Chancellor’s Professor Joy DeSensi found her passions early in life: music and sports.
She started out to be a classical pianist and still plays the 1931 piano given to her by her grandfather, who ran an Italian bakery in the working class "Hill" district of Pittsburgh.
She also excelled in a completely different field – competitive rifle shooting – which was one of the few sports available to high school girls in Pittsburgh in those days. Eventually, she won a spot on the Olympic demonstration team and still holds several national shooting records.
But the experience also taught her that female athletes were not taken seriously. "We proved that women could compete," says DeSensi, a professor of exercise, sport and leisure studies in UT Knoxville’s College of Education, Health and Human Services and associate dean of the Graduate School. "But we didn’t get to go to Mexico City like the rest of the Olympians in 1968. We had to mail in our scores."
She soon noticed that it wasn’t just women who were underestimated. "I became concerned with social justice issues all around sport – opportunities to participate, regardless of race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, politics," she explains.
During her graduate studies, she found a way to combine her love of sports with the deeper questions she was asking.
"I always regarded sports a bit differently," she acknowledges. "It’s essential to see the person on the other team as a human being. We’re each giving something to each other."
While writing her dissertation, she researched attitudes among the Pittsburgh Penguins. Her underlying question of the athletes: "When do you see your opponent as a human?"
The Penguins coach answered the question in his own way. One day he asked DeSensi, "Want to see a fight?"
"I said ‘no,’ but he made a sign and they all immediately broke out into a fight right there in practice. And they really went at it."
DeSensi knew as early as elementary school that she wanted to teach. "Students keep me energized," she says. "Their thirst for knowledge and their ‘ah-ha’ moments are wonderful."
She also loves to challenge conventional thinking.
"The question of ethics and humanness in sport to me is, can we respect our opponent as another struggling human being who is striving for excellence along with me?"