Laurent Dubois Is Having a Ball

Duke's resident soccer scholar has been inundated with media requests regarding the World Cup

French supporters at the World Cup in Russia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
French supporters at the World Cup in Russia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The World Cup has kept Duke professor Laurent Dubois very busy.

A scholar of history and Romance Studies, Dubois has for many years now studied soccer through the lens of an academic; he teaches a popular course called ‘Soccer Politics’ that examines the role the game plays in world language, culture and history, and he has authored two soccer-centric books. The second, “The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer,” published just months ago.

Laurent Dubois captured the celebration of the French fans in Paris on Tuesday.

As a result, Dubois has faced an onslaught of requests from media outlets anxious to get a scholar’s take on soccer. He has written commentaries for or been interviewed by outlets as diverse as Wisconsin Public Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Review of Books. As the FIFA World Cup nears its conclusion – the final pitting France against Croatia is Sunday – Dubois reflected on his role as a public scholar with particular expertise analyzing the world’s most popular game.

He's in Paris this week and was in the middle of the excitement following France's semi-final victory Tuesday. He spoke to Duke Today about the media coverage of the Cup. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

You’ve been in high demand from media outlets over the last month or so. How do you explain the interest? 

The World Cup is the largest sporting event on the planet and actually the most watched event on the planet, period. There are so many intersections between soccer and politics. This is an area that I’ve focused on in my scholarship over the past decade, as well as teaching a course called “Soccer Politics,” so journalists have reached out to get context and perspective on what we are seeing play out in the tournament.

I also have specifically written about the French and Belgian national teams, notably around the question of the presence of so many players of immigrant backgrounds on the team and what that means. Since these two teams did really well in this tournament, that has also given me particularly opportunities for interviews and writing. 

 

Is there a question or line of questioning you’ve found most surprising from the many interviews you’ve done?

The people I’ve been interviewed by have all had a really good understanding of the larger issues at stake and are intent on finding ways to think about it and drilling down into particular details. Among U.S. journalists there is often a set of questions relating to why the sport is not as popular here as it is in other countries, and I definitely understand that question. I do think sometimes soccer is portrayed as being a bit more marginal than it actually is. I think many people don’t realize it is the most widely played sport recreationally in this country. It is gets less media focus of course than some other sports, but to me it’s useful to just understand it as a very widely-played and deeply rooted sport here, just one occupying a different space in the sports ecosystem than other games.

There has also of course been questions about the fact that the U.S. isn’t in the World Cup. Obviously that’s a concern for U.S. soccer, but it’s also part of participating in the world’s most popular sport. What has been interesting to me is that the attention to the World Cup in the U.S. has remained quite high even without our men’s team participating this year. In fact most people in the world follow the World Cup just as people in the U.S. have this year, adopting teams for various reasons, whether because of their own family backgrounds in different parts of the world or just because they like the way a team — like Belgium — plays. (Editor’s note: Dubois was born in Belgium and remains a fan)

 

You’re clearly at ease working with media and writing for news outlets. Has this always come easily for you, or is it a skill developed over time?

It’s definitely developed over time, around two main areas: my work on Haiti and my work on soccer. I’ve gotten much more used to the quick turnarounds, to having to formulate thoughts about larger histories and contexts in relation to particular news events, and just in finding ways to crystallize what I think is interesting in ways that will be comprehensible and make sense in radio or newspaper/magazine writing formats.

I really enjoy it, as well — the conversations help me re-think things. The fact that I teach about this really helps, because in a sense teaching and public scholarship have very similar exigencies and satisfactions. 

 

What would you say to an academic colleague reticent about embracing media requests as you do? What are the positives and negatives?

There are definitely positives and negatives, and it only makes sense to do it if you enjoy it rather than finding it stressful. It also depends on the topics one works on, since that shapes what is possible and productive in terms of broader engagement. What I like about it is what I also like about working with students and colleagues at the university: talking to really interesting, curious, smart people in the media about issues that we care about, finding ways to understand the world around us, telling stories as a way of comprehending the possibilities for the future.