Category Archives: pop culture

Image from YouTube.

Image from YouTube.

CBS has a James Corden Carpool Karaoke Special on tonight at 10. My first thought was couldn’t I watch 20 minutes of YouTube for the same content? After all, the Late Late Show which Corden hosts on CBS at 12:37 a.m. posts them to YouTube where they have become very popular. That’s why it’s so ironic to me.

The show is following the same model as American Funniest Home Videos, which seemed to anticipate the vitality of YouTube. The survival of AFV, and similar shows (like CBS “best super bowl commercials” special and classic 3 a.m. standby “wacked out sports”), are an indicator of mainstream media’s reluctance to change and misunderstanding of how people consume this kind of content. At the same time, the show also indicates an awareness of the popularity of this type of content (after all they post it online), but misguided hopes of either bringing viewers back to traditional their TV sets or perhaps an unrelated goal of spreading the content to less technoliterate viewers. They seem to be trying to double dip. 

This irony, of course, is not limited to CBS. A staple of most local news broadcasts is some sort of reporting about funny or odd things that have happened on the Internet — as if the internet is a foreign place that none of us go. I wonder how long this will continue? If it hasn’t already, when or does online culture become so ubiquitous that it won’t be reported about on the local news or replicated on network TV?

Visting Lambeau Field: Reflections on Experiencing History at and in Stadiums

Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to watch the Chiefs and Packers play on Monday Night Football. Lambeau Field is probably the only true NFL mecca (unlike MLB which has a handful). It was a fun trip, even if Kansas City lost. The atmosphere was interesting — it felt more like a college game though with a decidedly older crowd. The stadium itself, while large, felt less intimidating than newer ones, probably because of its large lower bowl, while makes it less steep and towering.


Throughout the trip, I found it difficult to divorce myself from viewing things with a critical perspective. The violence of the game on the field — there were a couple of big hits — and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl I with several of the former player in attendance, forced me to consider the impact on individual players. I wondered what today’s champions would look like in 50 years. How many will be alive? Their size combined with the speed and the trauma of the game today will undoubtedly make aging more difficult for them, even if they have more modern technology.

IMG_0990The Hall of Fame also was an interesting look into both the past and how it is presented to fans (most of whom are extreme partisans). I was impressed with the amount of ‘stuff’ they had on display. Too many halls of fame rely on videos, text panels, and photos, rather than tactile and 3-dimensional artifacts. To be sure, this requires smart collecting and preservation, but, man, does it make a difference for showing the reality of change over time. I would have loved to see them take it one step further and use these items to show connections to the present, perhaps using different type of football equipment to show the advancement of technology and safety alongside the increased size and speed of players. Combined, these narratives could offer commentary on how football has become more safe and yet more dangerous using material culture.

IMG_0992Making a trip like this also requires reflecting on the purpose. Some of the folks I went with are die-hard Packers fans. To them visiting Lambeau is ritual, it’s game day. Others, myself included, saw it as a place to be experienced for its history and significance. It’s something on their bucket list. The game is and was important (I wouldn’t have gone if they weren’t playing Kansas City), but one of the guys went regardless of teams just to experience it. The history of the stadium, the mystique of Monday Night, and the atmosphere of an NFL game. Here you see a blending of sports and cultural heritage tourism. You see ideas about quintessential American experiences as sports fans that are tied to larger notions of a participatory involvement in American culture. Everyone of us viewed ourselves as a stakeholder in the cultural experience — we’re all football fans, we’re all americans, and we could all afford the experience. Some of us were more closely tied to the team(s) but regardless, we viewed Lambeau and Green Bay as culturally significant. We wanted to learn and experience its history and join in the creation of more.

The Packers signify this perhaps more than other clubs, because of the collective nature of its ownership structure, but even beyond that, these pilgrimages, or bucket list trips, hint at our obsession with authentic and democratic cultural experiences. Sports add a further dimension to this, I think, because we are visiting a historic sites and learning history at the same time as we are coming together to witness history. This is precisely what makes historic stadiums such powerful experiences. They tie the past and present, interweaving personal and collective narratives, and offering the possibility that you might witness the extraordinary. The opportunity for you to be present for not just for the making of new history but the next culturally reverberating moment. Traditional museums and historic offer connections to the past and present, but can’t always guarantee the living history experience, where you become a part of that place’s history. For many, this opportunity, this promise, and this excitement to be a witness to ‘new’ history unfolding before them, is what makes them feel alive.

WIMG_1038ithin this critical frame of mind, I kept coming back to my own work and recent conversations I’ve been having surrounding ongoing projects. I’ve been pondering ideas about sports history, public history, heritage, and teaching. Thinking about and asking question such as: what kind of narratives resonate, what kind of techniques work, what are students as well as the general public’s motivating factors for learning and experiencing these stories. Visiting Green Bay with a group of folks — two of them I met for the first time — helped me see some of these things in action.

Thinking forward, and about old stadiums I will never experience and games I’ll never see, I wonder how or if we can salvage, rescue, or reproduce this type of engagement. A few years ago when I visited New Mexico, I had some interesting conversations about the concept of place-based history. It mixed location (GPS points), with videos and images, enabling people to see places as they once were. I think some of this could work for sports. The prevalence of old footage could make it easy to link old games with their former locations. Blending these with a few more tactile features could extend the experience further. Imagine a small historic site near the old the location of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that pinpoints the location of some seats. In that location reproduction (or even better yet, salvaged seats from the destroyed stadium) were placed in small groups (like park benches), and there, on your cell phone, you could call up historic footage. You could sit in the seats, in the exact place, watching history.

These ideas aren’t too far off. Apps like Next Exit History and a few small projects like those going on at New Mexico State, hint at these possibilities. Maybe some day it will be a reality. It will take a team of collaborators with the resources to build apps, purchase and place tactile features in historic locations, and buy rights to historic footage. I’d love to see a world with this exact type of digital public sport place based history.

CFP: An American Sports History Group Blog

This idea has been marinating for a year or two now, but I’ve finally decided to do it! I’m interested in starting a group blog that focuses on American Sports History/Studies. I envision it as a place for junior faculty and graduate students to share their work, respond to current events, discuss important works or trends in our field, talk about teaching with sport, and just overall developing an active and engaging scholarly community centered on the history of sport. Likewise, such a blog could be an open place for members of the broader public who are interested in critically engaging in sports related issues to come learn more and interact. Group blogs, such as U.S. Intellectual History, Religion in American History, and The Junto, have been very successful in doing similar things.

For this blog to be successful, I need contributors. I’m hoping to start with a small core group of people, at least 5 or 6, who contribute one post every other month or so, with the idea that we can publish one post each week, but each person writes only once every 6 weeks. I see the posts possibly fitting into the following areas:

  • Current events in a critical and historical context

  • Reviews of recent and import books

  • Short pieces of new research

  • Meditations on teaching with sport

I’m open to other suggestions and expanding beyond my personal historical background to include other disciplines and approaches. If this sounds like something you would be interested in joining and regularly contributing to, please email me at You can also leave other ideas/suggestions in the comments. I’d like to get thing rolling by early this summer.

Richard Sherman, Race, Sportsmanship, and the Double Standards of the Mass Spectacle

Football is a product of the mass media. The popular press took a small game created by college students during the late-19th century and turned it into America’s favorite spectacle.[1] From there the media took over weaving master narratives of race, class, and gender along with tales of conflict and heroism. Fantastic cults of personality ensnared coaches and star players. And then there was money. Oh was there money.

For much of the twentieth century, football was exclusively an amateur sport with college level competition reigning supreme. Though the NFL was founded in 1920, it was mostly a regional league and never rivaled the college game until the 1950s. Despite this amateurism, however, money flowed freely. Gate receipts furnished coaches with lavish salaries and surpluses enough to build stadiums that held tens of thousands people. The players were forbidden from being publically compensated for their part until the mid-1930s.

Of course, colleges asserted that the sport served more purposes than just entertaining the public. It taught manliness, discipline, and cooperation. It turned boys into men and prepared them for the “game of life.” Indeed, this emphasis on physical education tied to muscular Christian ideals carried modernist tendencies. Boarding schools such as Carlisle used the game to control their subjects and channel the believed inherent violence of Native Americans into ordered and disciplined expressions of American civility and manliness.

This use of sports, and football specifically, illustrates how the sport’s physicality placed the body as a key site for control by coaches, administrators, and journalists. Indeed, notions of civility and sportsmanship embedded in football and their attending expecations of behavior and decorum in society illustrate Foucault’s insistence that “it is always the body that is at issue—the body and its forces, their utility and the docility, their distribution and their submission” in “corrective” education.[2] At Carlisle football was used as a type of corrective education, and the sport has continued to be used as such for many racial minorities if not in practice at least in theory. Lingering expectations of decorum tied to sportsmanship remain suggesting that those who are lacking are devoid of civility. Not surprisingly, these suggestions often follow racial lines.

Why does this matter? This background is extremely important in understanding the latest controversies surrounding Richard Sherman. Last night, moments after intercepting a pass in the NFC Championship Game that sealed a spot for his team in the Super Bowl he was interviewed on camera. During this interview his raw emotion showed. By most accounts, he lacked sportsmanship.

As one might imagine, the backlash from this interview was instantaneous and controversial. There was lot of racism, both overt and subtle. There were defenders too. And upon much reflection, there were many fence sitters. Many rightfully point out that Sherman was emotional. He just made one of the biggest plays of his career. Others noted the incredible physicality of the game and the deep season long rivalry between the two teams. Indeed, Sherman and Crabtree who he called out in his comments have a tense personal history. Several praised Sherman for being raw and real instead of offering the standard cliché riddled post game interview.

What caught most people off guard about the Sherman interview was that it was so unexpected. The mass media and the culture of sports have created certain expectations of behavior tied to sportsmanship and media relations. To borrow from Philip Deloria, “A rich cluster of meanings surrounds cultural expectations and its visible manifestations in images, acts, sounds, and texts.” He contends that expectations are “shorthand for the dense economics of meaning, representation, and acts that have inflected both American culture writ large and individuals…. You might see in expectation the ways in which popular culture works to produce—and sometimes to compromise—racism and misogyny.”[3] I think it’s quite clear that this is exactly what we see in the reactions to Sherman’s interview.

This idea of expectation and the unexpected also plays into our conceptions of not only race, but of athletes. The expectation of athletes is that of well mannered, respectful, and clichéd answers. Media training teaches them to give non-answers, to thank God and their teammates, and ignore the hype and media storylines and spin surrounding their own game. Sure, most interviewers ask players what they want to say to their critics, but the expectation is that you say nothing. You’re supposed to let your performance speak for itself. Sherman shattered those expectations.

Like Colin Kaepernick did last week with Cam Newton, Sherman embraced the storylines. He played into the longstanding feud between him and Crabtree and provided a must-see moment. He accepted his role as an entertainer. Kaepernick did the same thing when he parodied Cam Newton’s touchdown dance after scoring on a scamper in to the end zone. The popular reading of these actions is that they’re raw emotional moments in the heat of the game. While this is true, it also indicates that both players are acutely aware of the hype and stories created to promote their matchups in the game. The criticism of Sherman and Kaepernick’s actions imply that in the world of 24-7 sports coverage the matchup and storylines are only the domain of fans and pundits. The expectation is that athletes are supposed to be silent actors who play out these scenes in the games.

As soon as players begin speaking and acting out people get uncomfortable. It seems to be that these expectations and notions of sportsmanship seek to dehumanize players. They’re supposed to play with class and dignity following the rules of the game. They’re supposed to shield themselves from distractions and follow the directives of coaches who know best. We expect athletes to perform for our entertainment in games but not to be entertainers. Players aren’t supposed to revel in the moment and contribute their own storylines. Outspoken athletes are labeled as distractions and bad for the locker room. In short, we expect athletes to be quiet and follow directions. We’re taught to enjoy athletes for their bodies, not their minds. In the world of the mass spectacle the agency of athletes is tied to their physical performance. Sherman wasn’t satisfied with that.

Sherman’s disruptive behavior shattered the fourth wall. He provided insight into the raw emotion of the game and the moment while also speaking directly and candidly about his role as an entertainer. He reveled in his team’s victory and his personal triumphing over Crabtree. He played into the media frenzy and the spin surrounding the game.

Many will think that the player we saw on the field after the game is the real Richard Sherman. It’s not. He’s a Stanford educated with a degree in communication. He’s smart and incredibly articulate. The Sherman we saw on the field was taking us all for a ride. He was shattering our cultural expectations of behavior and sportsmanship that dehumanize athletes, challenging the lingering racism attached to sports and behavior, and exposing the double standard between these expectations and the narratives used to create the mass spectacle.

[1] See Michael Oriard, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), and Michael Oriard, King Football: Sport & Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio & Newspapers, Movies & Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001),

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth oh the Prison, trans. by A. Sheridan, (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 25.

[3] Philip Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places, (Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 2004), 6-11.

Critiquing and Teaching Films: A Review of 42

I finally got around to seeing the new Jackie Robinson film, 42, last week. Overall I enjoyed the movie and thought that they did a pretty good job of developing the characters and presenting an engaging story. Going into it I was curious how far the story would go. Most of the time we hear about Robinson breaking the color line and winning the Rookie of the Year award (now named the Jackie Robinson award), but the story usually ends with integration. He broke the color barrier, we are told. He won the ROY award. The Dodgers were a good team with him. But the narrative is less about those things as it is his initial entry into MLB. That’s not a bad thing, but it presents problems for movie making.

The film covers a rather short snippet of Robinson’s life. It begins with a few scenes of him playing with the Kansas City Monarchs and challenging racial norms on road trips and quickly progresses to his meetings with Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. From there, we see his wedding and first two spring trainings, one in Florida and one in Central America. These events show the racism of the South and professional baseball. Soon thereafter Robinson is called up to the majors to start the 1947 season. The film depicts an attempted player mutiny and lots of emphatically racist gestures during games including those by an opposing umpire and manager as well as an intentional spiking by an opponent. After the call up we follow Robinson throughout the 1947 season witnessing his frustrations, the calming support of his wife, and a satisfied and happy Rickey. The movie ends with Robinson hitting a homerun to clinch the 1947 National League pennant for the Dodgers.

The homerun ending was a bit abrupt and sappy with its Disney-esque music montage. For me, it returns to the issue of narrativization. I would have preferred it if the film showed the Dodgers lose the 1947 World Series offering that as a metaphor for how Robinson helped the Dodgers (and baseball) improve, but they had not yet reached the promise land. Indeed, the ending made no mention of Larry Doby or any of the other African American players who trickled into the Majors after 1947. Doby and some others were listed on a chalkboard earlier in the film, however, during a discussion of which player the Dodgers should get.

Watching the film as a sports fan and a historian of sports presents another layer of analysis. I’ll readily admit that I am not well versed in the historiography of baseball (that’s part of summer reading list), but I have read a couple of books on the Kansas City Monarch and visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum several times while growing up in KC. Before viewing the film I did a bit of homework and re-read a few passages of Janet Bruce’s The Kansas City Monarchs:  Champions of Black Baseball.  Bruce’s book is a short and easy-to-read account of the Monarchs but focuses on the team’s relationship with Negro Leagues. The team’s history is a nice parallel and exemplar of the larger story of black baseball.

With the help of Bruce’s book I was able to identify some small and fairly insignificant historical inaccuracies with the film. One example is that the movie often showed the integrated seating during games. The films also says that there were 400 players in baseball in 1947, and 399 were white. Although I haven’t seen the exact numbers and rosters, I find this difficult to believe. Native American and Latin American (particularly Cubans) players had been accepted into Major League Baseball much earlier than African Americans. According to Jeffrey Powers-Beck, Louis Sockalexis joined the Majors in 1897 and was followed by other prominent Native Americans such as John Myers, Charles Bender, Allie Reynolds, and Jim Thorpe. This is not to dispute the significance of Jackie Robinson, however. Black integration was a huge deal and Robinson had a much deeper impact on American than the Sockalexis. Another tedious example is from one of the early scenes depicting Robinson stealing bases in a Negro League game. The film shows an umpire at each base making the safe call. According to Bruce, however, most Negro League games only had two umpires.

Bruce also challenges many of the popular narratives that Branch Rickey “bought” Robinson for the sole purpose of integrating baseball. She points to two competing interpretations but doesn’t point to which one is correct. Both suggest that Robinson was signed by Rickey because he was trying to start a competing Negro League (the United States League) and Jackie would play for his team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. The USL never got off the ground, however, so Rickey was stuck with Robinson and a three-year contract. It remains unclear whether the USL was just a cover to mask Rickey’s original intentions or if its failure quickened the pace of integration. Regardless of which is true, the film mentions neither. Instead, the Negro Leagues are presented almost like informal barnstorming teams that Rickey scouted and selected the best players for tryouts.

The film’s portrayal of the Negro Leagues seems to accurately match Rickey’s. The Dodgers plucked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs without compensating the team and refused to acknowledge his prior contract because it was verbal. According to Bruce, Rickey believed “there is no Negro league as such as far as I am concerned” (112).

Despite these small inaccuracies, I think the film did a good job of presenting the history. Branch Rickey was presented as innovative baseball lifer who had clung to strict values. Based on my limited reading, I believe this to be fairly true. He did attended Ohio Wesleyan as the movie explains, and he worked to build the farm-system during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. The most power aspect of the movie, of course, was its use of the N-word and overall depiction of racist attitudes.

There are a couple of particularly vivid scenes that bring the pervasiveness of these racial attitudes home. The most powerful is a moment between a father and son in the stands. We first see them talking about the Dodgers and the Reds making predictions on who will win, and other small talk. Then, Robinson takes the field and the father erupts with racial epithets. The son looks confused and sits there for a moment before following suit and hurling his own slurs. You get a feeling from the scene that the son sensed this was wrong and didn’t quite understand it, but followed along anyways because he respected and looked up to his father.

Although one of my friends described the movie as a Disney film with the n-word, I think that’s a little bit unfair. It is impossible to judge a big-budget Hollywood film by historical standards and not be disappointed. In fact, I think 42 accomplishes quite a bit within those restraints. It is very entertaining and has good character development that is largely grounded-in and true-to historical facts. Although I wanted a bit more, it did an adequate job a presenting a succinct narrative of Jackie Robinson’s first season integrating baseball. Likewise, through its use of the n-word and racism it helps provide an understanding of the courage and willpower Robinson displayed in integrating baseball as well as the pervasiveness of racism.

I think historic films, no matter how imperfect, are important. As scholars and teachers we owe it to our students to see them and critique them. It is important, however, to execute our critiques in the proper way. I think 42 is an entertaining and good movie. It introduces a lot of topics and ideas and sketches out the contours of Jackie Robinson’s integration story. As an American hero who almost everyone has heard of, it’s good to make the story entertaining and accessible to larger audiences. As teachers then, we can use the film as a baseline and an entry point into deeper discussions of race, sports, integration, etc. Our critiques should not serve to ridicule the film or Hollywood narratives of history but rather as opportunities to fill in the gaps. As I hope I have illustrated here, we can use the film to look deeper into a variety of related ideas and themes. One such idea that I mentioned earlier is the notion of “integration” and the differing types of “color lines” drawn by baseball and American society. Another might be the reaction to Robinson’s integration moment by society – both white and black. For me, historical films if used correctly can become excellent teaching points, and I think 42 does just that.

Lolo Jones, Billy Mills, and Human-Interest Journalism

With the Olympics drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about their connection to human-interest journalism and the role it plays in the lives of the profiled athletes. Historian Charles Ponce de Leon suggests that human-interest and celebrity journalism plays two roles. First, features pieces and profiles work to reinforce and model certain character traits and values championed by the middle class. These pieces offer instruction and inspiration for future success promoting certain behaviors, such as hard work, determination, and self-discipline. At the same time, human-interest pieces also provide an inside portrait of celebrity lives that show their complexities and realities. Reporting on scandals, failures, and flaws of the famous keeps them relatable and real.

During the Olympics most of these pieces fall into the first category. The 2012 London Olympics had its share of inspiring and uplifting stories. Athletes like Gabby Douglas, Missy FranklinDavid Rudisha, and Kirani James became champions and introduced themselves to the world. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt continued their narrative of dominance boosting their legacies as all-time greats. Oscar Pistorius and Manteo Mitchell also endeared themselves with inspiring tales of perseverance. There was, however, one story about Lolo Jones that fit more into the second category.

Human-interest pieces are powerful and any one of these stories is worthy of close analysis. The critical New York Times story about Lolo Jones, however, helps us expose the ambiguous and problematic nature of celebrity journalism. Despite their pandering, writers are often “eager to appear responsible and connect their work to the serious business that engaged other journalists — and made the press look good to civic leader and big advertisers” (272). The Times piece is undoubtedly an example of this.

But the Times pieces is also more than that. As Ponce de Leon reminds us, “while the press offered celebrities a vehicle for realizing their ambition, the ride was not free, and it sometimes involved detours that made the life of celebrities more difficult” (105). Many have derided the Times piece as overly critical and even harsh — sentiments that I tend to agree with — but the article also exposes some real truths. The writer is critical of Jones’ self-promotion and marketing despite her limited success, especially given the limited spotlight give to her sport. Yet, a closer look at both the nature of human-interest journalism and the careers of successful Olympics examples reveals that this is quite normal and has become the industry standard.

In my scholarship I argue that sports provide a middle ground for the negotiation of complex power dynamics and representation. While my research focuses on Native American athletes, the same is true for women and other minorities. Athletes will often participate in self-deprecating behavior that capitalizes on their ‘difference’ and ‘appeal’ whether is be cultural, racial, or sexual. I’ve argued that by over-emphasizing these traits and playing them up, athletes often benefit and are elevated to new heights (both economically and publicly) that allows them to alter and challenge previous representations and advocate for change. To be sure, there is a delicate balance because power is unequal and the press often serves as a gatekeeper.

Jones falls into this middle ground and some argue that harsh criticism goes with the territory. They point out that there are scores of athletes who have not posed semi-nude nor proclaimed their virginity. These athletes, they submit, have gone on to be just as, if not more, successful than Jones, because they were not subject to the media’s gaze. While these are all valid points, they ignore the complexities and realities of Olympics sports and dismiss the larger work Jones is trying to do. Likewise, they judge her by a flawed double standard(s).

Like it or not, journalists are a part of the marketing system of athletes. This is particularly true for Olympians. This excellent study illustrates the limited income of track and field athletes:

Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.) and approximately 20% of our athletes in top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.

Jones is the American record holder for the indoor 60m hurdles and won three NCAA and two World Championships in the event (note: the 60m hurdles is not an outdoor event contested at the Olympics. The 100m hurdles, which she ran at the Olympics,  is not her primary event.). This success has likely propelled her into the higher income levels, but so has the media attention. It has made her a valuable spokesperson for companies.

This post is not intended to be a line-by-line defense of Lolo Jones. My larger point is that income is important to Jones, and other Olympic athletes, and human-interest journalism is an essential element of creating opportunities to earn that income. Once that income is earned, it is up to the athletes if and how they use it. While advocacy has become common, it is not always the chosen path (for a variety of reasons that I wont get into here). Threats and challenges to an athlete’s image, warranted or not, threaten their livelihood. Unlike professional athletes in major sports, the window for Olympic athletes to establish themselves and harness their own economic power is remarkably small.

Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion, is a good example of this. He only competed in one Olympics. Prior to the Games he was largely unknown. His memorable race launched him into the media spotlight. In the days and months following his achievement, Mills story captivated and inspired the country. He understood the fleeting nature of his fame and the opportunity it presented. Explaining his approach to creating Running Brave, a film about his life, Mills said:

I couldn’t allow myself to be taken advantage of economically. So I also pursued it as a business venture. The way I would benefit would not be in profits from the movie, but in ways I could market myself the rest of my life.

It is apparent from the New York Times article on Lolo Jones, journalists and fans alike are still not comfortable with these economic realities. Within USATF and the IAAF, the governing bodies of track and field, debates have been raging about the role of corporate sponsorship. Unlike cyclists and NASCAR drivers whose apparel are checkered with logos and sponsors, track and field athletes are expressly prohibited from sponsorship on their uniforms. USATF and the Olympics continue an antiquated obsession with amateurism that reeks of late-nineteenth century Victorianism. While amateurism has mostly evaporated from the Olympics, nostalgia remains. Amateurism embodies the alleged purity and nobility of pursuing sports for their own sake. In reality, it is a classist and greedy system that benefits governing bodies and meet organizers over athletes and inhibits the development of talented athletes.

Amateurism is implicit in most of the Olympic human-interest pieces. Athletes, we are told, sacrifice to pursue their dreams and love of sport. That they often come from impoverished background and struggle to maintain an adequate standard of living is a part of their charm and makes their success all the sweeter. They justify the mega endorsement deals that athletes sign as the reward for their years of toil. Unless, like Jones, they fail to achieve, then they are sell-outs and opportunists.

Mills found balance in his life. He managed his identity and transformed himself into a national brand. While he continues to rely on human-interest pieces to remind new generations of his story and extend his resonance, it is done on his terms. Or is it? Because Mills uses his wealth and fame for what the media decrees as “good” — raising money for Native American causes and inspiring youth — in a non-threatening way, perhaps they are willing complicit in helping him. It’s difficult to truly ever know, but that’s the nature of the sporting middle ground, and hegemony.

What is Pop Culture?

I follow the H-PCAACA list on H-net, and recently someone posed the question, “what is popular culture?” He asked that we keep our responses to 2 sentences. It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s one I’ve never given much thought to. I curiously followed the responses as they trickled in over the next few days, but I never replied with my own answer. I tend to be the type to observe, ask other people questions, and read a bit, before coming to diving in and my own conclusions.

Only one of my Facebook friends indulged me with a reply. She wrote:

i see it as “what is hot right now” people pick and choose what they pay attention to, but when everyone happens to pay attention to the same thing (charlie bit me, olympics hair styles, super bowl beer fetching dog) THATS pop culture.

No arguments from me. She brought up some interesting points too: mass appeal, its link to a specific moment in time, and the sort of underlying assumption that it can be anything regardless of content. In other words, for her it was more about audience and context than it was about content.

The list didn’t really disagree. One scholar wrote:

Any form of expression that a lot of people like.” Keys words are “expression” and “like.”

Although there was some disagreement about the role that aesthetic value plays in labeling something “pop culture.” A few suggested and many wondered if popular culture was more “low culture” than “high culture,” referring to Lawrence Levine’s book Highbrow/Lowbrow. I’m not entirely familiar with the book (but I’m adding it to my list), so I can’t offer much comment.  Based on my readings of cultural history, however, I tend to think the high/low delineation was mostly the product of Victorian and Progressive ideals/judgement. For me, contemporary popular culture encompasses both. For example, people often consider artwork by Picasso and others to be of high aesthetic value but its also quite popular.

What then do we make of these notions of audience and context. Is popular culture a phenomena of a specific time/place? Does it have to have mass appeal and popularity? I tend to think that time and place do matter. As scholars trying to analyze a work of popular culture context gives us a lot of clues. To properly understand it we ask questions like: who created? why did they created it? who consumed it? why did they consume it? and so on.

Jefferson Cowie’s recent book Stayin’ Alive provides a nice example of the complexity of studying popular culture and why digging deep is is important. His discussion of music from the 1970s shows the frequent disconnect between the artist and the audience. Using the example of Merle Haggard’s song “Okie from Muskogee,” Cowie explains how working class, conservative Americans identified with the song so much that Richard Nixon enlisted him to perform as some of his events. Republicans loved the song because it contrasted the values of “livin’ right and being free” by obeying and respecting the law with the marijuana smoking hippies of the 1970s. Yet, Haggard admitted he originally wrote the song as “a series of satirical riffs on what else they did not do in small town America besides dope”(172) revealing that the popular reception and interpretation of the song was the opposite of its intention. He was mocking small towns. This example shows that context is important to understand popular culture but the audience often appropriates its own meaning. Time and place both matter and don’t matter.

George Lipsitz important book Times Passages really gets at the complexity of popular culture, and argues that it is precisely its complexity that makes it worth studying.

The complicated relationship between historical memory and commercial culture, between the texts of popular culture and their contexts of creation and reception, resist conventional froms of cultural criticism. The coded, indirect, and allegorical aspect of popular culture, its inversions of speech and ideology, and its refusal to isolate art from lived experience (a source of corruption as well as social connection) baffle and frustrate critics trained in traditional western aesthetics and criticism (17).

Lipsitz suggests that veiled within popular culture we can discover oppositional politics and the struggles to reshape “the prevailing power relaties” within our collective memories. Popular culture offers evidence of our struggle to keep our memories as they are being reshaped for new means. According to Lipsitz, this is done by people bringing their cultural memory into the mainstream by embedding it in newer and different cultural creation. For example, rock-n-roll musicians often brought in elements from gospel and jazz to create something new and culturally distinct. The fact that many were white but influenced by and were now appropriating variations of black music gets at the issue of audience, power, and oppositional politics. And it relies on the issue of time and context.

Finally, what about audience and popularity? I think the reliance on mass appeal is a misnomer in popular culture. Lipsitz hints at this and I tend to agree. Popular culture can be specific to a certain group identity. My friend’s notion that the “charlie bit me” Youtube video is an example of popular culture is correct only if it is limited to specific groups. The “charlie bit me” video has no resonance for those who live in a world without a computer or the internet. I do agree that popular culture is somewhat based on mass appeal and wide audience, but those audience are never all encompassing. There can be overlapping popular cultures.

So what is popular culture? Here is my best attempt at an answer: Popular culture is an expression(s) of various mediums that meet a mass appeal, and perhaps, embody a certain moment within a significant segment or group of the population.