Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to watch the Chiefs and Packers play on Monday Night Football. Lambeau Field is probably the only true NFL mecca (unlike MLB which has a handful). It was a fun trip, even if Kansas City lost. The atmosphere was interesting — it felt more like a college game though with a decidedly older crowd. The stadium itself, while large, felt less intimidating than newer ones, probably because of its large lower bowl, while makes it less steep and towering.
Throughout the trip, I found it difficult to divorce myself from viewing things with a critical perspective. The violence of the game on the field — there were a couple of big hits — and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl I with several of the former player in attendance, forced me to consider the impact on individual players. I wondered what today’s champions would look like in 50 years. How many will be alive? Their size combined with the speed and the trauma of the game today will undoubtedly make aging more difficult for them, even if they have more modern technology.
The Hall of Fame also was an interesting look into both the past and how it is presented to fans (most of whom are extreme partisans). I was impressed with the amount of ‘stuff’ they had on display. Too many halls of fame rely on videos, text panels, and photos, rather than tactile and 3-dimensional artifacts. To be sure, this requires smart collecting and preservation, but, man, does it make a difference for showing the reality of change over time. I would have loved to see them take it one step further and use these items to show connections to the present, perhaps using different type of football equipment to show the advancement of technology and safety alongside the increased size and speed of players. Combined, these narratives could offer commentary on how football has become more safe and yet more dangerous using material culture.
Making a trip like this also requires reflecting on the purpose. Some of the folks I went with are die-hard Packers fans. To them visiting Lambeau is ritual, it’s game day. Others, myself included, saw it as a place to be experienced for its history and significance. It’s something on their bucket list. The game is and was important (I wouldn’t have gone if they weren’t playing Kansas City), but one of the guys went regardless of teams just to experience it. The history of the stadium, the mystique of Monday Night, and the atmosphere of an NFL game. Here you see a blending of sports and cultural heritage tourism. You see ideas about quintessential American experiences as sports fans that are tied to larger notions of a participatory involvement in American culture. Everyone of us viewed ourselves as a stakeholder in the cultural experience — we’re all football fans, we’re all americans, and we could all afford the experience. Some of us were more closely tied to the team(s) but regardless, we viewed Lambeau and Green Bay as culturally significant. We wanted to learn and experience its history and join in the creation of more.
The Packers signify this perhaps more than other clubs, because of the collective nature of its ownership structure, but even beyond that, these pilgrimages, or bucket list trips, hint at our obsession with authentic and democratic cultural experiences. Sports add a further dimension to this, I think, because we are visiting a historic sites and learning history at the same time as we are coming together to witness history. This is precisely what makes historic stadiums such powerful experiences. They tie the past and present, interweaving personal and collective narratives, and offering the possibility that you might witness the extraordinary. The opportunity for you to be present for not just for the making of new history but the next culturally reverberating moment. Traditional museums and historic offer connections to the past and present, but can’t always guarantee the living history experience, where you become a part of that place’s history. For many, this opportunity, this promise, and this excitement to be a witness to ‘new’ history unfolding before them, is what makes them feel alive.
Within this critical frame of mind, I kept coming back to my own work and recent conversations I’ve been having surrounding ongoing projects. I’ve been pondering ideas about sports history, public history, heritage, and teaching. Thinking about and asking question such as: what kind of narratives resonate, what kind of techniques work, what are students as well as the general public’s motivating factors for learning and experiencing these stories. Visiting Green Bay with a group of folks — two of them I met for the first time — helped me see some of these things in action.
Thinking forward, and about old stadiums I will never experience and games I’ll never see, I wonder how or if we can salvage, rescue, or reproduce this type of engagement. A few years ago when I visited New Mexico, I had some interesting conversations about the concept of place-based history. It mixed location (GPS points), with videos and images, enabling people to see places as they once were. I think some of this could work for sports. The prevalence of old footage could make it easy to link old games with their former locations. Blending these with a few more tactile features could extend the experience further. Imagine a small historic site near the old the location of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that pinpoints the location of some seats. In that location reproduction (or even better yet, salvaged seats from the destroyed stadium) were placed in small groups (like park benches), and there, on your cell phone, you could call up historic footage. You could sit in the seats, in the exact place, watching history.
These ideas aren’t too far off. Apps like Next Exit History and a few small projects like those going on at New Mexico State, hint at these possibilities. Maybe some day it will be a reality. It will take a team of collaborators with the resources to build apps, purchase and place tactile features in historic locations, and buy rights to historic footage. I’d love to see a world with this exact type of digital public sport place based history.