On his book The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics

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In a nutshell

The Sports Revolution tells the story of the impact of the Civil Rights and Second-Wave feminist movements on the world of big-time professional and collegiate sports in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s. The setting is the state of Texas, a region that had a profound impact on the expansion of professional and collegiate sports in this period. Texas merits attention not only because of the enormous influence of the state’s sports entrepreneurs and athletes, but also because it serves as a fascinating case study in its own right.

The book illustrates how an unlikely alliance among sports entrepreneurs and athletes from marginalized backgrounds changed American sporting culture. It shows how Texan sports entrepreneurs transformed American sports spectating by building new facilities like the Houston Astrodome, America’s first domed sports stadium that combined suburban-style comfort while catering to a cross-class, cross-racial constituency. It shows how farsighted white team owners, college athletic administrators, and coaches teamed up with aspiring black athletes to usher in the racial integration of professional and intercollegiate sports in the state.

It also chronicles how Texas became a major site of gender transformations by illustrating how feminist-inspired sports entrepreneurs used Philip Morris tobacco money to launch the first women’s professional tennis tour in Houston at the same time that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders provoked intense debates about the meaning of womanhood in the age of the Sexual Revolution and Second-Wave feminism.

It also tracks the expansion of the professional sports industry into the state by telling the story of how the mayor of an emerging suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex lured Major League Baseball from Washington, DC. while documenting how Mexican American fans helped spark a revival of professional basketball in San Antonio.

By the 1980s, the book argues, the social achievements that were catalyzed by these alliances were undone by the very same forces of commercialization that had set them in motion. Tracking these changes on the field, in the stands, and in the television truck, the book illustrates how, for better and for worse, Texas was at the center of America’s expanding political, economic, and emotional investment in sport in this period.

The book offers an interpretative history of the 1960s and 1970s, the period when the gains of the black freedom and feminist movements could be vividly seen in the world of sports. During these years, marginalized athletes of color and women athletes entered realms of the athletic labor force where they had been previously excluded, yet they did so under the careful supervision of white male owners, managers, and coaches. By analyzing these dynamics on and off the field, the book draws together the traditions of sports writing and critical sports studies with the insights of intersectional feminist ethnic studies.

Though written for a general interest reader, the book aims to make an intervention in the historiography of sports and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas most sports books treat “the black athlete,” “women in sports”, and un-marked white sportsmen separately, this book puts them in the same analytic field, highlighting both the racial and gender implications of the sports revolution within a larger context of deepening capitalist social relations. The book asks readers to scrutinize the terms of inclusion that were established in this period, to highlight the ways sport performance catalyzed and represented freedom and equality, while underscoring the clear limits of that transformation.

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The wide angle

Since childhood, I have been passionate about sports. I played baseball in my youth, but I am embarrassed to admit that I was—and still am—a sports geek who could recite scores and statistics from memory. Sport for me had always been an intellectual exercise whether I was performing on the field or when I studied the game off of it. Yet, I never dared to draw upon that knowledge in my own scholarship and teaching until I finished my first book, Forging Diaspora. Reading the exciting new work in sports studies over the past 10-15 years, seen in the work of historians Laurent Dubois, Adrian Burgos, Jr., Brenda Elsey, Louis Moore, among many others, inspired me to apply my training as a historian to my longstanding passion.

This particular book project began to take shape when I was doing public history work while I was the director of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. It was during those years that I encountered a dedicated group of black sports enthusiasts who were firmly committed to preserving the history of African Americans in athletics during the era of Jim Crow segregation and beyond. Historian Michael Hurd’s Thursday Night Lights compellingly documents the history of black athletics in Jim Crow Texas. In this history, I saw how black sporting institutions, like black churches and schools, provided spaces of community formation that helped African Americans survive Jim Crow, as it did for the state’s Mexican American population too. Sport also provided a vehicle of upward mobility for working-class white Texans.

These realizations, along with my evolving interest in sports history, led me to jump at the chance to write a history of sport and society in Texas, a region that was shaped by its legacy of colonization, slavery, and Jim Crow segregation, but had been undeniably transformed by the influx of black and marginalized people into previously prohibited spaces. The enormous popularity of sports in Texas, including its history of cross-racial interaction and entrepreneurial innovation, seemed to be topics worthy of exploration. These suspicions were supported by my research in various archives throughout the state. With the Sports Revolution, I was able to harmonize my longstanding interest in sport performance with my own social justice commitments to join the work of historians who aim to write the history of the United States from the perspective of the dispossessed, the marginalized, and the silenced.

And yet, I can’t help but think that the book runs counter to some of the prevailing trends in U.S. historiography over the past decade or so and especially since the election of Donald Trump. Continuity narratives now dominate the historiography of racism in the United States. As was the case decades ago, the “legacy of slavery” argument is often invoked as the primary explanation for ongoing forms of anti-black racism and social inequality in the United States. While I am not questioning the foundational role of slavery in the history of the U.S., as a social and cultural historian, I tend to be suspicious of such claims of an intractable unchanging problem of “race in America.” Instead, I am convinced that it is the moments of disjuncture—emancipation, the advent of major world wars, and the emergence of powerful social movements—that provide important insights into the reconstitution, rather than the mere persistence, of racial and gender hierarchies. The Sports Revolution tries to show how the 1960s and 1970s, like the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War a century before, was one such moment.

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A close-up

When first readers pick up The Sports Revolution, they might assume that it is yet another book about football in Texas, and with good reason. H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, his classic portrait of high school football in 1980s West Texas, has had a major influence on how sport in Texas has been understood. While my book explores Texas’s role in the popularization of football in the United States, it intentionally explores the state’s role in the transformation of baseball, basketball, and tennis as well.

If a reader browses the book long enough to realize it is more than a book about football, then I would want them to go right to chapter 6 of the book, which is my discussion of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, the sexualized cheerleading group for the National Football League (NFL) franchise that became a lightning rod during the 1970s. Most sport history books do not contain a sustained discussion of cheerleading, a cultural practice that is often derided by sports fans and sports critics. The chapter illustrates how the cheerleading squad helped enhance the popularity and profitability of the Dallas Cowboys, leading the franchise to rebrand itself as “America’s Team.” It also highlights the demands of cheerleading labor and underscores how Cowboys management exploited their labor in this period. And yet as a social and cultural historian, I place the experience of the women who labored for the Cowboys at the center of the story.

This chapter, like much of the book, illustrates my reliance on sports highlight films and telecasts, which are now widely available on the internet. I analyze these sources alongside accounts of sporting events created by sportswriters. The telecasts and highlight films underscore the enormous power of the male-dominated world of television executives in the production and dissemination of the sports revolution during these pivotal decades. Indeed, this book is as much about the impact of sports media, especially television, on the popularization of spectator sport as it is about the transformative performances on the field of play.

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I hope that readers who are not sports enthusiasts will come to appreciate the relevance of sports as a topic of inquiry. I hope the skeptical reader can see sport as more than mere entertainment. I want to encourage further investigation into the growth of the sports industry, its importance to the political economy of cities and of the country as a whole during the past century, its centrality to the constitution of racial and gender understandings, and national identifications.

The outsized impact of big-time sports has been painfully clear during the COVID-19 crisis, as professional sport leagues and universities have coerced their athletic laborers to risk their lives competing in sporting events even as the pandemic has raged on without an end in sight.

And I hope that sports enthusiasts will appreciate the merits of a portrait of sport and society that is based on Black and Ethnic Studies and feminist perspectives. Popular and even academic sports history has historically been a heavily masculinized genre. My book contributes to the growing literature inside and outside of academia that interrogates much of the mythologies surrounding sport in America, while highlighting its potential for social change.

The book also aims to alter understandings of Texas in the American imagination. Now that I am back in New York, I see that Texas is poorly understood by imagined enlightened East Coasters, who often cast Texas as little more than a conservative bastion of Red State America. The fact that the Republican Party has held onto state power through gerrymandering and voter suppression leads many to overlook the fact that the state has fascinating freedom traditions by its Black, Latinx, indigenous working-class populations. In this regard, the book aims to portray Texas as a dynamic region, a place where rigid racial hierarchies were altered during the 1960s and 1970s, a place where the region’s marginalized communities and civic-minded entrepreneurs left their imprint on U.S. society. In this sense, the book joins the work of Max Krochmal’s Blue Texas, Tyina Steptoe’s Houston Bound, Brian Behnken’s Fighting their Own Battles, and Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing, and others that provide an alternative view of a state that has a long history of struggle for social transformation.

Finally, I think the book can shed light on the current wave of athlete activism that has been galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement. The gestures and tactics of Colin Kaepernick and other politically engaged athletes have a long history, much of which dates back to the era I explore in my book. While today’s athletes have taken courageous stands against black oppression and police violence, they have yet to address the inequities in the sports world itself. College athletes who play revenue-generating sports remain exploited, while coaches and universities, and the bloated predominantly white management class profit handsomely from their labor power. Inequities between men’s and women’s sports continue to prevail, notwithstanding the great strides that have been made during the past fifty years. In this sense, the book suggests that the revolution that transformed the sports world in the United States fifty years ago remains unfinished.

March 3, 2021
Frank Andre Guridy The Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics University of Texas Press 384 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 1477321836

Frank Andre Guridy is Associate Professor of History and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. Besides the Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics, which is featured in his Rorotoko interview, he is the author of Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), which won the Elsa Goveia Book Prize from the Association of Caribbean Historians and the Wesley-Logan Book Prize, conferred by the American Historical Association. He is also the co-editor, with Gina Pérez and Adrian Burgos, Jr., of Beyond el Barrio: Everyday Life in Latino/a America (NYU Press, 2010).

Cover Interview of
March 3, 2021