Erin Tarver is one of five Emory faculty featured.

Tarver explores American sports industry's impact on identity

Oxford's Erin Tarver is one of five Emory scholars who are blurring lines, bridging disciplines, and pushing boundaries.

Erin TarverYou might say Erin Tarver is self-motivated.

As a philosopher, Tarver, assistant professor of philosophy at Oxford College, has always been interested in the deepest questions surrounding human identity. How well do I really know myself? Can I ever be sure? Am I truly a good person, or do I merely appear good on the outside?

Tarver’s own identity was shaped early on by some of the most powerful forces in American culture—the deep South, church, and football. Raised in Baton Rouge in an evangelical Christian family, Tarver’s childhood was dominated by LSU football games—the Christmas-like anticipation of each weekend, the elaborate game-day rituals, and the tidal waves of shared emotion that surged through thousands of Tigers fans with every yard gained or lost.

Later, in graduate school at Boston College and then Vanderbilt, Tarver would revisit those experiences as she sought to master the texts of ancient philosophers— Cicero, in particular, “raised the question of whether I could be absolutely certain of who I was or if I was misunderstanding myself,” she says. She also began to grapple with profound questions about race and gender, acknowledging her own privilege for the first time. That’s when she began to consider the American sports industry and its impact on individual identity in a new way.

“For people who are devoted sports fans, I’m suggesting that those practices are integral to making them who they are,” says Tarver, who published her first book, The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity, last year. “When Auburn fans say they bleed blue and orange, they are saying something not too far from the truth. The practice of being a fan is a central feature of their being the human being that they are.”

The book also explores the impact of sports fan frenzy on athletes, like college and professional football players, who—if they’re lucky—make a lucrative but short-lived career out of entertaining stadiums filled with roaring mobs at grave personal risk.

And another thing. “Sport is perhaps the most rigidly gender-segregated arena of public life, and one of the most strongly racialized,” Tarver says. “I came to realize that these things I grew up loving were, in many cases, deeply unjust. How much of my own experience of self as a young woman was caught up in the exploitation of these young men, mostly men of color? It’s a normal human desire to have these rituals, but there are other ways to achieving that goal that are less destructive.”

Tarver probed these themes in a New York Times op-ed published last year, where she challenged fans to consider whether they treat the players they cheer for as human beings, or as mascots. Not long afterward, she was contacted by former NFL player Alan Grant, who confided that the question resonated for him. This semester, Grant will Skype in to Tarver’s Oxford class as a guest lecturer on the philosophy of sport—bringing his experience, his expertise, and of course, himself. —Paige Parvin 96G

Read more about the other scholars chosen in Emory Magazine's winter 2018 issue.