Towards a Public Sport History

Editor’s note: This is the second of two posts this week exploring the connections and intersections between sport history, sport heritage, and public history. These three fields do not always work together when studying and presenting the sporting past. We hope sharing different perspectives and overviews of the fields will help us forge conversations that discuss our agreements and disagreements in hope of working together to better study and share the past.

By Andrew McGregor

This weekend at the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Baltimore, there is a working group on “Public History and the Potential of Sports History Museums,” led by Josh Howard and Kathy Shinnick. This group has enlisted scholars and public historians to start a conversation about sport history in museums, halls of fame, and other public settings. One of the suggested outcomes of this group is to establish a working definition of “public sport history” and, perhaps, draft some guidelines or best practices for executing it. While the working group’s statements tend to focus on museums and halls of fame — seen as traditional public history sites — public history extends beyond their walls. As a member of this working group, I’ve suggested that this very blog serves as a form of digital public sport history.

While this blog views itself as a form of public scholarship that borders on public history, there are certainly posts here that do not quite fit the public history mold. Indeed, as seen in the posts on this blog, within sports museums and halls of fame, and Greg Ramshaw’s post on Monday, there are tensions between academic sport history, public history, and sport heritage. In this post, I explore what public history is and think through what a public sport history might look like. Though I only offer a brief discussion of several complex topics, I hope that this post serves as a conversation starter that brings together these three, sometimes disparate, fields and shows how they might work together as public sport history.

Sport history in many ways is already more public than other areas of history because of its appeal to broad audiences. Sports are popular. Americans grow up idolizing their favorite players, memorizing their statistics, watching documentaries and feature films about them, and viewing displays honoring them at ballparks and halls of fame. All sport history, however, is not public history. Academic sport history and public sport history differ from popular history. They ground popular narratives and sport heritages, in the critical study of history. To understand this difference, one needs to look no further than academic film reviews of popular films, like Race. These reviews hint at ways that popular history can benefit from a better grounding in sport history and public history to harness the research and interpretive skills of professional historians to alter popular understandings of the past.

The tricky thing about public history and sport history is that they’re both splintered and misunderstood fields, and that splintering is often compounded when they’re bought together. Both are subfields of history but at the same time something entirely else. Public history, for example, has developed its own specialized programs and certifications, including museum studies, historic preservation, cultural resource management, and oral history. Similarly, sport history operates in a variety of contexts and academic departments, such as American Studies, Kinesiology, and Sport Management. If both existed side-by-side in history departments they might communicate better, but they most often don’t. Moreover, many academic historians see both public history and sport history as less important or rigorous (an attitude that our relevance to broad audiences is beginning to change). Add in things like memory and sport heritage, and you have a variety of approaches, disciplinary and linguistic boundaries, and specialized literatures to consider. Juggling disparate fields, definitions, disciplinary boundaries, and then trying to parse them for public consumption is difficult. In short, public history and sport history are often not in conversation, let alone joined by the third variable of sport heritage.

This lack of conversation goes back to the broad and complex nature of sport history and its different audiences and constituencies. As Mark Dyreson explains, sport history and the history of sport, though used interchangeably, reflect different ideas and purposes but often the same methods, sources, and subjects. Historians of sport view their work as flowing “out of the broader intellectual projects of the historical profession,” connecting it to broader historical scholarship beyond sports. While for sport historians, Dyreson notes, “human movement rather than history represents their home turf,” where “students and colleagues are far more interested in the nature of sport and other forms of physical activity in human societies than they are in the particularities of historical experience.” This implies that while sport historians and historians of sport are engaged in the same project they approach it from different angles and contexts, and share it with different audiences. To be sure, this is a bit of an objective vantage point that simplifies and ignores the important work in bridging this divide, and progress towards cross and interdisciplinary work (as well as dreams of a transdiscplinary future). I don’t want to linger here too long in fear of emphasizing a false dichotomy, but recognizing that there are some differences is useful when considering public sport history. Audience matters, and, in public history settings, balancing sport history and the history of sport is essential.

Display of changes in athletic equipment at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.

Display of changes in athletic equipment at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.

Here’s an example. At a visit to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame last fall, I noticed a display that showed the evolution of sports equipment – footballs, helmets, shoes, and shoulder pads. The exhibit aimed to represent the changing nature of sport and its progression towards increased player safety. It explained the science and technology behind equipment advances, leaving out the social-cultural contexts of the changes. In this display we see a bit of the difference between sport history and the history of sport in addressing change over time. Each approach is valid, adds to our understanding of the past, and connects with visitors, but they present different narratives. The public historian’s goal is to find ways to include both narratives. The result would be a display that explains the science and technology of changing football equipment and the push-pull pressure of rules changes, injuries, and deaths.

Before we get too far into envisioning a public sport history, it is important to outline what I mean when I use the term “public history.” It is an evolving field whose definition is malleable. According to the National Council on Public History, “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.” Some have alternatively labeled it “applied history.” The chief task of public historians is often to help non-historians think more critically about the past and make sense of their own history. Most often people think of museums and the National Park Service as the major sites of public history, but it’s a much more than this. Public historians work for the federal government and private corporations, auction houses, presses and newspapers, policy institutes and lobbying firms, and more. They also work in preservation and conservation, costume design, archives and libraries. What’s more, this is not a new phenomenon. As Ian Tyrrell has written, historians have been finding work outside of universities for over a hundred years, and, in doing so, have demonstrated the significance of employing trained historians across the professional spectrum. Indeed, academic historians who give public lecture and book talks, serve on advisory boards and as consultants, and use history to advocate for causes are all engaging in different types of public history. Digital technology has further enabled these activities to reach larger audiences and expand the “publics” that historians reach.

Public history, like sport history, drifts beyond the traditional academic field of history. While students who study public history are trained as historians, they also explore issues such as memory, cultural heritage tourism, museum and archival management, preservation, and design, which require them to engage with scholars in a variety of fields. Public history can require connections with anthropology, art and theater, ecology and environmental science, government, business, and more, as practitioners begin to specialize. This means that while public history is almost always an extension of history, it requires multidisciplinary engagement.

As scholars such as David Glassberg, have explained, public history is frequently complimented by and connected to the study of historical memory (both individual and collective). Public historians must also navigate personal, political, and cultural readings of history and seek to meet the public where they are. An essential task of the public historian is recognizing and evaluating different types of “discourse about the past,” and balancing the problems of historical representations among a multiplicity of perspectives. This includes not only memory and nostalgia, but also popular history (which is often different from public history and academic history). Public history then works both with and against individual and collective memories, nostalgia, and popular and official histories to try to present a measured, multi-vocal understanding of the past.

Relaying a multi-vocal understanding of the past includes bridging inter-and-intra-disciplinary divides. It also requires adding new perspectives to old, largely triumphant master narratives. For public sport history this could include adding in the voices of fans, losing athletes, and other observers to provide a larger view of the sporting past. Similarly, we need to embrace the tactile, environmental, and scientific to better emphasize the lived experience of sport.

This process is complex and often involves addressing contentious issues. It is difficult to balance approaches and voices. Depending on their positions, public historians juggle interpretations in different ways. For example, some become activists fighting for the preservation of certain stories, languages, structures, or places. This could involve advocating for the creation a new museum, park, exhibit, archival collection, book, documentary, or public policy. An example of this is Josh Howard’s critique of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ change to their commemoration of Negro League history at PNC Park.  In other cases, public historians may use their expertise to push for the removal or re-writing of historical markers and place names. The current debates over Forrest Hall at Middle Tennessee State University, the Washington Redskins’ team name, the recent re-naming of Mount McKinley as Denali, and interpreting slavery at Colonial Williamsburg are examples of this.

Sport history, public history, and sport heritage are linked because they rely on connections to the past that are intimately tied to memory, nostalgia, and audience. All three rely on understanding a “sense of history,” which Glassberg defines as “a perspective on the past at the core of who [we] are and the people and places [we] care about.” This provides a framework that houses our collective memory, historical understanding, and in many ways our own identities. Our sense of history, then, serves as scaffolding upon which we stack new lessons and understandings about the past.

Indeed, sport and history both serve to help us understand who we are. They both act as political and social technologies, reminding us and instructing us on how to be good, proper Americans. We extrapolate from them the essential meaning of the American way of life — democratic ideals such as hard work and fair play, equality, consumerism, loyalty and honor, teamwork and sacrifice. Official histories, sports mythologies, and other collective and individual memories reinforced in our minds and in popular culture uphold these lessons. Attacks on these understandings have been labeled revisionist history by the cultural wars, fighting to preserve a simplistic, nostalgic understanding of the past. While a “sense of history” may become contentious, especially if an individual feels as if theirs is being threatened, it is also a powerful tool for public historians to tap into and build upon.

Glassberg’s “sense of history” is similar to conceptions of heritage. As David Lowenthal explains, “Heritage attests our identity and affirms our worth.” It is so linked with our sense of self and our understanding of the world that it “is immune to criticism because it is not erudition but catechism; not checkable fact but credulous allegiance. Heritage is not a testable or even plausible version of our past; it is a declaration of faith in that past.” Lowenthal notes that heritage and life history, such as autobiography, are quite similar. Furthermore, history and heritage rely on each other not just in pedagogy, but also in creating new heritages and evaluating how historical actors understood and used the past. This viewpoint underscores the conflicted nature between history and heritage and the difficulty in navigating the two as a public historian. It also points to the need for more interdisciplinary dialogue.

This, I believe, is one of the biggest challenges of doing public sport history. The dual challenge of using someone’s “sense of history” or heritage as a pedagogical tool to graft new historical lessons onto, and carefully negotiating the emotions of memory and nostalgia, require delicate work. Most public historians advocate a multi-vocal approach that relies on the latest historical scholarship to allow visitors to select and identity with several different perspectives of the same story. This is a bit of a gradualistic approach that harnesses heritage and sense of history to teach new lessons and offer expanded perspectives. Academic sport historians play a pivotal role here by providing in-depth research that expands sports myths beyond singular narratives of greatness. As Mike Wallace argues, museums and historic sites should be places where visitors can engage and reflect on the past from a critical, disconnected yet participatory state rather than places that reinforce and encourage “mythic metaphors” and reenact American essentialism. Public sport history, then, offers us a chance to blend academic sport history research, the lessons of public history, and the activities of sport heritage to provide a more holistic and multi-vocal understanding of the sporting past.

A further issue for doing public sport history is one that Ramshaw explored in his post on Monday: balancing stakeholders. Here public history and sport heritage intersect more than other places as they grapple with stakeholders and uses of the past for present means. While different interests may push projects in different directions, it is important to understand one’s position, goals, and aims, and evaluate the work with those in mind. Oral history is one example of an area where scholars must consider their position and relationship with interviewees, and how their eventual interpretations resonate with them. Likewise, when sport history narratives or public history sites become linked with heritage tourism or other commercial projects there is undoubtedly always a bit of push and pull. It is impossible to totally divorce ourselves from economic concerns, but it is important to be clear and upfront about these factors.

Finally, making critical sport history an integral part of public history offers an important opportunity to have public conversations about race (among other issues, such as gender, sexuality, labor, and so on). While many sports fans proudly recall the story of Jackie Robinson and note the relative equality and diversity among college and professional teams, few realize that sports also serve an entry point into questions about the construction of the color line, scientific racism, and systemic inequality. Instead, they subscribe to teleological understandings of history. Blending these deeper discussions of race into the triumphant narratives of desegregation can serve to highlight how sports serve both as a “ticket out” and a distraction for young athletes. It can also help us question how sports reinforce false notions of biology and eugenics. These conversations can prompts us to ask why black sporting lives seem to matter more than other black lives to a large number of fans, and evaluate the responses of athletes to present day social movements.

While this post has barely skimmed the surface of the vast nature of public history and its relationship with sport history and sport heritage, I hope that it makes clear that each field has a lot in common and can benefit from learning more from each other. Sport heritage offers important questions for considering the role the past plays in the present and how it is used. Likewise, public history provides lessons on how to make our work more accessible and useful to various audiences. Sport history, too, has much to offer. Sport historians play an important role in investigating and expanding our understanding the sporting past. Beyond halls of fame and the walls of museums, sport historians can play an active role in shaping a variety of conversations about the past, and influence current conversations. Finally, just like we need benefit from their work, public historians and sport heritages scholars need our research to help improve theirs.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. As the founding co-editor of this blog, he is interested in ways to make sport history more accessible to the public. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

Further Reading:

Dyreson, Mark. “Sport History and the History of Sport in North America.” Journal of Sport History 34, No. 3 (2007), pp. 405-414.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory. ” The Public Historian 18, No. 2 (1996), pp. 7-23

Glassberg, David. Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Grele, Ronald J. “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” the Public Historian 3, no. 1 (1981), pp. 40-48.

Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

Lowenthal, David. “Fabricating Heritage.” History and Memory 10, No. 1 (1998), pp. 5-24.

Stanton, Cathy. The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City. University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

Tyrrell, Ian. Historians in the Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Wallace, Mike. Mickey Mouse History: The Politics of Public Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

2 thoughts on “Towards a Public Sport History

  1. Pingback: Black or Latin/o? Complicating Narratives of Race, Ethnicity, and Progress at the NBHOF | Sport in American History

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