U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sport and Intellectual History: A Few Stray Thoughts

         Last week I spent some time talking about what historians can do over the winter break. Today I’d like to continue in that vein, but with an eye towards the new year. Consider this space a place for us to think, out loud, about what we want to read and research about in 2014. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable talking about that publicly, I completely understand. Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to organize my thoughts while there’s still a few days left in 2013 about what I’d like to accomplish next year.

            The year 2013 has allowed me to explore the ideas of American intellectual history in a way I never expected. While I don’t want to become too autobiographical on this blog, I just want to make it clear that my fellow bloggers, along with all the commenters here, have helped me think about various avenues in intellectual history that, frankly, I don’t think I would have discovered without your help. For that all of you have my everlasting gratitude. While I strive to be a scholar of post-1945 American history, it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve learned a great deal about that, and other topics while participating in this blog.

            With all that said, I want to look forward to 2014. Something that I’m already invested in is the history of sport in America. A few days ago, Rivka Maizlish used the blog as an opportunity to talk about a topic that, while not her primary research interest, is one that’s still important to her. Like Maizlish, and I know like many of us on this blog, I have my own interests that (seemingly) line up outside of my primary work. In my case, I’ve debated with myself and colleagues the utility of sport history, and whether it’s something I want to pursue. Already, fantastic scholars such as Adrian Burgos have done a great deal to detail the history of various American sports, and capture their importance to American society and culture. Here at the blog I’ve offered a few thoughts on the intersection of sport history and civil religion.  

            In some sense, Black American intellectual history offers some avenues in terms of talking about sport history. The tangled relationship between Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson, for example, showcased the ways in which race, politics, and sports could come together in times of trial.[1] The split between pro-integration Black American liberals and moderates, against those Black Americans of the far Left such as Robeson, was never clearer than in this incident. But I’d certainly like to dive more into the topic of sports and intellectual history, and a goal of mine will be to sound off on the blog about those topics as time and research permit.

            Researching the post-1945 era offers its own set of potential research questions. When it comes to the realm of sport history and intellectual history, in fact, I’ve found myself asking the same question for the last year: how did professional and collegiate sports shape the “New South” of the 1960s and 1970s? From my start in a doctoral program, I’ve always entertained researching the rise of professional sports in the city of Atlanta in the 1960s. It’s been covered to some extent elsewhere, but I’d like to put it within the wider context of not just the Civil Rights Movement (which is a natural choice), but also within the rise of the Sun Belt as an economic and political force. At the same time, the rise of the Braves and the Falcons in Atlanta, coupled with the Dolphins in Miami and the Saints in New Orleans, could provide some food for thought in regards to Southern intellectual thought in the 1960s.

            Even if it doesn’t enter the realm of intellectual history per se, sport history in the American South in the 1960s and 1970s still offers plenty to think about in regards to the racial, social, and economic history of the South and the nation at large. As I research other topics, namely the relationship between liberalism, conservatism, and Black intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s, I’ll also keep an eye out on sport history and its relationship to intellectual and cultural development after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The worse thing that can happen, after all, is that I learn something new.


[1] One good place to start if you’re interested in this particular topic is Ronald Smith’s Journal of Sport History article, “The Paul Robeson—Jackie Robinson Saga and a Political Collision,” Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 1979), 5-27.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m really happy you posted this Robert. This is something I’ve thought about for a long, long time, but even more so now given the large number of student-athletes I have in my classes.

    I incorporate some history of sport into my U.S. survey and even the athletes who are normally pretty checked out really get engaged when I do this. For the athletes that are engaged students, they become even more engaged. One example that always goes over well is when I teach Black Power movements I show the HBO documentary “Fists of Freedom” about the ’68 summer games. They generally watch this as they begin reading Assata Shakur’s memoir. I use both to try and begin a discussion of Black Power: its goals as a movement, its views on gender, etc. It always goes over really well.

    However, doing this almost inevitably leads to a discussion of “the political athlete” with all students (but especially the athletes) wondering something along the lines of “why don’t we see this figure any longer?” The black athletes in particular are amazed by the political activism of Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith that they see in the film (and which they largely are not aware of) and wonder why you don’t see it any longer.

    I always quibble with this a bit and say that athletes still (limitedly) engage in political activism, but generally I think the interpretation is correct. One student phrased it best when he asked, “How do you get from Ali to Michael Jordan?” in terms of political engagement of athletes.

    So, a couple of questions:

    Do you think it is this simple? Have we moved from an era of the political-activist athlete to an era of the politically-disengaged athlete? Has anyone written anything on this?

    I’ve always wanted to use these questions to frame a course on the history of sport in the postwar period, so I’m interested to hear your responses.

    • You pose some fascinating questions here. I’d say that in terms of political engagement for athletes, it’s still there. Perhaps the bigger question to ask is, just how widespread was it during the 1960s and 1970s? We remember the Black Power salute in 1968, but what’s forgotten is George Foreman waving the American flag after winning gold at the same Olympiad. Was that purely Foreman being happy? Was it a response to the Black Power salute?

      Or even take people like Wilt Chamberlain, who was playing ball at the same time folks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell were organizing for protests. Chamberlain is just one example of a prominent Black athlete not being politically active during an era when we really think of the politically conscious Black athlete.

      I know that in “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” William C. Rhoden wrote about this to an extent. And so has Dave Zirin in his various works. But I think we have to be careful when talking about the political Black athlete. First, we have to establish was is and isn’t explicitly political. Furthermore, I think there’s a case to be made about contrasting domestic sports versus international competitions, i.e. how athletes are seen within the framework of the NCAA, NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. versus how they’re appreciated, and seen as symbols, when competing internationally.

      I think you might have inspired me to write another post about this ASAP, heh.

      • Write that post! I’m looking forward to it.

        I do take your point, but I would still argue that, despite the fact that apolitical athletes have always existed, they predominate much more now than they did in the past. I’m open to being proven wrong, however.

        One final note: be sure to watch “Fists of Freedom” if you haven’t. They do a good job in the film addressing George Foreman’s flag-waving.

      • I think Robert’s response is on point. But I would also add some further points of examination. Many of the athlete’s Robert named were active in the Sixties. What societal context made them active and how has the context changed. I think factors include money, the dissipation of overt forms or racism, and perhaps, the lack of a surrounding consciousness that encouraged the development of athletes’ consciousness.

  2. Hans Gumbrecht’s contribution to a recent collection addressing “secular magic” discusses athletes who are “in the zone” and “lost in focused intensity.” As most authors in the book argue, Weber’s thesis was incomplete. Along with disenchantment was an accompanying re-enchantment found in such places as cinemas and sports stadiums. Gumbrecht concludes his piece with a précis of his argument: “Today, many of us still feel this beneficial effect of sports as compensating for things that we seem to lose and may already have lost irreversibly in the process of modern disenchantment. . . . This would explain why so many sports fans . . . experience both an intense and a vague gratitude towards their most admired heroes. . . . But it is (statistically at least) unlikely that our heroes will ever be thankful for such gratitude, let alone engage in a conversation with us. Above all, we feel that ours is a gratitude whose referent, quite literally, ‘transcends’ the level of individuals and of individual conversations. In this sense, ours is a gratitude similar to the gratitude that made the Greeks believe in a spatial proximity to the gods as a condition for great athletic achievements. However, as so many of us have lost, for their private existence, the traditional religious horizons of transcendence, this gratitude gets deflected, so to speak, towards the world that we have. . . . Being thankful for what we have does not necessarily make us ‘uncritical’ and ‘affirmative.’ Although this exactly must be a fear that explains why so many intellectuals—even some intellectuals who love to watch or to practice sport—have such a hard time making their peace with it.”*

    I don’t know what the statistics are today concerning the “popularity” of professional sports from a northern/southern comparative perspective (or if that’s even a legitimate bifurcation nowadays), but might some present-day, Old South apologist-southerners find a renewed sense of “order” and “meaning” that was—from their perspective—stripped by the Civil War? Gumbrecht mentions the communal feeling of being part of a larger body that comes together for a particular purpose (rooting for one’s team), but I was thinking about the returning sense of hierarchy: the players are on the field, the coaches are on the sideline, and the spectators are in their seats. Everyone is in their place (except for spontaneous explosions of euphoria after a big win, for example, where the boundaries are temporarily crossed; the spectators run onto the field and victorious athletes run up into the stands to hug their parents or perform feats such as the “Lambeau Leap”).**

    *Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, ‘Lost in Focused Intensity’: Spectator Sports and Strategies of Re-Enchantment,” chapter 8 in The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, Joshua Landy and Michael Saler, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 157-158.
    **http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGEQy5fJzEk

    • This is really, really fascinating. I’ll have to definitely read this article when possible.

      As for the hierarchy idea, there may be some merit there. I’m thinking in particular of SEC football, and how successful coaches are the biggest figures in many Southern states. I don’t mean this just as an academic question, either: being from the South it sometimes feels as though some of the major coaches in the history of college football in the South were integral parts of peoples’ lives.

      Of course, I admit my bias there, and I don’t mean to sound as though my “Southerness”, if you will, gives me an extra understanding of sports in the South. Still, considering that I’ve toyed with using the theory of civil religion, and have begun to look at how public and civil sphere theories can speak to the importance of sport in modern society, what you’ve posted here is quite useful.

  3. Alright Jason, I’ll definitely watch “Fists of Freedom.”

    As for your point about political and apolitical athletes, I do believe you’re right in arguing that there were many more political athletes in the 1960s than there are now. Perhaps this has something to do with a “post-civil rights” era that so many current athletes have found themselves in? What that era encompasses is the 1970s, 1980s, and the early 1990s in my estimation.

    What prominent athletes in recent memory *have* taken controversial political stances since the 1960s? The last prominent athlete that I can remember being outspoken on political issues is Arthur Ashe. The Trayvon Martin case was interesting in that sense, too: you had many athletes taking a stance, and quite a few (Dwayne Wade comes to mind) making the argument that, since they had sons, they had a special responsibility to speak out. But beyond that, I can’t think of famous athletes taking a public stance on political issues. A few here or there may have said “Vote Obama” in 2008 or 2012, but that’s it.

    One last thing: there’s also this from Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who didn’t go to the White House after the Bruins Stanley Cup victory in 2012 due to his fears of a too-big government: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/hockey/nhl/01/23/tim.thomas.white.house.visit/

    I bring it up because, for most people, it’s already been forgotten. But it does offer something to think about in regards to political acts today: they often seem to be more one-off acts, instead of organized and dedicated to larger movements.

    • That’s exactly the right way to put it: “They often seem to be more one-off acts, instead of organized and dedicated to larger movements.” This is the key component of the change.

      Unsurprisingly, I think this is best read through the internalization of neoliberal ideology and its suspicion of social movement politics. So, you may get individual acts here and there or work on an electoral campaign (which neoliberalism allows for) but little else. Arthur Ashe is an excellent counterpoint, but it’s also been awhile since his activism.

      I think you can even read athletes speaking out about the Trayvon Martin case through this same lens. Not to belittle Wade, LeBron and others speaking out, but their speaking out really was very individualized as opposed to being intimately involved in the movement politics around the case.

      Even the limited electoral politics action we’ve seen has been highly individualized — singular acts, one “vote Obama,” etc. The only person I can think of that was actively involved in organizing and speaking for a candidate in a profound way recently was Jimmy Rollins for Obama. Beyond that, I can’t think of another.

  4. There has always seemed to be at least a little something to the fact that styles of sport both reflect and affect the character of the people who play them.

    Baseball reflects the analytical character of constitutionalist Americans. The various martial arts plumb the crevices and corners of Oriental spirituality. American football is just tank warfare, so naturally it gives way to individualistic and creative basketball as the electronic age arrives. And so on…

    Well, maybe…

    -dlj.

  5. “Michael Jordan, who was then on the verge of his first NBA championship, refused to endorse Harvey Gantt in his quest to become the South’s first black man elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. When asked why he wouldn’t endorse Gantt, Jordan famously answered, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”

    Likely apocryphal, but effective. The fact that “black” has become synonymous with “Democrat” is a key factor here as well. Once upon a time, Jackie Robinson endorsed Richard Nixon over Jack Kennedy because he believed the former was more genuinely committed to civil rights. Today, if a black athlete wants to completely destroy his market value, speaking well of the GOP might just do the trick.

    • I would expect a Vikings player vocally opposed to the gay-marriage initiative–and it appears there were many–would get much the same treatment, esp if he could be as easily replaced as Chris Kluwe was. Gays buy tickets, too.

      Their All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson, now that would be another story.

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