Looking Forward to Looking Back: Three Years of Sport in American History

By Josh Howard

It’s been nearly two years since I was asked to join the Sport in American History team as a co-editor. The site had been around for a bit over a year at that point and grown quickly. That growth continues. I – along with everyone else on the blog – am thrilled and humbled that our total viewership per month has tripled over the past two years. The blog also continues to be an outlet for writers of all career points, from undergraduate to tenured professor. We went from struggling to put together one post a week to regularly posting two original articles along with two book reviews a week. I can’t even imagine how many work hours Andrew, Andy, and Lindsay put into editing articles and distributing review copies weekly.

Today marks the third anniversary of this blog’s official launch. Every year, we do one of these posts to reflect on the past twelve months. Last year, Andy Linden showcased how this blog connects a range of academic fields doing sport history related research. The year before, Andrew McGregor explored how the blog connected sport history, public history, and digital humanities in a new way. Both of these retrospectives focused on the importance of NASSH to this blog, which cannot be understated. Virtually every post is written by someone with a NASSH presence, and many blog posts serve as a launching point for a NASSH paper or article-in-development.

This year, I hope to further explore the themes presented by Andy and Andrew while also exploring how this blog – along with most everything else – changed this past November. The past year on this blog can be neatly divided into two periods: pre- and post-Election Day. America changed in November 2016. Surely the people didn’t, but the election of Donald Trump shattered our perceptions of American society, culture, and politics. Suddenly, many of us were forced to reckon with a new “post-truth” reality. However, it’s a bit disingenuous to so rigidly divide this blog’s year into two halves. Sport in American History writers have always discussed politics, Trumpism or not, such as with Lou Moore’s cautionary tale of establishment politics and activist athletes from July, just a week after the Republican National Convention but long before a Trump presidency was considered a possibility by most commentators. There is no such thing as “stick to sports,” as was readily apparent on this blog over the past year. We like to think this little blog represents a small corner of history doing work in the world.

Starting in late-Spring last year, the blog tried something new – the multi-part series curated by regular writers in response to current events. The first centered upon OJ Simpson; the second on Muhammad Ali. Both of these series were successful in building blog continuity, extended commentary on current events, and connecting colleagues with similar interests. OJ Simpson returned to the public mind in 2016 with ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary OJ: Made in America and the FX-produced mini-series The People v. O.J. Simpson. In response, five regular contributors reviewed the five-part ESPN series over the course of three weeks, creating a level of depth usually not seen in standard media reviews. Kate Aguilar concluded the series  by reflecting on the documentary’s commentary on white society’s complacency in the rise and fall of black athlete celebrity. OJ lingered in public consciousness throughout award season as critics lauded both television productions. Again, blog writers responded when Thomas Oates brought OJ into the classroom with an in-depth syllabus on how to teach the history of sport, race, gender, and law through the lens of a single individual.

Andrew R.M. Smith curated the next series – the Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali – as special content for Black History Month. This was a bit of a change for the blog in that we solicited submissions for the series through a somewhat standard call for papers (unlike the OJ series, which was put together by regular writers). Looking back, this series absolutely delivered the type of energy, interest, and quality we had hoped. It also caused us to reflect further on the function of academic blogging more generally, as was expressed by Smith in the series retrospective: “These five posts collectively elucidated new questions, methods, and perspectives for studying Ali – again. In life, he engendered more scholarship than most subjects of sport history. His death is an opportunity to encourage not just some new work but a fresh historiography on Ali. The body of scholarship on someone so important can quickly bend from historiography to hagiography.” Sport history writing is especially prone to hagiography. We hope this blog continues to be a buttress against that all-too-common trend.

In the immediate election aftermath, most writing on the site was already scheduled and continued as normal, but the tone and urgency of political arguments were markedly different. For instance, Patrick Salkeld discussed Major League Soccer’s response to the Orlando Pulse shootings and in doing so emphasized the urgency to support LGBT+ individuals in light of hate crimes, terrorism, and an unfavorable political climate. Michael Paul Martoccio put together what seemed a light-hearted response to the Chicago Cubs World Series victory by a Chicago White Sox fan. Throughout the article though, Michael reminded us what these teams represent. Geographically, it’s the North Side and the South Side. Culturally, the North Side represents economic success and gentrification while the South Side, well, doesn’t. As Michael said, “It is as if Silicon Valley and Detroit are only a few Red Line stops away.” As a parting thought, Michael implored Cubs fans and North Siders to “please, don’t let the country forget the Sox.” I think his political implication here was quite clear.

By early-2017, writers sought to explicitly connect their research on race, class, gender, and sexuality to the election of Donald Trump, the rise of white nationalism, and the complexities of terrorism. As Paul Putz, Andrew McGregor, and Katherine Walden pointed out in their posts from earlier this year (and Kyle Kusz did back in September), sport serves as a cultural symbol, an ideological battleground, and public site of identity formation. Sometimes this effect is subtle – such as with Kusz’s analysis of dog-whistle politics – and sometimes it’s crystal clear – such as the “Impeach Trump #Resist” banner seen at Nationals Stadium on MLB Opening Day. As this blog moves forward into 2017, we obviously hope to see more contributions of this type from the next generation of sport history scholars. We understand that the current political climate may give some potential (and current) writers pause. Certainly, it takes some bravery to write on hot-take topics in the era of a Trump presidency, but bravery that is much needed. Of course, there is more to life in 2017 than Donald Trump even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes.

Outside of interpreting our new political realities, where else can this blog go over the next year? This past year, we tried to expand this blog presence within the world of public history as had been done in the past with kinesiology and sociology. A small, yet growing, number of public history scholars with an interest in sport are currently trying to bridge the gap between public history, sport history, and sport heritage. This effort coalesced around a working group at the 2016 NCPH annual conference on sport history and museums (that I chaired and McGregor participated in) and continued with another working group at the 2017 NCPH annual conference on sport and campus history (that McGregor chaired and I participated in). Great ideas came out of both of these working groups, ideas that I hope will be synthesized into a coherent whole in due time. It’s become abundantly clear that we have enough case studies for public sport history – now we need overarching theory. For instance, at the NCPH 2017 working group, we had at least four scholars in the room discussing the role of sport historians and public historians in interpreting campus histories centered upon Confederate or Native American mascots. We need to start bringing those stories together rather than having them stand more-or-less on their own.

As for this site, I would like to see more public sport history work on the blog. Public sport history literature is severely lacking in the United States. Certainly, case studies are abundant, but there remains a near absence of public sport history writing on the field’s origins. Don’t get me wrong – there is a ton of great writing on sport museums coming from scholars like Victor Danilov, Wray Vamplew, Kevin Moore, Murray Phillips, and Gregory Ramshaw. But the literature is still lacking both in diversity and depth with next to no literature on sport preservation, public sport history as a marketing tool, the effects of sport fandom and nostalgic on public history work, visitor studies research into public sport history sites, or how an archivist’s job differs within a sporting environment, just to name a few. This is also a sub-field in need of new, diverse voices both inside and outside of the academy. We need more work on early public sport history practitioners to parallel the work on early public historians (like Lucy Maynard Salmon and Benjamin Shambaugh) and early innovators who used sport history as a marketing device (like Albert Spalding and Stephan Clark). We need more work on harnessing themes of social justice to better commemorate sporting figures from non-spectator sports. And we need to explore how we sport historians can exert more influence upon wealthy sports leagues, teams, and organizations to do better public history. If just one of these topics appeared on Sport in American History over the next year, I would be personally and professionally overjoyed.

As for me personally, this blog has been great for my reflective practice. Primarily, it’s served as an outlet for developing my ongoing research, both serious and fun. I have read a lot of great articles, books, and book reviews. The blog also serves as an outlet for me to write articles that need a quick turnaround. The Forrest Hall article was incredibly important in forming my thoughts on commemoration and public memory, but would you believe that whole debacle is still ongoing? Jeez.

Going into year four, we hope this site can serve as a common space for anyone with a love of sport history. A common complaint from sport historians – including many on this blog – is that the discipline can be somewhat isolated. Kevin Moore suggests this is because sport historians group themselves into sport-specific organizations (NASSH, NASSS, SABR, etc.) and rarely break out into non-sport history organizations (AHA, OAH, NCPH, etc.). One only need glance at conference programs or H-SPORT Journal Watch to discern truth in Moore’s suggestions. I like to imagine this digital space as one that bridges disciplinary gaps through a mutual love of sport. Perhaps in this coming year we can see more of this work to go alongside the already excellent sport history scholarship. To another year of researching, writing, and bringing sport historians together in the name of scholarship (and because c’mon, writing about sport is fun).


Josh Howard

Top Five Most Viewed Articles (Published May 2016 – April 2017):

  1. Rwany Sibaja, “America’s (Soccer) Cup: 100 Years of Copa América,” June 6, 2016
  2. Louis Moore, “Jesse Owens Ran the Wrong Race: Athletes, Activism, and the 1960s,” July 28, 2016
  3. Kate Aguilar, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete and the White Ally: A Tale of Two Footballers,” Sept. 12, 2016
  4. Andrew McGregor, “‘The Fifth Quarter’: A Review of O.J. Made in America, Part Five,” June 20, 2016
  5. Cat Ariail, “Steph Curry…The ‘Male Machine Gun Molly’?: Gender and Styles of Play in Modern Basketball,” May 12, 2016



2 thoughts on “Looking Forward to Looking Back: Three Years of Sport in American History

  1. Pingback: The 'Sweetness and Light' of Frank Deford: Sports Biblio Digest 5.7.17 | Sports Biblio

  2. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: Four Years of Sport in American History | Sport in American History

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