American Studies, American Sport

By Cat Ariail

Next year, I’ll be teaching an introduction to American Studies course, using sport to, as stated by the ASA, engage in “the interdisciplinary study of US and history in a global context.” The course will follow the keywords pedagogy so I’ll be using sport history and culture to analyze the meanings of “America,” “gender,” “racialization,” “globalization,” “migration,” “disability,” “diaspora,” and more. In the coming months, I hope to use this space to begin to think through my approach, considering how best to organize the study of sport in order to prepare students to confront and deconstruct, in the words of George Lipsitz, the “cruel contradictions and painful paradoxes” that form the nation’s history and culture.  In this post, I want to begin thinking through how to use sport undertake a exploration of the nation’s immigration acts.

The American Studies program at the University of Miami positions the immigration laws of 1790, 1891, 1924, 1952, and 1965 as the foundational documents for understanding and interrogating “America.” Examining who is excluded from being an American allows us better to understand who is an American, and, in turn, what is America, at various junctures in US history. Sport likewise has served as an arena for defining the ideal citizen. But it also has provided a space in which to challenge this ideal. Below, I consider how sport both reinforces and refutes the vision of America articulated through the nation’s seminal immigration acts.

Naturalization Act of 1790

The Naturalization Act of 1790 made explicit the whiteness of the American state, granting citizenship to all free white persons. Sport and recreation also expanded at this moment. Early American nationals organized celebrations surrounding horse races, boat races, and animal contests, while taverns emerged as locations for cards, billiards, and other games. These sporting practices differed from their less-organized predecessors due to their designated spaces. Space and the access to space proved central to recreation participation. In turn, the ability to enjoy sporting activities reflected the classed and gendered hierarchies of early America.

For instance, historian Nancy Struna argues that white women also increased their participation in and influence over sport, suggesting that early American white men and women in rural, town, and urban spaces engaged in “series of negotiations” about “the context of early national recreations and their respective roles in them,” (30). But any record of their participation proves elusive, with historical sources instead fashioning men as sportsmen and rendering any sportswomen invisible. The late eighteenth-century thus reveals of a link between the establishment of citizenship and the organization sport, establishing an implicit hierarchy of the genuflected to whiteness and maleness. Subsequent laws would negotiate this standard, protecting the privileges of whiteness and maleness even as citizenship expanded to more categories of persons.

Immigration Act of 1891

The nation’s first comprehensive immigration act, the Immigration Act of 1891 expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, excluding “persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from certain contagious disease, felons, persons convicted of other crimes and misdemeanors, polygamists, aliens assisted by other by payment of passage.” The implementation of the act coincided with the culmination of sport’s modernization, when the late nineteenth-century witnessed the organization and professionalization of sport. This project, however, was exclusionary. Sport, like the nation, became modern by excluding certain classes of people.  The modern athlete, like the modern citizen, was an elite white man.

The 1891 Immigration Act is of a piece with the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, as well as the institution of Victorian values and the extinguishing of momentum for women’s suffrage. These late-nineteenth-century political projects together allowed white men to reclaim uncontested political power. Sport shored up this political authority.  American sport culture was streamlined, increasingly organized by and for elite white men. For example, the traditions of working-class white male sport, exemplified by bare-knuckle prize fighting, were refined, while the previously porous color line in baseball was hardened.

These national and athletic boundary-drawing projects also coincided with the closing of the frontier, announced by historian Fredrick Jackson Turner in 1893. The exclusionist impulse in the 1891 Immigration Act reflected the winnowing possibility of internal American expansion, thereby disrupting the identity of a nation that had defined itself around its seemingly endless space. Immigration exclusion, in concert with the codification of sport, suggests a turn toward the individual body for defining America.

Strikingly, the 1891 Immigration Act implies a correlation between physical and moral unfitness, as “persons likely to become public charges” imagines a person physically incapable of supporting themselves due to moral failings. In contrast, the newly formed institutions of American sport promoted and produced an ideal American, one who embodied physical fitness and was inculcated with moral fitness.  The celebration of muscular Christianity and the implementation of amateurism most expressed this relationship.  For example, amateurism created of code that envisioned athletes who competed for love of sport, rather than compensation, as a purer, better breed of sportsman. The philosophy of amateurism, like muscular Christianity, embedded within it gender, racial, and class assumptions, constructed around access and opportunities available only to elite white men.


A late-nineteenth-century team of muscular Christians. (Image courtesy of

Amateurism was an invented tradition; it was malleable, suited to perceived the needs of those who controlled the institutions of American sport at the particular historical moment.  American citizenship has operated similarly. The categories of persons excluded in the 1891 Immigration Act were subjective, interpretable dependent on the needs of time and place. Flexible exclusion characterized the 1891 Immigration Act and the American sporting world of the late-nineteenth. In subsequent decades, non-white and/or non-male athletes navigated these inconsistent exclusions, striving to claim their place in American sport as they likewise sought to secure fuller citizenship.

Immigration Act of 1924

The Johnson-Reed Act, in the words of  the US Department of State Office of the Historian, aimed “to preserve the ideal American homogeneity.” The act inaugurated the use of quotas, limiting the annual number of immigrants from a country to 2% of the people from that country currently in the US as of the 1890 census. The act targeted Southern and Eastern Europeans, while also restricting African immigration and banning Asian and Arab immigration.


Johnny Weissmuller prepares to plunge into the pool, and project an idealized image of Americanness. (Image courtesy of

Again, developments in sport resemble and reinforce these national aims. It does not seem coincidental that, according to sport scholar Mark Dyreson, Johnny Weissmuller emerged as the era’s the leading American athletic icon. Weismueller communicated the “resilience of individualism, the work ethic, the democracy, [and] class conciliation” that, as argued by historian S.W. Pope, formed the national sporting culture that had consolidated by the mid-1920s (183). “By 1920, most Americans thought that organized sports provided the social glue,” writes Pope before quoting Walter Camp, who celebrated the relationship between sport and national identity when he asserted, “More people march together and contentedly and in democratic spirit along that highway than along any there of the roads trod by humankind,” (3-4).

Of course, exclusion helped to foster to this feeling of “democratic spirit,” not only through immigration restriction but also through the formal and informal structural inequalities that operated within the US. Yet, the belief in a national sporting culture, in concert with the implementation of an exclusionist immigration law, allowed for racial, gender, and ethnic minorities to foster diverse sporting cultures that both reinforced and resisted national sporting values. The exclusion of undesirable immigrants assuaged anxieties about a changing American nation that, in turn, provided the space of subordinated populations within the US to engage in sport more freely, laying the foundation for future incursions into the sporting mainstream.

Most notably, the Negro Leagues flourished in the 1920s.  Paralleling and intersecting with the Harlem Renaissance, a rich African American sport culture developed, with sport serving as arena through which black Americans could display their inherent Americanness even as the social and legal landscape of Jim Crow denied it. Black and white young women also took advantage of separate sporting institutions, with collegiate-based physical education programs encouraging varying degrees of athletic engagement for young women. For white women, the flapper identity permitted more public athletic opportunities, resulting in swimmers, tennis players, and golfers helping to, in the words of historian Susan Cahn, “fashion a new ideal of womanhood by modeling an athletic, energetic femininity,” (47). Sport also served as vehicle for “forming ethnic pride and American identity” for Jewish Americans. As historian Linda Borish recounts, the Jewish Ys in Philadelphia served as a sites through which young Jewish men and women could negotiate their Jewishness and Americanness (124).

In short, the believed Americanizing and assimilationist impulse of sport failed to homogenize fully. The gap between rhetoric and reality, in directions both progressive and regressive, suggests sport develops as an increasingly acute lens for exposing the contradictions and paradoxes that compose our ideas of America.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

The McCarran-Walter Act reflected the anti-communist and consumer capitalist sentiments of post-war America. The act maintained the national quota system and established a preference system, emphasizing those with labor qualifications deemed valuable. It also allowed for the barring or deportation of those believed to be involved in activities considered subversive, mainly Communism. The law also implicitly targeted potential gay immigrants due to the prevalent, but patently false, belief that homosexuality made one more susceptible to communism. President Truman vetoed the act, declaring it “un-American.” But Congress passed the law over the presidential veto, indulging in the anxieties activated by the Cold War instead of trying, as encouraged by Truman, to win hearts and minds.


Goose Tatum and the Harlem Globetrotters advertised a democratic image of America during the Cold War. (Image courtesy of

Postwar sport likewise assuaged and activated the ideals and anxieties of America. As numerous scholars have demonstrated, state actors conscripted athletes into the sporting Cold War, using sport’s presumed universality and the relatively pluralistic population of American athletes to advertise the superiority of liberal democracy.  From the Harlem Globetrotters to Althea Gibson, sport showed the possibilities purportedly provided by the American democracy, regardless of racial or gender identity.  The ability of black athletes to represent the nation in a moment not only of anti-communist anxieties but also intensifying resistance to civil rights proves somewhat curious.  Until one recognizes the role of heteronormative American values in managing the inclusion of certain black athletes in the image of the sporting nation.

Gender served as a symbolic language through which to enforce conformity in Cold War America. Individually excellent black athletes who embodied heteronormativity, exemplified by Wilma Rudolph and Rafer Johnson, earned acclaim. Such praise, in turn, reinforced the implicit superiority of white American values. Cold War sport thus exposes how an emphasis on normativity constructed an exclusionary democracy, even as the increased visibility of black athletes suggested otherwise.  A certain vision of “normal” also undergirded the McCarran-Walter Act. Of course, it is important to recognize that an endorsement of heteronormative values conferred real gains for black athlete. And while these gains did not directly produce exclusions, they did help to codify often invisible exclusions. For instance, excellent white female athletes of the 1950s, such as Nera White, failed to achieve iconicity, as their interest in sport violated the strictures of white femininity. Jackie Robinson successfully integrated Major League Baseball as much due to who he was not, an older, independent-minded and unapologetically black athlete like Satchel Paige, than who he was. Gay athletes failed to enter the historical record.

Inspired by W.E.B. DuBois, critical theorist Fred Moten sees that “the United States is the land of formal democratic enclosure,” policing “nonstandard languages and styles,” (75). The McCarran-Walter Act and 1950s American sport both speak to democracy’s exclusionary character.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Emerging from civil rights ferment, the Hart-Celler Act sought to eliminate the embarrassing stain restrictionist immigration put on a nation that believed itself a model of democratic progress.  The law eliminated the national quotas system, although it did establish a hierarchy of inclusions by creating a new, seven-category preference system that organized US immigration policy around potentially beneficial laborers and the reunification and/or preservation of extended families. The law explicitly barred homosexual immigrants.

In this same historical moment, sport emerged as an influential activist arena, with athletes pressing the US to live up to the democratic aspirations.  If the Hart-Cellar Act represented an effort by the state to attempt to fulfill its loftier ideals, athletes were critical in showing the enduring gap between rhetoric and reality. Most famously, by risking his career to oppose the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali refused to grant his legitimacy to the US imperial project, instead expressing solidarity with populations of color who lived the “cruel contradictions” of US policy. The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), organized ahead of the 1968 Olympic Games by San Jose State track coach-sociologist Harry Edwards, aimed to use the platform of the Olympic Games and the power of black athletes to address the continued oppressions faced by people of color around the globe.


At the 1968 Olympic Games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos pushed for racial rights through masculinized imagery. (Image courtesy of

However, even as sport showed itself as sharp critic of the American state, it produced its own criticism-worthy exclusions. The racial and ethnic progressivism evident in sport did not extend to gender and sexuality.  In the Hart-Cellar Act, the prioritization of workers and families, in concert with the blocking of gay and lesbian immigrants, produced a patriarchal immigration law.  The athlete activist movements of the mid-to-late 1960s likewise privileged masculinity and, in turn, reinforced traditional gender roles. And in sport, as with the state, these exclusions range from the subtle to the strict. For instance, the masculine performativity of OPHR implicitly excluded black female athletes while international sport laws that prevented women from running longer than 800-meters in sanctioned races perpetuated explicit exclusions. As she pushed for progress in women’s tennis, Billie Jean King hid her sexuality and accentuated her femininity, an effort that captures the complicated interplay between inclusionary and exclusionary moves.

For it is sport’s exclusivity, like that of the state, that inheres it with emotional significance.  This shared, sometimes slippery investment in exclusivity makes scholarly criticism of sport and the state a potentially provocative and powerful pairing.


As I hope the above discussions have demonstrated, sport has been a constitutive part of the US’s continued nation-building project. At different moments, sectors of the sporting world have bolstered, condoned, contested, and/or opposed the re-articulations of the nation’s white heteronormative citizenship hierarchy.  Of course, immigration acts and sport culture could be contextualized and analyzed in multiple different (and likely better) ways. However, I believe my preliminary thoughts not only introduce the potential of using sport as a lens for critiquing the hegemonic ideas of America that immigration laws have attempted to codify, but highlight how this process also requires engaging with nuanced critiques of American sport itself.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami.  She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field.  You can contact her at

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