Research in the Rockies: The Forty-Second Annual North American Society for Sport History Convention

It is a thriving moment for sport history. While the Journal of American History recently published a forum titled “State of the Field: Sports History and the Cultural Turn,” sport historians met in picturesque Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to hold the annual convention of the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH). First held at Ohio State University in 1973, NASSH has provided space for scholars from around the world to present their work on the history of sport in North American, international, and transnational contexts for forty-two years.

Several contributors to the Sport in American History blog were on hand to document the weekend’s events. With over forty sessions, it is not possible to provide a comprehensive account of the conference; therefore, in what follows, we offer summaries and make connections between several of the presentations. Topics that emerged throughout the three-day conference include: business history; digital history and methodology; doping; gender; memory and activism; and race and ethnicity.

Sport and Business

Historians are interested in the economics of sport and physical culture to help explain the role of sport in the larger society. For example, Eastern Connecticut State University Professor Ari de Wilde considered the Preakness Race’s business history a good area to analyze sport entrepreneurship and assess what big-time sporting events meant to community in “Charm City.” Although the race struggled financially into the twentieth century, said de Wilde, it took off in the 1920s. The race, like many other American institutions, declined throughout the depression and war years; however, the track regained financial success, especially in the 1980s when longtime Washington, D.C., lawyer Frank DeFrancis modernized the track. de Wilde considers the Pimlico track and the Preakness Race reflections of Baltimore’s economic history: similar to other prospects in the city, the race experienced both decline and renaissance throughout the twentieth century.

Also interested in the significance of business history and sport, former Ohio State University historian Melvin L. Adelman presented an aspect of his larger book project, which explores the economics of professional American football at mid-century, and offered an analysis of how the Baltimore Colts–who had struggled both on the field and at the gate in the fledgling All-America Football Conference–earned a spot in the National Football League. Adelman’s analysis contrasts the narrative of Baltimoreans valiantly fighting to save the team.

Digital History and Methodology

Scarcity of and access to sources are no longer an issue for sport historians, said University of Queensland sport historian Murray G. Phillips. But how do we deal with this new phenomenon? A lively session entitled, “Sport and the History-Making Process in the Digital Age,” featuring Victoria Professor Matthew Klugman, Phillips (co-authored with Gary Osmand), and Queensland Ph.D. student Stephen Townsend attempted to answer this dilemma.

For example, in “Cranks, Fans and Barrackers Through a Digital Lens–Using Digitized Sources to Trace the Emergence of Modern Spectator Sport Cultures,” Klugman contended that historians can utilize digital archives to better understand the “passions” and cultures of football (soccer) fans. As “mania” is rarely associated with sports besides football, Klugman explained how he interrogated the “infection of the manly game” with sources available online.

Through his work on surfing, Phillips demonstrated how sport scholars can adopt the methodology of Franco Moretti and perform “distant reading” in sport history. Accordingly, distant reading illustrates larger historical trends by interrogating the aggregate results of digital archives. Utilizing the Australian archive Trove, which has over thirty million available sources, Phillips showcased the highs and lows of the numbers of articles that referenced women’s surfing. While significant, he also pointed out that distant reading is not a free-standing methodology and should be used in conjunction with the traditional close reading that historians have employed for years.

Following Phillips’ explanation, Townsend offered a specific example of distant reading, showing how the method can help historians learn the complexities of Muhammad Ali’s media representation. Employing distant reading via ProQuest’s vast newspaper archive, Townsend demonstrated how and when the media transitioned from calling the boxer Cassius Clay to Ali. He suggested historians can use distant reading to locate situations for research questions.

With the growth of digital humanities both in the larger field and in scholarly practice, these presentations offered much for sport historians to consider. Importantly, as University of Iowa Professor Travis Vogan noted in his commentary on the session, the three presentations also highlighted the value of librarians in the current environment. Librarians and digital archivists navigate and organize the ever-expanding digital sources.

In line with the topic of digital history, additional presentations focused on the methodologies of traditional archives, research, and teaching. George Mason University Professor Chris Elzey showed the audience the depth of archival materials available in Washington, D.C., in his presentation “Researching Sport History in the Nation’s Capital.” He detailed a vast array of materials that sport historians can utilize in the area, from the Library of Congress to the University of Maryland Archives. Pennsylvania State University graduate student Justine Kaempfer turned to research and outlined both the myths perpetuated and the untold stories at the Penn State All Sports Museum. She explained that three stories in particular–the origin of the “We Are” chant, the controversy over former basketball coach Rene Portland, and the recent firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno–are remembered in fragmentary ways. Finally, to enhance the teaching of sport history, University of Texas Ph.D. student Dominic Morais demonstrated how using material culture in the classroom can help students better understand the relationships between physical culture and society.

Finally, while many historians try to make sense of history through interviews, letters, meeting minutes, and newspapers, NASSH scholars demonstrated how sport literature can also help us better understand the past. In an informative session, “From Proust to Pulp to Pomerania: Sport, History, and Literature,” three scholars argued for the inclusion of fiction. Skidmore College Professor and NASSH President Daniel A. Nathan, assessed sport history in Troy Soos’s Hanging Curve. He showed how the book is a vibrant form of public history. For example, the work provides a powerful look into the July 2, 1917, East St. Louis race riot. Also embracing sport literature, Western University sport historian Don Morrow analyzed Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season. Arguing that literature can explain culture, he explored Canadian hockey and suggested the work details the intricacies of human nature. Rounding out the panel, Amherst Professor Allen Guttmann looked for sport in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Time. He highlighted how sports as metaphor appeared throughout its 3000+ pages.

History of Doping

Although the recent transgressions of U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong  illuminated both the prevalence of performance enhancement tactics and the complexities of doping controls, similar concerns have long plagued sporting competitions. In “Myth and Power: Historical Antecedents to the World Anti-Doping Code’s ‘Spirit of Sport’ Clause,” Brock University Professor Ian Ritchie utilized oral histories to interrogate the creation of the “spirit of sport” doctrine–the abstract concept that encompasses the celebration of human spirit, body and mind–which underlined the IOC’s and WADA’s anti-doping policies. According to Ritchie, the “spirit of sport” stemmed from the 1983 Caracas Scandal and Ben Johnson’s 1988 positive test, which sparked the 1993 “spirit of sport” campaign. As University of Texas Professor Thomas Hunt noted, Ritchie’s work was not only well-crafted but is extremely important in the historiography of doping.

John Gleaves, of California State University, Fullerton, similarly explored the ideological trajectory of enhancement in “Manufactured Dope: How the 1984 U.S. Cycling Team Rewrote the Rules on Drugs in Sports.” Gleaves explained that the Los Angeles Olympic cycling competition served as a catalyst in the transformation of transfusions from blood-enhancement to blood-doping. Initially, the IOC adopted a “condemn but not ban” approach to transfusions, due to the lack of technological oversight. However, the rise of the AIDS epidemic helped cast the act as doping and thereby expanded the IOC’s definitions. Finally, April D. Henning from the City University of New York examined 92 running manuals and discovered the authors’ ambivalence about the use of performance enhancing substances. According to Henning, most deployed the “good athlete versus bad athlete” paradigm.

The Intersections of Sport and Gender

Perhaps more than any other cultural structure, sport shapes social conceptions of masculinity and femininity; not surprisingly, then, several NASSH scholars explored the intersections of gender and competition. Richard Ian Kimball from Brigham Young University presented “‘Manly Sports Make Manly Boys’: Sports and Deaf Masculinity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” He explained that 19th century schools for the deaf encouraged participation in American football–even forming a semi-professional team in 1883–to help pupils affirm their masculinity. Notably, Gallaudet University envisioned the sport as the ideal mechanism to develop teamwork, discipline and manhood.

Also assessing the role American football plays in the evolution of norms, Rita Liberti of California State University, East Bay, and Maria J. Veri of San Francisco State University, analyzed tailgate cookbooks. In “‘Fan Fare’: 1970s Era Tailgate Cookbook Constructions of Gender and Ethnicity,” the two authors argued that such food-oriented books provided a space for cultural and culinary interactions; however, the works also created ethnic “others” and reaffirmed stereotypes.

Addressing physical culture, Maureen Margaret Smith, of California State University, Sacramento, explored the significance of Pat Summit’s two statutes in “Reaching the ‘Summit’: The Scarcity of America’s Sportswomen as Statues.” She noted that statues demonstrate who and what should be remembered. With only four percent of all statues and monuments dedicated to women, the raising of such markers redefines public space as male.

Furthermore, contrasting the current NCAA structure (and problems) to that of the AIAW, University of Iowa graduate student Diane Williams recast the AIAW’s impact in “Narrating Legacy: Exploring Histories of the AIAW.” According to Williams, “the AIAW’s story, and how we tell it, matters.”


Finally, Pennsylvania State University Ph.D. student Adam Berg looked at the narratives of Joe Namath. Berg concluded that while popular narratives of Namath as a counterculture gender persona are prevalent, themes of his conservatism emerged.

Memory and Activism

Scholars also considered the ways in which memory intersects with activism. Jaime Schultz, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University, discussed female distance runners active from 1959-1972. In interviews with six former runners, Schultz explored how the “physical is political.” Although many of the runners did not explicitly identify as feminist, they did work to show how women could use their bodies in public during the 1960s and 1970s.

Likewise, California State Polytechnic University Professor Laura Chase looked at the the connections between Avon and the women’s marathon. She documented the narratives of female runners who competed in races, such as the Avon Women’s International Marathon, prior to the IOC’s sanctioning of the marathon in 1984. Shelley Lucas of Boise State University, explored the history of women’s cycling. She argued that no linear-progressive timeline exists in women’s cycling, even though 2014 represents the thirtieth anniversary of women being allowed to compete in cycling in the Summer Olympics.

Also considering memory was University of Colorado-Denver sport scholar Sarah K. Fields. She looked at the history of the racial rhetoric of Title IX since its passage in 1972. As the discussions surrounding legislation occurred in an environment of Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation, congresswomen had to choose between gender or racial equity when voting. Fields argued that ever since, a false dichotomy of race or gender has plagued the forty-year-legacy of Title IX.

Race and Ethnicity in Sport

While many papers employed social identity as a lens, several scholars also explicitly examined the role of race/ethnicity in sport. For example, North Central College Professor Gerald Gems illustrated the discord between the University of Notre Dame and the KKK. In “Clash with Modernity: Notre Dame vs. the Ku Klux Klan,” he noted that the Fighting Irish football team gained popularity concurrent to the KKK’s rise to prominence in the wake of the film, The Birth of a Nation. In Indiana, the KKK envisioned itself as the representative of masculinity and religion, which caused conflicts with the Catholic-based University. Yet, the success of the Fighting Irish in the 1920s helped minimize the impact of the KKK.

Also concerned with racial constructions, Iowa Ph.D. student Dain TePoel offered an analysis of sportswriter Mary Garber. Garber, who was one of the first white journalists to cover black sports in her region, considered sport as a place of social change. According to TePoel, studying individuals like Garber allows for the inclusion of “invisible revolutionaries” in Civil Rights historiography.

Finally, Winthrop University Professor Andy Doyle, with independent scholar C.J. Shexnayder, utilized a 1969 football game as a case study. In “‘This Time it Really Counts’: The 1969 High School All-Star-Football Game and Athletic Desegregation in Alabama,” the authors examined how desegregation impacted the bonds between sport and community in the wake of the first interracial state all-star contest.

Keynote Lectures and Awards

To recognize excellence in the field, NASSH invites prominent scholars to speak at three keynote addresses. This year, the Maxwell L. Howell and Reet Howell International Address was given by University of Alberta Professor M. Ann Hall. In “Muscles on Wheels: Gender, Class, and the High Wheel Racers in Nineteenth Century America,” she explored the career of Louise Armaindo and centrally positioned gender in the narrative of cycling.

American cultural critic and Washington University, St. Louis, Professor Gerald Early spoke during the Seward C. Staley Address. Early focused on the court martial of Jackie Robinson, interrogating the various interpretations of the star’s arrest on a bus at Camp Hood Texas. He showed how this incident helped facilitate the beginning of the 1960s mainstream Civil Rights Movement.

In the third keynote, Ph.D. student Nathan Titman of the University of Iowa gave his paper, “Artist def. Machine: Bill Tilden’s Unruly Masculinity in 1920s Tennis,” as the annual Graduate Student Essay Address. A committee of seasoned sport historians selected Titman’s paper from among various graduate student essays. His presentation looked at the expressions of sexuality by the early-twentieth century tennis star.

NASSH also recognizes the best sport history monograph and anthology written in the past year. Gwyneth Anne Thayer’s Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture, published by the University Press of Kansas won the prize for best book. Unable to determine a singular winner for best anthology, the committee selected two titles. The first was Aboriginal Peoples and Sport in Canada: Historical Foundations and Contemporary Issues edited by Janice Forsyth and Audrey R. Giles and published by the University of British Columbia Press. The second winner was Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity edited by Daniel A. Nathan and published by the University of Illinois Press.

Finally, NASSH also annually recognizes those who came before the current lineup of sport historians and those that continue to provide service to the organization and the field.This year, NASSH awarded Bob Barnett its “NASSH Recognition Award”. After receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Ohio State University, Barnett spend over three decades as a coach, administrator, and faculty member at Marshall University. In addition, NASSH awarded Jodella K. Dyreson its “NASSH Service Award” honor for her role as the technical editor for the Journal of Sport History. Along with holding this position for over a decade, Dyreson also contributes to the field of sport history, publishing and presenting on the history of sport in Texas.

As we posited at the beginning of this post, sport history has become a vibrant academic field. The 2014 NASSH conference showed the growing status of the discipline and highlighted the important research being conducted. If we missed your presentation or one you attended, please share your experiences in the comments section.

For those interested in next year’s conference, in 2015–in the words of basketball star LeBron James–we will be “taking our talents to South Beach.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. She maintains her own website at

4 thoughts on “Research in the Rockies: The Forty-Second Annual North American Society for Sport History Convention

  1. Thanks for this great overview and analysis Andy and Lindsay! I followed along to the live-tweets as best I could, but it’s also great to see it boiled down here and interpreted a bit more. It’s so much fun to see what everyone else is up to.


  2. Pingback: Sport History at “The U”: The Forty-Third Annual North American Society for Sport History Convention | Sport in American History

  3. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Two Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

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