July 19 2024

Using Case Studies to Teach Religion and Sports

by Rebecca T. Alpert, Temple University


When teaching Religion and Sports, I use case studies to give students the experience of approaching the subject through an academic lens of analysis with an emphasis on active learning. To challenge the centrality of American football in religion and sport, I choose cases from a wide variety of religious traditions, geographic locations, and sports. They are all drawn from real events and conflicts.

A case from the 2012 Olympics illustrates the value of this strategy. It’s the story of Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, the Saudi judoka who was the first woman from that country to compete in the Olympics. Her religious commitments required that she compete wearing hijab; something that the International Judo Federation had never contemplated. Through this case we examine the connections between Islamic values of modesty and gender segregation as they apply to women’s participation in Olympic sports.

Teaching Strategy

I ask the students to come prepared to discuss the case. I assign a case study I wrote, “Judo and Hijab at the Olympics” (Alpert 2015, 134–139). I also ask them to do some background reading about Muslim women’s active participation in sports using Benn, Tansin, G. Pfister and H. Jawad, eds. (2011) Muslim Women and Sport. They are also required to watch the film Offside (directed by Jafar Panahi, 2006) to look at one example of the conflict between women’s full participation and gender segregation in more traditional Muslim societies (in this case, Iran). There are several websites they need to consult for background as well: the International Judo Federation Sports and Organizational Rules (91–113), Capsters, and stories and videos of the match itself.

The class begins with a discussion of the various dimensions of the conflict over this case. The goal is to make sure students understand the viewpoints of the various stakeholders. Having women from Saudi Arabia participate in the 2012 Olympics was important to the International Olympic Committee, which had been encouraging every country to send women athletes to compete. As the last country to comply, this participation also mattered to the Saudi Olympic Committee. That committee had to balance their international concern with internal Saudi politics on gender, requiring both proper dress (hijab) and segregation for women in public spaces. The International Judo Federation had a very different agenda concerning their rules about appropriate attire for judokas to ensure their safety and guard against an unfair advantage.

Following the discussion, the students recreate the decision-making process that allowed Shahrkhani to enter the Olympic judo match in hijab. Here is the agenda I used for the activity:

Step 1. Each student will be assigned a role. All students assigned this role will meet together and prepare your strategies.

Role #1: Shahrkhani. It will be your task to explain why you want to participate in the Olympics and what you will need to make it possible for you to do so.

Roles #2–4: Representatives of the International Judo Federation (IJF), International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the Saudi Olympic Committee (SOC). You will formulate your position on Shahrkhani’s participation. Be ready to explain your reasons for taking the position.

Role #5: Moderator. You will strategize tactics for organizing the conversation among the participants and creating a decision-making process.

Step 2. Once you have formulated your positions, you will meet in groups in your various roles to present your perspective and come to a decision.

Step 3. Finally the class will debrief. Did your group come to the same compromise that permitted Shahrkhani to play in an improvised head covering? Were there other solutions that arose? What was the greatest obstacle in reaching a decision?

Students have a variety of reactions to this exercise. Most are surprised that the International Judo Federation rule book is as strict and uncompromising as religious law. They are also quite impressed at the variety of possibilities for women in Saudi Arabian culture, and they have an opportunity to challenge their preconceptions about veiling and gender relations in Islam. I have only used this exercise a few times, but so far the students haven’t come up with better solutions. They are almost universally in favor of the compromise.


This kind of active learning strategy enables students to put new concepts into practice. Presenting a position helps them clarify their understanding of such conflicts. They see that there are other legitimate positions that may not comport with their own world view. This type of activity also helps them realize that they can change their minds. In this specific case, I have found that learning about this conflict gives students an opening to examine their preconceptions about Muslim women and veiling, which they often see as oppressive rather than as a woman’s chosen religious commitment. This kind of group experience helps develop students’ curiosity, allows them to reformulate concepts from their readings in their own words, and gives them opportunities to explore new perspectives.


Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  

Barkley, Elizabeth. F., Claire H. Major, K. Patricia Cross. 2005. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bean, John C. 2001. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, Stephen D. 2012. Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. 2005. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, Barbara Gross. 2009. Tools for Teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Other References

Alpert, Rebecca T. 2015. Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies, Columbia University Press, 2015.

Benn, Tansin, Gertrud Pfister, and Haifaa Jawad, eds. (2012) Muslim Women and Sport. New York, NY: Routledge, 2011.

Rebecca T. AlpertRebecca T. Alpert is professor of religion and senior associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University. She has taught over 20 different courses at the adult, undergraduate, and graduate levels, including Teaching Higher Education in the Humanities. Alpert received a Distinguished Teaching Award from the College of Liberal Arts (2001), the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Teaching Award (2013), and Temple University’s highest honor, The Great Teacher Award (2016). Her recent scholarship examines religion and sports. Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball, was published by Oxford University Press in June 2011. Religion and Sport: An Introduction and Case Studies, was published by Columbia University Press in 2015. She is currently coediting an anthology, Gods, Games, and Globalization (with Arthur Remillard) to be published by Mercer University Press.

Image: George Wilson, safety for the Buffalo Bills (American football), prays before a game against the New York Jets. By Ed Yourdon (Flickr: NY Jets vs. Buffalo, Oct 2009 - 02), via Wikimedia Commons