Air Racing in the United States: The Rise and Fall of a Short-Lived Pastime

Ever since humans invented motorized flight, they have attempted to race airplanes in the sky. This weekend, pilots from around the world convened at the Reno-Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada, to compete in the 2014 National Air Races. Tragically, in practice before the start of the races, retired fighter pilot, veteran air racer, and former national champion Lee Behel died during a crash. This unfortunate accident preceded the fifty-first annual races in Reno. The air races have been held in the United States and abroad since the beginning of the twentieth century. This post chronicles the ascent of air racing as a potential national pastime in the beginning of the twentieth century to its descent to being a “flash-in-the-pan” pastime. Although its status among sports fans in the United States is not as high as it once was, the sport remains an important part of the history of sport and technology.

Most popular among Americans in the late 1920s and 1930s, the appeal of air racing stemmed from the novel intrigue of aeronautical technology improvements during the industry’s nascent years. These air racers helped spur technological advancements in air technology in the first few decades of flight and the races became popular stages to exhibit modern aircraft. The “spectacular acrobatic stunts and daring attempts at new world speeds” fascinated the public according to the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1933. In 1938, Newsweek explained that “[f]or the spectators it is a carnival of thrills; for the engineer and designer, a proving ground for their theories; for the flyer, a chance at fame and fortune.” Today the air races include multiple short courses. In the past, the races were held on both closed as well as open, cross-country courses. They varied throughout the years. As air racing historian Don Berliner explains at the beginning of his book, Airplane Racing: A History, 1909-2008:

Air Racing is speed competition for piloted, fixed-wing aircraft around closed circuits or long cross-country courses. Aviation’s primary spectator sport is pylon racing, in which several pilots take off together and race simultaneously for several laps around courses marked at the corners by brightly colored towers, called pylons (p. 1).

For a short-time period in the beginning of the twentieth century, these air races at the beginning of each September had a chance at becoming dominant on the American sport landscape.

Shortly after Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the first competitive air expeditions began. In late August, 1909, according to Berliner “tens of thousands of Frenchmen” witnessed the world’s first air races near Reims, France (p. 9). Air competitions quickly gained steam in the United States. The Boston Journal, for example, reported that a September 3, 1911, air race over Boston Harbor entertained local residents. By 1920, American institutions of higher education joined the air athletics craze. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported on May 17, 1920, that “college youngsters” from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Pennsylvania, Williams, Rutgers, and Wesleyan enjoyed “cleaving the air in ardent competition.”

In order to propagate innovation of airplane technology, various entrepreneurs organized races in the 1910s. Races for the “Gordon Bennett Cup”—given by the publisher of the New York Herald James Gordon Bennett—first were held in Belmont Park, New York, in 1910. According to Berliner, the “clear purpose” of the races “was to accelerate the pace of progress in the design, construction, power and piloting of all types of aircrafts” (p. 42). After appearing in subsequent years in Kent, England; Clearing, Illinois; and Reims, France; the races ended when Europe became engulfed in the Great War (the race resumed for one year following the war). Other races in Europe were held for aerial enthusiasts. Seaplanes battled over the Schneider Cup held over the Mediterranean Sea, near the coast of Monaco. Organized by French aircraft aficionado Jacques Schneider, the races attempted to “stimulate progress” in seaplane technology. Quickly the races became not just an important avenue for airplane innovations but an international sport. The races even progressed as a professional endeavor. In fact, according to a New York Times article on August 29, 1932, there was a push by air racers to unionize.

1928 Church Midwing (original) at the EAA AirVenture Museum. Courtesy of Kenn Smith.

1928 Church Midwing (original) at the Air Venture Museum of Early Racers. Courtesy of Kenn Smith.

In the interwar period, the air races became a national spectacle in the United States. Innovations in aviation because of wartime technology helped expand the races. By the 1930s, Berliner explains that the National Air Races “attracted so many fans and so much press attention that they spawned dozens of local and regional races” (p. 7).  The national event, first held in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929, brought 250 exhibitors and a floral parade to the Great Lakes city. Over 1,000 planes took to the skies in the inaugural races, making Cleveland, in the opinion of the Chicago Daily Tribune on August 4, 1929, the “unquestioned center of American aviation.” Over the next twenty years (although the races were not held during World War II) the National Air Races were held in Cleveland twelve times as well as in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The popularity of the air races and exhibitions expanded across gender and race lines. In 1906, the first woman flew an aircraft. In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African American (man or woman) to earn a pilot’s license (she had to travel to France to receive it, as no domestic institute would offer her one). In 1931, Katherine Cheung became the first Chinese woman to earn a pilot’s license. In 1929 Cleveland, women of the “99 club” elected Amelia Earhart their president and held the first Women’s Air Derby. One year later, in Chicago, the inaugural “Women’s Aviation Day” brought women officially into the National Air Races for the first time. Organizers held a “women’s speed race”  and staged a  “mixed doubles race”  in which men piloted planes on the first leg from Chicago to Cleveland and the women took charge in the aerial return to the Windy City.

Pennant from 1929 Cleveland Air Races. Courtesy of Bill Meixner.

Pennant from 1929 Cleveland Air Races. Courtesy of Bill Meixner.

In 1929, army veteran and African American William Powell attended and worked at the Cleveland National Air Races. Two years later, on Labor Day 1931, he held his own air competition: “an all-black airshow.” According to newspaper reports, nearly 15,000 people came out to witness the “Negro Flying Formation Group,” which consisted of Powell and two other African American pilots. Primarily held out of the national air races, Powell continued to hold exhibitions along with pilots such as James Banning, who became the first African American man to earn a pilot’s license. According to newspapers, over 40,000 people came to see the “Colored Air Circus” on December 6, 1931, in Los Angeles.

Air racing also became a diverse social class activity. Although many of the racers in the competitions were affluent elites, according to historian Jack Williams, “[i]nterest in aeroplane sport was never restricted to those from the upper class and was far more widespread than the number participating in it would suggest.” Thousands of spectators came to Cleveland and the other host cities to watch the aeronautical competitors. According to the Chicago Tribune, a “million people in Chicago” would view the national races in 1930.  The same newspaper insisted that and local races in the windy city would become the “high point of our summer season” in 1933.

Joe Mackey's 1929 Waco Model CTO Taperwing (original) at the WACO Museum, Troy, Ohio. Courtesy of Kenn Smith.

Joe Mackey’s 1929 Waco Model CTO Taperwing (original) at the WACO Museum, Troy, Ohio. Courtesy of Kenn Smith.

The air races sprung to a popular pastime because it was widespread across the United States. Although the races were often held in Cleveland or other major cities, for a few decades, citizens from across the country contributed to the air races. For example, planes constructed in Pennsylvania were shown at the National Air Races. Moreover, Seattle, Washington, nearly held the first air race in 1909 and the city continued to contribute to the sport by producing the first rotary engine. In Louisiana, “dynamic technology” improvements in the field of aviation helped advance airplane technology.

1932 Art Chester Jeep (original). At the Air Venture Museum of Early Racers. Courtesy of Kenn Smith.

1932 Art Chester Jeep (original) at the EAA AirVenture Museum. Courtesy of Kenn Smith.

Air racing’s popularity in the United States teetered during the 1930s and 1940s and became obsolete on a national scale in the postwar era. Even during the 1930s, some questioned the air races’ popularity. In a reference to small crowds at the 1931 races in Cleveland, a New York Times correspondent observed that on September 8 that “[a]irplane racing as a national sport, as a human, thrilling spectacle, is doomed—if indeed, it ever existed.” The journalist explained that there was “little thrill” in watching planes of similar speed fly by in a “wholly lacking” contest. Another columnist in the New York Times stated that the ten-day time frame of the races was too long to keep the public’s attention. Moreover, as air technology increased the speed of the airplanes, the allure of air racing as a spectator sport decreased because racing routes were lengthened past the eye’s reach. Although the races remained popular during the decade, these viewpoints foreshadowed the sports’ demise after World War II.

Multiple reasons contributed to air racing’s descent in popularity. Perhaps the public was immune to the innovative technology displayed at the air races in the late 1940s because it was no longer unique. Perhaps with the invention of much faster jet power, the air races lost their luster. The suspension of the National Air Races during World War II also suggests that the sport did not compare to other national pastimes. Baseball, for example, after much debate, decided to continue to play during the war. Although the air races reemerged following the fighting, its popularity had plummeted.

The revitalized air races following the war did not match the popularity of the 1930s air spectacles. The airplanes used during the races came from the advancements of the military during the war. The racers had less involvement in the engineering of their aircraft and many of the planes were more similar in design. With increased standardization of air travel, the novelty of the air races decreased. In addition, the inherent danger involved in the sport—because of the faster speeds of the aircrafts—tempered enthusiasm for the races.  The 1949 Cleveland races ended in tragedy when flyer Bill Odom “misjudged a turn, rolled over and dove into a house, killing a mother and her young child, as well as himself” (p. 146). The National Air Races disappeared after the accident.

B-29s at the 1949 Cleveland Air Races. Courtesy of Aaron King.

B-29s at the 1949 Cleveland Air Races. Courtesy of Aaron King.

The allure of air flight and sport went dormant for many years. In the 1960s, however, the National Championship Air Races made a comeback when aviation enthusiast Bill Stead brought the races to Reno, Nevada. These races lasted and have been held every year in Reno except for 2001 following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. A horrific crash at the 2011 races—when a 1940s style P-51 Mustang crashed and killed the pilot and nine spectators—unfortunately reminded air racing enthusiasts of the 1949 Cleveland crash.  Unfortunately, crashes continue to hamper the air races, with the death of Lee Behel the most recent. Also, in 2003, the Red Bull Air Race World Championships began and were held through 2010 in various cities across the world before being cancelled in 2011 and 2012.

Air racing thrived in the 1920s and 1930s when air travel was a novelty to the American public. Thrilling narratives of the races appeared on the front pages of leading national newspapers and periodicals. With the regularization and standardization of air travel, however, the uniqueness of air racing dissipated. The revamped Reno races and Red Bull races, although popular, have found homes on the margins of American sporting culture. The popularity of air racing—which lifted to a high altitude in the early decades of the twentieth century—was grounded by the end of World War II.

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 and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at

Kickin’ and a Gougin’ in the Mud and the Blood and the Beer; Or, Real Tales of Reality Fighting

by Adam Park

The smell of stale cigarette smoke hung low and dense as I walked through the heavily tented doors. The lighting was dim and poor. The sun stopped at the doorway. It took some effort for my eyes to adjust. Flashing neon. The unnatural greenish hue of florescent bulbs hanging overhead. Ostentatious carpets, where any stain would easily get lost in the motley of unrelated colors. A cacophony of bells, horns, whistles, and clinks from the hundreds of slot machines. Gloomy figures pumped tokens into various automated contraptions, eyes affixed, shoulders hunched. Oxygen tanks and wrist braces. An all-you-can-eat seafood buffet to the right. A panoptical tower in the middle, with double-sided glass, seeing all, seen by none. No windows. Time, day/night, was irrelevant. Outside is not welcome here. But first, a gruff security guard in an ill-fitted uniform. My ID. Fortunately, I was old enough for this. It was a beautiful Saturday. Fight night at the local casino.

I made my way to the impromptu arena. The white floor of the fight cage was encrusted with blood from untold previous encounters. Appropriate. Employees lined stackable chairs around the chain-linked hexagon. Others followed as they placed flyers advertising the forthcoming weekend’s events on each of the chairs. Midget wrestling and wet t-shirt contests. The bartender busily stocked the bar full of light domestic beers. Merchants arranged displays for their pricey wears, such that interested consumers might have the option to let anyone else know that they were once a part of this fandom. Said fandom begins to slowly enter. Affliction and Tapout shirts aplenty. Tattoos and bejeweled jeans. High heels and shorts skirts. Still plenty of time for the cash bar.

Backstage—i.e. the mobile home out back—the atmosphere was tense. Grapes, bananas, bottled water, and cheap assorted lunchmeat in the middle. The “red” and “blue” corners on opposing sides of the trailer. Combatants temporarily partitioned by inches of laminate wood paneling. Some paced nervously, exchanging apprehensive yet aggressive glances. Others sat listening to their trainers and cornermen as they got their hands taped. Others sprawled out on the black faux-leather couches, listening to ear-phoned music. Words were sparse in here. Quiet focus. The occasional laughter seemed to be born less of comedy than of a bodily need to vent, to release the overabundance of stored up energy from what was to come. Combatants in the evening’s earlier fights warmed up their kicks and punches in the back parking lot by the dumpsters. 1-2-3, 2-3-2, 1-2-10, 1-1-3-10, 2-3-2-9. Pads of various shapes and sizes absorbed the edgy strikes. Anticipation was palpable. Ring girls smoked cigarettes.

The fights went quick. Adrenaline tends not to pace its release over time. It’s not easy to train your body to curtail its natural reaction. But this made for short and exciting exchanges. Knockouts and submissions were abundant. Opponents rapidly expressed those years, months, and weeks of training and anticipation. Warm-ups became a luxury backstage, as we worked quickly to tape hands. Fighters were rushed in by the event coordinators who beckoned them by yelling last names. Each time the doors opened the sounds of the cheering audience would spill out. Sweat, blood, bruises, and hematomas visible on the exiting combatants. They did it for fun.

By the time the main fight was to commence, the bar ran dry. The audience was ready. Assigned seats were irrelevant, as most stood and hovered toward the center ring. Groups of same-shirted family and friends gathered in support of their representative. Behind thin curtains, the fighters and their respective entering entourages awaited announcement. I helped one of the fighters stay warm. Each kick, bruising my forearms behind the Thai pads. I pretended it didn’t hurt. He was ready. Less than two minutes into the first round, he took his opponent down to the ground and minced him with a flurry of punches. Blood. The referee pulled them apart, stopping the fight. The audience was rabid. They had gotten their fill of overpriced cheap beer and violent spectacles. Bloodlusty.

But not all of the casino’s bars ran dry that night. As I walked past the gruff security guard in the ill-fitted uniform to seek a more oxygen-rich environment outside, I looked back to see the two headliners sitting shoulder to shoulder, laughing over shared beers. Less than an hour after they met in the crimson-stained ring. Hallmark.

Place and Promotion: Boxing in Nevada

jpegRichard O. Davies’ new book The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip is entertaining and insightful in many ways. It blends new and familiar stories while offering a unique perspective on the history of sports. More than a sports history book, it is a critical text on the history of Nevada. Indeed, Nevada is the central character as Davies explores the highs and lows of the state’s relationship with boxing. Davies takes the reader through 8 Rounds — not chapters — before leaving them with a “split-decision.” Over the course of these rounds, it becomes clear that Nevada’s boxing history is split between into three distinct periods.

The first period — which comprises the first three chapters — covers the sport’s early history and major championship fights such Fitzsimmons — Corbett 1887 and Johnson — Jeffries 1910, when Nevada was one of the few states where boxing was legal. Relying on his roots as a political historian, Davies also explains the bureaucratic manipulating involved in promoting boxing.

Such promotion relied on the combination of rowdy mining culture, liberal minded politicians looking for an economic boom, and brash boosters like George L. “Tex” Rickard. Here Davies recounts stories of Goldfield, Nevada, a mining boomtown home to a healthy saloon and gambling culture. Joe Gans defeated Battling Nelson there in 1906. It is in Goldfield where Rickard made his name, stacking 1,500 gold coins worth $30,000 in a bank window to both publicize and prove he had the money to guarantee a championship fight.

Tex Rickard’s success as a promoter along with the country’s changing sensibilities allowed him to migrate east to New York City and establish a monopoly of his own at Madison Square Garden. Nevada soon lost the national spotlight and its monopoly on the sport. This second period — one of limited national exposure or importance — lasted for nearly four decades.

Boxing did not entirely vanish from the Silver State, however. While Round 4 traces the decline of major championship prize fights, Round 5 focuses on the state’s local boxing culture. Amateur boxing in Nevada remained important and was an extremely popular sport at the University of Nevada. Though it was unfamiliar to him when he arrived at the University as Provost in 1980, Davies deftly explains the peculiar institution of collegiate boxing. The Nevada Wolf Pack competed in the short lived NCAA sanctioned sport before transitioning to the newly formed National Collegiate Boxing Association. In the mid-1980s the pressures of Title IX forced the team into club status and obscurity despite its tradition of success.

Round 6 focuses on the life and career of Mills Lane. Famous for his catchphrase “Let’s get it on,” Lane became a popular culture icon as a boxing referee. He oversaw 97 championship bouts, including the famous Mike Tyson ear biting incident (which was his last). Lane, who was also a judge and Washoe County District Attorney during his career, later became a reality TV star as Judge Mills Lane. Though Davies doesn’t mention it, younger readers will remember him from the gruesome MTV claymation-show Celebrity Deathmatch. He did the voice-overs for the show’s referee, which was based off of him. His life serves as a transition from Nevada’s limited importance in the world of boxing to the return of championship fights. Lane rise as a boxing referee and position in popular culture parallels the third period Nevada’s boxing history — the return of major boxing events and the rise of Las Vegas.

Prizefighting and Las Vegas became nearly synonymous during the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Between 1960 and 2010 Las Vegas held over 200 championship fights. Davies credits Muhammad Ali with reenergizing the boxing culture of Nevada and pushing Las Vegas to the center of the prizefighting world. Round 7 looks at the city’s relationship with Ali. In Round 8, Davies connects Las Vegas’ ascent with the state’s changing demographics and the influence of two of the sport’s most important promoters: Don King and Bob Arum. Their ability to attract money and headlines while also scheduling exciting bouts solidified the sport’s popularity in Las Vegas. Likewise, the rise of Oscar De La Hoya and other hispanic fighters appealed to many local residents who migrated to Nevada from Mexico and the Southwest.

In his final chapter “split decision,” Davies wrestles with boxing’s decline in popularity and where it fits with the rise of MMA and UFC. He’s unsure of the sport’s future, but remains convinced that, as long as there is money and entertainment involved, it will be hard to supplant Las Vegas as the sport’s center. Nevada has long viewed boxing as a part of its economic strategy — one that’s tied to tourism, entertainment, and risk.

Because Davies book is relatively short it reads more as a greatest-hits of boxing history in Nevada. He presents mostly familiar stories but adds a new perspective that connects them to Nevada history. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this book is how it engages sports history — and the history of boxing in particular — as a study of place. In each section of the book, boxing is presented as a component of Nevada’s economic, social, and political life. Through the state’s changing relationship with the sport was often a product of outside influences or factors — such as Rickard moving east or the NCAA eliminating boxing. Nevada continued to embrace boxing while adapting to the new conditions. In this way, Davies describes boxing as both a sport and an industry essential to the economic and cultural life of the Silver State.

Throughout the book Davies also picks up on important themes in the history of boxing such as the centrality of place and the key role of promoters. The greatest eras in boxing have coincided with a strong control of the sport by a few individuals. This was true for Tex Rickard in Goldfield and then later with Jack Dempsey in New York. This control was essential in scheduling big fights, guaranteeing money, and attracting large crowds.

Rickard was the first of a string of men who controlled both Madison Square Garden and the sport of boxing. Mike Jacobs’ Twentieth Century Sporting Club with Joe Louis and James Norris’ International Boxing Club followed suit. Don King and Bob Arum were similar promoters and helped facilitate boxing’s return to Nevada. They seized control of the sport and established their own monopolies tying boxing to the glitz and glamor of casinos and easy money of pay-per-view.

When Rickard left Nevada he made New York City was the center of the boxing world. It remained at the fore from the 1920s to the 1950s thanks to large crowds. Place was essential in developing the big time feel. Few places other than New York could supply the crowds and associated glamour of a big event. Entertainment moved West, however, and Las Vegas emerged as a center of entertainment and celebrity during the 1960s. Nevada no longer lacked the essential ingredients of the “Main Event.”

The idea of studying place in boxing is interesting and a bit unique. Unlike other sports, boxing is not explicitly tied to specific cities or stadiums. Prior to its entrance into mainstream culture, place was perhaps even more important to boxing. The sport was illegal in most states. During the 19th century finding a suitable place required advanced work — building a temporary stadium and a ring, ensuring adequate transportation, connecting to telegraph lines, etc. Since then, championship prizefights have been held all over the world as promoters and fighters search for the biggest payday. Destination matters less because of satellites and pay-per-view, but the lure of the big crowds and important people remains important. The Main Event requires the spotlight. Throughout its history Nevada has craved these things, too, and worked to promote itself as a haven for boxing.

One final note of disclosure, my perspective of the book may been shaped by my personal involvement in the project. Richard O. Davies was my advisor for my master’s degree at the University of Nevada. While there, I wrote a seminar paper for him that he cites in the text. Likewise, I read and commented on the book proposal and a draft of the manuscript during the writing process.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85


Everardo Carlos Lerma, 1915-1998: A Different Kind of Mexican American Hero

By: Jorge Iber, PhD

Texas Tech University

In my first post, I provided an argument for the inclusion of Mexican Americans (and other Latinos/as) within the broader framework of the history of US sports.  In that essay, I focused on the story of the only team from the Rio Grande Valley to ever win a state title in Texas’ unofficial religion: high school football.  The success of the Redskins from 1961 provided a great uplift to many in a community that had suffered much discrimination in all areas of daily life.  Hence, the team’s success became the achievement of many Mexican Americans in Donna, and provided a certain impetus to challenge assumptions about this particular group.  The spade work that has been done for other ethnic and racial groups has yielded many stories of great value about teams and individuals who have been heroes and broken down barriers through their athletic skills and successes.

We are just now beginning to unearth such stories for Mexican Americans and other Latinos/as.  While some stories are familiar, for example, the great Roberto Clemente and others who have reached the Major Leagues, what about those whose significance is more evident at the local level?  Surely efforts similar to those used to unearth the role of mutual aid societies, local organizations connected to unions, churches and other such groups will yield stories that can inspire our communities as well as shed light on the role of Spanish-speakers on athletic fields throughout the nation?  It is to one such story that we now turn.[i]

The life of Everardo Carlos Lerma (or “E.C.” as he was known) began in the small farming town of Bishop, near the larger community of Kingsville, in southern Texas in 1915.  Both of his parents were born in Mexico, and they came to the Lone Star State seeking a better life for themselves and (what would eventually be) their one dozen children.  By 1923, both of E.C.’s parents had passed, and the youngest child of the Lerma clan was raised by his older brothers and sisters.  The siblings were determined to make sure that E.C. received an education, and at least graduated from high school (which was a rare feat for Mexican American youths in this era).  While working to make sure that the youngest Lerma was able to attend Kingsville High School, E.C.’s brothers and sisters did not count on his infatuation with the game of high school football, which had arrived in Texas in the 1890s, and which would help motivate him to continue schooling.  Although he grew up poor and attended mostly segregated schools, E.C. became enamored with the violence and speed of football and eventually became one of the first Spanish-surnamed youths to don the KHS Brahmas’ jersey.

The achievement of making the team required much more than just athletic ability, for when Lerma took the field in the early 1930s, his white teammates were, to say the least, less than enthusiastic about his participation.  One time, as an “initiation,” E.C. was tossed in the deep end of a pool.  In a 1997 interview, Coach Lerma recalled that, “I couldn’t even swim.”  Through persistence and talent, however, the young Mexican American from Bishop eventually won most of his teammates over, and even earned all-district honors in his senior year of 1933.  This attracted the attention of then Southwest Conference powerhouse, Texas Christian University.  While a trailblazer in his community, Lerma thought it best to remain near family and friends while attending college.  Thus, he turned down the offer of the Ft. Worth-based Horned Frogs, and instead decided to attend the local institution of higher learning, Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M, Kingsville) and play for his hometown Javelinas.

Circumstances were little different at the higher level of competition and the racism Lerma faced while in high school continued.  E.C. endured taunts, cheap shots and discriminatory practices while on the squad; and that was from his teammates.  Again, as at Kingsville High, he managed to win the majority over due to his athletic abilities and grit.  Lerma lettered for A&I between 1935 and 1937, and earned the respect of his coach, Bud McCallum, who was “a fair, tough, honest football coach that demanded 100% effort at all times.  He cared not what the color of your skin was.”

Coach E.C. Lerma with one of his 1940s Benavides High School football squads. Photo courtesy of the Lerma family.

Coach E.C. Lerma with one of his 1940s Benavides High School football squads. Photo courtesy of the Lerma family.

Lerma graduated in 1938, and eventually got a job with the Benavides School District in Duval County.  He was hired to teach science and to serve as assistant coach of the junior high football team.  By 1940, when the head coaching job for the Eagles opened, Lerma believed he had the capability to serve in that capacity.  The reaction of many in town (and on the school board) was as could be expected.  Some even wondered whether a “Mexican” had the intellectual capacity to run a football program.  Later in his life, E.C noted that, “people just couldn’t believe that a Mexican American could do as good of a job as an Anglo.  Well, I think I proved them wrong.”  The administrators of the Benavides schools were well rewarded for taking the “gamble” of hiring E.C. Lerma as one of the first Mexican American head football coaches in the state of Texas.  Between 1940 and 1955, the Eagles complied an impressive run of glory not only on the gridiron, but also in track, baseball and basketball.  The highlights of Lerma’s career as a football coach came in 1943 and 1949 when Benavides claimed regional crowns with undefeated seasons.  At that time, this was as far as teams in this classification could advance.

Coach E.C. Lerma with his 1944 Benavides High School regional champions basketball team. Photo courtesy of the Lerma family.

Coach E.C. Lerma with his 1944 Benavides High School regional champions basketball team. Photo courtesy of the Lerma family.

One other important aspect of Lerma’s years as coach at Benavides relates to his relationship with his mostly Mexican American players.  As Joel Huerta notes in his University of Texas dissertation, Lerma served as a paternalistic figure to these young men, and worked to make them successful both on the field and in the classroom.   Huerta argues that although Mexican Americans were still treated as second-class citizens during this era:

Lerma’s strict, paternalistic coaching style…dovetailed with South Texas ranch country ethic…{ultimately} the 1940s and 50s saw increased racial contact and a slow and steady dismantling of segregation in sports, schools and the broader society—often in that order.  Lerma and his…{teams} were trigger points, bell-weather of the changes afoot in this football-obsessed province of Mexican America.

The impact of Lerma’s and others’ efforts bore much fruit in the 1960s and 1970s as success on the field of athletic competition became yet another mechanism with which to challenge stereotypical assumptions of the intellectual and physical capabilities of Spanish-surnamed men and women.

Part of the program for the re-naming of the Benavides High School football stadium in honor of Coach E.C. Lerma, 1991. Courtesy of the Lerma family.

Part of the program for the re-naming of the Benavides High School football stadium in honor of Coach E.C. Lerma, 1991. Photo courtesy of the Lerma family.

Coach Lerma left Benavides in 1955 and moved on to Rio Grande City High School.  He coached for another 10 years, and achieved similar success with the Rattlers.  His legacy in Benavides is demonstrated, in part, by the fact that after he left the BHS Eagles did not make the playoffs again until 1984.  Lerma went on to serve as an administrator in various other school districts throughout the state of Texas.  In 1991, he was granted the honor of having the Benavides football stadium named in his honor.  Again, Huerta effectively summarizes his significance by stating that it was evident “that Mexicanos, especially kids were watching him.  If he succeeded he might encourage them to claim their rightful place on the playing fields, classrooms, marching bands and drill-teams—the mainstream of South Texas everyday culture.”  Coach Lerma passed away in 1997.

The value of the story of athletes and coaches such as Coach Lerma is to recount the challenges they overcame and the success they modeled for others.  This is but one story of Latino/a athletes and coaches who are out there waiting to be researched and analyzed.  In future contributions, I will continue to build upon such stories and bring this population’s history into the broader conversation of American sports history.

Jorge Iber is Associate Dean in the Student Division and Professor of History at Texas Tech University. He can be reached at


[i] The majority of the information included in this essay comes from the following sources: Jorge Iber, “Mexican Americans of South Texas Football: The Athletic and Coaching Careers of E.C. Lerma and Bobby Cavazos, 1932-1965,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol., 55, no. 4 (April, 2002): 616-633; Jorge Iber, Samuel O. Regalado, Jose M. Alamillo, and Arnoldo De Leon, Latinos in U.S. Sport: A History of Isolation, Cultural Identity, and Acceptance (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011):  91-92, 126-128, 130, 171, 246; and, Joel Huerta, “Red, Brown and Blue: A History and Cultural Poetics of High School Football in Mexican America,” PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2005. 101-121.

Baseball Dreams Deferred: The Story of the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All Stars (Part Two)

This post is dedicated to Margot Theis Raven, who passed away on August 16, 2014. Mrs. Raven was a devoted mother and wife and an accomplished artist and national award winning author of ten published children’s books including Let Them Play, a fun, well written and wonderfully illustrated recounting of the story of the Cannon Street All Stars.  I offer my deepest condolences to her family and friends.

Last Sunday, the clock struck midnight in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, youth baseball’s mecca and a temporary home for thousands of devotees to Little League Baseball, Incorporated, a secular athletic fellowship whose concepts of competition, respect, and fair play, like those of a slightly more sacred religion, are taught from a mound and observed by people of varying hues around the globe.  For the most devout supporters of Little League, the 67th annual Little League World Series (LLWS) was akin to revival; the 2014 summer showcase was the most-watched ever on ESPN networks (ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 combined) with an average audience of 1,724,000 viewers, an increase of 71 percent from the previous year. The boom in interest was due, in large part, to the tournament’s participants who served as living examples of baseball’s rich cultural tapestry; there were good teams and not-so-good; well-traveled semi-amateurs and less experienced neighborhood stars; a charismatic, flame throwing heroine; and a group of talented yet enigmatic world champions from the Pacific. The beaus of the ball, so to speak, were the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, an all-black team from Chicago’s Southside whose improbable run ended with a United States championship prior to their defeat in the World Series title game.  Theirs was the feel good story in a summer with few of them, a soul-stirring Hollywood tableau destined for the Disney vaults.

Seated comfortably in the bleachers amongst the bevy of excited spectators were John Rivers, John Bailey, Vermont Brown, Carl Johnson, and Leroy Major—members of the 1955 Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All-Stars, an African American youth baseball team from Charleston, South Carolina who, until this week, were the “most significant amateur team in baseball history.” Nattily attired in matching polos, khakis, and baseball caps, the men loudly cheered every hit, catch and strikeout of their slightly younger historical counterparts. It was a highly emotional, joyous moment. For one team member in particular, the dungeon of his darkest childhood memory shook and his chains fell free. “I felt kind of exonerated,” John Bailey told a reporter after the game. “To see the boys from Jackie Robinson represent and do the things we could not do in 1955, I finally felt closure.”

Cannon Street at Williamsport 2014

John Rivers, John Bailey, Vermont Brown, Carl Johnson, and Leroy Major—members of the 1955 Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. All-Stars, an African American youth baseball team from Charleston, South Carolina, watch the action at the LLWS, August 24, 2014.

There have been few such moments of exaltation for the All Stars, key figures 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, officials with Charleston’s “Negro” Y.M.C.A. (later known as Cannon Street) entered the team into the “whites only” Charleston Little League tournament. They faced opposition from white city recreation officials, who 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 then 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, remains a pivotal yet often overlooked moment in the African American freedom struggle in South Carolina and the nation.

Prior to the summer of 1955, there was little discussion of the presence of a color line in Little League Baseball. The organization was founded in 1939, the result of a grassroots campaign led by Williamsport lumberyard clerk Carl E. Stotz, to provide local boys with a league of their own and a wholesome recreational alternative to juvenile delinquency. Stotz aimed to create a locally controlled, racially integrated, and merit-based system of organized baseball that could easily be duplicated elsewhere.  Adults held great power in each individual league, as they structured the rules and rituals that shaped the boys’ athletic and social growth. Organizers and local volunteers sought to mold young boys into “real Americans” and strong men firmly implanted with “the ideals of good sportsmanship, honesty, loyalty, courage, and reverence.”  Little League’s definition of “American” was also grounded in concepts of tolerance and equality.  Its bi-laws asserted that the program’s main goal was to create a sense of community, where no individual is excluded by reason of race or religion.  The inclusion of racial minorities was seen as a way for boys to learn that “their teammate is a pretty good fellow, no matter on which side of the railroad tracks he happens to live.”

In 1947, to spur national interest, Little League’s Board of Directors organized the first LLWS.  Newspapers from across the country covered the event, printing the results and shining a spotlight on the exploits of its young athletes.  The resulting boom in popularity led to the organization’s expansion well beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. Southerners embraced Little League Baseball despite its integrationist position.  Teams from the region experienced immediate success; in 1948, teams from Virginia and Florida reached the LLWS.  The next year, in its first season with Little League franchises, South Carolina sent a team to battle for the title.  Over the next six years, sixty more all-white leagues were formed in the Palmetto State. As in other parts of the region, municipal recreational organizations, many run by segregationist officials, handled administrative duties.  These public officials, coupled with state statutes prohibiting the integration of parks, prohibited interracial competition despite the aims of the national Little League organization.  White parents, coaches, and media said little about the arrangement; segregated play was just a normal part of southern life.

In South Carolina, segregated Little League play was also a symptom of systemic recreational inequality.  In Charleston, where most black adults earned subsistence wages as domestic workers and unskilled laborers, there were little surplus funds available to provide recreational activities for youth.  In 1947, the interracial Charleston Welfare Council reported that of the 1,618 housing units administered by the city’s Housing Authority, eighty percent were considered “substandard,” or plagued by improper maintenance and a lack of community activities for residents.  Among the city’s six public housing projects, none provided recreation services.  Children usually played on “negligible equipment” in small, cramped play areas. “The Negro child or adolescent,” the council declared, “is offered considerably less opportunity for recreation and group participation than is true in the white community.”  White Charlestonians did little to rectify the situation.

Left to fend for themselves, Black Charlestonians banded together to provide their children with fun and constructive playtime activities.  The Charleston “Negro” Y.M.C.A., also known as the “Cannon Street branch,” was one site that provided black children with opportunities for physical, mental, and spiritual development.  Founded in 1886, the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. initially operated as a social club for the city’s fair-skinned African American elite.  By the end of the First World War, the branch shed its elitism and experienced a brief renaissance.  In 1920, branch leaders successfully led a drive to purchase two lots at 61 and 63 Cannon Street.  Character building courses, Bible study, billiards contests and other civic and social gatherings were held in the small house located on one of the lots.  Children played basketball, tennis, held foot races, and even practiced drill on the other.  Despite their innovative use of the limited space, the branch struggled to meet the needs of its constituents.  “It is almost pathetic to see from 25 to 75 boys at afternoons and evenings crowding into the rooms on Cannon Street eager to do something, eager to be helped,” a volunteer wrote, “We strain ourselves in a vain effort to accommodate them.”  In 1929, South Carolina’s depression deepened, forcing the Cannon Street branch to briefly close its doors.

Nearly a decade later, the Cannon Street Branch experienced a renaissance as African Americans recognized the need for unity and collective action to uplift the community and stretch the boundaries of Jim Crow.  Many of the Y.M.C.A movement’s leaders were among Charleston’s black professional elite, men and women eager to build and maintain strong, black, and progressive institutions to better the lives of local citizens.  Perhaps the most important of these individuals was Robert Francis Morrison, a prominent black entrepreneur, member of the N.A.A.C.P., and ardent believer in the character building power of organized athletics.  After negotiating with the city’s white Y.M.C.A. leadership to reacquire their lost property, Morrison

Founded in 1886, the Cannon Street YMCA continues to provide recreational opportunities for all of Charleston's children at its location on 61 Cannon Street.

Founded in 1886, the Cannon Street YMCA continues to provide recreational opportunities for all of Charleston’s children at its location on 61 Cannon Street.

and his supporters resumed the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A.’s earlier activities and made plans to raise funds for a permanent site.  The fundraising drive was truly a community effort.  Children canvassed the city for donations, churches sold ice cream floats, and frequent meetings were held with white philanthropists to secure additional funds.  In November 1947, the Cannon Street Branch reached its goal. Construction began on a new building which was to include “an entrance lobby, snack bar, general offices, two club rooms, dressing rooms and showers” along with a combination gymnasium and auditorium. “I believe we are on the threshold of a new era in the lives of the people of this community,” exclaimed Rev. Emmett Lampkin at the building’s dedication ceremony, “…if we are to live in harmony and dignity, we will have to live it so. This building alone cannot accomplish this.”

Morrison agreed with this assessment.  After being named president of the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. in 1953, the activist began an intensive letter writing campaign to the News and Courier, criticizing blacks’ exclusion from local beaches and Edisto State Park despite their financial contributions as taxpayers. The Y.M.C.A. also hosted new recreational programs to provide black youth with activities comparable to their white counterparts. Swim classes were held in a pool at segregated Harmon Field, emulating those provided by the white Y.M.C.A. which held similar classes for over 75,000 children at two municipal pools.

While brainstorming with his staff about additional program ideas, Y.M.C.A. Boys Worker Allen Tibbs proposed the organization of a youth baseball league.  Morrison loved the idea.  In 1953, he filed for an official charter with Little League Baseball, Incorporated.  He likely understood that aligning the Cannon Street league with the national Little League body created the possibility for an all-black team to legally compete on the same field as whites.  For its first two seasons, however, the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. Little League operated on an all-black basis while providing black children with an opportunity to play organized baseball.  

Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. President Robert F. Morrison was a tireless advocate of racial equality and fairness in youth recreation.  He is pictured here (second from left) alongside  Cannon Street team members during their stay at Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA, August 26, 1955. Photo courtesy of Little League Baseball, Inc.

Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. President Robert F. Morrison was a tireless advocate of racial equality and fairness in youth recreation. He is pictured here (second from left) alongside Cannon Street team members during their stay at Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA, August 26, 1955. Photo courtesy of Little League Baseball, Inc.

Keeping with tradition, the Cannon Street Y.M.C.A. Little League was a community effort that bridged class divisions among blacks in the city.  The league was comprised of four teams sponsored by prominent black businesses, civic organizations and leading families in Charleston’s elite black community. To ease the financial burden on working class parents, sponsors purchased uniforms for each child.  Mothers, including John Bailey’s mother, Flossie, held teas and sold refreshments to raise additional funds for balls, bats, and gloves.

Games were held at segregated Harmon Field, a makeshift playground established in 1927 with support from white philanthropists.  Though the park was dedicated to the “recreation of all,” South Carolina law mandated the racial segregation of public parks thus keeping Harmon segregated until 1966.  The field, a sun-spit patch of earth pockmarked with chunks of grass and gravel, was also plagued with drainage issues.  The Charleston City Council, responsible for “properly policing” and “caring for” the field, made little attempt to maintain the area.  Prior to each game, players and coaches doubled as groundskeepers.  Displaying tremendous self-sufficiency, they mowed the grass, laid down chalk outlines, and pooled funds to purchase a red outfield fence which they carefully placed according to national Little League guidelines.  The play on the field was equally intense.  William “Buck” Godfrey, the All Stars’ centerfielder remembered that the field “was dotted with sweating little boys giving everything they had. A player felt the need to be ‘perfect’.”

David Middleton at Harmon Field

David Middleton (smiling, center) and his teammates prepare for a game at Harmon Field in Charleston, S.C., Summer 1955. Ben Singleton, the coach of the All Stars, stands on the far right.

News of the young athletes’ skill peaked whites’ curiosity. Danny Jones, South Carolina’s Director of Little League Baseball, was among those that visited Harmon Field.  A native of Charleston, Jones was a beloved figure in white recreational circles. A lifelong sportsman, Jones served as a batboy for the Charleston Pals minor league club and later earned All-State honors in basketball.  After attending the College of Charleston, Jones entered the military, where he developed a passion for organized recreation.  Upon his return from the war, Jones was named superintendent of the Cooper River Parks and Playgrounds Commission.  His tireless work ethic and affable personality helped it become a sports empire.  By 1960, the group presided over 22 baseball and softball diamonds, 10 playgrounds, four community centers, and a swimming pool. Jones’ success made him the public face for white recreation in Charleston.  With that mantle came the responsibility to ensure continued progress while maintaining Southern traditions of racial segregation. 

After the first half of the season ended, Morrison and the league’s coaches—Walter Burke, Lee Bennett, Archie Graham, Rufus Dilligard and Ben Singleton gathered in his small office at the Y.M.C.A. to choose an “All-Star” team.  The fifteen players chosen would represent the Cannon Street Little League in sanctioned postseason play beginning in July.  “We voted on the boys’ ability, attitude, versatility, and team loyalty,” Dilligard remembered, “When we finished, I thought that we had the best of the best.”  The league’s top team, Fielding’s, had six representatives: John Bailey, Vermont Brown, Leroy Major, David Middleton, Arthur Peoples, and John Mack. The second place P.A.L. team sent five: Allen Jackson, Norman Robinson, Maurice Singleton, Carl Johnson, and Leroy Carter.  Charles Bradley, John Rivers, and George Gregory represented Pan-Hellenic.  Harleston’s Vernon Gray and William “Buck” Godfrey rounded out the powerful roster.  With a confidence bordering on cockiness, one member explained that they were “in a league by themselves.”  Morrison hoped they would get a chance to prove it.  In late June 1955, he entered the team into the Charleston Little League tournament.

Jones was aware of the national Little League’s stance on integrated play and understood Morrison’s desire to provide their boys with an opportunity to compete against whites.  Before signing the Little League charter, Morrison had Jones “come down to discuss the situation.  He [Jones] told us that North Carolina had a full Colored team and a mixed team.”  At the meeting, the Y.M.C.A President informed Jones that he wanted black boys in Charleston to have the same privilege to play baseball as whites and reminded Jones of Little League’s stance on integrated play.  Two years later, despite this understanding, Jones took the lead in defending Charleston’s city tournament from a violation of Southern traditions.  The city tournament was soon cancelled.

After the cancellation of the city tournament, the national Little League granted the Cannon Street team permission to compete in the South Carolina State tournament to be held at Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville.  On July 6, Danny Jones and representatives of the state’s 55 white leagues met to discuss the situation. They drafted a resolution requesting permission from the national Little League to form a “whites only” tournament.  “Since the State of South Carolina in its schools, parks, and all places of amusement is operating under the segregation plan,” they argued, “it is impractical for a Negro league to participate in the state Little League tournament this season.”  Little League was now politicized; the resolution passed by a 40-15 margin.  Almost overnight, the majority of South Carolina’s Little League teams seceded from the national organization.

Three weeks later, Danny Jones resigned from his post as South Carolina’s Director of Little League baseball. In his

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.

resignation letter to Peter J. McGovern, the president of Little League Baseball, Jones remarked that any effort to permit them to play was “an opening wedge to abolish segregation in recreational facilities in South Carolina.” Referring to Morrison’s use of children to protest segregation as a “dastardly act,” Jones reiterated that he would not remain director of a politicized tournament. In a letter published in the News and Courier, Morrison blasted Jones. He pointed out that Jones worked for six years for Little League’s national office and had likely developed an excellent understanding of its rules regarding race. Citing an earlier article where Jones acknowledged an earlier competition between a white team from Columbia and a mixed team from North Carolina, Morrison boldly accused Jones of “undermining the laws and customs of the South.” The Y.M.C.A. president argued that Jones shunned Southern tradition the moment he became connected with a national organization that encouraged integration and fair play. By the end of July, due to Jones’ charismatic leadership and the coercion of the 15 defectors by supporters of “massive resistance”, all 55 teams had pulled out of the state tournament leaving the Cannon Street All-Stars champions by default.  A week later, Jones and his supporters founded Little Boys Baseball, Incorporated, a segregated doppelganger of the Williamsport based organization. At the start of play the next season, the league boasted nearly 200 leagues in five southern states.  Despite his claims to the contrary, Jones’ league was explicitly politicized.  Even worse, the boycott dashed the dreams of white southern youth who would be denied a chance to reach Williamsport as participants in the new league.

The All-Stars became the unofficial representatives of South Carolina due to the white boycott. The next step for all state champions was the regional competition. The tournament was to be held in Rome, Georgia, with teams from eight Southern states. Rome officials repeatedly reiterated that Cannon Street team would be eligible to play in the competition if they won the state tournament. They also stated that if the team won by forfeit, it would not be allowed to play for a chance to go to Williamsport. When the time came to make a final decision, Rome officials declared “there actually is no 1955 Little League champion in South Carolina.” “With extreme reluctance and heartfelt regard,” McGovern announced that there would be no

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.  Shortly before this iconic photo was taken, the All-Stars thrilled the crowd during a practice session before the championship game.

representative from South Carolina in the field.  In a letter to Morrison, the embarrassed president referred to the All-Stars as “innocent victims of alien influences that have deprived them of beneficial associations and opportunity to meet and know other boys in Little League Baseball.”  Little League executives invited the Cannon Street team to Williamsport as guests to view the World Series that they were denied the privilege to participate in. While in attendance, the All Stars were granted a practice session prior to the championship game. Their enthusiasm and skill inspired chants of “Let Them Play!” from the awestruck crowd.  Alas, it was not to be.

Roughly fifty-nine years to the day the Cannon Street team left Williamsport in tears, a thin veil of mist covered the entire Little League Baseball Complex, a vast, glimmering baseball kingdom comprised of two stadiums, three practice fields, a housing facility, and a host of entertainment venues located in the heart of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. On this dreary, sullen late August morning, the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars paid one last visit to Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the scene of their greatest victory and most difficult defeat.  For coach Darold Butler, a former draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays and the architect of youth baseball’s resurrection in inner-city Chicago, it was an opportune moment to teach his team one more lesson.  Arriving at the nearly deserted complex, the team was greeted by John Rivers, a man all too familiar with bittersweet childhood moments.  The gregarious, grey-bearded Rivers shook hands with each of the team’s coaches and players and presented the team with a gift, a signed copy of Let Them Play.  After a brief discussion, the United States champions and a representative of “The Team Nobody Would Play” posed for a photo.  Apparently, the baseball gods had just enough summertime magic left to bring together these two teams, parallel strands of the universe’s moral arc, in a time where justice was finally served.

John Rivers and JRW All Stars

Cannon Street All Stars’ Team President John Rivers (Far right) and the Jackie Robinson West All Stars (Chicago, IL), the 2014 United States Little League Champions.



Past Seasons in Reflection as a New One Begins

Texas in August is dreadful, especially for a coach’s wife. Our family has the start of coach’s year at least a month before the start of teacher’s year. That wonderful time I spend being the apple of his eye and center of his attention during the spring and summer fades away as he transforms himself into Coach. The locker room feels barren and lacks life in the later part of July and the first week of August. It smells of dust and all the practice jerseys have that funk that is explained at our house as foot cheddar. (You know, what cheese would smell like if it were mixed with large amounts of toe jam.) I hold on to the last precious moments of vacation by volunteering for the ridiculous tasks of washing the jerseys, dusting the weight room, putting numbers on lockers or whatever may steal one more second before I give him up until January. The children are usually unaware of the pending absence. Most of the time, they enjoy running down the practice field or playing pretend with the helmets and oversized shoulder pads. Then it happens, the Coach emerges from the cloak of summer vacation and I become a supporting actress rather than the lead role in his movie. This usually happens the few days leading up to two-a-days. It is all about the game now. I retreat to the house, kids in tow, and get excited. 

In winter, all of the trees look so bare and cold with leaves lying around the bottoms covered in frosty dew each morning. East Texas winter can be as brutal as South Texas summer but a different type of brutality. Winter creeps in through the doorways and the window panes. It seems to permeate the flaps of your fleece jacket and whisper runny noses in your ears as the wind chaps your lips. Errands become a chore greater than the laundry and anything outside of the cozy climate controlled world of the home seems unbearable. Children in schools clamor wishes of warmth through the hall and the head cheerleader wears her new snow boots with the first break of the season. Coaches’ wives huddle in the stands wrapped in blankets and wearing layers for the last Fridays of the season. 

Football exemplifies a circle of life type quality in Texas. Football season comes to represent all that is good and all that is ugly. Towns take stock in the team and support the new season like a newborn child, hoping it will produce great things. Coach gets all the nods and hellos he can stand during two-a-days as the Texas heat beats down on him and the players like troops battered by the sun in the desert. At opening kickoff of the first home game, Helios beams down upon the newborn team with some weird life-giving quality, bringing calm to the players as they approach the field for the first time. Onlookers arrive wearing t-shirts and capri pants, toenails flashing from their flip-flops painted to match the helmets and jerseys on the field. Excitement and Fellowship seem to fornicate in the lusty humidity that makes up this good ‘ol boy gathering. Chuckle and Chatter of past players, generations removed from the very field they watch, reminisce amongst the heaviness that is summer’s end. The light joy of a community coming together after a break for family vacations and spring-cleaning fills the air.

This is usually the first meeting of the wives for the season. Those meetings can be very stressful if you are the new wife. You strive for acceptance, as if you, yourself, have retreated to the juvenile ambitions of entering high school again. You wonder about your hair, make-up, the way the other wives will look at you, your children. Should you yell for the team, or sit quietly in the stands, assuming your presence speaks enough of your support? Is it acceptable to eat at the game? This particularly worries me because coaches and their wives are usually former athletes whose bodies were at one time chiseled weapons of competition and even years later show its one time glory. Mine, shows the pregnancies of three children and the lack of athletic participation I suffered from in my youth. I have been blessed by the coaching staff my husband choose for us; or rather they choose him, because the wives are warm and welcoming. There are terror stories out there about the differences in staffs. We are lucky to be on a staff that wins like we have done it before, with grace and humility. That mentality runs through the core of the football program and its branches stretch from the field through the players, the wives, the teaching staff, and the community. 

Opening kickoff of the third home game is like a three-month check-up on your newborn. Chuckle and Chatter have now aged to serious talk of running backs and defensive lines. The allure of our newborn team has worn to a drudgery of audibles. Field comes alive for the sake of competition while Fellowship slips away with the colors of the grasses around town. Maddening Heat returns to its asylum for hibernation. Players breathe in the crisp fall air. The cool shot of energy runs through and jolts them from the ground for catches while making the ball travel a slight bit further. Humidity’s retreat clears space for cleaner passes and quicker runs.  Players come off the field with the sun creeping behind them at half time. Band members march proudly onto the field in the midst of happy children running down to get a favorite candy. Feelings of tradition clamor from the instruments on the turf the same way the students will in the next three weeks, when winter comes. The high of a winning record keeps the community unaware of the pending cold. 

The joy and goodness of smiling faces and wives fellowshipping depends on the standings. If you have been winning then you are still boasting about each new down your infant team makes and each point on the board is one more step toward that trip to state. If you are losing the stadium feels like Thanksgiving where mom’s drunken sister tells everybody she slept with your father in high school. Winning is an easier road to travel so we choose to stay on the winning track. On the wining track, you are among great company. You get to sit among Randy Allen and Todd Dodge. You are associated with G.A. Moore who has led the Celina Bobcats to multiple state wins in the 2A division and almost single handedly made football a religion for that small town. He and his teams have given a reason for community interaction and no matter how many stop lights Celina lacks, anyone who knows anything about football in the state of Texas knows about little ‘ol Celina. Winners get to sit among men like Gary Proffitt who has coached in Goldwaite for 27 years and never left. During that time, he has seen winning records, lost some games, grabbed two state titles and multiple district wins and play-off appearances. He is a reflection of dependability and a staple in his community. Proffit is Goldwaite football. 

In some ways our definition of celebrity has changed and as a nation we are verging on the brink of idolatry, if we have not plunged of the proverbial cliff already. So many of our youth find role models in characters played by actors and actresses, the beauty and rancidness of the model industry, and of course musicians. There are few times that we hear kids say I want to be like my dad or mom anymore. Yet we always hear the icons they worship crediting their own parents for what they have become, be it good or bad. Lindsey Lohan has faced a rollercoaster of events with her rehab visits. The nation, Rosie O’Donnell in particular, seems to come down on her mother for being more of a manager than a mom and it makes me wonder how hypocritical we have become. If Lindsey won an Oscar for her performance in Georgia Rule, would the same critics be praising her mother for supporting her during her career? 

So how do we get back to the Pleasantville days when kids had pride in local fame; when the head coach’s son always got to start and everybody in his world thought he hung the moon? With all of the technology of our day and age, living inside the constraints of your own community seems to be quite a task. In the same thought, we seem to invite the celebrities of our televisions into the homes of our communities at such a pace, they define our surroundings. We have, in a sacrificial and slow transgression of the community, let this ‘Hollywood’ of people define our lives. 

I wonder often if my interest in Hilton, Richie, Lohan, Bradgelina, the YouTube Numa geek, and the ridiculously overpriced attire of these (excluding the Numa kid) people is a reflection of what I lack. Do I need a sex tape? Noone would want to watch it.  No, coaches’ wives do not need a sex tape; that is for sure.  How did Paris survive that anyway? Kay Hymowitz probably wrote it best when she said “Paris is not like other celebrities, whose scandals leave them drowning their sorrows in smoky dives. The lesson of The Tape continues to hold: the worse she behaves, the more famous she becomes and the more money she makes.” There must be some kind of freedom in that type of exposed lifestyle. I am not sure; acceptance of sexual promiscuity is not part of the football life in Texas. I think I like it that way; less trips to the doctor. 

Week six of the season comes in, report cards go home and the stands look a little less full with teens and junior high gals. Someone has been grounded because Summer Bug hadn’t worn off well enough. In some ways report cards can reflect life’s cycle. They can be a defining representation of a young lifetime. You can learn a lot about a person from report cards, transcripts, and football records. Players unite as teams and communities come together under the common label of a mascot. Winter creeps in evermore and players breathe weighty swollen clouds of smoke from their nostrils down the sidelines, looking like a line of bulls wild to run. Stands are filled with jackets and hoodies, all displaying the team logo and colors. Toes have officially retreated to the insides of tennis shoes bundled under a layer of socks and unable to display their hometown pride in their decorations any longer. The higher the winds get the closer the coaches’ wives move to the bottom of the stands. The throne at the top of the 50-yard line becomes too much pressure and they retreat to the safeness of the middle ground. Chatters and Chuckles that danced in the end of summer become concentrated and consumed by play-off promises. Losing one game in six means this infant team may grow up to give this town an identity. 

Coach still gets the nods and hellos but with admiration as if he has raised up the next leader of the free world. Defensive coordinators and quarterback coaches walk with a strut while their careers get a nice massage by the cold that brings you deeper into the season. Winter brings strict temperatures combating with desires to stay alive. It paints a portrait of endurance. The next few wins bring about an ego that is felt in the visitor stands at away games. Accomplishment collides with the cold that is death for the leaves, flip-flops and light airy joy of travel. Winter brings a new load of clothing and an extra handful of blankets for that three-hour exploitation of masculine exhibition. Bitter cold creeps into your winning season attempting to rob its glory like old age and time within the body. Onlookers press on, supporting that child of a team, living out old glory days, picking out role models, personifying each other. The stands fill with the retched distain of ‘that’s my boy’ and playing time quarrels. The team presses on united and dignified winning with Fred Astaire grace. Their youth, adrenaline, focus, determination, and unity keep them immune to winter’s icy grasp. The infiltration of the leaf killer trying to creep into the soul of the onlooker lurks like a curse, but knows not to skirmish with the solidity of the winning team. 

Even among the best, there will always be a Paris; I guess I have not met her yet. To be honest, if I had, I would not tell you here. That could ruin a career. Gossip and winter are on the same team. While winter creeps in making your physical self uncomfortable, gossip works on your mind, breaking down the team by deforming the psyche.  I am sure we are all different in the stands, under the glow of the field lights, but perhaps we are not. I would hope that no one would describe this staff of families like Drew Carey describes his peers; “Hollywood people are filled with guilt: white guilt, liberal guilt, money guilt. They feel bad that they’re so rich, they feel they don’t work that much for all that money–and they don’t, for the amount of money they make. There’s no way I can justify my salary level, but I’m learning to live with it…” Of course, one look at a paycheck of any public school educator, coach or not, and we all know this is a problem reserved for the faces of the big screen. 

Week ten meets back on home turf and the cold has claimed victory over many of the onlookers. Competition is ripe for the picking and Tension meanders freely through the stands. Even the melodic beats of the drum line do not move the crowd with the jolly nature they did when Chuckles and Chatter played. November’s games clash with winter’s errands for holiday preparation and clothing layers grow even deeper. Noses of the children run and the uniforms of the cheerleader and the dance squad look almost the same. Fingers have retreated to the warmth of gloves, hiding their victory colored nails. Thoughts conflict between turkey dinner and playoff games. Errands are becoming more and more of a chore while life seems to eat away at you from the grass on the field. The ball becomes the core of your humanity and conversations start off with hut-hut or blue 22. 

Playoffs feel like retirement, almost done but still enough energy to enjoy the victory. The adolescent team transforms into the man-child and you can see the day when you can reclaim space in the home. Each week presses into the next like strangers crammed into the terminal of a NYC subway. The game film piles up and the t-shirts get printed after district champs are made and the man-child team goes on to win regional. Then it comes, state game…the three hours that will declare individuality for that encouraging population. Onlookers gather in the seats of the big stadiums, fit for kings, where the money makers play, and shout approval as though Winter slipped away to let summer return from hibernation for one last fling. The air is light and laughter fills the stands, the fellowship and bonding of good ‘ol boys sharing ‘that’s my son moments’ brings back the playfulness of Chatter and Chuckle. The game starts and the stimulation rivals sex. Nail-biting and intense you sit side by side fighting off the death that creeps through official calls against the man we call Team. Struggling like invalids on a ventilator the players leave it all on the field. Onlooker, coach, player, wife, daughter, cheerleader, band member, director, trainer, water boy, mascot, son…you’re only as good as your record. Second is the first loser. The state champ lives forever. 

Sorry, my daughter needs my attention…Ok back again but just for a second, she needed me to pin up her “dress up” shirt so she could do her dance routine. I think she saw it on the VMA’s. I better become her celebrity this afternoon. I can honestly say that this married to a coach thing in a small town is like Hollywood, we make comebacks after losses on Fridays and we find opinions about our performances in the local papers that can be hard to take. At other times, we are the best person in town. I guess I can deal with it; at least I get to hear “I want to be a teacher, just like my mommy.”

A desire of being among the Bobcats of Celina, the Scots of Highland Park or the Dragons of Southlake Carroll tempts Coach with abandonment of the family and leads him to a short winter affair with the ego. Winning is his first born, all of life’s other children and responsibilities fall short of the glory of the game. At the end of the tunnel is the field, the crowd, the onlookers, the cheerleaders and most of all, identity. It is affirmation of a job well done and the core of what makes him, us, them, me what we are. The light spring shines behind the bright glare of football’s season; each year a new birth of the tress, the flowers, the off-season. Second gets a new chance at the title. The champs glide through the waters of spring guided by sails of ego. The man born last year on that field fit for a king goes into the summer and sees again the darkness of fall, where all of his glory will fall short of the game on the opening kickoff of the first home game. 

Now, I have to go and get that shirt back down where it should be… after all, my identity is based on her lack of promiscuity. Not only am I a reflection of him, but of our entire family to our community. What a great responsibility. I do not hold onto it lightly and refuse to play the game Paris chooses to play. Sensationalism should be left where it belongs, on the field where the big hits happen and the players hurdle defenders. It is not about me, my celebrity status or recognition. It is not about my identity, it is about influence. I guess that is what makes all of us act different in public, church, or at the game. I hope that I am consistently the same person though I understand it is hard to do, with all the hats I wear. 

If nothing else, just let me be a winner.

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

The Gay Games: Then and Now

By Andrew D. Linden and Lindsay Parks Pieper 

The first five men to cross the stage ranged in age from 60 to 69. As the caller announced the required bodybuilding positions—“front double biceps” or “back lat spread”—the men flexed, leaned, turned, tightened, and contracted on cue. After finishing the group poses, the individual athletes performed solo routines, highlighting different parts of their muscular physiques. While this contest followed the policies of most bodybuilding competitions, some uniquenesses emanated. “This (event) is nurturing and supportive,” explained Jon, a gold medalist in pairs and bronze medalist in the 50-59 age category. “Everyone backstage is ‘here, let me help you with that.’ Or, ‘you wanna borrow this?’” When contrasted against other events, he suggested that the Gay Games have “a lot more camaraderie.”

Gay Games Bodybuilding, Ages 60-69 (personal collection)

Gay Games Bodybuilding, Ages 60-69 (personal collection)

Jon and twenty other men, plus two women, competed in bodybuilding during the 2014 Gay Games. From August 9-16, Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, hosted the quadrennial event, held since 1982. Although Jon worried that people in the two Rust Belt cities would be hostile or unsupportive, he was pleasantly surprised. “The city is really amazing with its acceptance,” he noted. With over 9,000 participants in thirty-seven sports, the Games reportedly brought over 40,000 people to the region.

With a vast array of athletic and cultural events, we could not document all of the activities conducted during the week-long festivities. This post outlines the history of the Gay Games, along with various accounts of the Games we witnessed while in Cleveland and Akron.


Tom Waddell and the “Gay Olympics”

Tom Waddell first recognized the power of sport as an adolescent. Born in 1937 to a strict Catholic family, he realized that participation in physical contests granted him an unquestioned masculine countenance. “When I was a kid, I was tall for my age, and I was very thin but very strong,” he remembered. “I was totally closeted and very concerned about being male.” Coming of age in the fifties, Waddell also understood another reality—sexuality mattered. Against a Cold War backdrop, heterosexuality was the assumed and “correct” orientation in the United States; most Americans stigmatized and condemned all other relationships. The 1950s were “a terrible time to live,” explained Waddell. “Everything was stacked against me.” Unfortunately, as U.S.-U.S.S.R. animosities heightened, many increasingly viewed same-sex sexuality as abnormal, deviant, and treasonous. “I realized that I had to do something to protect my image of myself as a male,” he noted. “So I threw myself into athletics.” Cold War gender norms circumscribed sport as the preserve of strong, masculine (heterosexual) men; as such, it provided Waddell an avenue to conceal his sexuality. He consequently excelled in ballet, football, gymnastics, and track and field.

Although Waddell initially used sport as a tool to mask his sexuality, he nevertheless cultivated an impressive athletic career. With a track and field scholarship, he attended Springfield College in Massachusetts, a YMCA school and stronghold of masculinity. Waddell competed as a three-sport athlete, earning accolades in football, gymnastics, and track and field. He found tremendous athletic success; however, he also experienced the darker side of sport. Homophobia tarnished—and continues to tarnish today—many athletic competitions. Due to the prevalent and pejorative stereotypes about gay men, Waddell maintained his use of sport as a means to reconcile his sexual orientation with masculinity. “I think a lot of men go into athletics for the same reason I did,” he suggested. “To prove their maleness.”

Waddell’s sporting prowess also earned him a position on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. He competed in Mexico City alongside a cast of historical greats, including Bob Beamon, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Bill Toomey. As his teammates broke records and protested inequalities, Waddell finished sixth in the decathlon, setting personal bests in five events. Upon concluding his Olympic career, he engaged in San Francisco’s 1970s gay culture, wherein he stumbled upon a Bay Area gay bowling league. The event inspired Waddell to consider creating his own sporting event, one which would focus on acceptance and tolerance.

In 1980, Waddell conceived the Gay Olympics. He envisioned the multi-sport event as fulfilling three purposes: to shatter the negative stereotypes of gay men, combat homophobia, and dignify the gay community. Although Waddell mirrored the blueprint of the Olympics, he remained disillusioned by the elitism, nationalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia he witnessed as an Olympian. The Gay Olympics, therefore, prioritized inclusivity.

Waddell deemed the 1982 San Francisco Gay Olympics open to all, regardless of ability or sexual orientation–an eligibility policy still in place for the Cleveland Games. According to Tony, a 2014 soccer participant, the Gay Games are “a chance for you to be able to play with like people.” Formerly a professional athlete, Tony attended the Games in Sydney, Chicago, and Cologne, prior to traveling to Northeast Ohio. He played and coached during the four events, and also served as an ambassador from Philadelphia for the Gay Games. “It’s been an experience because for so many years a lot of these people had to hide,” Tony explained. “It’s more acceptable.” While many similarly applauded the progressive nature of Waddell’s creation from the onset, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was unmoved.

A mere nineteen days before the opening ceremonies of the 1982 San Francisco Gay Olympics, the USOC convinced a federal court to issue an injunction against Waddell and the event organizers, the San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc., claiming their use of the word “Olympics” violated copyright law. Responding in a letter, Waddell angrily argued that the injunction was “a glaring hypocrisy and a grave violation of the ideas you are supposed to safeguard and promote.” He supported his claim by highlighting the numerous organizations that frequently deployed the “Olympics” without USOC contestation, including the Armenian Olympics, Crab Cooking Olympics, Pastalympics, Rat Olympics, and Xerox Olympics. “The bottom line is that if I’m a rat, a crab, a copying machine or an Armenian I can have my own Olympics,” he noted. If I’m gay, I can’t.” Ignoring the implications of homophobia, USOC Executive Director Don Miller demurred that the use of “Olympics” in connection with the Gay Olympics would “dilute the meaning and significance” of the Games. The injunction thereby remained in place for 1982 and the legal battle continued for five years. The Supreme Court eventually heard the case in 1987 and ruled in favor of the USOC.

Upset with the injunction, yet refusing to succomb, Waddell and the San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. hastily changed the Gay Olympics to the Gay Games. Despite the momentary setback, the Games commenced as planned in Kezar Stadium, the previous home of the San Francisco Forty-Niners. During the Opening Ceremonies, Waddell provided the welcoming remarks:

Welcome to a dream that is now a reality. Welcome to a celebration of freedom. These Gay Games, the first of their kind, are offered to Gay and enlightened people from all over the world. They are a departure from other events of this scope and magnitude in that the underlying philosophy is one of self-fulfillment and a spirit of friendship.

Many shared Waddell’s enthusiasm. Over 1,300 athletes from twelve countries competed in seventeen events.

The 1982 San Francisco Gay Games constituted a new sporting paradigm. Unlike other competitions, the Gay Games encouraged participation and privileged personal best, two ideals that have persisted. A 2014 Cleveland competitor remarked that the Gay Games were unique because “you don’t have to be the best, it’s all about competition and camaraderie.” Unfortunately, between the First Gay Games in 1982 and the second in 1986, Waddell–and thousands of gay men–received devastating news.

AIDS and the 1986 San Francisco Gay Games

In March 1981, medical practitioners identified Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), a rare form of cancer that typically plagued the elderly, in at least eight young men in New York City. A few months later, popular media outlets described a similar outbreak in both New York and California. According to the reports, eight patients died within 24 months of the diagnosis. Devastatingly, the later stories attached the illness to the gay community. For example, the New York Times’ headline declared “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” while the Chicago Tribune noted that although KS primarily affected men older than 50, medical centers in New York and California diagnosed younger men, “all of whom said in the course of diagnostic interviews that they were homosexual.” Due to this supposed connection, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) informally identified the illness as the “4H Disease” as it seemingly affected Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and “homosexuals.” The press constructed a different label, however, describing the ailment as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. While the CDC declared GRID a misleading title in 1982, the damage to the gay community was already done. Many Americans classified the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as a “gay cancer.”

Sport was one way for those with AIDS to help improve their health; however, opposition to the 1986 San Francisco Gay Games surfaced. Some worried that both the funding and volunteer assistance needed to curb the crisis would instead be diverted into the Games. Others feared that gathering a large number of gay athletes in one location would inevitably lead to a further spreading of the disease. Finally, a few people pointed out the poor timing of the event. As historian Caroline Symons explained in her book The Gay Games: A History (2010), some believed “the staging of the Gay Games during a time in which the gay community of San Francisco was at one of its lowest points was a bit like dancing on the graves of the dead and the dying” (p. 78).

Yet, Waddell viewed the situation differently. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, he argued that “the Gay Games are the antithesis of the AIDS crisis. In many respects our community needs a psychological boost, and this will provide it” (Symons, p. 80). He also noted the physical benefits of sport, a message that has continued to encourage participation in the Games. For example, a 2014 competitor started bodybuilding after learning he was HIV-positive. “I was HIV-positive and I worked out to keep fit, keep healthy,” he explained. He entered his first bodybuilding competition in San Francisco and was immediately hooked. The contest in Cleveland marked his fifth time participating in the Gay Games.

Furthermore, Waddell also suggested that the 1986 San Francisco Gay Games served as an opportunity to provide education and elevate the conversation surrounding AIDS. Therefore, during the Games, volunteers handed out condoms, safe-sex literature, and informational packets. Over 3,500 athletes from seventeen countries competed in San Francisco, including the founder. Waddell checked out of a hospital and won a gold medal in the javelin. He died within a year. His legacy, however, continued.

Gay Games Timeline (1982-2018)

Gay Games Timeline (1982-2018)

Expansion of the Games: 1990-1998

After the first two events in San Francisco, the Games went international. Also during this time, the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) emerged as the Game’s institutional body. The 1990, 1994, and 1998 host cities seemed logical, as the locales aligned with the principles of the Gay Games. Similar to San Francisco, many recognized the 1990 host city, Vancouver, as a safe haven for members of the Canadian LGBT community. In 1994, the Games flourished in the media capital of the world. In fact, scholars have referred to the New York City Gay Games as possibly the “largest gathering of gay tourists” in history. Four years later, the Games traveled to what Symons referred to as “probably the most gay-tolerant cosmopolitan city of the world–Amsterdam” (p. 147).

Along with the use of gay-friendly cities, the Gay Games increased athletic options for participants throughout the 1990s. The seventeen sports from the original two Games burgeoned to twenty-eight in 1990, thirty-one in 1994, and thirty in 1998. Organizers also incorporated components that enhanced the political nature of the event. For example, at the 1998 Amsterdam Games, a “Gay Games Business Plan,” made efforts through outreach programs to help further the cause of human rights. One component of the initiative was to pay for 328 people to attend the Games that did not have the means to travel to Amsterdam (Symons, pp. 159-160).

Swimming Venue for Gay Games IX-The Robert F. Busbey Natatorium, Cleveland State University (personal collection)

Swimming Venue for Gay Games IX-The Robert F. Busbey Natatorium, Cleveland State University (personal collection)

Concurrently, the Games became more institutionalized. For example, in 1990, the Federation Internationale Natation Association (FINA) sanctioned the swimming events–a change that increased competition. Dan Cox, director of swimming for the 2014 Gay Games, described the resultant implications of accreditation. With FINA’s approval, swimmers were able to use times achieved during the Gay Games for U.S. master’s qualifications. Cox, therefore, followed all regulations established by the international federation. In addition, to ensure everything ran smoothly, he required over thirty volunteers at the pool per day, which made swimming the largest, most complicated, and most popular event. Yet, the event also maintained some disparities from other FINA meets. “The difference is that this crowd is a lot more lively and much more team oriented,” Cox explained. “In terms of team spirit, these guys blow the doors off of everyone.”

The Gay Games also experienced financial growth in the 1990s. Overall sponsorship contributions reached 1.5 million dollars. Part of the increased commercialism was attributed to what Symons referred to as the normalization of the “gays as good consumers” mindset, or the “pink dollar.” Some companies started to view the gay community as a viable market to target because “[g]ays and lesbians were portrayed as the models, even the fashion-leading citizens, of consumer-driven society” (p. 103). But as she pointed out, the target market often only included the “high earning, white, urban, professional gay male” (p. 103). Tellingly, even with the new affluent market, no major sponsor signed up to endorse Gay Games III.

Inclusion, which remains the leading attribute of the Gay Games, has also been scrutinized. According to Symons, the Games in Vancouver maintained inclusivity as a key tenet; however, organizers attempted to present a conservative gay and lesbian appearance. The “inclusive and participatory atmosphere,” she argued, did not “appear to have been extended to the more gender non-conforming segments of the gay and lesbian community” (p. 108). For example, she cited the exclusion of the “drag” community from one of the celebration parties in Vancouver.

The Games in 1994 took on special significance, hosted by New York City on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Stonewall 25, a celebration of the anniversary, along with Gay Games IV, allowed for the global reach of the LGBT movement. For example, participants from a more diverse collection of countries came to the Games while media coverage expanded. Additionally, “[a]ll Gay Games and Stonewall 25 participants were engaged in what was the largest and most international gay and lesbian pride event and parade ever staged” (Symons, p. 145).

Growing Pains: The 2000s

U.S. States and Countries Participating in Gay Games IX (personal collection)

U.S. States and Countries Participating in Gay Games IX (personal collection)

The Games in the 2000s expanded in numerous ways. First, the FGG made an effort to increase its diversity. Symons noted that Syndey “broke new ground” by highlighting and including “indigenous peoples, especially from the Pacific region, and their Western and non-Western ways of thinking and living” (p. 192). However, the Games also underwent a “watershed moment,” when the mission came under question. Some FGG officials and LGBT advocates believed too much focus was given to certain aspects of the community. She explained:

For some Directors there was clear discrepancy between projecting a “respectable” public image of the LGBT community and unashamedly celebrating the flamboyant, the colourful and courageous aspects of queer culture during the main ceremony. (p. 199)

Because of these concerns and additional financial difficulties, following the Sydney Games, an FGG document titled “The Image of the Gay Games” reemphasized the original mission of the Games, showing the organization’s “desire to return the Gay Games to their beginnings” (Symons, p. 200).

In line with the FGG’s attempt to present a more “respectable” image, the organization simultaneously grappled with gender inclusivity. In particular, the leaders questioned how to incorporate transgender participants into various competitions. Prior to the 2002 Sydney Games, the FGG followed the examples set by other sport bodies and enacted a variety of restrictive stipulations. For example, the rules implemented for the 1994 New York City Games stemmed from conservative medical and psychological ideologies. The FGG not only mandated a legal name change, but also required transgender participants to provide a letter from a medical practitioner that described hormone treatments, ongoing for at least two years. More offensively, prior to competition, transgender athletes had to submit a document from a mental health professional that chronicled the nature of their therapy. Many lambasted the exclusionary requirements and argued the procedure was oppositional to Waddell’s initial vision. The FGG, therefore, outlined a new “Gender Policy” for Sydney, which focused on the socially constructed nature of gender. While the FGG permitted access without proof of identity in 2002, a caveat explained that sex could be verified if a competitor lodged a complaint, subsequently criminalizing transgender competitors.

For the 2014 Games, the “Gender Identity Policy” outlined two avenues for identification. First, the FGG accepted legal gender as denoted on government-issued identification. Second, the organization recognized some “alternatives to legal proof of their gender,” including: certification from a medical practitioner that documented hormone treatments, ongoing at least one year prior to the Games; certification that the individual in question lived as the chosen gender for two years; evidence of employment; “substantive personal letters”; testimonials; bank accounts; or property-related documents. The Gay Games may have enhanced its inclusivity; however, those who competed in sports sanctioned by international federations, such as swimming, were required to follow the stipulations put forward by the leading body. In many cases, the international federations proved far less accepting than the FGG.

Although gender inclusivity is a goal of the Games, gender equality remains a problem. Gender equitability started as one of the central aims of the Games. Waddell, in fact, believed the Gay Games could bring together gay men and women, who were oftentimes at political and social odds. According to Symons, “they existed in separate worlds” throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet, it was not until Amsterdam that gender equality was monitored. The 1998 Games did achieve more parity, as women comprised forty-two percent of the competitors.

Unfortunately, some women at the 2014 Games noticed stark gender disparity. Anne, a soccer play from Toronto, explained: “We’re the only women’s team, so that’s pretty hard.” Other all-female teams registered for the tournament, but dropped out at the last minute. “More women would have been helpful,” added Toronto teammate Rebekka Hammer. “I think it takes active outreach. I don’t think it’s enough to just say women are welcome.” Nevertheless, the team still attended, played against men’s teams, and enjoyed the ambiance.

Discrepancies also extended into organizational concerns. Consequently, the Games in 2006 commenced concurrently to those at the 2006 Montreal World Outgames in Canada. According to Symons, “[t]he two separate events were the result of an acrimonious breakdown in relations between Montreal 2006 and the FGG over their failure to negotiate the licensing agreement for Gay Games VII” (p. 217). Furthermore, the two forums maintained different aims. Symons argued that because the FGG and Chicago wanted “to ‘keep alive the legacy of Waddell,’” along with mid-2000s “[a]nti-American sentiments, principally fuelled by opposition to the international and anti-gay domestic policies of George W. Bush,” the Montreal delegation “went all out to stage the largest and probably the most significant LGBT Human Rights’ Conference ever to be held and a multi-sport programme that proudly emulated all the professional and commercial trappings of major mainstream sport events.” (p. 218) The Chicago and Montreal Games, collectively, however, brought over 20,000 participants to the region in the summer of 2006.

The Games in Cologne continued the idea of a tolerant host city. One journalist called the metropolis a “gay mecca for Germans and visitors to Germany.” Indeed, as Bay Area Reporter Roger Brigham detailed “2010 will be remembered as a triumphant incarnation of the Gay Games dream, awakening the queer inner athlete in newcomer and veteran alike.”

While the Cologne Games proceeded smoothly, many expressed hesitancy about the next host city.

A Bid for the Rust Belt

Before the Cologne Games opened, the FGG decided the fate of the 2014 Games. At the FGG’s 2009 annual meeting, held in Cologne, delegates announced that Cleveland earned the opportunity to host the 2014 Games. After a year of consideration, the Great Lakes city won the bid over Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. Cleveland’s bid intrigued the FGG because of a two-million dollar contribution from city officials, coupled with its substantial enthusiasm. According to Time, a party to encourage the Gay Games to choose Cleveland attracted over 7,000 guests, while Boston’s and D.C.’s parties only brought in a few hundred supporters.

According to Brigham, “[t]he LGBT world was shocked. . . . when FGG voters selected Cleveland to be the host of Gay Games IX.” But FGG officials maintained that they continued its historic vision, explaining that Cleveland “understood the mission of the Gay Games and our principles.” They were also “highly impressed by the facilities and infrastructure, the widespread community sport, their financial plan and the city’s experience in hosting large-scale sports and cultural events.”

Cleveland wanted the Games, though, for specific reasons, something that perhaps is a new trend in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Not only did officials believe that the event would add sixty million dollars to the city’s coffers, but also that the Games would “change Ohio forever,” according to Cleveland City Council member Joe Cimperman. City officials included the Gay Games as part of an agenda to reshape the image of the Rust Belt town. As Cleveland (in Ohio, which remains a state that bans same-sex marriage) has been nationally considered a “blue collar factory town in a conservative farm state” which Time described as not “particularly innovative or gay-friendly,” officials believed hosting the Games would help the progression of the city. In fact, the two-million dollar donation to the Games came on the same day that Ohio’s House of Representatives ruled discrimination based on sexuality illegal in housing and employment. Added Cimperman after the announcement that Cleveland would host the Games: “You’re damn right this is about an agenda. Because if this doesn’t improve human equality, then why do it?”

Leaders in the LGBT movement also saw heading to Cleveland as a way “to boldly go to a place that is perhaps not recognizable throughout the world as a gay center, but where real change is starting to happen,” reported Darl Schaaff, the head of the Gay Games site-selection committee. Furthermore, said co-founder of, Cyd Zeigler in 2010: “I’m glad [the FGG] picked Cleveland. Part of the FGG’s mission is to change minds and be a visible agent of change. That’s a huge part of why Tom Waddell started the Gay Games. . . . And I’m glad the FGG is taking their message to Ohio.”

Even with difficulties in keeping the Games in Cleveland–the original group that was awarded the Games disappeared after a breach of contract settlement with the FGG in 2011–the Games successfully occurred in August, 2014.

Conclusion and Gay Games X

2014 Festival Village (personal collection)

2014 Festival Village (personal collection)

At the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Gay Games, a recorded message from U.S. President Barack Obama surprised the audience. “It’s been remarkable to see the Games thrive over the years. . . . We’ve also seen America change in that time.” While much work needs to be done in the United States and elsewhere–currently only nineteen of the fifty states in the United States grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, violence toward transgender individuals is far too widespread, and workplace discrimination toward the LGBT community persists–there has been positive social change within the past quarter century. Certainly with the continuation and growth of the Gay Games, recent social movements, and prominent sport icons discussing their sexuality, the environment for LGBT athletes and the larger community has improved.

The Games continue to advance the vision of Tom Waddell, and adhere to their “guiding principles,” “Participation, Inclusion, Personal Best.” In 2018, these principles, along with the thousands of participants and spectators eager to enjoy athletic participation will arrive in Paris, France, for Gay Games X.

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 and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at

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

Tebow is Back!!

Ladies and gentlemen, Timothy Richard Tebow is back!! Those of you with a high enough cable TV package can welcome him back into your living room on the SEC Network. The last time Tebow made a media splash was when he ran shirtless through the rain at the New York Jets training camp. Truth be told, I love Tebow. Not because of his faith, his quarterbacking ability (or lack there of), or his good looks. I love him selfishly because he is a great paragraph. Yes, you read that correct, a paragraph. As I’ve worked on my dissertation, the way I see the world has changed. I see people, events, and stories as paragraphs. Honestly, it is strange, but interesting. From my perspective, Tim Tebow is a great paragraph, or even chapter, in the history of American sports. The reason is his polarizing popularity. Few people have no opinion on Tebow. He represents the hopes of some and the fears of others. Either way, Tebow’s career on and off the field shows how sports and religion shape American culture.

Football made Tim Tebow famous. His career at the University of Florida cemented him as one of the best college quarterbacks of all time. In the NFL, controversy swirled around him from the moment the Denver Broncos selected him in the first round of the draft. By the end of his second year, he led the Broncos to six fourth-quarter comebacks including an improbable playoff win. As quickly as he rose, he fell. After being traded to the New York Jets, he spent the majority of 2012 on the bench. In 2013, he didn’t make a NFL roster.

Religion and Sports in American Culture CoverJeff Scholes and Raphael Sassower’s Religion and Sports in American Culture offers a scholarly interpretation of Tebow-mania. Their book analyzes the common ground 21st-century American religion and sports share in belief, sacrifice, relics, pilgrimage, competition, work, and redemption. They argue that sports fans and religious adherents believe in the ability to “transcend what is observed in order to access that which is not observed” (p.40). Writing as two professors working in Colorado, no figure transcended observed athletic shortcomings with improbable (or miraculous) victories like Tim Tebow. They conclude that contemporary sports aren’t replacing religion, but reinforcing it.

Since his early exit from the NFL, Tim has kept busy on the speaker’s circuit. One organization he frequented was the Wildfire Men’s Impact Weekend. On March 8th and 9th, 2013, men–fathers, sons, and brothers–filled venues in Lynchburg, Virginia. The goal: “To create a movement that inspires men to deepen their relationship with God, the one who placed these longings of competition, adventure, and the outdoors in their soul.” Over the course of the two-day event, attendees registered for one of the seven tracks to guide their learning. The tracks wove together athletics, hunting, fishing, motorsports, extreme sports, relationships, and faith. From building a racecar engine to marriage counseling, duck calling with the cast of Duck Dynasty to evangelism techniques, baseball lessons from World Series champion pitcher John Smoltz to parenting advice, a National Rifle Association lesson on self-protection to building a stronger church, the conference blended overt manifestations of masculinity and evangelical Christianity. Wildfire Weekend hoped for ten thousand men from across the United States to register. Only six weeks after announcing the event, the overwhelming appeal of the conference forced them to create a waiting list. By the time of the conference, the waiting list of men hoping to attend grew to nearly four thousand. For the opening ceremony, the conference goers heard a sermon by the most popular evangelical in the United States, Tim Tebow.

The ability to bring together football, evangelicalism, and popular culture paid off for Tebow later in 2013. Forbes Magazine named him the most influential athlete of the year. He beat out the fastest man in the world Usain Bolt, the most decorated Olympian of all time Michael Phelps, and the face of the New York Yankees Derek Jeter. What makes Forbes’ selection so surprising is Tebow’s performance on the field. As a backup quarterback for the New York Jets, he attempted eight passes, completed six of them, and did not throw or rush for a single touchdown. Based on athletic accomplishment, he could not have been more irrelevant. But off the field Tebow was a pop-culture sensation. The Forbes article reported, “His clean living and public religious values make him a role model for many, even if they render him polarizing in some quarters.” The growth of Tebow’s popularity without success on the football field is telling. It shows the appeal of muscular Christianity to 21sh-century Americans. His blend of masculinity, athleticism, and Christianity made a backup quarterback the face of American evangelicalism.

So with Tebow’s coming back today (his birthday), why should I dedicate a whole blog post to him? Because I am a Tebow apologist? No. Because his name is click-bait for a startup blog? Maybe. The real reason is that he reveals the powerful combination of sports and religion in American culture. But then again, maybe I really do just see him through dissertation goggles. What do you think? Is Tim Tebow a good barometer to measure American sports and religious culture?

Hunter Hampton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri.  Email him at

Sport in the Archive: Research Reflections 

I’ve just returned from a month-long research trip to Oklahoma, where I was visiting archives and reading microfilm for my dissertation on Bud Wilkinson and the 1950s University of Oklahoma football dynasty. Like Stephen Townsend’s post last week, I’ll be reflecting on the process of research as it relates to writing sports history. This piece draws upon my past experience in archives as both an archivist and a researcher. It is also informed by various words of wisdom given to me throughout my graduate school years. During this time, I’ve had two advisors – Randy Roberts and Richard O. Davies – who are both remarkably generous and productive. Their advice has guided me into the frigid tombs that we call archives and has undoubtedly informed what I’ve written here. First, however, I must echo the Yoda-like saying of my undergraduate advisor: “The sources will guide you.”

While it is certainly true that the sources will guide you, you’ve got to find them first. My particular project, and those I’ve completed in the past, revolves mostly around two major primary sources bases: university archives and newspapers. I’ve become quite fond of university archives through the years – my interest in sport history developed while working in my alma mater’s archive – but I have also come to recognize they’re all different. These differences relate to the age, collecting procedures, and organization of the archive. Ideally the choices in collecting and organizing materials follow a distinct policy, however, such policies vary widely and can be tinged by the interests of administrators and archivists alike. Indeed, I’ve argued first hand with fellow archivists over what is worth saving (offering my perspective as a historian on what and how things may be useful). Sadly, at lot of schools, athletic department files are one of these areas. Likewise, early collegiate athletic teams were often student organized without the concern for official documentation and preservation.

This is not the blame of archivists, of course. Athletic Department themselves are often reluctant to share or donate their files to university repositories when past collecting policies didn’t require it. For example, Purdue’s athletic department maintains its own records through its sports information department and researchers must request information from them. They’ve been reluctant to give any of their documents to the university archives. One positive from this is that they’ll have an intern go look through their collections for you. I’ve never seen a finding aid for their papers, so it’s tricky to know exactly what they have. This makes it difficult because the intern’s research is only as good as the directions and topics you give them. They’re generally not trained to read against the grain and probably wont report back with alternative ideas. This isn’t meant to be discouraging and probably isn’t true for all athletic departments, especially if you’re researching a broad, popular topic, but I’ve had mixed results.

Even when university archives do have sports files, they’re often incomplete and focus on statistics or media relations documents such as game programs and media guides. In my experience, it is difficult to locate the personal papers of athletics directors (ADs) or coaches, particularly in more recent eras when such figures change jobs frequently. Similarly, some coaches and ADs just don’t realize their documents are worth saving. During my brief time as an archivist, I saved the papers of our retiring athletic director and a track coach. They both told me that they were planning to trash their documents prior to my asking.

As Ronald Smith noted in his 1990 Journal of Sport History guide “Researching Archives and College Football,” president’s papers are by far the best resource for sports historians to consult. Because they reflect the major issues and events on campus life, president’s papers are almost always saved and processed by University archives. Unfortunately, not all sports are represented. During my trip this summer I consulted the papers of University of Oklahoma President George L. Cross. In his papers, football and basketball were the only two sports that had their own specific files. This is not surprising given their role as “revenue” sports. There was, however, reference to other sports in the files labeled “athletics” more generally. They contained items such as conference minutes (that often include results), budgets and contracts, and some correspondence.

Like presidents’ papers, boards of trustees’ (or regents, visitors, etc.) minutes are also essential for university based sports research. Though they also deal predominately with revenue sports, at many universities the board also approves all contracts – including items like broadcasting, employment, conference affiliation, and construction. At OU the board talked frequently about the issue the television during the 1950s, often objecting to the NCAAs quest for total control. When read in tandem with the president’s papers lively debates and confrontations begin to appear. One really interesting story I found this summer concerns the radio broadcasting rights and sponsorships of Oklahoma football. The president and the board oscillated back and forth on whether to sale the rights for the most money or to reach the most listeners. They questioned which was more central to the mission of the university and best fulfilled its obligation to taxpayers. Believe it or not, a broader audience won out.

Another place to look, if possible, is the faculty athletic representative’s (FAR) files. While the personal papers of faculty member can also be hit-or-miss, like coaches and ADs, FAR papers offer tremendous insight. These papers can contain documents related to eligibility, scholarships, conference meetings, national meetings (e.g. NCAA or NAIA), as well as meetings of the university athletic board (in some eras this is a faculty board). I first became acquainted with FAR papers while an archives intern the summer between my junior and senior year of undergrad. I had just completed my senior thesis the previous spring (a year early) and found an untouched file cabinet in the archive. Few people had opened the cabinet in the years it sat in the archive. Not following any clear collecting policy, the archivist joked that the old wooden file cabinet was probably wheeled in on dolly and left to be discovered. I got to discover that cabinet.

My job that summer was to organize the papers with coherent labels and rehouse them in acid-free folder. In the process I learned that the papers belonged to a chemistry professor, E. J. Cragoe, who served as the faculty athletic representative from Baker University to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) for over 20 years (I get the feeling that FARs generally hold their positions for a while). He also served as Secretary and later Vice President of the KCAC. The collection included: the official conference meeting minutes, eligibility reports, heat-sheets and programs for the annual track meet, correspondence with important athletic officials and documents various and sundry. Such a trove is rare and, perhaps, even unusual depending on the scope of your project.

While personal papers and correspondence are invaluable resources, most sports research relies heavily on published sources. My advisors have told me their books often use close to 75% newspaper and magazine sources. While the personal insight of the archive is essential, so too is the daily coverage of teams and events. Within the archive, however, there is a quick and easy ways to gain access to important newspapers articles. Some athletic departments subscribe to news services and compile clippings o into scrapbooks. At the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University, I was able to isolate important dates and story-lines from Billy Mills’ athletic career that saved me an incredible amount of time. It is important to always crosscheck these clippings and expand upon them with magazine and newspapers (often on microfilm), but the scrapbooks are a great jump-start and can help add balance.

Of course, in the end there is no substitute to microfilm. Sports, unlike some other areas of history, require an understanding of the daily grind. This is especially true in my current research, where the University of Oklahoma football team won 47 consecutive games from 1953-1957. To get a feel for the streak, I’ve read several daily newspapers for those 5 seasons. I was careful to take note of the major events on-campus and locally as well as nationally and beyond football. Reading newspapers helps you get inside of the historical moment and understand the culture of specific places. I firmly believe that developing a sense of place is critical for doing good history. For example, reading the Oklahoma Daily campus newspaper helps me see what issues and events were most important to OU students. The papers covered some national stories in passing and others in-depth. These narratives sometimes counter with the local newspaper, Norman Transcript and regional papers like the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman or Tulsa World. Multiple perspectives on the team, and other issues such as race and politics, help add texture to the story. While it is tedious and difficult to go through all of these papers, the more one consults the stronger command they have of the specific culture and the emotions active in the specific moments you’re studying.

Though most newspaper microfilm is not located in archives, a lot of local papers are difficult to access from afar. I’ve been able to get a few papers via Inter Library Loan, but not all of them, and my library has had difficulty getting certain years. On my trip this summer, I devoted a week and a half just to reading microfilm. Most libraries are equipped with scanners so you don’t have waste money printing everything out and can archive it for later use. If you’re doing research after 1922, the smaller papers probably aren’t digitized (the Library of Congress is working to digitize those prior). Digital newspaper archives are beginning to pop-up around the web. These services can be spotty on specific papers and dates, so be sure to check out what they have before you subscribe. Alternatively, I recently discovered that some newspapers are beginning to offer subscriptions directly to their own digital archives, avoiding the hassle of microfilm. The Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoma has an option to subscribe only to its digital archive for as low as $9.99/month. The Kansa City Star and other papers offer similar services (there’s is $19.95/month with a limit to 200 downloads per month). These digital archives are often buried deep in newspapers’ websites and difficult to find.

While it’s beyond the purview of the archive, it is worth noting here that I relied heavily on oral history for my master’s thesis. Oral history is a common tools for those of us that do recent sports history. Preparing ahead of time for interviews is essential. I took an oral history workshop and consulted with the director of oral history at my master’s institution prior to conducting the interview. Once prepared, I had the privilege of spending a day chatting with Billy Mills at his home. The interview was integral to the project. If available, oral history is fantastic addition to any research project. Interviews should be conducted at the conclusion of your research. You want to be as informed as possible before speaking with people, and you also don’t want their stories to affect your research.

Perhaps most of what I have written here is common sense. Locating sources and designing projects usually comes one of two ways: 1) reading the historiography and finding a gap 2) randomly stumbling onto a really cool source. If I had to recommend a path, I’d usually pick number two, but that rarely happens. Instead, most of us read the literature, craft our question, and look for archives before devouring their finding aids. Then, once we’re in the archive we dig through box after box checking items off of our list. It’s a fairly simple process.

I hope my personal reflections help complicate that process a little bit and prompt us think through how and where we find sports in the archives. Research requires finding, evaluating, and understanding our sources. Knowing how they’re preserved and collected helps us along in that process as does experience. Conversations with our advisors and archivists are critical. It’s always a good idea to introduce yourself and your project ahead of time via email or phone. Familiarizing yourself with the collections and archive policies helps you be more productive when you arrive. Some archives require advance notice to retrieve certain collections from off-site storage. If possible, do the same once you arrive. Ask questions about the finding aids (always ask if there are more). They might interpret a category differently than you. Developing a good rapport with the archivist and the staff will help things flow smoothly. They might have suggestions of different things to look at and know of events or stories not immediately obvious from your preliminary preparation. While we often begin our research following process number one described above, the new discoveries and cool sources from process number two can quickly emerge.

Finally, I know that we all have had different experiences doing research. Many of you have also recently completed summer research trips. Sharing our individual experiences and processes doing research is a great way to collaborate and enhance our collective work in the subfield. If you have something to add or expand upon please add it in the comments below.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

Sport History in the Digital Age: Muhammad Ali, Digitised Newspapers and Distant Reading

This post is about a number of different things. It’s about Muhammad Ali, cultural memory, names, the press, the civil rights era and racial discourse. More than anything however, the words that follow are about exploring new ways of doing historical work in the digital age.

Michael Ezra, author of Muhammad Ali: the Making of an Icon and chair of the American Multicultural Studies Department at Sonoma State University, calls Ali the most written about person in history. Not the most written-about boxer in history, or the most written-about sportsperson in history, or even the most written-about American; but the most written-about person in history. Michael Ezra is a smart guy, his book is one of the most innovative and consummately researched accounts of Ali yet written, but you have to question the validity of such a claim. How could the weight of literature written about a boxer, albeit a hugely famous boxer, eclipse that of Jesus, Hitler, Stalin, the Prophet Muhammad or Napoleon? It seems a ridiculous notion. Yet, as incredible (and probably false) this assertion may be, there is a brief moment when even the most skeptical of sports historians might pause and wonder; ‘well, could he be…?’

What can be said with certainty, however, is that the collection of Ali histories is immense. He is the subject of countless books, movies, newspaper articles, television shows, songs, theatre productions, museum exhibitions and art installations – each seeking to understand him in new ways. So, what makes a PhD student from Australia think he can write something innovative about the man who may be (but probably isn’t) the most written about person in history?

Quite simply, I think I’ve found a fresh perspective – a digital one to be precise. Doing history via digital methods poses unique challenges and confronting these challenges forces us to think creatively about our methods and approaches to historical work. This fresh perspective on Ali is born from having to confront some of the epistemic and philosophical challenges posed by the digital age. I don’t propose that I may be able to uncover these new understandings of Ali because I am smarter or harder working than the scholars that have come before me – but rather because I have been forced to think creatively about doing history via digital methods.

We now teach, write and research with access to what Digital Humanities scholar David M. Berry calls the ‘infinite archive’ – where source material is digital, abundant and (generally) readily available. The infinite archive is not a single website or database, you can’t ‘visit’ it. Rather, it is an idea: a conceptualisation of the incredible abundance of source material we now have access to. Whilst access to more sources instinctively feels like a good thing, the ‘infinite archive’ is often as problematic as it is exciting. Actually doing historical work with such an embarrassment of riches is complicated by a number of factors.

I will not attempt here even to briefly address all of the issues facing historians in the digital era. Other scholars, the late Roy Rosenzweig in particular, have discussed these concerns more comprehensively than I could hope to in a short blog post. I will however, share some of my experiences of working with digitized newspaper archives in the hope of opening up a dialogue about how to ‘do history’ when working with a glut of material.

My work currently revolves around 12 digitised North American newspapers that I have accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Most of you are undoubtedly familiar with ProQuest Historical Newspapers – a subscription based, online archive, with a number of different collections available for purchase. Among these is their Black Newspapers collection – a digital archive of nine important African American newspapers from the preceding two centuries. As you can imagine, access to these papers was a real boost for my research. The Black Newspaper collection along with archives of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, gave me an opportunity to examine the construction of Ali’s identity across multiple cultural, geographic, economic and political contexts.

It did come at a cost though. I won’t go into detail here, but my library’s purchase of a subscription to these collections only came about through a stroke of astronomically good fortune and at significant financial outlay. I say this not to gloat, but to allude to another problematic aspect of doing history with digital sources: financial and technological disparities within the academy. Were I a freelance researcher, or at a university with fewer resources, this project would never have come to be.

Issues of institutional inequality aside, my work with ProQuest Historical Newspapers also forced me to grapple with one of the digital age’s most challenging paradoxes: the idea that lots of source material might not always be such a great thing for historians. If we assume that each of these papers is a weekly publication (some are dailies) and each contains, on average, thirty pages (many have far more) – even narrowing my research to the years between 1964 and 1975 left me with 205,920 pages to read. It is simply not feasible to close-read, or even skim-read, 10 years worth of content from 12 newspapers in the hope of finding articles about Muhammad Ali. Such a task might not be accomplished in an entire career, let alone the three years it (hopefully) takes to complete a PhD.

In this situation, traditional methods such as close-reading are simply too time-consuming to be useful. So rather than scale back my research or use only one or two of the publications I was so lucky to be working with, I’ve spent the last year or so adapting and developing ways to analyse all of them. After all, it seems a shame not to read all the newspapers when they’re only a few mouse clicks away. I’m very pleased to say, not mention a little relieved, that these efforts have been quite fruitful.

Before I continue, I think it’s important to note that historians being forced to make methodological choices about which sources to work with and which ones to discard is not a situation unique to the digital age. Historians have always been challenged by large amounts of material – ours is a field that prides itself on understanding detail and nuance, understandings that often rely upon painstaking and time-consuming research methods. However, although the epistemic issues that characterise working with large bodies of material may not be new, they have certainly been exacerbated by digital technologies. The good news is that where digital technologies can create problems for us, they can also provide solutions.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers has a built-in search tool that scans the text of newspaper articles for words or phrases. Through this, I was able to find all articles containing the terms “Muhammad Ali” or “Cassius Clay” within a twelve-newspaper, ten-year range. The astounding thing is that the whole process takes less than a minute. However impressive this may be, it’s only half the battle. This search returned 20, 688 articles containing either “Muhammad Ali” or “Cassius Clay”, still far too many for me to read and analyse via close-reading.

It was at this point that I began to look closely at the work of Professor Franco Moretti, one of the great iconoclasts of twentieth century literary-scholarship. In his seminal Conjectures on World Literature essay (2000), Moretti detailed a process of using quantitative methods to analyse large amounts of literary material. He called this approach ‘distant reading’, and advocated its use as a research tool that allows us to see a body of texts in a broad, topographical way. In doing this, we can ‘look down’ upon a body of work and pick out the trends and concepts that interest us. Moretti himself admits that there are compromises inherent to the process. He notes that ‘distant reading’ reconstitutes texts in an abstracted way, and although graphs, maps and trees can be fantastic tools for viewing texts in a panoramic fashion, they lack the richness and complexity of traditional close-readings. Moretti argues however, “we always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this poverty that makes it easy to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more.”

So I began to ‘distant read’ my group of twelve papers, creating a graphical comparison of how many times the terms “Cassius Clay” and “Muhammad Ali” appeared in the text of articles between 1964 and 1975. Choosing which words to base my distant reading upon is obviously a huge methodological decision. I chose to base my distant reading upon a comparison of how the American press used “Cassius Clay” and “Muhammad Ali” because key pieces of literature have implied that the press used Ali’s two names in certain ways depending upon how they felt about him with relation to race, religion and the Vietnam War.

This process produced the graph you can see below. I know it’s just a few lines and some numbers, but it’s hard to convey how exciting it was seeing this thing come together. Firstly because it meant I no longer had to spend hours punching numbers into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, but also because there are some really clear trends that emerge from this graph.


DR Graph

This distant reading clearly indicates that there are significant, transitional events in 1964, 1967 and 1971 that affected how the press used Ali’s two names. For most historians, or indeed anyone with a basic knowledge of Ali’s career, these dates should sound familiar. Cassius Clay claimed his first heavyweight title in 1964 after defeating Sonny Liston in Miami. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali shortly thereafter. In 1967, known by this stage as much for his views on religion and race as for his boxing prowess, Ali was convicted of draft evasion after refusing to fight in Vietnam. Finally, in 1971 his draft-evasion conviction was overturned and he returned to boxing. Thus, it is not surprising that these dates correspond with spikes on the graph above. What I find interesting though, is what is inferred by the correlation between the trends on this graph and key events in Ali’s career.

My ‘distant reading’ suggests that the press’ use of the names “Muhammad Ali” and “Cassius Clay” is discursively linked to key events in 1964, 1967 and 1971. In itself, establishing this connection is not particularly groundbreaking. Ali’s two names have been used by a number of authors as an analogy for the progression of Ali’s identity: from Cassius Clay the brash young heavyweight – to Muhammad Ali the geopolitical figure. A few of Ali’s more skillful biographers, particularly David Remnick and Michael Ezra, have even hinted that his two names may have had their own agency in helping to construct Ali’s cultural identity. However, suggested links between Ali’s two names and his cultural identity were just that, suggestions. What this research does, that traditionally researched accounts could not, is to substantiate a previously implicit narrative of Ali’s cultural identity. Additionally, it also indicates the presence of an Ali story that potentially subverts previous understandings of the man; that within the American press he did not become “Muhammad Ali” until 1971 – a full seven years after his name change.

Ultimately though, this graph raises far more questions than it answers…and that’s a really good thing. A ‘distant reading’ such as this is not a magic bullet or an automatic history-machine. We can’t just plug an entire body of source material into a computer and expect it to spit out a rich, contextualized and rigorous historical analysis. That’s our job. What distant reading is really good at though, is suggesting which questions to ask, and also where we might find the answers. For me, this graph prompted the development of three research questions:

1) Why did the American press refuse to use “Muhammad Ali” between 1964 and 1967, preferring instead to call him “Cassius Clay”?

2) Why did the American press appear to re-evaluate the discourse regarding Ali’s ‘dual identity’ (Muhammad Ali & Cassius Clay) between 1967 and 1971?

3) Why did the American press embrace “Muhammad Ali” from 1971 onwards?

These are questions that can only be answered by good old-fashioned, close reading – getting down and dirty with the newspaper articles. In my next post, I hope to deliver some answers I’ve found to the questions posed above. In the meantime though, I’ll leave you with this: distant reading, when coupled with traditional close-reading and analysis, is a valuable and viable method of organising large quantities of historical material and can help us to develop meaningful and targeted research questions.

For further reading on ‘Distant Reading’ see:

- Nicholson, Bob. “The Digital Turn: Exploring the Methodological Possibilities of Digital Newspaper Archives.” Media History 19, no. 1 (2013): 59 – 73.

- Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013.

For further reading on Ali, particularly his relationship with the media, see:

- Ezra, Michael. Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

- Remnick, David. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. London: Picador, 2000.

Steve Townsend

PhD Student at the University of Queensland (Australia)

Human Movement Studies