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Sports Beat content is reported by Sports Journalism students in the Michigan State School of Journalism.

MSU Broad Museum special exhibit looks at sports through art lens

Jack Moreland

Resistance Training: Art, Sports, and Civil Rights aims to increase thinking about the links between athletics and social justice, through their long history of being intertwined.

As patrons reach the top of the main staircase in the MSU Broad Art Museum, they are greeted by a striking installment; a gloved, golden fist raised high, encased in an infinity mirror display. The piece, titled Salute (Lineage), lies just inside the entrance to the Resistance Training: Art, Sports, and Civil Rights exhibit.

The golden figure is a mold of Tommie Smith’s fist, representing his famous gesture - a symbol of courage and protest - on the victory podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Salute (Lineage) is one of several eye-catching installations across the exhibit which brings together pieces within a variety of mediums to artistically highlight and reflect on sports history in relation to social justice.

The timing of this exhibit, which opened in August and runs through February 2024, falls between the 50-year anniversary of the passing of the Title IX legislation in 2022 and the upcoming 60-year anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights act in 2024.

“Those two moments and the significance of those legislative acts and what they were addressing, issues of social justice and the advancement of civil rights, really strongly permeate throughout the exhibition,” said Steven L. Bridges, the Broad’s interim director and senior curator and director of curatorial affairs.

Bridges headed the curation of the Resistance Training exhibit. He said people may not see the many similarities in the precision, intentionality and creativity present within both sports and art.

“Artists and athletes have these shared values of directing their work and the spheres of influence that they have… to direct our interests and our minds and our actions towards the advancement of social issues,” Bridges said.

Michigan State has a unique history with the addressing and advancement of social issues in sports. Bridges said this is where he started his research for the exhibit. He was intrigued by the recruiting methods of MSU football Coach Duffy Daugherty in the 1960s. MSU was one of the first schools to integrate its football team and routinely recruit Black players. Bridges acknowledged this was not the first or only effort of racial integration on campus, as Daugherty appeared to be more focused on recruiting the best football players instead of pushing a social agenda.

Still, the openness within the football program had a positive impact on the rest of the campus.

“There’s definitely validity in the fact that those recruitment efforts opened the doors further,” Bridges said.

The exhibit also features a large photo mural of the 1979 MSU women’s basketball team in the locker room with Coach Karen Langeland. This was the first MSU team to file a Title IX lawsuit against the university, in response to a significant disparity in funding between men’s and women’s sports.

“At that time, that was a very contentious and difficult moment in that history,” Bridges said. “It takes a certain amount of courage to do that. Now when we look back on that moment with hindsight and with time, there is quite a lot to be celebrated but that doesn’t erase the difficult nature of that work.”

On Oct. 12, Michelle Word, the museum’s director of education, hosted a (de)tour of the exhibit focused on deeper conversation with special guest speaker MSU Brandt Fellow Sports Journalist in Residence Joanne C. Gerstner. During the event, a conversation arose surrounding the role certain athletes are thrust into based on their racial or gender identity.

In front of three installments, featuring Brandi Chastain, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, Gerstner and Word discussed how athletes do not want to fight for these issues on a world stage, but instead want to play the sport in which they have achieved greatness. The two agreed, however, that the reality in many cases is that they have to fight and play.

While the historic teams and athletes highlighted in this exhibit have already fought for their place in the sports world and made major improvements for current and future athletes, there is still work to be done. An independent review conducted over the last nine months determined the MSU athletic department remains out of compliance with Title IX. The Detroit News said the review determined women athletes only received 46.3% of MSU’s athletic financial aid despite making up 48.9% of the athlete population. The report identified disparities in the quality of university-provided apparel, dining and facilities for men’s and women’s teams. MSU committed to be in full compliance with Title IX by the end of the 2026-27 school year, as part of a legal settlement with members of the eliminated women’s swim and dive team.

“I don’t think that people always think of art as something that they can come to and that will connect to something really important to them or their daily life in some way and this exhibition does do that,” Word said. “And it being on campus helps us have conversations. Here we have a space where classes are coming and we can talk about the fact that this is something that still needs to continue changing.”

Word suggested everyone has a sports story, whether they are a superfan or are indifferent about athletics. There are iconic moments and memories associated with sports which reach even those who don’t identify as sports fans.

“As people come in they have an access point, they see things that are familiar to them,” Word said. “We all have a sports story… it’s still part of our culture, part of our lives. That moment that feels familiar starts to help them begin to listen and hear and experience in a new way and hear more of what these artists are trying to share.”

The museum features a tribute to USA gymnastics.

Word and Bridges both emphasized the intention within the exhibit to provide a space to facilitate productive reflection and conversation around the topic of social justice. At the exit of the exhibit hangs Suspension. This installment features a video projection of several gymnasts preparing to perform their routines. These athletes, all women of color, have very similar expressions of intense concentration and each takes a deep breath right before they jump into action. The video cuts to the next athlete just before the viewer sees any of the breath-taking physical feats, focusing instead on what Bridges described as, “an intense moment of vulnerability and a simultaneous gathering of strength.”

This piece has been added to the museum’s permanent collection and may serve as a reminder of the vulnerability and strength necessary to have the reflections and conversations this exhibit aims to promote.

“We all have our own spheres of influence and the ways in which we choose to direct our efforts and direct our own activities to support different causes, we have that agency and responsibility within us as well,” Bridges said. “While the conversation ranges from MSU history and some of the local stuff that’s happened to national and international conversations, there is also a very personal dimension of that that people discover as well.”

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