Historian blogs about sports, civil religion

Presidential Fellow and Ph.D. student specializing in 20th Century American history, Robert J. Greene II came to South Carolina in 2012 as a journalist decorated by the Georgia College Press Association. Now he's a guest blogger for the award-winning “U.S. Intellectual History Blog.” (He’ll be writing every Sunday. See his most recent post, Sports and Civil Religion, here.)

The Graduate School met up with to Greene a few months back to ask him a few questions about his research and the unifying influence of sports and social media. Now, with a big sports season underway, we thought the interview seemed timely, and so decided to share a few highlights with you again.  

Q: Big-time college sports often get a bad rap in academia, as they are sometimes taken to deflect funding from research or overshadow academics. Your research sheds a different light on sports’ influence.

A: As a historian, I’m interested in the unifying role sports play in our culture and in our everyday lives. Where, on any given day of the week, people might otherwise be divided by politics, race, or religion, on Sundays you’ll find them wearing the same colors and rooting for the same team.

At the college level, sports are commonly referred to as “the front porch of the university,” with teams acting as “ambassadors” for a particular part of the country. I think this is because sports provide something recognizable for us to get behind, something we can see.  And perhaps this visibility explains why it’s not just university endowments, but also university enrollments, that go up when a college team is doing well!

Q: Much of your work sits at the nexus of culture, history, and politics. Can you give us an example of a critical juncture in which this played out?

A: During the 1960s, sports played an important role in integrating the South and in making the South a more welcoming and diverse place.  Acquiring a pro team during this time was a way of saying you had made it as an integrated, big city. Players like Hank Aaron (of the Atlanta Braves) and teams like the New Orleans Saints come to mind when I say this. Sports fans will readily recall the image of Hank Aaron—a revered black player, in uniform with “Atlanta” scrolled across his chest—signing a baseball for two white kids. It’s not difficult to imagine how an image like this may have played a small role in changing attitudes in the South.