Sports Literature

Although a dictionary will not provide a definition for the term “sports literature,” the Oxford English Dictionary defines sports as,

“an activity involving physical exertion and skill, esp. (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others. Freq. in pl.”

The OED also noted,

“In early use the sense of ‘sport’ as a diversion or amusement is paramount; by the 18th and 19th centuries the term was often used with reference to hunting, shooting, and fishing…the consolidation of organized sport (particularly football, rugby, cricket, and athletics) in the 19th cent. Reinforced the notion of sport as physical competition.” [1]

Historically, the definition of sports was broader than it is today; sports included ideas of general play, entertainment, hobbies, success, pleasure from activity, and lovemaking. Although it is impossible to know when the first sport originated, it is usually considered that wrestling and boxing were the first sports ever played. The first recorded sporting event was the Olympic Games circa 760 BC, in which they only had one event; the footrace. [1]

The word literature is borrowed from the Latin litteratura referring to knowledge of letters, writing, and instruction in reading, writing; scholarship [2]But, the phrase sports literature did not develop until around 1921, and it only became more popular in the 1970s, peaking in popularity in 1979. [3]

Evolution of the term

Sports literature has too frequently been categorized as almost entirely male centered and less literary than a sort of fluffy entertainment. This is due particularly to the fact that, like many genres, there is sports literature that should not be labeled literature at all. Also, many dime novels were centered around stories of baseball or football. As time passed, however, sports literature evolved to become something much more than stories about a game, meant to induce an adrenaline rush similar to that experienced by playing sports. In the 1980s, sports literature for adolescents evolved to become more traditionally young adult, stories of coming of age or bildungsroman. Chris Crowe, with the help of a German professor, came up with a similar term specifically concerning athletes: “sportlerroman, a novel and deals with the development of a young athlete.” [4]

Due to the evolution of YA sports literature into sportlerroman, it became a unique setting conducive to teaching morals and character building. Sue Minchew addresses this in her article “Teaching Character through Sports Literature” as she responds to the statistically guided need for state mandated character education. Sports literature is a relevant way to choose and teach values and morals that are neither religious nor particularly group specific, therefore making them perfect for the public classroom. Also, Minchew also defines sports literature in a more simple way by saying it is “any work which content relate to sport”.[5]

Differentiating Sports Literature

What qualifies a novel as being included in the genre of sports literature? Robert Lipsyte, author of several successful young adult sports literature novels defined four questions that will help readers differentiate real sports literature from books about sports. His questions are as follows

  1. Does the protagonist know why he is playing this game?
  2. Is bullying and player health dealt with in realistic fashion?
  3. Are the moral and ethical issues at least mentioned?
  4. Will this book lead the reader into a larger world of literature or just into reading more sports books?[6]

Those four questions help to define the difference between literature about sports and sports literature with its clear purpose of using an adolescent’s interest in sports to teach larger themes, lessons, and morals and lead them to a greater love of and appreciation for literature in general.

Young readers enjoy reading sports literature because of the way these novels relate to their lives. Novels conscribed to this genre focus on moral and ethical issues such as bullying, poverty, adabtability, etcetera, subjects that particularly relate to youth readers and what is going on in their lives. Because of the focus on the youth, adults and teacher sometimes don’t see the benefits of reading sports literature. However, sports literature has become more prominent within the classroom because educators have realized that this literature can be a way to introduce students to literature.

Criticisms of Sports Literature

YA Sports literature frequently follows a male protagonist in his development with little to no focus on females. Although some women take issue with this fact, it has been discovered that YA sports literature has become appealing to both males and females, athletes and nonathletes. Another criticism is that this genre celebrates certain sports over others. This is valid as, according to Crowe, young adult sports literature focuses more on team sports than individual sports, mainstream sports, and baseball is the most commonly written about sport in YA novels. [4]


  1. Jump up to:1.0 1.1 “sports, n.”OED Online. Oxford University Press, February 2016. Web.
  2. Jump up “literature, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, February 2016. Web.
  3. Jump up Google ngram viewer. February 2016. Web.
  4. Jump up to:4.0 4.1 Crowe, Chris. “Sports Literature for Young Adults.” “The English Journal” 90.6 (2001): 129-133. Web.
  5. Jump up Minchew, Sue S. “Teaching Character through Sports Literature.” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 75:3 (2002): 137-41. Web.
  6. Jump up Lipsyte, Robert. “Sports Books: The Four Questions.” “The English Journal” 104:1 (2014): 94-95. Web.