Monthly Archives: October 2015

John Carlos and My Charmed Academic Life

I’ve lived something of a charmed academic life. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and lucky in the opportunities I’ve had. My advisors at every level have been top-notch and selfless. Incredibly encouraging and passionate about their student’s success. The institutions have been equally giving, even if no one has heard of my undergraduate institution or I get funny looks when I say my master’s degree is from Nevada.

Tonight I was reminded of this charmed life when I met 1968 Olympic 200m bronze medalist, John Carlos. The Black Cultural Center here at Purdue sponsored the talk. Carlos chose to speak here, instead of attend the track and field hall of fame induction ceremony. His Grandson is a current Purdue student (and a fraternity brother of one of my students this semester). You could tell that this familial connection was important to Carlos. So was talking to a young crowd. He shared a lot of personal, family stories. He spoke little of his athletic career or Olympic moment, and instead encouraged us to stand up for what is right, to not be fooled by the distractions of mass media, and reminded us that we can’t go back in time to change our choices. This last point stems from his experience in 1968.

A major theme of his talk was sacrifice in the face of criticism. Any movement, any major achievement, requires sacrifice. And that sacrifice is not momentary. It’s often lifelong. Sometimes it is a stigma, sometimes it’s mistreatment, other times it’s delayed gratification. Carlos experienced bits and pieces of all of theses. Yet, he’s extremely proud of his actions and statements. He knew he was right — and firmly believes that what’s right never changes. His actions were misunderstood — and continue to be — and opposed by many then, though now they’re largely celebrated. People thought he was advocating Black Power, but according to Carlos, “the only black power was my black ass running down that track.”

Narratives, however, painted him as radical and anti-American. This confusion has often overshadowed the Olympic Project for Human Rights and his own commitment to the larger civil rights movement. He laughs when people trying to re-write that history, but kindly explains what he was and continues to be about, encouraging them to join his cause.

Encouraging people to join his cause — the cause for civil and human rights — is important, increasingly so, he argues. This is our life, our history, and our time to deal with what’s right and wrong, he said. We can’t keep waiting for “more time” because it will never come. We’ve got to wake up and look beyond the media narratives that discounted him for so long, and continue to ignore or move past serious social ills, and act. Indeed, he is particularly worried and concerned about the future given the rise of police violence and continued systemic inequality.

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John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic salute on the 200m medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics

The talk was humorous, heartfelt, and inspiring. It was clear that it came from his soul. Carlos wants young people to continue the fight, think critically about the world they live in, and work to make a difference. One line from early in his talk to this effect particularly struck me. We have such a “fear of offending our oppressors” he said, but we must not let it limit our right to express ourselves and stand up for what is right. In the end, that is his message to all of us and the way he has tried to live his life.

Hearing those words from Carlos meant so much to me. I’ve long looked up to him and Tommie Smith. I had the iconic poster of the two of them on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics on the wall of my dorm room my freshman year. I was a track athlete and loved their bravery, but back then I don’t think I ever fully understood what it really meant. That image, however, was one of my first introductions into the connections of history and sport.

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John Carlos and I at Purdue University, October 2015.

Now, here I am tonight, sharing the story that I heard firsthand from a man I looked up for most of my adolescent life. I even had my photo taken with him on stage after the event. I live a charmed life.

What’s insane about all of this is, this isn’t the first time I have met one of my heroes. In the summer of 2010 I met 1964 Olympic 10,000m Gold Medalist Billy Mills for the first time. Mills was the main subject of my master’s thesis. That summer, I was in Lawrence doing research on him at KU and Haskell that summer, when I serendipitously learned he was in town and giving a free public talk. I already had a mutual friend with Mills — a fellow Baker University track alum, Mark Misch — who promised to introduce us, but providence intervened.

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Billy Mills and I at the Haskell Cultural Center, June 2010.

Meeting him meant the world to me. I grew up in Kansas, running cross country and track. The state cross country meet for class 5A and 6A schools is annually held at the University of Kansas’ Rim Rock Farm. The course is decorated with silhouettes of Kansas’ most famous runners and many of its features — such as hills, curves, and bridges — are named for them. The final hill of the course bares his name. It’s called the Billy Mills Ascent. It was hell. A near 400m hill that separated you from the sprint. Your legs burned and ached as you pushed yourself to the summit, where you could see the finish line 400m away. The hill tested your resolve and endurance, and only the best prepared dared to attempt a final kick after it. In high school we trained all year with that hill in mind. Every Wednesday my team did hill repeats until our cool down was nothing more than a walk/job. That hill was on our minds. We knew it by name. We knew what it meant — perseverance, toughness, and survival. What today, in the traditional of Gerald Vizenor, you might call survivance. It was an ode to both Billy Mills’ championship and his struggle.

Mills and I met again 6 months later, this time at his house in Sacramento. He generously invited me to spent a cold January day with him and his wife, Patricia. I came away with over 6-hours of recording as we chatted about his life, pre-and-post ’64. It was a remarkably engaging and intimate conversation. He was so open and giving, willing to move beyond his usual rote and rehearsed talk. Without the generosity, my master’s thesis — and probably my academic career — would not have been possible.

My thesis was the first major study of Billy Mills. I connected his life to Jim Thorpe and evolving federal Indian policy to describe and interpret the conditions that framed his life and connect his impact to that larger history.  When I finished my thesis that summer, I shipped him a bound copy. Both he and Pat read it. They loved it and asked about getting more copies, prompting discussions about the future of the project.

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Billy Mills, Purdue Native American Students, and I at Purdue University, October 2014.

Since then we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Facebook, and become friends. They visited Purdue last fall and requested that I be invited to have lunch with them.  They wanted to catch up, and continue our conversation from years ago. It was another charmed connection. Another surreal moment with one of my heroes.

In addition to meeting these sporting heroes, I’ve also had the chance to meet a variety of inspiring academics. Last year I had tea with Michale Oriard — the eminent scholar of football. We sat and talked for nearly two hours about his books (which are required reading for any football scholar), my research, our thoughts on higher education, and more. Oriard played football at Notre Dame and later for the Kansas City Chiefs — my hometown NFL team. So, of course, Kansas City and barbecue was yet another topic. A similar moment occurred last week, when I was invited to have lunch with Bruce Schulman, a leading political historian from Boston University. Bruce was friendly and encouraging. He enjoyed hearing about my dissertation and, though it was a brief conversation, offered some constructive thoughts on the topic.

Perhaps I’m making too much of these moments. Maybe I need to let go of my inner fanboy. But whenever I think of them — and my insane ESPN appearance in August — I can’t but help wonder if I am living a dream. Meeting my heroes, hearing them share their stories, becoming friends with them, and then sharing those stories in my own classroom and publications is more than I ever imagined. I knew at an early age I wanted to study history. I stumbled into the history of sports in undergrad, but never knew any of this was possible.

These stories mean so much to me, not only because they’re dreams come true, but also because this journey has and continues to be incredibly hard. Writing is tough work. Teaching is at times exhausting. Together, they sometimes seem impossible. I have a lot of moments of self-doubt. There are days where it is damn hard to keep going. It is during these times, when I’m struggling to push through the distractions, that I reflect on all of these personal moments. They remind me that I can keep going. That I’ve been successful. That I’ve been put in this place for a reason.  One of the freakiest reminders is the progression of area codes from institution to institution. I completed my BA and MLA in 785, my MA in 775, and am doing my doctoral work in 765. It’s silly, I know. It’s probably meaningless, but it sure feels like I sign. It helps me know that I am where I supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It hints that maybe this plan isn’t all mine. After all, I’m living a charmed life. I have already been given a lifetime of unreal opportunities. With a little more hard work, who knows what else will come my way.

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Additional thoughts on the “Royals vs. Mets: Champions of the Expansion Era”

I’m back writing about the Royals at Sport in American History ahead of the World Series. It is the first World Series featuring 2 expansion teams. I explore what that means and how baseball has changed during its period of relocation and expansion. I also suggest that the Mets and Royals are the best symbols of this era.

Missing from my post is a discussion of race. As Dave Zirin of The Nation points out, because both teams were founded in the expansion era (after 1961), they were never segregated or all-white. The issue of integration is yet another change in baseball in the postwar era that continued on into the expansion era. With this in mind, you can further “read” the expansion era as one of democratic opportunity — more teams, more playoffs, integration, etc. That this is the first World Series without a legacy of segregation highlights progress and change in baseball, but it also shows how recent segregation was, how its legacy permeates baseball, and few of our beloved cultural institutions were innocent. The Mets and Royals are more innocent by the fact of their expansion births, but they too contribute to current racial issues in baseball, such as the under-representation of minority coaches, managers, and administrators. Like the the expansion era, the Mets and Royals represent more democratic opportunities, but full equality remains a dream of the future.

Sport in American History

By Andrew McGregor

Tomorrow night the 2015 World Series begins with the Kansas City Royals hosting the New York Mets. For the first time in its 111 year history, this year’s World Series features two expansion teams. While for most baseball fans this is mostly a meaningless footnotes, it’s a reminder of how much the professional sports landscape has changed over the last 50+ years.

While on the surface, Kansas City and New York seem like opposites, their franchise histories indicate they’re actually quite similar. The Royals and Mets characterize a distinct era in baseball history characterized by relocation and expansion. Both teams were founded to appease critics and preserve MLB’s status quo. They’ve also been two of the most successful expansion teams in the postseason.

Relocation and Expansion

During the 1950s, Major League Baseball (MLB) had a relatively small geographic footprint. The 16 major league teams were located…

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Statues & Pictures: Thinking Through Commemoration at PNC

Today at Sport in American HistoryJosh Howard has an excellent post discussing the Pirates removal of statues celebrating Negro League’s legends from Legacy Square at PNC Park. You should go read it! The post provides a nice overview of the Pirates history honoring the Negro Leagues and the displays at Legacy Square. But what I found most interesting was a small comment hidden near the bottom of the post  about “passive commemoration.”

The banners as a form of passive commemoration are fine, but they are absolutely no substitution for the active interpretation of the original Legacy Square space.

This line highlights the important of understanding the best practices of public history. While Josh doesn’t fully explain what he means by explaining the difference between passive commemoration and active interpretation in the post, he is absolutely right on the profound difference it makes for visitors to Legacy Square. And I think, noting these difference might hint at America’s unwillingness to talk about things like race and the color line.

Legacy Park with the statues.

Legacy Square with the statues.

It may not seem like much of a difference having banners with pictures and names that honor players instead of full-size statues, but it is. Statues promote what I would call “active commemoration” (because I don’t know think they can actively interpret by themselves) because they force visitors to, almost literally, face the past. A young child walking through Legacy Square would see the large statues and ask questions, such as: Who are they? Why are they there? What are their names/stories? The same child may not even notice the new banners or (be able to) read the names on them.

Similarly, statues offer a great photo opportunity for fans and tourists. I love to visit new ballparks, historic sites, etc. I tend to take a lot of photos and share them with my friends on Facebook or Instagram. I don’t think I’ve taken a photo of a banner. Taking pictures is sometimes a silly act, especially if you strike a pose interacting with them like many of us do. But, snapping photos serves some important purposes. First, it simply highlights the fact that they are noticed. Being noticed is important, it means someone has read the statue and feels that it is “cool” or “significant” enough to remember and possible share. Sharing is where pictures become more significant, I think. When I take a picture and share it with my friends, I am extending the commemoration of the players. If they write captions for the photos (I’m notorious for my long, witty captions on Facebook), then they’re also helping to interpret and prompt others to learn a bit more. This could also potentially start conversations about the players and the Negro Leagues.

Legacy Park without the statues.

Legacy Square without the statues.

Taking pictures, asking questions, and having these conversations — both on site, at home, or on social media — is an important part of remembering and honoring these players. It is an important part of coming to grips with our racist past, too. 

Active commemoration entices us to take notice and engage. As I explained above statues are great at this. Passive commemoration, such as the new banners, let s visitors off easy. Sure, the team is still honoring the players. Fans can still read the names and think about their careers and impact on the game, but it’s not something that their confronted with. You have to go looking for it. Sadly, this passivity is how many Americans treat issues of race. It’s something that they’ve learned about — slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights — that is now history. On a few occasions we celebrate major figures or milestones, but largely that history is absent from our daily lives unless we look for it. Few baseball fans are going to look for it. And if they do find it, because of the changes in Pittsburgh, the imposing size and humanness of it will be absent.