Reflections from Boise
Or, in defense of sports trivia.
At the recent annual conference of the North American Society for Sport History, an important figure in the field stood up and shared a story. He spoke about a visit to his old university’s chancellor’s house, where he had been invited for dinner. This professor said that, when asked what he researched, he responded that he studied sport history. The chancellor, visibly excited, launched into the story of a favorite sports memory, in this case a playoff baseball game from childhood. The professor responded that that was not really history, but trivia. His department was soon shuttered by the university.
This story marks an encounter that has likely been experienced in some way by all who study sport. The script goes as follows: you’re asked what you do by a new acquaintance. You quickly need to make a decision. Do you say you’re a sport historian and put up with the other person peppering you with questions, and telling you about their own extensive experience with sport (or better yet, saying that their child, significant other, relative, or friend would be perfect for such a career). Or maybe you go with the more general ‘kinesiology,’ hoping the term to be vague and intimidating enough to prevent you from having to explain any more about how you spend your days. Both of these are reasonable courses to take. After spending all day thinking and talking about sport, surely no one wants to continue to do that with those that don’t think about it the same way that you do. The knowing chuckle that spread through the room following the above professor’s anecdote proves as much.
But I would suggest we’re thinking about this in the wrong way. The fact that people hear ‘sport,’ and think our work to be approachable is not a burden; it is an asset. And as the field continues to search for footing in the shifting landscape of higher education, it is moreover an asset that we cannot afford to ignore. People already care about sport in a way they never will about plenty of other subjects. Instead of turning up our noses at their interest, we should lean in, engage with those outside the field (and outside academia), and show that that sport is even more important than they already think it is.
I am not suggesting that if the professor had engaged with the chancellor’s passionate retelling that his department might have been saved. But his story works as a convenient enough fable with a clear warning. Opportunities like those are valuable moments to prove the importance of the field to those outside it. Why not appreciate the chancellor’s excitement at the prospect of having someone to talk sports with, and recommend a baseball history book that covers the team or season they’re reminiscing about? Very few fields of study could hope to spark such feelings of excitement at the very mention of their topic. An endocrinologist or anthropologist would likely kill for the very experience that sport scholars dread. If we want our subfield to grow, and to matter, we must cultivate that spark of excitement that others hear at the mention of sport history. We must resist the urge to dismiss their recollections and experiences as trivial. We must engage.