*There are four aspects of any society that are worth studying: political, economic, social, and cultural. Three of these have been covered historically and will continue to receive attention in the future. The oddity in that group is culture.
While there will always be books written about presidents, embargoes, and boycotts, works of art are more likely to be appreciated without the extended reflection as to what aspect of society they illustrate. And of all forms of culture, sport is the least appreciated.
Professional sports are among the latest iterations of American culture. Having originated a little over a century ago with a mostly working class labor force, sports were not the arena of society’s decision makers. Hence looking to sports for statements about politics or economics was fruitless.
Similarly because American culture of the nineteenth century was still dependent to a large extent on European trends, sports were somewhat disconnected from mainstream culture and were not especially noteworthy in that context.
But examined from another perspective sports can be a fertile ground for examining the changes in American culture and society. At the turn of the twentieth century the new sport of basketball was originally conceived as a game to keep men fit in the winter season as a counter to the perceived “softness” of an increasingly urbanized population.
The rise of two professional baseball leagues and the cities that supported these leagues reflected the migratory patterns of the early twentieth century. The universal affect of the Cold War in the 1950s could be seen in sports as women African Americans used the national ideal of a meritocracy in contrast to the perceived Soviet tyranny to argue for integration of professional athletics. And the 1970s and 1980s saw the proliferation of tennis and basketball sneakers partly due to the emergence of the sporting apparel company Nike.
In each of these examples American sports reflected the mood of the country as a whole and in the case of integration, Jackie Robinson’s first season in 1947 predated by seven years the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
Sports are often seen as frivolous activities of no value beyond short term entertainment. But they are also highly indicative of trends in American society and as such deserve more serious study and consideration as reflective of society.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War and he maintains a blog called This Seems Familiar. You can reach him at [email protected]