National sports historian authors new edition of “Sports in American Life”

Richard Davies grows increasingly skeptical about college sports

3/22/2012 - By: Claudene Wharton
Richard O. Davies Richard O. Davies, Distinguished History Professor Emeritus at the University’ College of Liberal Arts and author of the recently released Second Edition of "Sports in American Life: A History." Photo courtesy of Jean Dixon.

When Richard Davies began teaching "The History of American Sports" at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1994, he was one of the first to offer sports as a way to bring American history and pop culture to life in the classroom. Now, the prolific author and often-quoted sports historian's Sports in American Life: A History (2007) textbook is used in many of about 300 such courses offered across the country. Answering the call for an updated version, Davies has authored a Second Edition, just released, with updated information on sports statistics, issues and figures such as Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods, an expanded discussion of women's sports and an increasingly skeptical view of college sports.

One might expect a more optimistic view from the Distinguished History Professor emeritus who has spent much of his career researching the history of sports in America and using it as a way to teach students about important issues such as political movements, civil rights and women's rights. However, the hard-working, disciplined, yet wryly humorous and popular instructor and commentator isn't one to look at the world through rose-colored glasses.

"Really, my fandom has decreased dramatically after researching all of this," he said, continuing to rattle off a number of reasons for his views, including "the East Coast bias with ESPN and one-third of all televisions being in the East," "the good-old-boy network where the Bowl directors are mostly former coaches," "the 55 major 'BCS' universities that control the revenues for their own benefit," and his view that "the NCAA is 'like a cartel'."

Davies added that he was, however, pleased that the University of Nevada, Reno administrations have "kept our athletic program in a reasonable perspective without excessive expenditures or serious violations of NCAA policies." He said he was also pleased that nationally, women's sports at the college level have actually excelled over the past 40 years, due to the passage of Title IX in 1972, a federally mandated push for greater equity between men's and women's athletics programs at universities.

"It has actually been quite successful," he said, citing the rise of collegiate women's basketball. "There are 15 to 20 collegiate women's basketball teams that actually pay for themselves now, and other successes I researched and discussed in the book."

However, Davies said that women's professional sports have "not really taken off, unfortunately - only tennis, with the beginning of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry in the 70s and 80s."

Davies named the Evert-Navratilova one of the top 10 American sports rivalries of all times in his 2010 book, Rivals! The Ten Greatest American Sports Rivalries of the 20th Century, and credits it, and the women's more strategic style of play, for the position of women's professional tennis alongside men's professional tennis today.

Davies has written, edited or co-edited more than 15 works during his 50 years of research and teaching, and although he taught his last class at Nevada in January, after 32 years on campus, he is still seen walking on Nevada's historic Quad headed to his cubby hole, cluttered, yet inviting office frequently, following a disciplined schedule of research and writing.

"I'm working on a history of boxing in Nevada," he said. "At age 74, writing is still a thrill. I take great pride in my work. I like to think my legacy will be my books and my students."


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