Strengthening the Intellectual, Material and Social Conditions for Sport History

By Bruce Kidd

Most NASSH members are based in universities, and these are crazy-making times for universities, especially the publics. While the demand for and affirmation of higher education, university-based research and the leadership and resources that universities traditionally provide in the economy, sports and the arts are greater than ever before, the financial support that they receive from governments and granting agencies is significantly lower than ever before (as measured by a percentage of their operating budgets). The only way many have kept up is by accepting more and more students, increasing tuition, and relentlessly fund-raising. At my university, Canada’s largest, the provincial grant has fallen from 80% of the operating budget in 1991 to just 27% today, while tuition-based revenue has grown from 15 to 54%. That increase comes from a 40% rise in the student body and significantly higher fees. No two universities are exactly the same, but as I understand it, the circumstances for other publics and many privates are similar. While enrolment growth can create new opportunities (a much more diverse student body, curriculum expansion and innovation, and new positions for faculty), it brings difficult new challenges (finding and building new space, strengthening student support, and addressing student debt). In the context of neo-liberalism, increasing public scrutiny and the call for ‘job-ready’ graduates, they intensify the culture wars of ‘whose knowledge counts’ and put new pressures upon the social sciences and humanities generally, not just sub-disciplines like sport history.

So as Doug Booth writes, we sports historians have to be on our toes. That’s why I welcome the NASSH Presidential Forum initiated by Kevin Wamsley and the thoughtful, wide-ranging contributions by our colleagues. My vantage point is more than 30 years of academic leadership, all at the University of Toronto, in four quite different divisions–as director of Canadian Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Science, dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (where I was also responsible for the University’s athletic and recreation programs), warden of Hart House (the University’s humanist co-curricular college) and currently, the head of the Scarborough campus, with 17 academic departments ranging from management, physics and environmental chemistry to the social sciences and humanities. In all of these positions, I have had to weigh and often adjudicate the competing claims of disciplines and sub-disciplines.

Today, more than ever, academic sport history matters. The economic, spatial, social, political and symbolic impact of sport has never been greater, yet few accounts of history, let alone contemporary society, adequately account for this turn of affairs and its significance. While professional teams, stadia and arenas, halls of fame, and historic site and monuments programs increasingly celebrate and commodify the careers of great athletes of earlier times and their achievements, they tend to do so without context or determination. Because so much public history of sports is driven by the masculinist monoculture created by the sport-media complex, it tends to be silent about those outside the mainstream, especially women and those in the condescendingly called ‘minor sports’, including the Olympic sports, and the rich social history of alternative approaches and struggles. If the histories of society and place are incomplete without a comprehensive, critical account of sport, there is also a public policy need. When the corporate cartels that organize professional sport seek greater and greater public subsidy, where government sport departments shape organization, opportunity and meaning through agencies like Sport Canada, and where the arbitrary decisions of sports organizations in the university and Olympic sectors affect millions of participants, careful accounts of how we got here and what alternatives were posed, repressed or ignored along the way are needed to inform debate, advocacy and intervention. At the very least, sport history should be a basic in faculties like kinesiology that prepare students for careers related to sport. I could go on. Many NASSH members make similar arguments. But as several others in this Forum have said, the trick is to accompany these arguments with strategic and concerted advocacy and intervention to see that the material, intellectual and social conditions for sport history are put in place, maintained and strengthened. In fact, I would argue that every one of us has a responsibility to do so.

We start from a good position. Because of NASSH, an effective, international and respected learned society with the participation and networks, journals and other publications it has encouraged, we have an important rallying point. An increasing number of sport historians have won respect with their presentations at mainstream conferences and publications in mainstream journals. More of us have won contested leadership positions in faculties and universities. But it’s a continual struggle.

It takes a many pronged strategy. We need to embed sport history in core requirements for degrees, majors, and in the case of professional programs like kinesiology, accreditation, which means the long march through curriculum committees, faculty councils and accreditation bodies. We need to assert the importance of sport history when new appointments are being considered, and when the ads go out, ensure that there are good candidates with sport history backgrounds in the candidate pools and lobby to see that they are short-listed. We need to bring distinguished sport historians to present at faculty seminars, organize seminars and conferences that will give the field visibility and credibility and invite colleagues in cognate fields to present at them as well. We need to ensure that sport history is a recognized discipline in granting councils (for this and other reasons, I fully endorse Jaime Schultz’ proposals for the inclusion of sport history in graduate rankings in the National Academy of Kinesiology and the creation of a ranking factor for the Journal of Sport History.) Those of us in positions of leadership (whether in administration or faculty associations) need to use the opportunities we have to intermix with other academic leaders to win respect for our discipline. All of us need to help our best graduates find jobs in good universities.

Many NASSH members are exemplars of these practices, and the contributors to this Forum offer excellent tips. We need to do these things again and again, no matter how familiar, and continually rework and renew our arguments and relationships to make them effective.

Outside the academy, sports historians need to find ways to contribute – and demonstrate the worth of our field – to sport halls of fame, sport policy bodies, and the media, and as much as possible, involve our graduate students in the process. We need to ensure that our research with implications for public policy – and most of it has – is disseminated to decision-makers and as wide an audience as possible.

When I think of my own career, I realize that I had my greatest successes (in securing appointments, approving curricula, influencing accreditation requirements and creating a national granting program) all came when I forged coalitions with sport sociology and sport philosophy under the umbrella of the ‘socio-cultural study of sport’ or the social sciences of sport. At the time, I didn’t feel I could win support for sport history alone, and the grouping of social scientists made us stronger. But it meant that the distinct contribution of sport history was de-emphasized, and in some cases, courses and appointments were lost to sport sociology. Such coalitions will continue to be necessary, as Malcolm MacLean has argued, so sports historians should contribute to them, position themselves to take advantage of the resulting opportunities, and make sure that the distinct contribution of sports history is understood by those colleagues. One of my biggest disappointments was not obtaining an endowed chair for sport history (close but not cigar), but this is an idea I would certainly try again. Another is ‘cluster hires’. At the University of Toronto Scarborough, the advocates of ‘food studies’, an emerging field not unlike sport history several decades ago, successfully advocated for three hires as a way of establishing this important new approach to historical and cultural studies. I wish I had done that for sport history.

For those seeking jobs in sport history, a multi-pronged approach will also be necessary. No matter what the thesis topic, I believe it essential that doctoral students ground themselves in historical and social theory and develop one or two teachable outside minors, so that they can apply to mainstream history departments, units offering some form of sport studies including sport management, and interdisciplinary programs like Canadian, American, and women and gender studies. It may well be that they become ‘sleeper’ sports historians, like a number of outstanding NASSH members, who were only able to venture explicitly into sport history after they obtained tenure. I also think that sports historians should keep their eyes open for jobs in archives, sports museums, and government sport policy units.

Sport history has much to offer our understanding of the past, and the ways in which we can work towards a better future, but it needs to be rooted in the institutional processes of knowledge production and dissemination/translation, and that means jobs, courses, endowments, granting programs, conferences and publications/communications, and strong human networks. NASSH is vital to those processes, but it is incumbent upon all NAASH members to infuse them with their energy and ideas. It comes with the territory.

Bruce Kidd is a Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education and a Principal at the University of Toronto Scarborough. He is also a Vice President at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.