September 1, 2021 at 2:54 pm

Alumni News | Derek Catsam writes where sports and politics collide

Derek Catsam, portrait

Dr. Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam went to South Africa to study history and fell in love with rugby. Now his latest book on the cataclysm of sports and politics in 1981 shines a light on the intersection of sports and political activism today.

Catsam is the Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas Permian Basin. An alumnus of Ohio University, Catsam graduated in 2003 with a Ph.D. in History and a Certificate in Contemporary History.

Catsam’s research focuses on the history of race, politics, and sport in the United States and South Africa. His latest project, Flashpoint: How a Little-Known Sporting Event Fueled America’s Anti-Apartheid Movement (Rowan and Littlefield, September 2021) is the study of a little known, but important moment in sports history: the 1981 U.S. tour of South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks. The book, which weaves together archival research and interviews with former Springbok team members, examines how the uproar surrounding the tour helped catalyze a nascent anti-apartheid movement in the United States and ultimately shaped the Reagan administration’s policy toward apartheid South Africa.

Catsam also authored Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides (University Press of Kentucky, 2009), which explores the deep history of racial desegregation efforts in the United States by recounting the story of the “Journey of Reconciliation,” a public disobedience campaign waged by desegregation activists in the late 1940s to force integration in busing and public transport two decades before the Freedom Riders gained notoriety.

Contemporary History Institute graduate student James Bohland recently spoke with Catsam about his new book, and sports and sports activism today more broadly.

Q: When did you first become interested in this topic? How did your experience as a member of CHI shape the way you approach history and this project in particular?

A: After my first semester in the Ph.D. program at OHIO, I went to Rhodes University in South Africa for a year on a fellowship. While there I took on a couple of research projects, but I also got convinced to try out for the university’s rugby team. That began my passion for rugby. It didn’t take long to connect rugby and politics.

When I discovered the 1981 Springbok tour to the United States, after the infamous tour of New Zealand, it all began to click.

CHI definitely shaped me as a historian, and I doubt I’d have taken on such a relatively recent topic were it not for the toolkit I was given there. Lon Hamby and the other faculty helped us understand that, as Lon would say, you can think historically about very recent events, and you can think very ahistorically about events from long ago.

Q: Can you provide a little background for Flashpoint? Set the scene for us. What exactly was going on in South Africa and America in the 1980s to make the visit of the Springboks such a controversial issue?

A: Rugby was a very minor sport in the United States. And the anti-apartheid movement was in its relative infancy in some ways. There had always been some anti-apartheid sentiment and some protests of course, but it would explode in the 1980s. The idea of the Springboks – arguably the best team in the world at the time, certainly one of the top two teams, alongside New Zealand – coming to the United States to play the U.S. Eagles (the national team) or any rugby would have been absurd. But Australia not only refused landing rights to the South Africans, but even forbid airspace. That meant that coming and going (from New Zealand) they had to fly through the United States. A once ridiculous idea came to make more sense, though the whole thing ended up being a touch ridiculous.

Q: What is it about sport that makes it such an effective tool for political and social activism?

A: Visibility for one thing. Perhaps not for rugby in 1980, but generally speaking sports have a built-in audience—including in the stadium and on TV. Plus, sport connects to so many other issues, so it’s fertile ground for a wide range of protests inside and outside the facility.

Q: Obviously, activism in sports is nothing new. Here in the U.S., we’ve seen plenty of recent controversies in sports: everything from the NFL anthem protests to bans over the use of Native American imagery/team names. Does Flashpoint provide any perspective on today’s sports controversies?

A: Well, every author is going to claim that their book has contemporary relevance! But I sincerely do think it applies, especially the debates about keeping politics out of sports, something that even if it were an ideal (and I reject that ideal, frankly) would be an impossibility because of how sports intersect with so many elements of society. But virtually every supporter of the 1981 tour claimed to want to keep sport separate from politics even though virtually everything about the Springboks and their history was drenched in apartheid.

Q: What are the key lessons you want readers to take away from Flashpoint?

A: I guess I want readers to grasp (and wrestle with) the intersections with sport and society, in this case the intersections of sport and racism, of sport and the anti-apartheid movement. I hope that they realize that beneath the absurdity (and I hope the compelling nature of) the story that there were real issues involved.

Q: What are your favorite sports/teams? Your favorite sports memory?

A: I’m a native New Englander, so I am a Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins fan. I loathe the apartheid era Springboks, of course, but am a massive fan of today’s Siya Kolisi-captained Springboks. I have a lot of memories – growing up as a Sox fan, not all of them great! My first (decidedly non-scholarly) book was called Bleeding Red and was a fan’s diary of the 2004 Red Sox in which I tried to figure out what the hell made a reasonably well-adjusted college professor lose himself and his emotions over a bunch of guys I’d never meet and if I did meet would probably not necessarily have much to talk about with. The 2004 championship win was certainly cathartic.

My two fondest memories as an athlete were probably being voted captain of the track team at Williams my senior year and my first rugby match for Rhodes. The first live rugby match I ever saw came as a starting wing. In my first minute of that first match I had the ball out wide. Five second later I was a sprawled out mess on the pitch. Thus began a love affair!

Catsam would also like to give a shout out to Amaryah Orenstein, his agent and fellow CHI alum (M.A., 2005).



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