Teaching With Sports

Today’s interview is the second in our two-part series with Dr. Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. Her first book, Not the Triumph, but the Struggle, one of the finest works on twentieth-century American history I have read, examines the “making of the black athlete” as a political, cultural, social, national, and international construct. It is not simply “sports history.” It is American history. Here are her answers for thinking about using sports in the US history classroom.
1) Harry Edwards long ago pointed out that sports is a microcosm of society. How could US historians more effectively include sports in their textbooks and survey lectures? Can you provide a short list of handy-dandy examples?
The example I always use is that of Jules Tygiel’s work on Jackie Robinson.  Robinson makes his minor league debut — which is the actual breaking of the color line — in 1946.  Think about it:  baseball desegregates almost a full decade before the Brown decision.  It’s on the news reels, in the newspaper, and followed by thousands of screaming fans.  The last team to desegregate — my beloved Boston Red Sox — will do so in 1959, four years before the March on Washington.  Baseball doesn’t solve questions of civil rights, but it is, I would argue, the most popular forum for Americans to begin to digest what desegregation looks like and — more importantly — what integration looks like.  The problems the players face, the questions the owners deal with, the spirits of the fans:  all of this contributes to an enormous cultural undertaking that enables Americans to really begin to wrap their heads around civil rights.  Now, is that something that should be contained only within a “sports history” class?  Absolutely not.  I teach it in my U.S. survey and I think everyone else should too.  You cannot teach the postwar period without Jackie Robinson.  Other examples, quickly?  The “Battle of the Sexes” between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King is the most dramatic portrayal of what the Equal Rights Amendment meant, and how the second wave of feminisms evolved.  Want to teach American views on fascism?  Take a look at Joe Louis and Max Schmeling’s bouts.  Want to understand Pan-Africanism, the Nation of Islam, the influence of Malcolm X, and how slogans such as “black is beautiful” came about?  Muhammad Ali (and that’s barely scratching the surface of what you can do with Ali.  Global capitalism?  His name is Michael Jordan.  Urban history?  Pick just about any sport in Chicago.  Labor history?  Meet Curt Flood.  The examples are seemingly endless.
2) One central moment in your book is the moment in the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the “black power” salute. Beyond the photograph, what is the best primary document to use in the classroom for that event?
It’s hard to even think about it beyond the photograph, isn’t it?  Such a powerful image.  Tommie gives Howard Cosell an interview afterwards that I think is really compelling television.  It was misquoted for years because of the way Harry Edwards transcribed it in his own book about the movement, but I went back to the original footage and found what Tommie actually said.  He describes his own interpretation of what everything symbolized.  I love having students look at the photograph, and then watch the actual footage of the moment, then the broadcasted version of it, and then the interview.  ALong the way, listening to what students think is occurring is fantastic, and then they get to digest what Tommie thinks is happening.  My favorite student comment occurred years ago — when I showed the photograph, the student, who had never seen it before nor heard of either athlete, thought is was a gesture of celebration.  He thought they were celebrating their medals, not condemning racism.  Pretty powerful.
3) What are the pitfalls for having students write about sports as part of US history?
Fandom.  Students want to write about what they love, which is great in terms of their energy, but then they lose sight of historically substantiating the bigger pictures.  I recently had a hockey nut in my seminar; there was nothing about hockey this kid didn’t know.  The research project focused on the “Miracle on Ice,” and the earliest draft of the paper focused entirely on the play-by-play.  Eventually, we got the Cold War in there, but it took a lot to get the student to look up from the ice.  You need the sports details, to be sure, because sports are a great narrative, filled  with world records and exciting figures and momentous events.  But you always need to make the connections.
4) Do you ever use your experiences with NBC as part of its Olympics coverage team when you teach?
It’s part of my knowledge base.  Absolutely.  The Olympics are something that cannot be fully understand without going.  So the numerous Games that I’ve been privileged to see, and the behind-the-scenes moments that I have experienced, have without question enhanced what I can bring to the classroom.  And I’m kind of an encyclopedia about a whole lot of Olympic minutiae.  Which never hurts.

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