Sports in American Life: A History. By Richard O. Davies. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016. xi + 407 pp. Illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Patrick Salkeld
This past year I finished my second (and final) year of graduate school at the University of Central Oklahoma. I also completed my first year of teaching courses at the collegiate level. I taught the United States history survey courses and incorporated sport history into many of the lessons to help my students better understand the broad overview through case studies. U.S. History since 1877 gave me more opportunities than the pre-Civil War course, but my students later told me they enjoyed the discussions on Native American and colonial sports because it offered a new perspective on the differences between the two societies and cultures in a way they had not learned prior to my class. In August 2016, Wiley-Blackwell published the third edition of Sports in American Life by Richard O. Davies a Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Nevada, Reno. His book provides a well-written and well-organized starting point to understand the significance of a major event or person for students then to further research.
In his introduction, Davies outlines his argument, “Sports, for good or for ill, have been a significant social force throughout the history of the United States” (p. 2). He also comments on changes in the field,
Rather than being irrelevant diversions of little consequence, such activities provide important insights into fundamental beliefs. The games people played may have provided a convenient means of releasing tensions or a means of escaping the realities of the day, but they also provided rituals that linked generations and united communities (p. 2).
The reader will see this ongoing theme from front to back. For instance, in Chapter 11, “The Big Business of College Sports,” Davies refuses to shy away from controversial topics and discusses the paradox of colleges as centers of education and for-profit sports institutions. Sports bring in revenue and clearly unite the communities surrounding the colleges as evidenced by the large fan bases, but how are athletes treated and how much regard is given for their education (p. 256)? This is a major concern still plaguing universities today, as seen in the scandals at the University of North Carolina. To back up his argument, Sports in American Life is a compilation of mainly secondary sources.
Sports in American Life is an accessible textbook. Davies’ writing style allows for readers of varying ages, from high school to college and beyond, to comprehend the material presented. Also, he organized the third edition both thematically and chronologically. This tactic works in his favor because it offers the reader the ability to understand one topic, such as gender and women’s sports (Chapter 6: “Playing Nice: Women’s Sports, 1860-1945” and Chapter 15: “Playing Nice No Longer: Women and Sports, 1960-2015”), before approaching another, such as race (Chapter 9: “America’s Great Dilemma” and Chapter 14: “The Persistent Dilemma of Race”). Except for these four chapters, the rest deal solely with white men. He also listed recommended reading in the notes to end each chapter.
Compared to other books like A People’s History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin and A Brief History of American Sports by Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, Davies included more detailed information in a broader overview within the space allowed. Zirin’s work interweaves race, gender, and sport together better and mirrors Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States due to its radical nature and frank discussion of black struggles. Nonetheless, it appears much more focused for the general public’s consumption rather than educating through a broad, yet nuanced overview like Sports in American Life. On the other hand, Gorn and Goldstein primarily discuss the more popular sports like boxing, baseball, American football, and basketball and how they influenced American society. They offer a more superficial look into US history with a more detailed and broader commentary than Zirin, but it still lacks in comparison to Davies’ third edition.
The book demonstrates an important development in the historiography of United States sport history. In this edition, he includes quite a bit about American soccer history, albeit only developments in the past twenty years. As a soccer historian myself, I welcomed this improvement. Similar books such as the aforementioned works by Zirin and Gorn and Goldstein, perpetuate the repression of the history of soccer in the United States. Zirin discusses the 1999 Women’s World Cup and its legacy; whereas, Gorn and Goldstein treated the sport as trivia with brief mentions, such as Robbie Rogers made his first appearance for the LA Galaxy as an openly gay male athlete. This exclusion or bare minimal inclusion likely stems from the overall social unwillingness to accept soccer into mainstream US culture as backlash to its potential to disrupt American identity and nationalism until the late 90s to the present.
Nonetheless, with soccer’s popularity ever increasing in this country, the scholarship must follow the trends in the public’s interest if historians wish to grow the field and attract new scholars. At the 2016 North American Society for Sport History Conference held at Georgia Tech University, “for the first time in the history of the organization, there were more soccer papers than any other single sport.”[i] This achievement demonstrates that soccer history is slowly gaining more academic attention, and Davies’ inclusion will show early scholars the field’s legitimacy and possibly pique their interest to learn more about soccer.
In conclusion, as with any textbook, Sports in American Life has its weaknesses. It could add more athletes to add further discussion and nuance to significant topics like gender and sexuality. While an improvement, scholars must enhance the intersectionality of fields like sport history and move away from discussing race and gender separately from other topics. It also highlights the never-ending evolution to a more diverse history as we continue to discuss more than white men. Future editions, or other books, should also include chapters about the role of immigration and other ethnicities, such as Hispanics and Asians for example, in the history of United States sports. Yet, overall, Davies’ scholarship successfully brings its readers to the issues and subjects present within the current debates in United States sport history. It should be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of any academic studying sports, economics, gender, sexuality, race, society, and culture. For a textbook, it achieves its objective to inform the reader of the broad history of sports in the United States and the existence of sports as “a significant social force.” As an educator, I look forward to using Davies’ Sports in American Life in future courses, even in U.S. history surveys to complement textbooks, such as Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty, or even by itself to give students a different perspective.
Patrick Salkeld received his Master of Arts in History from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. His twitter is @patsalkeld and his website is patricksalkeldhistorian.wordpress.com.
[i] Chris Bolsmann, “Important New Scholarly Work on American Soccer History,” Society for American Soccer History, June 7, 2016, http://www.ussoccerhistory.org/important-new-scholarly-work-on-american-soccer-history/.