U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Can You Do The Intellectual History of Sports?

The following is a guest post from Oliver Lee Bateman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is also the Reviews and Commentary editor of The Good Men Project.

“Can you do the intellectual history of sports?” This question was posed several years ago during a heated discussion in a University of Pittsburgh graduate seminar. The person asking the question was one of those brilliant but absent-minded Ph.D. candidates who talked big and did little, so at the time it went unanswered. However, as I spent the past week reading Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s book League of Denial, I began to formulate a tentative “yes we can” answer.

League of Denial
is a work of journalism, with all the attendant merits and demerits of that genre, but its authors do a fine job of chronicling the National Football League’s decades-long attempt to soft-pedal the implications of research into the effects of the mild traumatic brain injuries received by its athletes. Taken at face value, it is straightforward account of corporate duplicity and greed, pitched at a sufficiently low level that even casual sports fans can follow the narrative. But it is also a rip-roaring history of the conflict between competing paradigms of scientific knowledge.

Much of the attention given to League of Denial focused on its sob-story account of the death of Mike Webster, an obsessive, steroid-abusing lineman who battered his brain into sawdust over the course of a fifteen-year playing career. His tragic demise, along with the other athlete deaths catalogued in the book, was the angle used to sell the book at chain bookstores and other mainstream outlets (it is also how the accompanying PBS documentary opens, with gray overhead shots of the Pittsburgh skyline and a teary account of Webster’s last years). But at its core, League of Denial is about the various brain researchers who have sought to promote the existence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or to deny and downplay it.

Until a condition is labeled and created, can it be said to exist? Prior to the emergence of autism research in the 1960s, were the “autistic” among us at all? Some scholars have sought to retroactively diagnose cases of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome based on careful readings of primary sources, but beyond enlightening readers in the present, such works seem to have dubious historical utility. Here, however, we have a case in which a handful of brain slides of afflicted individuals served to confirm the long-held suspicions of practitioners who had witnessed these athletes’ mental deterioration during middle age.

Most of the fifty or so brains studied by Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University, yielded CTE diagnoses, including the brain of an eighteen-year-old who had played football for just four years. Tony Dorsett, the former star University of Pittsburgh and Dallas Cowboys running back, recently became the first living person diagnosed with the condition. The NFL, trying to head off these findings, settled a $700m lawsuit with retired players who were alleging that they had sustained repeated mild traumatic brain injuries during their playing careers.

But this outcome needn’t have been so. As Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru point out, the NFL’s prior response to this work had been to subsidize its own work in the field, with a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee that supported the publication of high-profile, peer-reviewed articles arguing against the existence of CTE and challenging comparisons drawn between this condition and dementia pugilistica. Had these findings won the day, would the aging Dorsett ever realize that he was suffering from anything at all besides aches, pains, and a “foggy” brain? The stakes in such a conflict of paradigms are significant: had the “revolutionary science” practiced by those advancing the existence of CTE not displaced the earlier claims of researchers denying CTE (many of whom were themselves established neurologists and concussion researchers, and likely not acting in “bad faith”), the “normal science” of Ann McKee and her colleagues regarding the etiology and treatment of this condition couldn’t have proceeded.

Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru don’t invoke the specter of Thomas Kuhn when examining these interactions among scholars, and they needn’t be criticized for the omission. However, this is a subject—ostensibly one of those “banal things…[considered] unworthy of attention,” in Pierre Bourdieu’s words—to which intellectual historians might well devote serious scrutiny. Moreover, it is not the only such project with at least a tangential relationship to sports. To offer but a single example, clear avenues remain open for the careful analysis of debates about field strategy in American and European football, perhaps following along the lines established by Bourdieu in his work on art and music.

Intellectual history is experiencing something of a renaissance, argue Darrin McMahon and Samuel Moyn in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as “scholars have recovered from the misplaced populism that once trashed great books” and “the continuing gridlock of political debate [has] left many people depressed about depleted intellectual capital” (their words, not mine). But is this to be merely a revival of the High Ideas studied so skillfully by Michael O’Brien, Perry Miller, and others? Or is it to be much more than a mere re-nascence, and instead perhaps an actual new birth—an intellectual history pitched simultaneously from below and above, a discipline that forbears from assigning judgments of value and taste to the ideas under scrutiny. I have argued elsewhere that “thick descriptions” of amateur pornography of the sort archived at Xtube.com would go a long ways toward illuminating the more obscure structures of everyday life, and received a comment from a reader that I was merely arguing for the production of “pandering, dumbed-down malarkey.” I suppose that is one way to look at it—another, perhaps better way would be to realize that not paying close attention to such “banal things” amounts to an abdication of professional responsibility.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Oliver — interesting post.

    Here are some previous blog posts from our regular bloggers that consider looking at sports through the lens of intellectual history — or maybe looking at intellectual history through the lens of sports. Also, this great guest post by Brian Ingrassia, whose Gridiron University is a really interesting look at how college football came to structure (in some ways quite literally) the place of the university in American society during the Progressive Era. So my guess is that most of the regulars here wouldn’t find something like “the intellectual history of sports” terribly, er, out of bounds.

    I do think most of us who write here generally tend to take the “simultaneously from above/below” approach — an excellent way of framing it, btw! — though we probably veer back and forth between one or the other orientation, depending on the project at hand.

    On the charge of (possible) “abdication of professional responsibility” — this is where the autonomy of historical inquiry comes in, and comes in handy. Each historian pursues the line of inquiry that seems most suitable for his/her project. Not every historian has to work with / look at every possible kind of source. If we simply allow each other the freedom to consult whatever sources / evidence seems most apposite to the inquiry we are pursuing, then I think that collectively, as a profession, we will be able to cover the bases, as it were.

    • Ah, some excellent stuff to read through this weekend. I don’t doubt that *you guys* take the topic seriously–it’s more the push-back I’ve received from other quarters. This post was as much venting as anything else. “Pandering malarkey” indeed!

  2. Take a look at Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France by Laurent DuBois. DuBois examines how competing ideas about French identity are expressed and contended through the French national team.

    • As good a book as one will find anywhere on (almost) anything, I think!

  3. Some relevant titles:

    James, C. L. R. Beyond a Boundary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

    Wacquant, Loi?c J. D. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Zirin, Dave. A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play. New York: New Press, 2008.

    What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.

    Jay, Kathryn. More Than Just a Game: Sports in American Life Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    Gems, Gerald R. The Athletic Crusade Sport and American Cultural Imperialism. Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska Press, 2006

    • Some great recommendations here, Kurt. The first two are among my favorite books of all time, particularly Wacquant’s. I’ve read Zirin’s work at The Nation but never his books, and Gems and Jay are authors I’ll have to check out in the future. Dan Wickberg below mentioned Mrozek’s Sport and American Mentality, which is just an amazingly good book (the section on male body image toward the end is something I built an entire lecture out of this semester). I really enjoyed Harvey Green’s Fit For America, too.

  4. One of the great overlooked works on the intellectual history of sports–Donald Mrozek, _Sport and American Mentality 1880-1910_ (1983).

  5. Great post!

    If you can forgive the utterly shameless self-promotion, there is at least one paper on the subject of the NFL’s abominable behavior vis-a-vis mTBI authored by a card-carrying intellectual historian . . .



    But I believe quite strongly that the history of occupational health is really important to understanding what is going on WRT professional athletics and risks of brain trauma. And my general approach to the intellectual history of med/public health is to suggest that ideas about disease, risk, injury, and illness are crucial to unpacking in particular the policy choices that are and are not made in any given social context.

    Prominent ideas surrounding the mTBI discourse IMO include, perhaps most notably, masculinity, risk (and its assumption), technology (as the answer to all health problems), labor and workers rights, corporate responsibility, and more.

    Again, great post!

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