- Sport, Popular Culture, and the Future: Some Commentary
I was rather flattered and humbled by Murray Phillips’ invitation to act as a keynote commentator for the eighteenth Sporting Traditions conference, held by the Australian Society for Sports History at Kingscliff, New South Wales, in July of 2011, around the theme “The Past in The Present: Sport History and Popular Culture.” My humility—and not a little trepidation—were partly the result of the standing of the keynote speakers, and partly because of my own, now rather tenuous connections with sports history. I was barely encouraged when I read the opening lines in the published version of Phillips’ commentary on the same conference two years previous, as Phillips opened with the hardly reassuring statement that “I have always found commentaries difficult exercises. They are difficult because commentators have to respond quickly to work people may have taken months to write: so you want to do that work justice, but you are not afforded the time to mull over their arguments, positions or their assessments of specific issues.” Phillips goes on to detail other difficulties—the time between receiving the papers and commentating, the state of readiness of the papers (from series of notes through to papers that are almost ready to publish) and the fact that speakers often depart from their script.
The organizers of the conference and the keynote speakers kindly spared me as many of these difficulties as they could. The papers were all well-written, were delivered to me in [End Page 57] plenty of time, and the speakers tended to stick to their scripts. Nonetheless, I found commentating challenging as I faced some of the difficulties that Phillips experienced, and a few that I suspect were my own. There was inevitably a cross over and overlap between the keynote speakers, who wrote their papers in different ways, so in some cases the keynote speakers addressed similar themes under different headings. Moreover, the keynotes were organized in an unusual way—rather than having one keynote for each day of the conference, the organizers experimented with each keynote speaking for about twenty minutes on each of the three days of the conference. So all speakers spoke to a theme of “Sport History and the Incorporation of Popular Culture” on day one of the conference, to “Specific Intersections between Sport History and Popular Culture” on the day two, and to “Sport History, Popular Culture and Public Intellectuals” on day three. The neat division into three different popular culture themes, one for each day, was perhaps inevitably going to get rather more blurred than the organizers might have initially hoped—and this would present its own challenges for a commentator. There were also some serious gaps and limitations in my own knowledge and reading given that I am very much at the edges of sports history, and certainly not a full-time practitioner in the field.
However, my marginal status and standing in the sports history field also had its advantages—and perhaps this was one reason why the organizers saw fit to invite me. I used to work primarily in sports history, a field in which I had my first publications, and my later work on the construction of masculine ideologies in Australia’s elite secondary schools for boys in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took the organization of sport, and its investment with an array of moral and character-building qualities, as a central theme.2 I have maintained some connection with the field, I play and follow and read sport, and over the course of the conference I attempted to draw together some of the themes of the different keynotes, to offer a few comments and to suggest some points for further discussion, both in the discussion time following the keynotes, and among the sport history community more generally in the conference’s wake.
What follows departs only to marginal degrees from what I said at the conference. The changes flow primarily from alterations that the keynote speakers have made to their papers between the spoken and written versions but also reflect some refinements in my own thinking. My comments are not intended in...