Sport in American History: An Experiment in Digital Public Sport History

Just over one year ago, in a smoky bar after one too many beers, I caved. For the better part of two years, my friend and colleague Trevor Burrows had been encouraging me to start a group blog on sports. He’d become a contributor to Religion in American History and a frequent reader of U.S. Intellectual History, and thought that a blog on sport history would appeal to the general public and stimulate the field. He reminded me of my training in public history and interest in digital humanities. It would be the perfect marriage of all three of my scholarly interests. I knew he was right, but had long hesitated about being the founder. I had a laundry list of excuses. It would be a lot of work, I told myself. I didn’t know that many other scholars in the field. I had no idea where to begin.

Despite my concerns, upon safely arriving home I went to work drafting an announcement for a new blog on sport in American history. A day later I posted it to my personal blog and shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Within a week, nearly a half-dozen people had contacted me, agreeing to join the new project. Armed with contributors, I began exploring blogging platforms, layouts, and reading everything I could about how to run a group blog. Three and half weeks later, we published our first post.

Sport in American History, May 1, 2014.

Sport in American History, May 1, 2014.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the launch of this blog. It has been an exciting and eventful year that’s seen the site rapidly expand and exceed all of my expectations. Over the past year, we’ve published 88 posts by 28 regular and guest contributors. Those posts have attracted over 23,000 views, establishing this blog as a destination for sport history, and sport studies more broadly. Last June the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) linked to us, effectively introducing us to the field. Likewise, almost immediately, publishers took notice of our work and potential to reach broad audiences. The blog now has agreements to review books for the University Presses at Temple, Syracuse, Nebraska, and Illinois as well as McFarland and Co. Clearly my risk has paid off.

I want to thank everyone for helping to make this endeavor a tremendous success, particularly my co-editors Andrew D. Linden and Lindsay Parks Pieper. We have a rich community of contributors and readers that represent a true multidisciplinary approach to scholarship. Our contributors work in a variety of departments, ranging from history, kinesiology, and sport management to American and gender studies, communications, and religion. We also feature writers who are practicing public historians and archivists. The blog sits at the intersection of so many disciplines and vocations, highlighting that neither the study of sport nor the study of history belong to any one single academic department. Over the past year, it is the vastness of the field that has been the most striking realization and rewarding discovery.

There has been a lot of chatter about the state of sport history over the past year, even on this blog. The field is incredibly diverse, representing scholars from traditional disciplines such as economics, kinesiology, history, philosophy, religion, and sociology to those in interdisciplinary “studies” programs like American, communications, cultural, ethnic, and gender studies. It is undoubtedly hard to bring all of these literatures and perspectives together. Consensus and agreement are nearly impossible. As a result, much of that chatter seems to center on confusion and miscommunication between practitioners from various disciplines. There is at least one panel planning to address some of these issues at the upcoming NASSH convention. Sports remain contested terrain, even among scholars.

Prior to the launch of this blog, I was among the confused. To be sure, I’d read the Journal of Sport History and been advised by two active and well-published historians of sport, but I had hardly ventured outside of my disciplinary bubble. I didn’t know the scope of the field and all of its moving parts. I had no idea where the land mines were buried, or why they existed. I still don’t know everything, but I’ve grown to appreciate the complexity the field. Maybe I’m still a bit naive, but I hope that, in its own way, this blog, serves a disciplinary middle ground that bridges some of these differences. It has for me. The contributors, and my conversations with them, have highlighted the true breadth and depth of the field. This blog has offered me, and I hope all of our readers, an opportunity to read a cross-section of approaches, methodologies, and perspectives on sport history and the larger field of sport studies. While it would be a stretch to the call the blog a unifier, especially because it privileges historical approaches to the study of sport, I hope that it’s a living and breathing reminder of the field’s diversity and provides a space for sport history to flourish.

The purpose of this blog, and this post, is to celebrate, not assess, the field. The early successes of this blog, I hope, are indicative of the possibilities of digital history and scholarship. Indeed, much of this blog still reflects my initial desire to blend public history, sport history, and digital humanities. In the remainder of this post I want to explore these connections and highlight ways in which they have allowed Sport in American History to bridge multiple fields.

Digital humanities and digital history are somewhat elusive terms. They include a plethora of scholarly products and methodologies, whose only unifying characteristic is their digital nature. Recently the American Historical Association (AHA) created a Committee on Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History. The goal of this committee is to create guidelines for departments to follow during the process of hiring, tenure, and promotion. Historians are behind on this trend. The Modern Language Association (MLA) created their own guidelines in May 2000, and they’ve since been revised several time. Likewise, the National Council on Public History(NCPH) published its own report on “the publicly engaged academic historian” in 2010. These guidelines and reports are indicative of the disagreement among disciplines about digital scholarship and the need to continually evaluate how it impacts our field(s). The end result, will hopefully be the broadening of what we view as scholarship and increased cooperation among disciplines as we navigate new possibilities.

Blogging remains in a murky area. Just prior to the launch of this blog, at last year’s meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), a number of scholars wrestled with the question: “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Answers to that question vary based on the individual and the blog, and depend on things like the editorial structure, content, and scope. Hopefully the AHA helps bring resolution to these debates, but regardless what they decide, blogging remains a valuable endeavor and is here to stay.

Blogging offers so much more than traditional forms of scholarly publication. First and foremost, it provides rapid reaction and commentary. It’s an area for scholars to add context and explore major events, new trends and ideas, share their thoughts on books and films, etc. relatively quickly without being mired in editorial review. Writing on blogs also offers space for more informal discussion of issues we’re wrestling with in our classrooms and research projects. This, in turn, allows for large-scale distribution and consumption that opens up dialogue that shapes and informs who we are as scholars.

For me, blogging is also an important form of public engagement. This engagement has various meanings, depending on how you define your publics. In the field of sport history, and sport studies more broadly, public engagement can include both interacting with scholars across seemingly disparate fields, or more simply reaching out to non-academic readers. Blogs have the opportunity to serve as scholarly meeting grounds that extend the collegiality of annual conferences, fortify and build new relationships as well as provide opportunities for continued educational enrichment. Some of the best blogs, such as the famous U.S. Intellectual History blog, invite you into conversations and share a whole different side of history that you didn’t know you were interested in. Over the past year, I hope that this blog has done that as well.

The promise of digital scholarship requires strategic thinking, however. On this site, Josh Howard and Stephen Townsend have written about the promise and peril of digital research and presentation, and the myriad of issues that accompany it. Doing digital public history is a complex endeavor. Because of this, following the “digital turn” is scary for many of us. Perhaps, most of this fear is tied to the unknown as we navigate new technologies and confusing copyright and fair use policies. To ease these fears and push us toward to new avenues of discovery, Australian sport historians Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips provide an important collection of essays on Sport History in the Digital Era that covers topics from archives and pedagogy, to social media and virtual memory. While this blog is far from cutting edge in digital innovation, we see ourselves as a part of this push. We want to continue engaging with our peers as well as the broader public, and exploring new opportunities to extend our scholarship beyond traditional sources, formats, and voices.

As we move into our second year, Sport in American History promises to be a place that collects and shares voices from across sport history. Several regular and guest contributors will be joining us this summer and fall, expanding our coverage of topics and helping us review important new books. We want to continue to interrogate and move beyond the common mythologies of sport and wrestle with questions about public engagement and digital history.

Earlier this week, public historian and NPS Park Guide, Nick Sacco noted on Twitter that “public historians can learn a lot from sports history.” Sport history can also learn a lot of public historians. Our field highlights the contested nature of history, and the deep emotional ties to those legacies, more than others. Our attempts at correcting sports myths often threaten to displace the most precious memories of our readers and shatter their understanding of the American way of life. Being conscientious of this is essential and one area where public history scholarship offers instruction.

Public history, more than other types of history, deals with this pushback on a day-to-day basis. It reminds us that we must be careful to not immediately alienate our audiences as we reconsider long-held narratives. In engaging with the public, like in teaching, we don’t want to walk into class and flip our students’ worlds upside down. We have to find a measured approach. Within the field of public history, there is an important literature on shared authority, dealing with controversy, and historical memory. This literature offers ways to turn history into a dialogue where scholars, and students, readers, or visitors challenge sports myths together rather than by draconian top down means. In the coming year, we will revisit these themes, particularly as they relate to digital scholarship.

While much of this post has focused on advancing digital history, blogging, and public engagement within the field of sport history, I am not advocating that everyone leave behind their scholarly bite and theoretical frameworks in favor of accessibility. I’m also not suggesting that we all leave behind traditional publications in journal articles or books. These remain important and part-and-parcel to the current structure of American higher education. Instead, I’m hoping to highlight how this blog and the field of sport history interacts with and reflects emerging trends. While I believe multidisciplinary cooperation, public engagement, and digital scholarship are becoming increasingly important, I recognize that they are far from the norm.

As we embark on our second year, I want to thank you all again for being excellent community members and contributors to important conversations about sport and history. I hope that you will continue to share our work and I invite you join the conversation beyond Twitter and Facebook by commenting directly on the blog or contributing your own thoughts in a guest post. I want this blog to be a community with shared ownership, where we’re all comfortable to disagree, debate, and push each other to look at things in new ways. Cheers to another great year of blogging!

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. His dissertation explores the impact of Bud Wilkinson and college football on the image of Oklahoma. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

5 thoughts on “Sport in American History: An Experiment in Digital Public Sport History

  1. Pingback: Towards a Public Sport History | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: Towards a Public Sport History « Sport Heritage Review

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

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