New professor Cox examines social issues through sport

Courtney M. CoxThe world of sport is like a mirror, according to Courtney M. Cox, a new assistant professor of media and cinema studies.

Cox, a scholar of sport and the media, uses sport to examine issues of representation, technology, globalization, and labor. Because it is widely consumed by audiences, she argues that sport offers a universal way to understand broader issues.

“I constantly look at sport as this reflection of these broader societal things that are happening—good, bad, ugly,” she said. “I think that sport is such a fantastic, disturbing mirror of society that a lot of us can't look away from, myself included.”

For example, it’s not just elite athletes who quantify their bodies. Anyone who wears a smartwatch or is training for a 5K does the same. These ideas are the basis of a course Cox is teaching this fall, MACS 224: Sportmedia Technology and Culture.

“There are very few other instances or other mediums that really challenge in this way that feels so close to home, and yet has these global ramifications,” she said.

Cox earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, then earned her PhD in communication from the University of Southern California. She comes to Illinois from the University of Oregon, where she was an assistant professor in the Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies Department. She also has experience as a sports journalist, having worked for ESPN in Connecticut and Texas and NPR affiliate KPCC in southern California. 

One of her primary research projects, a book project titled Double Crossover: Gender, Media, and Politics in Basketball, examines the experiences of Black women athletes in the WNBA—filling a gap she’s noticed in performance studies.

“I feel like I have this very niche interest and obsession in women’s hoops and labor and representation,” Cox said. “I think it speaks to these larger forms of global flows of product ideas and people around the world.”

For example, since the structure of the WNBA results in players competing in different countries during the off-season, Cox said this work has challenged her to think transnationally.

“How does this larger ecosystem really reveal these larger issues of value and worth, especially when it comes to women and non-binary athletes?” she asked.

In another book project, Cox explores advanced analytics in sport—the evolution of statistical data used to predict and enhance sports performance. For example, smart stadiums have opened questions about how big data is used, and new technologies are changing how athletic achievement is quantified.

“Algorithms factor into everything from labor to thinking about health in a particular way—whether we’re thinking about the couch-to-5K person, or we’re thinking about LeBron James,” she said.

Cox is also a co-director of The Sound of Victory, an interdisciplinary, multi-platform project that examines the relationship between music and sport. She is working with Perry B. Johnson, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, to answer questions about citizenship, community, history, and culture.

They’ve also been thinking about the role of silence. As the pandemic progressed and stadiums emptied out, who gets to decide how much crowd noise is necessary to mimic a normal game?

“When sports stops, what does it mean when there aren’t fans? Fans are so integral to the sound of sport in ways that we hadn’t thought about before,” she said.

Based on their project, Cox and Johnson are co-editing a volume called The Sound of Victory: Music, Sport, and Society that brings together the writings of athletes, journalists, scholars, DJs, and musicians on their relationship with music and sport. Cox and Johnson are also coauthoring a book on the cultural history of the Super Bowl halftime show. 

Cox looks forward to continuing this research at Illinois, and to working with undergraduate and graduate students. She said she’s excited to work with students from all backgrounds and sees classrooms as laboratories where anything is possible.

“Whether we’re thinking about gender equity, labor, representation, or social media, my hope is that I can bring another perspective to those conversations,” Cox said. “I get the opportunity to change the future via these incredible folks who are ready to do the work.”

—Vivian La, Communications Intern