Essay Contests

“What Sport Means to Me”

Sports are a vital, fun, and often passionate part of culture in the U.S. and many of our lives have been touched by sports in a variety of ways. The LSA “Sport and the University” theme semester will feature an essay contest on the theme “What Sport Means to Me.” We welcome submissions from University of Michigan undergraduate students in any school or college. 

Submissions are due on November 15, 2014.

Essays can be a maximum of 500 words. Authors are invited to spin the theme “What Sport Means to Me” in any direction they choose, and they are welcome to give the piece its own title.

Essays will be judged on their ability to engage readers, thoughtfulness, and rhetorical effectiveness. Winning essays will appear on the theme semester website and will be displayed at the closing ceremony in December. 

To submit an essay, please send a pdf of your essay to sport-theme@umich.edu with the subject line "Essay Submission." Please make sure the essay itself is double-spaced, and include with it a cover page that includes the following information:

  • Your name
  • Your email address (please double check spelling; this is how we'll notify contest winners)
  • Title of your essay

Any questions about the contest or rules may also be directed to sport-theme@umich.edu.

Essay Contest Winners

Winners of the Fall 2014 "What Sports Means to Me" Essay Contest winners.

First Place: Layne VandenbergHave Soccer, Will Travel

I never intended to be a jogadora. I started when I was six, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. When I tell others about my fifteen-year obsession, many are taken aback. They usually don’t believe me and ask me to prove it. I tell them to hand me a ball. A jogadora is a female soccer player.

When I first traveled to Kenya in June 2012 to study social entrepreneurship, I stuffed 20 University of Michigan soccer balls into a suitcase. When I returned this past June for my third trip, I found a faded maize and blue ball wedged underneath a bush on the makeshift field at the orphanage where I stay and work. Ragged and deflated, the soccer ball was more than the children’s favorite sporting equipment. It was a method of communication when I was unsure how to connect with the local children, many of whom do not speak English fluently. The soccer balls started our interaction on an equal playing field, where I was just another kid who wanted to kick around a ball. Soccer was a unifying language.

Jump across the Atlantic Ocean and fast-forward to April 2014. I had just arrived in Rio de Janeiro, and the 2014 FIFA World Cup was six weeks away. My research centered on a consequence of World Cup preparations, connecting me with locals to discuss their experiences. Our conversations repeatedly returned to soccer as Brazil’s excitement as much as its frustration. Soccer united Brazilians under the green, blue and yellow flags that hung on every street, yet simultaneously drove them further apart by ignoring the drastic inequality between the poor and the rich, personified in the presence of favelas (“slums”) on the hillsides alongside some of the world’s richest beaches. Soccer was the catalyst and cause for social change.

I arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, three weeks after my return from Rio. When I picked up a ball that rolled my way at the social inclusion soccer tournament that I helped organize in a disadvantaged neighborhood, several of the male residents rolled their eyes. I placed the ball on the ground, faced the goal, and retreated six steps backwards as they impatiently waited for me – the girl – to take her shot. The following swish of the back of the net was answered with a surprised, “Ela joga?” (She plays?) as the eyes of the younger girls in the audience widened. Surprising my male counterparts by proving women can play soccer was more than a personal affirmation of my own privilege and training. Soccer was an opportunity to show women are on an equal playing field as men.

Being a jogadora has exposed me to a world where sport is a language, a catalyst and cause for social change, and an open space for discussions about social justice. As a jogadora, sports provide the opportunity for me to connect with the world both on and off the pitch. A jogadora can change the world. She just has to play.  

Second Place: Zachary LevinA Father-Son Connection

From the time I was able to walk and talk, I have loved sports. I dribbled my first basketball when I was three years old and my dad placed a golf club in my hands the following year. Every dribble, every throw, every swing, my dad watched me with nothing but pride beaming from his body. Through the years, I have realized that sports are the largest driving force behind my relationship with my best friend, my dad.

Every single Sunday of my childhood was spent watching sports with my dad. The two of us would sit down in my basement and just watch sports for hours on end. Watching those sports was my getaway from the pressure of school and any sort of relationship issues, and it served as my dad’s getaway from the continuous stress of running his own business. Whether it was watching the Cavs make it to the NBA Finals or Tiger Woods chipping in on the 16th hole of the 2005 Masters, my dad and I knew that sports served as our getaways from the struggles of life. Athletes’ successes symbolize the beautiful aspects of life, and watching these successes with my dad strengthened our relationship. With every touchdown we watched, we only became closer, as the memories of watching our favorite athletes’ and teams’ successes became focal points in everyday discussions. Even when we watched athletes fail, the failures were representative of the struggles of life. In having to watch someone else struggle in life, my dad and I were reminded of just how great our lives are.

Playing sports with my father is even better than watching them with him. Every vacation we take, the two of us wake up at 6:15 in the morning to go golfing together. We spend four hours walking and talking about any struggles that either of us may be having in our lives. The golf course serves as both our safe haven and our getaway from life. On the luscious fairways, we possess a feeling of comfort with each other that cannot be felt anywhere else. It is on the course where we have discuss each other’s darkest secrets and know that our secrets are safe. It is also on the course where the two of us have made countless memories, ranging from golf successes to outrageous moments. When playing together, I have recorded the best score of my life, my dad has run over a stop sign, and the relationship between the two of us has only strengthened. 

Through it all, sports serve as a way for my dad and I to only strengthen our relationship through our favorite athletes’ and teams’ moments of failure and triumph. Sure, I love watching and playing sports but I love being able to do so with my dad more than anything else. For me, sport only enhances my relationship with my father and I owe sports a lot for doing so.

Third place: Elizabeth BoyerSomething To Be Great At

After over 20 years as a sports journalist, Linda Robertson considers sports to be more than just the games played, goals scored, or races run. Sports are a microcosm for society as a whole. They reflect the changes we make era-by-era, and lay a path for future progress. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American baseball player. Breaking the color barrier when the New York Dodgers started him at first base, he helped to spark the civil rights movement that brought widespread change throughout the country. More recently, as the first women to be hired as an NBA coach, Becky Hammons showed how far society has come in its view of women’s rights and in providing women with equal opportunities. Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, is challenging a ban on her competing because of high levels of testosterone. With the majority of society behind her, this athlete’s fight reflects the progress that society is making in gender fluidity and society’s rejection of strict gender norms. From race to gender, and every issue in-between, the culture of sports echoes what is happening in the real world.

Professor Sherman Clark argues there is a societal benefit of having women play sports and be sports heroes.  Professional athletes, and other sports heroes, are vesicles into which we cast our ideals and aspirations. When women are athletes, who young girls and boys look up to, they are portrayed as able and hard working - more than just a doting wife or mother. Sports expand our view of what is possible.  

On an individual level, sports have given me something to be great at while improving my mental state and connecting me with important people in my life. My family has found soccer to be a common thread to weave us all together over the years. My twin sister and I have played soccer together since our rec-ed days, filled with uniforms that were too big and orange slices at half-time. As we grew, soccer remained our constant and connected us to each other and to our little brother. I would not be the person I am today if it was not for sports, all of the championships and missed PKs included. I might not have had a perfect SAT score, or been the best at Spanish or the clarinet, but I have always been a thriving athlete - that is my success.

My aspirations, ideals, and accomplishments would not be the same if not for society’s view of athletes and their success, including our expanded view of what is possible. Thanks to sport’s influence on society, I find purpose and respect through being an athlete - the time I commit and sacrifices I make to dedicate myself to soccer are acknowledged and appreciated by my parents, professors, teammates, and fellow students. Being an athlete has given me personal goals to reach for and situations in which to make my own decisions - giving me a say in what happens in my life independent of a pre-determined path set by society.

Fifth Place: Lauren GallagherTrack and Field, Invictus, and Self Determination

Like most track athletes I had a routine that I replicated each time I stepped into the starting blocks. The starter would call out “On your marks” and I would begin. Two tuck jumps followed by a cross body arm stretch, a mountain climber pose as I aligned my hands with the start line, ending with symmetrical calf extensions before I brought my feet to rest along the red pedals. Before the next command, I would set my pony-tail down the center of my back as I looked forward counting the hurdles that lay between me and the finish line. Lastly, before I stilled myself to start the race, I would recite the last two lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus in my head; “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul”. The second command followed, then silence, pierced by the resonate sound of the starting gun, and then the blur of the race, the sound of the crowd, and the tempo of my own feet striking the track.

Ever since the age of four sport has played a pivotal role in shaping my life. From the soccer fields and ski slopes of my early childhood, to the tracks and golf courses of my later years the lessons I’ve learned from my successes and failures in sports have ultimately shaped the individual I am today. But no lesson has proved more essential in the shaping of my life than the one that is so eloquently worded in Henley’s final lines. “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul”. Sport has taught me that I have the ability to control my performance, my improvement, my success in a way that no other facet of my life ever could.

No matter if I’m driving the ball down the fairway, pacing a 400m, or studying for a final, I have come to the realization, through my participation in sports, that the actions I chose to take are indicative of the outcome and eventual impacts. Sports have taught me that no matter the outcome of the last game, the last race, the last match, I am the only one who has the power to make a change going forward. My own progress and improvement is in my hands and my hands alone. Though I am now a retired High School athlete, sport means more to me then just the titles I won and the friends I made on the field. Sport has shaped me to be the individual I am today, by teaching me lesson that I could not have gained through any other means. Through sport I have come to the realization that I drive my own destiny, my life is the cumulation of my decisions and my decisions alone. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.