When I tell people I study the history of sports, they look at me puzzled and half jealous. “That’s a real thing,” many of them reply, “what are you going to do with that?” It’s a different twist on an all-too-familiar question for history graduate students. One that forces us to verbalize our uncertain futures into a palatable answer for small-talk situations. I usually answer with something about teaching, writing, and perhaps some public history work. Noticing my limited response, people are generally encouraging and toss out a few ideas of their own. “You could be on ESPN!” is a frequent suggestion I get. Those suggestions have always sounded a bit outrageous to me. And then last night happened.
It all started about 3:30 p.m. I was laying down for a quick nap to recharge before a scheduled run with a group of friends. That’s when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, and considered ignoring it so I could rest. But my phone noted that number of the incoming call was from Bristol, CT. As a long time sports fan, I knew that ESPN is in Bristol. I also knew that there wasn’t much else located there.
Still, I assumed it was probably a wrong number or a telemarketer. My initial thought that it could be ESPN was one of those jokes that your mind plays on you. An inner wish that you’ve dreamed about, like winning the lottery or the Royals winning the pennant, but don’t expect in reality. After all, why would ESPN call me?
Of course, last year the Royals really did win the pennant. The dream had become my reality. ESPN was calling. I answered.
The call was short. They asked if I would be willing to be a guest on Outside the Lines at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2. The show’s topic was the image of the Kansas City Royals, a subject that I blogged about in early July. I quickly agreed, and we went to work setting up the details. The show was less that 2 hours away and they wanted me to be live, on-air. First, they needed to find a local TV studio, then they’d call me back.
While ESPN went to work figuring out the logistics, I was going through a range of emotions. I was elated and shocked by the invite. I was nervous about what I was going to say. I also was worried that they might not figure out the logistics, or that I’d get bumped from the show. Nothing was set in stone.
About 15 minutes later I got a message back. Everything was good to go. My live-remote would be filmed at Purdue’s on-campus TV studio. I needed to arrive by 5:15 p.m. to get everything set up, and dress business casual. Things were moving quickly.
Before I left for the studio I posted a few messages on Facebook and Twitter alerting friends and family on the impending madness. I told my running group I’d be absent. I even called my advisor, hoping he’d have some tips (unfortunately, he didn’t answer).
At the studio things were relaxed. The technicians showed me where to sit, hooked up my mic, and put on my ear-piece. They were in control and had been talking with ESPN getting everything ready. From there, it was a really simple and easy process. I received my direction from ESPN though my ear piece. The producer explained that I was joining a 4 person panel to discuss the Royals’ image on Outside the Lines, hosted by Andy Katz. The other panelists were ESPN Senior Writer Liz Merrill, Kansas City Star Columnist Sam Mellinger, and former Royal Brian McRae. We’d each get a chance to talk and answer some questions sharing our perspectives. The discussion segment lasted around 15 minutes. I got the chance to answer 4-5 questions.
The discussion was fun. It was a bit strange, because I could only hear the other guests in my ear-piece. I couldn’t see anyone. I didn’t even know when I was on camera. I felt blind, nervous, and a little self-conscious. After the show ended, I had no idea what I looked like or sounded like. I experienced it, but I didn’t see it.
I felt like the show went pretty well. I made most of the points I had hoped to. I didn’t curse or stutter. I didn’t do anything to embarrass myself, my team, or my city. I survived. (You can watch clips of the show here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVhsZZIMrzmbPaOowvWvE0pEZPoQCBcnH)
In the hours after the show I remained in a euphoric haze. I was on national TV. I was on ESPN2. I was on ESPN2 talking about my favorite baseball team — a team that had been a national punch line for 30 years. A year ago none of this seemed even remotely possible. It was not just a dream come true, it was multiple dreams come true layered together to play out my childhood fantasies.
Today, as I reflect on the craziness of the last 24-hours, I can’t help but ask: how did I get here? The answer to that question is mostly luck, but the roots of that luck stem from years of hard work. I committed myself to the serious study of history (and sports) in 2009. Within that commitment has always been a firm belief in public engagement, dating back to my undergraduate days delivering chapel sermons and working in the archives. As a Royals fan, as I wrote last fall, it’s always been in my blood. My obsession with team and deep involvement with its Twitter community continue. I couldn’t have made my comments without all of these experiences. And then there is the blog. ESPN introduced me as the Founder and Co-Editor of the Sport in American History blog, which I launched in May 2014. They cited my post from early July on “The Kansas City Royals and Baseball’s “Unwritten Rules.” The blog post is what attracted them to me.
This is the second time that blogging has helped me land a media appearance. In early 2014, I was featured on TSN 1260 in Edmonton, Canada based on my expertise on Billy Mills. And now ESPN. These are dream opportunities. They are rare, but they’re also what motivates me to keep writing, to keep publishing, to keep blogging. Putting myself out there, sharing my work, engaging in conversations about my area of expertise is at the heart of what it means to be an academic to me.
I’m lucky to have had these chances. But that’s not what we academics really do. You’re more likely to find me in a cold, dank archive sifting through dusty files, cursing at a microfilm reader in a library, or sitting in my front of my computer writing. Being on TV is really, really rare for academic historians, no matter what area they study.
A job at ESPN, as so many people suggest, would be fun. Being on ESPN has always been a goal and a dream, but I’ve never seen it as the ultimate goal. I didn’t decide to study sports history to be on ESPN. I’m a historian first, I chose to study sports so I could answer interesting questions about the past. So I can introduce students to important issues and nuances in history through an interesting topic. I elected to study the history of sports to help theorize and add context to conversations about American cultural life. Those conversations, whether with colleagues, students, or the public sustain me. I’d love to have more of them on ESPN or another media outlet, but if not, a classroom will do.