(Un)Covering the Game: The Haskell Indians, Football, and the Role of the Sporting Press

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:20 AM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton)
Beth Eby, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
One of the nation’s strongest football teams west of the Mississippi in the early 20th century hailed from Haskell Institute, a federally-run Native American boarding school located in Lawrence, Kansas. Whether in Lawrence, or on the road, wherever the Haskell team played, large crowds of white and Indian spectators would gather to watch. Paying customers who attended Haskell’s games were also accompanied by members of the emerging sports press. While most of the reports produced by these writers featured basic information about the games (like the location, the names of players, and the final score), a specific brand of white sports journalist covering Haskell football games frequently relied upon racist language to describe Haskell footballers. Commonly used terms such as “massacre,” “scalping,” “invasion,” and “injun”, evoked both white fear and an imperial nostalgia of America’s violent past. Alternatively, Haskell’s student-produced newspaper, The Indian Leader, provided game recaps that emphasized how the athletic successes of the team were a product of teamwork, work ethic, and skill—not brutality or barbarism. Using the coverage of Haskell football as an analytical entry point, this paper argues that the sporting press in the early twentieth century was a discursive space where native and non-native visions of empire, violence, and citizenship jostled for visibility and became culturally salient. This interrogation of competing narratives of racial development and national belonging that marked coverage of Haskell football shows how significant the sporting press was in creating and disseminating American racial identities in the early twentieth century. In particular, it underscores how white sports fans turned to a mainstream sporting press that could both accommodate their fascination with native bodies, while also reassuring their readers that even if victorious, natives were still intellectually inferior to whites. Put simply, the role of the sports press transcended the football stadium.