Joy DeSensi: Athlete, Scholar, and Leader

On April 1, 2017, Joy T. DeSensi, Chancellor’s Professor and longtime scholar and practitioner in the field of sport management, passed away. Joy lost a fierce battle with cancer—her third round with the disease. She committed her life to the ideals of diversity, inclusion, social change, and the empowerment of women in and through sports. Joy was an Olympic-level shooter on the 1968 rifle team, a concert pianist, a devout member of Saint John XXIII University Parish, and a trained airplane pilot. Her legacy will live on in the lives of the hundreds of students she touched in her 40-year career.

By David Bassett

Joy DeSensi was a much-beloved person at the University of Tennessee. Although small in stature, she was a giant in terms of professionalism, integrity, and vision. She was always gracious and made those around her feel valued and important. For example, as a department head, she would remember each of her colleagues with a birthday card.

Joy attended high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She competed in riflery, the only interscholastic sport open to girls at the time. She eventually won a spot on the Olympic women’s demonstration team in 1968, but unlike other Olympians, she and her teammates did not travel to Mexico City. They were not invited. This experience led her to question why women had different opportunities in sport than men.

Joy attended West Liberty University, in West Virginia. She branched out into other sports and developed a lifelong passion for learning. Later, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Memphis and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

Joy came to UT Knoxville in 1983. Her background as an athlete, coach, and Olympic competitor led to her to becoming a faculty member. As she put it, “I became interested in social justice issues all around sport, and especially in opportunities to participate regardless of race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, politics.”

Joy earned a stellar reputation as a scholar, and her research included such areas as ethics and morality in sport, women in sport, diversity and inclusion in sport, and social issues in sport. Together with Danny Rosenberg, she published the textbook ­Ethics and Morality in Sport Management in 2011.

Joy served as a department head for roughly a decade. She traveled to Korea and made friendships that were the first step in establishing a long-lasting international relationship between UT and a Korean sports organization (Korean Sports Promotion Foundation). She also trained a number of talented graduate students. Two of them, Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman, went on to establish the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society here at UT. This organization has received millions of dollars of funding from the US State Department and been honored for its work in promoting sport as a means of building bridges between nations.

Joy later became associate dean of the Graduate School, a role that brought her into contact with faculty and students from across the university. She started a Best Practices in Teaching program that provided instruction to graduate teaching assistants, postdoctoral fellows, and new professors.

Joy also held leadership roles in scholarly organizations. She was president of the National Association for Kinesiology in Higher Education, the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, and the Southern Academy for Women in Physical Activity, Sport, and Health. She received many accolades for her service to the profession. She retired from UT in 2015.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with or take classes from her remember her steady presence. She often praised us and took pride in our accomplishments. That was the essence of Joy DeSensi—she was a very kind and gracious person.

Read more tributes to Joy DeSensi on the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences’ website.

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