Playing as if the World Mattered in the Journal of Sports History

by Russell Field
Journal of Sports History
Volume 43, Number 2

It is diffcult to imagine that the link between activism and sport needs to be (re)asserted on a day in November 2015 when varsity football players and other student groups drew attention to institutionalized racism at the University of Missouri and forced the resignation of a senior administrator, and junior hockey players in Flight, Michigan, walked out on their team’s owner to force him to rehire a coaching staff they felt was unjustly red.

Yet this is the position that Gabriel Kuhn takes in a new collection of visual culture that is intended to illustrate activism in sport. He perceives dual pressures: a reluctance among some on the Left (he notes Jean-Marie Brohm and Marc Perlman) to accept sport as a social practice capable of rising above its lot as capitalist escapism—masculinist, nationalist, and racist; and the ways in which moments and movements of protest and resistance in and through sport have been neglected and marginalized in the mainstream media. Kuhn’s aim is to highlight the visual texts of progressive “sports culture for a better understanding of the struggle for both better sports and a better world” (11).

Kuhn divides the book into three sections, which are both thematic and chronological. The rest, emphasizing European workers’ sport (1893–1945), is the most coherent, focusing as it does on a well-defined collection of organizations. Kuhn highlights the growth, achievements, and tensions within socialist and communist sport in years leading up to World War II. He characterizes the second section as “sport and civil rights” (1946–1989) and includes diverse proles of individuals, including Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller (this section is where most of the content specifc to the U.S. appears), journalistic endeavors (Miroir Sprint in France and Lester Rodney, sports columnist for the Daily Worker), and general movements (anticolonialism and the antiapartheid movement). The book concludes with examples of grassroots sport organizing (1990–present). This discussion of fan supporter groups and community sport organizations (drawn primarily from European football) is Kuhn’s comfort zone and features prominently in his previous foray into sport, Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics (2011).

Playing as if the World Mattered
offers instances of activism, each well illustrated. There is value in having such moments collected together, but it is worth asking whose resistance counts. The account of “state socialism” does not include, for example, the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces in Jakarta. Indeed, virtually all of the examples in the book took place in the First World, and events in the Global South are often framed through northern activism, such as the antiapartheid movement. Nor does Kuhn offer accounts of resistance to ostensibly left-wing initiatives such as state socialism. A prominent exclusion is Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska, whose Prague Spring–inspired resistance at the 1968 Olympics is not included in the extended discussion of the events surrounding the Mexico City Games.

The example of Caslavska is also illustrative of the absence of women generally from Kuhn’s discussion. Focusing the rst chapter on workers’ sport, which included women
(more as participants than organizers), precludes any discussion of Alice Milliat, the Fédéra- tion Sportive Féminine Internationale, or the Women’s Olympics/Women’s Games that took place during the interwar years. Instead, the legacy of individuals such as Billie Jean King are connected with the contemporary (re)emergence of sports such as roller derby and the ght for LGBTQ rights in sport.

Given that the book reads as a catalog of moments of activism, it is easy to quibble over exclusions. But rather than adding content, greater coherence over the interconnections between the examples included would be preferable. What constitutes activism? Is there a distinction to be made between activism in sport and through sport, and is such a distinction material? Are the themes that Kuhn identites meant to capture myriad examples or present a coherent whole?

There is an unquestioned beauty in having neglected moments of sport’s history so well illustrated. The volume suffers from its slim dimensions, which Kuhn attributes to the economic pressures of publishing—“producing a full-color book that is reasonably priced demands a limit in size” (11). Despite such realities, our historical understanding of sport would bene t from a greater interrogation of visual culture. Here, the images act to illustrate Kuhn’s text, and he frames his use of the visual around “the simple truth that an image can say more than a thousand words” (11). Aphorisms aside, no, it doesn’t—not if we cannot decode the image. The symbols incorporated by artists in the images marshalled by Kuhn, the fonts used, and the messages included all operated to communicate important elements of resistance to a community galvanized to play sport and resist oppression. We would be well served to consider them as more than colorful accompaniments to the texts we create.

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