Reflections on Sport & Public History, NCPH 2016

During the 2016 annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), I co-organized a working group on sport and public history with an emphasis on sport museums. This group discussed a lot of issues related to sport and public history, such as the question of audience uniqueness, the role of the body, gendered sport, corporate branding, and sport-and-fandom-related identities. We tried to ground our conversation by restricting public history to museum spaces, but we occasionally broadened our scope to theory debate, stadium interpretation, and living history. Apologies for the jargon in advance.

It’s been nearly two months now since that NCPH meeting. Since then, I have completed my PhD, helped in a fight to change a racist monument on my campus, and expended far too much energy navigating a ridiculous job market. To be honest, I still have not had time to properly sit down, collect my thoughts, and reflect fully upon the NCPH experience. What I present here are the first stages of my professional reflections on sport and public history. For clarity, I define the field of Public History as one that seeks to develop theory and practice aimed at making history “do work” in the world. Public History has a rich historiography dating as far back to scholars such as Lucy Maynard Salmon and Carl Becker, but only emerged as a sub-discipline of history during the 1970s. Since then, a wealth of knowledge and activity has developed, most notably through NCPH. To be clear: public history is not popular history and is not a derivative of traditional or academic history. That distinction is critical to remember when developing public history projects on popular topics like sport.

For me personally, two topics stuck out that are worth discussion here. A number of others also emerged, of course, but will be left for future discussions. For the record, I often use the phrases “sport and public history” and “public sport history” interchangeably. By these terms, I mean the application of public history to sport-related topics.

First, doing good public sport history requires recognizing fandom within individuals members of an audience. The good part about fandom, from the museum’s point of view, is that it’s more readily visible and understandable than other audience traits. For instance, a visitor’s ball cap can tell National Baseball Hall of Fame staff exactly which teams, leagues, or hall of famers may be of greater interest. But at the same time, public historians working with sport must not fall into a binary trap (fans v. non-fans). As one working group attendee put it, “sports fans define the grayness between the white and black.” I believe this quote can take many meanings, but I interpreted it as fandom gives sporting events nuanced social relevance. Without fans, then sport becomes a simple game of X’s and O’s; in other words, the Jackie Robinson story is not readily apparent when only looking at box scores.

Proper attentiveness to both present and past fans without question further enriches the development of good public sport history. I do have some reservations that being too attentive to fandom can potentially result in celebratory interpretation and/or the fostering of misplaced empathy, but those are other thoughts for another time. As a final note about fandom, there seemed to be an assumption from some that fans do not care about sport-related topics beyond their fandom. I believe with this working group, we effectively demonstrated—through our combined experiences—that fans do care deeply about other sporting pasts. As long as fans do not have their sport-related identities undermined, then public history engagement remains possible.

Second, reflective practice—a (perhaps the) cornerstone of public history theory—is crucial to doing good public sport history. History is obviously dynamic and ever-changing, but the history of sport can change even faster. Sport historians are forced to engage with the sporting past, present, and even future as they tell stories about the past. The most obvious example comes from the fact that sport champions are crowned annually, forcing sport museums to update their interpretation with content outside of their control. New champions may also change the overall narrative, such as the case with the 1966 Texas Western NCAA basketball champions or the 2004 Boston Red Sox, and thus force public historians to alter their interpretation. Further, the hall of fame model, where individuals are chosen for commemoration by a body outside of the museum’s purview, also forces sport historians to adjust their narratives annually, often in unpredictable or controversial ways. For instance, as of this writing the Baseball Hall of Fame cannot tell the stories of Pete Rose’s gambling or Barry Bonds’ PED use within their plaque gallery, thus creating a challenge for curators who may (or may not) wish to publicly tell these important sport history stories. The Baseball Hall of Fame is thus forced to tell these stories, if they even choose to, within the museum space and, in doing so, run the chance of angering those who control the plaque gallery’s contents.

Reflective practice offers a method for sport museums to adapt quickly to the ever-changing sporting landscape. As outlined by the late Noel Stowe, reflective practice is a more-or-less iterative process of doing history in public. The historian develops their interpretation, but that interpretation is left open to change. Something may change the interpretation slightly, such as if a student or visitor presents a challenge that must be address, but change is ok—it’s actually desirable. This change allows for a constant re-evaluation of theory and method, thus strengthening both practitioner and product. Through this understanding of public history, sport historians could present the highest quality public sport history work.

In connection with these ideas, the working group also discussed a few other topics broadly. For instance, we touched briefly on how military and religious history have much in common with sport history. The audience for each of these three fields can be extremely passionate. I believe the comparison to religious history to be quite apt because, as but one example, sports fandom can be quasi-religious for many. This level of deeply felt passion must be navigated by public historians carefully.


So what’s next? To me, there is a clear need for a ‘next step’ in the broader historiography of public sport history. There needs to be a better definition of the field in terms of both practice and theory. What is included in “sport and public history”? What theory can be applied? And how are people practicing their craft? A great deal of work is already being done under the banner of Sport Heritage, but these scholars tend to view their work through the lens of tourism and the British tradition of Heritage Studies (which is similar-yet-distinct from Public History). Heritage Studies and Public History dovetail nicely, but they are hardly the same approach. We are in need of more scholars to bridge the gap between these two fields, but this is neither the time or place for that discussion.

There also needs to be further exploration of exactly who is doing public sport history whether or not they identify as public historians. Victor Danilov, Murray Phillips, Greg Ramshaw, and others have contributed immense works to the field just in the past decade. However, despite their great work, the overall historiography is quite thin (although Sport Heritage is growing fast and doing great stuff). In connection with these ideas, I am a bit concerned about the state of public history at the moment. There seems to be a growing misunderstanding about what public historians do and, more importantly, who public historians are. Public historians need to better articulate our field and our theory. I believe this can be done effectively within public sport history by taking public history literature, applying this literature to sport, and illustrating how this literature dovetails with Sport Heritage and other related fields.

Public historians seem to be doing good work at larger history museums, such as national halls of fame and museums, but we can always do better. As discussed at NCPH, most state, local, and university sport museums are neglected by public historians. In some cases, this is because these museums are designed to be little more than corporate advertisement, but that does not mean public historians should shy away. Public historians can do great work within the constraints of a corporate environment—just look at Wells Fargo. At NCPH, Victoria Jackson suggested that higher-education campuses are potentially rich sites for public history projects, especially in conjunction with growing efforts to interpret campus history more broadly. This makes even more sense with all the money being pumped into collegiate sporting programs.

This post was meant as reflection, not prescription. I hope this conversation continues in the coming months and years. Sport scholars come from a diverse range of fields and do a lot of great work. Nw I believe it is the time that public sport historians must step forward to develop theory and unify a somewhat disjointed group of scholars. NCPH was a first step. Let’s continue that momentum going forward.


Josh Howard earned his Ph.D. in Public History from Middle Tennessee State University. His research interests include sports history, Appalachia, visitor studies, and public history, and his dissertation explored the use of informal data collection techniques in museum visitor studies. He is also the social media editor for this blog. Get in touch with Josh at jhowardhistory at gmail dot com or on Twitter via @jhowardhistory.

One thought on “Reflections on Sport & Public History, NCPH 2016

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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