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ASU sports historian to speak on state of sports in the US

Portrait of ASU Clinical Associate Professor Victoria Jackson.

ASU Clinical Associate Professor Victoria Jackson

September 05, 2023

A former NCAA national champion with a PhD in the history of sport, Victoria Jackson is well suited to speak on the subject, something she does often in the media and at Arizona State University, where she is a clinical associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

On Sept. 6, Jackson will continue doing what she does best when she gives opening remarks for a public hearing: The Future of Olympic and Paralympic Sports in America.

The hearing, held by the Commission on the State of U.S. Olympics and Paralympics, will hear witnesses from across the movement, including more than 11 million Americans participating in youth and grassroots sports at all levels.

During her opening remarks, Jackson will share a historical view on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement. Following her remarks, other key members of the sports industry will discuss topics including: 

  • Governance and accountability.

  • Protecting the safety of participants.

  • Athletes’ rights, equity and accessibility, and ensuring fair play.

  • How to build a better future for sports in America.

C-SPAN will begin broadcasting the hearing at 6 a.m. Arizona time.

ASU News talked to Jackson about how history can keep sports accountable ahead of the commission’s public hearing.

Question: How can history help keep sports and the future of sports accountable?

Answer: I believe strongly that any policy team should have a historian at the table. Historians’ jam is contexts and complexities, and an essential part of the job of policymaking is to foresee and nip in the bud “unanticipated consequences.” Historians know how to look at a complex institution of the past and explain how and why it developed and the individual decision-making and broader forces influencing that development over time. A knowledge of history helps us understand the present and build a better future.

Q: Why is providing historical context vital to setting the stage for the hearing?

A: I have been asked to set the stage for the day by providing a sweeping, 10,000-foot historical overview of the past half-century of the American sports ecosystem. The commission will then hear from various stakeholders in the Olympics, Paralympics and grassroots sports. I will be showing, through history, the evolution of the system, recent reforms, and how this system does and does not operate the way it is intended to under the law. The historical analysis I provide will not only set the stage for the day, but it will also set the stakes.

Q: As a sports historian, what does it mean personally that you are being asked to speak and provide that historical context?

A: My goodness, I am so grateful for this opportunity. My work sits at the intersection of Olympic sports, college football, women’s intercollegiate athletics and big-time college sports, and it also positions the U.S. approach to sport within a global context. Making connections among institutions and factors often considered individually and independently of the others — looking holistically at the American sports ecosystem — is more valuable than playing whack-a-mole and treating the various parts of our sports industries as if they are not interrelated. That the commission has asked me to speak in this manner tells me they want to take on a bold, ambitious project, too.

I also care deeply about building a society where sports are for all. I want sports to be fully inclusive, equitable and accessible for all Americans (for everyone everywhere, but in this context, we are talking about U.S. sports) because I know that sports can be personally transformative and can serve communities in ways to help everyone thrive and to bring people from all backgrounds together. I believe in the power of sport. Speaking at this hearing matters a whole lot to me.

Q: Congress created the commission to seek better oversight of the Olympics and Paralympics in this country. What can you share about the topics discussed throughout the hearing?

A: One focal point will be an evaluation of the USOPC’s execution of its dual mandate from Congress to serve both the apex of the sports pyramid — Olympic and Paralympic development — and the massive grassroots base. I look forward to hearing from grassroots sports experts, including Tom Farrey and Dr. Vincent Minjares from the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Initiative and Project Play. Their work on youth and grassroots sports is a game changer.

Another topic, and a primary reason for creating the commission, is athlete health, well-being, safety and protection from abuse. Grace French, the founder and director of The Army of Survivors, Donald Fehr, who has served as executive director of players’ associations in the NHL and MLB, and others will testify about athletes’ rights and protections.

Q: What is the importance of these hearings to help move forward the future of sports in America, especially the Olympics and Paralympics? What does this mean for supporting athletes?

A: The American sports ecosystem is at a crossroads. Business practices in some sectors have been irresponsible and unsustainable to a breaking point. Barriers to access we see in other elements of society are very much present in grassroots sports, making access to sports teams too often a product of privilege. Though intercollegiate athletics is not part directly of the American Olympic and Paralympic Movement, Olympic development happens within American higher education, and recent events show that significant changes to the design of big-time college sports are likely on the horizon. We have the best sports infrastructure in the world, thanks to our schools, and more — all — Americans should have access to sporting spaces, not just as spectators but as participants, too.

I will not be making policy recommendations at the hearing. But I do have lots of policy ideas. I would like to see an overhaul and redesign of the American sports ecosystem. I want to see an independent body, perhaps a sports ministry, that serves as a hard backstop of regulation, coordination, transparency and accountability through checks on power, something the American sports ecosystem does not have.

The impressive people on this commission know what they are doing and will be putting brilliant policy recommendations before Congress in a convincing way. I am honored to play a small part in this critical work. 

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