“So What” for Sport (and Media) History?

Two months ago, I was immersed in studying for comprehensive exams. One of my major fields is the scholarship on sport and media. Broadly speaking, I’ve tried to get a sense of the literature both in terms of media institutions and structure as well as cultural representation. I aligned my readings to freshen up on understandings of the field historically, but also to keep pace with changes in media and technologies even within the past decade alone. This is not as easy as it sounds for a late-adopter such as myself.

In early December I blogged here about some initial key thoughts I had stemming from sport studies, sport media, and media studies scholarship. Central for my concerns was trying to make sense of what changes, if any, sport media scholars needed to make for the study and research of sport media production, consumption, and use. To summarize, I questioned what the proliferation of content on multiple platforms means for critiques of sport media representations. I also wondered how the blurring distinctions between spheres of sport, media, commerce, and culture impact or influence approaches to their study. Mostly, and where I still might locate myself in this discussion, I am a bit perplexed in identifying the directions to take in reading sport critically within the “mutating culture of media sport.” 

In relation to television and online content, mainstream sports are ever more crucial to these changes. Almost monthly, nowadays, it seems there is another report of an unfathomable amount of money exchanging hands between sports leagues and media companies for the rights to broadcast events for the next year, years, or decade. There is even more complexity and revenue involved as you follow the money from the media companies to the cable and satellite providers, and from the cable and satellite providers to the subscribers, and from the subscribers to which devices (TV, computers, tablets, smartphones, and apparently pretty soon eyeglasses) they are using. Let alone add a consideration of what the FCC, lobbyists, or legislators are up to. Lobbyists are working quite hard in order to secure these very profitable relationships, while the FCC is proposing to regulate the Internet like a public utility.

Given the importance of the relationship between the political economy of commercialized sport media and sport media representations, I would argue that as sport historians utilize media representations in their research, they should also tend to these larger structures and what have been variously referred to as consumers, audiences, and users (even if, historically, we can only do so imaginatively). So what does sport history have to do with sport media in this regard? Without a doubt Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips edited collection Sport History in the Digital Era will add an important and timely contribution to this conversation.

There is no need to re-invent the wheel here regarding the historical interdependence between sport and media institutions, or the symbiosis of interests and ideologies within the sport-media-commercial-cultural complex. Given the saturation of sponsorship and hypercommercialized professional sport, those with academic training and without should be well aware of these ties without having to belabor the point. More likely, however, is that we all fall somewhere on a continuum regarding the depth and breadth of our awareness (and concern) with the far-reaching and intertwined tentacles of corporate conglomeration, media dynasties, communications technologies, marketing and promotional culture, and professional sport leagues. The point is, whether you are ready to protest and march for “net neutrality” or would rather binge-watch your way through that next season of (fill in the blank) on Netflix (or do both), the more interesting question for sport historians is how seriously we take the claim that sport media have a history. As feminist media studies professor and cultural historian Lynn Spigel argues, the media are central to social relationships in our everyday landscapes, and in particular, commercial media have numerous histories through which they were imagined and used by different groups. We would be wise to take up her call to devise alternative ways to think about and use them.

When we utilize media representations as primary sources, are they shown to help construct an argument, and illuminate an understanding for a larger project or idea? Simultaneously, do we thoroughly demonstrate that the representations themselves are constructed? For decades sports historians have been asking (and demonstrating) how sport media helps to produce history and not merely reflect it. Sport Media as Sport History deserves complexity, nuance, and an exploration of the multiple layers embedded within representation. Sometimes this involves moving beyond that initial awareness we have that sport and media (and commercialization and culture) are interdependent. Indeed, as these spheres have blurred themselves, how does knowing they are interdependent inform our research and writing? How does seeing them as similar entities re-envision the questions we would ask of them?

To the extent that the sport histories we construct are dependent on commercialized media content, and this will vary by project, it is imperative to situate them as Spigel suggests, that is, as contingent, contradictory, and always formed through power struggles among different social groups. As historical thought is formed through contemporary systems of knowledge and structures of feeling, Spigel urges the point should be to understand the past in all its difference and complexity. As we look back on historical media sources, and their representations of sport, we should keep in mind that both were and are formed through struggle and open to positive change.

A recent issue of the Journal of Sport History included a forum on some of these types of questions through a focus on the increasingly popular sports documentary “in/as history.” In the forum’s introduction, Travis Vogan (assistant professor of American Studies and Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa) states “there are unfortunately few scholarly resources available for those who want to probe” the “economic, cultural and ideological factors (that) affect how sport history is packaged, circulated, consumed, and reimagined.” More forums like these are critical for filling in some of the gaps in sport history’s relationship with sport media content, institutions, myths, representations, global and transnational contours, and prosumer developments. Vogan extends a call for greater engagement with scholarship stemming from humanistic and social scientific media studies, so that we do not merely analyze media without acknowledging and considering the vast bodies of literature on that very subject.

One of the ways I suggest we might most judiciously, in Vogan’s words, “create more nuanced, interdisciplinary scholarship” between the fields of sport history, sport studies, and media studies, is to highlight imaginative uses of sport media by different groups. Especially as study after study has shown the dominance of men’s sports in commercialized sport media across most if not all print, electronic, and web formats, how might we too, as scholars, devise new and alternative ways to approach this persistent inequality? In the realm of sport media’s institutional structure, which continues to have a horrible track record of inequitable hiring practices, how might we use the study of sport history to work for positive change?

When we embark on a research project that utilizes an “old” newspaper, trading card, magazine, fanzine, poster, brochure, painting, comic strip, radio or television broadcast, film, short, record, cassette, or more recent YouTube video, fansite, Instagram photo, or Twitterstorm, keep in mind that all media were once used and situated as “new” media. In their various temporalities and social, historical, cultural, economic, political and regional locations, Spigel contends that engagement with newly introduced technologies mediates anxieties surrounding repetitive debates concerning the demise of social life, or conversely, utopian visions for the future.

In a similar vein, we might employ changes in the digital revolution to negotiate anxieties about doing the work of sport history in our research, writing, teaching, service, and public engagement. In the years to come, as we grapple with new tools, questions of disciplinary and media transformation, and the pressures of academe, we should develop an analysis of what is not being said, debated, discussed, or published about new communications technologies in sport. Perhaps a sport media history could re-visit other periods of transformative change in the sport-media nexus to reveal what was not (but should have been) said, debated, discussed, or published, in order to shed light on where we might need to be looking now to not duplicate such omissions.

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. If he successfully defends his comprehensive exams later this week, you will still be able to reach him via email at dain-tepoel@uiowa.edu

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