Review of Football Research at the 2017 NASSH Convention

By Zachary R. Bigalke

Editor’s Note: This post is based on the experiences of one of our contributors, Zachary R. Bigalke, at the 2017 NASSH Convention. 

At the 2017 North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) Convention, held over Memorial Day weekend at Cal State University, Fullerton, there was a slew of research that advanced historical understanding about various aspects of both Association and American football. Though wildly divergent sports at this point of history, there were plenty of fascinating parallels to be drawn from the variety of presentations.

Here are the highlights of some of the research that was presented at the conference, in terms of content related to soccer and the gridiron.

American Football 

Beginning the weekend, in a session on football in its many forms, overcoming technical difficulties that forced him to present without slides, Sheldon Anderson, of Miami University, nevertheless engaged in a multifaceted look at his alma mater’s long fall from Big Ten and national contention in college football. Anderson’s presentation focused on the reemergence of Minnesota on the national stage in the early 1960s under head coach Murray Warmath. Having come to the Twin Cities from Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State), Warmath focused on recruiting African American talent from outside the Midwest. But Anderson also showed how this was a short-lived advantage, revealing how integration at other schools and in other conferences coincided with external factors to make Minnesota’s fall from the top of the Big Ten seem even more pronounced over time.

After a 2-7 record in his inaugural season with the Gophers, the addition of players like Sandy Stevens (who was turned away by Woody Hayes at Ohio State), Judge Dixon, Bobby Bell, and Carl Eller helped propel Minnesota back to powerhouse status. Segregation provided a pipeline that allowed the Gophers to capitalize on the desire of black players to leave the south and play a high level of college football, especially since Minnesota is the only public school in the Big Ten whose campus is located within a metropolis. The formation of a general college, which served the function of a junior college for recruits, made the University of Minnesota even more attractive to recruits.

The team parlayed these advantages into the 1960 national championship and played in several Rose Bowls, but its advantages as an integrated program had diminished by the late 1960s and the arrival of professional teams such as the Twins, North Stars, Vikings, and Timberwolves along with an emergent cultural scene scaled back the university’s position as the preeminent provider of sociocultural and sports entertainment in the community. By the time the Metrodome opened in 1982, the Gophers were fifteen years removed from their last Big Ten title and fading into college football obsolescence. Anderson’s work demonstrated how both national and local factors combine to the rise and fall of sports teams, and how shrewd managers identify and exploit competitive advantages.

Another panel focused on four ways in which college football helped shaped American life both historically and contemporarily. Each presentation showed how the gridiron game has influenced various aspects of American society, underscoring the deep roots that the game has embedded into the national culture.


“Sooners Assist Industry Growth In Oklahoma,” The Oklahoma Daily, 16 November 1957, 2.

Andrew McGregor, a Ph.D. student at Purdue University, began by showing how football helped Oklahoma emerge from its perception as the epicenter of the Dust Bowl and provided a platform for the state’s politicians to seek increased funding for pork projects. Around the time the state celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Oklahoma was reimagining itself as an industrial heartland where politicians hoped to turn the state into the “Detroit of Aviation” and football helped sell the state to a national audience. As such, the sport became both a source of local pride as well as a useful public relations tool.

Ph.D. student at Texas Christian University Michael T. Wood showed the impact of transportation on the sport, highlighting the tours of college teams to Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. Utilizing a variety of transportation technologies that included trains and steamships as well as automobiles a


Michael T. Wood presenting his research. Photo courtesy of Andrew McGregor.

nd airplanes, American university football teams capitalized on a growing tourist industry in Cuba to play local club and university teams on the island. Wood’s research situates the importance of these transportation modes on a broader history of traveling tours by American football teams to Cuba prior to the 1959 Revolution.

Western New England University professor Dan Covell shifted the discussion toward smaller schools with a look at the Pentagonal Agreement between the “Hilltop” colleges of New England. This presentation focused on the formalization and maintenance of the agreement both before and after Dartmouth’s departure for the formalized Ivy League in 1956, as the schools grappled with questions about recruiting and standardization. Covell shows how school presidents had little interest in investing significant time or energy into managing intercollegiate athletics issues, and ultimately how the Pentagonal Agreement was challenged from the outset by competitive interests from both within and outside the member schools.

The first three presentations set the stage for Ron Smith, Professor Emeritus at the Pennsylvania State University, the senior member of the panel, to unleash a diatribe about a situation close to home. As the author of Wounded Lions and a longtime Penn State faculty member, Smith did not shy away from a polemical treatment of the Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA or the NCAA’s treatment of his employer. Even with his clear and unabashed biases out in the open, though, Smith still made a cogent case for the dubious legal standing for the NCAA’s ruling against Penn State after Jerry Sandusky’s scandal came to light. He was also not afraid to voice his own personal dislike for Paterno during the question-and-answer session, demonstrating that his argument was not purely partisan.


Ron Smith presenting his research. Photo courtesy of Andrew McGregor.

Each of the four papers served to underscore the impact of college football on politics, transportation and tourism, university administration, and interactions between governing organizations and the law. Robust research combined with personal passion to provide an entertaining and enlightening review of a broad range of scholarship within the subfield of college football history.

Women and Football 

In three other presentations on American and Association football, scholars focused specifically on the role of female participation in both football codes. These three presentations, taking place in various sessions, helped illuminate the contributions of women in male-dominated sports on either side of the Atlantic. The two scholars in the Saturday session, both visiting NASSH from English universities, each offered valuable insights in areas where female influences have historically been undervalued and underappreciated. The third paper, presented Saturday by an American scholar, was especially profound in the context of the earlier presentations and placed women within a wide range of sports officiating situations throughout history.

First, drawing inspiration from a long history of working in the city and writing about Mancunian soccer and the city’s clubs, Gary James, from Manchester Metropolitan University, expanded an understanding of the extent to which women have participated in soccer throughout the decades. By focusing on Manchester, James provided a clear and relevant case study that was readily accessible even to scholars who are less familiar with soccer history.

James began by illustrating traditional female roles in Manchester society. Articulating the importance of matriarchal structures in city culture, and the influence of female workers in the city’s mills and factories at its most influential period of industrial development. Along with the city’s position as a key space for the suffrage movement, James draws upon the historical significance of women in Manchester’s development to expose the gap in the historiography about women in soccer’s early development.

What then transpired was a look at women’s participation in soccer in Manchester, as James drew from oral interviews and archival research to reveal a long history of involvement as players, coaches, managers, directors, club staff, supporters, and media members. Even during periods when women’s soccer itself was banned throughout England, teams such as the Manchester Corinthians led the charge in defying the restriction. Soccer also became a space where girls could spend time with their fathers, providing a lingua franca between not only generations but also genders.


Katie Taylor presenting her research. Photo courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

De Montfort University Ph.D. student Katie Taylor, who is also working on research into women’s participation as American football players, focused in her NASSH presentation on the broader influence of women as officials, coaches, trainers, journalists, owners, and managers. Focusing especially on a review of media discourses, Taylor fights against the common misconception that women in non-traditional roles are “firsts” in their field to show a long history of female involvement with the gridiron sport.

Taylor acknowledged the fact that women’s participation in these fields did increase at times when men were not available to fill such roles, especially in time of war. World War I especially helped open doors for women to become involved in football, but participation predates the war itself. Taylor showed through her research that female referees were officiating games as early as 1908 and that women were managing football teams by 1911.

When wars ended, though, the opportunities decreased and the vitriol against women in the sport increased. Even when female participation was commonplace, though, there was also a long history of stigmatizing and downplaying their involvement and influence on the game. In highlighting women in coaching and officiating roles, media often emphasized their female attributes and played up the traditional female roles (such as washing uniforms) that they were expected to undertake as part of their duties. This served to maintain the impression that women were anomalous in the sport, and devalued their contributions in favor of highlighting their femininity.

On Sunday, Gonzaga University professor Heidi Nordstrom presented work that expanded particularly upon one aspect of Taylor’s research. Nordstrom focused in on the role that women have played on officiating crews in the United States. Like Taylor, Nordstrom grounded her analysis in American football, though she also helped position female referees in the context of both the other presentations in her panel as well as other sports besides football.

What Nordstrom’s presentation helped demonstrate was both the steady involvement of women as referees at lower levels of football from the 1950s onward. Acting as arbitrators on the field at all youth levels as well as in amateur and semi-professional leagues, women have nevertheless encountered similar prejudices as were highlighted by both James and Taylor. Working on oral interviews with former referees, Nordstrom showcased the diverse background of female officials and their range of skills in umpiring multiple sports. As this research expands, we will begin to get a fuller picture of the pioneers who have opened the doors for female participation on officiating crews in the NFL and NBA.

Both James and Taylor brought key contributions to NASSH this year from England, showcasing the value of NASSH not only as a North American but as an international community of sport historians. Their work helped bring to light some of the hidden history of women’s involvement in various football codes. In taking a local approach to his study, James offered a case study against which future scholars can compare their research. By focusing on American football, Taylor demonstrated the value in expanding research on local sports outside of local academic communities. In conversation with these earlier papers, Nordstrom’s work further accentuated the nuanced history of women as key actors on the playing field of sports that have traditionally been seen as the exclusive domain of men.

Association Football 

Sports often hold such symbolic power precisely because of their mythic qualities. Part of the mythology of sport lies in the gravitas placed on origin stories, as Martyn Dean Cooke, of Manchester Metropolitan University, pointed out in his look at one of England’s oldest professional clubs. Tackling the invented tradition of Stoke City’s foundation, Cooke broke down the case for the club’s true origin stories in his Saturday presentation.

As a middling club that has enjoyed relatively little success throughout its existence, Stoke City has offered little to celebrate over a century and a half of operation. But supporters of the club could at least point to the fact that they root for the second-oldest club in England to mollify their disappointments. Like so many origin stories, though, the tale of Charterhouse School members bringing the sport to Stoke-on-Trent wholesale was in Cooke’s mind too good to be true. Digging into the media record from the mid-nineteenth century, the presentation revealed a more fluid origin that places the club’s foundation later in the timeline of English soccer.

Cooke presented a timeline that places Stoke City’s origins in 1868, which while still old would make the club only the fourteenth-oldest in England. Not only was Cooke able to identify the club’s origin point, but he was also able to trace the progressive pushing back of the club’s foundation date over time until it could claim a privileged position among England’s oldest clubs.


Stoke City, 1877-1878. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After already celebrating its sesquicentennial, it is unlikely that the Potters are about to rewrite their history to reflect their true foundation date. But Cooke’s research, more than anything, demonstrated the difficulty of changing embedded notions that become central to the identity of sport institutions.

In another paper on football, Jan Luitzen, from the Amsterdam Unviersity of Applied Sciences, turned toward an unlikely source, to offer an intriguing look at early developments in both Dutch soccer and sport photography. Drawing inspiration from a photograph found in the collection of the Instituut Noorthey, Luitzen showed in his presentation how sport historians might initiate a visual turn to supplement rather than supplant a traditional emphasis on written sources in historical research.

The photograph Luitzen presented showed an action shot of soccer being played on the Noorthey grounds. An elite educational institute that placed an emphasis on athletic involvement, the origins of soccer at Noorthey can be traced back to January 1878. The teams were comprised of both students and lecturers, a point that proved critical to Luitzen’s analysis later in the presentation.

In the image itself, there were several points that Luitzen made sure to point out to the audience. First, the photograph depicts clear movement of the players on the field, with the ball in the air and individuals angling for its arrival. Heralding the advent of photography as a critical component of the sport’s growing popularity and marketability, the photographer’s skill and intention in snapping the image are evident in the motion.

Most impressively, though, Luitzen managed to use visual clues to pinpoint an 18-month window when the image might have been taken. Because both lecturers and students played in the matches, one of the players was identifiable as a professor who was active in football at the institute and who taught there for two school years. Thus, Luitzen showed how traditional historical methods can be used in conjunction with technical analysis of photography to convey and clarify the context of events at all levels of sport.

Continuing discussions on soccer, California State University, Northridge professor Chris Bolsmann showed how soccer in apartheid South Africa was irrevocably altered through the participation of both black and white South Africans in the original North American Soccer League. Though only thirty-two players from South Africa played in the league between 1968 and 1984, their prominent careers challenged apartheid narratives both at home and abroad.

Kaiser Motaung was the vanguard for the movement of South Africans to the NASL. As a member of the Atlanta Chiefs, he was a two-time NASL all-star in 1969 and 1971. While there, he lived in segregated neighborhoods in Atlanta despite playing alongside teammates of all races on a day-to-day basis. After returning to South Africa, he formed Kaiser Chiefs—the club which gave a start to many of the other South African stars that would move on to the NASL, including Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe.

The success of black players in the NASL was subversive to the apartheid narrative, contesting the notion of blacks as inherently second-class citizens. This took place amidst a backdrop of international sanction by both the IOC and FIFA. Despite the apartheid regime, a multiracial team did play an Argentine XI in March 1976. In a twist that was especially relevant given Luitzen’s presentation on photography and the visual turn, we were provided a photograph of players of both races bathing in a hot tub together after the match. FIFA nevertheless banned South Africa from international play in July 1976, and the NASL became a sanctuary where South African players could play outside the country.

Ultimately, Bolsmann showed how the success of players like Kaiser Motaung and Jomo Sono opened the door for greater black participation in the sport in South Africa. In addition to Kaiser Chiefs, Somo purchased Highlands Park and renamed the club Jomo Cosmos despite issues with fellow South African-born manager Eddie Firmani during his time at the club. The evolution led to fewer opportunities in the sport for white players, and international opportunities were restricted all around after the FIFA ban.

In another presentation, looking at an unusual case of American soccer history, George Kioussis, also of the California State University, Northridge, presented a thorough investigation of the U.S. national team’s three-match tour of Iceland in August and September 1955 and the subsequent U.S. tour by the Iceland national team in October 1956. Part of Eisenhower’s broader goal of using sport as a diplomatic tool, these tours demonstrate the importance of Iceland in post-World War II geopolitics as well as the willingness of the United States to use sports that were less popular at home than abroad to engage with foreign audiences.

In the 1950s, Iceland was feared to be a possible space for Communist infiltration in the North Atlantic. With a U.S. military base located in Iceland, the island nation was of critical strategic importance. To foster better relations between the countries, the U.S. organized a goodwill soccer tour. Kioussis focused on the 1956 return trip of the Iceland national team, showing at once the government’s involvement and lack of consideration for the actual experience of the traveling party on their voyage to the United States.

The first match was played before just 1,500 spectators on an unremarkable day in Philadelphia. The organizers further insulted the Icelandic contingent by not flying their flag at the match, a breach of protocol at odds with the diplomatic mission of the trip. The second match in Baltimore and third match in New York were better attended and offered a better experience for the visitors despite an autumnal heat wave.

Two months after the trip, the U.S. and Iceland signed an accord that allowed the U.S. to maintain its military base on the island. Though Kioussis admitted the difficulty in drawing a causal link between the cultural manifestation and the policy creation, the presentation nevertheless effectively challenged the narrative that the U.S. lacked reciprocity with other countries.

Brazilian-born Arnaldo Cézar Coelho became the first referee from South America to officiate a FIFA World Cup final match when he adjudicated the 1982 final between Italy and West Germany at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid. Historically overlooked, South American referees had rarely been tabbed for key international fixtures. What M.A. student Shaine Danbeli from California State University-Northridge showed in his presentation on Sunday was the role that two FIFA presidents had in opening the doors for broader opportunities for soccer referees from outside Europe.

Stanley Rous, a former international referee, helped streamline the laws of the game as the head of the FA in England before taking over as president of FIFA in 1961. In that role, he helped improve the quality of officiating around the globe through standardization of the rules and creating a series of training courses outside Europe.

Once Brazilian João Havelange defeated Rous in the 1974 FIFA elections for president, the shift in power led FIFA out of a period of conservative growth into an era of unfettered globalization. Within a quarter-century the organization increased its membership by sixty percent, and the expansion of the World Cup opened space for more non-European referees to oversee matches.

It is still notable that Coelho is white, and that four years later it was another white Brazilian (Romauldo Arppi Filho) who earned the honor of officiating the World Cup final in Mexico. But, while there is still work to be done in terms of investigating the impact of race and background on officiating choices at the world’s biggest soccer tournament, Danbeli has provided an important foundation for understanding how non-European referees began to earn respect and increased opportunities on the international stage.

Alluding to the work done by Christopher Gaffney in his book Temple of the Earthbound Gods on soccer stadiums in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, Maria Carreras, of the University of California-San Diego, expanded that style of architectural analysis to FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. Evaluating the stadium from a question of what mechanisms have made Barcelona both locally and globally significant, Carreras presented a unique approach to studying this famous club.


FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Like Sheldon Anderson on the first day, Carreras worked without visuals. This, however, was by choice. While visual accompaniment might have helped the audience better understand the aspects of the architecture discussed in the presentation, such as the press box, the statuary, and the stadium chapel, Carreras did a solid job of explaining the significance of each. Despite the lack of visuals, though, Carreras clearly articulated some important research that demonstrates the need for expanding Gaffney’s earlier work to an even more global context.

What Carreras ultimately showed is that the club’s simultaneous reflection of Catalan and globalist values has influenced its architectural decisions over the years. The press box provided modern amenities for journalists to report on the matches to worldwide audiences, while the chapel and the artwork linked the club to its fans and to the Catholic influences throughout the city (such as Sagrada Familia). Carreras demonstrated how architectural evaluations of a stadium, especially in the context of subsequent additions and renovations, can help historians understand the cultural syncretism of local values and international trajectories that are at play with major soccer clubs.

Zachary R. Bigalke recently completed his M.A. in history at the University of Oregon. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz and an editor at Sports Unbiased, and can be reached at and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke












Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s