Dave Wiggins, an authority on the African American experience in American sport, is retiring ... sort of

When the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture began planning its sports gallery, the first call museum director Lonnie Bunch made was to Dave Wiggins.

Wiggins, a professor of sport history at George Mason University, is Bunch’s longtime friend. But he is also an acknowledged authority on the African American experience in American sport.

“I don’t think there is anybody in his generation who has done more to elevate the scholarship and help us understand the meaning of sport and the intersection of race with society,” Bunch said. “I believe it so strongly.”

Wiggins called his consultant position at the museum "the highlight of my career. It is a career that is about to change.

Wiggins, 67, is leaving Mason after 28 years for his home in Cambria, California, with a Pacific Ocean view and easy access to the Paso Robles wine country.

He calls it a retirement, but the author and editor of 20 books, primarily about race and sport, said he will continue to research and write. He is president-elect of the North American Society for Sport History and editor of a sport culture and society book series for the University of Arkansas Press, and he said he just might do some teaching at nearby Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

“Writing is his leisure. It’s what brings him quality of life,” said Wiggins’s wife, Brenda, a Mason associate professor. “He’ll be doing things that really soothe him.”   

Brenda, who co-coordinates the master’s program in sport and recreation studies, will continue to teach at Mason, though remotely.

“We can’t ask for a better situation,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins’s career arc began while he played right field for San Diego State University. He was a kinesiology major (he has a PhD in the field from the University of Maryland), but he also read voraciously about sport. And when he took a class on the history of American sport, he was hooked.

“I love to study sport and read about sport and analyze sport,” Wiggins said. “I knew immediately, if I could do this the rest of my life, I’d be a happy man.”

The study of African American life and culture was rising when Wiggins was in college in the late 1960s and ’70s. While taking those courses, Wiggins said he became fascinated with the black protest movement and civil rights struggle.

He was especially interested in the work of Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which proposed a black boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. At that Olympics, U.S. sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute from the medal stand.

“I came to the conclusion you cannot write the history of American sport without writing about race,” said Wiggins, who was also an advisor to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., for an exhibit on the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. “It is such an integral part of our history, an integral part of sport history.”

His latest book, “More Than a Game: The History of the African American Experience in Sport” (Rowman & Littlefield), is due out in August.

“He is one of the pioneers in the field,” said Chris Elzey, director of Mason’s sport and American culture minor and co-editor with Wiggins of the book “D.C. Sports: The Nation’s Capital at Play” (University of Arkansas Press). “The contributions he has made to the field of sport history, and especially African American sport history, are immeasurable. I’m amazed at what he has been able to do.”

As for his time at Mason, Wiggins, who came from Kansas State, said it was the best career move he ever made, not only because of Mason’s proximity to Washington, D.C., but because it stresses interdisciplinary work and camaraderie among faculty.

“He’s an incredible scholar,” said Mark Ginsberg, dean of Mason’s College of Education and Human Development. “He’s not only admired and respected, he’s revered by his colleagues for his contributions and ability to galvanize people and ideas and contribute positively to the community.”

Dave Wiggins, 67, is leaving Mason after 28 years. Of his prolific career, he said, "I came to the conclusion you cannot write the history of American sport without writing about race." Photo by Lathan Goumas.