Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game! Martin Johnes Explores Why Sport Is an Important Topic for Historical Study. (New Agendas)

By Johnes, Martin | History Review, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game! Martin Johnes Explores Why Sport Is an Important Topic for Historical Study. (New Agendas)


Johnes, Martin, History Review


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 that the nation 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 redefine 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 in the last 20 years that sport has been appreciated as the stuff of serious history and even today it struggles for recognition in some of the more traditional echelons of the subject. Nonetheless, sport's contribution to our understanding of the past 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.

CLASS AND HISTORY

Sport has a 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 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 of 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 sport also illustrates the limitations of class 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. …

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