- Rivals! The Ten Greatest American Sports Rivals of the 20th Century
Throughout his distinguished career, Richard O. Davies has illuminated the centrality of sports to American cultural history. America’s Obsession: Sports and Society since 1945 (1994) and Sports in American Life: A History (2007) overview the intimate relationship between sports and contemporary American society. Along more specific lines, Betting the Line: Sports Wagering in American Life (2001), which Davies co-authored with Richard G. Abram, examines the role gambling has played in establishing and solidifying sport’s significance. Davies’ most recent work, Rivals! The Ten Greatest American Sports Rivalries of the 20th Century enriches his oeuvre by offering accessible histories of America’s most heated sports rivalries—from Harvard and Yale’s football rivalry to the now almost century-long tension between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Building from his earlier works, Davies’ study investigates “the role that rivalries have played in making sports an integral part of our everyday lives” (p. xv).
The rivalries Davies chose will not surprise readers who possess a basic familiarity with American sports history. They include the Dodgers and the Giants, Duke and North Carolina basketball, the Bears and the Packers, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the Celtics and the Lakers, Ohio State and Michigan football, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. While the volume focuses on the “ten greatest” rivalries, it eschews the simplistic “top-ten” format that pervades popular sports media. Rather, Davies offers carefully-researched case studies that probe the “underlying events and traditions that have made prominent sports rivalries so compelling” (p. ix). In doing so, Davies’ chapters will enhance even the most expert fans and scholars’ understandings of these rivalries and how they developed.
Rivalries, as Davies displays throughout his study, do not merely concern wins and losses between competitors who are evenly matched or geographically proximate. They bring into focus competing cultures, values, and traditions. Furthermore, certain rivalries have helped to establish and enhance their respective sport’s popularity and to cement the status of particular individual as stars. Harvard and Yale’s rivalry assisted football’s development into a national sensation. Likewise, Evert and Navratilova’s rivalry brought women’s tennis into the national spotlight.
In the preface to Rivals! Davies offers a brief but provocative discussion of the qualities that mark sports rivalries and the differences between rivalries involving teams as opposed to those that concern individuals. I believe his book would be enriched significantly by providing a more detailed theoretical discussion of the sports rivalry as such, the factors that shape its construction, and the different subgenres of sports rivalries that exist. It would be instructive to consider the differences that mark rivalries involving different sports or the qualities that separate amateur from professional sports rivalries. Providing a [End Page 145] more detailed discussion of the characteristics and complexities that mark the sports rivalry would create a foundation from which other sports historians could probe deeper into the phenomenon and consider its historical, cultural, and political dimensions.
I also believe Rivals! would benefit from a detailed examination of the role mass media plays in shaping and intensifying sports rivalries. In several chapters Davies alludes to newspaper, magazine, and television reports that commented on the rivalries, but he does not explore how media help to create these rivalries and the immense profits they reap from them. To be sure, rivalries offer valuable plots and subplots through which match-ups between rivals are narrated. They also provide a foundation from which sports media create anticipation for contests involving rivals. Because so much of the sports media landscape is reliant on the existence of rivalries, I believe an investigation of media’s significant place within the phenomenon of the sports rivalry is warranted.
While Davies’ discussion would benefit from examinations of the rivalry as a cultural phenomenon and the role media play in constructing that phenomenon, the questions I raise only...