Negotiating the Fault Lines of Sport History

By Douglas Booth

Previous contributors to the President’s Forum have captured the key issues confronting sport history as an academic subdiscipline. More significantly, they have proposed concrete strategies to nurture the field. In these regards there is little that I can add to this Forum, other than a reminder. Higher education is politically dynamic. Hence, practising sport historians and their professional societies (e.g. NASSH, BSSH, ASSH) need to remain vigilant and regularly review and adapt their political strategies.

My contribution to the Forum thus consists of recapping and elaborating on the issues and strategies to sustain and progress sport history. First, the issues. Malcolm MacLean’s “fault line” metaphor helps frame the divides and issues in the subdisicpline. He identifies three primary fault lines within sport history:

  • amateurs (a.k.a. “fans with typewriters,” anoraks, trivialists, trainspotters) whose interest in the sporting past begins and ends with collecting “facts,” and professionals who push and stretch the boundaries of theorizing, interpreting and presenting historical evidence
  • historians and sports scientists, especially in departments of kinesiology and sports science, who offer vastly different understandings and conceptualizations of sport, and
  • the drive to market higher education as a vocational enterprise.

Are there strategies that might mend these fault lines? While each fault line marks a particular set of issues and requires specific remedies, there are overlaps. Historians of sport must continually advance the significance of the subdiscipline within the academy. Kevin Wamsley, Maureen Smith and Tony Collins articulate the substance of sport history as well as anyone:

  • sport is a “significant social, economic, cultural and political institution” (Kevin)
  • in “an increasingly globalised world in which questions of gender and race are at the fore, we are surely working in one of the most compelling historical fields” (Tony)
  • “Sport is the great undiscovered country of the historical world. Just look at how the study of sports can engage with two of the currently most important fields in the discipline: global studies and gender studies” (Tony)
  • “just about every challenge in sport and movement – steroids, concussions, gender equity, racial discrimination – would be better served if the players at the table had some conversant abilities in sport history” (Maureen).

In the context of traditional demands for evidence and reason in higher education, sport historians must table these arguments, statements and propositions (which are also critically important in distancing “professionals” from “amateurs”) in every conceivable forum, including informal and social occasions with senior university and college administrators.

Concomitantly, the field must continue to strengthen the credibility of its intellectual mouthpieces, namely, its academic journals. Jaime Schultz offers sage advice concerning impact factors: an impact factor, particularly a good one, will increase the attractiveness of the Journal of Sport History as a publishing outlet. Assessments of academic achievement, whether for promotion, tenure or status, place considerable store on metrics such as impact factors. The recent shift to the University of Illinois Press as publisher of the Journal of Sport History should assist in securing an impact factor.

Yet, no matter how much evidence sport historians summon to support their position, and no matter how well reasoned their arguments, neither are sufficient to secure a subdiscipline in universities. As Murray Phillips reminded us, decisions in universities are made on a plethora of political, financial, pedagogical and economic criteria (as well as the personal whims of decision makers-hence the need to network and socialize with this “class”). Nor can evidence and reason counter the realities that many people simply have no interest in sport and that sport history competes with a glut of subdisciplines that can mount equally persuasive and plausible arguments for their presence in what are ultimately overcrowded curricula. Hence, the need for a range of strategies. Jaime offers further sound advice in the North American context with her proposal to lobby the National Academy of Kinesiology to change the way it assesses graduate programs and to acknowledge that the humanities are integral to any comprehensive understanding of human movement. As reported by Malcolm, BSSH successfully adopted a similar strategy. It collaborated with a number of other scholarly societies to nominate and lobby for a senior scholar to chair the panel reviewing research quality in sport during the 2014 Research Excellence Framework exercise. Their nominee was a social scientist sympathetic to the humanities. Such strategies tackle the second fault line in sport history, viz., the biases and power of sport scientists.

Other strategies to nurture the field identified by previous contributors include hosting welcoming, attractive, stimulating and rewarding conferences. NASSH conferences generally do a good job on these fronts with attractive venues (most of the time!), welcoming and inclusive social events, financial support for postgraduate students, rigorous intellectual feedback in sessions, and public recognition of those who showcase the field intellectually. ASSH and BSSH follow suit. NASSH has also recently improved the intellectual side of its conference with the addition of a preconference workshop on a contemporary issue or development in the field.

Sport history needs to stay in the public eye by, for example, engaging with the media and local communities. NASSH members have been prominent in both regards. Dick Crepeau’s “Sport and Society” columns (with the classic sign off, “you don’t have to be good sport to be a bad loser”) and Mike Cronin’s Gaelic Athletic Association oral history project readily come to mind. Such vehicles also open the door to tackling the third fault line in sport history. For their part, BSSH and ASSH “help maintain the profile and liveliness of sport history” (Malcolm) by respectively holding regional events and encouraging state-based “Chapters” to affiliate to the national society. Websites are crucial to maintain and extend contact with constituents and interested parties. But they are high maintenance and require constant changes to design and functionality to remain attractive and appealing and to ensure positive user experiences. Lastly, sport historians, especially those in kinesiology / sports science departments, should seek opportunities to develop interdisciplinary collaborations. Dan Nathan and Doug Brown remind us that historians can and should take the initiative. Recently, I hosted a water safety symposium at my university and I provided an historical perspective on the problem of drowning in New Zealand and Australia. (In the nineteenth century, drowning was referred to as “the New Zealand disease.”) These strategies should be seen as part of the armoury of what Malcolm calls “institutionally savvy” and “politically sharp” professional societies.

Historians of sport will interpret the status of the field in many different ways. My view is that historians of sport should not shroud the field in gloom and doom and that the subdiscipline is doing as well as, if not better, than many others in the humanities and social sciences. Intellectually, Tony is right when he says that “receptivity to the investigation of sport has never been higher in the historical profession.” He offers numerous examples and others, I’m sure, can add more. I am a member of a group producing a history of New Zealand and the sea. While sport and recreation comprises only a small part of my chapter and the book, the contributors are adamant that this content is critical to the credibility and legitimacy of the project. Politically, NASSH, BSSH and ASSH are responding appropriately to the fault lines with strategic reviews and new policies and programs. Previous contributors have outlined the initiatives of NASSH and BSSH. ASSH, too, has been active in these regards. During his term as president of ASSH, Rob Hess initiated a Ten Point Program for the society and its journal Sporting Traditions; the current president, Gary Osmond, has pushed some of these initiatives further.

Negotiating fault lines requires physical energy and perseverance. As the service awards at NASSH, BSSH and ASSH testify, there is no shortage of members who are willing to gift their energy to sport history. Many do so on top of busy family and working lives. Of course, not every strategy will work. There will be losses and defeats: departments will choose not to replace historians of sport who retire. Universities and colleges will disestablish positions and close departments. These events will be traumatic for the individuals concerned, and our societies can offer support. But they do not need to dominate the narrative of sport history, especially at the expense of acknowledging and celebrating achievements. Strategic losses should be simply accepted as part of the messiness of life and factored into what will always be negotiations along fault lines.

Douglas Booth is a Professor of Sport Studies and Dean in the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

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