Sports history: outside of the mainstream? A response to Ward’s ‘Last Man Picked’ 

MATTHEW L. McDOWELL

Abstract

This essay is a response to Paul Ward’s piece ‘Last man picked. Do Mainstream Historians Need to Play with Sports Historians’ (The International Journal of the History of Sport (2012), doi:10.1080/09523367.2012.726617). While Ward admits that his work is a polemic, and is inspired largely by events in his youth, this response nevertheless questions the decision to critique an entire sub-discipline based on childhood experiences. Ward’s criticisms, however, are also practice-based, and this response also critically examines the lack of fresh evidence to support Ward’s claims regarding sports history’s existence outwith mainstream historical academia, and its supposed privileged place within the wider world of leisure history. The author makes that case that not only does sports history to take part in a wider historical dialogue, but must necessarily look to engage with sports studies practitioners. Finally, in the face of Ward’s criticisms, this essay reiterates what makes sport a vital subject for historians, in regional, national and international contexts.

(This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, ‘Sports history: outside of the mainstream? A response to Ward’s “Last Man Picked”’, The International Journal of the History of Sport 30 (1) (February 2013): 14-22. There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.)

Introduction

Professor Paul Ward’s adjoining essay is an intriguing addition to existing historiographical debate on sports history, largely because it comes from far outside the immediate fraternity. In his professional career, Ward has not been isolated from sports history, either as a lecturer or as a doctoral supervisor, and he is entitled to voice his opinions not only of what he views as sports history’s weaknesses, but his own personal preferences. From the sound of it, he has genuine grounds for not enjoying sport, either as a leisure activity, or as a profession, and he is gracious enough to admit the strengths of studying sport’s history, especially in the context of identity. Whether or not his own personal lack of affinity with sport can be used a justification to criticize an entire profession, however, is another matter. My response to Ward’s essay will address the problems inherent in his polemical criticism of sports history, and will take the sting out of his more practice-based arguments, ones that are only partially formed, and are supported by questionable evidence. First, this essay first seeks consensus on Ward’s legitimate critiques of sports history. It will then move on to the meat of his arguments, ones which lack freshness and originality. These problems are compounded by his inability to list authors and publications which display significant weaknesses, and his criticisms descend into a rather unfortunate binary which sees sports history as the antithesis of ‘mainstream’ history. While Ward rightfully stresses that sports historians cannot privilege sport above wider trends in leisure, he does not acknowledge that some historians have made significant strides towards doing this, and he is equally guilty of ignoring not only sports history’s more interdisciplinary focus, but also the business of sport, one which arguably does make it exceptional in the world of commercialized leisure.

Ward freely admits his essay is a polemic. He does believe that sports history has a great deal to offer historians with regard to studying class and national identity, and that the impact of sport-related projects in the era of REF is palpable. His strongest objections to sports history are personal ones, rooted both in his overwhelmingly negative experiences of school sport, and his disappointment in having to isolate sport as a subject worthy of study in a previous book. At the same time, however, Ward’s critique is also a professional and methodological one. He does not believe that sport should be isolated from the wider leisure context, and that sports history currently holds a privileged position in the world of historical academia. Ward is disappointed at what he sees is the lack of historical context and framework from many studies of sports history, ones which he states suffer either from an uncertain chronology, or an obsession with pedantry and parochialism. He is unimpressed with the quality of sports history’s primary journals; and, while acknowledging that ‘mainstream’ historians should not be wary of what sports historians have to offer, he believes the discipline itself makes little effort to engage with the wider world of historical enquiry.

Much of what Ward discusses contains a kernel of truth. Undoubtedly, Ward’s most sound advice is for historians not to distort sport’s context within the wider world of leisure. This is especially the case with regard to football and cricket, and Ward challenges the dominant migration of academics towards the study of these two sports, at the expense of all others. He accordingly believes that ‘the physical presence of large crowds of supporters tends to make sport seem more important in British society than it actually is’. In this respect, Ward is certainly correct: historians must undoubtedly weigh the presence of participants and spectators against the number of those who chose not to take part. Certainly, too, sports history contains its fair share of questionable texts, many of which have been peer reviewed. Ward’s concerns regarding the rigour and relevance of sports history do not fully exist in a vacuum: as the footnotes in his essay state, he is essentially echoing Martin Johnes, one of sport’s foremost historians, who over the past decade has been concerned not only with the ghettoization of sports history, but also with the inability of sports historians to engage with the wider public discourse, in both public history and sport policy circles.[1] By implication, in his attempts to disassociate his being male from an assumed enjoyment of sport, Ward hints at the glaring lack of scholarly literature on women and sport.[2]

Ward would find any number of both established and young scholars involved within sports history who would agree with his prime facie case regarding the possible pitfalls of sports history. There are, however, flaws within Ward’s specific approach to the issues outlined, ones deriving not only from his personal animus towards the subject matter, but also in his inability to offer anything that has not been said before, typically by sports historians and practitioners. One of sports history’s weaknesses, in Ward’s words, is that sports historians’ interest in the genre ‘emerges from a passion for sports’. This, he says, confuses the written chronology of texts within the discipline, causing ‘even the best historians of sport… to elide sport in past and present at the drop of a hat’. It might have helped Ward to point towards specific texts and authors that make these alleged errors, but the point must be addressed: namely, that sports history is overwhelmingly comprised of sports fans, which in turn robs the discipline of its objective cool. Ward has entered into this debate from a specifically personal perspective, so it makes sense that he would assume the passions and backgrounds of his possible critics might be diametrically opposed to his. Sports fans and enthusiasts are naturally well-represented within the genre, and Miller has noted the potential for personal passions on sport to cloud judgment on its scholarly body of work.[3] However, there is also a good percentage that entered the discipline through other fields of history or academia. While it may be true that many academic sports historians are interested in the subject matter, many – myself included – would not necessarily have listed sport as one of our primary vocations during our school years. As Ward himself admits, sport’s impact in terms of REF and funding success is healthy, and it would therefore be dangerous for him to assume not only the audience’s composition, but the backgrounds of those who write it. Sports historians, and those who consume sports history, tend to be a very diverse bunch, and are not limited to one discipline or constituency.

It is unhelpful to Ward’s case that he fails to mention which historians and publications do not meet his standards. He states: ‘the quality of some sport history in academic journals and edited collections is not high’. Since his essay is aimed squarely, provocatively at sports historians, written in one of their flagship journals, one would expect Ward to name names, but sadly this does not happen. Who are ‘the best historians of sport’ that do not meet the basic standards of the mainstream? This is surely crucial towards developing a methodological and theoretical framework by which Ward can critique the discipline, and he should not pull his punches were his analysis to have any substantive value to other historians. Without further specifics (which he will hopefully provide when he expands upon this essay), Ward is essentially attacking sports history as an abstract concept. It is, in his mind, something ‘other’ than the ‘mainstream’. (‘Mainstream’ might be a term also used by sports historians, including Johnes and Cronin, but it is still a highly ambiguous one. What, if any sub-discipline of history, can be called ‘mainstream’?[4])

It is possible, however, that Ward mistakes a more interdisciplinary enquiry that incorporates more than standard historical theory for poor practice. The major sports history journals, including the International Journal of the History of Sport, Sport in History, and the Journal of Sport History, have an audience beyond ‘mainstream’ history: they also aim towards people working within the broad field of sports studies, including sociologists, psychologists, other sports scientists, and even heritage practitioners. The interdisciplinary readership and editorial discretion of these journals reflect years of debate regarding the lines of demarcation between history, sociology, sports studies, cultural studies and other disciplines, particularly with regard to the integration of postmodern theory into sports history.[5] A careful reading of the journals – Sport in History, for example – displays a continually vigorous debate regarding historical and sociological theory.[6] Amid the admittedly sombre tone of articles discussing the ‘postmodern challenge’ of traditional social-historical approaches to sport, and despite Johnes’s concerns regarding the health of sports history, I would submit that such debate is a sign of health, rather than weakness. After all, these are internal arguments: ones that are brought into sharper relief in the era of austerity and research assessments, but are nevertheless consumed by a desire for sports history to remain relevant across various disciplines, including history.

The peer reviewing of articles submitted to The Historical Journal reflects the journal’s more general historical audience; the International Journal of the History of Sport, on the other hand, essentially reflects the needs of a more specialist audience. If Ward is to be consistent in his criticism, he must apply the same standards to all specialist themes of history. His examples of similarly-deficient genres – labour and military history – at least superficially match sports history in their supposed narrow focus, but why not, for example, hold religious and political history publications to the same criteria? A great deal of substandard publication exists within sports studies, much of it not written by trained academics  – a walk through Waterstone’s will confirm this – but the quality of a ‘history’ section within a High Street bookstore will probably not differ all that much from the ‘sports’ section. One cannot help but feel wrongly singled out for criticism. There is a lot of junk in sports history, as in all other historical sub-disciplines, but surely most reputable historians are able to sift through the detritus? There is a more fundamental question here, however: is the ‘mainstream’ necessarily hostile towards sports history?  Ward believes that he is part of some chorus within the wider historical fraternity which ‘find[s] little need to “play” with sports historians’. Certainly, there have long been ‘anti-sport’ critiques present in transatlantic literature, ones not confined to a specific political or aesthetic ethos.[7] Yet, aside from Ward’s essay, this has not yet shown itself in many ‘mainstream’ academics taking to journals – ‘mainstream’ history, sports history, or otherwise – to present a united challenge to sports history. Ward’s concerns for the genre are expressed largely through Johnes, whose perspective from within sports history is altogether different than that of Ward. Very few sources and citations, aside from Johnes, actually deal with any of the accusations laid at the door of sports history by the supposed royal ‘we’, as represented by Ward.

Does any great body of anti-sport historiography actually exist within peer-reviewed journals? Ward is entirely correct in his assertion that sports historians should aim more of their articles at ‘mainstream’ journals. In this, he is echoing not only Johnes, but Dilwyn Porter, who notes that over two decades on from Richard Holt’s landmark Sport and the British, Holt’s masterwork remains one of the few to successfully penetrate the footnotes of major textbook and populist histories of the UK. New syntheses, he states, are required to collate the great body of work held within sports and sports history journals. However, to state that no such attempts have been made to engage with the mainstream would be disingenuous. Both Johnes and Porter state in their critiques that the wider public are usually very receptive to well-written, accessible monographs on British sport. [8] Some have gone one step further, with attempts to participate in museums and television.[9] And what of mainstream scholarly journals? Within the past decade, at least four British-based ‘mainstream’ history periodicals have released special issues dedicated to the history of sport: the Journal of Contemporary History in 2003 (38, no. 3: ‘Sport and Politics’), The London Journal in 2009 (34, no. 2: ‘Sport in London’), Media History (17, no. 2: ‘Sport and the Media in Ireland’) and the Journal of Historical Sociology in 2011 (24, no. 4: ‘Sports and History’). Ward believes that sports historians willingly isolate themselves from wider trends in social, cultural and political history; on the contrary, the evidence suggests that not only do they want to engage with the wider world, but they often find a willing audience. The wider historical community’s interest in sport may run skin deep at times, but it is certainly a part of mainstream academic dialogue. If historians are specifically hostile towards the history of sport, it is largely through their own personal biases, as is the case with Ward – by his own admission.

Ward’s advice that sport need not be isolated, or in his words, ‘privileged’, from the wider body of work on leisure history certainly makes sense. This is especially the case for sport in the late-nineteenth century, the nascent era of codification, standardization and professionalization in modern British sport, a time when sport’s major institutions were largely in their infancy. Undoubtedly, commercially successful sports (at the time of writing) like football and cricket inevitably have more than their share of books and written about them, distorting their true place in the leisure lives of people from the past. ‘Sport’, as a category, came to be defined as ‘athletic’ around the early 1860s: the Oxford English Dictionary did not define it as such until 1863, and previous to then, ‘field’ sports were the only such application of the term.[10] ‘Sports’ explicitly linked to agriculture, like ploughing for instance – well-covered by non-metropolitan newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century – await a thorough scholarly examination. (As Little hints at in his article on the sporting boycott of a post-independence Rhodesia, even ploughing had political implications beyond mere prowess in farming.[11]) It would, however, be helpful if Ward could acknowledge that scholars have been working towards this end. Two of British sports history’s recent classic monographs have placed sport firmly within the wider leisure context: Tony Collins and Wray Vamplew’s Mud, Sweat and Beers: A Cultural History of Sport and Alcohol, and Patrick Chaplin’s Darts in England 1900-39: A Social History. Darts in England was positively reviewed by Philip Waller in a well-respected general history journal, the English Historical Review, while one review of Mud, Sweat and Beers found an even more ‘mainstream’ audience: that of the Saturday Guardian.[12] These books, therefore, managed to safely navigate their way out of the scholarly ghetto which Ward believes encases British sports history. They are not the only works, however, to examine sport in the wider context of leisure, commercialized or otherwise.[13] Sport must be situated contextually within wider popular cultural trends, and Ward is well within his rights to warn historians against exaggerating sport’s purposed importance as a cultural device.

And yet, there are two major flaws with Ward’s argument that sport has been given an abnormal position in popular culture by participants and academics. One is his pseudoscientific method of determining the amount of literature present on sports history within the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH), especially when compared against other forms of leisure, one which raises questions as to how he defines ‘leisure history’ itself, let alone sports history. Ward lists disproportionate numbers of publications for football, cricket and rugby against a far smaller amount for stamp collecting, adding pointedly that: ‘others involved in leisure activities, such as anglers, book readers and wine drinkers, do not congregate in such numbers, nor do they fight and lay waste to city centres’. By this very middle-class range of leisure activities chosen by Ward to oppose sport, I assume that he equates ‘football’ with ‘hooliganism’. This is, at the very least, a highly prejudicial association, one not helped by the overall media and political discourse surrounding football supporters since the 1970s.[14] But, leaving aside this questionable rhetorical flourish, is there even a lack of material on these activities? The BBIH, as of 5 August 2012, admittedly lists only fifteen publications on the term ‘wine drinking’, and Ward himself lists an unfortunate 84 for angling. For sure, angling is under-represented in sport and leisure history. ‘Book reading’, however, comes in at a healthy 1,683, not bad for a historiographical database; what would the totals include were a bibliographic search engine on English literature to be scoured? Ward entirely ignores other, similar leisure contexts that can be scanned into BBIH, including cinema (2,381), ‘popular music’ (819), and tourism (440). When looking at these numbers, the quantity of work on sport surely does not seem so outlandish.

Listing numbers of publications in the BBIH is, of course, a largely pointless exercise in determining the quality and primary market of these publications – that Ward is even doing so displays his lack of familiarity with sports history and sports studies as a whole – but it is useful in determining the means by which he has selectively ignored the amount of literature on other leisure contexts. More detrimental to Ward’s argument is his rigid compartmentalization of sports and book reading into ‘leisure’; like cinema, music, and tourism, the terms may exist within the broad framework of leisure, but they also have more professional, business-orientated ends that exist as academic disciplines in their own right. Ward cannot preach to sports historians regarding their inability to tie sports down into wider trends of leisure when he himself has not defined the accurate theory and parameters by which academics must produce material on sports. Sports historians cannot and should not remain ignorant of sports sociology, just as historians of film, music, tourism, and books must necessarily incorporate film theory, musicology, tourism management, and English literature respectively into their academic programmes. If it is possible to tally the amount of scholarly material on sport, film, music, tourism, and literature, would sport really come out in such a privileged position? The significant gaps in British and Irish sport’s historiography would seem to dictate that more, not less, is needed.

This last point is crucial in the era of REF; namely, what is the social and cultural impact of sport? Why does the scholarly community need to be less ignorant of sports history’s potential? Ward himself is suspicious of highly detailed sports histories that list clubs, scores, and major events within a given locality. Again, specifics from Ward would help here in identifying which localized studies of sports are particularly troublesome in this regard. Social and economic history texts examining the regional histories of British and Irish sport tend to be amongst the most influential within the discipline, since they utilize sport to examine any number of regional phenomena, from industrialization to gender hierarchy, from land ownership to regional politics, and everything in between.[15] The trends which exist in local sport, however, have their counterparts in national and global sport, and this is a subject which Ward ignores entirely. If he is critical of the tendency of sports historians to be obsessed with the ‘micro’, he does not consider the ‘macro’ at all. To be sure, Ward displays some familiarity with the connection between sport and differing forms of identity – regional, national, racial or otherwise (though historians of Scotland would be amused by his assertion that the Scottish Football Association was formed amid the backdrop of the 1886 Irish Home Rule Bill: the SFA was actually founded in 1873). But, largely due to his insistence on viewing sport merely as a form of leisure, he forgets that it is also very big business. At the time of writing, in fact, one cannot escape sport, largely due the presence of the XXX Olympiad in London during July-August 2012. As the UK faces crippling austerity, and as the eurozone debt crisis rumbles on unresolved, it is perfectly legitimate to question not only the blanket media coverage given to the Olympics, but also the cost of the event on the public purse, and the benefits of the Olympics outwith London (assuming that the capital itself sees long-term benefits). Ward, after all, hits upon an excellent point within his essay: not everyone enjoys sports. Why should he and everyone else be coerced into watching it?

But it is precisely for this reason that critical voices are needed with which to study sport and its history. Mega-events such as Olympics and the FIFA World Cup expose the complexities of the modern world, not only with topics such as gender and race, but altogether more nebulous, less quantifiable concepts, such as human rights, corporate power, and international politics. One such example of this aspect of the Olympics is no doubt being analysed as this is written: the upcoming US presidential election in November 2012 features incumbent Democrat Barack Obama taking on the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. Press attention is being given to the means by which Romney facilitated his political career: his stewardship of the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. With all due respect to stamp collectors, it is highly unlikely that the president of a local stamp collecting club would utilize his or her position to become a nation’s head of state or government. Sport, then, is not just another leisure activity, as Ward believes it to be: it is also one of the rare nexuses between community, capitalism and politics, at the regional, national and global levels. It is, simply put, an accurate reflection of the world as is, not necessarily how idealists would like it to be. To misunderstand sport as just another leisure activity is to underestimate its power, both for good and bad, and sport’s impact reverberates far beyond wins and losses.

In his efforts to expand upon the thoughts, Ward needs to consider the wider impact and symbolism of sport. His next contribution to this discussion, furthermore, cannot be afraid to directly challenge specific historians and publications. Without these particulars, his essay exhibits little more than a hit-and-run approach towards criticizing sports history, rather than a thorough analysis of the sub-discipline’s strengths and weaknesses. Ward might furthermore seek to de-personalize the argument. Undoubtedly, most historians, and indeed all academics, have their own personal stories to tell, and this no doubt influences their approach towards subject matter, but interest in a subject is not necessarily a slippery slope towards becoming uncritically immersed in it. One cannot damn an entire discipline of academics, practitioners, and (by implication) users simply because of a few bad experiences in school. Ward’s further inability to display a more nuanced understanding of sports history, leisure history, and their interrelationships with other disciplines shows that, while he criticizes sports historians for ascribing undue importance to sport, he himself is privileging a ‘mainstream’ history that might exist only within his mind. Ward’s position is indeed a balanced one, and thankfully he acknowledges the value and potential of sports history, stating that: ‘Mainstream historians… do need to recognize the high quality of much work from the field of sport history’. Most reputable historians of sport have very little to apologize for, however: Ward’s warnings on the wider cultural relevance of sports history might be important ones to keep in mind for certain sporting enthusiasts, but they are already ones widely observed by historians. At the same time, sport cannot and should not be sold short as a subject worthy of historical study.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to my partner, Kayleigh Hirst, for her assistance in proofreading and editing my piece; and Dr. Fiona Skillen for some helpful suggestions.

Reference List

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Booth, D. ‘Sports History: What Can Be Done?’ Sport, Education and Society 2, no. 2 (1997): 191-204.

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Cronin, M. ‘It’s All about Me: Sports History and Television’. Journal of Sport History 35, no. 3 (2008): 411-419.

Cronin, M. ‘Playing Games? The Serious Business of Sports History’. Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 3 (2003): 495-503.

Gregson, K. and M. Huggins. ‘Sport, music-hall culture and popular song in nineteenth-century England’. Sport in Society 2, no. 2 (1999): 82-102.

Hill, J. ‘British Sports History: A Post-Modern Future?’ Journal of Sport History 23, no. 1 (1996): 1-19.

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Johnes, M. ‘British sports history: The past and the future’, Journal of Sport History 35, no. 2 (2004): 65-71.

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Little, C. ‘The sports boycott against Rhodesia reconsidered’. Sport in Society 14, no. 2 (2011): 193-207.

McCrae, N. ‘Football and Beer in the 1960s: Transformation of the British Brewing Industry and its Impact on Local Identity’. Sport in History 28, no. 2 (2008): 236-258.

MacLean, M. ‘Where the “Real Meets the “Conceptual”: The Uncomfortable Boundary Between Histories of Sport and Cultural Studies’. Sport in History 30, no. 3 (2010): 489-500.

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Metcalfe, A. Leisure and Recreation in a Victorian Mining Community: The Social Economy of Leisure in North-East England, 1820-1914. London: Routledge, 2006.

Miller, T. ‘Sport, Authenticity, Confession’. Cultural Studies ó Critical Methodologies 8, no. 4 (2008): 540-542.

Nauright, J. ‘The End of Sports History?? From Sports History to Sports Studies’. Sporting Traditions 16, no. 1 (1999): 5-13.

Osborne, C.A. and F. Skillen. ‘The State of Play: Women in British Sport History’. Sport in History 30, no. 2 (2010): 189-195.

Phillips, M.G. ‘Navigating Uncharted Waters: The Death of Sports History?’ Sporting Traditions 16, no. 1 (1999): 51-59.

Porter, D. ‘Sports History and Modern British History’. Sport in History 31, no. 2 (2011): 180-196.

Telfer, H. ‘Ludism, laughter and liquor: homosocial behaviour in late-Victorian Scottish harriers clubs’. In Disreputable Pleasures: Less Virtuous Victorians at Play, ed. M. Huggins and J.A. Mangan, 185-203. London: Frank Cass, 2004.

Tranter, N. Sport, economy and society in Britain 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Vamplew, W. ‘Empiricist Versus Sociological History: Some Comments on the “Civilizing Process”. Sport in History 27, no. 2 (2007): 161-171.

Vamplew, W. ‘Taking a Gamble or a Racing Certainty: Sports Museums and Public Sports History’. Journal of Sport History 31, no. 2 (2004): 177-191.

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[1] Johnes, ‘British Sports History’, 401-407; Idem., ‘Putting the History into Sport’, 145-160.

[2] Osborne and Skillen, ‘The State of Play’.

[3] Miller, ‘Sport, Authenticity, Confession’, 540-542.

[4] Johnes, ‘British Sports History’, 402; Cronin, ‘Playing Games’, 496.

[5] Nauright, ‘The End of Sports History’; Phillips, ‘The Death of Sports History’; Hill, ‘British Sports History’; Booth. ‘Sports History’; MacLean, ‘Where the “Real” Meets the “Conceptual”’.

[6] Booth, ‘Refiguring the Archive’; Johnes, ‘Archives, Truth and the Historian at Work; Vamplew, ‘Empiricist Versus Sociological History’, Malcolm, ‘Response to Vamplew’.

[7] Bale, Anti-Sport Sentiments in Literature.

[8] Holt, Sport and the British; Porter, ‘Sports History and Modern British History’, 182-187, 194; Johnes, ‘British Sports History’, 402-404.

[9] Vamplew, ‘Taking a Gamble’; Cronin, ‘It’s All about Me’.

[10] Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, ix.

[11] Little, ‘Rhodesia’, 199-200.

[12] Collins and Vamplew, Mud, Sweat and Beers; Chaplin; Darts in England; Waller, Review of Darts in England; C. Carson, ‘Bats, balls and boozers’. The Guardian, 20 July 2002.

[13] Gregson and Huggins, ‘Sport and music-hall culture’; Leeworthy, ‘Greyhound Racing’; McCrae, ‘Football and Beer’; Telfer, ‘Ludism, laughter and liquor’.

[14] Collins and Vamplew, Mud, Sweat and Beers, 86-87.

[15] Tranter, Sport, economy and society in Britain; Metcalfe, Leisure and Recreation, Hunt, Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland.

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