Sport History, Neoliberalism and Survival

By Murray Phillips

In responding to Kevin Wamsley’s Forum about the future of sport history, I will address what constitutes the field. Sport history, in my opinion, has three interrelated and constituent parts: sport history is an intellectual pursuit like other academic endeavours; sport history manifests in a number of ways – scholarship, conferences and societies; and sport history exists as part of the curriculum package of history, management, American / Australian / Canadian / British studies and, most importantly, kinesiology degrees.

In many ways, Tony Collins has outlined the important aspects of the first dimension of sport history as an academic endeavour. He makes an excellent case for understanding the importance of quality scholarship. My only addition is that we need to understand how scholarship is recognised, evaluated and valued in the cultural context of academic institutions and how these institutions are constituted in relation to state and national educational systems.

For example, what counts at my university and in the broader Australian educational milieu is less about books written, and more about articles published (and the associated metrics, impact factors etc.), and most importantly grants from national granting bodies. If I want respect about my scholarship from my institution and colleagues, who are fixated by a science-centric system of metrics (which is totally inappropriate for the humanities as many of you will know), and who don’t really understand sport history, a national grant makes sense to them, as it provides a familiar knowledge-specific platform that acknowledges scholarship. A grant from the Australian Research Council (and other likeminded institutions in other countries) provides validity to both the area of scholarship – sport history – and to the scholars. This emphasis on grants continues to ramp up. Some Australian universities have recently moved from a research funding model based on outputs – a point system awarded to journal articles, book chapters and books – to one that is based on inputs, that is, exclusively grant income. This is all occurring in an environment of diminishing returns as success rates of grant proposals diminish because funding is declining.

At NASSH, however, no one ever asks me what grants I am going to submit, but are much more interested in what I am writing, which is very refreshing. My point is that how scholarship is valued is not universally recognised or appreciated. It is important to acknowledge that academic institutions and national and state educational systems shape the forms of scholarship produced by sport historians.

There are many more nuanced dimensions to the argument above, but I would like to move onto the remaining two dimensions of sport history – how sport history ‘lives’ through societies, conferences and scholarship, and what it means to be a sport historian in the political milieu of the ‘kinesiology’ curriculum in neoliberal universities.

Sport history ‘lives’ through societies, conferences and journals. The major sport history societies include the Australian Society for Sports History (ASSH), the British Society for Sport History (BSSH), the European Committee for Sports History (CESH), the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport (ISHPES), and the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH) – all which have been in existence for between 20 and 40 years.

I have had little experience at BSSH, CESH or ISHPES. ISHPES began in 1989 and CESH started in 1995, while BSSH as Malcolm McLean explains in his synopsis have adopted a decentralisation strategy that seems to have reinvigorated the organisation. In terms of ASSH, I have attended conferences for the last two decades and it continues to function, like BSSH, with several regionally based chapters. Next year in Sydney will be the 40-year anniversary of the first ASSH conference and it promises to be a large celebration. I am also a regular attendee at NASSH and while I don’t have long-term membership data, the size of the conference seems to fluctuate according to place and venue, and if the number of young scholars who attended the recent conference at Georgia Tech, as well as the internationally-based scholars who regularly trudge across the globe to be there is any indication, NASSH is doing well. I think many NASSH goers enjoy the conference for exactly the reasons that Maureen Smith articulated in her editorial.

The final important way in which sport history ‘lives’ is through the specialist journals. Some journals are aligned with the sport history societies, some are not. ASSH and NASSH are responsible for Sporting Traditions and the Journal of Sport History respectively, the multilingual Stadion is aligned to ISHPES, while the International Journal of the History of Sport and Sport History Review are run by appropriately skilled and knowledgeable academics, but are essentially franchised to publishing houses – Routledge and Human Kinetics. This is where some of the most important changes have occurred in the last decade as many of the journals have embraced electronic publishing, online access, metrics and impact factors. As editor of JSH, I am acutely aware of the absolute necessity of engaging with the ever changing landscape of scholarship in the digital era and the challenges from predatory publishing within and outside of sport history. Sport History journals need to be forums for scholarship that meet the needs of their constituents who are continuously negotiating the requirements and complexities of neoliberal institutions.

My synopsis of the way that sport history ‘lives’ – through societies, conferences and journals – is that it is stable, not expanding in any noticeable way, nor is it rapidly declining. On this basis, you would think the field will have a reliable presence into the foreseeable future.

This future, however, is contingent on the continuation of the appointment of sport historians in academic departments. I am referring to sport historians who work in human movement, kinesiology, physical education, sport management and sport studies departments. In some ways, I am extending the issues raised by Jaime Schultz and Malcolm McLean. As Jaime has stated, roughly half of those who attend NASSH come from what we might collectively refer to as kinesiology departments, and I assume this figure would be a reasonable assessment of other associations. Of course there are those sport historians who work out of other places like history, cultural studies, American Studies, Australian Studies and so on. This group is incredibly important to the overall stability of sport history, but I assume they are employed as historians who write sport as well as about other topics. Maybe this group will continue to exist as long as the current structures continue to provide publishing outlets and collective communities for their scholarship.

I will focus on those historians who reside in kinesiology departments as I see them as the most vulnerable dimension of sport history. I will refer to the Australian context – building on Malcolm McLean’s analysis of British HE and Jaime Schultz’s assessment of the American situation – and more specifically to my experience in three different Universities over 20 years at the Centre for Sport Studies (University of Canberra), the School of Physical Education (University of South Australia) and, lastly, in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. The last institution is the focal point of my discussion. I have been at the University of Queensland since 2000 and my school has morphed from the Department of Physical Education, to the School of Human Movement Studies, to the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences in its lifespan. The School has been housed in the Faculty of Education, Faculty of Applied Science and at present resides in the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences.

These transformations in structure highlight the changing focus of the School from PE, to sport science, to health and nutrition, and the continual change in University structure as neoliberalism has driven higher education. I was not surprised when elite athletes, attached to a range of scientific equipment, started to strut their stuff down the corridors, but was caught off guard when we employed academics in population health, and pedometers were offered to all staff by evangelical health practitioners, and I was blindsided when we employed nutritionists (not dietitians, there is a difference folks) and our school set up food labs and started cooking classes in the building. This specific example may not have been replicated in other kinesiology schools, there will be different stories in other institutions, but the message is fairly clear: kinesiology as a discipline is contextually defined, fluid and will continue to change, it will live in different University structures depending on the history, politics and mandate of the institution, and will be affected by the current rationale of education driven by neoliberalism.

The outcome of this continual and unrelenting change is pressure for curriculum change at every step of the way. This is a crucial issue for sport historians. My experience is that every time there is a curriculum review, sport humanities, and I am referring here to sport history, sociology and philosophy, has to be defended. This is not an easy task when you are making a case to exercise physiologists, biomechanists, health promoters and, now, nutritionists. Some recent examples in my School are testament to this.

Over the last decade in Australia, professional bodies have emerged which are now determining the curriculum for Clinical Exercise Physiology, Physical Education and Nutrition Science in my School. This situation is not too different to what Malcolm has described as the ‘vocational’ turn in British HE. The outcome of this process is that our degrees are incredibly complex and much more specialised. Most challenging is that the external professional bodies determine the appropriateness of curriculum content and, perhaps not surprisingly, these external bodies don’t see the relevance of the sport humanities. These latest battles mean that those in the sport humanities have to be very shrewd about making strong cases for maintaining a presence in the curriculum.

What is very clear in Australia, and maybe elsewhere, is that without a presence in the curriculum, the sport humanities will struggle to survive. Funding for Universities in Australia is primarily provided by ‘bums on seats’ ($ per student in classes and courses) and as an academic if you have courses in the curriculum your job is secure. If you lose out in the curriculum battles, there is nothing to fight for. In Australia, you can lose your job (we have permanent positions, but not tenure in the American sense), if your area is cut from the curriculum. Survival of sport history, at least the significant dimension that is contributed by those in kinesiology departments, depends on positioning sport humanities as a valuable commodity in the curriculum warfare of neoliberal universities. Maintaining the existing presence of sport humanities scholars in kinesiology schools will go a long way toward sustaining sport history into the future.

Murray Phillips is an Associated Professor in the School of Human Movement & Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

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