Ball-watching through the ages: studying the history of sport

Lucy Hodges
Following on: Ed Smith went from batting for Middlesex to running the University of Buckingham’s history of sport MA. Photograph: Professional Sport/Popperfoto/Getty Images

You can’t fully understand sport without appreciating its history. That is the thinking behind an MA in sports history and culture at De Montfort University (DMU) in Leicester, which is offered by distance learning so that busy people can fit it around other commitments.

Taught by expert staff in the university’s international centre for sports history and culture, the only centre of its kind in the world, the MA is aimed at people who want to grasp the origins of modern sport and understand why sport has become so culturally and globally important.

“The course was established because there was a gap in the market,” says the centre’s director Prof Martin Polley. “It recognises that sport has a history that is worth studying academically.

“We are about getting people to look at the context in which sport happens and how and why sport changes over time, as well as the economics, culture, political and social factors that affect sport,” he says.

The course can be taken full- or part-time, over one or two years. It comprises four taught modules, plus a 15,000-word dissertation. In addition, students have the option to take extra modules in sports writing, football and rugby.

Students are given lectures within a virtual learning environment, which means they can view them at their leisure each week or month, or altogether in one go.

They have access to academics by phone, email or Skype, or they can visit the campus in person. Each year they are given three opportunities to attend seminars and conferences at DMU.

If you like the idea of taking an MA by research and not bothering with compulsory taught courses, you could sign up for a new MA that is being offered by the University of Buckingham out of its London base.

Now in its second year, the programme is being run by the former England cricketer and commentator Ed Smith, who is writing a history of sport in the 19th and 20th centuries for Penguin.

Students choose a topic to research, in consultation with Smith, on any aspect of the history of sport over the past two centuries. They then research and write a dissertation under his guidance.

A central feature of the master’s course is a series of 10 evening seminars and dinners in a London club (the Caledonian Club near Hyde Park Corner), where students can talk to the guest speakers.

These experts include former England cricket team captain Mike Brearley, ex-England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward and former governor of the Bank of England Lord King, who is on the board of directors at Aston Villa football club.

“What has been really interesting is the quality of the conversation at the evening events,” says Smith. “I have learnt a huge amount from all the discussions. And I have loved working with the students on their dissertations.”

On the course are 11 students, one of whom is an “associate”, who is attending the seminars but not doing the dissertation.

The topics being researched by the 10 other students include how cricket was transformed from a disreputable sport associated with gambling in the early 18th century to a clean and virtuous game by 1850.

‘Eventually I hope to do something connected to my sport’

Graham Kitchener, 27, who plays Premiership rugby for Leicester Tigers and made the England squad for the 2015 RBS Six Nations, has just graduated from a master’s degree in sports history and culture at De Montfort University

Graham Kitchener of Leicester Tigers gathers the ball in the lineout during a 2016 Aviva Premiership match against Worcester Warriors. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

I completed my first degree in sociology at the University of Birmingham in 2011 while playing for Leicester Tigers. After a couple of years I fancied getting back into education again and keeping my brain active, so I enrolled for this distance learning MA. I chose the course because DMU has a great reputation in the field and I liked the fact that it was online as that meant I could combine it with my rugby.

I took it over two years: the first year I covered the course modules in topics such as sport policy and politics and how to research the history of sport; in my second year I worked on my dissertation. The dissertation was on the effect that the professionalisation of the game has had on coaching in rugby union. The game was amateur until 1995, and was one of the last sports to turn professional.

For my 15,000-word dissertation I talked to a lot of people at Leicester Tigers and at my old club Worcester Warriors. I found out that over time the money that was made available to the game enabled them to employ specialist medical coaches as well as coaches for strength and conditioning guidance. The result is that rugby union is being played at a much higher level than before – and the players are now a lot bigger and fitter.

I would like to think that I can use the master’s when I quit the game. I hope I have a few more years of playing rugby. But eventually I would hope to do something connected to my sport. Even if I don’t, the MA is a good basis for employment in any field.