Doing Sports History in a Hostile World

By Malcolm MacLean

If we want to ensure that “sport history [is] supported as an important area of research”, as Kevin Wamsley asked his brief to contributors to this forum, we need to be institutionally savvy and politically sharp. Now that we’re all up to speed on sucking eggs…

Sport, like many other forms of popular culture, is deeply and profoundly historicised. We are surrounded by people with a close to encyclopaedic knowledge of the minutiae of sports’ pasts, of its records, of its performers. For many, and especially for many men, this knowledge and the identity claims that flow from them are fundamental to the way they see themselves in the world. For a growing number it seems that these sporting identities are among the few stable identity claims they have, as we have become more mobile, more inclined to change jobs (or hold several concurrent jobs), less likely to stay closely linked to the places and people of our youth or many of the other banal social connections that ground us in specific places, communities, and ways of being that we use to craft our place in the world.

There is a sense that the extent and potency of this popular historicisation makes sports historians a constant fly in the ointment, especially as much of this popular history seems to be on the road to corporatisation. We’re that revisionist, huddled in the corner, shouting out (or often mumbling) ‘It’s not that simple’; we’re the disruptive voice that challenges the simplicities of ideology and in doing so seem to annoy as much as inform. There are times when the popular-as-dissident and the academic-as-revisionist come together, as anyone who has watched the long running struggle of Liverpudlians to sweep aside the fabrications of the Establishment about the Hillsborough disaster can see – although the most powerful academic voices in that struggle have been criminologists, not historians.

We’re used to this tension: it pervades our disciplinary past and present, from the disappointment over factoids it is assumed we know or obscure questions we ask to the books that are never going to make the cut but are still submitted for our scholarly societies’ book prizes; from our tendency to shy away from particular conversations in the pub to the implicit and not so implicit hierarchies of publication in our field. This fault line in sports history is one of three that shapes our discipline; it separates us from that strange breed known in vernacular English as ‘the anorak’ – although as Tony Collins notes (in #3 in this series) a tendency by other scholars to see us as ‘fans with typewriters’ suggests that we’re not that good at marking ourselves as ‘not-anorak’.

The second fault line is one well known to those of us Kinesiology or Sport/Exercise Science departments (Jaime Schultz, in #2 in this forum series, proves a list of some of the plethora of names by which our schools are known): this is the one where we’re continually called on to justify our existence and drain on the budget as we head off into the archives to work our arcane alchemy. The irony here is that the formative, foundational even, transmogrification at the heart of these academic units was a desire to give Phys Ed some kind of credibility (by making it a science) and for some a desire to make science accessible (by linking it to Phys Ed): surely this was alchemy of the most profound kind.

We know well the challenges that flow from this fault line: the dominance of positivist and post-positivist epistemologies; the imbalance of funding where we get the stationery cupboard and the physiologists some spangly new piece of equipment worth 1500 stationery cupboards, an imbalance made poisonous by institutional promotional criteria that attach significance to the size of research grants (especially where that new equipment is funded through those grants); the ranking schemes that see our co-workers in medicine publishing in journals with impact factors of 5 (or in some cases 8 or more) while in the humanities and social sciences we get excited by an impact factor of 1.5 but often have to accept 0.3. In some European systems, where there is a ranking of ‘approved’ journals, few sport/physical culture lists have any sociology journals and none that I know of have history journals in the top tier.

There is a third fault line, relatively newly emerging, that presents us with a further profound challenge. I am writing here from within the belly of the British HE beast, where this rapid tectonic shift is being felt in profound ways, and in some cases we are at the stage of clearing the rubble. Despite the specificities of the British earthquake, the forces and dynamics Jaime Schultz outlined in her mapping of the US dynamics (#2 in this forum series) are not dissimilar, and in some aspects only the names have been changed (although not to protect the innocent).When I say I write from the belly of the beast, I mean as 1) a University senior administrator (a post I am about to leave), 2) one of the ‘research leaders’ in my School, and 3) as a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History (I’ll come back to BSSH).

British HE has for some years been shaped by the strictures of New Public Management (NPM), usually felt as a focus on the budgetary bottom line, an obsession with quantitative measures and management by the straightjacket that is the Key Performance Indicator – and KPIs rule. Alongside this has been a rapid marketization of higher education; it is not the rapid introduction of one of the most expensive fees regimes for public education in the world that has done that but along with NPM and the increasingly unchallenged power of neo-liberal modes of thinking there has emerged a potent discourse shaped by the language of the market. In this shift, students have become ‘consumers’ and University publicity and course marketing information is subject to rules (euphemistically, ‘guidance’) from the Competition and Markets Authority which can prosecute for the mis-selling of products, including HE programmes of study.

For many HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) the response in the last decade has been to ‘go vocational’. The few sports history degree programmes there were have closed down, except the Masters programme at De Montfort University; the number of distinct sports history classes/modules/units is reducing in Sport Science/Studies (although Manchester Metropolitan University seems to be swimming against this tide); sports historians are moving to teach in other areas – management, sociology, cultural studies (but even that has to be not too obtrusive). The UK is not distinctive in this sense. In ‘going vocational’ we seem to be ‘training’ (it is less and less like ‘educating’) our students to work in an increasingly precarious and uncertain labour market: I see my former students making ‘careers’ out of holding down two or three jobs, some of which might even be sport/exercise related – the PE teachers are the lucky ones. It is not just sports history that is disappearing; although in most places philosophy content, as ethics, has been retained there seems to be a tendency (although far from universal) to redefine vacancies away from specific philosophy posts.

Yet amid all this turmoil and retrenchment, sports history is holding up – just not in its usual kinesiological home. This is where the BSSH story comes into the sports history landscape. Almost 10 years ago Martin Johnes parting act as Chair at the 2007 conference was to suggest that the society was on a path to withering away (see ‘British Sports History: The Present and the Future’ Journal of Sport History 2008 Vol. 35 No. 1 p. 65-71). In response the Society embarked on a fundamental strategic review looking at questions such as what were our aims and objectives, were our structures fit for purpose, what were our outward facing forms and media, how could we get beyond an approach to the usual suspects and how could we grow in both scholarly impact and in size. It was a long process, running for 4 years during which we considered some very sensible proposals and some frankly hare-brained ones (mea culpa).

There were several significant planned outcomes, including setting up a small fund for event – seminars and workshops – funding, especially but not only to support initiatives by graduate students. More significant was a decision to regionalise, initially building on a network that was growing up around the Sport & Leisure History Seminar series run through the Institute of Historical Studies (IHS) at the University of London. The result of this is that four years later, under the BSSH rubric, there is an active network in the south east of England running two or three day conferences a year, in the north west of England a similar regional network based at Manchester Metropolitan University now runs regular day conferences and an annual two day International Sport & Leisure History Symposium (although I’ll concede it is stretching things to claim BSSH initiative for this one), while the Scottish group now holds an annual day conference. The decision to make these sport and leisure history networks with seeding funding distinct from the small grants programme was in recognition that our numbers will always be small, and also that leisure historians had been rather orphaned by the changes in the HE sector and scholarly bodies.

The other significant outcome was serendipitous: in both 2010 and 2012 BSSH held its conference in London, with the result that there was significant growth in graduate student membership, where those students were not in sport studies programmes, but in history or politics departments mainly at Universities in and around London. In large part this was a result of the networks growing up around the IHS seminar series.

The marketization of British HE has eviscerated sports history in sports studies programmes (albeit with some exceptions, and it is notable that the DMU Masters programme is in the History Department and delivered by distance learning), and while the BSSH shift in focus away from a single annual conference to add a number of regional events has helped maintain the profile and liveliness of sports history it is a lucky coincidence of timing that we’d already embarked on this review before the fees hikes of up to nearly 200% in 2012/13, that other initiatives were underway (including the IHS series) and that there was an openness to broadening our remit at a regional level to include leisure history. We’re also lucky that the UK is quite small so can fairly easily travel to regional events (although not always so easily by public transport).

The upshot of these three fault lines is that we’re continuing to work in intellectual, political and economic environments that are not conducive to academic sports history’s future. I think we need a smart, activist response. The BSSH initiatives are, at best, a work-around this neo-liberal, NPM-driven swathe that is being cut through the humanities components of sport studies/kinesiology programmes. Much as it sticks in the craw, the tactical approaches Jaime Schultz suggests are essential to help maintain the profile of sports history – while JSH does not record an ‘impact factor’ we will limit who will publish in it and its international reach. Interdisciplinary work is also essential, and that is hard for us – it is not our usual style. But equally or more so we need to become more politically savvy as scholarly societies. In the USA, as Jaime notes, it is pressure on the NAK; in the UK, BSSH joined together with around 20 other scholarly societies to successfully nominate and lobby for a senior scholar grounded in the social sciences and sympathetic to the humanities to chair the panel reviewing research quality in sport (in the past, the panel had been dominated by sport scientists) during the 2014 Research Excellence Framework exercise; if we were continuing to be smart, we’d be looking at who could chair that panel in the next review exercise in 2020.

The best way to take charge of the future of sports history is, as Tony Collins suggested in #3 in this series, to ensure that we’re in the other channels in the braided river that is History-the-discipline, while also working in interdisciplinary projects with others in our schools and departments meaning that we need to start with convincing sport scientists that their increasingly common post-positivist approaches need historical insights. But we also need our scholarly societies to become more activist and politically savvy about the ways we engage in higher education politics and praxis, including to defend those spaces of critical thought and contemplation (I have argued this in a 2014 paper in Sport in Society).

It’s about being smart in our political struggles: here’s to that!

Malcolm MacLean is a Reader in the Culture & History of Sport at the School of Sport and Exercise/Exercise & Sport Research Center in Gloucester, England.


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