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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.

Philadelphia

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time.  The reason for my visit was a brief get-together with my older brother, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  We don’t get a chance to see each other very often these days, and Philadelphia was a short, non-stop flight for both of us to meet up, have a couple of beers, and watch a sporting event or two.

Before I get to the sport heritage part of the trip, I have to say that Philadelphia is a great city!  I was only there for a few days, mind you, and I was staying at a VRBO in the “old city” about three blocks from the Independence Hall World Heritage Site.  That said, I found it a very walkable city with some some really neat neighbourhoods, great museums (I wish I could have visited more of them), and good food and drink.  The people we met there were “authentic” – as convoluted as that word is.  They didn’t put on airs, I guess, and I imagine had we pissed them off, they’d tell us so.  In general, when we told people we were from out of town, they were glad we visited, gave us a bit of friendly advice (like – if you’re going to an Eagles game, cheer for the Eagles…even if you like the other team), and generally let us be.  Was rather refreshing, actually.

However, one cannot partake in a sports trip to Philadelphia without noticing that city’s sport heritage is very prominent.  Even in the city centre, steps away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, was an advertisement for a recent baseball exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History:

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Of course, I wrote recently about the tension that (appears) to exist between the city’s “real” sport heritage and its fictionalized portrayals.  However, one cannot escape that the sporting past plays a huge role in the city’s current identity.

The city has a quasi-“arena district” just outside of the city centre that houses the baseball stadium, football stadium, and hockey/basketball arena, with a kind-of bar/entertainment facility called Xfinity Live.  Now, the arena district is, basically, the three venues, the bar facility, and parking lots.  However, it is the city’s sport heritage that gives the district a sense of place.  Xfinity Live, for example, is on the one-time site of the Spectrum, long-time home of the NHL Flyers and NBA 76ers. Inside the venue, the Spectrum is remembered…in bar form:

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The heyday of the Philadelphia Flyers are also recalled at Xfinity Live (and, also in bar form).  The Flyers were known as the “Broad Street Bullies” during the 1970s, as the team was known for their aggressive style of play, and so fans can now soak-in the nostalgia at a Flyers-themed pub:

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Around Xfinity Live are statues of ex-players, such as 76ers player “Dr. J” – Julius Erving.  Perhaps most interesting was the statue of long-time anthem singer at the Spectrum, Kate Smith:

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Smith’s rendition of God Bless America was a bit of a talisman for Philadelphia teams, particularly the Flyers.  Whenever she sang, the Flyers almost always won.  After she passed away, the Flyers used to show a video of her singing, particularly if they really needed a victory:

We managed to go to a Flyers game and Eagles game during our stay.  The Flyers arena, the Wells Fargo Center, is about 20 years old, so it doesn’t have a lengthy history.  That said, there were a few reminders of the Flyers glorious past, as well as some displays honouring past players – including the late, great Pelle Lindbergh, who was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in the mid 1980s until he died in a car crash at age 26:

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The Flyers game itself was fantastic, with the home team holding on for a 4-3 victory versus the Colorado Avalanche:

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The Eagles game was played on the day before Veterans Day, so the patriotism was particularly prominent before game time:

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The game itself was a bit of a laugher, as the Eagles beat the visiting Carolina Panthers 45-21.  While I’m a Panthers fan, I did root for the Eagles – I think I may have only spotted one other Panthers fan, and I imagine he might have received his fair share of abuse during the game.  Eagles fans REALLY love the Eagles:20141110_205158

Great trip, all in all, but it did also got me thinking about a couple of heritage/sport heritage items and issues:

  • Legitimacy and commodification: The city has a remarkable sport heritage – in part, perhaps, because they have a notable and lengthy sport history.  The breadth and depth of the city’s sporting past gave the heritage markers legitimacy and, I suppose, made them more more apt to be commodified (in bar form and otherwise).  In other words, the city’s sport history made its sport heritage more recognizable, gave it greater resonance, and made it easier to sell to a broad-base of fans.
  • Different sports generating more/fewer sport heritage markers: It seemed that, at least to my eye, that the Flyers seem to have cornered the market on sport heritage markers in Philadelphia – or, at least in the arena district.  Despite the presence of the Phillies and Eagles stadiums – and the likelihood that both the baseball and football teams have more support than the hockey team – most of the heritage, from the bars to the displays to the statues, were hockey-based.  Not sure if it is down to ownership of places like Xfinity Live, or if the Flyers have just done a better job of using heritage in marketing, or if fans are just more nostalgic about the Flyers than the Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers.
  • Heritage retail: As far as I know, there hasn’t been much done on heritage retail.  That is to say, either retail stores that sell heritage products (in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin is a commodity), or shopping districts, stores, or eateries that are meant to look “olde timey.”  Philadelphia has heritage retail in spades, and I wonder whether it might be a good case study.
  • Public/private heritage spaces: Not sport heritage, but the Independence Mall area of Philadelphia has a curious blend of public and private run heritage attractions/retail, etc.  That is to say, it is somewhat unclear at times whether a space is public (that is to say, publicly operated through the National Parks Service) or Private (either as a CVB, museum, gift shop, or other heritage attraction).  At times, the aesthetic of the attractions and employees are so similar (and, at times, the spaces are so intermingled) that it is not always clear who runs what, and to what end.

Heritage and the NFL

You may have noticed that the NFL has faced a few issues (mostly of their own doing) the last few weeks.  Some of the issues are explicitly about heritage – such as the nickname of the Washington team – while others have little or nothing to do with heritage, such as player safety, off-field player conduct, and transparency about the NFL’s disciplinary procedure (particularly how these procedures are handled by the league’s commissioner).  The interesting thing to notice will be how heritage is used going forward to as a way of addressing these issues – or, alternately, distracting from them.

On the surface, heritage hasn’t seemed to be a major part of the NFL.  Although at a franchise level, heritage might be mobilized for a variety of reasons from establishing a history and legacy to selling tickets a products, NFL heritage hasn’t been a large part of how the league is positioned, at least in comparison to MLB and the NHL who are quite explicit using their past as a product (the NBA might utilize it’s past even less than the NFL, though that is a different blog for a different time).  There are certainly elements of NFL heritage that are used, such as the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio that kicks off the pre-season schedule, the NFL Films retrospectives, and some teams (such as the Chicago Bears) that use retro jerseys, but by and large the NFL is about today and tomorrow and the draft and next season, and not so much about the past.

However, it appears that heritage is now on the radar a bit more than before.  Mid-September to mid-October is Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL, a program instituted a few years ago seemingly to both recognize the contribution of Hispanic players, coaches, and media as well as broaden the appeal of the NFL to Hispanic-Americans.  A recent set of ads asks fans to send videos about how football is a part of their identity, and how it helps connect them to others – a kind-of existential authenticity/heritage narrative.  Franchises have also incorporated heritage in new stadium amenities and design, most notably the San Francisco 49ers team museum at their new stadium.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the NFL use heritage more than it has in the past.  As we know, heritage is often used when a site or tradition or way of life is under threat.  Certainly, the Washington name controversy has generated heritage discussions, particularly in the case of fans citing team traditions and personal heritage affiliations in support of the maintenance of the team name.  However, at a league-level, might the NFL draw more substantially on its past to remind (or, perhaps, distract) from its current controversies?  For example, next year is the 50th Super Bowl – might the league have a year-long celebration of itself, particularly if some of the issues from the past few seasons carry over to next year?  Could the NFL do something akin to the NHL’s Winter/Heritage Classic, and remind fans of the “roots” of the game as a way of muting these issues and reminding fans what they might lose?  Might there be more programs similar to the Hispanic Heritage month, recognizing the contributions of a particular people while also creating a narrative that the NFL is and has always been a source of social change (similar to Jackie Robinson Day and the Civil Rights Game in MLB)?  Of course, whether the NFL has ever been a source of social change is highly debatable, but that is hardly the point.  After all, heritage is a tool meant to address any number of contemporary needs and circumstances.  As such, it will be fascinating to see how the NFL uses this tool this season and in the seasons to come.

Sport Heritage on the Radio

Last Friday, I talked sport heritage on The Jason Strudwick Show on TSN 1260 Radio in Edmonton, Canada. Jason is a former National Hockey League player, having played over 600 games for several teams – including the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks – before retiring in 2012.

Jason and I talked a bit about The Sport Heritage Review website and how I came to be involved in sport heritage.  We discussed the transference of sport heritage from one venue to another, a topic discussed in several research papers including Belanger’s study about the Molson Centre in MontrealGammon and Fear’s study of the tours of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and my study (along with Gammon and Huang) of borrowed heritage at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. On more of a nostalgia front, Jason and I briefly reminisced about our shared hockey past, as we were teammates in minor hockey about 25 years ago.  It was a fun chat, and I hope Jason and I get to gabbing again sometime soon.

In any event, the interview is about 15 minutes long and in two parts. The links for each part of the interview are below.  Happy listening!

Part #1(Interview begins at approximately the 43 minute mark)

Part #2 (Interview continues for approximately 10 minutes at the beginning of the hour)

 

Sports Beach Books

I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature.  Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise.  Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book.  Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class.  Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list.  You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.”  Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective.  Some are very well known, others are a little obscure.  In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.

The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often.  I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book.  Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue.  Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications makes sports gambling an international phenomenon.  While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results.  And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.

Open by Andre Agassi – Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read.  It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.

Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later.  This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom.  And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)

Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs – If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of Terry Sawchuk, one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures, is well worth a read.  There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.

Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini – Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe.  As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.

The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.

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A Brief Note on Sports, Holidays, Television, and Traditions

As we enter the Thanksgiving holidays here in the US, I got to thinking about how certain sports or sporting events are associated with holidays and how watching these games – or even having them on in the background – is a traditional part of holiday festivities.

Of course, Thanksgiving in the US means a slate of NFL football games, and having the TV tuned to whichever game(s) might be on is as integral a part of Thanksgiving as having yams and turkey to eat. Here at Clemson, the Thanksgiving weekend seems to always be when the rivalry game between our Tigers the the University of South Carolina Gamecocks takes place, though the TV tradition doesn’t seem to be as strong as the Thursday NFL games – however, in terms of college football, the many bowl games (and, in particular, the Rose Bowl) on New Years Day tends to be traditional television viewing.  The NHL is trying to start a Thanksgiving/television tradition with a game on Friday afternoon of the weekend, though it remains to be seen whether this “tradition” takes hold. I seem to recall that Boxing Day (December 26) in the UK is strongly associated with going to football or rugby matches – though, I don’t know to what extent television plays a role in that tradition.  Being from Canada, the World Junior Hockey Championships are synonymous with the Christmas holidays, as I can recall many Christmas mornings having a Team Canada game on in the background from Helsinki or Riga or Moscow as we opened presents from under the tree.

It seems that many of these sport/television traditions are during the winter months, and perhaps are not the focus of attention either – as I say they are often part of the background but, I would suggest, they would be noticeable by their absence.  It would be kind of strange not having football on in the background at a Thanksgiving Day feast.

In any event, I am wondering what other sporting events might be considered traditional and associated with both watching the game on television – perhaps with family and friends – and particular holidays?

EDIT: Of course, I completely forgot about all of the NBA games on Christmas Day and the NHL’s Winter Classic outdoor game on New Years Day.

Latest Research – Acquired Pasts and the Commodification of Borrowed Heritage: The Case of the Bank of America Stadium Tour

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest journal article, “Acquired Pasts and the Commodification of Borrowed Heritage: The Case of the Bank of America Stadium Tour.”  The article was co-authored with Dr. Sean Gammon of the University of Central Lancashire and Dr. Wei-Jue Huang of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and is published in the Journal of Sport & Tourism.

From the abstract:

Contemporary understandings of heritage and heritage tourism have viewed heritageas more than just tangible objects and places but also the social values and practices associated with things and places of heritage. As such, sports heritage venues often emphasize the history of the sport or the team to sustain the legacy of the place and create a meaningful experience for the visitors. However, stadiums that are relatively new lack the recognizableheritage that could be incorporated into their stadium tour narratives. To understand different forms of heritage construction, this study examines tours of the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, home of the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League (NFL). Being a stadium with little history, its tour narratives are not rooted in the heritage of the venue itself but rather in the more intangible traditions, language, and rituals of NFL fandom. In particular, the stadium tour espouses the identity, experience and performance of being an NFL fan, providing patrons an opportunity to not only reflect on their past spectator experiences, but also to create new personal/collective heritage through continued consumption. In addition, the tour borrows heritage from other NFL-based heritage markers in order to reinforce the authenticity of the location and experience, seemingly until such time that the facility and team can establish a recognizable and commodifiable homegrown’ heritage.

A limited number of article e-prints are available via the link here.