Many years ago, when I was still a boy and not yet the man I am today, I really loved sports. I mean, I loved ‘em. Basketball especially. I knew the rosters of every NBA team, could recite the starting five for almost every major college team, and actually paid attention to high school scouting services. And this was before the internet, so that was saying something. To give you a sense of how much this mania (fanaticism?) clouded my judgement, I was one of at least eight people around the United States who hailed the advent of the The National, the daily sports newspaper that briefly existed in the late 80s, as a great day for humankind.
One of the things that was most appealing, in my memory at least, about sports way back then, was the presence of truly great teams. In football, which I also liked, the Steelers and Cowboys dominated, only to be supplanted by the 49ers a few years later. I didn’t really follow baseball when I was a kid, so I have no idea who was good (and the point here isn’t to google up the information). But in basketball, the Celtics and Lakers were great. And then the Pistons. And then the Bulls. Or maybe it was the Bulls, then the Pistons, and then the Bulls again. Regardless, the above teams just dominated the competition, prompting annual arguments about “the best team ever,” arguments that could never really be won. In the intervening years, while I was in graduate school and then an assistant professor, the era of the dynasties ended. Parity, if we recall Pete Rozelle’s football fever dream — eventually realized for a time under Paul Tagliabue — ruled the day. And, I think, sports were the worse for it. But now, it seems, powerhouses have returned: the Spurs, the Patriots, the Yankees and Red Sox, even the Celtics look like they might be extraordinary again (though only time will tell if the deal Massholes collectively have apparently cut with the devil delivers them yet another championship in yet another major sport).
Why was it better to have powerhouses rather than parity? Assuming you accept the hypothesis at all, that is. The answer, I’m pretty sure, was twofold: first, theater. It was great fun to watch David and Goliath playing out on the teevee every week, though, since this was happening in the very cruel, very real world of big-time sports, David usually got his ass kicked. And second, and this one’s more interesting to me, the pursuit of greatness.
It’s a commonplace that sports are beloved because they include useful measuring sticks for excellence: statistics, which allow fans to quantify ability, something that’s far harder to get a handle on in most jobs, and harder still outside of our vocational lives. “Joe is the best father in the world,” is the kind of thing you hear all the time. But nobody knows if it’s true, even though Joe likely has a pretty serious investment in raising his kids. Joe would probably like to know if he’s the best, or even in the top ten, but he’ll never know for sure. I knew, by contast, that the ’86 Celtics were incredible, among the best ever, as were the ’96 Bulls (even though I wasn’t really paying that much attention at the time).
So here’s my question: if I’m right that concentrated power makes for better professional sports, allowing us seriously to ponder greatness, and then, in an ideal world, to shoot for such a thing in the more humble context of own lives, does the same hold true for history departments? Is it better for the profession if Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and some public interloper, say a Berkeley, a Michigan, or a UNC that manages to learn table manners, buy a nice jacket and tie, and sneak into the eating club for a time, dominate the field? That’s how it used to be, of course. In the era of the Steelers and Cowboys and Celtics and Lakers, everybody knew where the best historians could be found: Cambridge, New Haven, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Palo Alto. But then, around the time parity came to pro sports, the same thing happened to history departments. Coincidence? Who knows.
It now seems that the above departments — along with a few others — are trying to usher in a new era of dominance. I wonder if it would be a similarly good thing in the world of academic history, as in professional athletics, if they succeed, if the concentration of power will give us all something to shoot for, a baseline for true excellence. Not to mention the theater. Or, if, as seems more likely right now, the move won’t work, if the era of parity is here to stay.
The once-dominant history depatments noted above will always have at least two advantages: a shine that’s hard to tarnish, no matter how much their prestige is no longer deserved; and deep pockets, which allow for quick reloading when stars retire. Still, it seems like the crapass job market of these past thirty years has ushered in an era of something like parity. Which isn’t to say that Wichita State or UC Davis now has a history department as good as Harvard. But it does mean that very talented people are now spread around the country. The once-upon-a-time powerhouses can, as ever, come and get these good people. And they often try to do just that. But they don’t always succeed. Even Harvard hasn’t always gotten their woman. Not to mention Berkeley, or the other public institutions, where structural constraints militate against easy greatness.
I suppose, despite my fondness for the ’86 Celtics, that I should say this will be great for the profession, the democratization of intellectual resources and all that. But then I start thinking about Dash, in my favorite scene from The Incredibles, whining to his mother, Elastigirl, that “if everybody is special, nobody is.”