American Quarterly

2023 Special Issue

The Body Issue: Sports and the Politics of Embodiment

Edited by Amira Rose Davis (Pennsylvania State University) and Joseph Darda (Texas Christian University)

ESPN The Magazine announced its first Body Issue in 2009 as a celebration of “the diverse shapes, sizes, genders and races” of athletes’ “most important asset­­––their bodies.” A conscious response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, it featured high-gloss photos of the muscled naked bodies of mixed martial artists, football players, surfers, rock climbers, and race car drivers. Serena Williams posed on the best-selling of six alternative covers. The Body Issue, which appeared annually until the magazine ceased publication in 2019, revealed something true, if less rosy than the editors’ appeal to diversity, about sports: in no other domain do Americans feel so free to compare, contrast, sort, and judge bodies.

In this, our own Body Issue, we ask what Americans learn about human difference from sports. What ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and ability do they naturalize? How have athletes modeled and challenged embodied norms? The racialization of certain sports and positions? The gendered categories of competition? While the British cultural studies tradition descending from the Birmingham school has long taken sport seriously as a site of ideological production and dissemination, American studies, though an obvious home for sports studies, has remained on the margins on the conversation. (American Quarterly has, by the most generous count, published just ten essays on sports since volume 1, in 1949.) This special issue invites scholars and artists to consider what forms a critical American study of sport––as embodied performance and national spectacle––might take.

We are a long way from the days when journalists could dismiss the sports desk as the “toy department” of the newsroom. From sports media’s model minoritization of Asian American point guard Jeremy Lin to middle-distance runner Caster Semenya’s refusal to take testosterone-reducing drugs (and subsequent banning) to the recent exposure of the casual racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that permeate the NFL’s executive class, there is no ignoring the political stakes of sport. A new generation of athlete activists has taken the lead in advocating for Black Lives, for the abolition of police and prisons, and in protesting a silent genocide against Indigenous women and girls and an epidemic of anti-Asian violence in the time of COVID. The Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo laid bare our willingness to sacrifice athletes’ bodies and minds for profit and entertainment. A wave of legislation targeting trans athletes has weaponized women’s sports to fortify gender and sexual boundaries. Revelations of sexual abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League confront us with the persistence of gender violence in even the most seemingly feminist spaces. We are witnessing a renewed revolt of the athlete––and, from statehouses to social media, a counter-revolt.

The sports industry remains that rare place where we talk openly about bodies as commodities to be bought, sold, traded, and, their value extracted, released. It “plunges” us into politics with or without our awareness, as C. L. R. James once observed. This special issue welcomes submissions that consider the athletic body as a site for the conscious and unconscious formation and contestation of ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and ability––ideas often formed not far from our own classrooms, on the campuses of ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC universities.

Submissions may consider, among other topics:

    • The player empowerment movement
    • Trans athletes and gender policing
    • Genetic neo–race science
    • White sports administration
    • ESPN and popular sports intellectualism
    • Precursors to and the legacy of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest
    • Corporate activism and antiracism
    • “Race norming” in the NFL
    • The rise and reception of women’s professional sports leagues
    • Esports
    • NFTs and the memorabilia industry
    • Disability and parasports
    • Stadium subsidies and land seizure
    • Sports analytics and racialization
    • Indigenous pageantry
    • International athlete scouting
    • The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and the pandemic
    • Sports culture in empire-building and anti-imperialism
    • NCAA v. Alston and college athlete compensation
    • Sports in the formation of panethnic identities and movements
    • The prestige sports documentary
    • Fantasy sports

Essays of up to ten thousand words are due August 1, 2022. Authors must address the guest editors and clearly indicate in a cover letter that the submission is intended for the 2023 special issue. Information about American Quarterly and submission guidelines can be found at