Has life ever “thrown you a curve?” Have you ever “struck out?” Have you ever called a new colleague a “rookie?”
You're talking baseball – and you're proving that sports goes far beyond its diamonds, gridirons and courts. Around the water cooler, on the subway and at the dinner table, people talk about sports. It creeps into language, racial relations, gender equality and economics – to cover a few bases. Sports reflect society and society reflects sports.
“It is one of the ways we set values and validate values,” said Chuck Korr, a sports scholar at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Korr is one of a growing number of scholars who are turning sports’ water-cooler chat into a serious academic study. Sports scholars argue about any issue from gender influence to horse racing in 1812. They examine history, politics and labor to tell us about the relationship between sports and the rest of our society.
And, by the early 90s, sports scholarship had become a marketing boom for publishing – university presses, especially. Illinois, Syracuse, Yale and Columbia Universities routinely publish articles and books on sports. Now sports scholars are widely sought as experts by ESPN, the networks and newspapers.
Ten scholars founded the North American Society for Sport History in 1972. Now it has more than 400 members who huddle once a year to exchange notes, critique each other's research and present papers. The trend is international – the society met in New Zealand last spring and will meet in Banff, Canada, in May.
And the group even exists in cyberspace at www.nassh.org. Their site has an membership application, Journal of Sport History back issues, and links to the Amateur Athletic Foundation, the British Society of Sports History, Empowering Women in Sport as well as The Sporting News archives.
But sports scholars weren’t always so popular. Historians rejected Allen Guttman’s first project, though he has a doctorate in American studies. “There was a prejudice in the academy,” said Guttman, a professor at Amherst College. “When I began to write I was turned down for a grant because I was told that sports is not a serious topic.”
Now Guttman has written numerous books and articles, as well as appeared as a sports expert on ESPN. He is the president-elect of the North American Society for Sport History. And he's earned academic respect for his 1979 book on the evolution of sports, “From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports.”
Why study sports?
Guttman's inspiration came from watching German soccer hooligans in 1968. Soon, Guttman said, “I was absolutely mesmerized by the study of sport.”
Sports mesmerizes with its usually controlled violence, its drama, its competition and its sheer spectacle. It’s also often a microcosm of larger society, mirroring society’s good and bad. Sports, said Korr of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, “recycle changes that are taking place or changes that do not take place.”
Changes in race relations are the roots of Korr’s fascination. Korr grew up in Philadelphia as a baseball fan. In 1947, he was captivated while watching a game featuring Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the Major Leagues who also became a catalyst for change that inspired racial integration.
Korr continues to follow race and sports. He invited Robinson to a sports and race conference in 1972. He’s written about the black power protests of the 1968 Olympics. And he’s studying the role of sports in breaking apartheid in South Africa.
For scholars, sports study gives insight into almost every social issue.
One example is gender equality. The so-called Title IX legislation opened the locker rooms, playing fields and school funding to young women. The 1972 law made colleges devote equal amounts of money to women’s athletics and men’s athletics. Many now credit Title IX with the outstanding records of American women Olympians. And in the past two years, U.S. sports fans cheered women’s soccer and hockey teams in international competition. Through sports, women now compete closer to the same level as men.
“For the first time,” said Steve Pope, a former sports history editor at Human Kinetics magazine, “a new generation of young women are allowed to see powerful images of women playing sports as well.”
Money also makes the sports world go around. And the money from sports directly affects the communities that host teams and major athletic events. New stadiums in Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Seattle tax the cities’ citizens. Labor strikes by professional athletes strip people of jobs. Thirty-nine athletes made over $10 million dollars in 1998, not including advertising deals. With advertising, Michael Jordan, the highest paid athlete, made more than $100 million.
The economics of sports is pervasive, say sports scholars. “There are battles between large markets and small markets,” said Ron Smith, treasurer of the North American Society for Sport History. “There are battles for salary adjustment. People step on other people to get somewhere.”
All of that, say Smith and other scholars, justifies sports winning a corner in the academic world. When it comes to money, power, relationships, said Smith, “Sports are no different from the rest of society.”