Some Half-Baked Ideas on the Real Politics Behind ESPN’s Firings

A few half-baked thoughts/observations on the ESPN firings and how they are indicative of larger issues at play in the media and corporate/political landscape. They were too long for Twitter or Facebook so I am posting them here. Keep in mind that they are rough assemblage of things flying around in my head and perhaps not as tidily connected as I layout here. 

  • The immediate reaction to blame cord-cutters is somewhat nonsense. It has more to do with the arrogance of cable and its near-monopolistic structure. Comcast likely has an even worse approval rating than Trump.
  • The cord-cutting phenomenon is not new. Channels like ESPN should have asked why are people cutting cords? And how can they reorient their business model to adapt? I’ve long pointed to MLB and their At-Bat app (which is 15 years old) as the future. Fans can subscribe to teams and games they want at different qualities levels. I think if MLB offered their own network on the App it would work, too. No other sports league or channel has been as innovative or successful.
  • It is a structural problem related to late-capitalism. Big cable is a part of the consolidation of companies and reduction of jobs. Fewer companies are trying to control the means of production and distribution (we see similar issues in the newspaper industry). Big cable is also one of the biggest lobbying groups trying to prevent competition, to end net-neutrality, and so forth. In their quest for further consolidation and more profits, they’ve ignored consumers. Thus, consumers are reacting to corporate greed while legislators are empowering it more and more. ESPN employees were caught in the middle.
  • Of course, the issue of the internet is caught in the middle. Fans now have quicker access to scores, highlights, and other information online or on their phones (see the At-Bat example above). Although cable companies have tried to crack down on this with their monopolization and limitation of neutrality, access and internet speed, they have also sold out channels like ESPN who’s costly bloat they perceive as driving customers away (which is partially true). So what we are seeing at ESPN is the squeezing of both consumers (i.e. cord cutters) and outdated models of broadcast sports media. The only “winner” in all of this are companies like Comcast.
  • Other people claim that the firings are not necessarily because of cord cutters but a reaction to a perceived liberal bias in sports reporting by ESPN and others. This too is laughable. Analysis of ESPNs coverage of topics like sexual assault, domestic violence, and other political issues routinely reveal the opposite, and the networks tendency to gloss over controversy in an effort to appease its broadcast partners and advertisers.
  • The firings are, however, based in politics. The politics of corporate greed which has created an environment where companies like Comcast are trying to assert their authority over both cable channels (by cutting costs) and streaming services (by fiddling with net neutrality) in order squeeze out more profits. This means reducing the size of newsrooms, laying off reporters and personalities in favor of only bottom line driven program (like live-sporting events and debate shows). Surely the sports broadcasting bubble, which has inflated college athletic budgets is not too far behind. This also means, though, that Cable’s quest for self-preservation has also impacted the internet, threatening access and quality content. If we take a step back, we see the politics of corporate greed at play devaluing human labor, limiting quality and access to entertainment, news, and potentially other means of communication.
  • ESPN will garner attention because lots of people care about sports. I don’t shed many tears for ESPN because it is a problematic network with lots of other issues that contributed to its demise. But, I contend that we could replace ESPN with another struggling cable networks, newspapers, or media companies, and see similar market forces at play which are grounded in the ethos of the corporate politics exhibited by cable companies as they move to further dominate both television and the internet.

Again, these are half-baked ideas. I’d be interested to hear what others think about the connections between Cable, news media, the future of the internet, capitalism, the current political climate, and what we saw today at ESPN.

Reflecting on NCPH 2017

I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of the reflections and analysis of National Council on Public History’s (NCPH) 2017 annual meeting but haven’t quite formulated my thoughts yet. I spent most of my time at the conference connecting with old friends and talking about the field outside of organized sessions. Most of what I experienced and heard was concern and caution about the field, about training, and not forgetting our roots. Some, like Nick Sacco, have described the meeting as inward looking as the field faces challenges due to the political climate, the job’s crises in academia, and history departments’ attempts to respond to neoliberal demands for “skills” and “job training” that are difficult to reconcile with the ethics and philosophy of public history.

As primarily an academic, I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in the field and how I can best contribute. I’m aware that there are right and wrong ways to do public history and digital public history. I know that simply giving a public lecture or posting things online does not necessarily make you a public or a digital historian. There is a vast historiography of both fields that explains their ethos, methodologies, and theories. This is why I’ve personally always been a bit reticent in some of the larger conversations about public history. I’m a somewhat informally trained public historian (I had some formal training in master’s program but none during my PhD), and have tried to listen and learn, and defer to people with more experience than me. I try to openly admit places where I am less knowledgeable or need to do more reading or “doing.” I’m trying to avoid creating an inside-outside dichotomy, but I did sense some concerns about how the field has changed and worry about what the proliferation of public history programs at the undergraduate level while graduate training remains limited means. Does this create a watered down or less grounded field of public history? Is this why buzzwords dominate sessions instead of substantive discussions of theory and methodology? Has it affected the ethos of the field as some treat projects as CV builders for tenure and promotion rather than community centered and directed projects facilitated to achieve their goals? I don’t have the answer to these questions, and I hope that I am not adding to this problem as I straddle the academic and public history worlds. Yet, I think these are really important questions to ponder.

Despite these and many of the other critiques I have seen, I enjoyed NCPH this year. It gave me a chance to reconnect with my mentors, one who I hadn’t seen in over 5 years, and explore some new areas. I spent time reflecting about my approach, what I know and don’t know, how and why I choose to develop projects, and my overall career goals. Like many others, I used the conversations to be introspective. It helped me recognize that despite the fact I am nearing the completion of my PhD, I have a lot more work to do in order to become the public historian that I want to be, and that the field needs me to be.

I felt this inadequacy and frustration at times during my own session, which was my first time leading a working group. My hope was to bring together and extend conversations about campus history and sport history. I’ve worked in and been trained in both areas. During my undergraduate days I helped with my alma mater’s sesquicentennial celebration and provided the athletics department with substantial research that I turned into a digital exhibit. My dissertation about Oklahoma football deals with both too. Yet, I felt like I failed to fully ground the group in the campus discussion, and our conversations easily sailed into the intricacies of “sport” as a big-time entity instead of building on prior discussions of campus history at NCPH. I’ll write more about the working group at another time, but I worried that the essence of public history and the importance of sense of place sometimes got lost in our assumptions about (a somewhat narrowly defined conception of) sport as an automatically popular attraction. I struggled to get out of my own way and challenge us to think about sport’s various iterations on campus in more participatory and democratic ways beyond just fanhood. Instead, sport frequently served as a new site to rehash existing public history arguments from other panels — confederate iconography, authority, inclusivity, race and gender, and exhibit space. I’m not trying to paint the session as a failure (it wasn’t), but rather point to how it struggled to be collaborative and innovative in ways that I had hoped. This stagnation is my fault, yet it is also a part of some larger issues as a field. The panel was partially self-serving for me — I’m trying to find ways to fuse my academic and public work, and want to help shape how we talk about the history of sports with the public. Unfortunately, my experience doing this has been primarily on blogs and in classrooms. In this sense, I am guilty of overextending myself and pushing my agenda without a proper grounding in the practical and experiential aspects of public history required to properly contribute new methodology or theory to the field.

Maybe I am being too self-critical here. But as you can see, it’s a hard balance to strike. How does one carve out space in the field for their work while also trying to be cautious and adhere to the ethos of public history? This question, I think, will remain a concern for NCPH and other public historians as the field expands and more informally trained academic historians seek space to contribute. I don’t know the best way to proceed, or if I have followed the right path, but I am certain that we need the field’s veterans — those trained deeply and broadly in its historiography, and who are modeling public history’s values — to continue leading and mentoring us. That’s my biggest take away and what I am most thankful for from the 2017 annual meeting.

The Perils of Writing and Citing Blogs

There was a great Forbes piece circulating the interwebz yesterday, calling for us to read and cite more academic blogs. I agree whole heartedly with this sentiment, and not just because I run the Sport in American History blog. There is a lot of fantastic work being done online. I generally point to 2014 as the “blogging moment” when academic group blogs proliferated and became a tad more formalized, but three years later they are still producing amazing, intellectually rigorous work and broadening academic conversations to larger audience (Tim Lacy noted this the other day on Facebook). I make this argument in my forthcoming article in the Journal of Sport History on the “Power of Blogging.”

Yet, the ephemerality of digital content makes it really difficult to cite blogs. One in five articles suffers from “link rot” according to an article in the journal, PLOS ONE (thanks to Paul Bracke for sending it my way on Twitter). I ran into this today while doing the last round of copyedits for my article. Three of the links had changed since I submitted my revisions in November. One of the blogs no longer exists. You can read this as either a commentary on the time it takes to publish something in a traditional print journal or the impermanence of digital publishing. Either way, it is something important to keep in mind (I should note the Forbes article does get into this a little bit). If we want our digital work to matter, to be cited, and make an influence, we have to be smart and strategic about access and preservation. We also need to think about the long-term life of our work and where we think it can have the biggest impact today as well as in the future.

Luckily for me I was able to update the links and find the deleted blog in the Wayback Machine to provide a stable archived URL. Yet, as Brandon Ward wondered on Twitter, what are the ethics of citing something that has been deleted? That’s a debate for another day, but also one worth having!

Abundant Sources & Indecisiveness

One of the things I love about my research on Oklahoma is that I have an abundance of interesting sources. Sometimes it feels like I have too many sources. I struggle to decide how to deploy them and which ones to highlight in the text of my chapters. This video from 1957 is one of those sources. It was created as a part of the Oklahoma Semi-Centennial by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. It operates as both an industrial recruiting tool and a reflective history of the state’s growth and modernization. Similarly to the video, the OKC Chamber also paid to have a special sixteen-page section in the March 10, 1957 New York Times, promoting the state and celebrating its Golden Anniversary. screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-9-43-11-pmThe celebration in 1957 was a HUGE moment for the state that featured a World’s Fair type of exposition themed “From Arrows to Atoms” and prominently featuring exhibits sponsored by the Frontiers of Science Foundation of Oklahoma. Videos like this one built on that mood and longstanding efforts begun as early as 1947 to both diversify the state’s economy and rehabilitate its image.

Football, I argue, was at the center of many of these efforts, and like its inclusion in this video, it held a central place in the Semi-Centennial celebration. Bud Wilkinson has his own “day” at the exposition in June-July, and as the actual anniversary of statehood approached in November, the Sooners’ undefeated streak kept the state in national headlines. Indeed, as the Semi-Centennial Celebration concluded with a “Pride in Oklahoma Week” leading up to its Founder’s Day, Oklahoma invaded primetime. Eisenhower gave a speech on “Our Future Security” from Oklahoma City on November 13 before Oklahoma hosted Notre Dame in the national game of the week as it sought to extend its winning streak to 48 consecutive games on Saturday, November 16 — the state’s 50th birthday. Unfortunately, Oklahoma lost, spoiling (to some extent) the party, but, as I argue, the state had already won. screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-9-48-40-pmSteinbeck reversed course on his pejorative “Okie” stereotype and became embraced as an “Oklahoma Booster” that May, business had begun flooding in, too. As early as 1954, Oklahoma boasted that it was in the “economic top 10,” the Cowboy Hall of Fame was under construction after picking OKC over other cities, and Senator Mike Monroney, who once hoped that Oklahoma City could “become the Detroit of the aviation industry,” continued on his quest to keep the CAA in OKC (he’d write the FAA bill in 1958, accomplishing this task).screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-9-42-55-pm

As you can see from this synopsis, this chapter could probably be its own book. Instead, it is my penultimate chapter, tying together efforts of boosters to build the state and change its image. Other chapters help set the stage exploring the history of the state and the football team before I tackle things such as the growth of the university, fights with the NCAA on who controls and regulates football and television, and racial integration. The last two chapters are where I try to connect and explain how winning football paved the way for economic development and political transformations. Throughout each chapter, I focus on how the team serves as a key public relations tool for the state and the university, giving it cultural cache in conversations with business and political leaders that help propel its coach, Bud Wilkinson, into electoral politics. The larger project, I see as an important blending of sport history and political history that also pushes certain aspects of Sunbelt history into the 1950s. I see Wilkinon’s football success during the 1950s as central to the rehabilitation of the “Okie” image from Steinbeck to Haggard, helping with Oklahoma’s economic diversification and pushing the state to the right politically laying the groundwork for OKC and Tulsa to be important Sunbelt cities in Kevin Philips New Republican Majority.

Now if only I could stop being so indecisive on how and where to use certain sources and just finish my last two chapters….

DeVos Confirmation Rant

I am reposting this rant from my Facebook wall so that I can share it more broadly. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

You can’t tell the story of modern conservatism and the neoliberal project without discussing the all-out attack on public education. It’s been there from the beginning and has taken many forms. Today’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos fits into the long struggle to dismantle not just New Deal programs, but major Civil Rights accomplishments. It represents a decade long effort to dismantle essential public democratic institutions and hand them over to the an ill-equipped private sector so they can profit off legally required public goods.

Seriously, read Dochuk, Kruse, Lassiter, Farber, Hartman, Rodgers, Moreton, Mehlman-Petrzela, Delmont, and tons of other historians of modern conservatism and the culture wars. These movements come through in each of their books and articles. You have the fundamentalist “Save Our Children” movement, Georgia threatening to end public schools rather the de-segregate, the so-called bussing crisis, the school voucher movement, the never-ending textbook wars, the battle over bilingual and sex education, the prayer in school movement, the home school movement as well as many others — all aimed at undermining, weakening, and de-funding public education. And that’s just K-12! It has been done with phrases like “choice” and “local control” that are code words for the neoliberal market ideology that funnels tax money into private corporations that subvert federal regulations meant to ensure equality. Charter schools and the complete bullshit Teach for America program are among the biggest offenders of this. They rebuild class and racial barriers, promote unqualified and unproven teachers and teaching methods, all in the name of an anti-American ideology where the myth of hyper-efficient corporatism and so-called choice matter more than an educated public. Indeed, education has been shown over and over again to be an important factor in improving your quality of life, in upward mobility, yet under the corporatist structure, a good, equitable education becomes harder to access and afford. This re-inscribes existent structures that sustain widespread inequality along race, class, urban/suburban/rural divides.

This is why the DeVos nomination mattered. This is why so many of us our outraged. This isn’t some kind of leftist conspiracy, this is well-documented history. And I’m sad to be a part of this movement. My parents were duped like many average Americans. They believed in vouchers and homeschooling. They tried to trick me into agreeing at a young age, encouraging me to write my Senators about it. They were naive, wrong, and misguided. Democracy demands strong public education. The American Dream requires it. I don’t want to live in a country where we treat our children — our future — like a commodity that we can sell to the highest bidder, and those who can afford it are screwed. I don’t want to live in a country where education is a corporate product watered down by the customer is always right mentality. I don’t want to live in a country where universities brag about what kind of salary their graduates get rather than quality of education they receive and the impact they are making in the world.
Education is a public good. It is a central component of a civilized and modern society.

Today’s vote undermines that. It is a failure to uphold the basic tenets of our social contract. It represents a selfish oligarchy that values money and power over equality, and millions of the nation’s schoolchildren.

Readings on Black Athletes and Dress Codes

I’m trying to use this space more often and in conjunction with Twitter to better collect thoughts, suggest readings, and just more generally communicate. A few minutes ago I unleashed a Tweet-thread on the Cam Newton dress code violation yesterday, that resulted in him sitting out the first drive of the Carolina Panthers game against the Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers lost that game, and Newton’s back up threw an interception on the first drive.

Today former Packers Vice President Andrew Brandt Tweeted this (see below), highlight the hypocrisy, racism, and overall stupidity of dress codes for professional athletes:

In the interest of fully exploring the racial dynamic of dress codes as a form of policing the behavior and appearance of black athletes, here are a few articles/chapters/books that address the issue:

“No [Hoodies] Allowed’: The NBA’s Dress Code & the Politics of New Racism,” An Excerpt from After Artest: The NBA & the Assault on Blackness by David J. Leonard (via NewBlackMan (in Exile).

“The Real Color of Money: Controlling Black Bodies in the NBA,” by David J. Leonard in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Volume 30 Number 2 (May 2006) p. 158-179.

“Blackballed: Basketball and Representations of the Black Male Athlete,” by Linda Tucker, in American Behavioral Scientist, Volume 47 Number 3, (November 2003) p. 306-328.

“Goodbye to the Gangstas”: The NBA Dress Code, Ray Emery, and the Policing of Blackness in Basketball and Hockey,” by Stacy Lorenz and Rod Murray, in the  Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Volume 38, Number 1 (2014), p. 23–50.

“Please Don’t Fine Me Again!!!!!” Black Athletic Defiance in the NBA and NFL,” by Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Volume 33, Number 1 (February 2009) p. 39-58.

There are certainly other takes and likely more academic articles, but this is a solid introduction and discussion of the issue. I have PDFs of these articles that I will share upon request.

Update: An additional reading from the comments:

“Dressed for Success? The NBA’s Dress Code, the Workings of Whiteness and Corporate Culture,” M. G. McDonald and J  Toglia in Sport in society,Volume  13, Number 6 (2010), p. 970-983.

Embracing the Tangent

One of the things I’ve learned while teaching African American Studies the past year-and-a-half is to embrace the tangent. At a PWI (predominately white institution), my classroom is one of the only places that students have where they can ask questions and discuss issues of race (even if it isn’t related to sports). Most of my students are white, and they are curious and often eager to talk about race. It fascinates them, and they have questions and assumptions they want to talk about. But many are reluctant or scared to talk. They are worried they will say the wrong thing, or offend somebody. They don’t have the tools, information, or the places to do it in ways that do not seem offensive to some. They’re out of practice. Our culture often tries to minimize race, ignore it, sweep it under the rug; not talk about. This is unfortunate.

I tell my students to speak openly, to come with their questions, so that we can talk about what they’ve heard, common assumptions, and why they may be wrong or how it may seem offensive others. Some may describe my class as a “safe space” though I prefer to think of it as collaborative open learning environment, where students help drive the conversation. It is about letting students talk openly in a place that is largely non-judgmental, and seek answers. Otherwise, they won’t talk about it. They will continue to be curious but feel attacked every time they try to learn or engage with someone else.

Anyways, out of this philosophy, and my drive to create this type of classroom culture, I have learned to embrace the tangent. To let students ask things and drive the conversations to unexpected places because although it may not be in my lesson plan, that is the education they need. Those are the conversations they want to have, and they will likely get more out of them because they relate directly to their thoughts, concerns, and daily lives. This often leads us to talking about current events, things going on around campus (including yesterday’s fascists posters), and stuff that they see in popular culture (which is how it relates back to sports). I love having the freedom to do this, and I can tell my students enjoy it. Today at the end of class, which was my last “lecture” of the semester (they do presentations next week), many commented how much fun they’ve had and asked me what else I teach. I felt proud. I’m lucky to have such an awesome job, and really engaged and curious students. And I feel like I am really making a difference.