Why sport is an important topic for historical study

First published in History Review, 40 (September 2001), 26-27.

It is a common refrain that the two dates in English history that everybody schoolboy knows are 1066 and 1966. One event had a profound impact on the course of history in the British Isles while the other was just a football match. Yet soccer, like many sports, can be so much more than simply a game. It may not be more important than life or death, as the Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly once famously claimed, but it can be a window through which we can view society. When England won the World Cup in 1966, the nation as a whole was on a high. The Beatles were revolutionising popular music, the miniskirt was making London the fashion capital of the world, there was a popular and populist Labour government in power and the economy was on the up. England’s triumph at Wembley seemed to confirm a nation that had found its destiny again after the painful transition that followed World War II and the dissolution of the Empire. Since 1966, the World Cup win has become a symbol of a nostalgic nation trapped in past glories and trying to refind itself and its ‘rightful’ place in the world. The memory of the triumph may not last as long as William’s victory at Hastings but it remains a powerful illustration of the symbolic importance of sport and its place within English national identity.

Yet it is only relatively recently that sport has been appreciated as the stuff of serious history and even today it sometimes struggles for recognition in some of the more traditional echelons of the subject. Nonetheless, sport’s contribution to our understanding of history extends beyond both symbolic importance and entertaining, but essentially trivial, footnotes. Nor is sports history a matter of just looking at how sport reflects society. Sport itself is an active agent in the world we live in.

This is clear in sport’s close relationship with class. Definitions of social class are complex and the subject of much historiographical debate. Occupation alone is no longer thought to be an adequate explanation and historians have begun looking at culture’s role in shaping how people defined the class status of themselves and others. By the twentieth century participation in many sports could be demarcated along class lines. Rugby league owed its whole existence to the northern working class’s desire to be free from the amateurist ideals of the southern and middle-class rugby authorities. As such the sport came to represent part of working-class life in the north of England. Thus, like soccer, it helped define the class of those who played and watched it, both in their own eyes and those of onlookers. Other sports played similar roles in directly contributing to people’s understanding and experience eof class cultures. Golf in England, for example, was a sport of the middle class and its clubs were important social and business networks that conferred upon their members privilege and status within the local community.

Yet for the importance of class in society, sport also illustrates its limitations as a lens through which all aspects of history can be judged. As contemporaries were well aware, a successful sports team could bring together the classes in celebration of the achievements of their town or nation. Indeed, sport’s (at least temporary) ability to unite the local classes whilst dividing the wider masses made it the subject of Marxist derision and elite approval. This was clear in the 1920s when, amidst social and political unrest, large well-behaved and socially mixed football crowds were a reassuring sight to many.

It is only through addressing wider historical questions like class that sport can be accepted as part of the academic world. Sports history is now becoming a distinct subject in its own right complete with journals, conferences and even degree courses. Yet studying and writing about sports history is not always easy. It is often the case that learning about the mundane and everyday in history is more difficult that investigating the extraordinary. Sports history does not benefit from the large range of sources available to political or more conventional social historians. This has meant it is, perhaps overly, reliant on newspaper evidence. However much information has also be gleamed from oral evidence, company records of bankrupt clubs and the archives of teams, sports organisations, local schools and councils. Through such research we are now beginning to understand sport’s place in history.

Britain was the cradle of the sporting world. Through her Empire and trading links, British games and sports were taken across the globe. Football thus spread from the English public schools, where its first rules had been drawn up, to become the game of the European and South American working classes. After the English language, soccer is perhaps Britain’s most successful and important cultural export. Cricket became an imperial sport, not through a ruthless process of cultural implantation but the desire of the local elites to adopt the practices of their colonial overlords. The amateurist ideals of the modern Olympics were heavily influenced by the traditions of the British public schools. Even baseball, that most American of sports, has its roots in children’s games taken across the Atlantic by British settlers. Sport can not be ignored if we are to understand the global legacy of Britain’s former economic, political and cultural power and influence. Indeed, British fair play and her love of sport became part of how foreigners traditionally viewed these islands.

Even within Britain, sport has played an important part in shaping national identity. For the Welsh, Scottish and Irish, sport has played an important symbolic role in affirming their nationhood and equality with England. While the Scots and Welsh enjoyed cutting the English down to size at football and rugby, the Irish increasingly rejected these sports in favour of their own indigenous games which could be used to symbolise a separate, and non-British, cultural heritage. Cricket meanwhile encapsulated many of the ideals of English life: a rural, moral and civilised but competitive world where gentlemen (amateurs) and working men (professionals) played together but knew their respective and clearly demarcated places. Thus ‘it’s not cricket’ became a description in everyday speech of anything that was ‘not right’.

For women sport has been both a source of inequality and liberation. This is aptly illustrated by the fortunes of women’s football during and after World War I. The football teams made of factory and munitions girls were just one example of the new social and occupational opportunities that women enjoyed with so many men away at the front. Yet after the war, just as women found themselves encouraged to leave their jobs and return to home and duty, the Football Association grew worried at the popularity of women’s football and banned its playing at professional stadiums. The sport collapsed although its brief flowering had given its participants a brief opportunity for physical liberation.

The historian Jack Williams pointed out that more people may have attended religious services or the pictures but no single church or cinema could boast as many as attendees as a professional football match. As such, sport was an integral element of urban life across Britain. History must strive to capture what was important to the people who lived it. Sport, of course, does not matter to everyone in society either today or in the past. But the fact that it has been an important part of many people’s lives is reason alone to justify its historical study.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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