Sport History at “The U”: The Forty-Third Annual North American Society for Sport History Convention

By Lindsay Parks Pieper and Andrew D. Linden

What is the purpose of sport history? What role do sport historians play in the academy, the community, and the larger culture? What questions as an organization should the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) attempt to answer?

Last weekend, in sunny (and hot) Miami, Florida, sport historians gathered at the University of Miami to address these important issues. Don Spivey and the Department of History invited scholars from around the globe to present research, listen to honorary lectures, and discuss the state of the field. With over 130 papers, forty-two sessions, one keynote address, and one graduate student essay, NASSH again proved to be a vibrant, interdisciplinary community, while the convention demonstrated the complex and significant nature of sport history.

Lake Osceola near the conference venue at the University of Miami. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Lake Osceola near the conference venue at the University of Miami. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

As we did last year, in this post, we review some of the scholarship presented, addresses given, and awards honored. 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 convention include: celebrity and/or infamy; film, power, and historical “truth”; historical questions and methodological approaches; the Olympics and international politics; physical culture and physical education; race and ethnicity in sport; sport in the 1970s; sport and aboriginal identities; and the state of the field.

Due to concurrent sessions, we inevitably missed important presentations and thought-provoking conversations. As such, we encourage other conference attendees to provide more insights and summaries in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

Celebrity and/or Infamy

Athletes and notable sport figures are often renowned or ill-reputed, and numerous scholars explored such cultural representations. Marshall University Professor Colleen English, for example, chronicled the history of women in roller derby. Roller derby women, she contended, served as pioneers because they participated in “one of the few equally gender balanced sports, and one that involved intense physicality.” These female participants considered themselves top-flight athletes; however, due to the commercialized nature of the sport, they “were mostly recognized for their entertainment value.” Other athletes carved out historical space as pure entertainers. According to Richard Kimball of Brigham Young University, Steve Brodie found fame for his daring feats in the late nineteenth century. Brodie became a folk hero for his jump from the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s.

Finally, Ronald A. Smith of the Pennsylvania State University highlighted the infamous in sport. In a talk about former PSU Basketball Coach Rene Portland, he argued that the university maintained a decades-long “culture of athletic silence.” Portland openly discriminated against women she believed were lesbians, a practice she commenced in the mid-1980s. Even after numerous players filed complaints about her discriminatory practices, Portland remained head coach of the team, as well as a friend of football coach Joe Paterno. Smith used Portland’s story to suggest that Penn State had a history of silencing practices, including its recent role in the Jerry Sandusky case.

Film, Power, and Historical “Truth”

Historical moments in sport oftentimes serve as good fodder for film. In “Engaging with the Silver Screen: Sport Historians Reflect on Filmmaking as Dissemination,” Professors Carly Adams of the University of Lethbridge, Chuck Korr of the University of Missouri, and Tara Magdalinski of the University College Dublin reflected upon their personal experiences engaging with the production of history for visual mediums. Adams discussed her involvement as an academic “expert” in the creation of the documentary Labatt Park. Although the producers approached her to detail the role of women at Labatt Park, and interviewed her for over two hours, only two minutes of the footage appeared on screen, none of which mentioned women. Adams reflected upon the challenges of engaging with public history and the possibility that historians could unintentionally reaffirm existing gender structures.


The “Gentleman Amateur” from Tara Magdalinksi’s (@DrTaraM) “The Sanctity of Sport.”

Korr discussed his part in the production of More Than Just a Game, a docu-drama based on his 2010 book of the same title. He described the line historians must walk between maintaining historical accuracy and promoting fictionalized drama. Magdalinski similarly identified issues of power in her talk. She worked with her institution and the Dun Loaghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT) to create The Sanctity of Sport, a digital short that explores the complexities of natural and unnatural performance enhancement. While Magdalinski’s research was the focus of the video, UCD and IADT personnel strongly suggested adjustments in order to promote a specific, “ethical” narrative.

Malcolm MacLean of the University of Gloucestershire offered commentary on the presentations and noted that the themes of power, “truth,” and expertise surfaced in Adams’, Korr’s, and Magdalinski’s experiences. All three illustrated the difficulties historians face when engaging in visual, public history.

Historical Questions and Methodological Approaches

Stephen Townsend presenting on Muhammad Ali. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Stephen Townsend presenting on Muhammad Ali. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Sport historians also tackled questions pertaining to the production of knowledge and the methodological approaches to studying the sporting past. Gary Osmond of the University of Queensland presented on several digital methodologies available for sport historians. In his paper, he used his experiences in researching the history of same-sex sexuality in Australia to show how scholars can use digitized archives to find many sources previously hard to find. Osmond referred to this as finding “snippets and shadows” related to his topic of study. Likewise, the University of Queensland’s Stephen Townsend demonstrated how sport historians can locate patterns and potential research questions through digital search engines. He argued that different cultural interpretations of the famous boxer Muhammad Ali emerge when analyzing whether the press referred to him as “Cassius Clay” as opposed to “Muhammad Ali.” Also discussing methodology, Douglas Booth of the University of Otago presented material on the history of swimming at Bondi Beach in Australia. He contended that historians should more thoroughly consider origins and narratives while interrogating evidence found for their sport histories.

While many sport historians focus on international, professional, and collegiate sport, Catherine D’Ignazio of Rutgers University-Camden called for scholars to incorporate schoolgirl sport into the national stories. By combining oral histories with school yearbooks, she located several gendered issues unique to high school athletics, yet simultaneously representative of larger gender problems. For example, the schoolgirls she interviewed, now grown women, described inequalities experienced in clothing, facilities, and equipment.

Finally, University of Tennessee Professors Lars Dzikus and Robin Hardin chronicled the history of Tennessee’s nicknames. Starting in 1903, the “Volettes” identified all women’s teams. The demands of the women’s liberation movement seventy years later encouraged Tennessee to change the name to “Lady Vols” in 1976. Yet fearing that “lady” possessed negative connotations, the school shortened the label to “Vols” in 2015 for all sports except women’s basketball, out of respect for legendary coach Pat Summitt. Dzikus and Hardin described some of the gendered issues in maintaining “Lady” in the nickname; however, they suggested the school could re-appropriate the term to infuse new meaning in “Lady Vols.” Does the lady qualifier automatically and inescapably raise negative connotations?

The Olympics and International Politics

While NASSH preempts North American in its title, international sport is undoubtedly an important consideration for sport historians. As such, several scholars discussed the influence of global sport organizations and worldwide mega-events. According to Ithaca College Professor Heather L. Dichter, Cold War politics became a central component of international football in post-World War II Europe. For example, she explained that NATO restricted the travel of athletes from East Germany, which made scheduling games very troublesome for football institutions, especially UEFA and FIFA. Accusations of performance enhancements also plagued sport organizations during the Cold War. Michael Krüger of the Universität Münster, Germany, argued that the historiography of German sports medicine has been reduced to simplistic, reductive narratives about East German systematic doping. However, he noted that German practitioners strove to promote health and prevent disease through physical movement.

The Olympics represent an important area of inquiry for sport historians. Thomas Rorke of the Pennsylvania State University detailed the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee’s (LAOOC) efforts to promote American football at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The LAOOC introduced the sport as an exhibition event to demonstrate football’s appeal, as well as to foster international interest. However, foreign athletes and foreign presses found the activity “bewilderingly complex.” While it was not successful in gaining an international audience, nor Olympic acceptance, the 1932 exhibition game did help the sport grow domestically.

Robert K. Barney presenting on the Canadian national symbol. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Robert K. Barney presenting on the Canadian national symbol. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

If American football epitomizes “Americaness,” the Canadian Maple Leaf demonstrates “Canadianess.” Indeed, in his paper on the Canadian flag and Canadian national identity, Western University Professor Robert K. Barney—a former president of NASSH—highlighted how the emergence of the maple leaf represented the contested terrain of Canadian national identity. Barney’s paper, and the ensuing discussion, conveyed the ways in which various symbols characterized a national image of Canada.

Avery Brundage’s stance on amateurism also serves as a point of contention for historians. Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves of the California State University, Fullerton, offered a revisionist history of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president and argued that while many scholars tout Brundage as a staunch defender of amateurism, he actually upheld inconsistent policies and practices. His oscillating views not only promoted elitism but also resulted in the decline of amateurism.

Correspondingly, Adam Berg of the Pennsylvania State University explored changing class ideals in the Olympic Movement. His presentation examined Denver’s rejection of the 1976 Olympic Games. Although the city initially won the bid, the Denver populous voted to rescind the offer. Berg argued that the Protect our Mountain Environment, the major organization fighting against hosting, intertwined environmental concerns with the desire to maintain a middle-class way of life. According to Berg, the “specific environmentalist ideology expressed . . . was driven by an attempt to solidify a certain class-centered identity.”

Along with issues of class, gender norms frequently shape Olympic participation. Cassandra Wells of the University of British Columbia assessed the resiliency of sex testing despite scientific protests and social critiques. By contrasting the Malcolm Andrew Ferguson-Smith Archives with the papers in the Olympic Studies Centre, she demonstrated how the use of the Barr body test allowed the IOC to embrace the complexity of biological sex while concurrently upholding sex-segregated competition. Camille M. Croteau of the California State University, Fullerton, illustrated the IOC’s continuous concerns regarding the health and safety of women in elite sport. She argued that Olympic officials pathologized female Olympians by suggesting they were a special population in need of protection from gender-specific injuries.

Physical Culture and Physical Education

Adam Copeland presenting on

Adam Copeland presenting on “sex appeal” and Bernarr Macfadden. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

In a session titled “Transforming and Branding Fitness and Health,” presenters discussed the myriad ways that fitness and health intersects with culture. Adam Copeland of the Pennsylvania State University, for example, explained how Bernarr Macfadden’s approach to physical culture influenced the rise of a focus on “sex appeal” in the health and exercise industry. By studying the use of terms such as “physical culture” and “sex appeal” in newspapers and books, Copeland suggested that the increasing emphasis on “appearances” rather than “health” represents one effect of Macfadden’s philosophies. Ben Pollack of the University of Texas, Austin, similarly studied the rise of fitness and exercise in the United States. In his paper, Pollack focused on the life and career of Vic Tanny, health club owner and body builder. He argued that Tanny helped spur the expansion of the commercial gym from 1912-1985. Also from the University of Texas, Austin, Dominic Morais analyzed strength and health magazines from the 1930s and early 1940s. Drawing on the concept of “brand community,” he suggested that that communal aspects of the magazine helped its popularity spread. Finally, University of Vienna’s Rudolph Müllner portrayed physical fitness movements in Central Europe since the 1970s. He showed the ways in which such movements in Austria targeted the whole population, rather than small segments of people.

In “Reconsidering the Demise of the Female Tradition in Physical Education,” Professors Patricia Vertinsky of the University of British Columbia, Alison M. Wrynn of the California State University, Fullerton, and Catriona M. Parratt of the University of Iowa responded to Sheila Fletcher’s 1984 claim that female physical education leaders lost control of the field in the wake of World War II. Vertinsky suggested that accounts like Fletcher’s typically portray female physical education as separatist and conservative, and ignores many aspects of individual identity and theoretical insights. Nevertheless, the 1945-1970s did represent a “tilting ground” for gender battles in physical education, with women losing as men embraced sportification and academicization of the field. Wrynn extended this conversation by exploring the gender origins of physical therapy and athletic training. She argued that in the interwar era, women developed physiotherapy to assist in the war efforts. Women’s physical education consequently evolved into skilled labor, with specific focuses on therapeutic techniques. At the same time, male physical educators created a parallel profession, one which embraced corrective therapy and connected more specifically to sport–athletic training. As a result of the gendering of the fields, women continue to dominate physical therapy and men athletic training.

Finally, Parratt intertwined an analysis of the film Kes with her own physical education experiences in a working class northern England community. In the 1969 film, 15-year-old Billy Casper faces daily physical and verbal abuse for not presenting conventional norms of masculinity. He finds escape and safety in falconry. Similarly, Parratt explained that she found escape and safety in her female physical education courses. For her, the female-only class was a refuge. While the separatism of female physical education has been widely critiqued, Parratt demonstrated the benefits of such a model, demonstrating the need for a more nuanced approach to studying the history of women’s physical education.

Race and Ethnicity in Sport

Damion Thomas presenting on including sport in the NMAAHC. Courtesy of Lindsay Parks Pieper.

Damion Thomas presenting on including sport in the NMAAHC. Courtesy of Lindsay Parks Pieper.

Race and ethnicity influence all aspects of sport. As such, several NASSH presentations discussed their significance in sport spaces, memory, legacy, media coverage, and religion. Damion Thomas from the Smithsonian National Museum described his role as curator in the creation of the sport gallery in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). According to Thomas, the challenge of the NMAAHC is to balance the tensions of sadness and resiliency within the black experience. Derrick E. White of Dartmouth College questioned why scant attention is paid to the experiences of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUS) and black college athletes in sport history. He suggested three reasons for the void. First, not all HBCUs believed athletic records were worthy of preservation, making sources difficult to locate. Second, a misunderstanding of black culture led to misrepresentation and confusion. Finally, the continued use of the segregation/integration model did not allow for a nuanced interpretation of black intercollegiate athletic experiences.

Perhaps even more than black male athletes, black female athletes remain underrepresented in the literature. Cat Ariail of the University of Miami–one of the conference organizers–discussed Wilma Rudolph as an “Olympian Quintessence.” She argued that Rudolph presented an idealized version of the United States’ race and gendered relations, which provided an unattainable ideal for later black female athletes. Through this image, shaped and controlled by the state-sport narrative, Rudolph projected “idealized, democratic, feminine nationalism.”

Three presentations on the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” continued the discussion of race and sport by focusing on politics, popular culture, and religion. Gregory Kaliss of Dickinson College, for instance, argued that media representations of boxer Muhammad Ali and American football player Jim Brown focused on attributes, such as their “physical toughness,” but neglected to cover their stances on important political issues, such as the Vietnam War or socio-economic issues in the urban United States. Also, the press followed Brown when he made movies after retiring from football, but the coverage sensationalized his politics, masking his strong stances on racism. Georgia Tech Professor John Matthew Smith also focused on Ali. In his presentation, Smith described the boxer as a global icon. He specifically discussed Ali’s time in Africa and explained that when Ali returned to the United States, he believed himself to be an African born in America, rather than simply an American. Finally, the University of Memphis’s Aram Goudsouzian extended this discussion by presenting on basketball standout Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He emphasized how the famous basketball player intersected his religion with his politics. These presentations, collectively, suggested how athletes involved in the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” had widespread cultural meaning in the United States.

Sport in the 1970s

At this year’s conference, the 1970s emerged as a specific area of inquiry. In a paper on running in the 1970s, Aaron L. Haberman of the University of North Colorado discussed how the sport/physical activity offered aspects of individualism and/or communitarianism for enthusiasts. In many cases, running challenged establishment norms. Advocates for LGBTQA rights, for example, found community by forming running groups. Pennsylvania State University Professor Jaime Schultz likewise discussed an endurance event that occurred during the 1970s. In her presentation, she argued that participants in the torch relay to the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, showed how female runners implicitly made political statements. As she said, if the personal is political, then “the physical is also political.”

Where endurance running became one of the more popular activities for Americans in the 1970s, gymnastics became one of the more popular televised sports. In her presentation, Lynchburg College Professor Lindsay Parks Pieper argued that the popularity of gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci, and the media focus on their “cuteness,” was a response to the advancements women made in sport during the 1970s. If gymnastics represented backlash against feminism, tennis served as an important avenue for the burgeoning women’s movement. Kristi Tredway of the University of Maryland discussed the role of the “Original 9”–nine female tennis players who banded together in 1970 to pressure the governing bodies of tennis to offer pay equitability–in the advancement of women’s tennis. She employed scholar Patricia Hill Collins’ “Matrix of Domination” to assess the actions of both the original nine tennis players and the three primary tournament organizers. Continuing the conversation of 1970s women’s tennis, Professor Rita Liberti of the California State University, East Bay, used Rosie Casals as a case study to explore tennis’ gendered and class dynamics. Casals, a member of the Original 9, wore two outfits that violated Wimbledon’s dress code of “predominantly” white adornments. Liberti argued that Casals’ attire, and public reaction to it, highlighted the debates surrounding the questions of gender equality, women’s rights, and female independence of the decade.

Scholars also discussed the intersections of race and gender by analyzing 1970s basketball. Adam J. Criblez of Southeast Missouri State University identified the National Basketball Association’s on-court violence as a way to understand late-1970s race relations. He suggested that after fights between black and white players, particularly the one between Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich, the media stigmatized black masculinity as violent. University of Iowa Professor Thomas Oates, on the other hand, identified 1970s “street ball,” as a way to examine black urban politics in the decade, suggesting that the sport illuminated an urban black space in the geography of American cities.

Sport and Aboriginal Identities

In a session titled “Memory and Resistance: Locating Aboriginal Identities in Sport,” four scholars discussed indigenous and native peoples in the Americas. First, Robert S. Kossuth of the University of Lethbridge discussed turn-of-the twentieth century relations between settlers and Aboriginals in Lethbridge, Alberta. He found that studying “contact zones,” such as horse races, provides a way to understand the colonial history of Lethbridge, especially the intersections of class and gender. In the next presentation, Niagara University scholars Brandon M. Long and Jimmy Smith looked at the relationships between higher education and tribes in the United States. Based on numerous interviews, they found that many of the participants desired both students and the public to have a better understand of tribe’s histories, and that they had a focus on leadership, health and wellness in centers of education.

Georgia Tech Professor Mary G. McDonald studied the multiple interpretations of 10,000 meter runner Billy Mills. She believed that understanding the various, and oftentimes competing, texts of the race years later offers a way to critique the politics of memory. Finally, the University of Victoria’s Christine M. O’Bonsawin dissected the criteria for inclusion in the 2010 Indigenous Youth Gathering in Vancouver. She explained that requirements, such as forcing participants to prove their ancestry and providing pictures in “traditional” indigenous regalia, showed how ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada continue.

State of the Field

A theme running throughout the conference was the role of the historian in the larger society and the academy. In line with this inquiry, Maureen M. Smith of Sacramento State, Andrew D. Linden of the Pennsylvania State University, and Sarah K. Fields of the University of Colorado, Denver, responded to Amy Bass’ assessment of the field in the June 2014 edition of the Journal of American History. In “Academic Identities, Historiography, and Methodologies: Responses to the 2014 Journal of American History’s ‘State of the Field: Sports in American History,” the three presenters not only responded to Bass but also to the larger questions facing the field of sport history.

First, Smith–another former NASSH president–identified the multidimensional nature of a sport historian. While acknowledging the many people feel “marginalized” in their respective academic departments, she posited that it is important to continue striving for expansion of the field, particularly in areas such as kinesiology. Furthermore, she also suggested that sport history has gained acceptance into the mainstream, citing various examples of sport historians engaging popular audiences. In general, she argued that the study of sport will continue to be an important area of scholarly inquiry for those who consider themselves sport historians.

Audience at the

Audience at the “State of the Field” session. Courtesy of Tara Magdalinski (@DrTaraM).

Linden assessed over four hundred articles in the Journal of Sport History, from 1974-2014, to identify the changing and consistent epistemologies, theories, and historiographies used by historians. He argued against dichotomies of historical classification that appear in recent historiographical pieces of sport history. An analysis of the Journal of Sport History demonstrates that the binaries between postmodernists/empiricists and realists/relativists are not only false, but restricting.

Similarly suggesting possible solutions for sport history, Fields described her ideal university. If in charge of academia, she would prioritize questions, problems, and issues over academic disciplines. Because sport can be studied in so many different ways, Fields called for a restructuring of institutions to focus on interdisciplinarity, rather than traditional departments and disciplines that tend to create a “silo effect.”

Keynotes and Awards

All conference attendees had the privilege of listening to an honorary address given by SUNY Buffalo Professor Susan Cahn. In the “John R. Betts Address,” she presented “The Paradox of Progress: Thoughts on Gender and Sport in a ‘Postfeminist Era.’” Her address aligned with the recent re-lease of her NASSH award-winning book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport. In this presentation, she argued that while Title IX brought substantial improvements to women’s and girl’s sporting participation, little (if any) gender equality currently exists. Furthermore, coverage of Title IX oftentimes only focuses on how it was a “triumph” for women/girls or how it “hurts” men/boys. According to Cahn, the two tales of Title IX serve as a “barometer for the fate of feminist politics more broadly.” Sport continues to be a political arena, she explained, and many narratives of women’s sport over the past few decades illustrates that motif. For example, narratives of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams suggests that women’s sport remains a structure that prizes white, hereto-femininity. Cahn contended that athletes are engaged in struggles for social justice, including the fight for women’s and girl’s bodily freedom.

Ashley Brown presenting the Graduate Student Essay Award. Courtesy of Malcolm MacLean (@Malcolmmaxx).

Ashley Brown presenting the Graduate Student Essay Award. Courtesy of Malcolm MacLean (@Malcolmmaxx).

Ashley Brown of George Washington University won the graduate student essay with her paper “Swinging for the State Department: American Women Tennis Players and the Politics of Gender in Goodwill Tours, 1941-1959.” In this paper, Brown used female tennis players as case studies to explore the intersections of race, gender, society, and tennis. In the early 1940s, Alice Marble competed in matches against British women for the United Service Organizations. She promoted robustness and vigor for women; however, Marble upheld normative notions of femininity, reflecting conventional gender norms of the post-World War II Era. To dispel the growing international concerns regarding racial unrest in the United States, the State Department next selected Althea Gibson for a Goodwill Tour. Racial strife in the United States had hastened the need for a black racial ambassador. Brown argued that both Gibson’s role in integrating tennis and embodying black respectability qualified her as a goodwill ambassador. In this position, Gibson was discouraged from discussing racial and gendered realties at home; she consequently found her role “painfully lonesome.”

While the presentation of innovative scholarly research remains the focus of each year’s NASSH conference, the organization also honors sport historians in a number of ways. This year, NASSH presented two awards for books in the area of sport history. In the first, Katherine C. Mooney, a professor at Florida State University, won the NASSH Book Award for her monograph Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack, published by Harvard University Press. The second award, for best anthology, went to A Companion to American Sport History, edited by Steven A. Riess and published by Wiley Blackwell.

NASSH also routinely recognizes individuals and organizations vital to the continued vitality of the field. This year, NASSH honored Willis “Bill” Regier of the University of Illinois Press. Since joining the press, Regier, the Director of Acquisitions for the Sport and Society series, helped expand sport history by publishing numerous important and influential works.

With over a hundred papers, two honors addresses, and a number of awards and honors, sport historians made strides in continuing to, as the mission of NASSH explains, “promote, stimulate, and encourage the study, research and writing of the history of sport.” Next year, sport historians will uphold this practice as they travel to “Hot’Lanta” and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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. Check out her website at

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. Candidate 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

3 thoughts on “Sport History at “The U”: The Forty-Third Annual North American Society for Sport History Convention

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