What makes a real city? For some it is the nightlife. For others, it’s all about public infrastructure and amenities. But, arguably for much of America, the answer is major league sports. Seattle is considered a great city by many because of its sports teams and their athletes’ heroic achievements, inspiring a sense of collective identity and civic pride.
Sports gives us something to root for, something to nerd out about outside of the daily grind of work — something to invest our hopes and dreams on. It gives us social solidarity and community.
This intersection of civics and athletics is at the heart of author and community organizer Shaun Scott’s sophomore book, “Heartbreak city: Seattle sports and the unmet promise of urban progress.” The volume chronicles 170 plus years of Seattle history through its many highs and lows, including great recessions, economic booms, waves of progressivism and eras of reaction — all through the lens of sport.
From pre-colonial Indigenous Coast Salish peoples to today’s mega-franchises like the Seattle Storm and Seahawks, athletic games have been embedded in the fabric of this city. They are some of America’s favorite pastimes, delighting many and occupying much of our free time. However, they are also a representation of so much more.
In sports, Scott sees a miniature of society as a whole. Like U.S. democracy, sports reflect many of our greatest contradictions and values. The struggle for full civil, political and economic rights for women and people of color in the 20th century was mirrored, and often anticipated, by similar battles on the football pitch or baseball diamond. Sports is both an equalizer — with the best athletes often rising to the top — while also simultaneously an amplifier of inequities. For example, early 20th century golf courses cemented colonial land theft and segregation in Seattle land use policies. In the 1920s, the Seattle Giants, a Black minor league baseball team, destroyed the Seattle Police Department’s team in a match. In an act of petty retaliation, the cops ticketed Black fans after the game.
Scott writes that this seemingly contradictory phenomenon has been present throughout the city’s history: “As they always had, Seattle sports simulated the city’s political climate, sometimes symbolizing progress and other times substantiating regression.”
Sports are also something of a unique civic forum, Scott argues. An arena or field is one of the few places where city dwellers of all types converge — in fact, they are one of the only reasons why many suburbians and rural folk even travel into downtown Seattle.
Another one of these great democratic civic institutions is that of mass transit, and transportation infrastructure as a whole. As Scott explains, one of the chief reasons why we have Sound Transit’s Link light rail is because sports fans fought for it, after decades of successive failures to develop any mass transit in the city. Seattle’s first paved roads were laid after bikers successfully passed a tax to pay for bike trails. Sports aficionados have had a direct impact on the foundation of many municipal institutions.
Throughout “Heartbreak City,” Scott tracks how sports have been intertwined with wider social and political developments in Seattle. In the late 1970s, the SuperSonics’ dominance prefigured what a racially integrated city could look like. The 1987 NFL strike revived the spirits of Seattle’s labor movement after years of malaise under union-buster-in-chief Ronald Reagan.
Yet even as sports could serve as a shining beacon of progress, they also often portrayed some of Seattle’s ugliest trends. Some organized sports in particular, such as men’s football, served as a magnet for patriarchal tendencies. Women’s sports teams such as the Storm, which is unquestionably Seattle’s most successful major sports franchise, only receive a fraction of the money and attention that their male peers get. More often than not, dreams of grandeur lay unfulfilled, such as when the Seahawks lost a second consecutive championship by three yards. This same trend was mirrored in municipal politics, where almost-realized progressive movements were defeated by corporate interests.
Throughout the book, Scott focuses on telling a popular history of people from the grassroots and margins. Some of the most interesting details included stories of oft-forgotten groups like the Seattle Owls, a Black women’s softball team that won multiple trophies in the 1930s, or Helene Madison, Seattle’s Olympic swimming superstar. “Heartbreak City” is replete with numerous little tidbits and interesting historical facts about Seattle; it is a very informative read. Even for a local like myself, it was surprising to find out how ignorant I was of the city’s history.
Scott’s writing is both poetic and accessible. Between his 2018 cultural history “Millennials and the Moments that Made us” and “Heartbreak City,” you can tell that Scott has grown a lot as an author. To write the book, he spent hundreds of hours pouring over newspaper archives, government records and the University of Washington Libraries’ special collections.
Scott writes that these histories can sometimes fall by wayside, but are not forgotten. “In overcast Seattle there are no ‘untold’ stories — only those under more or less sunlight.”
All this paid off in an extremely well-documented work, adorned with vivid black and white archival photography. UW Press, the publisher, also did a great job with a sensibly designed cover.
“Heartbreak city” is a deeply political book, paying close attention to issues of freedom and justice. It challenges middle class progressives, who sometimes appear to shun sports, to take them seriously. After all, how can socialists organize the masses if they don’t participate in mass culture? Sports fans transcend racial and class divides; sports participants even more so.
However, this inclusion does not happen spontaneously. As Scott writes, the bikers who helped lay down Seattle’s early transportation infrastructure were hampered by a real and perceived sense of exclusion and white male privilege. “‘Progressive’ exclusivity harms everybody, and no one more than the excluded,” he wrote.
To succeed, Scott argues that social movements must continuously broaden their appeal to those who have been excluded and engage with sports, just like any other arena of social life. His detailed reading of Seattle sports history challenges us to think about how the things that bring us interconnection can be channeled toward a politics of interdependence.
Read more of the Jan. 10-16, 2024 issue.