A Brief History of Sports History

When I tell people I study sports history I tend to get a lot of responses. Most think that means I am a walking encyclopedia of sports trivia and statistics (I’m not). A lot of people say they didn’t know that it existed as a field of study. My fellow academics and grad students sometimes view me with skepticism. Aren’ there more important things to study than sports, they think to themselves. Indeed, it is common for people to question the  “scholarly-ness” of studying sports. Of course, I am speaking in generalities here, but a lot of these feelings persist. It’s sometimes hard for people to put their head around it, especially if they have never heard of it.

The historiography of sports history reflects a lot of these challenges. Warren Goldstein described his experiences writing a dissertation on baseball in the 1970s in his retrospective essay “Thirty Years of Baseball History: A Player’s Notes” published in the December 2010 issue of Reviews in American History (login require to access). Although there were a few others doing sports related research, Goldstein recalls the uproar his topic caused within the American Studies department at Yale,  “the famous political historian who had advised my undergraduate senior essay so disliked my draft prospectus that he marched down the hall into the American Studies office, slammed it down on the secretary’s desk, and declared to anyone within earshot that he refused to be associated with such a ridiculous project.” Thirty years later we are in a much better place, he explains.  A slew of dissertations on sports related topics were completed in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Among them were several would-be, big-name sport historians including Allen Guttman, Steven Riess, Elliott Gorn, and, my PhD adivsor, Randy Roberts. Between roughly 1970 and 1985 the filed of sport history really emerged. The North American Society for Sports History (NASSH) was founded in the early 1970s along with the Journal of Sport HistoryNASSH blended existing scholarship by coaches and physical educators with the new group of historians interested in sports.

Despite this professionalization, Goldstein notes that he was out of academia for five years because he couldn’t find a job (partially due to the market). Others, however, did land jobs. Gorn and Roberts both published excellent books on boxing — The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America  and Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler. It took them both a few years of climbing the ladder before they arrived at large, respectable institutions with doctoral programs.

The idea of studying popular culture and leisurely activities slowly grew out of the 1960s and ’70s embrace of the “New Social History” that brought on a variety of new fields such African American, women, urban, and labor history. A decade or so later, the “cultural turn” enveloped those approaches and pushed further away from traditional topics and models of studying history. Inspired by works such as Culture as History by Warren Susman and Eight Hours For What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1970-1920 by Roy Rosenzweig, the study of sports history was caught up in these transitions.

Despite the rise of the subfield, departments are still hesitant to admit new students with a sports history focus. I’ve been lucky to work with two prominent sport historians during my academic career, but it wasn’t easy to find them. When I was applying for MA and PhD programs it was very difficult to find sports historians who taught at schools with graduate programs. Even then, some of them didn’t take on sports students or they only offered MAs. My current advisor is one of the few exceptions. He teaches at a good sized, well-respected BigTen school with a department that embraces our field. Over the past decade he has advised no less that six doctoral students on sports related topics.

Jobs for sports historians are equally hard to find. Few departments actually advertise jobs for historians of sport. That is not to say sport historians don’t get hired, many do, but the field still squirms fairly uncomfortably between history and physical education departments. We’re trained to be historians first and sport scholars second. It is important to have diversity in your fields — things like race, urban, public, or transnational history — to help you get a job. This advice, however,  remains true for all PhD students regardless of their research interest.

The view of sports history is changing. In March 1995, Elliott Gorn and Michael Oriard argued that we should be “Taking Sports Seriously” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). Tying the study of sports to the excitement surrounding cultural studies in the early 1990s, they wrote:

“Sports present unique challenges to theories about cultural power and personal freedom, which cultural-studies scholars discuss using such categories as “representation,” “commodification,” “hegemony,” and “subversion.” One of the challenges is that sports differ from movies, novels, music, and television shows, all of which scholars view as wholly “constructed.” Sports, however, are essentially “unscripted.”

Their article touches on many nuances and interesting approaches to subject and its link to mass culture and the lived experience. It inspired a glut of new scholarship. Since then the field has broadened and there’s been lots of new approaches to studying sports. This new scholarship would not have been possible, Goldstein reminds us, if people like him and those in his generation did not sketch out the broad history of sports first. Multiple university presses now offer book series on topics such as “sport and society.” These books often sell well and offer exciting ways to present history to broader audiences (as well as make more profits).

In my own view, sports history and public history should go hand-in-hand. I approach sports history as a way to reach a broader audience and show people that sports are more than just entertainment. They often reflect broader trends in American life and reflect larger societal concerns and issues. This includes things like bureaucratization, racism and integration, labor disputes, and much much more.

This leaves us with an exciting and relevant field with lots left to be explored. In an era of soundbites and short attention spans, I’m hopefully that teaching American history through sports will keep students engaged. So too are Georgia Tech and the Wisconsin. They’ve recently announced the creation of endowed chairs in sports history further affirming the subfields place within the “legitimate” academic world.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Sports History

  1. reflectionsandcontemplations (@martinlugton)

    Thanks for sharing. I agree that sport is a great prism through which to understand American culture. With cultural history the immediate subject area is often really just a starting point. I guess some starting points are seen as more legitimate than others?

    Was there much anthropology in this area before sports historians arrived on the scene? Perhaps legitimacy questions have something to do with that.

    Is sports history is a means to an end – insights into a range of other important themes – or is there something special that it can do in its own right? The Gorn and Oriard article sounds interesting and seems to point in this direction. In what ways did and does sport culture shape american culture more widely?

    1. Andrew McGregor Post author

      I think a lot of the questions of legitimacy come from the peculiar relationship between sports and schools, particularly higher education. Many academics feel like in some ways sports threaten education because they often vie for donors and attention among students. The history of higher education and college sports is inextricably linked.

      The Gorn and Oriard piece is fantastic. I go back and re-read it at least once a year to remind myself of all the things out there. I think they do suggest that sports are somewhat unique. They’re a contrived, but lived experience, both as fans and participants. Their spaces where can live out conflicts, identities, and explore issues that seem disconnected from our everyday lives, even though they may not really be.

      Your means-to-an-end question is interesting. I would suggest that it might be both. One on hand, it just adds to the thick-description of the American experience/ideology/culture, but it’s also an avenue to explore things like masculinity, race, and community that don’t readily reveal themselves in other source bases. I’m thinking especially of fan behavior and rivalries, as well as learned social norms. The relationship between American culture and sporting culture, to me, is fairly dialectical… but an argument could be made that sport was present at the making of American culture (at least its “modern” iterations) through the apocryphal tales of the origins of baseball. There really is a lot of things to look and explore, and a constant barrage of questions to ask.


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