even a topic as seemingly straight forward as sports-related concussions has many layers of complexity. So students should begin their research by asking themselves: What about this topic interests me most? What do I want to learn more about?
For example, if they want to start with the science, they might generate questions like: What is the impact of a single concussion? What is the long-term impact of brain trauma? What is the degenerative brain disease C.T.E.? And what is the impact of concussions on youths?
Political activism and protests by athletes are nothing new. Muhammad Ali publicly criticized the Vietnam War. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised fists during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics. Following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the other members of the Miami Heat posted a photo of themselves wearing hooded sweatshirts in his memory. But perhaps no act of political protest today is more polarizing than the stance by Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem at N.F.L. games.
If students want to argue a position related to recent national anthem protests, they should start by asking a question. For example, should athletes have the right to kneel during the national anthem? Or are athletes who protest being patriotic or unpatriotic? As students do research, they will gather evidence that will support a position. Once they find enough compelling evidence, they are ready to assert a claim (or thesis or resolution).
Assert a Claim
In small groups or as a whole class, students can debate one or more claims that were generated by students — or the teacher. After they have the opportunity to test their arguments with their peers and hear other points of view, they can write up their argument as an essay or editorial.
Below are a few possible resolutions that students can affirm or negate, with related articles below.
Cheating has always existed in sports: spitballs in baseball; weighted gloves in boxing; stealing another team’s signs. Players are always looking for an edge, but perhaps none is more contentious and polarizing than the edge that performance-enhancing drugs provide — steroids, human growth hormone, blood doping.
Some of sports’ most celebrated athletes have been caught using PEDs: for example, the cyclist Lance Armstrong, the gold-medal runner Marion Jones, the tennis champion Maria Sharapova and the Ultimate Fighting Championship star Jon Jones. In 2018, the entire Russian Olympic team was barred from competing for doping violations.
Let’s say students have already generated their research questions related to the topic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, they have done initial research, and they have asserted a claim they plan to defend in writing. What else can they do before they start typing to get an edge?
Study the Pros
Analyzing mentor texts can help students identify how writers build arguments using claims, reasons and supporting details, and they can help students see how to develop effective counterarguments as well.
Here are excerpts from two Opinion essays offering opposing viewpoints to the question: Should known steroid users be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame?
In “Keep Rose, Bond and Clemens Out of the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Bijan C. Bayne makes the case for why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two statistical heavyweights in the sport, should not be inducted into the Hall of Fame:
Bonds and Clemens … sealed their own Hall of Fame fates.
Bonds has said he didn’t know what was in ointments and injections he received — the “clear” and the “cream” — or that they contained steroids. Bonds insults our intelligence by feigning ignorance. World-class athletes know how many grams of protein are in a six ounce portion of salmon. Why would he use these substances without knowing their purpose?
While some might say that performance-enhancing drugs don’t enhance the hand-eye coordination that made him great even before he seems to have started using them, they do produce stronger, larger muscles that facilitate quicker reaction times. Larger muscles also increase hitting power. And these drugs allow for faster recovery times after the fatigue of weight training and aid athletic endurance.
Zev Chafets argues the other side in “Let Steroids Into the Hall of Fame”:
Purists say that steroids alter the game. But since the Hall opened its doors, baseball has never stopped changing. Batters now wear body padding and helmets. The pitcher’s mound has risen and fallen. Bats have more pop. Night games affect visibility. Players stay in shape in the off-season. Expansion has altered the game’s geography. And its demography has changed beyond recognition. Babe Ruth never faced a black pitcher. As Chris Rock put it, Ruth’s record consisted of “714 affirmative-action home runs.” This doesn’t diminish Ruth’s accomplishment, but it puts it into context.
After reading these different points of view, students can brainstorm a list of strengths and weaknesses in each article and in each writer’s argument. Which argument is more effective? Convincing? Memorable? What elements are fact versus opinion? When is opinion most appropriate in an argument? Are there any aspects of either article that seem weak? Why? What might make these arguments stronger?
Together, the class can create a list of dos and don’ts for building an argument. For example, “DO: support your ideas with relevant statistics.” Or, “DON’T: assume your reader will agree with your viewpoint.”
For students researching this topic, here are just a few of the many related resources in The Times and elsewhere:
Some other relevant resources
Should Doping Be Allowed? Testing Levels the Playing Field
How to Fight Doping in Sports
Would legal doping level playing field?
A Voice of Skepticism on the Impact of Steroids
There Are No Sound Moral Arguments Against Performance-Enhancing Drugs
Performance-enhancing drugs: Know the risks | Mayo Clinic
Why Cheating in Sports Is Prevalent — and We Can’t Stop It | Forbes Magazine
The Steroid Problem, and How to Fix It | Sports Illustrated Kids
Other Current Debates in Sports
We have provided three possible case studies above to explore, but there are innumerable questions to research, discuss and debate. Here is an additional list of 11 questions. And of course, students can suggest their own topics.
Asking students to question the status quo in the world of sports doesn’t only help them strengthen their argument writing and speaking skills, but it can also strengthen their creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
A. Propose a New Sport for the Olympics
We have all played or watched sports. But what exactly is a sport?
What is the difference between a sport and a hobby? Is fishing a sport? How about poker? What about E-sports? Should the top players of League of Legends be considered athletes? And if so, would they be in the same class as LeBron James?
How about chess?
Don’t answer too quickly; chess is recognized as a sport in 107 countries. Poker is broadcast on ESPN.
Define Your Terms
An essential aspect of making an effective argument is the need to be clear and precise in defining terms. We discussed earlier about how one defines G.O.A.T. frames the entire “greatest of all time” debate. The same can be said for defining terms like “performance-enhancing drugs” in the debate about steroids or “patriotic” in the discussion about national anthem protests. When it comes to deciding what should or should not be considered a sport, or an Olympic sport, defining the term “sport” is essential.
Students might begin by reading the following articles and then designing their own criteria for what is or isn’t a sport:
Student Challenge: Make a formal argument to the International Olympic Committee to add or delete a sport.
The fight over which sports get to be featured in the Olympics sheds light on the continuing societal question, “What is a sport?” Currently, there are 28 summer and 15 winter Olympic sports. (See the full list of sports here.) Did you know life saving is officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee as a sport (though, as Victor Mather writes, “that doesn’t mean it will take its place in the Summer Games alongside venerable sports like track, basketball and synchronized swimming”).
Students can begin their research with the following examples:
Are Video Games Olympic Material? Some Boosters Say Yes
The Olympics Would Be Better With a Breakdancing Competition. Discuss.
Great Moments in Cheerleading: Could the Olympics Be Next?
Too Many Olympic Events, or Not Enough?
Next, students should pick one Olympic sport to add or delete. They should then prepare an argument to support this proposal.
In making their case, students should compare the sports they are proposing to existing Olympic sports, and provide criteria for assessing those comparisons.
In his Room for Debate opinion essay “Drop the Sliding Sports,” Robert K. Barney writes:
Are there some winter sports that should be dropped? It may be perceived by many as blasphemous, but I have always had a difficult time in equating the demonstrated lack of athletic qualities in winter sliding sports, like bobsled, luge and skeleton, that depend more on technology and less on athleticism with those sports that reflect the epitome of strength, agility, endurance and strategy (nordic and Alpine skiing, speed and figure skating, and so on).
B. Propose a Rule Change
Rules are essential for any game or sport, yet they change all the time. How basketball is played can vary greatly from state to state. Every few years, it seems, the National Football League changes what qualifies as a catch and a legal tackle, alternately confusing and infuriating players and fans alike.
Student Challenge: Propose a rule change to improve the game.
For inspiration, students might read some of these proposed changes — big and small, practical as well as fantastical — from the pages of The Times before making a pitch for their own rule changes.
Baseball’s Too Slow. Here’s How You Fix It.
Penalty-Kick Shootouts Are a World Cup Abomination
In a Hole, Golf Considers Digging a Wider One
Still Questioning the Best-of-Five Format in Men’s Tennis
Drivers, Start Your Calculators: Nascar Introduces New Scoring System
Room for Debate: Raise the Rim
Consider the Proposal From All Sides
Whether you want to raise the basketball rim by six inches or triple the size of a golf hole, you’ll need to consider how the change would affect the sport from all angles. In guiding their research for the development of their proposal, students should keep in mind the following questions:
• What are some weaknesses of the current game? (e.g., amount of scoring, length or speed of the game, popularity, and ratings)
• What are the causes of the weakness? (e.g., tradition, the age of the fan base, technology)
• What are some possible solutions?
• How hard would it be to put the rule change in place?
• What might be the drawbacks or unintended consequences of your game change?
• How might purists or other critics respond to your rule change? How might you try to persuade them to join your side?
In “Penalty-Kick Shootouts Are a World Cup Abomination,” Rob Hughes passionately states a perceived problem in the current game of soccer:
The penalty shootout is an abomination. It reduces a team sport to a contrived tiebreaker that obliges physically tired and emotionally drained players to step up one by one, trudge half the length of the field and try to shoot down the opponent’s goalkeeper from 12 yards.
Júlio César Soares de Espíndola — to give him his full title — guessed correctly and dove the right way to save the first two penalty kicks against him. He then was beaten twice. Finally, Júlio César just got plain lucky when Gonzalo Jara fired Chile’s fifth penalty beyond his reach, but against the post.
From that twist of fate, that misplacement by inches, Brazil’s hope of winning the World Cup for the sixth time in its illustrious history remains on track. Two hundred million hearts in Brazil can beat again. Chile can go home across the Andes, defeated not by two hours of soccer, but by the lottery of shootouts that have their proper place alongside fairground games such as knocking over targets at a dozen paces.
Later, Mr. Hughes considers some solutions to the problem:
The old solution used to be that tied games were replayed, but in today’s crowded schedules, expediency demands that the result is decided on that day. FIFA tried the toss of a coin and had rejected a brighter idea from the now defunct North American Soccer League.
The N.A.S.L. of the 1970s had, to my mind, a fairer option.
It required an outfield player to run with the ball from 35 yards out, giving him five seconds to score and allowing the goalkeeper to advance toward the player.
That at least contained more skills than the single shot of a nervous, fatigued individual.
No matter what rule they focus on, students should be clear to state the problem with the status quo and support their claim with details. Then they should propose a solution and explain why it would help to eliminate, or at least improve, the problem with the current rule.
Argument and Debate Teaching Ideas
Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
Should There Be Stricter Rules About How Coaches Treat Their Players?
Do Sports Teams Have a Responsibility to Hold Players to a Standard for Their Personal Conduct?
Should Colleges Fund Wellness Programs Instead of Sports?
Do Fans Put Too Much Pressure on Their Favorite Professional Athletes?
How Much Should Fans Be Allowed to Distract Opposing Teams?
Has Baseball Lost Its Cool?
Should Women’s Basketball Lower the Rims?
Is It Offensive for Sports Teams to Use Native American Names and Mascots?
Should Technology in Sports Be Limited?
D. Create A Public Service Announcement
There are many ways to present an argument; while many of our previous examples focus on writing and speaking, visual thinking is also important. Public service announcements can be both fun and a challenging way for students to take a stance on an issue and to creatively persuade audiences.
Students can begin with traditional forms of research and then identify an issue or stance they want to take before envisioning their P.S.A. They can then plan, storyboard, rehearse, record and edit a 30- or 60-second video including a tagline and message.
To start, students should view and analyze professional sports public service announcements to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the form. You can use these professional PSAs as models:
Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality
NFL Players & Coaches Stand Together to Cure ALS
NFL Players’ Concussion PSA: Be Man Enough to Admit When You’re Hurt
PSA Youth Concussions
UEFA’s Anti-racism Resolution
Thierry Henry Stand UP, Speak UP Commercial
As a class, analyze and discuss: What is a public service announcement? How is it different from a commercial? What is the message of the P.S.A.? Who is the target audience? What video and audio elements were used? How did these elements strengthen the message? How effective was the P.S.A.? How might you improve it?
After identifying their issue or question and conducting research, students can begin planning their public service announcement.
Here are some process steps to consider:
• Determine a clear message.
• Identify a target audience.
• Develop a tagline or slogan.
• Brainstorm video (stills, graphics, performers) and audio (narration, voice-over, music, sound effects) elements you will use to convey your message.
• Storyboard your PSA.
Do you teach with sports reporting? We’d love to hear more about how. Write to LNFeedback@nytimes.com, or post a comment here.