- Introduction:New Directions in Kentucky Sport History
While few can doubt the outsized importance of sports in American culture, sport history was virtually ignored as a field of academic study for most of the twentieth century. Sport seemed one of the more trivial aspects of society: it was the "toy department of life," according to sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. The growing emphasis on social history in the 1970s and 1980s led to a burst of creative energy in the field of sport history, but there remained an implicit and sometimes explicit defensiveness in much of the early literature in the field. Yet, as the field has grown in size and scope, sport historians have demonstrated that it provides a useful, and in some ways unparalleled, means of exploring political, social, and economic configurations, cultural expression, and hierarchies of race and gender dominance. Any human activity that has commanded the attention of huge audiences across time and across cultures is, by definition, a worthy field of study. The power of sports to attract collective focus and stir human passions has grown dramatically over the course of the modern era, as has its power to change the relations of individuals to their societies and to one another. The symbiotic relationship between mass media and spectator sports was established in the late nineteenth century, and this has only grown in scope with the qualitative and quantitative expansion of the media landscape from print to electronic to digital. For the present, anyway, there is no end in sight.
Jackie Robinson's desegregation of baseball was clearly a landmark [End Page 461] event in U.S. history, the annual spectacle of the Super Bowl speaks to who we are as a society and culture, and the Olympic Games and World Cup are events of global political, cultural, and economic significance. Spectator sports with mass audiences are clearly worthy subjects for the historian's focus, but sporting practices rooted in communities the world over provide other rich avenues of historical analysis. The competitive and non-competitive sporting pastimes of diverse human communities reflect value systems that often thrive in the interstices of a hegemonic culture.
Sport thus offers a means of examining the sources and expressions of cultural power. It is a form of mass entertainment that both reflects and helps to shape the values of any society, past or present. Like such scripted forms as television, movies, and popular music, sport is an expression of social power and cultural values, but unlike them, sporting competition is unscripted. The passion and excitement of the arena is not a product of a filmmaker's artistry; the physical struggle of competition is real, as are the injuries. Both elite athletes and their fans experience the joys of winning and the pain of losing. They both share in the fleeting moments when a world record performance transcends previous human limits. A dramatic seventh game in a championship series and a Tuesday night game between two mid-major college basketball teams are each genuine in a way that is unmatched in any other form of mass entertainment.
While sport holds no attraction for many, untold millions find no other form of entertainment that touches their spirit as deeply. Others find in sport an expression of group identity, especially marginalized groups who have used sport to challenge existing hierarchies of power. However, the fundamental reality of competition is true for those who compete at a much lower level or for those who compete only against their personal limitations. This was true for women in the early twentieth century who dared to play baseball or ice hockey, African American community groups who sponsored baseball leagues in the Jim Crow South, an ordinary worker who through-hikes the Appalachian Trail, or a weekend fitness enthusiast who builds her [End Page 462] strength and endurance in order to face the challenge of a triathlon. They all find something in sport that they can find in no other human endeavor, and historians have produced valuable scholarship on these and myriad other athletic activities.
In this age of transnational and global history, there are still valuable perspectives to be gained by focusing on a...