Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolinaby Pamela Grundy
In this richly detailed book, Pamela Grundy examines the many meanings that school sports took on in North Carolina, linking athletic programs at state
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Over the past century, high school and college athletics have grown into one of America's most beloved--and most controversial--institutions, inspiring great loyalty while sparking fierce disputes.
In this richly detailed book, Pamela Grundy examines the many meanings that school sports took on in North Carolina, linking athletic programs at state universities, public high schools, women's colleges, and African American educational institutions to social and economic shifts that include the expansion of industry, the advent of woman suffrage, and the rise and fall of Jim Crow. Drawing heavily on oral history interviews, Grundy charts the many pleasures of athletics, from the simple joy of backyard basketball to the exhilaration of a state championship run. She also explores conflicts provoked by sports within the state--clashes over the growth of college athletics, the propriety of women's competition, and the connection between sports and racial integration, for example. Within this chronicle, familiar athletic narratives take on new meanings, moving beyond timeless stories of courage, fortitude, or failure to illuminate questions about race, manhood and womanhood, the purpose of education, the meaning of competition, and the structure of American society.
[This book] provides a fascinating window onto race, gender, class and mainstream culture. (New York Times)
Learning to Win is by far the best book on the relationship between sports and education in southern history. (Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi)
Learning to Win is superb sport history. (Michael Oriard, Oregon State University)
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Learning to Win
Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina
By Pamela Grundy
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2001 Pamela Grundy.
All rights reserved.
In a dusty yard far down a rural road, a young man aims at a battered hoop that once served as a bicycle tire rim but which has been transformed into a basketball goal. As the light begins to fade, and the buzz of rural evening builds up from the ground, he lofts the ball again and again, sending the rim clattering, savoring the joy of motion and the pleasure of accomplishment. "The thing about basketballeven if there's nobody else around you can always practice on your own," David Thompson explained, years after his solitary workouts in the small black community of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, helped build him into one of the greatest basketball players the world had ever seen. "I did a lot of that. Just the satisfaction of seeing the ball go through the basket was the thing that kept me going."
But for David Thompson, as for many of his peers, basketball quickly became far more than play. Between 1891, when a young man named James Naismith drew up basketball's first thirteen rules, and the mid-1950s, when Thompson first picked up a worn, brown ball, competitive athletics had grown into one of this nation's most significant cultural institutions, offering talented players countless opportunities to profit from their skills. And so David Thompson embarked on a journey that had become a cornerstone of American mythology. He left Boiling Springs, traveling first to Crest High School in the nearby town of Shelby and then to North Carolina State University, where his great leaping ability and deft sense of the game propelled the Wolfpack to the 1974 National Collegiate Athletic Association title and made him national player of the year.
Thompson thus joined a pantheon of sporting heroesChoo-Choo Justice, Wallace Wade, Sam Jones, Dean Smith, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordanwhose exploits have sunk deep into the hearts of North Carolina residents, reaching beyond the boundaries of court or field to touch the pulse of daily life. The day that Thompson suffered a terrifying fall during the 1974 national tournament, tumbling from above the basket and landing squarely, stunningly, on his head, the sight of his unmoving body lying on the court brought his humanity so powerfully home to one white North Carolina woman that she began to pray, promising that if Thompson's life were spared, she would never be prejudiced again. A decade after Thompson's exploits, when another North Carolina State team won an improbable national title, Charlotte resident Titus Ivory drew lessons that went well beyond the game. "Everybody had just said that N.C. State had no chance of winning that national championship," he explained. "Nobody ever gave N.C. State a chance. And when N.C. State won that game, I just threw my hands up and I said, 'Hey, anybody can win, if they just put their minds to it. And that to me just reminds me that you can't give up. You just have to play and play as if this is the last game you're going to play, and you've got to win it.'"
Still, for all the power such celebrated exploits wield, athletics' greatest significance can be found elsewhere, in the more modest fields, courts, and gymnasiums that have become part of the landscape of American life. After the Civil War, as interest in organized sports began to spread across the country, athletics wove into the fabric of existence in myriad American communities. On small-town ball grounds, in industrial leagues, in high schools large and small, athletic contests drew a wide range of citizens to the regular rituals of football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer, embedding the structures and rhythms of competitionthe rounds of victory and loss, of strategy and teamwork, of fortitude and failuredeeply into national life. More than almost any institution that would grace U.S. culture in the ensuing century, athletics brought communities into its orbit, ringing young and old, men and womenpeople of all colors and social standingsaround athletic fields. The dramas that ensued would be etched into collective memories, recounted in front-porch family exchanges, in Saturday morning barbershop convocations, at school reunions, in newspaper columns, and around the smoking stoves of country crossroads stores.
In this work I attempt to trace some meanings of these games, delving into the athletic history of a single state to consider what its citizens made of the many ways they played. It is a complex task. Athletic contests have proved so enthralling in part because they engage so much of human potential, demanding and displaying physical agility, mental skill, individual achievement, collective effort, andsupporters claimgreat moral fortitude. At the same time, the apparent parallels between organized team competition, the clashes of democratic politics, and the developing structures of industrial capitalism transformed American athletics into a multifaceted metaphor for American society, its strengths, and its failings. The athletic clashes enacted throughout North Carolina, from the hardscrabble fields of the poorest rural communities to the palatial gymnasiums of its most lavishly endowed universities, thus embodied complex cultural dramas, testing a rich range of ingenuity and courage while providing an arena where communities engaged the tensions, possibilities, and contradictions of the world around them.
The games in which North Carolina citizens would invest such emotional force formed part of a new world that took shape within the state after the Civil War. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Tar Heel State fell beneath the sway of the economic forces that were transforming life throughout the nation, building a world that moved not to the seasonal rhythms of agricultural endeavor but to the more rapid beat of industrial production and commercial exchange, in which success or failure depended less on the weather than on the forces of supply, demand, and competition. As growing numbers of North Carolinians began to study law and business, to trade plows and mules for the spindles and looms that drove a rapidly expanding textile industry, or to essay the treacherous waters of commercial agriculture, many also labored to remake themselves. Like their predecessors in other regions of the country, who had responded to the challenge of intricate machinery, market-driven competition, and ever larger business enterprise by schooling themselves in disciplines such as punctuality, self-restraint, hard work, and attention to detail, North Carolina's most ambitious citizens began to discard old ways of life in favor of this new vision.
Nowhere did these efforts wield greater force than in the state's public schools. Schooling was taking on new significance around the country, as a wide range of citizens began to look to formal education as much as to custom or tradition to give children the skills to make their way within a rapidly changing world. Educators would also expand their goals, seeking not simply to offer academic lessons but also to promote the habits of thought and action suited to a society in which "not birth but worth" was seen to determine social position. Memorization gave way to experiment; recitation, to more active reasoning. Student performance was judged according to a set of fixed criteria, a "single standard of honor." Written examinations, numeric grades, and elaborate award ceremonies were all designed to foster application and ambition, preparing students for a world in which, one reformer argued, each citizen must "win for himself his place, and must show himself worthy of [that] place by winning it anew each day."
Competitive athletics meshed neatly with many of these goals. As the games of the antebellum eralargely straightforward tests of strength and skillgave way to contests governed by more complex rules and strategies as well as more exacting measures of success, advocates of school athletics claimed their new games taught young people many of the qualities they would need to make their way in a challenging, competitive world. Not only did sports such as football and basketball inculcate the Victorian-tinged virtues of self-discipline and steady effort, supporters argued, but they also nurtured a heightened sense of competitive self-assertion that echoed the Darwinian tenor of late-nineteenth-century society. The structure of athletics, within which teams and individuals rose or fell according to their own talents and efforts, embodied the philosophy that guided graded schooling and the society whose demands it sought to meet. Although school officials did not always wholeheartedly embrace athletics, the power of these associations helped promoters of school sports make steady progress, building athletic programs into integral components of school life.
For thousands of eager participants, athletics also held other attractions, offering a means to negotiate the fluid identities of an emerging modern era. The array of transformations that swept over postbellum North Carolina forced state residents to redefine identities, communities, and ideals, drawing not simply on custom and tradition but also on shifting social and economic opportunities, on reconfiguring political debates, and on the tantalizing images found in the broadening realm of market-driven popular culture. Athletic challenges that included discipline, physical self-mastery, team cohesion, and public performance created arenas in which young people could grapple with such varied influences in both body and mind, exploring their connections to the communities around them while delving into the contested realms of manhood, womanhood, and race.
The powerful effects athletics worked on individuals and communities thus gave sports yet another function, as an arena for contesting the inequalities that became as integral a part of North Carolina as tobacco or sweet tea. The social order taking shape within the state was not the level playing field of patriotic rhetoric or sporting legend. Rather, it comprised an intricately patterned hierarchy of law, custom, and belief, an order most visibly embodied in the Jim Crow laws that governed racial interaction but that also divided men from women, industrialists from farmers and workers, rural from urban dwellers, South from North. Such divisions lent athletic contests added layers of significance. When teams from the state's white colleges took to the field or court, the compelling vision of vigorous, dramatic competition could seem a confirmation of the superior social position such young men enjoyed, as well as the system that had placed them at the top of state society. Conversely, the equally compelling games played at African American schools, among the state's young women, or on the dusty fields abutting textile mills mounted symbolic challenges to such ideas, demonstrating that qualities such as discipline, determination, and competitive zeal were hardly the exclusive province of a white male elite and implicitly critiquing a society built around that assumption.
Athletics thus sat at the center of cross-cutting cultural currents, becoming an arena in which individuals and communities negotiated aspects of their own identities as well as their position in the state's new social order. Sports remained in part a realm of play, where participants reached into themselves to discover strength, self-confidence, and creative joy. But even as they played, athletes became inextricably entangled in the world around them. Assessments of strategy and character segued easily into discussions that ranged from business ethics to racial difference to community honor, as residents disputed or defended the shape their society had assumed and the place they occupied within it. The wide variety of uses to which athletic contests could be put offer one key to their widespread popularity; in the multifaceted society of twentieth-century America, the most successful cultural institutions have been those that can support multiple meanings, be put to many ends. Yet they also complicate efforts at interpretation. Athletic contests, like paintings, plays, or dreams, compress multiple ideas and images into singular, compelling events that can be profoundly moving but which resist easy reading, drawing aspiring interpreters in numerous directions all at once.
In this work I explore this murky realm, seeking to illuminate some of these cultural currents and to understand what North Carolinians made of the many games they played. I examine dialogues that unfolded in newspaper articles, school publications, academic writings, public discussions, and private correspondence, attempting to discern the larger assumptions and debates that informed such conversations as well as the ways athletic metaphor and experience shaped approaches to the world beyond the field. I also draw extensively on oral history interviews. The stories related by coaches, fans, and athletes capture a range of experiences far broader than those fixed in the spotlight that had shone so brightly on the state's major college teams. At the same time, the memories that individuals and communities so often hold so dear offer myriad insights into the understandings these many citizens took away from their experiences, the ideas, myths, narratives, and habits of thought on which they would draw as they faced the challenges and dilemmas of their lives. I build chapters from collections of these overlapping stories, seeking less to construct explicit arguments than to throw athletic narratives and events into relief, linking them to larger patterns of historical change and to insights culled from the array of works in history, folklore, and culture on which this study rests. I pursue a narrative style, with liberal use of direct quotation, in an attempt to bring varying voices and perspectives into this dialogue as fully and effectively as possible, as well as to convey at least some of the creativity and passion with which North Carolinians approached their sporting endeavors.
I emphasize, of necessity, selected themes, institutions, and periods of history, concentrating on moments and places that seemed to offer especially telling insights both into sports and into the changing society they reflect and influence. I focus more on public than on private institutions because public schools reached out to the greatest share of the state's population; more on basketball and football than on baseball because baseball achieved less prominence in educational settings; more on times of conflict than on periods of calm because conflict forces participants to articulate ideas with especial clarity and force. While most of the chapters center on games that took place within a specific contextwomen's colleges, African American high schools, the integrating institutions of the 1960stheir themes slip through those bounds, weaving in and out of narratives much as arrays of ideas, traditions, images, and beliefs have filtered across the state's diverse communities, assuming different forms in different times and places. The choices I have made emphasize some connections and downplay others. But the result, I hope, depicts worlds both separate and connected, a broad canvas of activity across which themes and individuals diverge and intersect, somewhat as they do in the grand confusion of daily life.
Through these efforts I have worked to fashion a portrait that reaches beyond the state to touch on a more broadly American history. While the South is often seen as a distinctive region of the United States, southerners were also Americans, profoundly influenced by nationwide transformations such as war, industrialization, a growing federal government, and the spreading reach of national popular culture. Within many of the South's own diverse cultures, athletics became an institution with especially close ties to this national realm. The dilemmas that North Carolinians encounteredof race, of manhood and womanhood, of the meanings of competition and the measures of successresonated around the country, touching Americans from myriad walks of life. At the same time, the process by which North Carolinians fashioned and drew meaning from their sporting institutions, the ways they mixed local circumstance with national developments, mirrored similar processes of transformation taking place in countless other American communities. Examining the shapes that sports assumed at such profoundly local levelshow, for example, the intersecting issues of race, fairness, and the desire to win took concrete form in a white coach's decision about how many black players he would startthus sheds light not only on the ways that national ideas take shape in local institutions but also on the process by which a culture's most profound assumptions are embodied or contested through the smallest rituals of daily life.
North Carolina games also illuminate aspects of U.S. culture as a whole. One of the most powerful themes of American sporting history involves the ways that immigrants have found in sports a means not only to grasp central tenets of American life but to become American themselves. The story of North Carolina sports emphasizes that native-born citizens themselves have also had to tread this path, becoming Americans not simply by birth or inheritance but, rather, through a lifetime of engaging the circumstances and challenges of living in this country. For them as well, athletics has frequently played a major role in such endeavors. In few other countries has athletic competition been woven so completely into institution, ideology, and everyday life, encompassing, for good or ill, many key components of what passes for a common national culture. These connections have turned athletics into a particularly potent realm for discussing or debating some of the fundamental tensions that beset U.S. society. The compelling dramas that unfold on court and field have also lent emotional and intellectual force to one of this country's most powerful ideals, the vision of a free and fair society in which individuals enter the competitive fray of political, social, and economic life and rise and fall on their own merits.
The ways that North Carolinians contended with these many issues, the lively force they brought to both play and debate, underscore the energy and creativity with which a wide range of Americans have approached their lives, using the materials at hand to bring meaning to the times in which they live, as well as to transform themselves and their world. In the stories told by these many individuals, tales encompassing joy and struggle, dreams and disappointments, lie many of the enduring meanings of American athletics, the challenges it has helped people meet, and the points where it has let them down. Within the confines of a modest southern state, on grassy fields, dirt courts, and hardwood floors, North Carolinians have wrestled with, bowed to, and triumphed over some of the central dilemmas of American society, issues that involve men and women, black and white, force and restraint, fairness and victory. Today, when adulation of athletic competition has reached unprecedented heights, and when the dilemmas of sportsmanship, fair play, and competitive strife confront us with particular urgency, contemplating the process by which our predecessors learned to win, as well as the many battles they waged around such thorny issues, offers insights not only into their worlds, but into ours as well.
1. Grundy, Most Democratic Sport, 4.
2. For an account of David Thompson's career, see Herakovich, Pack Pride, 88-89. Thompson was also national player of the year in 1975. In 1999 Sports Illustrated editors placed Thompson on their Team of the Ages, anointing him as one of the best five college players of the twentieth century.
3. Private conversation; Ivory interview, 6.
4. Some of the dynamic connections between play, sport, and society are analyzed in Huizinga, Homo Ludens, and Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 412-53. For a classic account that sets a particular sport in the context of its society, see James, Beyond a Boundary. Numerous works in the growing field of sports history have also begun to draw insightful links between sports and society in the United States. Some of the best are Cahn, Coming on Strong; Festle, Playing Nice; Oriard, Reading Football; Gorn, Manly Art; and Sperber, Onward to Victory.
5. For accounts of post-Civil War transformations in North Carolina, see Hall et al., Like a Family; Escott, Many Excellent People; Leloudis, Schooling the New South; Hanchett, Sorting Out the New South City; Tullos, Habits of Industry; Greenwood, Bittersweet Legacy; and Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow. For descriptions of transformations in character and culture that accompanied industrialization elsewhere in the country, see Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class; Paul E. Johnson, Shopkeeper's Millennium; Kasson, Rudeness and Civility; and Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow.
6. A detailed, insightful account of the cultural and psychological ramifications of the shift from antebellum schooling to a graded system, as well as the significance that schooling came to assume in postbellum North Carolina, can be found in Leloudis, Schooling the New South; quotes are from ibid., 20, 23. The classic text exploring the ways that schooling shapes character as well as ideas is Durkheim, Moral Education. For an account of the early development of graded school philosophy, see Tyack, One Best System. For the significance that education held for southern African Americans in the postbellum era, see Anderson, Education of Blacks in the South.
7. The affinities between sports and North Carolina's emerging social and educational institutions fit effectively into Antonio Gramsci's theories of hegemony; they helped weave assumptions about competition, success, and individual achievement so tightly into American culture that they would become almost invisible to many Americans. For a discussion of Gramsci's usefulness for cultural history, see Lears, "Concept of Cultural Hegemony." For descriptions of the transformation of sports in the modern era as well as arguments about its educational worth, see Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 195-213; Gorn, Manly Art, 179-206; Oriard, Reading Football, 23-56; and Gorn and Goldstein, Brief History of American Sports, 153-82.
8. A particularly thoughtful treatment of sports and identity among women can be found in Cahn, Coming on Strong, 223-45. My concepts of identity-building as a fluid process influenced by shifting combinations of a variety of images and ideas are influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss's theory of bricolage, as recounted in his Savage Mind, 16-33. The growing significance of leisure and recreation as arenas where nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans located and played with central aspects of their identity is considered in, for example, Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom; Kasson, Amusing the Million; Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will; and Peiss, Cheap Amusements.
9. The significance vigorous sports assumed among white college men is considered in Doyle, Turning the Tide, and Patrick B. Miller, The Manly, the Moral, and the Proficient. Meanings of North Carolina's women's sports are explored in Dean, 'Dear Sisters' and 'Hated Rivals.' An interpretation of sporting activities at African American schools can be found in Patrick B. Miller, 'To Bring the Race along Rapidly.'
10. For a nuanced and compelling account of the multiple interpretations attached to the sport of football, see Oriard, Reading Football, 1-20. As Oriard notes, the multiple meanings sports assume also make it difficult to theorize effectively about them. Pierre Bourdieu also acknowledges the difficulties of such a task; see Bourdieu, Distinction, 217. For treatments of the ways that multiple meanings have been attached to other mass culture institutions in the twentieth century, see Grundy, We Always Tried to Be Good People, and Lawrence Levine, Folklore of Industrial Society. Theories of play are elucidated with enduring elegance in Huizinga, Homo Ludens. While the play aspects of sports remained a significant source of appeal within North Carolina, this work will concentrate largely on those aspects of North Carolina that seem to throw the greatest light on state and national society. Huizinga himself questioned the extent to which U.S. school athletics embodied the play instincts he delineated; see Homo Ludens, 197-98.
11. A broad and growing literature on the practice of oral history emphasizes the powerful role that personal and historical memories play in the actions and decisions of daily life. Rather than focusing on whether such memories accurately reflect historical reality, I consider the process by which they are formed and the uses to which they are put, examining both the patterns of thinking they reflect and the subsequent influence they wield. A useful overview of this literature, including an extensive bibliography, is Thomson, "Fifty Years On." For other examples of both theory and practice, see Thompson, Voice of the Past; Frisch, Shared Authority; Hall, 'You Must Remember This'; Terkel, Hard Times; and the articles in the special issue "Memory and American History," Journal of American History 75 (March 1989). Because I was particularly interested in the meanings of direct experience with school sports, I interviewed mostly players and coaches. My decisions about whom to interview were directed toward engaging the sporting experiences of a broad variety of individuals, rather than a systematic effort to obtain a representative sample. Since much of the interviewing was done in conjunction with museum projects covering the several counties that surround Charlotte, there is a definite bias toward that part of the state.
12. For a discussion of this dialogue-centered approach to writing history, see Lu Ann Jones, "Voices of Southern Agricultural History." The writings of many scholars, both in North Carolina and elsewhere, have influenced this work, but I have drawn particularly often on Anderson, Education of Blacks in the South; Cahn, Coming on Strong; Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights; Dean, "Covert Curriculum"; George, Elevating the Game; Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow; Hall et al., Like a Family; Kasson, Rudeness and Civility; Kelley, We Are Not What We Seem; Leloudis, Schooling the New South; Liberti, We Were Ladies; Oriard, Reading Football; and Tullos, Habits of Industry.
13. Perhaps the most significant decision I made was to place my major treatments of black women's sports in chapters focusing on women rather than on race, thus emphasizing the gendered over the racial aspects of these women's experiences. I made this choice in large part because I was particularly intrigued by the way that patterns of athletic development among different groups of North Carolina women complicated assumptions about categories of womanhood that tend to be defined along the lines of race and class. Still, a greater emphasis on the racial components of black women's experiences would likely have proved equally, if not more, illuminating of other issues. Despite considerable thought and struggle, I could not come up with a satisfactory narrative structure that allowed me to pursue both directions to a greater extent than I have here.
14. For an insightful argument regarding the significance of the "everyday," especially in popular conceptions of race, see Thomas C. Holt, "Marking."
15. Particularly intriguing treatments of immigrants and sports can be found in Gorn, Manly Art; Peter Levine, Ellis Island to Ebbets Field; Barth, City People, 149-91; and Sperber, Onward to Victory, 3-14. The power of modern athletics, I argue, lies partly in how athletic events are able to exercise cultural authority on many levels, both intellectual (in their reliance on widespread concepts of the value of competitive endeavor) and emotional (in the powerful, direct effect they have on observers). In this way they meet Max Weber's criteria of both affectual and value-rational legitimacy. For Weber's outline of forms of legitimacy, see his Economy and Society, 31-40.
Excerpted from Learning to Win by Pamela Grundy. Copyright © 2001 by Pamela Grundy. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
Outstanding. . . . This superbly researched book, heavily based on oral history, with over 50 photographs, is highly recommended to general readers and upper-division undergraduates through faculty and researchers/professionals.Choice
[This book] provides a fascinating window onto race, gender, class and mainstream culture.New York Times
Learning to Win is by far the best book on the relationship between sports and education in southern history. By studying sports among high school and college males and females, black and white, Pamela Grundy brings new insights to the often slow movement toward today's big-time, big-money spectator sports. Her use of oral histories and countless college publications helps show the human side of sports for players, fans, boosters, and school administrators.Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi
In exploring the history of high school and industrial league sports in North Carolina alongside intercollegiate athleticswith equal attention to urban and rural, male and female, white and blackGrundy has produced a portrait uncommonly rich in both breadth and depth. Every chapter is original, and the book as a whole, by weaving together its various stories so artfully, is genuinely groundbreaking work. Learning to Win is superb sport history.Michael Oriard, Oregon State University
An exhaustive and engaging account that shows how critical sports studies can provide meaningful connections between athletics and the larger culture.American Studies
In the richness of its detail and the quality of its analysis, Learning to Win is a most satisfying book. . . . An intelligent and sophisticated book. Not only does nearly every page contain perceptive observations, but Grundy has been remarkably successful in weaving together into a smooth narrative the complex meanings of North Carolina's recent sporting history.Journal of American History
Meet the Author
Pamela Grundy is a historian who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she pursues a variety of writing, teaching, and museum projects.
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