I am soon headed back to Alabama. The annual American Historical Association meeting here in Denver has been very encouraging. I got to attended several panels including two of the three focusing on sport history (yes, I now know that sport historians use the word “sport” in a singular way).
I was especially encouraged after listening to a panel that ended a few minutes ago. It featured several historians who addressed the nuances in sport history. David Weinfeld of Virginia Commonwealth University helped us find meaning in how race is an unstable way to describe athletes between the First and Second World War. Distinctions were sometimes made between white athletes by newsreporters. A Jewish boxing champion, for example, was seen as being “alert” in comparison to other “white” athletes. Fewer nuances, however, manifested for “black” athletes. Joe Louis, by way of example, was seen by one sportswriter as fighting like “an animal” when, in fact, as Weinfeld explained, his approach to boxing was quite methodical.
Jamal Ratchford of Colorado College discussed the complex ways Adolph Rupp, one of the most successful white basketball coaches, is remembered. While some saw him as a racist, he spent a good deal of time coaching black athletes and leading clinics before integration. As hard as it is to believe, Alabama governor George Wallace and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, whose track records on race are also remembered in the most negative ways, invited him to do as much.
Joshua Wright of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore uncovered efforts to reinstate football at the UMES. He cast a wider lens on the decline of sports at HBCUs following integration. Altogether, these three historians provided a glimpse at how race encounters sports in twentieth century.
Listening to these scholars and commenter Leah Wright Rigueur of Harvard University, I was reminded of the degree to which scholars often write for each other. I wondered what would it take for us to reach wider audiences. I think the present political climate almost makes it necessary to speak in accessible ways about our complex past. What better platform than sport history? We have a ready-made audience. If we do, so many would be less surprised about how complicated many historical figures really were.
During the Q & A, although nervous as heck, I recalled my recent interview with the amazing Cari Champion of SportsCenter. Although she was surprised by the site that documents the infamous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, she was especially interested in making sure ESPN’s audience understood Alabama’s complex past. I applaud her for that and welcome the chance to continue writing and researching these messy stories. Even with oppression in full view in and outside sport history, we must use care in addressing it and critiquing those who are still trying to find meaning in it.
After the panel on which Weinfeld, Wright and Ratchford spoke, I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Fields of the University of Colorado Denver. She discussed the complex history of Title IX, or legislation that attempts to level the playing field, pun intended, for individuals despite differences like race and gender. White women have often been the biggest beneficiaries of this legislation. Fields took the time to tell me about the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH). Now, Wright, Ratchford and I are discussing putting together a panel for that conference.
As I complete my book chapter for an edited volume (I analyze the University of Miami football team circa 1980s inside a larger look at racial and spatial politics on the Florida peninsula dating back to Andrew Jackson’s clashes with the real Seminoles before the Civil War), I am excited about how my interest in sports will develop. It is an issue that is hard to ignore given that I grew up in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a region of the country where many boys and young men, among them, my brother Duane, played football.
How will I find meaning in that history and more importantly, how will I write with care for scholars and everyday people? I’ll think about these things and more as return home and get ready to cheer for the Tide (always keeping in mind my love for The U).