The Sports Illustrated issue published immediately after the Penn State scandal’s eruption featured a short piece by SI Editor Terry McDonell entitled “Why We Talk About Sports.” “The dark side is always there,” McDonell writes, “and we knew that even as we were shocked by the grotesque revelations coming out of Penn State. But we also knew that everything that is good about sports stays with us long after the stands empty, the stories are written.” After affirming sport’s cultural utility despite its myriad problems, McDonell introduces Sport in America: Our Defining Stories, a documentary series co-produced by SI and fellow Time Warner company HBO that is scheduled to premier in 2013. The series, according to McDonell, will explore “how we tell each other who we are by talking about sports” through compiling stories from athletes, celebrities, and fans.
The following week, while most sports media outlets were still processing the Penn State scandal’s magnitude, SI featured an extended introduction to Sport in America. The cover displayed an image of Tim Tebow—that beacon of corporatized piety—leading the Denver Broncos down the field along with the title of McDonell’s feature article.
McDonell’s rose-tinted essay argues that sport demonstrates humanity’s most human—and therefore, finest—qualities. “Sportsmanship can be a naïve word, especially in the shadow of the failure and shame of Penn State,” he writes. “But if we are who we say we are, if we believe in courage and integrity and fair play, then we define ourselves in our sports.” McDonell recounts a series of anecdotes culled from his SI colleagues that explain how sport helped them to mature, understand difference, and build relationships. The article reminded readers of sport’s value during a moment when popular attitudes surrounding it were relatively negative. Indeed, the timing of McDonell’s gushing celebration of sport-as-democratic-utopia indicates that SI was also working to salvage fans/subscribers/advertisers frustrated by lockouts, concussions, PEDs, and—sadly—sexual abuse.
McDonell’s piece provided a starting point from which SI and HBO have encouraged fans to participate in Sport in America by uploading videos of their own sports stories to the project’s website, some which will be included in the series.
While Sport in America positions itself as a collective experiment that values all sport stories, its website provides participants with guidance that suggests it is especially interested in generating new perspectives on topics that HBO’s documentaries have examined and that SI has reflected upon. (Sticking to these well-worn subjects will no doubt give the series easy and inexpensive access to archived photographs and film.) The website includes a section entitled “Moments to Consider” for participants unsure of what to discuss. These featured moments include events that range from Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” to the United States women’s soccer team’s 1999 World Cup victory. The actual questions the website asks participants to address in their videos are open-ended; however, the moments toward which it steers them indicate that the project may simply employ fans’ perspectives to confirm the narratives SI an HBO have already constructed. Indeed, HBO Sports has produced documentaries on Ruth, the U.S. women’s soccer team, and several of the other moments it encourages users to consider.
Moreover, the Sport in America website requires fans to agree that they will not sue or even allege plagiarism before they are permitted to upload a video. This, of course, is standard legal practice. Regardless, it suggests that while this collaborative documentary project solicits “our” stories, these tales cease to be ours the moment we upload them. Only after participants give Sport in America permission to use stories in whatever manner it chooses will the project consider defining them as Ours and proceed to sell them back to us.
Even though Sport in America has yet to premier, the circumstances surrounding its development suggest that our sports stories are legitimized as Our stories only when they are mediated by SI-HBO. As McDonell writes, “our sports have become more and more about money and marketing. But to most of us they’re still about the stories we tell one another, the transcendent moments that lift us—the very way we define ourselves.” He unsurprisingly does not mention the degree to which the preservation and celebration of these stories is a commercial, marketing-laden enterprise.
As the Olympics near we will be overwhelmed with televised human-interest pieces and lead-ins that reflect and even amplify McDonell’s sentimentality. While these productions—from Bob Costas’ studio commentary to Bud Greenspan’s documentaries—are quick to champion sport’s cultural import, they tend to obscure the conditions that facilitate and restrict sport’s apparent capacity to define us. It’s hard to imagine that Sport in America—despite its participatory promises—will be much different.