How Sports Broadcasting Helps Us Understand the Nature of Interpreting History

"Here's a guy who's spent too much time thinking about this stuff." Photo Credit:
“Here’s a guy who spends too much time thinking about this stuff.” Photo Credit:

In his 1995 publication Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that we cannot fully understand “the facts of history” without first acknowledging the process by which a piece of information becomes a historical fact. That process, argues Trouillot, is simultaneously shaped by what evidence the historian considers to be relevant to the historical narrative and what evidence the historian believes should be omitted, muted, and silenced from the narrative:

Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded. There is no perfect closure of any event, however one chooses to define the boundaries of that event. Thus whatever becomes fact does so with its own inborn absences, specific to its production. In other words, the very mechanisms that make any historical recording possible also ensure that historical facts are not created equal (49).

History is largely shaped by the stories we tell about the past. To bring home the fact that those stories are constructed, Trouillot compares the historical enterprise to the act of broadcasting a sporting event:

The speech of the chronicler is akin to that of a radio announcer giving a play-by-play account of a sports game . . . The sportscaster’s account is a play-by-play description but only of the occurrences that matter to the game. Even if it is guided mainly by the seriality of occurrences, it tends to leave out from the series witnesses, participants, and events considered generally as marginal. The audience enters primarily when it is seen as influencing the players. Players on the bench are left out. Players in the field are mentioned mainly when they capture the ball, or at least when they try to capture it or are meant to do so. Silences are necessary to the account, for if the sportscaster told us every “thing” that happened at each and every moment, we would not understand anything. If the account was indeed fully comprehensive of all facts it would be incomprehensible. Further, the selection of what matters, the dual creation of mentions and silences, is premised on the understanding of the rules of the game by the broadcaster and audience alike. In short, play-by-play accounts are restricted in terms of what may enter them and in terms of the order in which these elements may enter (50-51).

When we watch our favorite teams and individuals compete in sporting events, we rely on broadcasters to chronicle the event and convey relevant information to us as viewers. As Trouillot explains, each audience member realizes that every moment and action within the event cannot be broadcasted. An announcer may tells us about Michael Jordan’s three pointer to put the Chicago Bulls ahead in a basketball game, but that announcer may not tell us about the pick Scottie Pippen set on an opposing player that helped Jordan get open, nor will the announcer be in a position (most likely) to describe what coach Phil Jackson told his players leading up to Jordan’s three pointer, even though that talk may be just as relevant to the Bulls gaining the lead as Jordan’s actual three point shot. Sports broadcasters therefore play a dual role for audience members in which they use both evidence and interpretation to describe a sporting event. Sports broadcasters objectively report on moments and actions that are actually happening (“facts”), but they also make subjective decisions about which moments and actions are worth acknowledging, mentioning, and analyzing, and which ones can be appropriately omitted from the discussion. To report on everything in an objective manner is simply impossible. We trust sports broadcasters to tell us what’s happening, but we also implicitly trust them to determine what is and what is not important to the game’s narrative.

Historians conduct their explorations of the past in much the same manner. For example, it is a well-known and objectively stated fact that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was killed by an assassin’s bullet on June 28, 1914. We have the evidence to prove beyond a doubt that this event occurred and that the assassination is indeed a “fact” of history. But the historian–much like a broadcaster describing a sporting event–must make interpretations along the way about the meaning and significance of the Archuduke’s death. To describe everything that happened in the world on June 28, 1914, is simply impossible, as is the impossibility of objectively defining a cohesive beginning, middle, and conclusion for explaining the story of the Archduke’s death. The historian sifting through the available evidence chooses the evidence he or she deems worthy of inclusion and what evidence can be silenced. He or she subjectively selects a starting point for explaining this story, builds the historical context for explaining moments, actions, and events surrounding the Archduke during this period, and makes interpretive decisions about the consequences of the Archduke’s death for the world in 1914 and perhaps even our world today.

As John Lewis Gaddis describes in The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002), the historian is at both times a scientist and an artist. He or she uses both empirical evidence and artistic skills to paint a historical landscape that tells us a story about the past. The objective historical facts of the narrative have meaning, but that meaning is shaped through the historian’s definition of the boundaries and relevant evidence to be employed in telling the story.

When someone asks for “just the facts,” they are asking for something that is literally impossible to accomplish because there is no such thing as a fact without meaning or significance. The Archduke’s death is an objective fact that cannot be disproved, but we cannot explain the meaning of that fact without providing an interpretation that is constructed by our understanding of what is worthy of inclusion into the story. These interpretations are constantly revised as new information comes to the surface and new problems in contemporary society challenge us to ask new questions about the past. History is an ongoing conversation without an endpoint that is shaped in part by objective fact and subjective interpretation. Coming to this realization helps us better understand how power structures in both the past and the present determine what evidence constitutes a relevant historical “fact” and what evidence is silenced without further mention.



“The Simpsons” Predicts Super Bowl 48…in 2005

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

I recently came across a Huffington Post article where it was discovered that the famous television show The Simpsons had a scene in 2005 (the episode was “Bonfire of the Manatees”) in which the two teams in tomorrow’s Super Bowl were on the television with a “final score” of 19-14 in favor of the Denver Broncos.

Last year on this blog I predicted that the Ravens would beat the 49ers 35-31; the actual outcome was 34-31 in favor of the Ravens. This year I predict that the Broncos will win 24-21 over the Seahawks.

I’m a big sports fan and I’ve always enjoyed football, even though I never cared to play the sport and am now seeing several of my friends who did play years ago going through their own pains today. Nevertheless, I’ve learned a lot about the dark side of football over the past year, and it’s hard to ignore the devastating physical and emotional toll the game has on those who play it. Mike Webster’s 2002 death was one of the first notable instances in which football undoubtedly played a leading cause his untimely death at the age of 50. More recently, Junior Seau committed suicide in May of 2012. No doubt there are other horror stories as well. My friend Joshua Hedlund has decided to stop watching the Super Bowl altogether, and the more I read stories like those of Webster and Seau, the more I wonder if that might be the route I go in the future as well.


Reflections on Sports and Identity

Picture Credit:
Picture Credit:

For better or worse, many historical topics are discussed here at Exploring the Past. Some blogs have a fairly strict boundaries for what gets discussed, but I’ve always wanted to create a blog with a broad theme, one that has many different topics and strands of discussion. I’d like to broaden that theme a bit further and explore some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head lately about sports and identity. There are several reasons why this particular topic interests me: 1. I’m an unabashed sports fan (St. Louis sports, to be exact), 2. I’ve lived in two cities with two almost completely different “sports cultures” (St. Louis and Indianapolis), and 3. I think sports can tell us a lot about a particular city and its residents.

Both Indianapolis and St. Louis became centers for sporting events during the Gilded Age. Advancements in industrialization provided money, free time, and leisurely opportunities for America’s middle and upper classes, who frequently resorted to sporting events for entertainment. The St. Louis Brown Stockings began playing baseball in 1882 (later joining the National League in 1892 and becoming the “Cardinals” in 1900). Indianapolis has hosted a baseball team since 1887, and in 1902 the Indianapolis Indians–now a triple A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates–were formed, making them one of the oldest existing minor league baseball teams.

In Indianapolis, however, the real turning point in sports history was the creation of the Indianapolis 500 race. Track founders Carl G. Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler had originally conceived the racetrack in 1909 as hosting a series of races over Labor Day weekend. Following the races on Labor Day weekend in 1910, however, Fisher announced that there would be one 500 mile race hosted on Memorial Day in 1911. Historians of the racetrack such as D. Bruce Scott and Ralph Kramer and Carl Fisher’s biographer Mark S. Foster have all failed to explain why Memorial Day was selected as the race day, but this decision requires serious inquiry and explanation. Since 1868, Civil War veterans, religious groups, and many other residents in Indianapolis had utilized Memorial Day as a day of remembrance and commemoration for Indiana soldiers who had lost their lives in the Civil War. Fisher’s decision to switch the race to Memorial Day received strong condemnation from veterans and religious groups, but by the start of World War I, the race was annually attended by more than 100,000 spectators from all parts of the United States.  Fisher and other business leaders in Indianapolis celebrated the race as a demonstration of American ingenuity and Indiana’s strong automobile industry. By hosting the race on Memorial Day, the holiday’s meaning transformed itself in Indianapolis.

What is interesting about this transformation is the changing rhetoric of patriotism that attached itself to the race. An editorial from the Indianapolis Star on May 31, 1913 captures the idea perfectly. Memorial Day, according to the Star, should still be a day of commemoration for Indiana’s Civil War dead, even though the race was being held on the same day. However, “the men and women [who attend the race] are of the twentieth century; they are looking forward, not back as it is the nature of each generation to do.” Additionally, “at the Speedway they celebrate the triumph of invention and industry that of itself was made possible by the services of the veterans.” By looking forward–rather than the past–Hoosiers were allegedly expressing patriotic sentiments and thanking their veterans by attending this annual sporting event.

In 1957, an annual parade around Indianapolis the day before the race was inaugurated (the date of the parade now varies). According to the Parade’s website, “the committee [in charge of organizing the parade] felt the project should be a civic-oriented, annual activity keyed to the 500-Mile Race.” John Bodnar argues in Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century that this annual parade “emphasized not commemoration [of the soldier dead] but fantasy and escape rather than the serious matter of life” (91). Entertainment was (and still remains) an important part of these parades. For example, parade organizers of the bicentennial celebration of 1976 arranged patriotic floats that included an infant with an Uncle Sam hat and a colonial soldier playing flute with a bear that strummed a guitar (93). Nevertheless, there were messages of American patriotism and civic pride in Indianapolis that attempted to portray the city as a center of “uncontested patriotism” thanks to its annual race.

In St. Louis, Cardinals baseball has dominated the sporting landscape. When the Cardinals win, the city’s residents (and those like myself who support the team from afar) feel good about themselves. We often assert ownership in our teams and our city (“that’s my team!”, “Our city is the best sports city in America!”, etc.) and frame these victories as a reflection of the good people who live in that area. Yet this recent month of Cardinals playoff baseball has me asking why such expressions are made. None of the Cardinals players or coaches except for David Freese were either born, raised, and/or trained for their professional careers in St. Louis. Team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. was born and raised in St. Louis, but moved away from the area long ago and now resides in Ohio (the same questions should be asked of the Indy 500, which is now dominated by racers born outside the U.S.). Sure, the people of St. Louis buy tickets and support the team through thick and thin (I think), but the success of the team on the field really has little to do with anything local St. Louisians have done.

Furthermore, while it’s perfectly normal to take civic pride in a local team through its successes on the field, such success does little in actually assessing the health of a city, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan argues. Detroit has had relatively decent sports teams for years, but their city is bankrupt. What does that say about the priorities of the city’s leadership, team owners, and citizenry?

I’m no sports historian, but it’s clear to me that the creation of individual and civic identity and the popularity of sports are intertwined in ways that demonstrate that sports are far more than just games or races. In 1983, Benedict Anderson famously asked in Imagined Communities“What makes people love and die for nations?” The more I think about and understand the power of sports in popular culture, I find myself asking, “What makes people love and die with sports teams?”


A Super Bowl Predicition and Some Thoughts on an Unsolved Mystery

I would like to see the Ravens win and think that they will be able to do so in a highly offensive game, 35-31. I think Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Torry Smith, Michael Oher, and coach John Harbaugh are all class acts. It’s not that there aren’t any classy players on the 49ers squad, but since I’m a Rams fan, I just don’t like the 49ers, plain and simple. Even if the Niners win, it is great to think that the only team they couldn’t handle this year was the lowly St. Louis Rams!

There has been an interesting back-and-forth dialogue between former Rams star Marshall Faulk and several retired players from the New England Patriots over the past week. The issue at hand is the 2002 Super Bowl, or the mysterious ways in which the Patriots may or may not have taped the Rams walk-through practice before the game, and how that may or may not have given the Pats an advantage in their 20-17 victory that day. The Patriots have had many problems with videotapes over the years, so there will always be some suspicion as to what happened in 2002.

I’m interested in why we even need to have a discussion about 2002 eleven years later. When we look at the dynamics of remembering versus forgetting, wouldn’t this be something worth forgetting? It’s just a game, right?

I would argue that this game has been much more than that. It has had strong implications for the entire course of NFL history, as a matter of fact. For the Patriots, it was the beginning of a dynasty: five Super Bowl trips, three championships, and the emergence of perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Tom Brady. For the Rams, it was the beginning of a gradual decline into the league’s doghouse, something that has only begun to change over the past year. Our memory of the game and its consequences would be different if the two teams would have had different fates over the past decade. If the Rams would have remained an elite team, one that would have won at least one more championship, we probably wouldn’t remember 2002, or at least the cheating part. If the Patriots became a bad team, we probably wouldn’t have made such a fuss when it was discovered that they had been videotaping other teams in subsequent years, because it wouldn’t have worked. If both teams were good or if both were bad, 2002 wouldn’t matter, or at least as much as it seems matter to us today.

Faulk had this to say about that game:

Am I over the loss? Yeah, I’m over the loss. But I’ll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl. That’s a different story. I can understand losing a Super Bowl, that’s fine . . . But how things happened and what took place. Obviously, the commissioner gets to handle things how he wants to handle them but if they wanted us to shut up about what happened, show us the tapes. Don’t burn ’em.

Even though Faulk tried to focus on the Rams 2000 Super Bowl victory during this interview, the interviewer just had to ask Faulk about 2002, which was effective from a journalistic standpoint, because now people like me are talking about and linking you to his article.

Former Pats offensive lineman Matt Light had this to say in response to Faulk:

We lost two [Super Bowl] games horribly and I wouldn’t look at those games and say anything other than we missed our opportunity. We didn’t get it done. And it didn’t have anything to do with anyone else. Honestly to hear a comment like (Faulk’s), it’s disappointing to me, that a guy like Marshall — who has had such an incredible career and what he’s done post-football and all of the things that he stands for — would continue to go back to something like this. It shows a lot of disrespect from a guy that I’ve had a lot of respect for. And an organization that has done as much to promote this game, and this league, as anybody else. From that standpoint, it’s disappointing.“I understand what it’s like to lose a Super Bowl, and how you can have some ideas in your mind and other people can say things and you can get caught up in those. But ultimately when you look at it there’s no mistaking the dedication, the time, and all the effort that’s put into it by Bill Belichick and his staff and organization — what we did, we’re very proud of.

Former Linebacker Willie McGinest responded by saying “we were a smart football team… we didn’t make any excuses,” and that the Patriots weren’t “aware” of any cheating going on, whatever the hell that means.

What is stated by the former Patriots is equally interesting as what isn’t said. It seems to me that what they are arguing is for Faulk to get over it. We lost Super Bowls as well and we didn’t blame it on anyone else or make excuses for ourselves. We did a lot for the league and it’s disrespectful to even bring up this mystery of 2002. Be a man and get over yourself.

Under different circumstances, I would agree with Light and McGinest. Yet neither one of them came out and said “We didn’t cheat.” Light tries making a ridiculous argument about all the good the team did over the years in bringing fans to the league (ones that hated the Patriots and their cheating ways, I’m sure). McGinest says no one was “aware” of any cheating rather than saying that no one cheated, which seems like a cop-out. Neither one addresses the NFL’s actions in burning the confiscated tapes and neither one seems to understand that losing a game fair and square is one thing, but losing by the hands of cheaters is another. Perhaps the Pats didn’t cheat in the 2002 Super Bowl, but it is extremely disappointing that the tapes were burnt by the NFL when they concluded their “investigation.” It seems that if there was nothing to hide, then the tapes would have been made public, just like the Gregg Williams “Boutygate” tapes last year, and the Patriots organization would have been front and center, calling for the tapes to be publicized. Fifty years from now, historians of the NFL will never have the opportunity to fully understand what actually happened before that game thanks to these tapes being burned. It just goes to show that transparency is an important key to success and good relations with your cohorts, no matter the field. There is something to be said about forthrightness and honesty in a world that sometimes makes us question whether those qualities are still valued. Unfortunately, I don’t know if the Patriots, the greatest NFL team in the past 15 years, can be considered as such. I’m biased, but I know I’m not the only one who’s been thinking along these same lines.

Rant over. Until next time…

Stan “The Man” and Public Commemoration

Photo Credit: Talia Kaplan
Photo Credit: Talia Kaplan

Just a few short hours ago sad news came out of St. Louis, Missouri, announcing the death of St. Louis Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial at the age of 92. Musial had been ill for a few years and his wife Lillian passed away this past May. I would suspect her death also played a role in his declining health; not many of us get to enjoy the affectionate bonds of their beloved spouse for 70 years like the Musials did.

As a Cardinals fan, there is no doubt in my mind that Stan Musial was the greatest baseball player to don the birds on his uniform. His statistics are stunning and they would have been even better had he not lost a year due to his service in the military during World War II. Furthermore, it is worth noting that for about half of his career there were two teams in St. Louis; the Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns (who are now the Baltimore Orioles). Both teams had to fight for fans and attention in a city that was probably too small to house two professional teams, and at one point there was a distinct possibility that the Cardinals–not the Browns–would be the team leaving town after Cards owner Fred Saigh was convicted of tax evasion in 1952. Had it not been for the immense success of the Cardinals throughout the 1940s, where Musial helped lead the team to three World Series titles in 1942, 1944, and 1946, the team may not have received the support it did in the 1950s when Gussie Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame took over as owner.

Immediately upon the news of Musial’s death a local news station posted a bit on Twitter along with this photo about people in the St. Louis area congregating towards the Stan Musial Statue located outside Busch Stadium. In all honesty, the statue is quite ugly and this book claims that Musial himself didn’t like it. However, I find it significant that many people thought it important to visit the statue and lay wreaths and flowers and/or say a quick prayer. I don’t know how many cities have statues of famous baseball players, but I would imagine that such public art is not common.

The Musial statue does much more than act as a remembrance of Musial’s life; it connects the history of St. Louis to the present. When looking at the statue, many of us probably don’t even think about Stan Musial. For someone older than me, they may think about going to a Cardinals game in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, getting the chance to spend the day with their father, eating a hot dog at Sportsman’s Park or the old Busch Stadium, or visiting other unique destinations in downtown St. Louis. For me, I can remember going with my family to several games recently and specifically picking the Musial statue as the place to meet my Grandpa. Such memories demonstrate not only the power of sport, but the power of public commemoration as a means of creating individual and shared memories about a specific person, place, or event.

The process of creating monuments, statues, and sculptures today is not what it was at one point in time. Thomas J. Brown has suggested that the art of public commemoration in America began around the 1820s, but it began to be used as a more active form of historic preservation and “memory making” with the campaign to save George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in the 1850s.  In the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-1865), a blitz of public art creation commenced all throughout the United States–North and South–to commemorate particular viewpoints about the memory of the Civil War. Statues were erected in the memory of Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation, Robert E. Lee, common soldiers, and women. This form of expression was dominant in popular culture until the 1920s, when new methods for creating memory were established. Brown tells us what happened:

The decline in the commissioning of public monuments during the 1920s partly reflected technological innovations that affected the mechanisms of Civil War remembrance. Monuments tended to be obstacles for rapidly proliferating automobiles, which gave rise to new forms of commemoration like highways named for Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Even more significant for American memory was the rise of the motion picture industry. Such films as Birth of a Nation (1915) [of which I will provide more information in a future post soon], Gone with the Wind (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) in some ways assumed the cultural role of the public monument.

Stan Musial earned himself a place in history with his play on the baseball field, but this statue will help ensure his place in the collective cultural memory of St. Louis while also creating new memories for many, many more generations of Cardinals fans.