Sport Heritage Review

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.


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.

Rethinking the Athlete Artefact: Horses and Sport Heritage

One of the topics in sport heritage research that has received some attention over the years (including on this blog) is the idea of the athlete artefact. That is to say, many athletes could be considered a form of “living” sport heritage – particularly after their playing careers have finished. However, unlike other types of artefacts, we cannot “preserve” them – though their achievements may become mythological and heroic over time. On the other hand, some heritage sites – such as Olympic museums – provide an opportunity for visitors to gaze upon the training of contemporary athletes, positioning the “athlete artefact” through more of a zoological lens.

A recent trip to Kentucky shed further light on this idea of the athlete artefact, in particular the opportunities to view, and even touch, former thoroughbred racehorses. Animals offer a different view of the athlete artefact. Human athletes, in most cases, position themselves as “living legends” after their careers end, perhaps by participating in exhibition matches, so-called “Champions” tournaments, and through autograph and memorabilia sales. Similarly, athletes who are on public view during their training sessions have some agency in terms of where and when they train, as well as whether to continue as an elite athlete. Animal athletes have no such agency and, as such, at places like the Kentucky Horse Park where viewing and interacting with past champion horses – including Kentucky Derby winners – are part of the visitation experience, there is a very direct zoological comparison. However, unlike a zoo, visitors aren’t coming to the Horse Park simply to view random horses – although, there are representations of different breeds at the site – they are there to actually see famous horses such as 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champions like Funny Cide.


Part of the narrative of these horses is not only their races and victories, but also their lineage. Which champion horses are they related to, or who did they sire or dam, is an important part of their heritage narrative – both literally as well as contextually. The parentage, as well as the children, of human athlete artefacts normally only warrant a mention as part of biography rather than some sort of genetic destiny.

Horses also reveal something different about the life cycle, as well as the meaning, of the athlete artefact. For the human athlete artefact, there is the playing career, followed by perhaps the coaching and exhibition playing career, frequenting the autograph circuit, and then, perhaps, closing out with speaking engagements and the like after the body is no longer willing to, say, run around a tennis court anymore. For the animal athlete artefact, places like the Kentucky Horse Park (and, to a lesser extent, the Kentucky Derby Museum) are the culmination of a career largely built on racing and breeding. In many respects, the champion horses at the Kentucky Horse Park and the like are simply there to be admired, perhaps as physical specimens but as much simply for being what they are. They exist, like other rare heritage objects and artefacts, in order to simply exist, because they are rare, and because they are beautiful. As such, though most athlete artefacts are quite different than other forms of heritage objects, in the case of these kinds of horses they are, in fact, remarkably similar to a traditional heritage artefact. Perhaps this is because they do not have agency and that they are considered, in essence, simply objects. However, the fact that visitors can actually see, interact, watch, and admire these champions – and the fact that they are worthy of preservation after their “usefulness” is over – provides a very different perspective on the athlete artefact.

Summer Update

As the summer break (such as it is) winds down here in South Carolina, I thought I might provide a brief update on various research projects, publications, and activities.

Book – Drafting chapters for Heritage and Sport: An Introduction continues. The entire book exists in outline, and this summer the first “thin” drafts of chapters have been written. I am looking to a full “thin” draft to be complete by the end of the year. The process has been enjoyable thus far, though the next fifteen months or so will require a great deal of focus in order to submit to the publisher by Fall of 2018. Part of the summer included a research trip to London, which helped immensely in the creation of several chapters. An upcoming family trip through the midwestern United States will, at points, also include research stops at a few sport heritage sites, and also help provide some much needed examples and illustrations for the text. Unsurprisingly, as I attempt to write about the many forms and types of sport heritage, I am finding (and, perhaps, rediscovering) many areas and topic which – I hope – I can flesh out in greater detail once the book is complete. Namely, I am finding that I’ve been drawn recently to existential forms of sport heritage, particularly as sport heritage is embodied and performed in various places and circumstances, as well as a increased interest in dissonant sport heritages – inspired in large part by the excellent Blue Plaque Rebellion project in the UK.

Sport heritage and Reminiscence Therapy project – Work continues on a research project linking sport heritage and reminiscence therapy. This project, which uses Clemson University’s football heritage in the creation of a reminiscence therapy project for local residents suffering from dementia-related illnesses, will be implemented in the early autumn, pending a successful review by our Institutional Review Board (i.e.: research ethics review). We have all the materials ready, and hope that this project – and its findings – will not only help people suffering from dementia as well as their families, it will also further demonstrate the utility of sport heritage in a variety of settings and programs.

National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame – I obtained a small research grant to conduct research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It is anticipated that data collection will take place in October, and will focus on the mitigation/management of dissonant sport heritage narratives, as well as looking at representations of (and public reactions to) women’s baseball heritage at the Baseball Hall.

Published/Forthcoming Research – Thrilled that a co-edited special issue of the Journal of Sport & Tourism (along with Sean Gammon and Richard Wright) looking at theory and sport tourism was fully published in June, including a reflection Sean and I wrote about the current state of sport heritage in sport tourism. I also recently learned that two previous papers, one about sport heritage and the health stadia agenda and one (written with Inge Derom) about sport heritage and tourism development, will be included in two different edited volumes in 2018. I also recently contributed a research focus point about outdoor ice hockey and heritage sport tourism for the forthcoming third edition of Tom Hinch and James Higham’s Sport Tourism Development. Finally, I’ve also been working on several pieces not related to sport heritage with other researchers, including one piece about coastal tourism development in South Carolina and another about uses of nostalgia in reentry for travelling missionaries.

Reading – I have managed to read a bit for pleasure this summer. I thoroughly enjoyed Gerald Morzorati’s Late to the Ball about him taking up tennis at a serious level in his 50s and, as I do every summer, I piece my way through the latest Wisden Cricketers’ AlmanackLately I have been reading both William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life and David Foster Wallace’s On Tennis: Five Essays. Though my summer reading does often include sports books, it usually doesn’t skew this sports-heavy. Perhaps I was seeking an escape of sorts during these troubled times.

Activities – I continued my practice from last summer of scoring baseball games I attend, which too provides a sense of serenity as well as a souvenir of a game watched. I started, tentatively, playing tennis as well – an activity, I must admit, I am enjoying more than I thought I would.


Site Review: Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and Tour


One of the assumptions made about stadium/sports venue tours and sport museums is that they have appeal to both dedicated supporters and the merely curious. In many ways, the best tours and museums strike a balance between providing an in-depth experience for the most knowledgable fan without alienating the non-supporter. The best result can be to make the supporter more supportive, and the non-supporter a fan.

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, along with the tour of the venue, do a remarkable job of providing something of value to the tennis fan, as well as pushing the non-fan to follow the sport. The fact that Wimbledon is one of a handful of sporting venues that are synonymous with a sport (along with places like Churchill Downs for horse racing, or Lord’s for cricket) means that they espouse a responsibility not just for the venue and its wellbeing, but the sport as a whole. A similar notion, where a venue’s heritage experiences were felt to have larger purposes, was mentioned to me by a manager at Twickenham Stadium where he felt that the purpose of the venue’s tour and museum were not just to tell people about Twickenham but to ignite or reaffirm their love for rugby regardless of where they live. In this, both the tour and museum at Wimbledon are often about much more than Wimbledon.


Of course, one of the remarkable aspects in visiting Wimbledon for the first time is actually just how compact the entire venue is. This is something I have experienced visiting many infamous sporting venues – that the expectation of a venue noticeably removed from the rest of the surrounding geography is often not the reality. It’s not that Wimbledon is not noticeable from the surrounding landscape, but perhaps more that you might actually miss it unless you were specifically looking for it.

The tour itself mirrors many other sport stadium tours, in that it begins in the gift shop and includes stops such as the media rooms and press conference room, check-in location for the players (in lieu of visiting the locker room), and Centre Court. The tour narrative balanced history, traditions, logistics and was relatively inclusive for both dedicated tennis fans and non-tennis watchers alike. For example, when describing particular matches and players, the narrative tended towards the infamous rather than the arcane. The court where the Isner-Mahut marathon match took place, for example, was a good introduction to both the side courts as well as including something that both tennis and non-tennis fans knew and could understand. Similarly, the anecdotes were largely related to the relatively recent and famous players such as Federer, Williams, Sampras, and so on. Interestingly, the site also keeps the bracket and scores up for the entire year following The Championship, perhaps for the purposes of the tours but also maybe a nod to the prestige of winning the tournament.



There were two relatively surprising elements to the tour narrative. The first was that our guide, though largely friendly, demonstrated frustration and agitation with visitor questions. I am not sure if this was a personality quirk, something to do with scheduling (in terms of not running into other tour groups), or that he felt (or was instructed) that he could not deviate from a scripted tour narrative. In any event, even the most innocent questions (for example, about how to attend the tournament) were dismissed, often quite sharply. Granted, most of the questions were answered throughout the tour narrative, but it was extremely odd that a guide would not welcome genuine interest and curiosity about the venue and its history. Secondly, the the tour narrative was scripted as such to be quite self-conscious about the exclusivity of the tournament and venue. The guide spent an enormous amount of time discussing that the main priority of the venue managers was to promote tennis, and not to acquire more wealth. Specifically, the fact that regular people could queue each morning and purchase grounds passes for only £25, or that visitors could bring their own food and drink to the tournament rather than buying on-site, or that people who had dedicated their lives to the promotion of tennis (the example of a youth tennis instructor from “the north of England” was frequently used) were more likely to gain membership than the wealthiest of bankers with no tennis background, bolstered the venue’s egalitarian bonafides. Needless to say, much like other infamous sporting venues (passing through the “gates” of Augusta National golf club comes to mind), the Wimbledon tour narrative is rife with religious symbolism (“eye of a needle” etc.)


The Lawn Tennis Museum offered an excellent companion to the venue tour. Although there were anticipated aspects to the displays and artefacts, including history of the sport, development of equipment technology, trophies, and memorabilia from past women’s and men’s champions, two aspects stood out. The first was the museum’s use of technology, including holograms – in this case, of John McEnroe talking about playing at Wimbledon as well as some of his famous matches – and a VR exhibit that puts the visitor at Centre Court during both last year’s women’s and men’s finals. One of the challenges of places like Wimbledon, which are famous for particular annual events and which, more often than not, are very exclusive, is providing visitors something of an experience of attending or playing-at an event Wimbledon. As such, the museum does a good job of being both intellectually and sensually engaging in its interpretation, using its space to not only tell “what it was” but “what it is like”.


One of the welcome exhibits was one about media broadcasts of Wimbledon. In fact, I feel that one of the overlooked aspects of sport heritage is the role of media, in particular that much of our own, individual sport heritages are created not through attending sporting events themselves but listening to/watching them at home with friends and family. Though the exhibit was ostensibly recognizing the BBC’s history of broadcasting the tournament, there was also a section about personal memories of listening to or watching the tournament during the English summer. The fact that some of the most ardent tennis fans will have never actually attended The Championships, though nevertheless see it as part of their own summer traditions, is something that sports museums need to explore in greater detail, and that sport heritage research ought to explore further.


Despite a few strange developments on the tour, I will admit to becoming quite enamoured with Wimbledon, The Championships, and tennis as a whole after my visit there. I am hardly a tennis aficionado, and while I will sometimes tune into a few of the matches during a major tournament, I find that after my visit to Wimbledon I am not only anticipating this year’s tournament even more, I find that I am wanting to follow (and even attempt to play) the sport more than I did before.

Is it sport heritage? The challenge of ancient and medieval sport


Defining what necessarily qualifies as “sport” is as old as the institution of sport. Huw Richards, in his 2007 book about the history of rugby union, argues that a sport – in essence – is “born” when its rules are codified and played by others in different locations using those same rules. Tom Hinch and James Higham, in defining sport within tourism, define sport as having clearly defined rules, uncertain outcomes, competitive and contest based, playful or incorporating a sense of play, and physical or kinaesthetic in nature. Certainly, many a barstool argument has been waged over whether auto racing or poker or professional wrestling is a sport. Seemingly, discourse also plays a role. If something is called sport, and perhaps is covered by sports media, does it then become sport?

However, what do we make of “sport” from ancient or medieval worlds. Could we call cock fighting, bear bating, and chariot racing, types of sports – and, for the purposes and scope of this blog – sport heritage? Do they fit more into forms of leisure and recreation heritage rather than sport, considered in a similar vein to other forms of gaming such as dice?


Delineating what is – and, perhaps, is not – sport heritage is a challenge. Much of what is included in ancient and medieval sport most likely would have had an understood – if highly localized – set of rules, and certainly would have had a clearly defined winner and loser. That said, its not as if there were governing bodies per se for these practices, and it would seem that the rules would vary from place to place – so codification and transferability may be in question. Similarly, the fact that many also include animals – often in life or death situations – it is a wonder whether one could call, for example, bear bating a form of play (particularly for the bear) or if the participants had any agency in their participation. That said, the discursive use and practice of both sport heritage – in particular heritage researchers, promoters, and agencies – must give us pause for thought. Two medieval sport places in London, Cockpit Steps and Bear Gardens, are listed in Simon Inglis’ Played in London book – which is part of the English Heritage sport heritage project, Played in BritainSimilarly, the British Museum offers tours of “Sport in the Ancient World” specifically curating part of their collection as sport-based. While much of what we consider as sport heritage comes from the last two centuries, in large part because of codification, governance, and transferability, anything before this period raises questions about what we ought to include – or ignore – in our study and understanding of sport heritage.



History Jackie and Heritage Jackie


This past weekend on April 15, Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrated the 70th anniversary of  Jackie Robinson‘s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became the first African-American player in the big leagues in the modern era. The fact that it was the 70th anniversary was remarkable and included events like statue commemorations as well, although MLB does celebrate Robinson every season on April 15, most notably with all players wearing Robinson’s number 42 for games on that day. However, as many commentators noted, these commemorations and celebrations ignore much of Robinson’s story. In this, we see the differences between “History Jackie” and “Heritage Jackie,” though the perspectives might not be as far apart as they seem.

As scholars of heritage (and probably history as well) will tell you, history and heritage are different – they have different audiences, different purposes, and different outcomes. Sport historians are correct in pointing out that Robinson’s story is not a fable meant to reassure us, but rather is complex. In this, they ought to question the ways in which Robinson’s accomplishments are recognized today – particularly in what history is ignored. A critical heritage studies perspective would not necessarily ask what differs between the historical record and the contemporary commemorations, but rather why, by whom, and to what end Robinson is being remembered.  This might include remembering (perhaps in a self-congratulatory way) the moment when something that happened on a baseball field transcended the sport itself, the need to attract African-Americans to play baseball, and even selling merchandise based on the commemorations. The historical perspective is about the past, and the heritage perspective is about the present and future, though they almost certainly inform one another.

This is not to suggest that MLB should stop recognizing Robinson every April 15. In fact, from my perspective, it is one of the best things that MLB does. That said, perhaps the commemorations ought to include more public history, where the complex story of Robinson is translated for a general audience. Similarly, what does Robinson’s story tell us about what other issues we have to address, besides baseball enrolment and selling more tickets and merchandise (which primarily helps MLB)? Robinson undoubtedly continues to serve as an inspiration – but what else might his legacy inspire baseball and its fans to do? In this, “History Jackie” and “Heritage Jackie” might become more aligned towards not only a fuller understanding of the past, but where that past takes us today and tomorrow.

Basketball and heritage in Charlotte

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a Charlotte Hornets basketball game at the Spectrum Center (formerly the Time Warner Cable Arena). I had been to the arena on a few occasions since moving to the Carolinas in 2009, seeing both basketball games and minor league hockey games at the venue over the years. This particular trip was mainly about taking my five-year-old son to his first NBA game and, given that the game was on a Sunday afternoon and against the Phoenix Suns (who are not the most marketable opponent) it was an affordable weekend outing.


Despite having been to the arena on several occasions, I hadn’t stopped to think about the many different representations – and layers – of sport heritage on display at the venue. For example, in the entrance foyer there is a large mural depicting various teams and players from (I would assume) college basketball in North Carolina. Interestingly, not only was there a representation of basketball heritage that wasn’t from the professional ranks, much of the mural was dedicated to women’s basketball. Many arenas tend represent the heritage and history of the current tenant – such as at Rogers Place in Edmonton, they tend to be about famous players and championships – whereas this heritage mural not only was not about the Hornets/Bobcats, it had college sports, women’s sports and, more specifically, African American women’s basketball. From the arena’s website, the mural is described as “the History of Basketball in the Piedmont and the action of the game.” All heritage representations are as much about exclusion as inclusion, so it is interesting that many different forms and types of sport heritage that are often excluded are explicitly included in this mural:


In a similar vein, most sport heritages – particularly at venues – tend to be celebratory (again, representing famous moments and championships, etc.) One of the more interesting heritage displays at the arena was the history of professional basketball teams in Charlotte. Of course, many facilities will link the current team with teams from previous eras. The interesting aspect of these displays is that many of the teams that were represented had, for lack of a better term, ignominious histories – in that they ceased operations or were relocated to other cities. Again, the fact that there was at least a bit of a “warts and all” acknowledgment of the history of professional basketball in Charlotte was both welcome and surprising.


Finally, there are the multiple and layered heritage narratives with the Hornets nickname. Charlotte’s first incarnation of NBA basketball were known as the Hornets, and when the team moved to New Orleans in 2002 – taking the name with them. Charlotte regained their NBA franchise in 2004 but, as the “Hornets” name was still being used in New Orleans, the new franchise called themselves the Bobcats. Only in 2014 did the Hornets moniker return, so there is a (as myself and Sean Gammon termed it) “heritage of sport” association with the name. Similarly, the Hornets name was used in minor league baseball in the city for many years as well.


However, it also has a broader association too, as the Hornets name is associated with the city’s resistance to the British in the Revolutionary War. In particular, according the to the Mecklenburg Historical Association (Charlotte is located in Mecklenburg County) “Lord Cornwallis came to Charlotte in the fall of 1780 on his way to destroy the Continental Army, but he only stayed sixteen days.  The local partisans were just too hot for him, and he later referred to Charlotte as ‘A Hornet’s Nest of Rebellion.'” Although there is nothing at the arena that necessarily denotes the association between the team’s name and the Revolutionary War, it is assumed that for many Hornets fans there is a dual heritage relationship: both that of the city’s sport heritage as well as its broader identity in American history.

Although the many sport heritage representations at Spectrum Center are, ultimately, nostalgic if not celebratory, the forms and types of heritage were different than many similar venues that I have experienced. Celebrating and recognizing different types and forms of sport heritage – and not merely myopically reflecting the past of the current franchise – provides a unique form of sport heritage. In many ways, it felt more like a celebration of basketball in Charlotte rather than just using heritage as another form of advertisement and promotion. Even the heritage markers that were sponsored had a surprising amount of depth and were not simply about selling jerseys and t-shirts. Given that I went to the game with a five-year-old, I didn’t have the freedom to explore the venue’s heritage representations in more detail (although, I did notice that there were many displays simply about the city itself, and not necessarily linked to basketball or sport). However, I think the Spectrum Center provides a good template for other arenas and sports facilities looking to represent their sporting past.


© Gregory Ramshaw and The Sport Heritage Review, 2019. 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.

Follow me on Twitter