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Sport Heritage and the Anti-Hero

While in the midst of reviewing some past sport heritage-based research for my book project, I re-read Sean Gammon’s excellent “Heroes as heritage” paper from the Journal of Heritage Tourism. The idea of living sport heritage and the “athlete artefact” has has been discussed via this forum numerous times (including the last blog post about non-human athletes), but I got to thinking that many sporting artefacts are not particularly heroic, particularly in their off-field activities. And, yet, these flawed people are never-the-less often treated with the same reverence as their more heroic sporting counterparts – and, indeed, are often strongly linked with broader heritage narratives of civic and national identity. I gave Sean a call, and we got to talking about the idea of the anti-hero in sport heritage.

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During our discussions, Sean pointed out an interesting aspect to the reverence for the anti-hero in sport: they are just like us, flawed and fragile. The idea of a sporting hero as a kind-of mythological god places them on a different plain that we mere mortals. But, the anti-hero is relatable because he (and, I think, most sporting anti-heroes are male) isn’t perfect and has made mistakes. Of course, some of those mistakes go from the everyday (perhaps drink, or gambling, or infidelity) to the truly violent – though, even then, there appears to be routes back to public admiration (see Mike Tyson). There is also the aspect of marketability, particularly if the sporting anti-hero stands out in the sporting landscape. John McEnroe is just another former tennis champion – but the “brat” character (which, apparently, still makes a pantomime-esque appearance at master’s tennis events) puts him into the anti-hero category. He shakes up the establishment, while losing his temper – just like you and me!

In terms of the broader relationship to heritage, it seems that heritage sites – team or player like museums – either try to contextualize the anti-hero or rehabilitate him. A site like the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Georgia dedicates significant space and effort to casting Cobb, not as a virulent racist, but as a fierce competitor that historians throughout baseball’s history, for various nefarious reasons, wanted to do harm. As a friend who toured the museum once commented to me, “It seems that the museum has one overriding theme: he might have been a sonofabitch, but he’s OUR sonofabitch!”  Similarly, the photo above is from the exterior of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, and references the “knotted history” of Pete Rose – the so-called “hit king” of baseball who was banned from the sport (and hall of fame) for betting but remains a beloved figure in the city. There is also a connection between official and unofficial heritage at work with the anti-hero. The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina, for example, plays up his folk hero status (particularly as positioned in films such as Field of Dreams), challenges the official baseball line of him throwing the 1919 World Series, while also lobbying for him to be re-instated and, therefore, eligible for induction into Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. There is also the aspect of dividing the performance on the field from the actions off of it. Jackson, for example, took gamblers’ money to throw the World Series, but performed well in the series regardless. Pete Rose may have bet on baseball when he managed the Cincinnati Reds, and was a notorious womanizer, but that shouldn’t take away from is record-breaking on-field achievements.

Most sport heritage is pretty celebratory, and certainly there is a celebratory nature to recognizing the anti-hero. They are “personalities” and “authentic” vis-a-vis the hyper-trained media-savvy athletic gods of today. They are also a source of nostalgia – probably to a time when it wouldn’t have been surprising that a star baseball player was drinking at your favourite bar, because he probably didn’t make much more than you do. And, yet, the anti-hero offers us an interesting insight into the dynamics of heritage and, in particular, which sporting legacies we value and why. Perhaps it is not simply success that defines our sporting heroes, but whether or not we see something of them in ourselves.


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