The History of Sport beyond Sports History

By Tony Collins

Why do sports history? This is a question both for historians and students – and of course for university administrators.

Across the Anglophone world the humanities, and history in particular, are under attack as universities embrace a free-market model of tertiary education. Departments are shrinking, jobs are becoming more scarce, and the pressure to justify subjects in terms of their efficacy in a shrinking jobs market is increasing.

Our field has also suffered in the past by not being taken seriously by many so-called mainstream historians and marginalised in sports studies departments. So we perhaps feel the chill winds of neoliberalism in the academy a little more than some of our colleagues. Yet, 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.

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.

There is no richer evidence of globalisation than the expansion of sports over the past two centuries. The expansion of American ‘soft power’ in the twentieth century cannot be fully explained without reference to the YMCA, basketball and the Olympic Games. How can we discuss the history of the British Empire without talking about cultural importance of cricket and rugby to both colonisers and the colonised? And sport was a proxy for Cold War rivalries throughout most of the last century. Yet there is almost no literature from mainstream global historians about the importance of sports. The multi-volume Oxford History of the British Empire contains barely a word about sport.

We can say the same about gender history. Despite the wealth of excellent work on women’s history and on masculinity, almost nobody outside of sports history has attempted to understand the central role that sport has played since at least the mid-nineteenth century in shaping conceptions of masculinity and femininity. For example, discussions on the various ‘crises of masculinity’ that emerge regularly from the early 1800s rarely discuss sports, while the extensive literature on women’s leisure rarely discusses participation in sport.

There are many other fields of historical study into which the history of sports can add substantially to research and debate. And to some extent this is being recognised outside of our field. The Journal of Global History, Radical History and German History have recently published special issues on sport and, as Duncan Jamieson’s invaluable H-Sport Journal and Periodical Review regularly shows, articles on sport in ‘mainstream’ historical journals are increasingly common. Even Harvard hosted a conference on soccer and globalisation this year. I would argue that receptivity to the investigation of sport has never been higher in the historical profession.

The issues confronting historians of sport in Sports Studies/Kinesiology departments are somewhat more complex. The focus on sports science and management, often combined with an ingrained distrust of the humanities, can make it difficult for historians. Yet even in a more vocationally-centred department, the centrality of history and heritage to sport cannot be denied. Here at De Montfort University, my colleague Neil Carter’s regular history column for Leicester City’s match-day programme has helped raised the profile of our International Centre for Sports History & Culture and built links among the broader soccer heritage community. Our skills as historians give us tremendous advantages when it comes to engaging with the public.

Not only is heritage an increasingly important part of sports culture but the history of coaching, drug use, and sports organisations must be understood by budding athletes and administrators. I taught sports management students at a previous university about the historical context of the formation of the English Premier League, the NFL-AFL wars of the early 1960s and the historical background to the creation of cricket’s Indian Premier League. In short, if students are seeking to make sporting history on or off the field, they need to know what that history is!

This is not to suggest that all we need to do is to improve our public relations’ message. Our own work needs to engage with a constantly developing historiography that is transnational and comparative. Too often our work is singularly focused on a particular sport and lacks broader context, both in terms of other sports and the broader historiography. Just as important, it often lacks a comparative element, either in terms of other sports or the experience of other countries. Too often discussions of the development of sports are confined within national boundaries without reference to the rest of the world.

In particular, historians of sport in the Anglophone world rarely draw on the extensive literature on sport in other languages. So, to take just one European example, the extensive literature on sport in France and Germany has rarely been integrated into British sports’ history because it is not written in English. Given the influence of the British model of sport on these countries, this is a rather glaring lacunae. Our ability to offer insights into subjects such a globalisation is limited by this national-centredness.

I would also argue that we need to be more critical about the concept of sport itself. Although historians of sport have produced extensive works on the impact of racism and sexism in sport, we should not be afraid of questioning the very idea that sport as an institution is inherently a good thing. Indeed, I’ve argued in Sport in Capitalist Society that the development of modern sport in the nineteenth century was part of an attempt to create a ‘masculine kingdom’ that excluded women and those males who did not match its hetero-normative ideals.

Too often the assumption that sport is intrinsically beneficial is accepted without question. This not only excludes a significant area of research – after all, far more people do not play sports than those who do, and there is considerable opposition to sport itself – but also opens up historians of sport to the charge that they are merely ‘fans with typewriters’. This is of course unfair, but an inability to critique sport’s raison d’être (which is often used by its administrators to justify oppressive policies and practices) can perhaps foreshorten our critical distance and inevitably restricts the audience for our work to those who are fans of sport.

Yet our audience is potentially much greater. Whether one loves or hates sport, much of the modern world cannot be explained without an appreciation of sport’s role within it. Sport both reflects the world we live in and helps to shape it.

Only historians of sport like us can explain why and how this is so – and it is this gives us a unique ability to explain the history of the world we live in today. Let us take the history of sport beyond Sports History.

Tony Collins is a Professor in the International Centre for Sports History & Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.

Leave a Reply