n the fifth grade in Phoenix, Arizona, Risa Isard started a drive to collect toiletries for a local women's shelter. She then arranged for the most charitable class to meet a professional basketball player from the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. For the self-described "elevenyear- old version of an activist," it was the perfect marriage of two loves—a social cause and sports.
Those passions still run deep in Isard. Now a senior at Duke, she is pursuing an academic concentration called "Social Change at the Intersection of Culture, Gender, and Sports," a self-designed track that includes courses in history, public policy, sociology, and women's studies—all of which contribute to her understanding of how sports, and the athletes who play them, can serve as a platform for social activism.
"I'm interested in how sports are a microcosm of the outside world," Isard says, "and how the outside world is a macrocosm of sports."
A former walk-on member of the varsity rowing team and current co-head manager of the women's basketball team, Isard recognizes the positive impact sports can create in society, and vice versa. She is writing her senior honors thesis on the implementation of Title IX, the 1972 U.S. statute that disallows federal aid to educational institutions that employ discriminatory policies and is widely credited for enabling greater participation among women in college athletics. But she notes that sports also can reflect deeper societal tensions. She was dismayed, for example, by the controversy surrounding South African track star Caster Semenya, whose gold-medalwinning performance at the 2009 World Championships sparked accusations that she wasn't truly female.
"Semenya, wearing short hair and pounding her chest after victories, was not akin to what Western ideology would expect from a woman," Isard says. "The fact that many people exhibited homophobia in their reactions shows how tenuous the relationship between sports and gender still is.
"We absolutely need better policies to make sure that what happened to Caster Semenya is never repeated," she continues. "People need to speak up in their everyday lives and live with a sense of intentionality."
At Duke, Isard speaks up through her involvement with the Center for LGBT Life and Blue Devils United, where she edits a blog called "Our Lives." After graduation, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in sports sociology and eventually work as a consultant with a sports governing body, such as the International Olympic Committee or the NCAA. She remains motivated by her belief that sports can drive social change, citing initiatives such as the NBA's "Think B4 You Speak" publicservice announcements and the NFL's recent prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation as positive examples.
"I wouldn't be surprised if, ten years from now, this past year is seen as the turning point," she says.