When Gary Scales was growing up just outside London during the 1980s, he went to Norwich City Football Club games.
It’s the same team his grandfather played for during the 1930s, which turned his interest in the soccer club into an obsession with its history.
“Football was always a large part of my life,” said Scales, a history professor and a second-year Ph.D. student. “But I began to look at the sport differently as I became fascinated with the history and significance of the sport.”
Scales now teaches a course that showcases his love for the sport: History of Global Soccer. The course is dedicated to studying the personal emotions, politics and social trends that have shaped soccer, and the ways soccer has shaped societies across the world in return, Scales said.
“It’s the world’s most premier sport,” Scales said. “To consider the world, one should consider football.”
Scales wears his soccer jerseys to class and hangs posters of soccer teams and downtown London in his office on the 9th floor of Gladfelter Hall. He grew up playing the game and now considers soccer one of the most powerful cultural practices in the world.
In 2014, 3.2 billion people watched the FIFA World Cup — roughly 44 percent of the world population.
“Much like football, my class is inclusive,” Scales said. “Anyone is welcome. There are no wrong answers, and the conversation is largely student-conducted.”
Scales said he doesn’t give exams, but students are required to complete two personal blog posts, a podcast and a Wikipedia-style article about topics in the class, all of which reflect topics like gender roles, race relations or historical commercialism within the Premier League, England’s professional league of men’s football clubs.
“The class is an ongoing conversation,” Scales said. “And it is absolutely incredible how the students can generate great discussion.”
“Because football is such a global sport and because it attracts so many people, each student was able to bring a different perspective to the discussion,” Scales added. “And that is just brilliant.”
Stephanie Hirsch, a senior journalism major, played soccer for most of her life and served as a play-by-play commentator for the Chicago Red Stars — a franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League — and ChicagoLand Sports Radio. With a minor in history, Hirsch said she knew she had to take the class.
“I’m a soccer nut, but I didn’t realize how socialized soccer and its history are,” Hirsch said. “We talk about pivotal figures in women’s soccer, and I feel like I have learned a lot about the role women have played in the sport.”
Scales said there is a classic narrative that soccer is a man’s sport, but the reality is that women have been playing soccer for as long as men have, and they’ve played an important role in its history.
He teaches his students about two sisters, Anna and Georgina Connell, who were critical in the founding of the first Manchester City soccer club in the mid-1800s. They went door-to-door in Manchester to spread the word about the club.
“In the class, we study stories that are similar to this one,” Scales said. “And by doing so, we create parallels with other narratives of history as to how women were treated in different societies historically.”
Scales added that the struggle for equality in women’s sports continues today.
In October 2014, U.S. women’s national team player Abby Wambach, Germany national team goalkeeper Nadine Angerer and others from across the world sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association over the use of artificial turf instead of real grass at the 2015 World Cup in Canada. The players cited the fact that all six prior women’s World Cups and all 20 men’s World Cups were played on grass fields, which is considered a better playing surface.
The lawsuit was dropped in early January 2015, but was still seen as a recent effort to fight against gender inequality in sports.
Scales said his class offers a different perspective on history because of its unique lens.
“I think a lot of questions can be answered through the perspective of sport,” Scales said. “Just one more reason why it is truly the beautiful game.”
Patrick Bilow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.