Q&A with David Kilpatrick on Soccer History

By Patrick Salkeld

I attended my first NASSH conference in 2016 at Georgia Tech University. I met many scholars, found a home within the community, and spent much of my time talking to other soccer historians such as Zach Bigalke, George Kiousis, Chris Bolsmann, Chris Henderson, Gabe Logan, and David Kilpatrick. The soccer historians in attendance represented a generational range within the field. Soccer history has grown since 1994 with the creation of the Society for American Soccer History, and the number of papers presented in 2016 displayed this growth. As a member of the newest generation, I have much to learn from the previous scholars.

When Andrew McGregor suggested I conduct a Q&A with David Kilpatrick, I eagerly accepted. I admire and respect him for his dedication to the preservation of soccer history and the development of the sport itself in the United States. His experiences as a lifelong fan and a historian offer insight into the challenges we face educating the general public about the history of soccer in the United States. In this Q&A, I wanted to learn more about how his passion for the sport and its history developed, and what he considers the major current problems facing historians.

Patrick Salkeld: When and how did your passion for soccer history start?

David Kilpatrick:

My passion for soccer started from my father teaching me how to pass and control a ball. He played in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in upstate New York and was offered tuition-in-aid (something like a scholarship) to Union College, but it wasn’t enough for him to go there. Still, he was good enough to be recruited by Union. We moved, for his job, to Memphis in 1976 and I went to Christ the King Lutheran, where there was a strong sense of German heritage. So we learned German, or tried to, and soccer was the big sport there.

Having my father already teaching me passing and control, I felt I was a bit ahead of the curve my first day of training at CTK. By the time I scored my first goal, from the left wing on the last match of my first season (we played a 2-3-5 formation), I was obsessed with soccer, desperate to learn everything I could about the game, especially its history, beginning with that first season playing on a team in the fall of 1977.

I were to trace back through material objects, and a sense of historic occasion and value, the replica coin from Pelé’s farewell match on October 1, 1977 is the first item in what’s grown into quite the collection. My subscription to Soccer Digest started in 1978, so I was reading as much as I could about the sport from at least the age of 9. My first ever publication was a letter to the editor of Soccer Digest in 1980, so you could say I’ve been a futbologist since before my teens.

Patrick: Why did you choose literature and language instead of history for a career?

David:

I’m philosophically inclined to dismiss this notion of choice in your question. But I decided upon a doctorate in comparative literature, rather than another academic discipline, for a variety of reasons but chief-most was the interdisciplinary nature of the field. That said, when I was a teenager, if you would have told me I would be an English major much less an English professor, I would have said you’re nuts.

It was a history professor, my instructor for Ancient and Medieval Civilizations at Slippery Rock, Dr. Settlemire, who first told me I should pursue an English major. I adored her and really loved her class, but it started at 8:05 Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We were rather debauched in the late ‘80s and along with a fraternity brother of mine, Frank Walsh, was always late for class – five minutes one day, ten minutes the next. Everyone who knows me understands punctuality isn’t a virtue I practice, but poor old Dr. Settlemire (who passed away last year), we disrupted her class every damn day. Horrible. And she had a policy that every lateness was half or a third of an absence, and every absence after a third would drop the final grade a full letter. So my latenesses added up to absences which dropped what should have been an A down to a D. But I learned so much from her and I would apologize. She told me point-blank, at least twice, not to register for a class that early ever again but that she though my writing was lovely and that I should consider becoming an English major. So I have her to blame, I suppose. I think I was still a philosophy major then, having dropped political science and was between psychology and theatre around then, if I recall correctly. Developing a sense of the canon, the history and theory of literature wound up appealing to me in ways I never imagined when teachers were making my essays bleed with their red pens in high school. So I suppose if anything, it was the infinite possibilities for cultural studies that appealed to me, so I graduated with a double-major in English and philosophy for my bachelor’s, then earned my PhD in comparative literature and MA in philosophy from Binghamton’s Philosophy, Literature and the Theory of Criticism program.

Patrick: How do you navigate the differences between the disciplines of history and literature and language?

David:

I wanted to be a Glass Bead Game Master, but since Hesse’s novel was set in the future, I had to figure out something that would be the contemporary equivalent, maybe lay the foundations for such a way of working at play. Comparative literature may be comparing two different national literatures but it may also be literature and other disciplines. What really drew me to Binghamton was that the training in the PLC program was designed to help us discover our own interdisciplinary paths. Although at my dissertation defense, Bill Haver, as the historian on my committee, wanted me to confess I was doing myth, not history. I sort of thought he was joking but don’t really remember what I said in response, only that I passed.

Once I earned tenure at Mercy College – and I had been operating on sort of a German Habilitationsschriften notion of a second project beyond the dissertation, writing a lot on drama, theatre and performance studies to earn tenure – I turned more towards sport studies.

I first coached soccer when I was ABD, as head coach of the modified boys and assistant coach of the varsity boys at my high school alma mater, upstate in Canajoharie. When my first-born came of age to play in the local AYSO program, to coach I had to take courses. The first course was instructed by a guy named Tony Elmore, and I was blown away by what struck me as the philosophy of sport, which was something I had been dabbling in, you might say, for years and years, but not really exploring in the academic or scholarly context. That AYSO coaching course opened up so many amazing paths for me. So as I began to become more and more involved in coaching and administration, my sense of the possibilities in sport studies, especially soccer studies, began to expand quickly.

In 2007 I spoke at the Sport Literature Association conference on soccer films and in 2009 I spoke at the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport conference on Nietzsche and Arsenal. The latter was my first publication in soccer studies, in a collection edited by Ted Richards for Open Court titled Soccer & Philosophy. Although I still am active in terms of literature, philosophy and performance studies, my research in these related areas are most often filtered through sport.

But even when I was, say, a theatre critic for The Brooklyn Rail, I was known for bringing an historical perspective to performance reviews. I think humanities scholars are more actively engaged in historiography than most historians assume, even though the linguistic turn (if you will) has brought greater awareness of the concerns raised by contemporary literary theory to the practice of historiography. My first time speaking at the North American Society for Sport History conference was in 2013, when I spoke on what I call “partisan perspectivism,” trying to justify and promote this kind of interdisciplinary approach to sport history.

Historiography is just one genre I use for writing about soccer, though. For instance, rather than attempting a traditional historical representation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals in Brazil, I wrote Obrigado: A Futebol Epic as poetry, though I know some find the value of that work as essentially historical, as it triggers their memories of watching those 64 matches.

Patrick: As the New York Cosmos historian, you engage in public history while working for a corporation. How does this role open up soccer history to the general public? Should more soccer clubs hire historians, and if so, what are the benefits to both the club, the historian, and the public?

David:

Maybe it is because I spent so much of my youth roughly half-an-hour from Cooperstown, but I have always been keenly aware of the strong connection between sport and history. I think any entity benefits from a strong sense of institutional history. Knowing where you have been helps you know how you got to where you are and can help you get where you’re going. Since joining the Cosmos front office in 2012, internally that has been a matter of preserving a sense of authenticity and historical accuracy. Externally, celebrating the Cosmos’ rich legacy has meant informing the public of what has been too easily forgotten, reminding those who ought to remember and helping build upon the collective memory of the fanbase as the club began its reboot.

So yes, I think every club and every league should have a designated historian on staff. Soccer isn’t new here in the States, but the sport is plagued by amnesia here. People are often surprised to learn their kids are playing for a club founded back in the youth soccer explosion of the late 60s and 70s – that’s already quite a long time ago, as my body reminds me daily. Having a sense of who came before and what has been accomplished enriches everyone’s experience.

History provides us with a sense of roots, which promotes a sense of sustainability beyond the individuals that come and go, to foster a sense of community through time.

Patrick: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to the field currently? Why?

David:

So many obstacles! The biggest? Amnesia seems to serve the interests of those who are capitalizing on American soccer, but that isn’t for the greater benefit of the game’s development here. So I guess I would say the willful amnesia of those who like to say that soccer is still too young here to operate as it does in the rest of the world – the apologists who use amnesia to justify mediocrity, incompetence, or preserve economic self-interest. People want to hear the USMNT is improving, not that 1930 was our best showing in the World Cup. Otherwise, you might think those responsible for developing the sport here aren’t really doing all that well. They really do not want soccer historians disseminating information about the rich legacy the sport truly has here. In many ways, the biggest obstacle to soccer history – in the United States, that is – is the soccer community itself. But when the pay-to-play scheme has parents shopping their kids from one club to another year-after-year, it isn’t hard to see how hard it is to cultivate a sense of historical awareness. If something new is always seen as something better, it is no surprise an appreciation for tradition is compromised.

Patrick: I see the 2026 joint US-Mexico-Canada World Cup bid as a double-edged sword. What is your opinion on the matter?

David:

I think that sword may have more than two edges. Is the trilateral idea to cooperate rather than submit rival bids? While I would enjoy the chance to see a match or two, presumably at MetLife in the Meadowlands, the notion of a joint bid just dilutes the benefits. 2002 didn’t convince me of the concept. Having not just two but three countries share the role of host strikes me as taking away from the sense of location that goes with these major finals tournaments. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of my concerns over this NAFTA-for-soccer United Bid Committee.

The United States should be hosting the FIFA World Cup Finals in the summer of 2022. I’m having trouble thinking about the tournament at all beyond 2018.

Patrick: Lastly, what advice could you offer for the new generation of soccer historians or for those interested in United States soccer history?

David:

I’ll give some advice often shared by my friend John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball: don’t just learn everything you can about the sport you love. Learn everything you can about other sports, too, and then bring back what you learn about those other sports to the sport you emphasize in your research. You can’t understand the evolution of soccer in the States (or lack thereof) without a sense of how baseball, gridiron football and basketball emerged. I remember hearing when I was a kid that Naismith used a soccer ball for the first game of basketball in 1891. So how was it Naismith had a soccer ball in Springfield Massachusetts back in the late 19th-century? Many American sports fans have difficulty believing soccer was played here well before basketball was invented. When you learn the first soccer ball arrived in Brazil in 1894, and that the first attempt to professionalize soccer here in the USA was made that same year, you realize we have a lot of work to do, so much has been lost and forgotten. But that means there are a lot of great opportunities for anyone with an interest in United States soccer history.

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.

David Kilpatrick is Associate Professor, Department of Literature and Language at Mercy College and the Club Historian of the New York Cosmos. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrDKilpatrick.

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