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  • On an American Study of Sports:A Conversation

Sports studies emerged in the United States as multiple fields belonging to separate disciplines—sports history, sociology of sport, sports media studies—but didn't until recently find an institutional home precisely where those disciplines converge, in American studies. Noah Cohan and others petitioned the American Studies Association to form the Sports Studies Caucus in 2011. It sponsored its first panels at the 2012 meeting in San Juan. The following is less a state of the field than a state of the fields, sports studies and American studies. We asked some of the leading scholars working at that intersection about the present and promise of an American study of sports.

Ahead of the 2014 American Studies Association meeting in Los Angeles, an editor at the LA Review of Books asked Lisa Duggan, that year's association president, about the state of the field. "When I was first thinking about disciplinary issues in the early '90s," the editor said, "I would have described American Studies as a department for boys who wanted to write about baseball!" Duggan laughed and answered that, while some American studies scholars might still write about baseball, most engaged with "black studies, ethnic studies, histories and politics of sexuality, in addition to more overtly political work on settler colonialism or on US relations with other parts of the world."

The exchange, which left the impression that the scholar of sports belonged to the field's fading conservative past, did not sit well with the newly formed ASA Sports Studies Caucus. Some members wrote responses. Some shrugged it off; they'd heard it before. Almost a decade later, how would you describe the position of sports studies in American studies? Of American studies in sports studies?

Lucia Trimbur:

I remember reading that interview and being disappointed that the critical, inventive, and deeply political work that sport studies scholars were undertaking was not only going unseen but also was considered unimaginable. Particularly, I was discouraged that the false dichotomy between sport studies [End Page 673] and "black studies, ethnic studies, histories and politics of sexuality" was reproduced by our association's president just as sport studies as an organized and energetic subfield within American studies was taking off.

Amy Bass:

The absurdity, of course, is that some of the very best takes on the subjects that define American studies was and is being done via the lens of sport. There is utterly nothing that we cannot have a conversation about, from gender to labor, race to ethnicity, and on and on and on, within sport frameworks. Sport is perhaps one of the best places to attack these things, unpack these things, and increasingly we have to defend that less and less. Sticking to sport, as sportswriters and athletes, scholars and students, who dare move past sport as an escape or a pastime, means talking about all of those things that Duggan (and [the LARB editor] Sarah Mesle) put on the table as important all those years ago.

Theresa Runstedtler:

The next year we did a cosponsored panel with ASA's Critical Prison Studies Caucus. And I recall being on that panel and folks in the audience expressing their surprise that we were asking the same questions. It didn't even enter their minds that sports studies might somehow intersect with and ask the same questions as critical prison studies. So I think that there was, and in some ways still is, a lot of misunderstanding about what we do.


That interview remains a marker, yes?

Noah Cohan:

Paradoxically, I think of that moment as the beginning of a real blossoming of the field. [Duggan's remark] could have been taken as a slight. But now I think back on it positively because the field has continued to grow so much since then.

Adrian Burgos Jr.:

Yeah, I think critical sports studies has moved quite a bit to center sport as a site to explore all kinds of issues about race, about identification, about power. And in so doing, a lot of the scholarship that's been produced has shown this richness. We're not just looking at the athlete; we...