Navigating the Study of Sports in the Academic World

wahl-grant-with-fan-scarfGrant Wahl writes for Sports Illustrated and is the author of The Beckham Experiment, the first soccer book ever to become a New York Times bestseller.

In the spring of 1995, during my junior year at Princeton, I met with the head of the politics department to pitch an idea for my senior thesis. I wanted to spend three months in Buenos Aires studying the political culture of soccer clubs. It seemed like a worthwhile topic. In a still-young democracy like Argentina, the nation’s soccer clubs had been a thriving part of civil society for decades. With memberships ranging from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, the clubs often had multiple political parties (agrupaciones) and election campaigns that received more attention in the media than governmental elections. What’s more, the function of soccer clubs in civil society had barely been explored by academics at the time. In Making Democracy Work, a classic study of Italy’s political culture, the Harvard professor Robert Putnam had mentioned the nation’s hundreds of soccer clubs before dismissing them in a single sentence, never to return to the topic again.

It was though the academics I encountered viewed anything sports-related as somehow not worth their attention. And, sure enough, the meeting with my university professor—a somewhat fossilized character named Paul Sigmund, the department’s main Latin American expert—did not go well. He called my thesis project “a silly idea,” dismissing it in a single sentence.

Fortunately, I met with another professor who did like the idea. His name was Carlos Forment, and it only took him a matter of minutes to volunteer to be my thesis advisor. We discussed the topics I might research, and I made plans to live in Argentina from June to late August that year. Forment always wanted to go big on projects—this is a guy who titled his own book Democracy in Latin America—and he had some great ideas. Spend a lot of time in the archive of Clarín, the big Buenos Aires daily, he suggested, and you’ll find a trove of material on the history of the soccer clubs. (And so I did, piecing together a chronicle of associational life in Buenos Aires.) Visit a smaller club, he added, to understand how the membership works together. (And so I did, interviewing people at Banfield and conducting a survey at their club elections to find out if the club’s political parties diverged from governmental party divisions. It turned out they did, which was a good sign.) Finally, interview the members and leaders at a big club like Boca Juniors, he suggested. (And so I did, sitting down with Boca presidential candidate Mauricio Macri, who would go on to win that election and later became one of the country’s rising political stars.)

While I was in Buenos Aires, I also researched topics that hurt the development of the clubs’ democratic political culture: the fan violence that plagues the sport and influences club elections; the corruption of club officials; and the shortage of women involved in the clubs. It was by far the most rewarding experience of my years as a student. Not that there weren’t difficult moments. My apartment got robbed in Buenos Aires, and the university denied my request for funding to attend the Boca Juniors elections that December. (That old prejudice: One of my professors, who was on the funding committee, said they viewed my application as “someone who wanted to go watch soccer games over winter break.” Facepalm.)

In the end, though, everything came together. My thesis—Playing the Political Game: Soccer Clubs in Argentine Civil Society—won the prizes of the politics and Latin American Studies departments. Forment, the adviser who believed in the project from the start, started doing his own research on the topic. And I learned that I wanted to write about sports and soccer for a living if possible. The experience showed me that not only could academics and sports co-exist, but so could academics and journalism. What I was doing in Argentina was just as much one as the other. And yet part of me still wonders: Is there still a bias against sports in the academic world?

Long Live WG Grace. The Past and the Future of Sports Writing

photo-156_john-footJohn Foot is Professor of Modern Italian history at the University of Bristol. He is the author of several books, including Calcio: A History of Italian Football and Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, and writes regularly for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

Both of the fascinating blogs so far (by Simon Kuper and Peter Alegi) have discussed the differences between sports writing from an academic and a journalistic perspective. I work as an academic but I also write “as a journalist,” so perhaps I can offer a contribution which crosses across these professions. Simon wrote about his academic family. Well, I come from the opposite background. My father, mother and great-uncle were all journalists, and my brother is a journalist now. I grew up surrounded by newsprint and hacks and to the sound of a typewriter and the panic of deadlines. I would often go into the huge Daily Mirror building in the centre of London (tragically now demolished) to meet my dad for lunch. I remember seeing the papers roll off the presses in the basement of the building, and all the printers having huge breakfasts in the cafe. I wanted to be a journalist but things took a different term and I ended up spending a lot of my life—very happily—in libraries.

Now, I think journalists are largely responsible for the revolution in football (and to some extent sports) writing over the last twenty years or so. I was inspired by Pete Davis, Simon Kuper, David Winner and Alex Bellos and others when I wrote my book Calcio: A History of Italian Football. I think there are some fascinating trends in footbology (as Peter calls it) at the moment outside of academia – the brilliant Futbologia project in Bologna, for example, which involves writers and others, and is an attempt to talk seriously about football—but also to enjoy the funny and often grotesque side of the game and its superstructures.

As Simon rightly says, journalists are skilled at making academics’ ideas and research readable and available to a wide public (although he is being far too modest about his own work here, of course). This is what makes Soccernomics work so well – it is serious research but made accessible and adapted. Put simply, journalists cut through the crap and the jargon and the absurd long sentences which so many academics love to use and can’t seem to get away from. David Goldblatt’s seminal The Ball is Round is an exception to this rule.

Beyond this, however, I would like to look a bit more critically at my own world – which we can loosely call academia. Firstly, there is still considerable resistance within the academy to research and writing on sport. Time and again, when I am introduced at a conference, people will laugh when my books on football and cycling are mentioned. It is as if football is still seen as a side-show, a bit of fun, a diversion from the real world and real research. So many histories of contemporary Italy, for example, fail to mention sport altogether. Or, if they do, there is a perfunctory reference to Gino Bartali or to World Cup victories. It is still incredibly rare for ‘serious’ academics to actually carry out research into sport. This is, quite simply, an absurdity – a massive historical and social error. How can you understand fascism without understanding its use of sport? How can you analyse post-war Italy without reference to the 1949 Superga disaster, Juventus-Fiat, Berlusconi’s Milan, Fausto Coppi or Ferrari? The calciopoli scandal tells us more about how Italy works than a thousand political corruption cases. The most watched programme in Italian history was the 1982 world cup final. How many people remember were they were that day? Everyone. Who are the uncontroversial national heroes of post-war Italy? Paolo Rossi and Sandro Pertini, both present (in different ways) in 1982. But still little changes. Sport is marginalised and sniggered at. It is time for this to change. Let’s hope a conference like this has an impact.

As C. L. R. James once wrote, in Beyond a Boundary, the best book ever written (not just the best book ever written on sport): the great historians of liberal England “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” Well. I can no longer “accept a system” which simply ignores, or pays lip-service to, the centrality of sport; the way it moves peoples emotions, the way it creates tribes and groupings, the universal languages it uses, its hyper-powerful global reach.

The other problem is simply about trying to write well, clearly and for an audience beyond the specialist one. It is not just a matter of academics not being able to write well. No. It’s much worse than that. Many academics revel in obscurity. The system encourages it. The more obscure the better. If something is popular, if you sell books, you are frowned upon. You are seen as unserious, as “dumbing down” in some way. This snob-culture is everywhere in academia, despite “impact.” Selling books is seen as a bad thing, in itself! The same goes for disciplines. Academics are usually anxious to build boundaries—”

I’m a historian, I’m an anthropologist, I’m a literature specialist.” This turf-marking is another way of excluding all but a small sect of specialists. Exclusionary languages are created to justify your own existence. So, academics have much to learn from journalists . . . but journalists also have much to learn from academics.

Finally, there is the question, which Peter raises, of plagiarism—of the theft of ideas and research. This problem is on the increase, and I think this increase is partly to do with the rise of new sports writing, as well as what Simon Kuper described as the death of the match report. Readers now all know what has happened in the match. They demand more, these days—history, background, stories. These pieces require research, but few people have the time to do this research. Far too much is being written (usually for free) in far too short a time. What happens is that some journalists go to their bookshelves and pick out some of the juicy quotes and ideas from their books. Say, for example, that you were writing a piece for a magazine about the Lazio team of the 1970s. Let’s say, for example, that the piece in question was almost entirely based on the book Calcio. You haven’t actually copied anything (apart from other people’s quotes, which are also part of the author’s research) but the entire edifice of the article is taken from that book—which cost the author years of work in dusty libraries. Do you even cite that book? No. Not even once. And yet you, the journalist, were paid for that piece. This is wrong, but it happens almost on a daily basis.

Finally, we have had the explosion of social media. Now, I love Twitter. In fact, you could say that I am addicted to it. However, I can see its limitations. It encourages (and almost exalts) short-termism, stupidity and under-researched writing (and comments). Last week someone rejected my considered opinion on Arsene Wenger with a tweet which read “the cunt lives in Italy.” Delightful. But there is simply too much stuff—even when it is good. Every day there are numerous excellent articles about my own little niche world: Italian football. Who can possibly read them all? Enough, already. This is unsustainable. We need a moratorium on articles and more quality control. Stop writing. Get down to the library. That’s my motto.