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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?

Empathy and Sport Heritage

One of the aspects which, I believe, separates sport heritage from other forms and types of heritage is that it is often corporal in nature.  That is to say, sport heritage requires us to continue to play and to watch sport in order to both compare with the past and to create more sport heritage for the future.  It must continually be made and remade through play, performance, and spectacle. No heritage building is more “dead” than an empty, abandoned stadium.

Perhaps because of the sensual and emotional nature of sport, we can understand and empathize with the sportsperson.  Even though most of us have never played at elite levels, or maybe not have played at all, we can still understand something of what it is like to taste victory and defeat.  In Sweet Summers, the collection of JM Kilburn’s cricket writing, the excerpt below perhaps best describes the empathetic connections between all those who have played:

Every boy who has defended a lamp-post wicket is in blood brotherhood with Bradman, and knows Hobbs or or Sutcliffe as himself…every man who has by reflex action or conscious effort flicked a boundary past point knows a thrill of intense physical delight when he sees Woolley bat.

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(“The Don” – Don Bradman. Do all who’ve played share a connection to him?)

In many ways, this goes beyond simple childhood imagination and flights of fancy, and rather an understanding of what it’s like to be a sportsperson. When I was an ice hockey goaltender in my youth, for example, it wasn’t that I was prentending to be Grant Fuhr or John Vanbiesbrouck or Ron Hextall when I played, but rather that I knew – like them – what it was like to make a fantastic save or let in a bad goal. We shared an emotional connection that only we, as goaltenders, could understand.

Perhaps our ability for empathy – or, perhaps, our desire to feel empathy for the sportsperson – makes certain sport heritage experiences both desirable and memorable.  One of my earliest memories of being at a sports museum was at the ski jump simulator at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Canada.  Using a point-of view immersive film screen, hydraulics, and several industrial-sized fans, the simulator gave me a taste of what it might be like to ski-jump, and provided me a level of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t have been possible by simply looking at the ski jump tower.  Of course, it was also a mediated form of authenticity – I could “ski jump” without actually ski jumping.  However, I never forgot that experience, nor could I ever forget the sensations and emotions it created.  It is also top of mind every time I watch ski jumping at the Olympics, knowing something of what each skier must be feeling.

Naturally, the ability to experience something of the athlete, particularly in a unique and historic place, is also one of the features that sets sport heritage apart. It can also be a way for visitors to create connections – such as fandom and support – with particular athletes, teams, and sports. Of course, all heritage sites – to some degree – use empathy by, for example, comparing our lives to those of our ancestors.  However, these are more cerebral connections; they are not immediate and current in the same ways that sport is, and perhaps not as sensually felt.  We often don’t think about empathy as a topic in heritage, and it seems that sport heritage might be a good vehicle for exploring it.

Sporting Sounds

As every academic has experienced, there are times when a publication that is potentially important to our research escapes our attention, particularly one that was released several years ago.  Such was the case this morning when my Twitter feed introduced me to the book, Sporting Sounds: Relationships Between Sport and Music edited by Anthony Bateman and John Bale.  The description of the text from the Routledge website:

Music and sport are both highly significant cultural forms, yet the substantial and longstanding connections between the two have largely been overlooked. Sporting Sounds addresses this oversight in an intriguing and innovative collection of essays.

With contributions from leading international psychologists, sociologists, historians, musicologists and specialists in sports and cultural studies, the book illuminates our understanding of the vital part music has played in the performance, reception and commodification of sport. It explores a fascinating range of topics and case studies, including:

  • The use of music to enhance sporting performance
  • Professional applications of music in sport
  • Sporting anthems as historical commemorations
  • Music at the Olympics
  • Supporter rock music in Swedish sport
  • Caribbean cricket and calypso music

From local fan cultures to international mega-events, music and sport are inextricably entwined. Sporting Sounds is a stimulating and illuminating read for anybody with an interest in either of these cultural forms.

I will admit, having just “discovered” the book today I do not yet know whether it is an insightful collection (though, given the reputation of the editors, I imagine it is fantastic!)  However, the subject of this book got me thinking about the relationship between music and sport heritage, and how this might be an overlooked topic in sport heritage research.

Anecdotally, I can think of many areas where music and sport heritage overlap.  Of course, the most obvious are national anthems that, particularly in North America and in most international competitions, are still part and parcel of the pre-game ritual.  The other that comes immediately to mind are the songs sung by fans at football matches which, of course, represent a kind of traditional knowledge.  The debate in Canada a few years back, where the traditional theme of Hockey Night in Canada (also known as Canada’s “other” national anthem) on CBC was changed, certainly demonstrates something of the sport heritage/music connection.  Heck, my friends and I used to bet when they’d play the ubiquitous song Cotton Eyed Joe at hockey games, so familiar was it to our sporting experiences.  Indeed, my former students at Clemson wax nostalgically about the rituals and meanings they associated with a song called “Zombie Nation“.  In short, I’m rather kicking myself something so obvious, and so clearly a part of the sport heritage experience as music, escaped my attention – though, I must admit that this “discovery” is rather exciting!  I guess I must open my ears as well as my eyes! 🙂

Sports, Recreation, and Christmas Day Traditions

As we approach the holiday season, I began thinking about the relationship between this time of year – in particular, Christmas Day – and sport/recreation traditions.  Unlike my post a few weeks back which looked at watching sports – either as a spectator or on television – as a holiday tradition, this time I am wondering about playing sports on Christmas Day and whether these have become important traditions for us.

Growing up in Canada, normally part our Christmas Day tradition as kids was playing hockey – either at a local outdoor rink or, often times, just road hockey out front of the house.  It wasn’t a particularly conscious tradition – this wasn’t watching a favourite Christmas movie every year or always having a particular meal on Christmas night – and, I suspect, these games were probably “strongly encouraged” by our weary parents looking for a bit of quiet.  Still, I remember them quite vividly – and, given that many other Canadian friends and family had similar hockey-related traditions on Christmas Day, I imagine that there were broader cultural connotations.  I also seem to recall that these Christmas Day hockey was a bit more egalitarian – that many more levels of ability were tolerated than at other times of year – though, of course, this may be nostalgia merging with memory.

Since moving to the South and, often, not having much family around on Christmas, I always take one of my dogs for a special Christmas walk through the Clemson University campus.  In some ways, these walks were echoes of the Christmas walks I would take in Edmonton in my 20s and 30s (sans dog back then), where I would enjoy the quiet, the lack of cars on the streets, and the peace.  Although I know these aren’t sport or necessarily recreation, at least in a structured sense, I guess they fall into something of an “active” Christmas tradition.  As my son gets older – he is starting to understand Christmas a little more each year – I wonder what Christmas traditions we might develop and whether they will reflect something our cultural environment.

In any event, I guess I’m wondering if you have a Christmas sport/recreation tradition, and whether you see it having any larger cultural meanings?

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Cultures of Play

I know very little about basketball.  Normally, this lack of knowledge does not hinder my professional life, even working in sport heritage research.  However, being on a basketball tour of Italy – as I am now with the Clemson men’s team – I have had to make a quick study of the sport and its nuances.  I have to admit, many of the cultural dynamics of the sport would have escaped me had it not been for the players describing the Italian style of play in cultural terms. To wit, they have been keeping travel journals as part of their coursework, and many have described how Italian basketball players and teams have a different “culture” in terms of how they play, and how this is one of the main differences that they have noted between Italy and the US.  For example, many of the players note that the Italian teams they have faced are very good outside shooters, and that they don’t play the same, inside aggressive style as US teams do.  Similarly, they said that the teams are quite good at passing, which is not as prevalent in US basketball.

Of course, there have also been some cultural adjustments that the players have had to face.  For example, in last night’s game just outside of Florence (which Clemson won handily 103-58) Clemson was called for travelling (or “walking” as the Clemson coaches call it – again, another reference that was foreign to me) 15 times.  As it was explained to me, this was in part because the rules – and the way they are called in Europe – differ from the way they are in the US.  Of course, this cultural difference was frustrating to the players and coaches, even though the knew they had to adjust to the local interpretation of the rule rather than vice-versa.

However, even for a hockey guy like me, there are some cultural traditions on this tour that are familiar.  For example, there is an exchange of gifts at the beginning of the match – which is very common in other international competitions – and the opposing teams have been posing for pictures with one another after the game (see below).  Last night, they even played the national anthems of the US and Italy – even though the game was held in a small gymnasium in front of, perhaps, 100 spectators.  

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Sport, Heritage, and Going Home

Home is important in both sport and heritage. Home-field advantage, for example, is one of the true-isms of sport.  In heritage, the homes of famous people or events can be a mark of distinction as well as a competitive marketing advantage for tourism.

The idea of home has also been adopted in sport heritage.  I have written more extensively about the sport/heritage/home connection here, but needless to say “home” often evokes strong impressions and emotions for followers of sport. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, for example, frequently uses home in terms of framing our connections to sport – most notably here in a love poem to the “homes” that connect baseball fans.

In terms of sport heritage, home is often seen as an extrinsic place – an institutionalized and codified location where one visits, perhaps a museum in the home town of a famous athlete, the location where a sport was said to be “born”, or the stadium of a world-renowned sports team. Because “home” is so powerful, evocative, and marketable, it is also a source for disputes and disagreements between rival “home” locations.

However, sport can also be one of those cultural touchstones that help define our personal or national identities, particularly when we are away from “home”. Sometimes, literally “going home” – whether it be returning to a home city, region, or country after a long spell away – often includes reconnecting with those sporting practices that helped to create and define our identity in the first place.

I think about what home, and sport, and heritage means to me as I return to my hometown and to my homeland tomorrow for a few weeks.  Living in a different country, not to mention in a region that has very strongly defined sport/cultural practices, has created some distance – both literal and emotional – from sport cultures that helped to define me.  Certainly, this has been mitigated through media mobilities – after all, one can now watch almost any sport from anywhere in the world, live.  However, there is something about reconnecting with my sports culture and my sports people in the places that we collectively hold dear that has me quite excited to return home again.