I’m a historian of modern American culture interested in ways that sports affect identity, and influence political and social structures. My research explores how sport creates opportunities and interacts with the political and social environment of athletes, coaches, and teams.
My approach to research is simple: I use familiar character to tell unfamiliar stories. The familiar faces of popular culture and sports heroes frame my inquiries into complex issues — such as race, gender, politics, and identity — allowing me to tell unfamiliar stories. Iconic figures are central to my method because they serve as a gateway, luring readers (and students) to deeper understandings of the past. I’m particularly drawn to the history of sports because it permeates so many categories of analysis, offering the opportunity to craft rich and dynamic narratives about American life.
I have written a number of Op-Eds, blog posts, articles and chapters on these themes. Currently I am at work on three book projects.
Sunbelt Sports: Sports and Regional Identity in Postwar America
The first book project is an essay collection about sport and regional identity within the American Sunbelt. During the last several decades, historians of politics, economic, and religions have shed new light on the region, highlighting its significance in modern American. In 1984, Richard M. Bernard edited a collection of essays on Sunbelt Cities, while in 1991 historian Bruce Schulman charted the federal government’s role in reorienting the economy of the region in his important work, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt. Since then historians like Darren Dochuk, Kevin Kruse, Matthew Lassiter, Michelle Nickerson, and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, among others, have devoted significant attention to the region in contrast to the Deep South and Rust Belt, pinpointing how themes such as race, religion, migration, and economic and political development changed America and shaped modern American culture. Combined, they have contributed a new understanding of the rise of the modern conservative movement in the U.S., the significant role evangelical Christianity plays, and the reorientation of the country’s economy from the Rust Belt. Missing in all of these works, however, is the presence of sport. Sport contributed to as well as experienced many of the changes that these scholars note. Tentatively entitled Sunbelt Sports: Sports and Regional Identity in Postwar America, the book builds on this work to ensure that sport is a part of the larger historiographical conversation. Indeed, it argues that, in the Sunbelt, sports emerged as central components of regional identity and often connected to the political and economic goals of local, civic, and state leaders, who proposed using college and professional teams and sporting events alongside other forms of publicity and boosterism. Similarly, sports allowed some places to create new pride and leave behind negative depictions of the South.
The Sporting Middle Ground: Native American Access and Agency in Twentieth Century America
My next book manuscript embodies my research philosophy and extends work I began as a master’s student. The book explores the lives of iconic Native American athletes, Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills. As sports heroes, many people have heard about their athletic careers, but little about their lives as Native Americans. This study focuses on the power of sports to create a middle ground where Native American athletes were able to coexist, cooperate, and assert their identity in broader American society. Although this middle ground did not create equality, it provided increased agency to successful athletes and access to a world not available to others. Within this sporting middle ground, I analyze how Thorpe, Mills, and other Native American athletes used sport to navigate the political, social, and cultural structures that framed their lives and challenged expectations of Indianness through their activism in Native American causes. The book answers the once common question, “why are there not more native Americans in sport?” by explaining how how federal Indian policy impacted the agency and access of Native Americans to broader society. Stretching from the late-19th century to the present, the book combines sport history and political history to frame the complicated experience of Native Americans athletes as they navigated competing visions and stereotypes of what constituted their authentic identify and the best interests of American society.
From Steinbeck to Haggard: How College Football Redefined “Okies” and Transformed Oklahoma
My third book project examines notions of identity and ways that sport provides new opportunities. Rather than focusing on individuals, like I do in the second book project, it focuses on collective identity by exploring conceptions of image, civic boosterism, and state pride. Under Coach Bud Wilkinson, the University of Oklahoma football team captured 3 national championships and 14 conference titles, while compiling winning streaks of 31 and 47 games, during the 1950s. The latter winning streak remains a major college football record. This unprecedented success displaced painful memories and pejorative stereotypes of John Steinbeck’s “Okies” from the Great Depression, enabling Oklahoma to attract new industry and brand itself as a state of loyal, Cold Warriors that are ultimately celebrated in Merle Haggard’s classic song “An Okie From Muskogee.” In the manuscript, I argue that the success of the University of Oklahoma football team helped create a new era in Oklahoma history. I position Oklahoma and the team’s dramatic rise parallel to the ascent of the Sunbelt, as both were aided by a favorable political climate and strong leaders in the 1950s. The Sooners’ football dynasty also highlights conversations about masculinity, loyalty, civil defense, racial integration, and higher education during the Cold War, allowing me to use sports to explore a complex historical moment. The project is less about college football itself and more about its impact and ability transform a state. It is a both a cultural and political history of Oklahoma and of college football during the immediate postwar era.
I have blogged ideas and short pieces from this project at Sport in American History and on my personal blog. You can read them here:
- “OU Football and the ‘new Oklahoma.'”
- “Big Blue and Big Red: Sports, Collective Identity, and the Invention of Tradition.”
- “Vernon Louis Parrington and the Beginning of Oklahoma Football.”
- “Race & Protest: The Cultural Significance of Football at Oklahoma.”
- “Becoming a Sooner: Prentice Gautt and the Integration of Oklahoma Football.”
- “Sanity, Subsidy, and Ransom: The Touchdown Club of Oklahoma and the Birth of NCAA Probation”
- “The Bud Wilkinson Show: Television, the NCAA, and the Cold War.”
- “Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (part 1).”
- “Beyond Football: The Political Career of Bud Wilkinson (Part 2).”