Looking Back and Looking Forward: Two Years of Sport in American History

By Andrew D. Linden

In early 2014, I received a Facebook notification about an upcoming initiative in sport history. Andrew McGregor posted a message to the North American Society for Sport History’s (NASSH) Grad Student Facebook page about a new academic blog he wished to launch. Promoted as a “place for junior faculty and graduate students to share their work, respond to current events, discuss important works or trends in our field, talk about teaching with sport, and just overall developing an active and engaging scholarly community centered on the history of sport,” this new endeavor immediately excited me. I had always thought such a space would be valuable for the field, though never took the next step of beginning such a project. Thus, when asked over the last couple years about how my involvement with the Sport in American History blog began, I often joke: “I basically showed too much excitement for the project, and was asked to be co-editor!” A few weeks later, the blog launched.

The blog has personally inspired my scholarship in a number of ways. I’ve published pieces from my dissertation. I’ve posted a number of book reviews on monographs important to my research interests. I’ve written on areas of sport history that will not appear in my dissertation, nor will it (most likely) be one of my major future projects (see, the history of air racing).

Yet, what the blog has offered me more specifically is a platform to comment on current events in a timelier fashion than most conventional academic journals. Indeed, some of the more enjoyable (and popular) posts I’ve published are just those. I reacted to the return of LeBron James to Cleveland (from Miami) along with Nike’s release of its new commercial “Together,” which reflected on intersections of race, class, and gender in the Rust Belt city. In another post (along with Lindsay Parks Pieper), I discussed the NFL and how it continually tries to appease consumers to stay relevant in the sport marketplace. And (again with Pieper) I wrote on the 2014 Gay Games just a week after the conclusion of the sporting events. The pieces I have worked on (certainly not the best pieces on the site), represent the eclectic nature of available readings on the Sport in American History blog.

Of course, the purpose of the blog is not just for my own satisfaction. And the purpose of this post is not to celebrate me or any of the other contributors. Last year, in our one-year anniversary post, McGregor explored the connections between sport history, public history, and digital humanities. For my two-year post, I hope to showcase how Sport in American History (and other sport-related blogs) are offering a bridge between various disciplines in the larger world of academia. For some (as will be discussed below), our field is at a pivotal moment because of larger shifts in university life, particularly for those sport historians working in kinesiology departments. Many scholars have offered much more sophisticated remedies for how to cure these issues. However, many have not yet commented on the study of sport in the digital age and what it can offer. In this post, I hope to begin (and continue) some of these discussions.

When the blog launched on May 1, 2014, one of the main focuses (besides finding enough people to fill our original one-post-a-week criteria), was to connect with the leading sport history organization in North America: NASSH. Over the past two years, a number of NASSH members have joined on to write for Sport in American History. And in her state-of-the field presentation at the 2015 conference, former NASSH president Maureen Smith referenced the blog as a positive step in the field, specifically citing it as a way for academics to better engage the public on topics in sport history. At the upcoming 2016 conference in Atlanta, Georgia, twenty-five individuals who have posted on the blog will present their research. Indeed, the blog has been made possible because a number of NASSH members have found it as a viable place to share their sport histories. Of course, thirty-eight of the blog’s contributors will not be at the conference this year, suggesting many people writing sport histories do not attend each year.

Yet, Sport in American History and NASSH have something to offer each other. Sport history blogs gain from the talented NASSH members who contribute, read, and comment on posts. (It is no surprise that readership on the blog expanded greatly after we posted a review of the 2014 Glenwood Springs NASSH Conference.)  And NASSH (and other organizations) gains from the wide readership that the blog offers (as of today, the blog has over 1,000 readers connected via email, and over 850 followers on Twitter). Thus, when thinking about the future of the field, it makes sense to consider the history of NASSH, some of the current issues in the field, and how sport-related social media platforms can help direct where the field is going.

As many readers will know, NASSH emerged in 1972 when a number of academics from various backgrounds (many from P.E. departments) joined to form an academic organization that strived to “promote, stimulate, and encourage study and research and writing of the history of sport.” With the publication of its Journal of Sport History, beginning just two years later, NASSH found itself as the leading disseminator of sport history scholarship in North America.

As I mentioned, in Sport in American History’s sixth post, Pieper and I wrote a summary of some of the presentations from the 2014 conference. “It is a thriving moment for sport history,” we opened. I stand by that statement. The socio-cultural-historical study of sport remains imperative. To be sure, if we watch the morning news, follow ESPN’s SportsCenter, or read up on the array of options of sport journalism, we find many people who should have taken a good course in sport history, read a book on sport and social issues, or listened to scholars discuss sport ethics in an academic fashion. In this way, the scholarly study of sport is of great significance.

However, some scholars are (rightfully) worried about the future of the field.

NASSH held its first conference in 1973 at the Ohio State University. For the next forty years, membership fluctuated. As scholar of sport and culture Jaime Schultz has recently documented in NASSH’s new “President’s Forum,” by 2014, over 40% of NASSH members came from departments such as Kinesiology, P.E., or sport studies, whereas just over 30% were found in history departments. Certainly, distressing signs are afoot for sport history. While many of these issues are also relevant in humanities and liberal arts programs, the setting in more science-based departments is troubling. Many sport historians are retiring or leaving kinesiology departments, and as Schultz fears, “shortsighted administrators will fail to replace them with similarly inclined scholars.” Many of these fears, she believes, come from the quantitative turn in the kinesiological practice over the last four decades. “Those at the helm may see little value in bringing aboard individuals who do not contribute to the department’s statistical prominence.” Schultz calls for sport historians to grapple with administrators and, importantly, the National Academy of Kinesiology, to better recognize the importance of socio-cultural research in the area of kinesiology. This same argument might be made for those working in the area of sport management. Context matters, whether you are measuring gait or gate receipts.

One area that Schultz (and many others who write about the future of sport history) has suggested could be a remedy to this departmental-political schism is the increase in interdisciplinary research. I believe that such endeavors, such as the Sport in American History blog, can help contribute to the maintenance of the field in such a way. As McGregor will discuss at the upcoming pre-NASSH workshop, “Doing Sport History in the Digital Present,” sport blogs offer a bridge between the disciplines. For sure, the well-rounded nature of the editors and contributors of this blog points to this. McGregor has a background in public history and resides in a history department. I often joke with colleagues at my now home institution that I am a sport historian getting a PhD in kinesiology teaching sport management courses in a department of accountancy, business, and economics. Pieper works in sport management, but holds an M.A. in history and a Ph.D. in sport humanities. Josh Howard has a newly-minted Ph.D. in public history. And the contributors to the blog vary just the same; writers from American Studies, religion, English, communications, childhood studies, folklore, and recreation and tourism have published on the blog. As McGregor wrote in the anniversary post last year: “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.”

Sport in American History does not represent a shifting point in the field. However, I believe the site offers many valuable things for sport history. Blogging helps show relevance of the socio-cultural study of sport; a number of popular presses and even ESPN have seen Sport in American History as a valuable source for sport-related knowledge. The blogs have become popular in sport-related classrooms; a number of sport historians have shared that they assign blog posts in their courses.

Further, sport-related blogs illuminate the strong, transdisciplinary function of sport studies in the twenty-first century, something desperately needed with all of the questions in the field outlined above. At the 2015 NASSH conference, sport scholar Sarah Fields argued that academic departments should be structured on themes and concepts. Sport “can be examined through the lens of almost every discipline,” she contended. In that vein, in an ongoing study, Pieper and I document how a transdisciplinary study of sport currently resides on digital sport media (that is, blogs and Twitter). Sport in American History, and other scholars currently working on digital media, reflects the potential of a transdisciplinary study of sport that does not privilege any one method, or as feminist philosopher Stella Standford describes of transdisciplinarity, the blog allows for a study of sport that is “not necessarily identifiable with any specific disciplinary fields, either in origin or application.”

Certainly, sport blogs are crucial for a transdisciplinary study of sport (or any topic, for that matter). Before any restructuring of academia can be done (if that is your goal), transdisciplinary blogs can provide a path, or a vision for the future. Transdisciplinary analysis of sport also appears on other blogs and sport-related sites. The AllRounder, the Sport Heritage Review, the Sports Law Blog, The Corpus, and Hockey in Society (among others) all have talented contributors studying sport from a myriad of angles. Also, following Twitter hashtags such as #SportHistory, #SportStudies, and #WomenInSport shows how many people are thinking about sport from a critical angle.

Arguments certainly will continue on whether we should value the study of history (or another humanities-related disciplines) or simply the study of sport. Some may argue that the “studies” movement waters down research. That is, research becomes surface level, with little depth. Still, because of the problems surveyed above, I feel as though the current state of academia might lend itself to a move to study sport—with all of the strong socio-cultural methodologies and theories that we already employ.

In conclusion, I’d like to bring this back to the connections between digital media, transdisciplinarity, and NASSH. In recent years, NASSH certainly has realized the potential of digital media, which reflects on the strong research being conducted in the field. Multiple sessions over the past decade have specifically focused on using the internet as a tool for researching and teaching. And the pre-conference workshop at the 2016 conference on digital sport media includes many papers on the topic, from using the internet in the research practice to discussions of digital archives and to the usefulness of social media in academe.

One thing that sport historians, in my estimation, could do better, though, is the engagement of social media as a tool to begin and continue academic conversations outside of the physical walls of conference rooms at NASSH (and other conferences) each year, which, in result will lead to more conversations outside disciplinary boundaries. While I mentioned that certain Twitter hashtags include a variety of sport history material, critical conversations about the field still lack in comparison to some other disciplines on the medium (take a look at #twitterstorians compared to #SportHistory).

Of course, as Smith suggested in her President’s Forum post a few weeks ago, there is nothing better than face to face conversations about topics we are passionate about at the annual conferences. For me, going to NASSH is one of the highlights of my year. Besides getting to hear new and innovative work, I am able to connect with others who are passionate about similar subjects and catch up with friends from grad school, something that becomes more difficult as sport historians are hired in various departments across the country, and funding for some PhD programs has cut down grad student cohorts to two or even one student. However, I think sport historians can and should adopt the internet as a tool to build and continue many of the relationships fostered through academic conferences.

Tweeting about research, conversing with other sport historians through social media, and commenting on blog posts (for example, we should appreciate the new President’s Forum and begin conversations online—click those comment buttons!), are all ways we can build relationships and community. The Journal of Sport History now has Twitter and Facebook accounts. We should all follow and engage these media because they can help us showcase how our field is useful to broader discussions in the social world—something desperately needed in the age of the disappearing humanities. As historian Kevin M. Kruse has recently argued about Twitter:

Twitter serves as a way to promote and publicize professional work. . . .It lends itself to the same type of public engagement that we do through op-eds and articles in general interest publications to provide important context and background to current events, but with an immediacy that puts those forms to shame.

Sport scholars can and should do just the same. Let’s not just adopt blogs as an important component of scholarship, let’s start better promoting our work in the digital world to showcase the strong transdisciplinary research that is important to sport (and the scholarly field of sport) in the twenty-first century.

Just as McGregor also warned last year, I am not suggesting that we all jump ship and become professional tweeters and bloggers (as fun as that sounds). I hope thinking about the issues in the field and how digital sport media offers new models of scholarship, we can consider how the study of sport in the digital age offers just one small remedy to some of the troubles in the field. Blogging and tweeting might not “save” sport history, but going into the third year of Sport in American History, it will certainly be fun to try.

Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at alinden@adrian.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. Check out his website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

4 thoughts on “Looking Back and Looking Forward: Two Years of Sport in American History

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