Sport History Beyond 2016: Survive and Thrive

By Maureen Smith

Three Sundays ago, I read through the New York Times and was delighted to see Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s book Blood Brothers? The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X reviewed in the newspaper’s Sunday Book Review (March 18, 2016, pBR19). Rarely is a book with sport as its subject (and written by academics) featured in the NYT, and its always nice to see fellow NASSH members recognized for their work. Reviewer Gordon Marino, described as “a boxing writer” and “professor of philosophy at St. Olaf” identifies both men as “historians who have written sport books.” This struck me as an odd turn of phrase – are historians and sport books mutually exclusive?

Such a characterization took me back to last year’s NASSH meeting when my colleagues Andy Linden and Sarah Fields offered our responses to the Journal of American History’s special issue on sports history. We felt then, and now, that the discussion around the state of our field should include a range of sport historians, within Kinesiology (the origins of the field) and History, as well as other academic departments. Precisely, it ought to include NASSH and our Journal of Sport History as relevant and valid voices in the dialogue. Instead, at least to one observer, our response bore “the hallmarks of social hysteria similar to that given to Syndy Sydnor’s history of synchronized swimming when she presented it at NASSH.” I have to admit – that made me laugh. What I remember is the healthy exchange of dialogue and ideas after our session, and since that session, and it encourages me. It’s such a privilege to have a community of colleagues to talk about what you do, how we do it, why we do, and seeing that what we do actually is quite meaningful to many of us.

I’m not the only one thinking this; in Kevin Wamsley’s comments to the membership at last year’s banquet, he spoke of the importance of ensuring that sport history remains in university curricula and that sport history be supported as an important area of research. Wamsley promised to address this issue during his term as NASSH President. When he asked me to write something to start this conversation, I had just finished the copy edits on last year’s presentation turned article and I was sure no one was interested in reading through my thoughts after hearing them last year (in any case, you can read them in the next issue of JSH). While I recognize the critical role JSH plays in helping support and promote sport history as an important area of research, I want to suggest here that NASSH and our annual conference is serving an equally significant role in working to support both of Wamsley’s aims.

We all have difficult decisions to make about attending conferences – the costs, time away, the ways our work is measured and valued by our campuses and departments. What follows is my argument, in the best sense of the word, for putting NASSH on your calendar, as well as recognizing the substantial role this organization and its annual conference plays in the sustainability of sport history.

An organization’s strength is in its membership. While we meet only once a year, that annual meeting for many of us is a welcome reunion with a community of scholars that many of us lack on our campuses. There is something affirming to commune with folks who share your interests and passions (and fight some of the same daily battles) in sport history for a solid weekend of sessions after session, with some time for breaking bread together. For those of you fortunate enough to share your campus with another sport historian, congrats! But I also have to believe that NASSH provides you opportunities to reconnect with friends and colleagues about your work and about our field. Perhaps it is true for you as well, but NASSH has been a good space for me to present work that is notoriously “in progress” and where I’ve received some of the most critical and insightful feedback. Hearing it in person and talking through ideas, and listening to other papers and offering up the same to those members, that face to face is extremely valuable. Certainly we could Skype or Facetime to have this face to face, and many of us do use these avenues to continue the conversations, but the NASSH conference certainly provides the community building so necessary for the sustainability of our field. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to attend several conferences throughout the year and it’s always terrific when NASSH paths cross with NINE paths or NASSS paths or NASSM paths or NAK paths. NASSH, however, is and will remain my academic home.

The challenges to sport history, at least in departments of Kinesiology where the exercise sciences are often bent on eliminating any element of humanities and social sciences, are not new to us. The experiences of other NASSH members in addressing the significance of keeping sport history in the core or as an elective in the curriculum are important lessons to learn and share for those of us who continue to face these challenges head on. It’s also about sharing our methods, our resources, our sources, our ideas, and our encouragement – being generous with each other is good and healthy – and necessary for us to thrive as a discipline.

I’m optimistic about our field in that we are strong in number as NASSH members – and the quality of our work is simply amazing – the diversity in topics and approaches, the new methods and conversations, the interdisciplinary connections. Wherever we are, sport history is still alive and ticking, and part of the fabric of the university. Retirements will open positions and we need to be vigilant that those positions remain in sport history or at least under that growing sport studies umbrella. We should continue to make friends and allies in our departments and on our campuses, colleagues who recognize the value of sport history in the curriculum and who support our efforts to remain relevant, required, and respected. Let’s not kid ourselves – we all know too many people who could seriously benefit from a good sit down in a sport history class (off the top of my head, I include on this list, any ESPN employee, Roger Goodell, the nattering world of sports talk radio, but also physical therapists, athletic trainers, coaches, parents, etc.). In the multibillion dollar globalized sport industry/behemoth, just about every conversation would benefit from the work of my sport history colleagues in NASSH. And 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.

We head to NASSH in a little less than two months. Consider inviting a colleague who has never attended, or hasn’t come in a few years. Think about volunteering to serve on a committee or creating a session for a future conference. Challenge yourself to approach someone who you’ve wanted to ask about their work. We often kid about how much money is in the NASSH coffers. Perhaps we should think about ways to utilize these monies to support our colleagues who would like to attend NASSH, but lack the travel funds or the support from their departments. Or the ways these monies could be used to help our colleagues in their efforts to promote the field to their departments and universities? I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I’m hopeful that with our strength in numbers, our strategies will be aimed at growing our field – from the ranks of Kinesiology, History, American Studies, Sociology, Ethnic Studies, Business, and other departments that include our membership.

I’ve often joked that some of my best friends are sport historians. I know many people who’ve met at NASSH who now go on vacations together, write together, and whose treasured friendships started in a dorm room at a NASSH conference. Academia is an odd workplace. Sometimes your closest and most valued colleagues are oceans and time zones away – but, wow! – what a gift. I am grateful to be a member of this academic community – and look forward to many years to that weekend in May with old and new friends.

Maureen Smith is a Professor of Kinesiology at the California State University, Sacramento. She can be reached at smithmm@csus.edu

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