Whether its the successes of its professional and college teams, or its players’ influence over politics, Texas has been a driving force for change in sports business and culture.
Frank Andre Guridy is an associate professor of history and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University in New York. He told Texas Standard sports history has fascinated him ever since he was young, and his fascination grew while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin several years ago. Guridy’s new book is “Sports Revolution: How Texas Changed the Culture of American Athletics.”
“I came to Austin in the moment when you would see football was at its height with Vince Young, and [UT] won the national championship, the San Antonio Spurs were in the middle of their run … Tim Duncan, you know, the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA championship in 2011,” Guridy said. “I step into this culture where the sports scene is robust and sports is taken seriously.”
But Texas’ influence over sports was perhaps most significant over half a century ago when segregation was still part of the way of life here. Guridy says college athletes in Texas pushed against that by demanding to play on their schools’ teams, and helped catalyze the “collapse” of Jim Crow segregation. It had big ripple effects in the professional sports world. The Houston Astrodome was built with integration in mind after demands from civil rights activists.
But professional teams also realized that times were changing, and that they couldn’t make money or gain notoriety with a facility that was segregated.
“They could not have professional sports and keep Jim Crow segregation intact,” Guridy said. “If they wanted to bring Willie Mays or the San Francisco Giants to Houston, they couldn’t have segregated accommodations anymore.”
In the decades that followed, however, professional sports began to cater to a narrower, wealthier group of people. As the industry became more lucrative, teams appealed less and less to everyday sports fans.
“In Texas, the Houston Astrodome and Texas Stadium in Irving really facilitates the growth of the hyper-luxury amenity field stadium that we know today,” Guridy said. “Those are facilities that really cater to a more affluent demographic … and not to the mass sports fans and enthusiasts who could actually benefit from those facilities.”
And teams’ focus on their bottom lines has been especially evident during the pandemic, Guridy says, when industry leaders pushed for games to continue despite the health risks.
“It’s clear that many people in the sports industry wanted sports to continue irrespective of the health consequences to the athletes and even to fans,” he said. “So, the show must go on, from a business standpoint.”
But a resurgence of athletic activism is happening at the same time, bringing new attention to professional sports that has nothing to do with the bottom line. Players are reasserting their rights as public citizens, Guridy says – expressing their wants, needs and opinions. And it brings him back to the civil rights activism in Texas years ago that helped make professional sports what it is today.
“You have sports, on the one hand, catalyzing some social change because of the pushback of the movement that we’re seeing out in the streets today, running up against a strong industry that … is making some concessions, but needs to make more,” he said.