British Sports History

Robert Colls rises to the challenge of arguing the case for sports history as a serious academic subject, digging deep into its beginnings in the 1960s and winning with a wealth of scholarly works and skilled rhetoric.

Frank Hudspeth carries the FA Cup after Newcastle United's win against Aston Villa in 1924. Topical Press Agency / Getty ImagesUnlike its European and American counterparts, the rise of British sports history as an academic subject in the 1960s came out of social history and theory, not physical education and sports science. That said, the most ambitious works were decidedly left field – Huizinga's Homo Ludens (1938) came out of cultural linguistics, Elias' The Civilizing Process (1939) out of sociology, economics, and psychotherapy and Guttmann's From Ritual to Record (1978) out of literature, history and American studies. With no clear theoretical lead, British social scientists could be found strapping sports history into hard-boned theories (Marxist, Functionalist or Figurationist) that did not always fit – though Dunning's and Sheard's Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (1979) was influential and deserves a prize for trying. Wray Vamplew's Pay Up and Play the Game (1988) introduced the Utility Maximisation Hypothesis, which was interesting, while Neil Tranter's Sport, Economy and Society (1998) sought to answer some of the big sociological-historical questions and did well by both disciplines. On the other hand, there was Desmond Morris' The Soccer Tribe (1981) that zoolo-anthropologised sport.

The social historians preferred specific events and established chronologies. James Walvin was first with The People's Game: The Social History of British Football (1975). I can remember the cries of 'folly' that followed the young Walvin as he tried to win the interest of York University's history department. After all, here was a man who had done his doctorate in a proper subject (popular radicalism) wasting his time (and his youth) on Manchester United. Forty years on, the book is still in print. Tony Mason's Association Football and English Society followed in 1981, while Tony Mangan brought the middle classes into sports history in the same year with his study of public school athleticism. But the ground for academic British sports history was really cleared with Dai Smith and Gareth Williams' Fields of Praise (1980), a 'deep' history of the Welsh, and with Richard Holt's Sport and the British (1989), a sweeping work which showed historians how to think about sport and how to cast it into the mainstream. In this context, we cannot signpost sports history without pointing to Keith Thomas' 'Work and Leisure in Pre-Industrial Society' (Past & Present, 1964), R.W. Malcolmson's Popular Recreations in English Society (1973), Gareth Stedman Jones' 'Working Class Culture and Working Class Politics 1870-1900' (Journal of Social History, 1974) and Ross McKibbin's Classes and Cultures (1998).

Since Holt, the subject has grown into a small but distinctive corner of British university teaching, with its journals (Sport in History and International Journal of the History of Sport), its teaching manuals (such as Booth's The Field, Polley's Sport History and Cronin's Oxford VSI) and its societies (the British Society for Sports History). See R W Cox's immense bibliographical labours to track this growth, Pascal Delheye's attempts to make sense of it and Jeff Hill's reinterpretation of it as a form of people's representation. The subject is so confident these days it can even ask 'What's the point of Sports History?' (Martin Johnes, IJHS, 2013). Britain's only dedicated Sports History department was founded in 1996 at De Montfort University in Leicester, where it continues to flourish. Last year it launched the first BA in Sports History and Culture.

Meanwhile, Ramachandra Guha reversed the batting order in 2002 with his Indian history of an English sport, Corner of a Foreign Field. Emma Griffin pushed back the boundary in 2005 with her fine early modern study, England's Revels and Mike Cronin's indefatigable work on Irish identity found a rich sporting vein in his work on the GAA. But all in all it has proved difficult for sports historians to spot the 'mainstream' let alone figure a way in. Tony Collins' rugby histories (League in 1998, Union in 2009) found a way in, somewhat, as did Simon Inglis' Engineering Archie (2005) and Mason's and Riedi's Sport and the Military (2010). Ina Zweiniger Bargielowska's Managing the Body (2010) and Neil Carter's Medicine, Sport and the Body (2012) showed how far the sporting body could stretch into other subjects.

By and large sports historians have remained true to their social history instincts by concentrating on mass activities. Football has predominated. No sooner had Matt Taylor and Adrian Harvey brought the British story to a fine scholarly pause by 2007, than David Goldblatt reminded everybody that the journalists were still a force with his global history The Ball is Round, a work not likely to be bettered in my lifetime. His The Game of Our Lives followed in 2014, a bold run into the crowded area of English national identity that started with a long pass from Dave Russell's Football and the English in 1997.

Sports history is on the up at a time when sport itself is on the down. The British, it seems, are world-beating Olympians who suffer from record-beating levels of obesity, while the Premier League and Sky Sports has achieved the impossible by turning football into shopping. Tony Collins' Sport in a Capitalist Society (2013) gets it exactly right in this respect and sports historians are going to have to widen their remit to deal with it. If modern celebrity is a kind of fool's paradise, sporting celebrity is a living media death played over and over again.

For sports history's one perhaps irredeemable fault is that it is taught and written by fans. There are exceptions (some mentioned here) but, unlike the political historians who do not feel obliged to love politicians, or the religious historians whose belief is not presumed, sports historians are believers. While the old challenges are being dealt with – such as Jean Williams on football and Kasia Boddy on boxing – the next challenge comes from within: the fan, the supporter, the partisan, the white guy in the chair who secretly wants to be the man on the ball.

Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, Leicester.