A Primer Concerning the Role of Latinos in US Sport: The 1961 Donna, Texas Redskins and the Texas State Football Championship

by: Jorge Iber, PhD
Texas Tech University

Since this is my first post, it is necessary to provide readers with a sense of the development of this writer’s academic interest in the topic of Latinos and sport.  My undergraduate degree is not in history, but rather in the area of business management.  After a few years in banking, my thoughts turned to teaching, and eventually, graduate school.  Upon arriving at the University of Utah to pursue a doctorate in the history of the American West, I became acquainted with Larry Gerlach and his work on sport.  This was a revelation as athletics was not necessarily an area of possible academic inquiry for me.  Although my program did not allow time to take a class on this topic (my dissertation and first book focused on Mexican Americans and their experiences in Utah[1]), a series of discussions with Professor Gerlach over the years wetted my appetite.  Upon arriving on the campus of Texas Tech University in 1997, a colleague (who taught baseball history) mentioned that there was an individual by the name of Bobby Cavazos who had played football for the Red Raiders in the 1950s and whose story might be an effective blend of my academic interests.  After presenting papers on Cavazos, and publishing articles on his career, it became apparent that his was not the only “story” of this kind and that Texas history most likely held similar tales.  Thus, began my study of the history of Latino athlete that has lasted now for almost two decades, and has generated several publications.[2]

Any reader who undertakes a concerted review of the academic literature of American sports quickly realizes that an examination of the ties between sport and various ethnic and minority groups has been a primary focus of scholars.  Not surprisingly, a crucial concentration of such studies has been the examination of the relationship between African Americans and athletics.  For example, Jules Tygiel’s work on Jackie Robinson, Janet Bruce’s study of the Kansas City Monarchs, Rob Ruck’s study on black Pittsburgh, and Michael Lomax’s study on African American baseball entrepreneurs, are but a few examples of the many fine works done on this group and their sporting experiences in the US.  Likewise, writers such as C. Richard King, John Bloom, and William C. Kashatus have examined the role of sport in the lives of Native Americans. Others have shed light on the role of sport in the lives of Jews, Italian Americans and Asian Americans.[3]  Thus, the magnitude of the relationship between sport and these communities is firmly established and beyond dispute.

This, however, had not been the case with Latinos and athletics, as part of their historical experience had been, until recently, largely overlooked.  One key reason for this gap was, quite simply, because the “times” of the Chicano Movement (say, 1965-1980) and the development of this academic field focused primarily upon other historical aspects: the labor movement, resistance against discrimination, ethnic self-determination, the rise of important civic and community leaders, and similar topics.  Given the political and social context of the times, such themes were certainly worth examining and analyzing.  Still, the overall focus of the research was on social history, and as scholars who have written about the groups noted above have demonstrated, sports history is an effective way to pursue social history.

Among the first individuals who turned the academic gaze upon the role of sports in the daily existence of Latinos were Samuel O. Regalado and Richard Santillan.  Beginning in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, these two scholars began systematic examinations of topics such as Spanish-surnamed players in the majors, the minors, and the development of community leagues.  Two of Regalado’s most important early essays demonstrated first, the importance of barrio-based baseball in Los Angeles; and second, how the Dodgers worked to reach out to this important community upon their arrival in southern California from Brooklyn.  Additionally, Santillan’s studies demonstrated the historical longevity, the social consequence, and pride-sustaining influence of Mexican ligas (leagues) and teams in locales throughout the Midwest.[4]  My research utilized these fine works as models, and eventually led me to the story of the 1961 Donna High School Redskins; the only team from the Rio Grande Valley ever to win a state title in football (otherwise known as Texas’ other religion).

Since many readers may not be familiar with Lone Star State geography, it is necessary to point out some quick basics about the area that is known to Texans simply as “the Valley.”  This section is located in the deep-south portion of the state and is comprised of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties.  The locales are overwhelmingly comprised of Latinos (mostly of Mexican descent).  While important players and teams from this region have made their mark in high school football history, the predominant perception among “those in the know” about the sport is that the gridiron quality here (both historically and currently) pales in comparison with other sectors of Texas.[5]  Indeed, one legendary coach who arrived in the early 1960s and spent many years in the region was initially advised to avoid the area, as “the Valley was 80% Mexican American, and everybody knew Mexican Americans were poor football players.”[6]  Another reason for the low regard for Valley football was because many of the players did not have a chance to condition themselves for the upcoming fall over the summer off season; with many having to help families by toiling as migrant workers.  The events of 1961 would challenge many of the assumptions about Mexican American athletes and Valley football.

The story of the Redskins[7] begins with the hiring of Earl Scott to coach the squad in 1960.  Scott was familiar with the “challenges” of leading mostly Mexican American teams, as he had previously coached at Laredo High School with a modicum of success.[8]  While the Redskins were picked as one of the top teams in their district for 1961, they were certainly not perceived as possible challengers for state-wide supremacy in the AA classification.  The team consisted of 18 players, 10 of whom were of Mexican descent.  The season did not start well, as Donna lost its first two (non-district) games.  However, the team recovered to complete a perfect in-district campaign, and earned a spot in the playoffs.  By this time, the Redskins hit their stride and won each game to move on to the state finals against an undefeated team from Quanah.  Before moving on to the title game, a brief note about one of the playoff matchups is necessary.  In a regional game against Sweeny High (won by Donna 32-14), one of the coaches for Sweeny asked Scott “Can these pepper bellies play? I mean, you never hear of any of them in the Southwest Conference.”  Later, as the captains went out for the coin toss, a Sweeny player asked whether the young men representing Donna were actual players or merely team mascots.  In other words, this opponent did not deem the Mexican Americans on the Donna team to be worthy to share the same football field with the white athletes on the Sweeny side.

The title game was thrilling, and the Redskins eventually prevailed 28-21 against an overwhelming favorite.  Some reporters from that era lavished praised on Scott (and deservedly so), but provided but the faintest of praise for the Mexican American athletes who overcame great odds to win a title.  The significance of the victory, however, did not escape the notice of the players, and the mostly Spanish-surnamed community.  One member of the team, Abel Benavides (a running back), summarized the importance of football to these athletes by stating that the sport “gave me a much better outlook on life.  In football we all grew together.  In this town, I went through the front door.”

In later years, other residents of Donna provided further support concerning the importance of the team and what it accomplished.  One example will suffice to make this point.  Another member of the team, Oscar Avila, when interviewed in 2002, stated that during one visit to his hometown an older gentleman approached and inquired as to whether he was a member of the ’61 team.  When he responded affirmatively, the man turned to his wife and said, “Este es uno de los Avilas que jugo en el equipo del ’61 cuando les ensellamos a los gringos que nosotros tambien sabiamos jugar football.” (“This is one of the Avila boys who played for the ’61 team when we showed the gringos that we too knew how to play football”).

Like the better known stories of the 1966 Texas Western Miners and the 1963 Loyola Ramblers, the story of the 1961 Donna Redskins provides an important example of the value of combining both the history of sport and that of an ethnic minority group.[9]  This is the goal of my research in this area.  Part of the power of sport for ethnic and racial minorities in the US has been to challenge assumptions about such groups.  A substantial amount of the spade work for African Americans, Jews, Native Americans and others has been done.  It is time to begin the process of integrating the nation’s largest minority group, the Latino/a population, into this literature.  The story of the 1961 Donna Redskins is but one example of such work.


[1] Jorge Iber, Hispanics in the Mormon Zion, 1912-1997 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).

[2] Among some of the works I have published, please see: “Mexican Americans of South Texas Football: The Athletic and Coaching Careers of E.C. Lerma and Bobby Cavazos, 1932-1965,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 55 (April 2002): 616-633; (co-edited with Samuel O. Regalado) Mexican Americans and Sport: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007); (co-authored with Jose Alamillo, Arnoldo De Leon and Samuel O. Regalado) Latinos in U.S. Sport: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011); More than Just Peloteros: Sport and U.S. Latino Communities (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014-forthcoming); and (co-authored with Lee Maril) Latino American Wrestling Experience: Over 100 Years of Wrestling Heritage in the United States (Stillwater, OK: National Wrestling Hall of Fame, e-book, 2014).

[3]  This list is but a sample of the works in this area, and is not exhaustive.  Rob Ruck, Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Janet Bruce, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985);  Michael E. Lomax, Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003); C. Richard King, Native Athletes in Sport and Society: A Reader (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2006); John Bloom, To Show What An Indian Can Do: Sports at Native American Boarding Schools (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); William C. Kashatus, Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and the Tragedy of Indian Assimilation (College Park: Penn State University Press, 2006);  Peter Levine, Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Gary Ross Mormino, “The Playing Fields of St. Louis: Italian Immigrants and Sports, 1925-1941,” Journal of Sports History 9 (Summer 1982): 5-19 and Joel S. Franks, Crossing Sidelines, Crossing Cultures: Sport and Asian Pacific American Cultural Citizenship (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000).

[4] Samuel O. Regalado, Viva Baseball!: Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); “Baseball in the Barrios: The Scene in East Los Angeles since World War II,” Baseball History 1 (Summer 1996): 47-59; and “Dodgers Beisbol Is on the Air: The Development and Impact of Dodgers’ Spanish-language Broadcasts, 1958-1994,” California History (Fall 1995): 282-289.  Richard Santillan, “Mexican Baseball Teams in the Midwest: The Politics of Cultural Survival and Civil Rights,” Perspectives in Mexican American Studies 7 (2000): 131-152.   Another major contributor to the history of Latino participation in baseball is Adrian Burgos.  Please see: Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) and Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[5]  Greg Selber, Border Ball: The History of High School Football in the Rio Grande Valley (Deer Park, NY: Linus Publications, 2009) and Cathy Harasta, “Grande Memories: ’61 Donna Team Remains Valley’s Only State Champs,” Dallas Morning News, October 27, 1999, 44-48.

[6] Charlie Williams, “South Texas Football,” Texas Coach (April 1979): 37 and 60.

[7] While there is much controversy surrounding this term at the moment, I felt it imperative to use it in this article so as to provide proper historical context.  The folks in Donna still proudly proclaim themselves to be “Redskins” and I believe it would have been disrespectful on my part to challenge them concerning the use of this term for this story.

[8] All of the following materials are from: Jorge Iber, “On Field Foes and Racial Misperceptions: The 1961 Donna Redskins and Their Drive to the Texas State Football Championship,” in Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado,   Mexican Americans and Sport: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007): 121-144.

[9] See: Frank Fitzpatrick, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999) and Lew Freedman, Becoming Iron Men: The Story of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2014).

Baseball Dreams Deferred: The Story of the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars (Part I)

When Andrew first pitched the idea of putting together this public forum on sport history, I was hesitant to join. The idea of publicly sharing things that I’ve written has always given me an irrational fear, a feeling that I’m standing in front of a room in my underwear.  However, the chance to work with such talented scholars deeply interested in sports and its larger cultural role in our world was too good to pass up.  As many of you can attest, being a sports fan can be a lonely experience in graduate school. I can count on my fingers and toes the number of times my cries for relief from Tony Romo’s nightmarish fourth quarter meltdowns have been met with blank stares from my colleagues.  Like they say in the Baptist church, it is “good to be in the number.” This post marks a reunion of sorts.  After a slight intellectual detour to examine student activism in South Carolina, it excites me greatly to resume study of the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All-Stars and their valiant attempt to desegregate Little League.  Much of the credit for the team’s story going public belongs to the team’s unofficial historian Gus Holt, a tireless advocate for fairness and equity in youth athletics. The Post and Courier’s Gene Sapakoff, Margo Theis Raven, and the Charleston Riverdogs also deserve a tip of the cap for their support of the team. In keeping with this spirit, we are in the planning stages of a campaign to have the All-Stars invited to the White House.  This is a link is our first promotional video.  More information will be made available soon. 

On a gorgeous, sun-kissed late August afternoon, a capacity crowd of spectators gathered at Original Little League Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania to witness the championship game of the 1955 Little League World Series (LLWS) between upstart, sentimental favorites from nearby Morrisville and a talented, resilient squad from neighboring Delaware Township, New Jersey.  The climactic struggle of youth baseball’s annual summer showcase, broadcast to millions of households nationwide and beyond America’s borders by CBS, provided Little League with a powerful platform to impress viewers and continue the sport’s amoeba-like development into a global phenomenon.  During the first decade after World War Two, Little League expanded from twelve leagues in a single state to more than 3,300 leagues in the United States, Canada, the Panama Canal Zone, and Mexico.

Those privileged enough to watch the final game of the 1955 series were treated to quite a spectacle.  Original Field, a bowl-shaped emerald surrounded by lush forests, was a child’s “Field of Dreams.” The freshly painted red and yellow striped foul poles, a color scheme selected by local kids, shone like eagerly licked candy.  Above the center field bleachers, a huge, white sign shouted to the world, “Welcome to the Little League World Series!” Adult volunteers and league officials added seriousness to the event.  The pregame ceremonies, attended by dignitaries such as Pennsylvania Governor George M. Leader and the highly esteemed General George C. Marshall, were accompanied by more than the usual pomp and circumstance.  Nearly every inch of the stadium was adorned with patriotic bunting.  American flags danced to the tune of the national anthem played by Fort Dix’s 173rd Army Band.  The two teams, momentarily forgotten amid the clamor, stood on opposing baselines.  The boys, neatly attired in their freshly cleaned uniforms conspicuously emblazoned with the names of their native states and corporate sponsors, waited eagerly for their chance to emulate big league heroes such as Ted Williams and Joe Dimaggio. 88 year-old pitching icon Cy Young threw the ceremonial first pitch in one of his last public appearances before his death a few weeks later.  It was a Rockwellian portrait of American athletic innocence, a sanitized and pristine homage to the nation’s postwar affluence and blinding whiteness.

Original Little League Field at Memorial Park, Williamsport, PA.

Original Little League Field at Memorial Park, Williamsport, PA.

Hidden in plain sight, not unlike the occasional porter in Rockwell’s classic paintings, was a smattering of black faces including a lanky twelve-year-old named George William “Billy” Hunter.  The Camden, New Jersey native, described by legendary African American sportswriter Sam Lacy as “one of the most popular kids in the tournament,” was a revelation on and off the field.  A jack-of-all-trades, Hunter pitched and played shortstop, center field, and catcher during the week-long competition.  In the semi-finals against Alabama, whose fans whooped and waved Confederate flags of all sizes, Hunter displayed the courage and athleticism made famous by his hero, Jackie Robinson.  After giving up a three-run home run in the first inning, Hunter bounced back with timely hitting and savvy base running to lead his team to a dramatic 6-4 victory.  After the game, his speed was put to even better use when dodging young female admirers.  The reluctant heartthrob continued his stellar play in the title game, hitting a single and a double during a 4-3 loss in extra innings.  For Little League officials and volunteers, Hunter’s success symbolized the importance of the ideals of good sportsmanship, honesty, loyalty, courage, and reverence they sought to implant within each player.  Moreover, his presence also lent credence to the organization’s commitment to concepts of racial tolerance and equality.  From its inception, Little League mandated integrated play in hopes that boys would learn that “their teammate is a pretty good fellow, no matter on which side of the railroad tracks he happens to live.”

The Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars at the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, August 26, 1955.

The Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars at the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, August 26, 1955.

Huddled in the bleachers along the third base line, ironically near a large banner which read “Welcome,” were fourteen African American boys from Charleston, South Carolina whose experience in Williamsport belied Little League’s ironclad commitment to integrated play.  Known as the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All-Stars, this team of 12-year-olds became embroiled in a racial controversy that forever changed youth baseball in the American South.  Nearly 15 months after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, black YMCA officials entered the team into the “whites only” Charleston Little League tournament.  City recreation officials eventually canceled the event.  Winners by default, the All-Stars prepared to compete in the South Carolina state tournament.  In a show of “massive resistance,” white Little League officials, coaches, and parents gradually organized a mass boycott.  The Cannon Street team was ultimately denied the opportunity to compete in the LLWS but was invited to attend the final game as guests of Little League president Peter J. McGovern.  The following year, teams in seven southern states seceded from Little League and formed “Little Boys Baseball, Incorporated,” a segregated youth baseball organization that later became known as Dixie Youth Baseball.  This “Civil War” within youth baseball, sparked by the Cannon Street effort, was a pivotal moment in the African American freedom struggle in South Carolina and the nation.

This is the front cover of Dixie Youth Baseball's 50th Anniversary souvenir booklet which highlights its evolution from a segregated "whites only" league to its modern incarnation.  Its authors recognize South Carolina as the organization's birthplace but make no mention of the racial controversy that spawned it.

This is the front cover of Dixie Youth Baseball’s 50th Anniversary souvenir booklet which highlights its evolution from a segregated “whites only” league to its modern incarnation. Its authors recognize South Carolina as the organization’s birthplace but make no mention of the racial controversy that spawned it.

This year marks Little League’s 75th anniversary and offers a timely occasion to remember the story of the Cannon Street All-Stars and ponder the paltry state of youth baseball in African American communities.  Unlike its adult-centered counterpart, Little League’s official history lacks complexity and offers superficial analyses of racial and gender strife throughout its existence. The organization’s official website entitled “Little League, Big Legacy” includes a historical timeline and a series of vignettes featuring black professional ballplayers such as Brandon Phillips and Lloyd McClendon, each of whom share fond memories of their Williamsport experiences.  Despite honoring the team in 2002, Little League makes no mention of the Cannon Street saga in its online history.  This omission, honest or not, reveals much about Little League’s standing as a corporate entity that profits from its ability to meet a consumer demand–to sell youth recreation that reaffirms the myth of the level playing field and masks the hard realities of economic inequality and racial discrimination that have historically shaped both its imagined global neighborhood and its real suburban ones.

Similar to Major League baseball, where only 8.3% of players on opening day rosters were black, Little League has largely failed to reach kids in predominantly black communities.  Most blame hip-hop culture, the astronomical rise in single parent households, and the easy access and instant gratification found in other sports for the decline in black participation.  While these are all valid reasons, they place more of the blame for the sports’ decline on those without resources and access than the governing bodies that control the sport both internationally and in local neighborhoods.  In parts of the South affected by “Little League’s Civil War,” to what extent do hard feelings, racial stigmas, black poverty and modern-day gentrification serve as an additional burden dragging down baseball’s prospects for recovery?  In my next few posts, I will break the silence surrounding the desegregation of youth baseball; examine the role of Little League in America’s postwar liberal project; and address the impact of this historical legacy on African American participation in the national pastime.

Ramon Jackson is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of South Carolina.  Follow him on Twitter @RmJackson13 or reach him by email: rmjackso13@yahoo.com.

Texas Football and the Coach’s Wife: Ideology and Privilege

Since this is my first post, I will start by introducing myself and explaining how I came to be a part of this blog. I am deeply interested in the history of sports, not because it is my academic field of study, but because the history of sports directly effects the way I currently live from day to day. In addition to this interest, I am stricken by a duty to understand the location of women in sports. I do not have a desire to relate to the women who play sports; there is quite enough of that happening on their behalf. I also do not care to comment or discuss the women who coach sports as they are more than capable of speaking for themselves through the things they do to build equity. I am more concerned with the women who watch sports, support behind the scenes and are effected by the culture of sports. I am interested in how the history of sports, particularly Texas high school football, has shaped the role of women in Texas culture. I am also interested in the victories and defeats of Texas high school teams. With that being said, I found Andrew McGregor on Twitter (what a great world we live in) and submitted to him as a contributor.

I currently hold a Master of Arts in English with a focus on film and popular culture from Texas A&M University – Commerce. I am working on a Master of Education in educational technology and leadership from Lamar University. I work full time as an Advanced Placement Literature teacher at a Texas high school and adjunct at one of my local junior colleges. I regularly attend film conferences to present research while working on various projects for publication.

I live in a state, work within a system and live in a household that is both dominated by and privileged by the institution of Texas high school football. In 1971, Louis Althusser wrote On Ideology where he asserts “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions” (37). Texas high school football is an Althusserian ideological state apparatus. Its culture is sheltered under the umbrella of the school; it is silent.

The University Interscholastic League was formed in 1913 as the governing body for extra curricular academic, athletic and music contests.  By 1945, 45,790 people were gathered to watch the Highland Park vs Waco state championship game at the Cotton Bowl. With roots in middle class white ideologies, UIL did not govern the African American schools at this time. That was done by the PVIL (Prairie View Interscholastic League) which started in 1920 and continued on a limited basis from 1965-1970 when it was disbanded. UIL decided to include African American schools in 1965 in the face of the civil-rights movement. Title nine later provided equity for female athletes and coaches. However, the prevailing ideology is still predominately male and white.

Shannon Sullivan writes about critical race theory and I think it is fitting to compare the early constructions of Texas football to her statements about middle class white women.

“Because of male privilege, white middle-class women tend to have gendered habits that lead them to downplay their own point of view. When a woman does this, it is not just her perspective as a woman that is hidden. Her perspective as a white and middle-class person are also made invisible. Her invisibility as a woman strengthens the invisibility of her classed white privilege, and the effect of male privilege on her gendered habits interfere with her ability to see or understand her raced and classed habits” (Sullivan 12).

This is the location of women who are privileged by the institution of Texas football, particularly the coach’s wife.

Highland Park, one of the oldest and wealthiest communities in the state of Texas, has long been a part of football history. Randy Allen, head coach of the Scots, is one of the most successful active head coaches in Texas. His wife Carolyn Allen has made it her calling to help support the community of coach’s wives as she has spent most of her life in that role. Her book, aptly titled The Coach’s Wife is a staple at coaching clinic tables, coaching school and marriage conferences. Many women have been provided this handbook by another coach’s wife or by their husbands returning from clinics. It is a well written book with interviews of over four hundred women who share their stories and trials being the woman behind the man. It is dogmatic and linear in its approach and it suggests that you are as important to his career as he is responsible for completing his job. It is also written from the privilege of wealth and whiteness. In addition to her book, she hosts a social network for coaches’ wives and blogs regularly. She is the Oprah Winfrey of the Texas coaching wife world.

Unfortunately, her work is juxtaposed to the work of feminists and the marching feet of civil rights activists. I do not mean to say that the book or her website is blatantly racist or sexist because it is not in any way. As a matter of fact, most of its suggestions rest in the biblical idea of marriage (minus the section on keeping up your appearance for the community). What the book highlights for me is what Althusser and Shannon Sullivan point to regarding prevailing ideologies and racial privilege. Although she is really trying to help women, she is also oppressing them by suggesting they are only an extension of the men they married. Carolyn Allen shares a moment in her life when she met her husband, Randy, as a pre-med student at Texas A&M University. This caused there to make a choice. “As soon as we became engaged, I redirected my career path to teaching … blessed and happy with my young family, it was an easy choice to sacrifice ‘things’ in exchange for time with those I loved” (Allen, 65).

Another part of the book that reinforces male privilege and hides under the guise of a woman’s perspective is an exchange between two other wives. In the same chapter on career and fulfillment Allen tells how “one young coach’s wife told her friend, “I just have not found my passion yet,” to which her friend replied, “Oh yes you have. Your husband is your passion!” There’s nothing wrong with that, either” (Allen, 64).

I am a coach’s wife. I am white. I am middle class. My children are all honors students and athletes. We attend a local Baptist church where we worship. In the state of Texas, that is all I need to get a job. It is all I have to be to teach other people’s children. I am very aware of this privilege. I do not abuse it. I work outside of it. To this extent, football “ideology has a material existence” (Althusser 37). I have turned down jobs at my husband’s school because I knew it was from privilege. I am driven and well educated. I want a job because of my professional qualifications, not my marriage bed.

I don’t mean to say that women who follow their husbands from place to place teaching what they are assigned are in some way inferior. On the contrary, a coach’s wife is fiercely independent, capable, and strong. She spends hours alone and even more time as a single parent due to his work schedule. She balances budgets that never seem to stretch far enough due to his pay. Coaches wives are not the stereotypical 50s housewife that felt ‘left out’ because they are very involved with his world. They attend games, sit next to their husbands at banquets, and shake hands at fundraisers. However, they are extensions of his identity in that role. For their work, they are guaranteed a place (a job) in his world (education). A place that might just as well be served by a highly educated minority.

With all of that being said, I will watch old game film this summer and attend two-a-day practices and watch from the car. I will read the sports page, make predictions about the games, read up on the screen pass and the odd front defense. I will do all this because I want to be informed about the games I will attend on Friday night, not because it helps my husband be a better coach (it doesn’t). I will use the knowledge I have to reach struggling readers in my classroom as I draw connections between narrative structure and defensive formations.

It is the way that I can continue the work of feminists who wanted equity not in spite of male privilege but because of male privilege. My hope is that my contribution to this blog will help to uncover the women behind the history of football in Texas high schools. I know that Carolyn Allen, in her own way, was half responsible for all of Randy’s success. I know that she made a name for herself from the location she lived. I also know that every woman is different and that not all coaching wives can just be an extension of their husband. And they should not have to be.

Moorea Coker teaches AP Literature and adjuncts at a Junior college in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @polypel88 or reach her by email: mooreacoker@gmail.com

Follow Me and I Will Make You Pitchers to Men: Endicott Peabody and the Dawn of Muscular Christianity

Since this is my first post, I’ll introduce myself and how I found my topic.  My name is Hunter Hampton, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in history at Mizzou.  I am working on a dissertation on muscular Christianity in 20th century America.  Unlike some of my colleagues that popped out of the womb with a desire to be an academic and a dissertation topic in hand, I stumbled into the profession and my project.  During my master’s program, I took a historiography class.  The professor gave all of the students the assignment of finding an untouched subject on which to write our final paper.  He told us that it should be a topic that would hold our interest for over a decade.  I froze.  I had no idea what to write about.  After I met with my professor to ease my concerns, he asked me what interests me.  I told him I liked sports, the American West, and religion.  With a shrug, he wished me happy hunting.  After a few weeks of searching online and in the library I finally found my topic in Endicott Peabody (pronounced pee-bidy and said as fast as possible).  He captured my attention, and has held it for half a decade.

On January 28, 1882, Endicott Peabody stepped out of his carriage onto the cold, dusty streets of Tombstone.  As a New England born, British educated, upper-class Cambridge seminary student, Peabody seemed an odd fit in the silver mining boomtown in southern Arizona.  During his journey, he had heard various rumors concerning Tombstone.  A few months before his arrival, ImageTombstone blazed into the pages of Western lore with the Shootout at the O.K. Corral.  Well aware of Tombstone’s reputation, Peabody rode into town prepared to fight for the citizens’ hearts and minds.  Compared to the other ministers in the town, his ministerial methodology and physique set him apart.  Standing over six feet tall, with a muscular build, he struck the citizens of Tombstone as different.  His six-month tenure in Tombstone confirmed their suspicions. Instead of spending his time and efforts on recruiting the female members for his congregation, he focused on the men.  He began connecting with men on their own terms.  He believed an active faith would save the bodies and souls of Tombstone.  Not initially carrying a firearm, though that would come, Peabody possessed a new, unique weapon for his ministry, baseball.

Scholars mark muscular Christianity’s creation during the waning years of the 19th century. Victorian culture was in a state of crisis.  Aristocratic children often lay pale and bedridden in their homes suffering from neurasthenia.  With a perceived “softness” among men, especially clergy, the solution was rediscovering their masculinity through a strenuous life ethic.  These late Victorians believed physical exercise and an active faith embodied the remedy for their malady. A logical arena in which to experience the strenuous life was sport.  At this time, baseball engulfed the nation.  Examining the relationship between religion, baseball, and muscular Christianity in the American West reveals the innovation of Endicott Peabody to interact with the rugged male dominated society, adapt to the individualistic culture, and meet spiritual needs of their Western congregants.

Born on May 30, 1857, Endicott Peabody came into a wealthy New England family. While at school in England he took an interest in various sports. Peabody’s biographer described him as tall, strong, and graceful.  Sometime, in the early months of his seminary education, Peabody received a call to fill in as the minister for the Episcopal Church in Tombstone, Arizona.  Grafton Abbott, a friend of Endicott’s older brother Francis, had traveled to Tombstone chasing opportunity in the recently discovered silver mines. The founding rector of the church clashed with the congregation, and left town soon thereafter.  Peabody struggled with the decision, but he accepted the appointment to stay in “the rottenest place you ever saw” for six months.


One of Peabody’s primary actions in Tombstone was ministering to the miners and he relied on his sporting ability to interact with a class of men overlooked by pastors before him.  His tool was baseball.  He frequently traveled to mines outside of town to play baseball with the miners.  Of one such game he wrote, “I was glad to thoroughly get to know the men better.” This technique earned the respect of the miners. In a letter back east Peabody told about one miner who said, “Why is that the minister there?  Well, I’ll be damned if I don’t think more of him than I did before.”  Over the course of his time in Tombstone, Peabody continually met with various men, mostly miners, in hopes of starting a team.

Within a month of Peabody’s arrival, the men of Tombstone were regularly playing baseball.  Out on a visit to a female member of his congregation, Peabody passed several men throwing the ball around.  Two hours later, Peabody left the field, but felt that he “did not play very well still enjoyed it very much.” He maintained a high standard for his play.  For example, after one satisfying day at the field he wrote, “Rather good form- hitting 3 times and one to the fence and made a rather swaggering catch.”  The usual end of the game did not come from fatigue, but from the ball being torn to pieces. He habitually shortened his house calls in favor of a baseball game.  For Peabody, this was not neglecting his clerical duties, but rather he viewed baseball as evangelism and exercise, both essential for changing Tombstone’s society.  While he desired an organized league, the spontaneous baseball excursions made up the majority of his play and pastoral visits.

On April 26, 1882, Peabody took part in the organization of the first Tombstone baseball team.  He became the treasurer of the team, something he found boring.  He, however, understood his higher purpose for helping establish the team as the pro bono ecclesiae.  Typically, the members of the Tombstone team would play games against the various mines that had enough men to field a team.  Before long, the team moved him into the position of Vice President.  With his new position came added responsibilities.  One day, when he was not feeling particularly well, he mounted a horse, and worked on leveling off the field for over two hours. Though overworked and underpaid, Peabody understood the power of baseball for his ministry to the men of Tombstone.  The game provided him the opportunity to travel around the Arizona countryside to interact with the miners.

Peabody’s adoption of sports for evangelization purposes represents one of muscular Christianity’s primary innovations. His neighbors in Tombstone took notice of his blend of masculine activities and religion. According to the Tombstone Epitaph the town got “a parson who doesn’t flirt with the girls, who doesn’t drink beer behind the door, and when it comes to baseball, he’s a daisy.” What set Peabody and other muscular Christian ministers apart was their willingness to disregard the Victorian stereotype of effeminate preachers and embrace the cultural desires of American men.

The actions of Peabody left an indelible mark on the American West.  Through his endeavors, Peabody successfully established a church founded on muscular Christianity.  As Reverend Peabody’s tenure in Tombstone was ending, he sought a replacement minister capable of holding his own on the baseball diamond.  This ensured the future minister would “be brought into contact with men whom he might not otherwise meet.”  Through these interactions, some of the ministers of Tombstone earned the respect of the miners.  He found his man in Isaac Bagnell.  Peabody’s primary goal for his successor was to continue the implementation of muscular Christianity as the tool to reach Tombstone’s citizens.

The most obvious example of Peabody’s legacy in Tombstone, can still be found on the corner of Third and Stafford, two blocks from the O.K. Corral.  There stands St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Tombstone.  It is on the same site acquired by Peabody almost a century and a half ago.  While no trace of a church baseball team is readily available, the church continues to serve the community of Tombstone.


After his experiences in Tombstone, Peabody returned to New England a changed man.  He instilled the lessons learned into prominent shapers of American society by founding the Groton School outside of Boston.  When Peabody passed away on November 17,1944, he had educated Theodore Roosevelt’s boys, advised Jacob Riis on his urban reform efforts, and served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mentor.  In Peabody’s obituary for the New York Times, F.D.R. reflected, “As long as I live his [Peabody’s] influence will mean more to me than that of any other [person] next to my father and mother.” The life of Endicott Peabody illustrates the potency of muscular Christianity and the impact the American West had on shaping him and his ministry.

The implementation of muscular Christianity through baseball in the American West by Endicott Peabody leads to several conclusions about the relationship between sport, the West, and religion in 19th and 20th-century America.  First, Peabody’s transformative experience in Arizona marks the influence of the American West on muscular Christianity.  In Tombstone, Peabody acknowledged that he was an outsider.  He was not a cowboy, miner, prospector, gunslinger, or entrepreneur.  However, this did not stop him trying to imitate them.  To gain the rugged nature that he lacked, Peabody purchased all of the necessary items.  He bought a cowboy hat, pistol, chaps, and horse.  He believed these purchases and his jaunts in the countryside offered him the authentic experience he hoped to obtain when he traveled west.  Despite all of his purchased Western wearwhat ended up winning the respect of the citizens of Tombstone was his love of baseball.  Instead of fearing the rise of American sports culture, muscular Christian preachers in the American West embraced the game to reach their communities.  As Peabody’s experience shows, the American West did not act solely as a receptor of religion from the East, but served as a proving ground for muscular Christians that in turn reshaped American Christianity and culture.

Second, muscular Christianity from its start embraced controversial sports.  While some pastors focused on enforcing blue laws against baseball, muscular Christian ministers used the game to further their cause.  As the 20th-century progressed, they maintained this characteristic.  Religious universities like Notre Dame and BYU started football programs in the first quarter of the century exemplify this ingenuity.  A century later we have fighting pastors as discussed in Adam Park’s post two weeks ago.  Muscular Christianity has never been regressive.  Rather, it blurred the line between savage and civilized in order to attract new converts, reshape physiques, strengthen faith, and gain moral authority.

This combination of baseball and Wild West culture gave birth to a movement that changed the practices and perceptions of Christianity throughout the 20th century.  The strongest days of muscular Christianity were still to come.  In the decades to follow, the emphasis on a participatory faith grew into movements like the Social Gospel,Boy Scouts, Christian summer camps, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Promise Keepers, and Fight Church.  Though no muscular Christians find themselves combating Wild West shootouts today, they, like their 19th-century comrades, remain focused on infusing American churches and culture with sports and masculinity.  Consider who is the face of evangelical Christianity today.  Not a minister, author, or scholar, but an out of work quarterback, Tim Tebow.

Hunter Hampton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri.  He can be reached at hmhyn7@mail.missouri.edu.

The World Cup, The Two Escobars, and the Globalization of Sport

In truth many people reading this post are new to World Cup fever. Growing up with a European father, I was exposed to the  cup at a young age – I recall watching the Germany – Argentina final in 1986 and being truly amazed by the artistry of Diego Maradona (although I was rooting for the Mannschaft). Despite this early exposure, compared to my continental cousins, my relationship to international soccer was pretty remote. I recall watching the 1998 world cup in Germany, and after two painful losses to Germany and Iran, being consoled by my extended family, and frankly shocking them by explaining to them that I didn’t really follow the US side.

In fact if you ask most US Soccer fans (just look for the guy inexplicably wearing a scarf in 90 degree weather) they will generally tell you that international soccer is not the real game – its club matches that matter. Maybe that’s true, but for me soccer will always mean the World Cup. When you think about it, it’s a truly extraordinary event. It pits a great number of the worlds nations against each other (in a sport they truly enjoy) on an equal field of play where a small nation like Uruguay can have more cups than a vast nation like the United States (whose best finish was 3rd in the first cup in 1930), or its former colonial master Spain (the defending champions).

All this being said, Soccer has come of age in the United States. People genuinely follow the national team (USMNT), a fact best typified by the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Landon Donovan from the tournament squad. However, for the American soccer fan, some education is likely in order. Sure, we all played AYSO as kids, but in the rest of the world, it’s not a game of orange slices and Gatorade. This is typified by what I consider the best available  documentary for the casual American fan of soccer (or the Drug War), The Two Escobars. Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, this film was a part of the original season of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. It tells the story of Andres Escobar, a Columbian soccer star, and Pablo Escobar, perhaps the most famous Columbian Narco of the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s a documentary that skillfully shows the relationship between power and futbol in Columbia, and how the war on drugs changed the course of the 1994 world cup. This date is significant because the 1994 cup was hosted by the United States, and really marks the rebirth of soccer in North America. Escobars  is a film that deals with complicated morality, and the unique place that sport plays in national identity. For the American viewer, it shows just how deadly serious the beautiful game can be for many fans and athletes.

ESPN has offered a series in preparation for this year’s world cup entitled “Inside: US Soccer’s March to Brazil” a series that takes the viewer through the US national teams preparation for the cup. Fairly standard fare for fans of series like “Hard Knocks”, it does offer the chance to get to know the individual personalities on the team. In some ways this is quite useful for most Americans fans because soccer players tend to have a very low profile in the United States. The aforementioned Landon Donovan is the all time USMNT leading scorer, and I suspect could walk through any mall in the US without being bothered.

So what should the average American viewer make of documentaries like these, or World Cup coverage in general? I think that 1994 is an important year for more reasons than simply the choice of host country. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the major themes in international relations has been the rapid pace of globalization. We often think of this process solely in terms of wealth and commerce (the rise of powerful multinational corporations or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs ) but it also has a direct impact on popular culture and leisure. Athletes like Andres Escobar and Jurgen Klinsmann (the current coach of the USMNT and German Fussball Legend) changed the US sport landscape in 1994. I remember having to watch most of the 1990 cup in Italy on a Spanish language station (less than ideal as at the time I spoke no Spanish) because I had no other alternatives. Today, ABC has devoted blocks of valuable weekend sports coverage to group games that do not involve or directly affect the American team. ESPN estimates that 20,000 US fans will be in Brazil to support the USMNT, not an insubstantial number considering the remote locations of Americas group matches in Manaus, Natal, and Recife (far from Rio and Sao Paulo), and the largest traveling rooting contingent of any nation. While Soccer may never replace baseball as the national pastime – it’s fast approaching a moment when a great deal of national pride is invested in the national teams performance, and when the US joins the rest of the world in dreaming fondly of hoisting the World Cup.

Max Rieger is a PhD candidate at Purdue University, and avid World Cup fan.

Fight Church: A Film Review, and Some Thoughts on Evangelicals

by Adam Park

In the timeless words of “Fight Pastor” Brandon Beals, “Jesus didn’t throw stones, but he had some.” And it may surprise some of you to hear that this is no religious idiosyncrasy. Others, apparently, agree. Indeed, the subjects of the new documentary, Fight Church, help spread such good news. Beals’ testicular testimony, and that of the combative Christians in Fight Church, and many, many others represent a publically bourgeoning group of evangelicals within the increasingly substantial mixed martial arts community. This new manifestation Muscular Christianity is both gaining popularity from and facilitating the spread of MMA. Amongst a certain contingent of evangelicals then, Jesus’ well-formed and rugged stones are quickly becoming orthodoxy.

Overall, this is a story about mixtures, about intersections between the sacred and the secular. As the Academy Award-Winning Director, Daniel Junge, and Co-Director, Bryan Storkel, phrase it: this “entertaining story” centers on the “connections between religion and condoned violence.” And Junge and Storkel are no strangers to such mixing. Several of their previous respective films—namely, Saving Face (2011), They Killed Sister Dorothy (2008), and Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians (2011)—also fixate on the overarching theme of sacred-secular combinations. So what’s going on here? Why Christianity? Why MMA?

The film’s main protagonists—four fighter-pastors, Paul Buress, Preston Hocker, John Renken, and Nahshon Nicks—spend the bulk of their interviews advocating not only for the compatibility of Christianity and MMA, but also suggesting a cultural need for such relations. As former pastor of Xtreme Christian Fellowship, John “The Saint” Renken, claimed, “mainstream, western Christianity has feminized men.” He continues: “lost people are watching MMA. So I think that’s where we need to be.” Speaking to a need for more and better men’s ministries, Preston “The Pastor of Disaster” Hocker agrees, as he regularly hosts UFC gatherings for members of (and potential converts for) his church. This is “a platform to win souls to Christ,” Nicks similarly asserts.

“Fight Church” is no oxymoron … at least not for some. In fact, the film estimates that there are currently over 700 churches with MMA ministries in the US. To be Christian and to do MMA is not only possible, but is perhaps common, as brief interviews from UFC veterans Jon Jones, Benson Henderson, Justin Wren, and Jared Hamman attest. This documentary is but a small sample of what’s going on in the larger world of Christianity and MMA—where men learn how to be godly men, like Jesus, robust stones and all.

But just as MMA has its legal naysayers, so too does Christian MMA have its religious critics. Ex-fighter-turned-Christian, Scott “Bam Bam” Sullivan, eventually realized a discordance between his newfound religion and his participation in combat sports. “I’m conflicted,” he tells the camera, as he owns an MMA gym and works on a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion. Christianity and sport fighting are “incompatible.” Unlike the other fighter-pastors, Sullivan finds that he cannot be both/and. The chief antagonist in the film, however, Father John Duffell of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in NYC, sees the purpose and function of Christian MMA ministries less ambivalently. Christianity is about love, he claims, and “this ain’t love.” Rather, “cage fighting is about hating one another.” Christian mixed martial artists are a walking contradiction, evidence of religion gone awry. Father Duffell has even mobilized his theological opposition by appealing to state representatives in NY—the last and only state in the Union to still have a ban on professional MMA. For more hardnosed critics like Duffell, Christian MMA is not only a problem within Christianity, but also within the law of the land. The laws of both God and man are compromised. Fighter-pastors are false prophets.

For advocates and opponents alike, the question of MMA legitimacy and Christian orthodoxy are bound here. The question of appropriate “sport” (which I wrote about previously) is tied to the question of appropriate “religion.” And “violence” is the issue. A certain vision of Jesus is essential to authorizing, legitimizing MMA (or, contrarily, un-authorizing and delegitimizing). What we see in Fight Church is a new range of practices—a new sport—for new Muscular Christians to articulate and assert and old theology—a theology that has to do with a stout, masculine Jesus, and his salvific ability to make stout, masculine men. In the years just before the First World War, ex-professional-baseball-player-turned-revivalist, Billy Sunday, colorfully claimed that Jesus “was no dough-faced, lick-spittle proposition.” Rather, “he was the greatest scrapper that ever lived.” Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, came to hear Sunday’s message as he traveled across the country. If Jesus turned the other cheek, it’s only because he knew his cheeks could take it. If the Jesus was whipped by the Romans, it’s only because he knew he could whip them. Evangelicals know that sports are a perfect venue to impart such life lessons, and they’ve known that for a long time.

Even in modern MMA, Christianity (i.e. evangelicalism) was there from the very beginning. At the 1994 world’s Ultimate Fighting Championship III, fighter Kimo Leopoldo’s entering entourage was led by a man holding a large banner that read: “Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’—Matthew 16:24, Holy Bible.” Supporting two massive, cross-shaped timbers, Kimo walked closely behind as he made his way through the crowd towards the Octagon. Painted in white letters on the back of the cross that Kimo bore were the words: “JESUS LOVES YOU.” Telling of the usual six-month annual timeframe that Kimo spends “spreading the word,” the commentator further explained Kimo’s passion, saying “he’s definitely on a mission.” Tattooed down his spine and across his shoulder blades was a large crucifix; arching across his belly was the name, “JESUS.” The announcer went on to introduce him as a preacher of “the gospel” and perfecter of “the art of Taekwondo.” Though he failed to secure a victory in this match, Kimo recounted his religious understanding of the fight, saying: “My purpose here is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the whole world.” Kimo’s actions and words are telling. To compete, to fight, to be a man, to show other men what men should do, to reveal to others the power of God, therein lie the muscular Christian ways of Christian MMA both then and now.

Convincing or no, we have a square-jawed, broad-shouldered Jesus. However—and this is key—if we really want to understand Christian MMA culture, we should think that this is less about the articulation of beliefs than it is about the cultivation of certain bodily experiences. For Sunday, for Kimo, for the contemporary fighter-pastors in Fight Church, Jesus’ strength lies in his ability to handle pain, to deal with adversity, to best the competition. The bodily lessons that MMA imparts are uniquely translatable in that regard. As one trainer-pastor recently claimed: “The same struggle of jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and MMA, and any other martial arts discipline is the same struggle of a Christian.” Or, in former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Vitor Belfort’s words: “I think there’s two ways to get to God: through pain, and through love. Mine was through pain.” The Octagon is a place where God can do his work, teaching men how to be men.

Christian MMA is less a theology than it is an education of the senses. MMA has the potential to inform (and convert) practitioners at a very fundamental level, in the muscles, in the bones. And it seems to me that this is the genius of evangelicalism here. As MMA gyms open around the country, as MMA is taught in public schools and military branches, as millions of UFC fans try to replicate what they see on cable in their backyards and garages, evangelicalism will be there. Not only have evangelicals tapped into a space, a new sport, to assert their Christian message, but they have accessed common bodily experiences and appropriated these experiences for religious ends. Christian MMA is about pain, emotion, victory, loss, struggle, humility, conflict, ambivalence, and endorphins—about being a member in a community of believers and having one’s membership validated at the level of one’s body. Christian MMA offers an irrefutable empiricism. It feels real. It feels true. What else does one need?


Adam Park is a Ph.D. Candidate in Florida State University’s Religion Department. His current dissertation project is on Christian MMA in America. His email is park353@gmail.com.

Research in the Rockies: The Forty-Second Annual North American Society for Sport History Convention

It is a thriving moment for sport history. While the Journal of American History recently published a forum titled “State of the Field: Sports History and the Cultural Turn,” sport historians met in picturesque Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to hold the annual convention of the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH). First held at Ohio State University in 1973, NASSH has provided space for scholars from around the world to present their work on the history of sport in North American, international, and transnational contexts for forty-two years.

Several contributors to the Sport in American History blog were on hand to document the weekend’s events. With over forty sessions, it is not possible to provide a comprehensive account of the conference; therefore, in what follows, we offer summaries and make connections between several of the presentations. Topics that emerged throughout the three-day conference include: business history; digital history and methodology; doping; gender; memory and activism; and race and ethnicity.

Sport and Business

Historians are interested in the economics of sport and physical culture to help explain the role of sport in the larger society. For example, Eastern Connecticut State University Professor Ari de Wilde considered the Preakness Race’s business history a good area to analyze sport entrepreneurship and assess what big-time sporting events meant to community in “Charm City.” Although the race struggled financially into the twentieth century, said de Wilde, it took off in the 1920s. The race, like many other American institutions, declined throughout the depression and war years; however, the track regained financial success, especially in the 1980s when longtime Washington, D.C., lawyer Frank DeFrancis modernized the track. de Wilde considers the Pimlico track and the Preakness Race reflections of Baltimore’s economic history: similar to other prospects in the city, the race experienced both decline and renaissance throughout the twentieth century.

Also interested in the significance of business history and sport, former Ohio State University historian Melvin L. Adelman presented an aspect of his larger book project, which explores the economics of professional American football at mid-century, and offered an analysis of how the Baltimore Colts–who had struggled both on the field and at the gate in the fledgling All-America Football Conference–earned a spot in the National Football League. Adelman’s analysis contrasts the narrative of Baltimoreans valiantly fighting to save the team.

Digital History and Methodology

Scarcity of and access to sources are no longer an issue for sport historians, said University of Queensland sport historian Murray G. Phillips. But how do we deal with this new phenomenon? A lively session entitled, “Sport and the History-Making Process in the Digital Age,” featuring Victoria Professor Matthew Klugman, Phillips (co-authored with Gary Osmand), and Queensland Ph.D. student Stephen Townsend attempted to answer this dilemma.

For example, in “Cranks, Fans and Barrackers Through a Digital Lens–Using Digitized Sources to Trace the Emergence of Modern Spectator Sport Cultures,” Klugman contended that historians can utilize digital archives to better understand the “passions” and cultures of football (soccer) fans. As “mania” is rarely associated with sports besides football, Klugman explained how he interrogated the “infection of the manly game” with sources available online.

Through his work on surfing, Phillips demonstrated how sport scholars can adopt the methodology of Franco Moretti and perform “distant reading” in sport history. Accordingly, distant reading illustrates larger historical trends by interrogating the aggregate results of digital archives. Utilizing the Australian archive Trove, which has over thirty million available sources, Phillips showcased the highs and lows of the numbers of articles that referenced women’s surfing. While significant, he also pointed out that distant reading is not a free-standing methodology and should be used in conjunction with the traditional close reading that historians have employed for years.

Following Phillips’ explanation, Townsend offered a specific example of distant reading, showing how the method can help historians learn the complexities of Muhammad Ali’s media representation. Employing distant reading via ProQuest’s vast newspaper archive, Townsend demonstrated how and when the media transitioned from calling the boxer Cassius Clay to Ali. He suggested historians can use distant reading to locate situations for research questions.

With the growth of digital humanities both in the larger field and in scholarly practice, these presentations offered much for sport historians to consider. Importantly, as University of Iowa Professor Travis Vogan noted in his commentary on the session, the three presentations also highlighted the value of librarians in the current environment. Librarians and digital archivists navigate and organize the ever-expanding digital sources.

In line with the topic of digital history, additional presentations focused on the methodologies of traditional archives, research, and teaching. George Mason University Professor Chris Elzey showed the audience the depth of archival materials available in Washington, D.C., in his presentation “Researching Sport History in the Nation’s Capital.” He detailed a vast array of materials that sport historians can utilize in the area, from the Library of Congress to the University of Maryland Archives. Pennsylvania State University graduate student Justine Kaempfer turned to research and outlined both the myths perpetuated and the untold stories at the Penn State All Sports Museum. She explained that three stories in particular–the origin of the “We Are” chant, the controversy over former basketball coach Rene Portland, and the recent firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno–are remembered in fragmentary ways. Finally, to enhance the teaching of sport history, University of Texas Ph.D. student Dominic Morais demonstrated how using material culture in the classroom can help students better understand the relationships between physical culture and society.

Finally, while many historians try to make sense of history through interviews, letters, meeting minutes, and newspapers, NASSH scholars demonstrated how sport literature can also help us better understand the past. In an informative session, “From Proust to Pulp to Pomerania: Sport, History, and Literature,” three scholars argued for the inclusion of fiction. Skidmore College Professor and NASSH President Daniel A. Nathan, assessed sport history in Troy Soos’s Hanging Curve. He showed how the book is a vibrant form of public history. For example, the work provides a powerful look into the July 2, 1917, East St. Louis race riot. Also embracing sport literature, Western University sport historian Don Morrow analyzed Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season. Arguing that literature can explain culture, he explored Canadian hockey and suggested the work details the intricacies of human nature. Rounding out the panel, Amherst Professor Allen Guttmann looked for sport in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Time. He highlighted how sports as metaphor appeared throughout its 3000+ pages.

History of Doping

Although the recent transgressions of U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong  illuminated both the prevalence of performance enhancement tactics and the complexities of doping controls, similar concerns have long plagued sporting competitions. In “Myth and Power: Historical Antecedents to the World Anti-Doping Code’s ‘Spirit of Sport’ Clause,” Brock University Professor Ian Ritchie utilized oral histories to interrogate the creation of the “spirit of sport” doctrine–the abstract concept that encompasses the celebration of human spirit, body and mind–which underlined the IOC’s and WADA’s anti-doping policies. According to Ritchie, the “spirit of sport” stemmed from the 1983 Caracas Scandal and Ben Johnson’s 1988 positive test, which sparked the 1993 “spirit of sport” campaign. As University of Texas Professor Thomas Hunt noted, Ritchie’s work was not only well-crafted but is extremely important in the historiography of doping.

John Gleaves, of California State University, Fullerton, similarly explored the ideological trajectory of enhancement in “Manufactured Dope: How the 1984 U.S. Cycling Team Rewrote the Rules on Drugs in Sports.” Gleaves explained that the Los Angeles Olympic cycling competition served as a catalyst in the transformation of transfusions from blood-enhancement to blood-doping. Initially, the IOC adopted a “condemn but not ban” approach to transfusions, due to the lack of technological oversight. However, the rise of the AIDS epidemic helped cast the act as doping and thereby expanded the IOC’s definitions. Finally, April D. Henning from the City University of New York examined 92 running manuals and discovered the authors’ ambivalence about the use of performance enhancing substances. According to Henning, most deployed the “good athlete versus bad athlete” paradigm.

The Intersections of Sport and Gender

Perhaps more than any other cultural structure, sport shapes social conceptions of masculinity and femininity; not surprisingly, then, several NASSH scholars explored the intersections of gender and competition. Richard Ian Kimball from Brigham Young University presented “‘Manly Sports Make Manly Boys’: Sports and Deaf Masculinity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” He explained that 19th century schools for the deaf encouraged participation in American football–even forming a semi-professional team in 1883–to help pupils affirm their masculinity. Notably, Gallaudet University envisioned the sport as the ideal mechanism to develop teamwork, discipline and manhood.

Also assessing the role American football plays in the evolution of norms, Rita Liberti of California State University, East Bay, and Maria J. Veri of San Francisco State University, analyzed tailgate cookbooks. In “‘Fan Fare’: 1970s Era Tailgate Cookbook Constructions of Gender and Ethnicity,” the two authors argued that such food-oriented books provided a space for cultural and culinary interactions; however, the works also created ethnic “others” and reaffirmed stereotypes.

Addressing physical culture, Maureen Margaret Smith, of California State University, Sacramento, explored the significance of Pat Summit’s two statutes in “Reaching the ‘Summit’: The Scarcity of America’s Sportswomen as Statues.” She noted that statues demonstrate who and what should be remembered. With only four percent of all statues and monuments dedicated to women, the raising of such markers redefines public space as male.

Furthermore, contrasting the current NCAA structure (and problems) to that of the AIAW, University of Iowa graduate student Diane Williams recast the AIAW’s impact in “Narrating Legacy: Exploring Histories of the AIAW.” According to Williams, “the AIAW’s story, and how we tell it, matters.”


Finally, Pennsylvania State University Ph.D. student Adam Berg looked at the narratives of Joe Namath. Berg concluded that while popular narratives of Namath as a counterculture gender persona are prevalent, themes of his conservatism emerged.

Memory and Activism

Scholars also considered the ways in which memory intersects with activism. Jaime Schultz, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University, discussed female distance runners active from 1959-1972. In interviews with six former runners, Schultz explored how the “physical is political.” Although many of the runners did not explicitly identify as feminist, they did work to show how women could use their bodies in public during the 1960s and 1970s.

Likewise, California State Polytechnic University Professor Laura Chase looked at the the connections between Avon and the women’s marathon. She documented the narratives of female runners who competed in races, such as the Avon Women’s International Marathon, prior to the IOC’s sanctioning of the marathon in 1984. Shelley Lucas of Boise State University, explored the history of women’s cycling. She argued that no linear-progressive timeline exists in women’s cycling, even though 2014 represents the thirtieth anniversary of women being allowed to compete in cycling in the Summer Olympics.

Also considering memory was University of Colorado-Denver sport scholar Sarah K. Fields. She looked at the history of the racial rhetoric of Title IX since its passage in 1972. As the discussions surrounding legislation occurred in an environment of Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation, congresswomen had to choose between gender or racial equity when voting. Fields argued that ever since, a false dichotomy of race or gender has plagued the forty-year-legacy of Title IX.

Race and Ethnicity in Sport

While many papers employed social identity as a lens, several scholars also explicitly examined the role of race/ethnicity in sport. For example, North Central College Professor Gerald Gems illustrated the discord between the University of Notre Dame and the KKK. In “Clash with Modernity: Notre Dame vs. the Ku Klux Klan,” he noted that the Fighting Irish football team gained popularity concurrent to the KKK’s rise to prominence in the wake of the film, The Birth of a Nation. In Indiana, the KKK envisioned itself as the representative of masculinity and religion, which caused conflicts with the Catholic-based University. Yet, the success of the Fighting Irish in the 1920s helped minimize the impact of the KKK.

Also concerned with racial constructions, Iowa Ph.D. student Dain TePoel offered an analysis of sportswriter Mary Garber. Garber, who was one of the first white journalists to cover black sports in her region, considered sport as a place of social change. According to TePoel, studying individuals like Garber allows for the inclusion of “invisible revolutionaries” in Civil Rights historiography.

Finally, Winthrop University Professor Andy Doyle, with independent scholar C.J. Shexnayder, utilized a 1969 football game as a case study. In “‘This Time it Really Counts’: The 1969 High School All-Star-Football Game and Athletic Desegregation in Alabama,” the authors examined how desegregation impacted the bonds between sport and community in the wake of the first interracial state all-star contest.

Keynote Lectures and Awards

To recognize excellence in the field, NASSH invites prominent scholars to speak at three keynote addresses. This year, the Maxwell L. Howell and Reet Howell International Address was given by University of Alberta Professor M. Ann Hall. In “Muscles on Wheels: Gender, Class, and the High Wheel Racers in Nineteenth Century America,” she explored the career of Louise Armaindo and centrally positioned gender in the narrative of cycling.

American cultural critic and Washington University, St. Louis, Professor Gerald Early spoke during the Seward C. Staley Address. Early focused on the court martial of Jackie Robinson, interrogating the various interpretations of the star’s arrest on a bus at Camp Hood Texas. He showed how this incident helped facilitate the beginning of the 1960s mainstream Civil Rights Movement.

In the third keynote, Ph.D. student Nathan Titman of the University of Iowa gave his paper, “Artist def. Machine: Bill Tilden’s Unruly Masculinity in 1920s Tennis,” as the annual Graduate Student Essay Address. A committee of seasoned sport historians selected Titman’s paper from among various graduate student essays. His presentation looked at the expressions of sexuality by the early-twentieth century tennis star.

NASSH also recognizes the best sport history monograph and anthology written in the past year. Gwyneth Anne Thayer’s Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture, published by the University Press of Kansas won the prize for best book. Unable to determine a singular winner for best anthology, the committee selected two titles. The first was Aboriginal Peoples and Sport in Canada: Historical Foundations and Contemporary Issues edited by Janice Forsyth and Audrey R. Giles and published by the University of British Columbia Press. The second winner was Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity edited by Daniel A. Nathan and published by the University of Illinois Press.

Finally, NASSH also annually recognizes those who came before the current lineup of sport historians and those that continue to provide service to the organization and the field.This year, NASSH awarded Bob Barnett its “NASSH Recognition Award”. After receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Ohio State University, Barnett spend over three decades as a coach, administrator, and faculty member at Marshall University. In addition, NASSH awarded Jodella K. Dyreson its “NASSH Service Award” honor for her role as the technical editor for the Journal of Sport History. Along with holding this position for over a decade, Dyreson also contributes to the field of sport history, publishing and presenting on the history of sport in Texas.

As we posited at the beginning of this post, sport history has become a vibrant academic field. The 2014 NASSH conference showed the growing status of the discipline and highlighted the important research being conducted. If we missed your presentation or one you attended, please share your experiences in the comments section.

For those interested in next year’s conference, in 2015–in the words of basketball star LeBron James–we will be “taking our talents to South Beach.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. She maintains her own website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

American Football and the 1970s Women’s Movement

I am both excited and nervous as I prepare for the 2014 North American Society for Sport History Conference this week in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Excited to see friends and mentors, and looking forward to listening to novel scholarship on the history of sport and physical culture. Nervous as I am presenting on a new topic, one that illustrates important aspects of the lives of the people involved. This project has brought me in contact with many women who have deep connections to the gridiron game. In what follows, I share stories about a few of the women’s journeys into the culture of football, about how they dealt with criticism, how they established themselves as athletes, and how football helped them broaden their horizons in 1970s America. These are their stories, not mine.

What would happen to the history of feminism if we looked beyond the archives of the already known and presumed feminist subject? What if, additionally, we did not privilege the social formations already identified as feminist, but instead sought to understand how those formations worked to consolidate the movement in part by brokering the signs and identities of feminism?

Historian Anne Enke’s provocative passage from her 2007 book Finding the Movement (p. 4) offers a call to look for places of feminism that have gone unexamined for us to truly understand the wide reach of the post-World War II “women’s movement,” what some refer to as the “second-wave” of feminist activism. Describing women who played in the National Women’s Football League (NWFL) in the 1970s offers a place to analyze the intersections between sport and physical culture in the United States and the women’s movement. Women football players challenged gender norms and fought for inclusion in the public sphere, and specifically the public athletic sphere.

The project that I am working on documents the experiences of women who played American football in the 1970s. Women’s involvement in football (a sport usually associated with hyper-masculinity), cuts against gender norms. But in general, while football became the most popular sport in the Unites States in the twentieth century, they have been marginalized throughout the history of the sport. Yet, women football players have stormed the gridiron for over a hundred years in various ways.

So far, I have interviewed twelve women who were on three different teams in the NWFL: the Oklahoma City Dolls, the Columbus Pacesetters, and the Toledo Troopers. I am considering the ways that women’s sport involvement in the 1970s intersected with the broader women’s revolution. Did sporting women demonstrate many of the same ideals as leaders in the movement? How did playing football help shape women’s lives? How did it help them broaden their horizons? And why did so many players (both in the 1970s and today) deny feminism? Answers to some of these questions emerged from conversation with women of the 1970s American gridiron.

Olivia Flores (middle) (1972) (personal collection)

I interviewed Olivia Flores, a member of the offense line for the Toledo Troopers,  who went 68-3 between 1971 and 1979 with seven league championships. Flores grew up in a working-class house that followed a traditional, conservative gender order. Playing football, therefore, offered her a way to remove herself from social expectations.

Still, like many of the other women that I interviewed, and overall like many of the women who were involved in sport throughout the 1970s, she did not associate her football playing with feminist activism or the women’s movement. She said that no one thought “we’re feminist and we’re out here going to prove that women can play football.” But, Flores’ memories about her playing days show the radical nature of her decision to take the field. In reference to why she played football, she stated:

I knew I wanted something more for myself than what my parents could have possibly envisioned. . . . I think if I had followed what my parents had envisioned I would have gotten married at 18 . . . and had kids because that is what you did.

Her playing days made her craft a feminist identify later in her life. Although she didn’t consider herself a feminist in the 1970s, she says that now she does. “I believe that women have the power and the ability and the knowhow to do anything that they want to do,” she says. She attests that her current political beliefs are partly because of her football career.

Other women did embrace feminism while playing football. Julie Sherwood grew up in a working-class family in Ohio. She played neighborhood football with her brothers and later intramural volleyball, basketball, and softball in high school. As a lesbian who was not out to her family, Sherwood often found it difficult to find comfortable places that accepted her. When she attended Ohio State University and discovered the new Women’s Studies Department, she found the Columbus Pacesetters as a place that did not discriminate. For Sherwood, the Pacesetters “was kind of seen as the feminist thing to do . . . It was a way to get attention to do outrageous things, and football was right up there with one of the most outrageous things you could imagine.” She was open about her political stance and saw in football a way to express her thoughts. But even Sherwood had to defend her political position, because as she explained:

As soon as something got labeled feminist, it was diminished. If you were doing [an activity] as a feminist, you weren’t serious about it. . . . Even now, if someone says “I’m feminist” people will [respond] “You aren’t real, you’re just playing at it.”

To admit to feminism, Sherwood concludes, “was to condemn yourself to be trivialized.” Although Sherwood only practiced with the team and then became the long-term trainer, she found in the Pacesetters a novel community that provided new experiences.

One reason for her enthusiasm about the team was that she found in the sport a space where non-normative body types were accepted. Perhaps more importantly, they were valued. As she remembers, “It was the first place that I ever was where your weight wasn’t something to be ashamed of.” She says that in the 1970s, if a woman weighed 175 pounds, she would be discriminated against, but on the football field, “people took you seriously.” She recalls renewing her driver’s license and thinking “I didn’t feel like I had to lie about my weight.”

Laurel Wolf (1979) (personal collection)

Laurel Wolf, a current respiratory therapist in Stow, Ohio, also remembers a childhood of sporting activity. Growing up, Wolf always played backyard sport with other neighborhood kids. She recalls games that consisted of “full-out football.” When she turned twelve, however, her parents banned her from playing football with the boys. Even though she said that she was “not a radical, liberal flag waver” in the 1970s, she used sport and physical culture to find her place in society, something that was exceptional for a woman in the 1970s.

Wolf continued to find in sport places that helped shape her identity. She joined the track team as a distance runner and the basketball team in high school. She ran track at Bowling Green University. Wolf then joined a women’s fast-pitch league and eventually played with the Troopers in 1979 as a wide receiver and defensive back, but only for three games. For the next four decades, Wolf played on local soccer teams and a 1860s Vintage Women’s Baseball team. She still considers sports as important to her identity. She says, “for me, personally, I’ve never been as satisfied, happy or content than when I am playing sports with other women.” As an all-around athlete, Wolf enjoyed the camaraderie of athletic teams and the joy of competition. Specifically, she refers to her football-playing days as a “very short time” in her life, but she says “it played a huge impact” on her, as it helped her construct her social world.

Finally, Jan Hines explained her time as the quarterback of the Oklahoma City Dolls. Hines grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. After a childhood of playing football with her three older brothers, she became a four-sport high-school athlete, an exceptional feat as she graduated prior to the passage of Title IX in 1972. She attended the University of Oklahoma and played field hockey and softball, leading the team to the College World Series. But perhaps her greatest athletic achievement came on the football field.

Jan Hines at Quarterback (personal collection)

She calls her decision to play football a “no brainer.” “I basically practiced 14 years before getting to play in my first game,” she says. In four years, she led the Oklahoma team to a 32-3-1 record, winning three league championships.

Hines’ experiences on the gridiron illuminate what many women had to overcome. For example, she recalls that growing up on the farm in rural Oklahoma often included having to engage in “tough” or “strenuous” activities, such that physical labor was a basic part of her daily life. When she decided to play quarterback, however, she remembers that some of her extended family found it “inappropriate.”When women took the gridiron, many reacted in a similar way—evoking residuals of the frailty myth that argued that women could not play physical sport for fears of injury to their reproductive organs and the overall inferiority of the female body.

For many women, football also offered places that did not discriminate based on sexuality. As historian Susan K. Cahn demonstrated in her 1994 book Coming On Strong, sports teams became places where lesbian women could find a home in an otherwise hostile environment during the twentieth century. Indeed, many women described the football teams as a place where lesbian women could create and sustain community in the United States. But heterosexual women also benefited. Hines says she grew up in a conservative, Christian community, and she remembers that the first time she personally knew an openly gay woman was with the Dolls. She remembers:

I have to admit, it was the first time that I—[who] was raised in church and straight myself and . . . [and] had no knowledge of this stuff—found out that a friend of mine was gay. . . . It took me a few days to work through it mentally. And I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve known this person for [a] number of years, and never had an issue. Why should things change that I now have knowledge of something that I didn’t before. Why should that change my relationship?”

Hines saw past differences of the culture from which she had grown up. Her football-playing days effectively changed the ways that she engaged with social politics.

All of the players look back at their football careers as defining moments in their lives. They remember the fields as places where they discovered that there was more to life than following the traditional gender order. This suggests the breadth of the women’s movement. Football also shows how how women’s opportunities flourished in the era that some consider the “second-wave” of feminist activism. The women’s movement did not develop “by master plan”  (Enke, Finding the Movement, 22).  Instead, women who found space in areas previously closed to them forged the movement. The players fought for equality in the culture of sport, and specifically American football, and therefore fought overall for greater equality during the 1970s in the United States.

Women playing football offers questions for historians about memory, about women’s roles in social politics, and about how women engaged with activism in the post-World War II era. What are the tensions between women’s memories about their time on the gridiron, and how modern day scholars envision their role in constructing women’s past experiences (specifically in women’s engagement with the larger women’s movement)? And, what does this suggest about manifestations of gender in the 1970s? As Enke says, scholars need to look for places where women stood up to what previous generations expected of them and to the social mores of the era. Football is a good place to examine this, as women football players did just that.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. student at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

Gay Men in Professional U.S. Sport

As the 2014 NFL Draft neared its conclusion, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam waited anxiously. Surrounded by family and friends in his agent’s San Diego home, Sam watched as the Miami Dolphins—a team desperately in need of a reputation makeover—passed over him and selected Terrence Fede, a defensive end from Marist College. Sam, a co-South Eastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, grew increasingly frustrated when the San Francisco 49ers named Boston College defensive end Kaleb Ramsey the 243rd pick. With the 49ers’ selection, only eight spots remained.

Sam’s dwindling opportunities allowed some to question the NFL’s self-proclaimed dedication to tolerance. As Huffington Post writer Hank Koebler commented, “In today’s NFL full of pass-happy offenses and hybrid defensive fronts, football reasons alone can’t justify why an award-winning pass-rusher like Sam fell so far in the draft.” To support these claims of continued prejudice in the NFL, many highlighted the trajectories of other SEC Defensive Players of the Year. Since the SEC instituted the honor in 2003, all but two winners were selected in the first round. “You’ll never convince me there were 248 better college players and NFL prospects in that draft,” exclaimed sportscaster Dale Hansen. “Two hundred forty-eight better than SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year? There’s just no way.” Fortunately, a phone call in the seventh round saved the NFL from having to identify the non-football reasons for Sam’s exclusion. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher notified him that he had been selected by St. Louis with the 249th pick. With the monumental call, Sam became the first openly gay athlete to be drafted into the NFL.

It has been well documented that sport is an influential milieu in which conventional notions of gender and sexuality develop and flourish. Moreover, sport remains one of society’s last bastions of hetero-masculinity and homophobia. Boys and men utilize physical exertions and corporeal prowess to demonstrate strength, virility and conquest. According to sociologist Derek A. Kreager:

Masculinized sports then become socially sanctioned stepping stones toward privilege and power—sites where coaches, peers, parents, and the media encourage masculine identities founded on physical aggression and domination.

Historically, then, gay male athletes have been rendered invisible and/or oxymoronic in professional physical competitions, specifically in the “big four”: baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Lesbian athletes, on the other hand, have been assumed and largely welcomed in women’s sport, due to the social correlation with sporting success and masculinity. An overview of famous gay men in U.S. sport illustrates a nuanced interpretation of sexual norms and demonstrates the significance of context. As mores altered throughout the twentieth century, so, too, did society’s response to gay athletes in elite competition.

The Interwar Era: Bill Tilden

After the calamities and despairs of World War I, sport emerged as a national fascination. Peoples’ desires to forget the recent atrocities, coupled with a booming post-war economy, helped the 1920s earn a reputation as the “Golden Age of Sports.” Baseball developed into a national spectacle, supported by the grandiose persona of Babe Ruth. Knute Rockne revolutionized football with new rules and strategies, and Red Grange helped garner fans for the professional game. Boxing thrived as fans cheered Jack Dempsey’s multiple knockouts and Helen Wills dominated the tennis courts with steely confidence. And, throughout the decade, Grantland Rice deployed hyperbole and imagery to capture it all in print.

Along with the increased pageantry of and appreciation for sports in the 1920s, the Roaring Twenties encouraged men and women to embrace new norms. Sexuality in the interwar era was multifaceted and not defined by behaviors. As historian George Chauncey explained in Gay New York, a heterosexuality-homosexuality binary did not yet exist; moreover, opponents of Prohibition created deviant subcultures, in which same-sex sexuality was not overtly criminalized. The career and legacy of “Big” Bill Tilden, an iconic tennis player of the time, illustrates changing social norms.

Bill Tilden, born a wealthy Philadelphian aristocrat, dominated tennis in the 1920s. Ranked the number one player in the world for much of the decade, he won the U.S. National Singles Championship six consecutive times (seven total), earned six victories in the U.S. Clay Court Championships and proved victorious in Wimbledon three of the six times he entered—the first American to ever win the event. Tilden’s popularity amplified with every tennis triumph. As communication scholars John Carvalho and Mike Milford demonstrated, much of Tilden’s media coverage in the 1920s defined him as a tennis great and champion.

As Tilden enjoyed celebrity status during the 1920s, rumors regarding his sexual preferences circulated. Reporters hinted that Tilden favored certain male protégés but merely alluded to the significance. His sexuality was discussed by the media in whispers and not labeled abnormal. While this was common practice for the time—reporters rarely described Ruth’s known womanizing habits, for example—scholar Teddy Tinling also explained that such censorship and purposeful ignorance stemmed from class distinctions. He posited that the upper class “had the prerogative of indulging their eccentricities to the utmost.” Yet, regardless of class, Tilden’s supposed “eccentricities” would not be tolerated in the post-World War II era.

The Post-World War II Era: Bill Tilden

Sexual mores shifted in the wake of World War II. In the United States, heterosexuality was exalted to counteract the supposed threats from the Soviet Union. As historian Elaine Tyler May argued in Homeward Bound, “domestic containment,” the idea that the dangerous social forces of the atomic age could be combated within the home, privileged heterosexuality. Heterosexual interactions were thus normalized, whereas all other relationships were deemed aberrant. Resultantly, gays and lesbians experienced a reduction of rights during the Cold War, due to the hardening of the sexual binary and the criminalization of non-heterosexuality.

Tilden’s reputation and legacy was correspondingly altered. In 1946, he was pulled over and arrested when an officer found a 14-year-old boy in the driver’s seat. The adolescent alleged that Tilden had fondled him. Against the wishes of his attorney, Tilden pled guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to nine months in prison with five months probation. While the New York Times ignored the arrest and briefly mentioned the sentencing, the University of Pennsylvania, where Tilden attended as an undergraduate but did not graduate, expunged his name from all records. Fans similarly turned against the former tennis star.

After serving his time, Tilden published an autobiography, My Story, to chronicle his tennis career and explain his sexuality. According to Carvalho and Milford, in the book, Tilden embraced postwar-era norms to recast his arrest in a less negative light. Tilden explained that sports encouraged same-sex relationships and noted that the intimate nature of competition fostered “occasional relationships somewhat away from the normal.” Notably, he seemed to internalize the terminology of the period when identifying same-sex sexuality as medically abnormal. Moreover, Tilden argued that many celebrated individuals shared his “condition,” and suggested that his sexuality stemmed from a “psychoneurosis or other psychological disturbance.” Tilden deployed medical terminology to both rationalize his behavior and present a derogatory interpretation of same-sex sexuality. Despite an attempt to bolster his reputation, the tennis community continued to ostracize Tilden.

The situation worsened three years later when Tilden was arrested for picking up a 16-year-old hitchhiker, which violated his parole. During the trial, the prosecutor portrayed him as immoral and deviant; however, Tilden’s criminalization may have stemmed from his sexuality rather than pedophilia. As Carvalho and Milford noted, “the sexual exploitation of children, operating under the same code of society’s silence, seems to have been subsumed by the greater condemnation of homosexual behavior” (p. 564). Tilden returned to jail and was banished from tennis. In 1953, he died in a run-down boarding house, his legacy largely erased.

The 1970s: David Kopay and Glenn Burke

Two decades after Tilden died alone and penniless, sexuality norms again shifted. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation, the Gay Rights Movement fought for gay rights and countered the ideology of heterosexuality as normal. While equality for gays and lesbians expanded, sport grew in popularity and emerged as an avenue to combat these new social upheavals. Gay male athletes, therefore, were not openly accepted on the court, diamond or field by teammates, coaches and fans. Accordingly, gay men in professional sport largely remained closeted, fearful of violent and/or professional retribution.

David Kopay, an All-American running back for the University of Washington, signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1964. Despite his popularity in a city with a thriving gay and lesbian community, Kopay hid his sexuality, concerned that coming out would damage his career. To counter any rumors or suggestions, he instead exhibited hyper-masculinity. Kopay explained:

When I played, I was a very aggressive, tough ballplayer. . . . I gained their respect by being especially tough, but that was also a good ruse to hide my true sexual identity.

After playing for the 49ers, Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, and Green Bay Packers, Kopay retired in 1972. Three years later, he publicly acknowledged his sexuality, becoming the first former professional male athlete to come out. His courage had a cost, however, as the NFL blacklisted him from coaching, illustrating the league’s discomfort with same-sex sexuality.

Football was not alone in its refusal to accept a gay athlete or coach. Major League Baseball, “America’s pastime,” also embodied paralleling ideologies of masculinity and heterosexuality. Glenn Burke, a Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder, faced resentment and mistreatment when his teammates and management learned he was gay. In his 1995 autobiography, Out at Home, he described Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis’ attempts to persuade Burke into heterosexuality by offering to pay for a luxurious honeymoon—if he agreed to marry a woman. In addition, despite his successes with the Dodgers, Burke was traded to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North in 1978, a less established player; some suggest homophobia was the driving factor in the exchange. The transition proved difficult for Burke as he not only received minimal playing time, but was also the focal point of many gay epithets in the clubhouse. After a knee injury sent him to the minors in 1980, he subsequently retired. In 1982, Burke publicly came out and later suggested intolerance marred his career. “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have (left),” he famously declared. “But I wasn’t changing.” With the post-career mistreatment Kopay and Burke faced, it is not surprising that gay professional athletes opted to hide their sexuality in the 1990s and 2000s.

The 1980s: The Gay Games

U.S. decathlete Tom Waddell finished sixth in the 1968 Olympics. While competing in Mexico City, he hid his sexuality from teammates, silenced by the continued homophobia that plagued men’s sport. A 1972 knee injury relegated Waddell to recreational activities and he joined a Bay Area gay bowling league. The openness and acceptance of the league inspired Waddell to construct a similarly tolerant event modeled on the Olympic Games. First organized in 1982, the “Gay Olympics” were created to help a marginalized and hidden population in sport. According to Waddell, the Games:

Are not separatist, they are not exclusive, they are not oriented to victory, and they are not for commercial gain. They are, however, intended to bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation, to elevate consciousness and self-esteem.

Unfortunately, not everyone perceived the Gay Olympics in such a positive light. Three weeks before the opening ceremonies of the 1982 San Francisco Games, the United States Olympic Committee filed a lawsuit demanding the Gay Olympics remove “Olympics” from its title. Despite never protesting any other organization’s use of the word, the USOC argued that having “Olympics” adjacent to “Gay” harmed the USOC’s image. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, in favor of the USOC. Although the legal proceedings would continue for five years, Waddell rechristened the 1982 event the Gay Games. With 1,350 athletes from ten countries competing in 17 sports, the Gay Games were deemed a success and have continued every four years. Several gay (former) professional athletes participated openly in the Gay Games–once in retirement.

Although the Gay Games found immediate success in the 1980s, gay men experienced increased homophobia during the decade. The rise of AIDS caused a public rejection of the gay community. Because the infection appeared to target gay men, some defined the disease as GRID, the gay-related immune deficiency. Although the Center for Disease Control quickly verified that AIDS did not target the gay community, the stigmatization persisted. Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games, died in 1987 from the infection. The tragedies and disparagement caused by AIDS further pushed gay athletes into silence.

The 1990s-2000s: Coming Out Post-Career

At the end of the century, men’s sport remained entrenched in masculinity and heterosexuality. After interviewing heterosexual male athletes in 1992, for example, sport sociologist Michael Messner concluded that, in sport, “homophobia is staggering.” Due to the staunch heterosexism of professional U.S. sports, gay male athletes in the 1990s and early 2000s continued to conceal their sexuality, with a handful coming out in retirement. When safely retired, those who openly discussed their existence as gay athletes in professional sport cited fears of on-field brutality and career desecration as factors for their prolonged silence. In addition, many noted substance abuse as a method to handle the prejudices and duplicity.

In 1992, Roy “Sugar Bear” Simmons became the second professional football player to publicly come out, almost a decade after he left the sport. He was drafted by the Giants in 1979 and spent five tumultuous seasons in New York, his play consistently declining due to off-field habits. Simmons was tortured by the required concealment and absolved this pain with various substances. His worsening performance led to his removal from the team in 1983. Simmons spent one additional season with the Washington Redskins before opting to leave professional football. In 1992, Simmons came out on the Phil Donahue Show and suggested the homophobic attitude of the NFL deterred him from being open with his sexuality. “In the NFL, there is nothing worse than being gay,” he explained. “You can beat your wife, but you better not be gay.” Fourteen years later, he expanded the description in the autobiography, Out of Bounds, and discussed drug addiction and prostitution. He died in 2014 homeless at the age of 57.

Esera Tuaolo shared a similar story in his 2006 autobiography, Alone in the Trenches. Drafted in 1991, he first played for the Green Bay Packers before joining the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. After retiring in 1999, he publicly came out three years later on HBO’s Real Sports and in ESPN Magazine. In a piece entitled “Free and Clear,” Tuaolo described his numerous anxiety attacks that were sparked from the worry of being exposed; he feared that if his sexuality was revealed, he would be cut or purposefully injured. Tuaolo knew the repercussions:

Because the NFL is a supermacho culture. It’s a place for gladiators. And gladiators aren’t supposed to be gay

Tequila and whiskey were his solutions to curb the pain. With the machismo in the NFL, then, it is not surprising, that others followed a similar path. Wade Davis played in the NFL for three years, 2000-2003, and came out in 2012 while retired. Kwame Harris, an NFL offensive tackle for seven years, announced his sexuality on CNN three years after ending his professional career.

Gay athletes in baseball and basketball also mirrored this pattern. Outfielder Billy Bean commenced his career with the Detroit Lions, competed for the Los Angeles Dodgers and finished his tenure with San Diego Padres. Throughout his nine-year-stint in the MLB, he pretended to date women while nervously hiding the existence of his male partner. “I went to Hooters, laughed to the jokes, (and) lied about dates,” he said, “because I loved baseball.” Bean’s anecdote seems to stem from his recognition of society’s inability to embrace same-sex sexuality in baseball. Professional basketball player John Amaechi experienced similar turmoil. Signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1995, he spent two years in a European league before returning to the United States with the Orlando Magic in 1999. Amaechi completed his NBA career four years later with the Utah Jazz, where he began to live more openly as a gay man. When retired, he publicly came out in a 2007 interview with Outside the Lines. While many applauded Amaechi’s announcement, some within the NBA were not as tolerant. Former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway infamously ranted:

“You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. . . . I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”

Such sentiments kept many from coming out while competing professionally.

In 2013, Robbie Rogers retired from professional soccer at the age of 25. Shortly after concluding his career, he followed gay professional predecessors and announced his sexuality on his personal blog, robbiehrogers.com. Yet, just over two months later, Rogers returned to the MLS and joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, making him the first professional athlete to be openly gay while competing. Rogers’ reentry into the professional world of soccer marked a turning point, and his teammates embraced him on and off the pitch.

Conclusion: Sexuality and Sport Today

On May 6, 2013, NBA free agent Jason Collins publicly came out. In a pioneering Sports Illustrated piece, he explained that “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” While this announcement proved revolutionary and courageous, many feared Collins would remain unsigned; his age and statistics were discussed as potential obstacles, as was the increased publicity that came with his announcement. Finally, almost a full year after his declaration, Collins signed with the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly gay man to compete in one of the big four sports. Moreover, not only was he warmly accepted, but his jersey became a top seller in the league. With Collins in the NBA and Sam in the NFL, homophobia in sport is slowly being dismantled.


Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu.

The Diploma Mill at the Adjunct Sweatshop: Why College Athlete Unionization Matters

The first months of 2014 have seen a flurry of labor related actions on University campuses across the country. As administrators continue the push for corporate structures and profit driven business models, graduate employees, staff, and faculty have pushed back. The ongoing case of Northwestern University football team’s unionization provides an interesting and unique ripple in the neoliberalization of colleges and universities.

In January, members of NU’s football team filed a petition form a union. In March, Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago, ruled that the football players at NU are employees of the university. As directed by the decision, the NU players voted in April whether or not to unionize. Because the university appealed the decision, the result of the players’ vote will not be known until after the appeal is heard.

The effects this case cannot be underestimated. The most direct impact, of course, lies within the hallowed (and expensive) halls of Northwestern’s athletic facilities. Should the NLRB uphold the ruling, it would set the precedent for considering all football players at private universities to be employees. Athletes at public universities are subject to state laws on union organizing, and would thus have different paths to unionization.

Aside from the precedent setting logistical impacts, this case, along with other cases of mistreatment, demonstrates the need for union representation. See this clip from The Daily Show for a succinct and witty discussion of these issues. As the ending of the clip suggests, unionization is not just about wages & revenue sharing, but also about all the other important supports that unions provide such as grievance procedures outside of flawed university structures and the ability to engage with supervisors and university officials on a equal level. Thus, this ruling calls into question the authoritarian, often abusive, nature of coach/athlete relationships as well as the exploitative labor relations of universities more generally.

The NCAA has for decades strategized and developed policies which uphold the myth of amateurism while exploiting the athletes’ labor. In Bowled Over: Big Time College Football from the 1960s to the BCS Era, Michael Oriard argues that members of the NCAA contentiously debated scholarships throughout the 1960s and 70s. One-year scholarships were used to both recruit and dispose of players (often men of color) at the coaches’ whim.  Moreover, they developed the term “student-athletes” to maintain the myth of amateurism as football became more and more economically important. Athletics programs have ballooned into million dollar enterprises and the NCAA is now a billion dollar cartel.

The development of the NCAA as increasingly profit driven reflects similar shifts in the structure and governance of universities and colleges across the country. University administrators and state governing bodies have increasingly pushed for improvements in efficiency at universities, taking the standards of corporate business as the yardstick for academic success. These new standards of academic success include the number of students in a particular department, number of degrees conferred, time to degree, and grant monies procured.

In this quest for efficiency, administrators seek low cost labor, and as a result the state of secure, tenure-track employment is precarious at best. While there has been a 45% increase in full time students over the past ten years, tenure track positions have only increased by 28% over the past 30 years. Perhaps more tellingly, adjunct and non-tenure track faculty now make up over 75% of all faculty employees. Further, most adjuncts will earn less than $20,000 per year.

As universities increasingly strive for profit driven business models, workers across campus are facing the brunt of budget & program cuts and are being asked to do more with less.  And yet, workers are fighting back.  The move to collective action amongst athletes reflects a rising tide of collective action amongst academic workers. Graduate student employees and adjunct faculty have organized unions and campus wide protests against external “efficiency audits” have called attention to the corporatization of universities.

Athlete unionization matters because every worker on campus is under attack. Collective action and solidarity are necessary for all of us to achieve a living wage and fair working conditions.