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The Uses of Sport Heritage – Help or Hinderance?

The debate regarding the uses of sport heritage – in particular how a team’s decorated past is used or interpreted in the present – has continued in the popular press.  I recently discussed how two National Hockey League teams – The Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs – decided to rid their dressing room spaces of “ghosts”, as it were, from past championship teams, seeing these as both a burden and barrier for current players.  Now, representatives from other teams are weighing in and discussing whether the recognition of past success is a help or hinderance.  In particular, I was interested by this view in the Edmonton Journal by Kavis Reed, the coach of the Edmonton Eskimos whose team, historically, has been one of the Canadian Football League’s most successful franchises:

“It’s very important to have that balance (with the present and future of a team) and have that tradition,” said Reed. “It’s important because it identifies who you are, but you also have to make certain that you’re cognizant of the fact that you can’t relive history.

“I kind of liken it to passing down a family quilt and a certain generation is asked to sew their patch in. I see it that way.

“You can look back and see all of the other patches that makes that quilt and now how do you add your patch into it? What’s different about yours? Is yours red versus a couple of blues and a purple?”

“History is extremely important, but we have to be a part of that history and embrace that history by focusing on now and getting better and showing that this franchise and its history is not one that is lost,” he said.

Sport heritage, I suppose, is no different from other heritage in that it can promote stagnation – a view Robert Hewison suggested 25 years ago in The Heritage Industry.  Hewison’s argument is that societies can often times wallow in a glorious (if imagined) past rather than face the sometimes harsh realities of the present and future.  He suggests that these societies “produce” heritage rather than try to adapt and change.  Perhaps this is what was happening in the Oilers and Maple Leafs organizations, that the tie to the past was so strong that it overwhelmed the present.

However, I like that the Eskimos – through Coach Reed – see the team’s heritage, not as an end in and of itself, but as part of a contemporary process.  In some ways, I am reminded of Laurajane Smith’s The Uses of Heritage where one of the key arguments is that heritage, to paraphrase Reed’s analogy, is not the quilt but how the quilt is part of a larger practice of meaning-making – of which those in the present play a significant role in terms of interpretation, performance, and practice.    

I find this a fascinating debate – and, perhaps plays out how heritage is used and interpreted by different levels of an organization.  I have little doubt that, in terms of marketing or merchandise sales, heritage will continue to play a role.  However, it is interesting to see how the uses and meanings of heritage are, perhaps, being reinterpreted in terms of on-field/ice performance.

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