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Gerald Gems discusses the history of sport, current issues, and future challenges

Interview with Gerald R. Gems, PhD, coauthor of Sports in American History.


How has U.S. sport developed differently from other countries, and what are the main reasons for those differences?

Much of US sport is derived from origins in England. Colonial sport started to divulge from its English origins in that there were less legal prohibitions on hunting due to an abundance of game. Religious restrictions on sport and gambling could not be maintained in America; and Americans had to adapt their sporting interests. They did so by using quarterhorses initially for racing instead of costly thoroughbreds and  creating specialized sites that became commercialized ventures, leading to professionalism among athletes (contrary to British perceptions of the amateur gentleman). Americans further transformed British sports, opting for baseball instead of cricket, and football instead of soccer, as well as inventing new sports like basketball and volleyball.

The American organization of sport is vastly different from the European models of sport for all. Whereas Europeans devote most of their attention to sport and recreational practices for the entire population, American sport is largely centered in its school systems, and only the best athletes are selected for interscholastic and intercollegiate teams, which serve as training grounds for the professional leagues. European sports are centered in neighborhood or communal clubs with a variety of teams for different age groups.

How do you keep students engaged in studying sport history? What do you find is the most engaging topic or aspect for undergraduate students pursuing careers in a variety of areas?

I have students write their own sport history, tracing their family tree through their ancestors to see how sport has developed and affected their own lives and to gain a greater perception of how sport has changed over time. In the process they gain a greater historical context for the role of sport in society. Readings and class discussions often show how current problems and issues, such as labor disputes between players and owners, are not new, but recurring events that require a greater knowledge of social, historical, economic, and political factors.

What recent events do you think will have the greatest historical impact in the U.S. and across the globe?

The Olympic movement, doping issues, the global migration of athletes, and the ongoing quest for market dominance by leagues and governing bodies will continue to affect sport for many years to come.

What are the biggest challenges facing the field of sport history in the next several years?

The proliferation of sport history organizations, college courses, and sports journals have to some extent diluted true scholarship within the field.  Sport histories are still largely directed at a popular, commercial market. The continuing theoretical clash between postmodern approaches and traditional methodology will not soon be resolved.

Can you please describe your focus and experiences while working under the Fulbright Senior Specialist grant at the University of Copenhagen? What have been the most exciting/valuable aspects of this opportunity?  

As a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Copenhagen I gave lectures in a variety of classes, convened with the pedagogy staff to discuss the state of research in the United States, and discussed cultural similarities and differences with students and staff. Students are very interested in American culture and had me teach American sports to them.

The Danes are very gracious hosts and I had many opportunities for dinners, parties, and daily exchange as well as traveling throughout Denmark and other European countries to experience other cultures. On the professional level I worked with a Danish professor to co-author a journal article.

You were recently interviewed for documentaries on the development of American football, the 1924 Olympics, and swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Do you see a similarity in these three films in terms of what sport means to societies?

There are some similarities in that sport can serve as a common bond that unifies disparate groups within a society. In both professional and college sports, teams generate civic or regional pride, in some cases, religious pride in schools such as Notre Dame or Brigham Young, etc.

Ethnic heroes such as Weissmuller draw marginal or hyphenated Americans into the mainstream culture by generating a perception of inclusion. International and global events such as the Olympics transfer local or regional identities to a greater sense of nationalism and patriotism. The danger in that transition is that nativism and ethnocentrism can disturb and even disrupt harmonious relationships with other countries.  In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras fought a war precipitated by a soccer game. Throughout the Cold War the Olympic Games served as a surrogate war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gerald R. Gems, PhD, is an international scholar and the author and editor of 8 books and more than 125 publications. He currently is a professor in health and physical education at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. Gems serves on the Executive Council and Scientific Committee of the International Society for History of Physical Education and Sport and is a past president of the North American Society for Sport History. He has been the book review editor of the Journal of Sport History since 1996.

Dr. Gems was awarded the Fulbright Senior Specialist Award for 2007 to 2012 and was an Illinois Roads Scholar in history from 1999 to 2003. He earned his PhD in sport history at the University of Maryland.

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