Monthly Archives: February 2013

Sports News Round Up #2

I had plans to keep these pieces short, but after finishing writing I think they probably could have been individual posts. Either way, here’s my take on some recent sports news that I’m following.

Big Ten Says No to FCS

Members of the Big Ten athletic conference has to decided to no longer schedule football games against teams in the Football Championship subdivision (FCS, formerly D-IA). The news is obviously driven by self interest, as the league wants it’s teams to increase their strength of schedule to give them a better shot at competing for national championships in the BCS (and future playoff system). Lots of people are commending the league on the decision and hoping that others follow suit. The argument here is for strength of schedule, quality football games every week. No more cupcakes and blowouts in the first three weeks of the season. For fans of competitive football it makes sense and will make the sport more exciting.

At first sight, I like the decision too. But I’m curious what happens to the schools being left out? Most games against FCS school are ‘guarantee’ games where the hosting school (almost always the larger, major conference school) pays the opponents a certain amount of money to come play. These payments are usually in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars. For smaller FCS schools, that’s a lot of money that often makes up a significant amount of their athletic department budget. With decreased budgets those schools must trim the fat. This could be by eliminating sports, cutting back on support staff, etc. They could also ask for more support from students and colleges (after all, very few athletic departments are self-sustaining).

While I am in favor of reigning the in spending (and I think it might help trim budgets of the larger FBS programs), I’m also worried about the increasing disparity between athletic departments. The FCS division only exists for football, but this decision could have ripple effects that impact other sports, particularly women’s sports, but also men’s basketball. Division 1 Men’s basketball competes against everyone. While there are still power conferences, smaller schools (some who don’t even have football programs) frequently make deep tournament runs. Butler University is just one example.

As a football fan I definitely like the Big Ten’s decision, but this is a story I’m going to keep following because it has the potential to have far reaching consequences and impacts on the economic of college sports if other conference follow suit. This decision, teamed with the conference realignment, have the power to dramatically reshape the climate of college athletics over the next couple of decades. It amounts to a chilling effect by the ‘power conferences’ in regards to control and access of money generated from media contracts for football. It’ll also be interesting to see how it affects basketball, women’s sports, etc.

Olympics Drop Wrestling

Beginning in 2020, wrestling will no longer be an Olympic sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced. It came as a shock to many. The decision affects both men’s and women’s wrestling. Although wrestling isn’t necessarily the most popular sport, it is one of the five original Olympic sports. Yet, popularity proved to be the deciding factor, according to the IOC.

The decision is interesting on a variety of fronts. Obviously the sports tradition and connection with the Olympic Games makes it curious. So does the rationale of popularity. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, wrestling it the fifth most practiced sport in American high schools. The article claims that participation by boys and girls is at a historic high, with a dozen of NCAA Division II and III schools recently adding teams. To be sure, a board member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame wrote the article and it focuses entirely on the United States. I’m unsure if the sport shares the same international clout.

An article in the Times of India notes that female participation, struggles with doping scandals, and it’s failure to adjust to the television age have affected the sport and likely contributed to the IOC’s decision. At the same time, the article described wrestling in India as having “an exalted status” and suggested India might be one of the most affected countries by the decision.

The international ramifications will be interesting to follow, but I’m most interested on the impact of wrestling in the United States. Unlike other sports, the Olympics Games are the pinnacle for wrestlers. While it is true the sport has recently been growing (my alma mater and several of its conference peers have added teams in the last 5 years at the NAIA level), there is still the stigma of Title IX. Since 1972 over 250 college wrestling programs have been cut. Cutting has been the primary response rather than creating women’s programs. The NCAA, NAIA, and NCJAA do not currently sanction women’s wrestling. According to the Women’s College Wrestling Association (who does sanction the sport), there are only 22 varsity programs in the United States. Likewise, only three states offer championships in the sport at the high school level. Yet, a 2007 New York Times article reported 5,000 girls participate in the sport annually, a fivefold increase from a decade earlier. Women’s wrestling was introduced to the Olympics in 2004, and while not all of these participants have Olympic dreams, it’s likely a contributing factor for a few. I’m curious to see what affect the cut has on both men’s and women’s programs. Without international Olympic competition, will schools invest less in wrestling programs? How will this affect the momentum of the women’s wrestling movement (both in the U.S. and abroad)?

I should note that dropping sports from the Olympics is not all that uncommon. Baseball and softball were dropped in 2005 (there were contested in 2008 but not 2012 and they seem to be doing fine in the U.S. without IOC sanctioning. Baseball and softball, however, are on much firmer ground in the college and high school sports landscape. Wrestling had been under attack for many years following Title IX, and the movement to add women’s programs is still quite young. I think in some cases the panic here is warranted with wrestling fans. As I stated above, the Olympics are one of wrestling’s only major international events. The next move is to petition for reinstatement in time for the 2020 game and work on strengthening the sports base and popularity, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

One issue I wanted to talk about here but ran out of time/room is the notion of sanctioning power. Much of what I’ve talked here revolves around the power to legitimatize a sport. Sports historian Allen Guttmann outlined seven characteristics of modern sports: 1) secularism 2) equality of opportunity to compete and in the conditions of competition 3) specialization of roles 4) rationalization 5) bureaucratic organization 6) quantification 7) the quest for records. Wrestling generally fits all of these criteria. The IOC is also a part of this distinction since it is a sports bureaucracy. The IOC, however, rationalized its decision based on popularity. Guttmann deals with popularity separately. It is not essential for spectators to be present for a sport to be considered modern, he explains. I would challenge Guttmann and say that in today’s world, spectators and popularity are increasingly more important and that they do characterize “modern” sports because spectators and popularity are required to generate revenue, which is required by most sports for equipment, referees, etc.

Without being too cynical here, money makes the world go round and it’s especially important in the world of sports. Wrestling, for example, requires expensive mats, special shoes, headgear, kneepads, uniforms, warm ups, clocks, scales, gymnasiums, as well as, coaches, referees, medical trainers, etc. While most of this is start up costs, there’s also ongoing expenses.  As the Time of India noted, wrestling has been slow to ‘modernize’ in terms of adapting to television. This is bad for the sport, in the Olympics eyes, because television is a large part of how the IOC makes money. Likewise, corporate sponsorships are often tied to television exposure, whether via commercial advertisements aired during specific events or signs posted in and around the competition area.

The Olympic also aim to make money. While it’s somewhat unusual for the host city to make much, the IOC and various national Olympic committees (which are generally non-profits) do make money. Being popular is an important part of making money. An article in yesterday’s New York Times sums up the decision fairly concisely: “A shift in priority has occurred in an era of outsize television contracts as Olympic officials seek to add more telegenic sports and more widely visible stars in hopes of maintaining a sense of relevance, modernity and youthfulness in the Winter and the Summer Games.”  The irony in this approach is that wrestling does appear to be growing, particularly with women. Much of that growth has come because of its Olympic status and the increased emphasis and funding and associated with it.

Smithsonian Hosts Native American Mascot Symposium

The National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium about Native American mascots on February 7th in Washington, D.C. As one might expect, the hometown Washington Redskins were one of the most criticized teams at the event. The event had moderate media coverage in sports world. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, was one of the more vocal writers. He seems to have made it his mission to convince the Washington Redskins to change their mascot this off-season. Zirin is not alone is in insistence for a change. In his article, entitled “Redskins: The Clock Is Now Ticking on Changing the Name,” implies a real need for change based on the popularity of black quarterback Robert Griffin III and the team’s recent success. He suggests that limelight thrust on them by the just completed season are big reasons for the change. While I admire his tenacity and agree that the name should be changed, his argument ignores the larger struggle.

The Native American mascot issue has been an ongoing battle for several decades. Washington has been in playoffs several times during this fight. And RGIII, for all his popularity, isn’t going to dramatically alter the fight. This, of course, does not mean we should give up hope. Zirin is hopeful that RGIII himself might join the clause, but I have my doubts about that too. I do, however, think the continued pressure will help and I applaud Zirin for keeping the fight alive.

ESPN.com had a similar opinion piece about the mascot. Like Zirin, the author explained the appalling racial history of the teams founder and former owner George Preston Marshall. He was staunch segregationist and was the last owner in the NFL to integrate his team. As the story goes, Marshall was forced to integrate by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to appease TV executives and President John F. Kenedy because they were in violation of federal law since their stadium was built on federal land.

The team’s current owner, Dan Snyder, has no connections to Marshall but remains committed to the team name. Although the team declined an invitation to talk about their choice to use the mascot at the Smithsonian event, their spokespeople told various media outlets that they believe the mascot serves as a tribute to Native American warriors and is “derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle.” This deviates from other explanations the team has given in the past, such as the mascot is used to honor former coach and Carlisle player William “Lone Star” Dietz (his claims to a Native American heritage became controversial and remain unverified. Dietz’ biographer argues that prejudice against Native Americans was so prevalent at that time that it makes little since for me to make it up since claiming Native American ancestry would have made Dietz’s life harder, not easier). He coached the team with moderate success in 1933 and 1934 while they were in Boston.

If we assume Dietz was, in fact, Native America, he is a figure worthy of honor. He was one of a few former Carlisle players that went on to a distinguished coaching careers Perhaps most famous for leading Washington State to the 1916 Rose Bowl, Dietz coached a handful of other college teams in addition to serving as a one of Pop Warner’s assistant coaches at Carlisle, Stanford, and Temple. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Interesting, he is not a member of Washington’s “Ring of Honor.” Of course, Dietz ended his time coaching the Boston Braves with a .500 record. Perhaps this is why Washington has changed its story about the mascot name, or maybe it’s why they chose to honor in him in such a derogatory way?

There is no honor in the term Redskin. None. Mascots are inherently representations. They’re built off of stereotypes. They encompass expectations of a certain behaviors and characteristics, whether physical or mental. People name their teams after bulldogs because they are tenacious, they’re bold and stubborn, they’re strong, they have really strong jaws that grip and tear their opponents easily. Although today bulldogs are kept mostly as pets, one hundred to one-hundred-and-fifty years ago they were central parts of urban bachelor and tavern culture. Native American mascots, on the other hand, build off of a long history of conflict between them and conquering and colonizing American settlers, soldiers, and missionaries. They represent complex ideas about what it means to be Native American, and what being Native American means to society. Some pretend to be proud and praising of qualities such as bravery, leadership, and nobility (e.g. the Braves and Chiefs). Others focus on less desirable qualities. Before they changed their mascot, the Texas Tech Red Raiders symbolized Native Americans raiding white settlements that were infringing on Native lands. Looking at the history of the words and their uses implicates both sets of mascots. The terms Brave and Chief, despite their modern justifications, are not innocent. Indeed, they were both once considered racial slurs.

There is a lively collection of scholarship dealing with Native American in sports and mascots. Scholars have explored the issue for a variety of angles and published their findings in numerous articles and books. I explored a lot of the controversy while writing my master’s on Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills. My argument picks up during the progressive era and connects reform efforts, boarding schools, Wild West Shows, and famous athletes as central components of contested representations of Indianness that informed and, at times, reified the expectations of broader society. To be sure, like most social-cultural constructions, mascots are an extremely messy issue.

This messiness, however, is what’s often lost on the message board commenter. Commenters are rarely the target audience of scholars. Few, if any, would spend the time to sit down and read Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy, one of the best introductions and overviews of the issue, for example. Yet, it’s hard to truly convey just how offense Native American mascots without some of the big picture discussion. The best that most newspaper columnist can do is offer the parallel racial slurs used against African Americans, but even this doesn’t always resonate.

Because of this problem in conveying the messiness and the history these representations and term, I’m glad the Smithsonian held its event. The more we talk about these issues and the more pressure we put on teams, the more likely we are to build a cohesive base that can enact change. And change is happening.

In the last couple of years there have been some real wins in the fight against Native American mascots and sports imagery. In June, after decades of fighting, 68% of North Dakota voters decided to retire the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” mascot in a primary election. This had long been one of the most contentious fights, one that saw a donor threaten to withdraw a $100 million donation if the mascot was changed. The same donor required the school to engrave the old mascot throughout athletic projects he funded to make it more difficult to change. At the same time, however, the Big Sky conference threatened to ban the University of North Dakota from its conference if they did not change their name. At the high school level, the states of Oregon and Wisconsin banned the use of Native American mascots in their schools in the past couple of years as well.

These successes indicate that change is possible, but requires relentless pressure and hard work. The Redskins are an important target. They’re not only one of the most offensive professional sports mascots, but they’re also out of the reach of politics and judicial review. All of the recent victories have come from state agencies and votes. Changing Washington’s team name will illustrate a real cultural shift and capstone decades of work. I hope Zirin is right. I hope the clock it ticking on the name change.

Sports News Round Up

When I started this blog, I originally hoped to offer some commentary on current events and major stories in the sporting world. I’ve failed miserably at this goal. Instead of offering excuses, here are a few brief summaries of my take on some recent stories/issues.

Catfishing Manti Te’o

This story broke, quite appropriately, the same week I was reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. So, as you might expect, my initial reactions to this revelations of his fake girlfriend were tinted with notions of gender performativity. I wrote a brief reaction paper combining to the two for my Gender and Technology course, but much has changed since then. Initially I was skeptical of Te’o’s own role in the scandal. I wondered it if was a cover up for latent homosexuality, something that is frowned upon in the football world and both the Mormon and Catholic churches. The hoax would make sense in this light and within Butler’s description of gender, because he would have been using the Twitter girlfriend as “performance.” To be sure, there are still some interesting developments here with the hoaxer recently admitting he fell for Te’o and was questioning his own sexuality. And, I still haven’t fully bought into the explanations offered by both Te’o and Notre Dame.

However, beyond this concern there are a couple more interesting ways to approach and interpret the story. Returning to the issue of gender, the hoax can be seen as the objectification of women via technology to create a gender performance manipulated and used by males to craft a specific narrative. As Butler reminds us, gender is separate from the doer is perfectly illustrated. There does not have to be a doer for there to be agency, thus the fabrication subordinates and manipulates gender for dominant hegemonic purposes.

Beyond issues of gender, are what I think are prompts to fascinating conversations about journalism and digital literacy. Why weren’t sports journalists more thorough in their investigations? What role did Notre Dame and other media outlets play in perpetuating these narratives? If Te’o was he truly duped, how can we prevent further such situations and educate people about online cultures and environments. I was especially reminded of this when listening to the Notre Dame Athletic Director’s comments about the situation. Seemed clueless and in over his head at times. To me, this reinforces our need for digital literacy and competency as integral parts of educating people. Both in terms of social networks and mass media, but also in other areas. And within various digital cultures and sub-cultures, the concept of gender performativity, as well as other humanities theories, seems like especially useful tools look at and evaluate the use of technology and their social-cultural creations online.

How and why does Cheating matter?

I’ve been working on a stand-alone post about for several months. Each week it seems we learn something new. A new admission, twist, and layer of the story. Cheating has been in the news quite a bit lately. So frequently, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if it even matters. Why do we care? Does it really change the way view and think about professional sports? Where do we draw the line between seeking a competitive advantage and cheating?

Over the last decade the United States government has been obsessed with finding and prosecuting cheaters in professional sports. Congress has commissioned reports and held hearings. They’ve spent millions of dollars and countless hours trying to pin down evidence and catch people in lies. All for what? For a clean moral conscious? To guard against the ills of dishonesty? Most people agree that cheating is wrong. But rarely do we discuss how and why is it wrong.

Major League Baseball considers using “performance enhancing drug” cheating. They recently banned the San Francisco Giants Melky Cabrera, who was 2012 All Stag Game MVP, and the Oakland Athletics Bartolo Colon 50 games each for a positive drug tests. Yet, MLB’s assault on cheating is fairly new. Steroids were not banned in the league until 1991. It wasn’t until a decade later, in 2003, that they actually began testing players. Track and field has been out infront of the crowd in its vigilance about catching and prosecuting cheaters. Marion Jones gave up her gold medals and went to jail. Justin Gatlin was banned for several of his prime years after repeat offenses. Recently, Lance Armstrong finally admitted he is a “cheater,” albeit in a somewhat disingenuous way.

As a historian of sport, eventually I’ll have to address the cheating situation. I’m sure there will be some interesting studies 15 – 20 years from now contextualizing the likes of Bonds, Clemens, Armstrong, and Jones with the era of Enron, insider trading, and government bailouts. After all, capitalism is all about finding the most efficient ways to make profits. Unregulated capitalism often results in ‘corruption’ a.k.a. dishonesty and cheating. Are the actions of the players trying to more efficiently improves their skills/performance so they can earn more money in contracts and endorsements any different?

The more I think about it, context matters. Today we knowingly joke that all of the Eastern European countries were doping at the Olympic during the Cold War. In the not-so-distant future, I think we’ll also look at 1994-2003 as the ‘Steroid Era’ of baseball. We’ll see Lance Armstrong as the best of the cheaters (since many of his competitors have actually been found guilty).  I’m personally not a fan of asterisks or stripping medals and records because I think contexts and facts speak for themselves. To be sure, performance enhancing drugs changed the narratives, and we must talk about them, but we can’t go back and change or erase the facts, only explain them. Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs in his career, and 73 in one season. Nothing can change that. We can’t un-live those moments. You cannot erase history, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles after nearly dying from cancer. He started an enormously successful charity to support cancer survivors (although it appears it offers little funding for scientific research). Did he use performance enhancing drugs? Yes. Is his story any less inspiring? I don’t think so.

I actually think the Bonds and Armstrong are more interesting people given their “cheating.” They’ve become contested figures within their sports and their eras. Armstrong was a giant dick. He ruined people’s lives with lawsuit when he knew he cheated. He developed a pseudo-shill organization to cover his ass. Offered money/donation type bribes to drug testing entities. These are fascinating stories.

The job of a historian is to look at how and why events happened. What caused the steroid era? Was the decision done by individual players, or were coaches and team owners involved? What were the goals of cheating? How did they cheat? Did they use existing drugs and methods or innovate? If they innovated, did these new experiments and tests contribute medicine or science beyond sports? What was the reaction of the media, fans, and their competitors? Did the cheating work? It’s also important to consider alternatives. What would have happened to Lance Armstrong if he didn’t cheat? Where would he be? What would he be doing? Would he have won? How would we view cycling and the Tour de France? Likewise, we must ask about the investigations. Why did Congress view cheating as a problem? Did their probes result in any real changes? Who’s job is it to define and legislate cheating rules? Is it a legal issue, a moral issue, a game/league specific issue? Are there parallels or cultural aspects of cheating in non-sports areas? Is cheating a pandemic in business, education, etc.?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they are important to consider when thinking about “cheaters” and sports. They help us get beyond the assumptions we often make about cheating. Whether or not you care about cheating/performance enhancing drugs, these issues are relevant to broader society. Especially when you consider the haste given to the judgment of sports cheaters (most notably seen in the 2013 baseball hall of fame vote) compared to those in the 2008 financial collapse.

Violence in Football

President Obama recently said that  he’d “have to think long and hard” before letting his son play football, if he had a son. “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” he continued.

Violence in football has been a major story most of the season. Junior Seau’s family has joined a suit against the NFL, NFL films, and various helmet manufacturers citing negligence and the encouragement of violent hits that cause brain and mental health issues. During this most recent NFL season, several pundits have questioned both the continual play and rest of players who have suffered hits. RGIII incited national debates about his durability. So did Alex Smith as his concussion and recovery time forced a quarterback controversy that resulted in him losing his job. Some questioned whether Smith would have benefited by hiding the concussion to retain his job. They used it as an example where following new safety procedures work against players. While the 49ers situation is an outlier, it is a serious concern.

I only played football during junior high. And even then I was too small to get much playing time. I am, however, a fan of the sport. I’m even considering a dissertation about the college game. My brother, on the other hand, was a terrific football player. He played middle linebacker in high school and earned the reputation of one of his teams hardest hitters. We often discuss the issues of concussions and injuries. He’s admitted that it is hard for him to watch the game now knowing the toll it takes on players bodies and the long term impact. Watching players actively shorten their lives on a weekly basis is just not appealing to him.

So what’s the deal with football? Almost 110 years after Teddy Roosevelt’s conference on college sports which spurred on the creation of the NCAA, we’re still seeing many of the same issues. Is the sport doomed or will another round of reform save it? This is a difficult question to ask. Direct deaths are hard to prove in the modern game. Likewise, it’s become close to a billion dollar industry. Will economics outweigh player safety, especially when the game is utilized as an uplifting tool for a large number of minority players? For me this is a fascinating story of history cycling back through old debates that were never settled. It brings up questions of labor and safety, welfare, science, medicine, race and economics, as well as media spin. Is violence in the NFL the end of the Strenuous Life? Or will Obama channel his progressive rhetoric to offer new remedies for the violent game that help maintain the glorification of American manhood?

Paying NCAA Athletes

This is perhaps one of the most contentious issues facing sports. The NCAA has finally admitted it needs reform. A major lawsuit is underway by former players saying they deserve to be compensated for selling their likeness to video games companies, their names to apparel manufacturers, and the use of their labor for media contracts and fundraising. Previous decisions about the ability of athletes to be considered as employees entitled to workman’s compensation for injury are starting to be reconsidered too. What’s fair? How do we share the wealth generated by ‘amateur’ athletes for big-time universities and their governing body? Scholarships aren’t enough for cost of living. The allegedly “free” education is no where near market value compared the money brought athletes in by the revenue sports.

Should athletes be paid? Should college sponsor athletic teams? What does/should reform look like? These questions have been a part of debates for a while, and are difficult to answer.

I’m personally in favor of a far less big-time system. But I admit that is fairly idyllic. While I hate the exploitation of college athletes in an indentured servant like system, the idea of paying athletes doesn’t make much sense to me either. The numbers just don’t add up when you take into account Title IX and the subsidies from universities to athletic departments. There are a lot of myths about college sports, and one of the biggest is that they make money.

I had a recent debate with a friend about this subject. He is a former NCAA D-1A football player and like many sports writers and pundits he thought sports made money for universities. He asked me a pretty straight forward question about the situation: How much money do you think each student-athlete makes for the universities (ie, having a team for which to sell tickets, merchandise, TV contracts, etc.) compared to tuition costs per student?

After a bit of research, I offered him my view. While I admitted that I’d never seen the exact numbers, and that they’d probably pretty difficult to quantify and measure given the differing level of revenue amongst NCAA FBS athletic programs, there have been a few studies that provide a general idea. According to USA Today in 2009-10, “22 of the 228 Division I public schools generated enough money from media rights contracts, ticket sales, donations and other sources (not including allocated revenue from institutional or government support or student fees) to cover their expenses.” So in general colleges most don’t even make money to cover their own expenses, let alone to contribute back to the university. A recent Inside Higher-Ed article noted that median subsidy for FBS schools from universities ranged from $7.7 million to $8.5 million. So based on those numbers alone, it suggests that most athletes via their athletic departments make no direct contribution to the university. Many, but not all, colleges use student fees to support athletic programs, however, as seen in the subsidy.

The point I think he was trying to get at, is whether sports team act as marketing tools themselves to attract students and more tuition dollars, as well as more donation money. While they very well could, I’ve never seen a definitive study to suggest that either way. To return to his original question, only 13% of students in college attend for-profit universities. This means that most colleges are not-for-profit entities and so at these schools tuition from non-athlete students is used entirely for educational expenses and operating costs. While the numbers vary, in the UC system, student tuition and fees are about 13% of the total operating budget, but 48% of their “core operation funds.” Of those “core operation funds,” 30% goes to academic salaries, 23% to staff salaries, 14% to employee & retirement benefits, 14% to financial aid, and 18% to equipment & utilities (this is based on 2010-11 budget). So, basically, at least in the UC system, students contribute nearly half the operating costs of the universities, while athletics contribute nothing. Obviously, this is difficult to generalize across all the Div 1 schools, but I think it’s a solid example of the problem of paying student-athletes when sports are already a drain on university funding.

This should not be read as me being anti-college sports. I’m far from it. I love college athletics, but I’m definitely in favor of self-sustaining athletic departments. If they can contribute money back to the university, even better. What I’m not in favor of is using student fees and tuition to suppor big-time sports. I think doing so is contrary to the mission of higher ed. I think it’s an entirely different argument if you want to talk about the “intangible” benefits that can’t be factored into the numbers, like marketing of schools and name recognition, community pride, etc. It’s hard to grasp those. But, I’ve seen some numbers linking sports teams to donations. The last ones I saw showed a slight decline in nonathletic donation, while sports donations increased 75%, which to the author of the study suggested in some cases sports donations increased at the expense of academic donations.

These are all interesting issues. And while I don’t have a clear solution, its something I like to monitor and study. I do think athletes need to be more fairly compensated, and the expansion/explosion of TV money can help fuel that. But paying athletes will only work, legally with Title IX, and financially with education remaining the central purpose of a university, if we focus on paying everyone through a self-sustaining athletic department. Paying only revenue athletes violates Title IX, and paying everyone without requiring self-sustaining sports programs only further diverts money away from academics (the reason universities exist) to sports.

I hope this brief Sports News Round Up has been interesting and provided some new perspectives and food for thought regarding major stories and issues currently being debated. I try to approach these issues with a bit of a historical perspective that takes into account a variety of issues and perspectives that aren’t always considered. Feel free to agree, disagree, or offer alternative opinions and viewpoints. One of the great things about sports and sports history are that they offer a lens to view and discuss important issues in American culture in a tangible and accessible way.

Notes: Writing History for a Non-academic Audience

Today we had a “Brown Bag” session about writing for a broad audience. Our department has a grad student association that sponsors these type of things. My advisor was the professor we chose to give the talk. He’s an extremely productive writer and with an impressive publishing record of books that appeal to broad audiences. He’s made a career of being engaged with the public both with his books, through documentaries, and as a historical consultant for several History Channel shows. I’ve read several of his books and his writing style is captivating. Obviously I’m a little bit partial considering he’s a large reason why I chose to enroll at my particular institution. But hearing him talk about his process today, and even the way he explained, really reinforces that decision.

Because of the idea of writing or a broad and popular audience has a lot of resonance lately in discussion of public history, alternate careers, and by people feeling the pinch of budgets, below are some of my thoughts and notes from his talk. Making history more accessible and more appealing to broad audiences can only help to reinforces it’s utility and importance. Indeed, I have long thought that all history should be public history. So with that in mind, I hope that these notes are useful and/or stimulating to those of you seeking out a broader reach for your scholarship. It is important to note that these are my notes and interpretations of the presentation, so they may not entirely reflect the views of my advisor.

Before I begin, one final note that about my advisor’s approach and training,  he earned an MA in literature before his Ph.D. in history and is a big proponent of reading widely. In fact, he often recites, relevant, era specific poetry in classes. It’s impressive to see him break out in verse, but it’s also evident that this broad interdisciplinary training and reading has informed his research, teaching, and writing styles. This brings us to his first point:

  • You need to think like a writer, a cinematographer, not a researcher or historian. This means a lot of things. Central to this statement is that it’s important to think and reflect on writing techniques. What makes writing good? Why do you enjoy a particular writer or piece or writing?
  • It’s important to set the scene early, to create a mystery and emotional connection with the reader so they want to keep reading. Don’t be scared to be a little bit literary, think about what makes novels good and use those techniques in writing about the past.
  • Embrace notions of creative non-fiction, but don’t make stuff up. Your facts/quotes/details need to be 100% correct, but you can write about them and use them to create a scene. You can raise questions and mysteries with how you present the details. This does not mean fabricate or recreate things that you can’t prove, but instead to be aware and on the look out for those details as you research. One way to do this is when you do research (particularly in newspapers, etc) is to read more than just the article you want. Check out the other major stories, the weather report, etc. It helps you build the setting and understand the context.
  • Story, story, story. It’s all about the story you choose to tell. You have to pick the right story, one that is big enough and has some historical themes and significance. Within that story it’s essential to know when/how to create a scene and when/how to provide a summary. Thick description is important but you can’t do it throughout the text. A good rule of thumb is to pick and build around 4-6 main characters, having a strong narrative arc, and engaging the reader at a visceral level.
  • One of the curious things he said was that he doesn’t really engage in historiography much or other historical debates. People don’t want to read about historiographic questions. While those questions do appear in his books, they don’t drive them. Beyond grad school and the academy, no one cares about the small differences in interpretation. Of course, he did say that we all do need to be grounded in historical methods and solid researchers because those skills help us become great storytellers, but the form of a lot academic history doesn’t appeal to general readers. The bottom line, however, is that you wont get anywhere without first being a good historian
  • Write as soon as you can. Writing helps you process what you’ve learned and discover what details/facts you’re missing. Writing as you go often inspires more research, but also prevents you from doing too much research. If you’re struggling to try and explain something, more research can help provide extra details.

Beyond the paraphrased points above, here are few memorable/quotable tips to keep in mind:

  • You have to look around and observe to tell a story.
  • Details are what bring a story to life.
  • The setting is based on facts that we sometimes over look.
  • Use details to raise questions and advance your narrative.
  • Strive to bring an emotion and response out of the reader.
  • Alternate scene (thick description) and summary.
  • Choosing a topic is essential. Be sure to choose topics/stories that you think are interesting.
  • Read the whole newspaper when doing research, not just specific articles.

I’ll close with two things that I found particularly interesting regarding topic selection his approach to advising graduate students. First, he emphatically emphasized the central role of choosing a good topic. You absolutely have to choose something that you find interesting. If you don’t, you’ll hate yourself and the book. You won’t give it your all. Now that seems pretty obvious, but it’s important to remember. If you like what you’re writing about and are fascinated by it, it will show. Also, if the topic is something interesting enough to maintain your interest for several years, it’ll probably also be interesting to someone else. Of course, that’s not always the case., but it’s a good guiding principle.

That brings me to the second interesting thing he said: He never lets his graduate students choose their own topics, at least not outright. Now this might seems odd or a little overbearing, and perhaps a bit contrary to my previous point, but it makes a lot of sense. Faculty advisors, particularly those who are more senior and who have written a lot of things, know what’s interesting. (This is probably why in another conversation he told me that he thinks Ph.D. students should work primarily with senior scholars). They know what presses are looking for. They can spot a good story. He considers it part of his job to help his students do their best work with the ultimate goal of publishing books and getting a job. Topic selection is important in that process. He described the process as something of a negotiation. He gets to know his students pretty well, (for example, I’ve TA’d for him for 4 straight semesters). He learns about their strengths and weakness, their interests, and through discussions, coursework, etc. you negotiate your topic, you find something that has a strong narrative arc, a good cast of characters, some interesting and significant historical themes, and that’s ripe for an original interpretation.

These elements are essential for choosing your topic, not just as a graduate student, but also later on. Eventually the advisor-negotiation ends, but it’s replaced by similar negotiations, trials, and failures when dealing with book proposals and editors. Topic is essential. Good stories are what make popular books popular.

This reminds me of my own way to approaching topic selection and history. I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller who uses familiar characters to tell unfamiliar stories. In fact, that last phrase is my exact research philosophy. I’m helped by the fact that I study sports, but there are ways to make other topics interesting and accessible, too.

Today’s “Brown Bag” was a fun event. During my MA, we had a similar type of panel as a part of our methodology class.  I always like hearing about people’s processes and approaches. It helps you think about your own and demystifies how research and history look after grad school. Likewise, hearing my advisor talk about his process, his approach to writing history, and how he reaches out to broader audiences was a nice reminder that I’m at the right place, doing the right things, and working with the right people. It’s always nice to be reminded of that. I’m glad to have such a supportive advisor who is not only open to, but somewhat insistent that I gear my scholarship for a popular audience.