Review of Sports in American History

Gems, G.R., Borish, L.J., and Pfister, G. Sports in American History: From Colonization to Globalization, Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2017. 385 pages (including images, index, and author information) US$89.00 (cloth cover).

Reviewed by Matt Hodler

Sports Textbook

Human Kinetics, 2017

Like many of us, I have both opted to use textbooks and not to use them when designing my courses. Obviously, this decision is based on a number of variables: course topic, course objectives, course location in the broader curriculum, instructor’s interests and abilities, etc. I don’t want to speak for every teacher, but for many of us – especially when we are first beginning to teach – textbooks can be very useful as foundations for our course planning. They can serve as guideposts to help us make sure we are “covering enough” or they can help us “paper over” gaps in content/knowledge that we all have, or they can remedy our own insecurities in our teaching abilities (I know this was the case for me when I first began teaching). They can also be valuable and engaging sources of knowledge and content that drive student learning in a broad subject area – which is what Sports in American History does. This second edition is authored by three well-respected (for good reason) scholars in the field of sport history, Gerald Gems, Linda Borish, and Gertrude Pfister, who bring a wide body of knowledge and experience to this endeavor. This new edition of Sports in American History aims to cover a wide time fame and a huge geographical space: sport in America from 1400-2015 and its relation to/with globalizing processes. For the most part, this book succeeds in meeting this ambitious goal.

The book is separated into eleven chapters covering the aforementioned 615 years. The first chapter, “Sporting Experiences in Colonial America, 1400-1750,” surveys the biggest span of time, while most of the remaining chapters focus on shorter timeframes (the largest is 70 years and the shortest is 10 years). As expected, the chapters are framed around, in most part, the dominant narrative-points of American history: Colonial America, Revolutionary Era, Antebellum, Civil War, Gilded Age, Progressive Era, Depression and World War 2, Cold War and Consumerism, and Globalization. Upon seeing these familiar guideposts when first opening this book, I will admit that my initial thought was okay, what’s new about this?. After reading it, I realized that this familiar framework is an especially important tactic for teaching because this textbook does some very critical work – work, that to my own shortcomings, I do not always associate with textbooks.

This textbook sets out to provide undergraduates “a comprehensive, new approach to examining underexplored issues and groups in American sport history” by being “more inclusive of women and nonwhites” (p. vii). If your undergraduate students are like mine (and me, when I was an undergraduate) and/or are unfamiliar with many of the text’s topics, such as early Native American ball sports (and the effects of Colonization on both their sports and their ways of life); or the symbolic roles that sports like baseball and boxing and pool took in developing racialized meanings of nationalism and social class mobility during the early 20th century; or the pre-Title IX sporting experiences of women, these guideposts will serve to ground them within the familiar narrative of American History. Furthermore, the inclusion of these underexplored topics alongside the more commonly known moments from American sport history, such as the development of 1920s Celebrity Athletes like Babe Ruth and Red Grange; or the role of the Cold War in shaping television coverage of the Olympics; or Michael Jordan and globalized sport, should help them develop the inquisition and curiosity that is an important characteristic of any historian and/or critical-thinking citizen.

So, while this textbook does a more than laudable job of including the ways in which individual women and nonwhites participated in and shaped American Sport History, it also faithfully discusses and describes how processes of Colonization and Americanization and Globalization occur, both through sport and concurrently. And, while the cost may be prohibitive for some students – it is fairly reasonable compared to other textbooks across majors – I would recommend using it as a main text for a survey-level sport history course.

Matt Hodler is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Sport Leadership & Management program in Miami University’s Department of Kinesiology & Health. His research focuses on (re)productions of dominant meanings of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationalism in/through sport and physical activity. His dad used to stop at every roadside historical marker, which is probably where he first developed his interest in history.

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