Excluded Sporting Pasts

It goes without saying that, for most sports entities, heritage is an asset. The past – particularly a glorious heritage or a heritage that induces nostalgia – can be an excellent marketing tool, and an avenue for commodification through souvenirs, events, and other experiences like fantasy camps. Specifically, sports like baseball and cricket have traded off of their heritage, positioning themselves as timeless cultural entities that are intimately tied to the past. Obviously, not all sporting pasts are glorious, noteworthy, or particularly positive but, more often than not, heritage is something that sports entities tend to embrace.

However, Cathal Kelly in the Globe & Mail recently argues that the NFL in particular runs from its past; that it is a forward looking league to the point that it almost denies its history and heritage. His argument appears to hold water, specifically that the NFL’s past is full of broken players who, in the large scheme of things, are almost infinitely replaceable. Sure, there are sometimes memorable players and teams but, by and large, the NFL is a league entirely focused on the present and future, and that the past plays little role in the way the league operates. Heritage, to the NFL, is not an asset.

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A closer examination might be that heritage is used differently by the NFL than it is other leagues. In sports like baseball, cricket, golf, and tennis, there are masters leagues and competitions, and that the sports – though difficult – did not render ex-athletes incapacitated. This is not to say that the NFL doesn’t use its former and retired players in terms of promotion – this past weekend’s Super Bowl demonstrated that – and that it does broadly market events like Hall of Fame weekend in August. Rather, there is a knowing element – both by the league and the public – that football is a deeply damaging game, and that the men who played it often no longer resemble who they once were. Talking about the “glorious heritage” of the NFL is to embrace how deeply damaging the sport was, and continues to be. This is not to say that other football leagues haven’t openly marketed heritage – the Canadian Football League’s “This is Our League” campaign positioned the Canadian code of football as a distinctive form of cultural nationalism – but for the NFL, constantly reminding the public of the past only fuels some of the issues of the present.

That said, the NFL does embrace an element of continuity – not neccessarily in comparison with the past but, rather, as an entity that always was and always will be. It’s heritage is that endures. And, while Kelly’s argument is certainly convincing, it is worth noting that all sports – to borrow from this book – have excluded pasts. Baseball actively runs from it’s drug and steroid past. Cricket runs from its racial politics. Rugby runs from a legacy of class division. Soccer runs from its fan violence. Hockey – as Keith Olbermann explains – markets a fictional foundational myth. In fact, all institutions have pasts that are excluded for a variety of reasons, from politics to culture to plain old ignorance. Certainly, the ways in which the NFL excludes some of its past – or, at the very least, is uninterested in it – is unique, but it is hardly unheard-of.

The question then becomes not whether sports entities exclude particular pasts, but what pasts are excluded and why? Here, Kelly’s argument is important – “..the NFL – alone among all the sports leagues in the world – has no appetite for reflection. With good reason, no league is as frightened of its own past.” Heritage – or, at least, particular forms of heritage – undermine rather than enhance the NFL. For other sports, heritage is an asset – though, again, only particular heritages are touted, embraced, and commodified.

We tend to think of sport heritages as benign, and quite often they are. However, what the NFL’s reaction to its heritage tells us is that sport heritage can, in particular circumstances, also be a threat. Excluded pasts are often not just unflattering or embarrassing, they can also be dangerous.

Gambling as Sport Heritage

The Super Bowl, arguably the biggest betting day in the US, is a little over a week away. Casinos and on-line sports books are famous for taking all kinds of strange bets, called “props”, during the Superbowl – from how long the National Anthem will take to the outcome of the coin flip. Needless to say, betting is as much a part of the Super Bowl experience as the funny commercials, beer, and snacks.

But, can we consider gambling as sport heritage, and do many sport-based museums and halls of fame discuss gambling as part of sport?

Of course, as long as there’s been sport, there has been gambling on sport. Indeed, many sports – like cricket – were codified in large part because of gambling. Some of sports biggest and most notable moments – such as the 1919 Black Sox scandal in baseball – are integral in discussing and interpreting the sporting past.

But, do sports museums discuss gambling as part of their past, or indeed their present? And, should a discussion of gambling – either as in historical or contemporary terms – be part of more sports museums?

The Mob Museum in Las Vegas held an event last year about sports gambling – though, of course, this museum is not sport-based and many of its exhibits are about about gambling. It appears that both the National Horse Racing Museum and Kentucky Derby Museum make mention of gambling, though I don’t believe there’s the equivalent of a gambling simulator at either site. Online museums, like the National Pastime Museum, discuss famous gambling and match-fixing events in baseball. Of course, there may be other examples from sport heritage sites but, seemingly, sports gambling is largely ignored within sport heritage.

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In the wake of so many recent gambling issues – in tennis, cricket, soccer, and basketball among others – should sports museums be more proactive in discussing sports gambling, both past and present? Certainly, gambling plays a central role in the history of many sports – shouldn’t sports museums and halls of fame represent these pasts? Similarly, the fact that many sports leagues embrace sports gambling as part of the contemporary sport consumption experience – particularly through fantasy sports – shouldn’t museums play a role in discussing both the positives and negatives of sports gaming? Of course, many sports museums and halls of fame don’t want to touch topics like gambling with a ten-foot pole, but others might find that by discussing gambling at their sites they not only present a more holistic view of the sporting past, they also become part of the contemporary conversations about the role of gambling in sport.

Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage

One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.

Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.

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The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.

The Geography of Celebration

There are moments in our lives that we anticipate will be memorable – graduations, weddings, the birth of children, the death of those close to us, and so on. We typically take steps to plan these events, both from a practical standpoint but also because we know that these events will be milestones; moments that either we want to remember and cherish (particularly if these are positive events) or know that we will remember, even if they are painful.

More collectively, memories tend to be reactive. That is to say, an event (normally a shocking or unexpected one) happens which becomes a memory; a “where were you?” moment like September 11, 2001. Certainly, in sport, there are unexpected moments – victories (or defeats) that will be recalled and rehashed for decades to come. However, sport also does often offer the opportunity to plan a memory, knowing that a particular moment will likely form a part of a collective biography. As I wrote about last spring, there is a tendency to form an “anticipatory sport heritage” whereby we rapidly assess the impact of a sporting event either in its immediate aftermath or, at times, before the event has even happened. As such, some events are thought to be “memorable” before they’ve event occurred.

This evening is the National College Football Championship, played between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. As a faculty member at Clemson, we were provided instructions by our Provost – Dr. Bob Jones – on how to academically approach the following couple of days, knowing that many students, staff, and faculty would either venture to Arizona for the game or, at the very least, be distracted (if not a little fatigued) whether the Tigers won or lost the game. In the Provost’s words from an email sent to all faculty, staff, and students on January 2, he notes:

“A national football championship is, for most of us, a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a key part of American higher education culture. This is true for students, staff, and faculty. It is a special opportunity. We have an obligation to facilitate participation, so long as it does not diminish the core academic mission of the university.”

Of course, it is quite impossible to say whether this event that (at the time of writing) will be “once in a lifetime”, or that we can instantly assess its significance in our own lives or the legacy of our university.

But, we can probably guess that it will be important, regardless of the result. Perhaps if Clemson loses, and perhaps wins in the coming seasons, the “once in a lifetime” will be contextualized in terms of an era of success. Or if they lose, and never return to the Championship, the memory will be bittersweet. If Clemson wins, perhaps it will be something that the Clemson community will view as an integral part of its history; something to be shared, recalled, and nostalgized for years to come.

One of the aspects I will be interested to see, should the Tigers be victorious, is the Geography of Celebration. That is to say, which areas in or near Clemson become the focus of public celebrations? I expect that it will probably be the College Avenue area, which is the main street of Clemson leading up to Bowman Field and the “entrance” to the university:

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Most of the bars in Clemson are on College Avenue, and there is the icon of the Tillman Hall/Old Main building at the end of the street. However, there is not much at this location that is specifically related to football in particular (although the field itself, historically, was once the football field). There is nothing like Auburn University’s Toomer’s Corner in this area, which has become a part of football lore and tradition:

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There are football-related icons in Clemson, particularly Howard’s Rock and the Esso Club:

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Both are near the College Avenue area and, in the case of Howard’s Rock in particular, are symbolic of Clemson football. As such, it will be interesting to see if there are several different celebration locations in Clemson itself, or if they ultimately meld into one particular place.  Added to this geography, however, is the fact that the largest remote viewing party is at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, approximately 30 miles from Clemson University. It is possible, then, that the celebration will be quite diffuse.

Of course, with such a large area – and several different iconic locations – it is possible that, win or lose, there will be a large area to monitor and potentially police. Many sports celebrations, or reactions to defeat, have sparked antisocial behaviours, most notably in Vancouver in 2011:

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Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Clemson’s President, Dr. Jim Clements, sent the following email this morning to the entire university:

“Whether you plan to watch in Arizona, at a viewing party or from the comfort of home, please remember that we are all representatives of our great university. I’m glad that the Clemson family knows that just like our student-athletes and coaches, we win or lose with class, dignity and good sportsmanship.”

Of course, one hopes that such incidents won’t occur. However, the idea that we must plan for many eventualities does have to take place. Furthermore, in the age of mobile technologies, celebrations (or any form of public gathering) can be dynamic; they can form and disperse quite quickly.

From a heritage standpoint, there is something to be said that many public celebrations tend to take place at or near icons of place (many, if not most of which, could broadly be considered heritage). It is also interesting to see which icons are “chosen” as sites of celebration, and for what reasons. In Clemson’s case, I imagine that the College Avenue/Bowman Field area will be chosen in large part because it is central, well-known, has amenities (mainly bars), and, perhaps, because it is next to an icon and symbol of the university. However, it will be interesting to see that, if tonight and the coming days, other symbols and icons – such as Howard’s Rock – become the sites of a broader, collective celebration. Similarly, if they lose, which icons become the sites of mourning and why?

Commemorating the Discarded Stadium

As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).

When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.

However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).

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Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.

Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.

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The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.

Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.

The Global Recognition and Protection of Sport Heritages

Sport heritage has been, until recently, a relatively obscure topic. People working at sports sites and museums have formed professional associations such as the International Sports Heritage Association, while a small, international group of academics (including the author of this blog) have been engaged in sport heritage-based research. Anecdotally, public interest in sport heritage appears to be growing, given the proliferation of sport heritage-based sites, attractions, and experiences, while there has been a steady growth in interest and research output about sport heritage in academia.

However, two recent developments point to a growing interest in sport heritage – in particular, the recognition of sport heritage as an important cultural practice that, in some cases, may require protection.

The first major development is that ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites – which “works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places” – has declared “The Heritage of Sport” as its theme for the 2016 ICOMOS International Day on Monuments and Sites. This declaration is an extraordinarily significant form of recognition for sport heritage as a field. ICMOS is a very well known and well regarded international heritage agency, and is probably best known for its considerable work with the UNESCO World Heritage program. Details about the “Heritage of Sport” day – which is on April 18 – have yet to be released, but it will nevertheless an important milestone in sport heritage.

23 June 2010; Daire Plunkett, Dublin, in action against Paul Murphy, Kilkenny. Bord Gais Energy Leinster GAA Hurling Under 21 Championship Semi-Final, Kilkenny v Dublin, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

The second major development is the fact that the Gaelic sport of hurling is likely to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. In an article in the Irish Times, the Irish government looked to the inscription as “provid(ing) a significant opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of hurling, uilleann piping and Irish folklore beyond our national boundaries.” Although several other sport-based cultural practices are on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, such as Taekkyeon – a traditional Korean martial artChinese Dragon Boat races and festivals, and tugging rituals and games in Southeast Asia, sport is not the primary focus of these inscriptions. However, hurling is a popular, codified, spectator sport that also has cultural meaning. In other words, the sport component is of primary significance in its potential inscription on the List.

These developments at UNESCO and ICOMOS raise some intriguing questions for sport heritage scholars. Will these efforts lead to sport being properly considered an important part of global heritage? Will heritage recognition and protection of sporting practices enhance or detract from the sport? Can the sports adapt and change over time, or will they ossify? Certainly, as a sport heritage scholar, I welcome these developments, and I look forward to seeing how sport is recognized by the global heritage community.

The Sport Heritage Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us and, if you have someone in your life with an interest in sport heritage, gift buying can be difficult and quite expensive.  Of course, there are many gift options in terms of memorabilia, autographs, and the like – though, often times, these can be costly and sometimes difficult to obtain depending on the item. Other sport heritage-related gifts – such as attending a fantasy camp or an historic event like the Masters golf tournament or Wimbledon – can be equally expensive and inaccessible to all but a wealthy few.

Not to fear, however, as we have some gift suggestions for the sport heritage person in your life to suit both your budget and their interests!

Art

Though there are many options in the art/sport heritage landscape, the work of Paine Proffitt is particularly notable. I first encountered his work in the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham Stadium back in 2007 when on a research project, and I was thrilled to see that he is still producing magnificent artwork. Although much of his current work is based in English football, as an ex-pat American he also covers North American sports such as baseball and ice hockey. Visit his website at www.painproffitt.com – you’ll be pleased you did.

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(Some examples of Paine Proffitt‘s outstanding artwork.)

Apparel 

Retro and throwback sports jerseys and apparel are fairly common now, but weren’t always so. Several companies – most notably Ebbets Field Flannels and the Old Fashioned Football Shirt Company (or TOFFS) – now produce sports apparel from bygone eras, or from long forgotten teams, often in era-specific fabric (I have a replica 1950s canvas football jersey from TOFFS). I was amazed at some of the replica items of truly quirky teams and eras that these companies reproduce. For example, Ebbets Field Flannels, though mainly reproducing baseball apparel from various minor league teams from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, produced a replica jersey from the Edmonton Flyers – a  semi-pro hockey team that most people in my hometown of Edmonton had probably long forgotten existed. Much like Paine Proffitt’s artwork, people interested in throwback sports apparel would have a field day looking at all of the reproduction items available.

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Books and other reading material 

There are many, many, many sport history books released during the holiday season, as books are an easy fall-back as gifts. Of course, there are also several academic sport heritage books as well, some of which were covered in a previous post. However, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the holiday season is the best time to dream about the spring and summer to come. Few things are more enjoyable to think about during the cold winter months than a perfect day at the cricket ground and, for that, Wisden is your spot. This time of year, there are many cricket books on sale at Wisden – not the least of which is the famous Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Memberships

Memberships to sports museums, halls of fame, and sports clubs make some of the best gifts. Even if the recipient is not living near the museum or club, it provides an opportunity to both provide support as well as give a sense of being a part of the organization. Most museums and halls of fame provide various levels of membership – including the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – while some sports clubs have memberships for patrons living away or abroad, such as Kent Cricket’s affordable “13th Man” club membership.

Donations

For the sport heritage aficionado who has it all, donations to organizations involved in the preservation and interpretation of sporting heritage make wonderful gifts. The International Sports Heritage Association has a list of member organizations – perhaps find one in a local area and provide a one-time or on-going donation as a gift. Another possibility are donations to organizations – such as the excellent Sporting Memories Network – that use the sporting past to tackle major health issues such as dementia and depression.

Copyright

© Gregory Ramshaw and The Sport Heritage Review, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gregory Ramshaw and The Sport Heritage Review with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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