Sporting Goods – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ESPN, Frontline, and the Bottom Line Wed, 16 Oct 2013 14:00:17 +0000 League of Denial suggest conflict between priding itself for probing sport’s cultural meanings while keeping the world’s wealthiest sports organizations in business.]]> League of Denial Last Tuesday PBS Frontline premiered League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, a damning investigation of the National Football League’s efforts to suppress and discredit mounting evidence that the head trauma professional football players routinely endure poses grave health risks. An accompanying book—written by ESPN investigative reporters (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru—was released the same day.

An embodiment of Frontline’s typically trustworthy fare, League of Denial discusses how the NFL reacted to allegations surrounding concussions’ permanent health risks with a combination of silence, renunciation, and meddling. The meddling was principally waged through the NFL’s Mild Brain Traumatic Injury committee, a group of league-appointed doctors that denied any definitive link between football and brain damage. Pushed along by talking-head interviews, the documentary outlines the NFL’s decades-long efforts to soften this controversy, from its initial rumblings to the NFL’s recent settlement with retired players—an agreement that incidentally did not require the league to admit any wrongdoing.

League of Denial was initially a co-production of ESPN and PBS. Frontline and ESPN’s Outside the Lines began a multimedia reporting partnership last November devoted to investigating concussions in the NFL. League of Denial was to serve as the partnership’s capstone. However, ESPN suddenly decided to separate its brand from the project in late August, citing an apparent lack of editorial oversight. Critics understandably surmised that the NFL—a partner ESPN now annually pays approximately $1.9 billion for the rights to carry Monday Night Football­—put the squeeze on the “Worldwide Leader,” a charge ESPN denies. While ESPN removed its brand from the project, the Fainarus are still captioned in the documentary as ESPN employees and the outlet has commented extensively on the project.

We can’t exactly prove the NFL bullied ESPN into kowtowing to its whims. We can, however, contextualize this instance by considering other moments when ESPN 1) has changed its content to satisfy the NFL and 2) advertised its lack of editorial input over comparable programming.

In 2003, ESPN subsidiary ESPN Original Entertainment produced the scripted drama Playmakers. The tawdry “ripped from the headlines” series depicted a fictional football team faced with a potpourri of scandals, from crack addiction to spousal abuse. ESPN marketed the prime-time program during its Sunday evening NFL telecasts, a choice that so irked NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that he griped to Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner. Despite its popularity, ESPN decided not to renew the series. If the NFL successfully compelled ESPN to abandon a fictional series that never directly references the National Football League, it stands to reason that it might try to put the kibosh on League of Denial—a documentary that makes many of Playmakers’ lurid plot points seem blasé by comparison.

League of Denial emerged alongside a new season of ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 documentary series. In fact, Free Spirits—a nostalgic reflection on the American Basketball Association’s St. Louis Spirits—premiered at exactly the same time as League of Denial. What’s more, ESPN markets these documentaries as embodiments of their directors’ apparently unhindered creative inspiration. It publicizes participating directors as “filmmaking originals” and its website includes individualized “director’s statements” for each film that explain their personal relationship to their subject matter. Frontline—which has garnered nearly every honor a TV production can receive—is far more respected than most of the directors ESPN Films hires to create these documentaries. Anyone out there ever heard of Fritz Mitchell? How about Rory Karpf? No disrespect to Fritz and Rory, but Frontline they are not. Why, then, does ESPN purport to give these filmmakers creative freedom but refuse to allow Frontline—a series that seems to have the television documentary pretty well figured out at this point—to proceed as it sees fit with a project fueled by its own journalists’ reportage?

To recap, ESPN has changed its content to please the NFL and frequently cedes control—or at least claims to cede control—of its nonfiction programming. However, it suddenly decides not to commingle with Frontline after working alongside the franchise for nearly a year because it feared it did not have sufficient input. At the very least, it seems bizarre that ESPN would have such limited knowledge of how a project this high profile was developing so close to its premiere.

The lesson here is not that ESPN seems to cave to the NFL. The NFL is ESPN’s most powerful client and will inevitably color its content—if not through direct edicts, then certainly in more subtle ways. But this is old news. The real takeaway, I think, is the crucial importance of identifying the forces that guide precisely when ESPN decides it suitable (or unacceptable) to give up editorial control and using this context to critique the rhetorical strategies ESPN employs to explain away these suspicious choices. This is increasingly vital as ESPN continues to bill itself—without so much as a smirk—as a site that responsibly probes sport’s cultural meanings while its programming contracts keep the world’s wealthiest sports organizations in business.


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Conflicted Coverage: ESPN and Johnny Manziel Thu, 05 Sep 2013 14:28:19 +0000 What’s good for ESPN is good for the game” ~ Rece Davis

Manziel MoneyCollege football kicked off this weekend, and it should come as no surprise that one of the biggest stories surrounded Johnny Manziel. The Texas A&M quarterback rose to national prominence last year with a terrific season, winning the Heisman trophy, and garnering the nickname “Johnny Football.” Returning after a Heisman-season is enough to put one squarely in the media’s lens, but Manziel’s off-the-field summer activities made him a much bigger target.

At the beginning of August, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported the NCAA was investigating whether Manziel was paid for signing hundreds of autographs, citing two witnesses and multiple other sources. NCAA bylaw states student-athletes cannot use their names or likenesses for commercial gain. More and more sources came forward, including an autograph broker claiming he paid Manziel $7,500. Finally, in late August just days before the season began, the NCAA revealed the results of their investigation: they found no evidence of Manziel receiving payment. However, Manziel would be suspend for the first half of Texas A&M’s opener against Rice this past Saturday for violating the ‘spirit’ of the rule. Many questioned the odd decision and the message it sent, some wondering if he got off too easy.

ESPN played up the controversy as they hyped the opening weekend. This promo video from ESPN writer Wright Thompson shows how the network presented Manziel as a superstar celebrity, emphasizing his off-field personality more than his athletic achievements:

Conflicted Coverage: ESPN and Johnny Manziel

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

After the game, ESPN got exactly what they wanted: not just a great athletic performance but fuel for the fire of Manziel’s cult of personality. Although Manziel had a great game, this was almost entirely overshadowed by his antics on the field, including autograph and money-based taunting and a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. To be clear, this post is not interested in Manziel’s sportsmanship, eligibility, guilt, or otherwise. What is fascinating about this story is how it was reported and discussed on ESPN immediately afterward, and what that reveals about the nature of celebrity, sports, and media representation.

A quick game recap featured on both ESPN’s website and SportsCenter broadcasts introduced Manziel as the “biggest villain in college football.” When the recap reached the unsportsmanlike conduct call, the reporter said, “I suppose when you win the Heisman trophy, you can do things like that,” although he was quick to add, in a somewhat parodic manner, “but it’s just not becoming of a champion.” In other words the quick-style reporting of the incident did not question Manziel’s actions, and even went so far as to play up the antagonistic behavior.

This reporting is in contrast to several analysts’ takes on the situation, including one from Jesse Palmer calling Manziel’s antics “inexcusable.” After reiterating the ways in which Manziel is viewed as a villain (referencing Heisman jealousy and fraternizing with LeBron James), Palmer shifts focus to Manziel’s performance saying, “Now on the field, I love what Johnny Manziel did today.” Here we see the ways in which ESPN (and several fans) are attempting to both celebrate Manziel’s athletic accomplishments while acknowledging and criticizing his personal presentation.

Davis, Holtz, and May

Davis, Holtz, and May

However, a segment featuring two of the networks stalwart college football analysts, Mark May and Lou Holtz, alongside host Rece Davis pulled back the curtain on how ESPN decides to deal with Manziel as both athlete and celebrity. When discussing Manziel’s taunting, Davis claims, “One of the reasons we love Johnny on the field is because he’s flamboyant, he’s reckless, he takes chances… but there’s a line and he’s got to find that boundary and stay behind it.” When Davis says “we,” he might as well be saying “We here at ESPN,” as he is acknowledging the antics of Manziel are what makes him the celebrity figure he is; loved or hated, it gets a reaction from viewers and gives people a reason to watch ESPN.

After Davis continues to play Manziel’s advocate, claiming Manziel made these gestures last year, May and Holtz immediately argue that Manziel has indeed gone too far with Holtz saying, “I don’t think it’s good for the game… It think it’s good for ESPN, but I don’t think it’s good for the game.” Davis immediately responds by saying, “Well what’s good for ESPN is good for the game,” though he barely gets the last word out as he appears to realize what he is saying. In that brief, unfiltered moment, Rece Davis reveals exactly the position ESPN is in; they are a business who’s role is not to support ‘the game’ as an abstract concept, but to profit alongside the NCAA through stars like Johnny Manziel. (Student-athletes’ inability to make money off their own names/likenesses, of course, makes this problematic).

Rece Davis is absolutely right, from ESPN’s perspective, as Manziel’s antics will only drive more viewers to the screen. By creating the persona of Manziel as the villain or heel, ESPN can engage viewers on a more emotional level, giving people another reason to tune it. This is ESPN creating a narrative to further engage their audience. Just like Breaking Bad or professional wrestling, the desire to see justice prevail and villains punished pulls us in deeper and keeps us watching. They are stuck in the middle between glamorizing and promoting the natural celebrity of Manziel while at the same time criticizing the very actions which make him a celebrity in the first place. ESPN wants it both ways. When it comes to showmanship vs. sportsmanship, ESPN are enablers, wagging their finger with one hand and patting the back with the other. It becomes easy to forget that at the center of all of this is a 20 year-old kid from Tyler, Texas named Johnny.


ESPN, Wimbledon, and the Limits of Broadcasting Equality Thu, 04 Jul 2013 20:49:15 +0000 WomensSemis2On Tuesday, ESPN debuted the first film in its Nine for IX series, focusing on women’s equality in the sports world. The first entry, Venus Vs., documents tennis player Venus Williams’ career and her role as a prominent advocate for equal prize money at the grand slam championships (which culminated in a battle against the establishment of Wimbledon, the last hold-outs despite an incredibly small margin between the men’s and women’s prizes).

I have a range of thoughts about Nine for IX, which is a step forward for the role of women in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series but also exists outside of the 30 for 30 series in a way that seems problematic: why does there have to be a distinct reason to highlight women in sports compared to the more general goals of 30 for 30, which should be equal across both genders? However, today’s broadcast of the Wimbledon Women’s Semi-Finals foregrounds this question of equality not only within sports, but also specifically within the broadcast coverage of those sports on channels like ESPN (which starting in 2012 became the exclusive television home of Wimbledon).

Today’s 10th day of play at Wimbledon featured two pairs of semi-finals taking place simultaneously: the Women’s Semi-Finals on Centre Court, and the Men’s Doubles Semi-Finals on Court 1. ESPN’s broadcast coverage was scheduled as the Women’ Semi-Finals, with coverage of Court 1 streaming live online on (where ESPN has featured streams of all televised courts throughout their coverage of the event). However, throughout the primary coverage of Marion Bartoli’s routine victory over Kirsten Flipkens and Sabine Lisicki’s tense three-set win over Agnieszka Radwanska, ESPN consistently shifted to Court 1 for key moments in the Bob and Mike Bryan’s five-set win over Rohan Bopanna and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

To be clear, these were not simply short, 15-second status updates encouraging viewers to check out the full match on ESPN3. These were also not short updates taking place during breaks of play on Centre Court, as though to ensure there was active tennis for as many consecutive minutes as possible during coverage. Rather, these were long interludes of play necessitating cross-court updates in the top right corner of the screen on the women’s semi-final that was still ongoing on Centre Court, and in many cases still ongoing with tense back-and-forth tennis (specifically in the case of the Lisicki/Radwanska semi-final, which commentator Chrissie Evert lauded for its show of shot diversity and skill).

Some could argue that this decision speaks primarily to the ethnocentrism of ESPN’s tennis coverage. With no American player advancing to the semi-finals after Serena Williams’ exit in the Round of 16 and Sloane Stephens’ quarter-final loss to Bartoli, ESPN lost a national narrative during what they likely saw as a particularly national timeslot on the morning of the Fourth of July. The Bryan Brothers are long-time stalwarts for American tennis internationally, and are also competing for their fourth-straight major title—ESPN’s choice to highlight their efforts appealed to those who see tennis through the lens of those three-letter abbreviations after each player’s name, some of whom took to Twitter to advocate for more coverage of the Bryan Brothers’ match on nationalist grounds.


However, particularly only days after the debut of Nine for IX, it is hard not to see this as a blow against broadcast equality, a narrative also present on social media during ESPN’s coverage as per the above image. What are the chances of ESPN cutting away from tomorrow’s Men’s Semi-Finals between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro to highlight the Women’s Doubles Semi-Finals? Even if we explore the hypothetical of a prominent American women’s doubles pairing like Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond—who are no longer playing as a team—competing in the Women’s event, would ESPN ever shift away from Andy Murray’s quest to become the first British man since Fred Perry to win Wimbledon to document the American team’s efforts to make the doubles final instead?

Within Venus Vs., director Ava DuVernay highlights many of the flawed arguments levied equal prize money and equality within tennis in general: men argued—and often still argue—the women’s game is less taxing, less exciting, and less popular (both in terms of attendance and broadcast ratings). Various representatives of the WTA and women’s tennis identified the flaws in these arguments, and in the case of broadcast ratings the counter-argument was that they were cyclical: sometimes women’s tennis is a larger draw, and sometimes men’s tennis is a larger draw.

However, I would argue that if we were to strip away the variables of nationhood and star power driving those cycles, ESPN and other broadcasters still believe men’s tennis is inherently a larger draw than women’s tennis. ESPN wouldn’t have cut away from marquee matchups featuring players like Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova as they did the matchups between these four players, which demonstrates the respect that the highest-ranked—and most recognizable—players on the women’s side have earned. With those players eliminated from the tournament, though, ESPN’s broadcasting decisions reveal their respect for those marquee players has not trickled down to the underdogs, creating a scenario where a battle between the number four women’s tennis player in the world seeking her second-straight Wimbledon final and a perpetual underdog trying to reach her first Wimbledon final is perceived as temporarily dispensable despite a high level of play.

It has long been common knowledge that ESPN’s coverage will be dictated by a homerism toward American contenders and global stars: you could hear the ESPN executives’ dismay when Williams and Stephens both exited, while the early exits of top contenders in both the Women’s and Men’s fields (Sharapova, Azarenka, Federer, Nadal) robbed them of many high-profile matchups later in the tournament. Today’s coverage, however, reaffirmed the intersectionality of sports and sports broadcasting: while the potential for gender equality may exist, it depends on circumstances in which gender equality is properly incentivized relative to higher priorities (and other hierarchies), circumstances that were apparently absent during today’s broadcast.


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ESPN and EA Sports’ NHL Season Simulation Fri, 16 Nov 2012 14:00:41 +0000 The National Hockey League is currently rounding out the sixth week of a lockout—the league’s third labor stoppage since 1994.  These disputes, of course, are not unusual in contemporary sports.  Just a couple of months ago the National Football League locked out its referees and briefly shifted to replacements, whose borderline-comic insufficiencies wound up moving labor negotiations along with unexpected celerity. The NHL lockout, however, comes at a particularly inopportune time for America’s fourth most popular professional sports league, which seemed to be gaining popularity with the continued success of the Winter Classic (which has been called off this year), the HBO reality series 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, the 2007 launch of the NHL Network, and the distribution and promotion that broadcast partner NBC provides via both its primary network and the NBC Sports Network.  Critics have understandably speculated about the degree to which the work stoppage will alienate the fans that the NHL and its partners have aggressively, and creatively, cultivated over the course of the last decade.

While the lockout prohibits NHL players from lacing up for their teams (though many of its biggest stars are spending the stoppage participating in international leagues like Russia’s KHL), it has not prevented video game behemoth EA Sports from promoting its annual National Hockey League game.  NHL 13 is now the only game officially licensed by the NHL and the NHL Players Association—the factions currently warring over how the league’s revenues (including those generated from video game sales) will be divvied up.  Beginning the same week the NHL was scheduled to start is 2012-2013 season, EA Sports developed a weekly series of simulations hosted and promoted by that reflect on how the season might have transpired.  Featuring prominently ESPN’s brand and adopting a style similar to the media outlet’s highlight programs, the simulations combine slow motion replays with upbeat voiceover narrations and driving scores to showcase the imagined weeks’ most important and enthralling moments—power play goals, great saves, and so forth.  The simulations also praise the week’s top performances and include box scores for each game, headlines of league news, and even injury reports.  While the real Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin is currently playing for the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk, his simulated version will be sitting out for 3-4 months with a sprained MCL.  Penguins fans, it seems, can’t catch an actual or virtual break.

The EA Sports simulations are not new.  EA simulated the 2011 and 2012 Stanley Cups and currently hosts weekly Madden NFL 13 simulations of the National Football League’s games.  These productions grow out of a partnership between EA Sports and ESPN that started in 2005, when EA paid the “Worldwide Leader” $850 million for 15 years of advertising and the exclusive right to use its brand in games.  Since the deal was struck, these two titans of sports media have worked in concert to build each other’s images and increase their already expansive market share, demographic reach, and presence across multiple platforms.  “When you think about brands that should be together and work together,” said current ESPN president John Skipper shortly after the deal was struck, “I think EA represents in video games what ESPN represents in broadcasting and media assets.”  EA and ESPN typically frame the simulations as showcases of EA Sports games’ sophisticated capacity to provide information reliable enough to help fans set their fantasy rosters or place actual bets.  “Before you fill out your pick ’em pool or make that final fantasy lineup adjustment,” notes, “the Madden engine can provide that last bit of insight.”  Along different lines, EA and ESPN have used the NHL labor stoppage as an opportunity to market their simulations as outgrowths of the fan-centered populism on which each brand trades: “EA Sports brings you the NHL games, stats and standings that you were supposed to see.”  The simulations, they suggest, are gifts designed to tide over hockey-hungry fans that deserve better from the sports they cherish.

Corporate altruism notwithstanding, the NHL simulations indicate that while the content of EA Sports’ games rely primarily on the organizations they pay handsomely for the license to depict, they use ESPN to build, celebrate, and circulate those games’ meaning and value.  Beyond hosting the simulations, incessantly plugs their authenticity and only briefly, if at all, mentions games that are competing with EA Sports’ titles.  Moreover, ESPN typically situates its promotion of EA Sports’ products and developments as reportage.  In doing so, it suggests that EA products are the only sports games on the market worth note—an attitude that, given ESPN’s enormous reach, dissuades potential competitors from trying to chip away at EA Sports’ market share.

The simulations also illuminate the conspicuously thin line between ESPN’s coverage and its promotional activities and obligations.  When the NHL simulations first appeared in early October, a few frustrated commentators cynically huffed that ESPN is now providing the NHL with more coverage than it did when the league was actually in operation.  Indeed, ESPN has greater incentive to cover the simulations—which feature its client EA Sports along with its own brand—than it does to provide the actual NHL, an organization it has not possessed the rights to cover since 2004, with anything more than brief and relatively sporadic acknowledgement.  Though the simulations are relatively unimportant novelties within the ever-expanding universe ESPN has constructed, they usefully—though somewhat dismayingly—suggest the media outlet’s business partnerships supersede its publicized commitment to report on the sports world.

While the simulations showcase a virtual NHL season, they are remarkably actual advertisements.  EA Sports and ESPN’s combined efforts to expand sports media’s technological and interactive possibilities simultaneously work to restrict the branded horizons within which this potential can emerge.


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Officially Defeated: On the Broader Significance of the NFL Referee Lockout Fri, 28 Sep 2012 18:27:34 +0000 In the twenty-first century, the NFL’s product can no longer reasonably be separated from its mediated presentation via television. NFL telecasts routinely rate as the most-watched programs on US television and ‘inelastic’ demand for the NFL’s product has resulted in immense revenues from the league’s broadcasting agreements. This exposure, demand, and revenue have emboldened the NFL in every phase, including its negotiations with its employees. We saw this just last summer with the NFL’s hard-line stance against the Player’s Association and we’ve just seen it with the lockout of the NFL’s officials. It took an egregious officiating error by 3rd-rate replacements in a recent primetime game to prompt the NFL to come to a deal with the NFL Referee Association. Now, with the standing ovation for Gene Steratore’s crew at the beginning of last night’s game, collective relief over the return of the ‘real referees’ threatens to overwhelm the significance of this most visible struggle between management and labor.

When the lockout began, Dave Zirin observed that the NFL was pursuing this tactic simply because it could. He then laid out the material case for the NFL’s stance, contextualizing the league’s grotesque profits and extremely aggressive approach to labor relations within broader trends in American corporate culture. Yet Zirin’s analysis under-emphasizes the ideological and discursive dimensions of this situation. I contend that this lockout encapsulates the manner in which the material and ideological conditions of struggle between labor and capital have been reconfigured during thirty-plus years of neoliberal discourse and policy. The fetishization of the ‘free’ market and individual autonomy, the privileging of private interests over the public, and an increasing hostility towards organized labor have taken hold in the United States. We now find ourselves in a moment at which wealth is being funneled upwards as public debt balloons and poverty and unemployment continue to increase. Despite all this, we continue to see a persistent skepticism about organized labor and government intervention within the general public. In this context, the NFL intuitively understood that it could lock out its officials with impunity because public sentiment was inherently opposed to these workers.

This was widely apparent during the referee lockout. One seldom saw the non-union referees referred to as ‘scabs’; rather, media commentators called them ‘replacement officials’. Similarly, game analysts and commentators were often reluctant to criticize the ‘replacement’ officials (though there have been suggestions that some were duped). My own survey of user comments on articles concerning the substitute officials on suggested that many readers were unsympathetic to the NFLRA with numerous hostile comments posted. Perhaps most curiously, while fans and commentators critiqued the performance of these officials and lamented the diminished quality of games – see the meme pictured above – few seemed to connect this to the NFL’s decision to lock out its professional referees after the NFLRA refused to accept the NFL’s take-it-or-leave-it offer during negotiations before the season. Fewer still made the obvious connections between this event and other recent labor disputes.

Here we have a massively profitable billion-dollar sports league that was willing to compromise the quality of its product, the safety of its players, and its own reputation in order to gain some meager savings – as low as $62,000 annually per team, according to some reports. Per Peter King, the primary sticking point in negotiations was apparently the retirement plan; the NFL sought to shift all referees from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution, market-based plan. While the referees initially balked at this, early reports concerning Wednesday’s deal indicate that this measure is set to go through in 2016. Despite their efforts to hold out, and their apparent leverage after Monday’s debacle, the refs ultimately became only the latest group of American workers to lose their pensions. A turn of events that would have been unthinkable three decades ago now barely elicits a raised eyebrow; in this case, the few criticisms of the deal have been drowned out by the cheers for the return of the real refs and the apparent salvation of the NFL season.

So, what can we take from this sequence of events? None of what has transpired here is new. These points bear repeating, however, because events such as this represent brief moments of clarity in which the material and ideological power dimensions of a given moment are exposed. It is perhaps a fitting sign of the times that, just as public consciousness of the stakes of this struggle seemed to be building, it was punted into the past through a hasty resolution. But the fact that this dispute even got to this stage is itself an indication of the extent to which the management-labor dichotomy has faded in the collective public mind. With this week’s agreement, this lockout becomes merely another disparate event in as yet unconnected cluster of struggles from the Wisconsin Uprising to the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike to the myriad private-sector labor disputes that dot our blighted economic landscape.

As with those events, it is unclear whether or not there will be any meaningful residual activity emerging out of this most visible struggle. Indeed, this is perhaps the defining quality of our time: the difficulty envisioning and articulating connections across classes, spaces, and events. As with the public-sector workers and the teachers in the preceding events, football fans could not seem to see their own diminished circumstances and prospects for the future in the referees struggle to hold the line against the league. This fading conflict now stands as yet another indication that the terrain of struggle that defined the twentieth century has yielded to something else. This new moment demands new ways of conceptualizing and articulating the dimensions of a more amorphous and atomized struggle over material goods and ideological territory.

I believe that the difficulty we’ve experienced in imagining and articulating these new ways attests to the all-encompassing tension between the nostalgic cul-de-sac of the ‘American Century’ and the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideologies. The way we never were, to borrow Stephanie Coontz’s phrase, looks better and better as the status quo continues to deteriorate. Then again, three decades of rampant individualism have limited our ability to conceive of ourselves in terms of broader social entities. The lockout should provide a stern indication that the old terrain of struggle has been reconfigured in material and ideological terms. Its lesson is surely that, if those of us who labor do not get engage in the practice of imagining new ways of community-building, organizing, and resisting, we will undoubtedly face diminished prospects in the future. Of course, its deeper lesson may be that the twentieth century is fated to be remembered as a brief golden cycle in a much darker longue durée.


The Internet, Baseball Analysis, and the Persistence of Dogma Fri, 03 Aug 2012 13:00:54 +0000 “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” –George Santayana, Life of Reason (1905) vol. 1, Introduction

Bill James did not invent the analytic study of baseball. He did, however, introduce sports fandom to the key principles of what is now known as SABRmetrics, a half-acronym inspired by the Society for American Baseball Research. And if you read through James’ early work from the 1980s, one clear intellectual project emerges: the destruction of dogma. James wanted to show that the insiders who thought they knew baseball best were handicapped by decades of collective “wisdom.”

For example, everyone knows that Runs Batted In (RBI) are a key measure of a player’s offensive ability. The only problem, James showed through mathematically informed analysis, is that it really isn’t. The statistic, it turns out, is highly contextual and if you pick your players based primarily on their RBI totals, things could go wrong in a hurry. The point of it all was to let reason and evidence lead the way. Baseball’s lore was often valuable, both for its authentic insights and its seemingly endless supply of straw men for sabrmetricians to tilt at on weekends. Dogma, however, needed to go.

Bill James is still around but, as is the case with all developing technologies, baseball analysis has moved too fast for any one person to stay on top of it all. Now the Internet is littered with people doing studies of all sorts, ranging from intense video analysis of every pitch to obscure simulations of bygone seasons.

But, according to Kevin Goldstein, perhaps not all of this change has been for the better. Yes, more people are doing, or at least following, advanced baseball analysis. But they have, as Goldstein implies in the interview below, forgotten their aims (to learn the truth about the game of baseball) and redoubled their efforts (to show that baseball insiders are generally wrong).

Goldstein is particularly attuned to this situation. His primary employer, Baseball Prospectus, is the best-known proponent of the statistical study of baseball. Most of his colleagues spend their days pouring over equations. But Goldstein studies and writes about prospects. He needs to give informed opinions on 18-year-old athletes from rural high schools whose statistics, as you can surely imagine, only tell part of the story. So Goldstein, much to the horror of the more orthodox sabrmetricians, doesn’t just look at stats. He also calls insiders–exactly the sorts of people whose persistent wrongness gives the sabrmetric community its raison d’être.

On episode 93 of his popular podcast Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast, Goldstein bemoaned the current state baseball analysis–the rant starts at 24:45 and is worth those who study fandom of all sorts. In the wake of the podcast, we exchanged a few emails on the subject:

Matt: You are clearly not the old curmudgeonly sportswriter who’s afraid of change. But you don’t seem to love Internet analysis.

Kevin: Well, just because I’m not an old curmudgeonly sportswriter doesn’t mean I’m going to embrace every change that comes about. Look, the Internet is a wonderful thing, and I wouldn’t have this career without it, but while it levels the playing field it also opens the door to a lot of garbage out there. What disturbs me is the amount of dogmatism, where basically the attitude is “I’m here and I know stats and every manager/GM/player is stupid, and here’s why.”

Look, being dogmatic is easy. What’s hard is to see something and say to yourself, “That LOOKS stupid at first glance, and maybe it is. But maybe there is something I don’t understand.” To look for that takes effort. It might even take talking to somebody else, which again, forces you to admit that maybe you don’t know everything. I’ve always said that my greatest advantage, one of the reasons this whole thing has worked out for me so damn well is that I’m willing to pick up a telephone with the hope of talking to someone.

Matt: Can you give an example?

Kevin: It happens all the time with everything. Every trade is stupid, every signing is stupid, every tactic is stupid. There’s a team right now and they have a player. Fans of that team want that player in the lineup every day. When he’s not in the lineup, they all scream “stupid stupid stupid.” But you know what? Turns out that team wasn’t playing that player for a reason.  Reporter needed to actually ask someone to get the truth.

Matt: Does the dogma crowd out the good journalism?

Kevin: Well, that’s the thing. Like I said during the little rant on the podcast, maybe I’m the asshole here. I think the signal-to-noise ratio is worse than ever, but people sure seem to like the noise.

Matt: So the Internet democraticizes but it also dogmatizes?

Kevin: Well, it’s two sides of a coin, really. The Internet is great because it levels the playing field. I’m here. I’m successful. I didn’t go to college and I have no journalism background. I was able to learn on the fly (still learning) and get an audience. The Internet is also awful because it levels the playing field and anyone can pretend they are doing what others do. It puts much more pressure on the audience when you think about it. Before, you had just journalists. You had TV and newspapers and those people actually providing the news were already vetted. Now, there’s a sudden onus on the audience to say “hey, who is this person writing this and why should I trust them?” And it’s pretty clear that not enough people are taking the step back to ask that question.


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Sport in America: Our Defining Stories Fri, 29 Jun 2012 12:22:56 +0000 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.


It’s the Euros, stupid! Fri, 22 Jun 2012 14:31:45 +0000 As the European Football Championship have reached their halfway stage and moved from the group phase to the quarterfinals which Portugal opened with their victory over the Czech Republic on Thursday, it’s time for some halftime analysis–albeit not of the soul-searching depth of ever-vain Cristiano Ronaldo’s reflections during halftime in Portugal’s opener against Germany. In a game that saw Portugal defend too deep and develop little of its own offensive capabilities, the self-pronounced world’s best footballer knew what had to be done: when he stepped back onto the field for the second half, he had radically restyled his hair shifting from the gelled comb back to the quiff that is the metrosexual footballer’s best friend in the post-Beckham era. Portugal went on to lose 0-1.

Much of Jean Baudrillard’s (1993: 79-80) analysis of football as a space for increasing spectacle that at some stage is so enlarged in its representation that the actual event may well not need take place at all, has been proven right over the past decade, but not even he will have imagined the spectacular triumph of superficiality and ephemerality that is Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair–and indeed ego. Those searching for further evidence for the preponderance of the postmodern in European Championship don’t have to look far: once again, the mediated tournament appears in radical isolation from the context of the social, cultural, and physical landscapes in which the matches take place, with the exception of the dramatic thunderstorm that led to an hour-long delay in host nation Ukraine’s group match with France. German public broadcaster ZDF–previously rarely know as a beacon of postmodernism–has inadvertently crossed into the realms of the surreal by deciding to build a stage for its pre- and post-match analysis on a pontoon in the Baltic Sea on the island of Usedom, leaving millions of bewildered viewers–and newspaper columnists–to wonder “why?”, as the floating stage seems to have as little to do with football as host Katrin Müller-Hohenstein and former Germany keeper Oliver Kahn’s wooden attempts at conversation and banter have with entertainment.

Yet, just when there are appears plenty of convincing proof of football’s dissolution into postmodern spectacle, fate presents us with a match-up that forcefully reminds us that base and superstructure are rather less divorced than the non-reductive methodologies of postmodern theories would have us believe. When Greece meets Germany in the second quarterfinal match tonight, it’s, literally, about the Euro(s), stupid!

One of the most persistent myths about the nature of modern sport is that it has lots its innocence and authenticity over time through professionalization and commercialisation. In fact sports, and none more than football–or what Europeans tend to call football and Americans, in reference to Association, call “soccer“–have from their very origin in the second half of the 19th century been driven by forces of capitalism and industrialisation, resulting in the regulation of time and space and crucially the distinction of participants and spectators, the latter becoming paying customers as early as 1871 when English side Aston Villa was the first to charge at its gates. All that followed from the game’s symbiosis, first with newspapers, then radio, and eventually television to turn it into a the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, adhered to the very principles that had given rise to modern football in the first instance (Sandvoss 2003). And with the popular appeal and reach that football achieved in its mediated form, it inevitably became part of the public sphere in which, as much important work in media and cultural studies has illustrated over the past three decades, the political may not always be popular, but the popular is always politics.

Rarely will this nexus of sports, politics, and money be more evident than when on Friday night the German team meets Greece in Gdansk. In the rhetoric of many Greek politicians, the current economic plight is a result of austerity enforced on the Greek state by the EU and driven by its largest member state Germany. Many Germans in turn are dazzled by such hostility as Germany’s contributions account for nearly half of the €240 billion bailout Greece has received since 2010.

In the same manner, Germany, who have won all three of their first-round matches in what the ever restrained sporting press named “Group of Death”, are perceived as strong favourites, the Goliath threatening to roll over Greece’s brave eleven that somehow sneaked its way through the quarterfinals with efficiency, ingenuity, and self-belief.

But beyond all the hostile rhetoric and regardless of tonight’s result, over time the game will simply confirm the realities of a globalising world–a world in which through pressures of global capitalism as much as, I believe, related yet partially autonomous social, cultural, and political forces, create transnational structures and trajectories that erode the cultural frame of the nation station. The reality of the two teams that will play tonight is that almost half of the Greek squad either currently live, grew up in, or previously played in Germany, much as the German team includes many players of migratory backgrounds, primarily from the Mediterranean. In the same way, the only resolution to the Euro crisis, over time, will be an ever closer political and fiscal union between today’s still seemingly autonomous member states of the Euro Zone. Because, in the end, the Germans, the Greeks, and all of us share something more fundamental than the Euro and the Euros in a clash that the prophetic Monty Python predicted four decades ago. There, finally, is some hair to make Cristiano Ronaldo blush with envy!


Sporting Goods: Nostalgia, Gender, and Revision in CBS’ “One Shining Moment” Wed, 21 Mar 2012 12:57:26 +0000

Sporting Goods is an ongoing column that explores the place of sports within the discipline of media studies and everyday life.

The NCAA Basketball Tournaments—March Madness, The Big Dance—have now reached the Sweet 16.  Brackets have busted, boss buttons have clicked, “Cinderella” teams have sent heavily favored opponents packing, and thanks to a recent joint contract between CBS and Turner Sports we can now enjoy Charles Barkley’s analysis between games.

Barkley’s ambiguously ironic candor notwithstanding, television coverage of the men’s tournament—from live telecasts of games to commercials that capitalize on the spectacle—constructs an NCAA-approved mythology that situates The Big Dance as a uniquely dramatic and unpredictable event where committed student athletes strive to win their school a national title.  Since 1987 CBS has closed its tournament coverage with “One Shining Moment,” a melodramatic musical highlight package that reflects upon and celebrates the event.  The ballad, which The Wall Street Journal called “the most famous song in sports,” champions March Madness as an embodiment of the determination players and coaches exhibit in striving to capitalize on the opportunity for glory that the tournament provides.  The highlight documents the men’s NCAA Tournament through attaching a set of overwrought feelings to it—players leaping in jubilation after a victory, fans sulking after a loss, exasperated coaches screaming orders.  Furthermore, its repetition every year suggests that March Madness—and NCAA basketball more broadly—always exhibits the same positive qualities.

Folk musician David Barrett claims to have written “One Shining Moment” to explain the allure of basketball—specifically watching the sport on television—to a woman who dismissed his fandom as juvenile.  With the help of a well-connected friend, Barrett sold “One Shining Moment” to CBS for use after its broadcast of the 1987 Super Bowl.  However, when CBS’ post-Super Bowl interviews ran long, the network shelved his song until its coverage of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament a couple of months later.

In 2010 CBS decided to update “One Shining Moment” by hiring Grammy Award winning recording artist Jennifer Hudson to perform the tune.  Hudson succeeded a tradition of male singers that included Barrett (1987-1993, 2000-2002), Teddy Pendergrass (1994-1999), and, most famously, Luther Vandross (2003-2009).  Though her rendition did not deviate considerably from her predecessors’, it was met with an impassioned stream of derision that prompted CBS to return to Vandross the following year.

Before Hudson’s performance even aired a Facebook group entitled “Bring Back Luther’s Version” emerged to protest CBS’ shift.  Viewer responses to her rendition—most of which materialized in the form of Youtube comments—were more explicit in voicing their disapproval.  One viewer charged that Hudson “murdered the song” while another questioned how the singer could sleep at night knowing that she “messed up one of the great traditions of the NCAA Tournament.”  Professional critics were no more sympathetic.  As’s Ryan Green bluntly claimed, “there are certain things in sports you just don’t mess with.  This [“One Shining Moment”] is one of them.”

Many of the critiques focused on Hudson’s visual presence in the highlight package—which featured five brief cuts to her in a recording studio—and suggested that it transformed “One Shining Moment” into an indulgent music video.  While Hudson’s presence places greater emphasis on the performer than previous installments, this was actually not the first time the singer had been visibly present.  The 2003 version featured two brief cuts to Vandross’ emphatic crooning.  Other iterations used glittery effects that built upon the song’s lyrics by making it appear that players were literally shining.  Contrary to Green’s claim that the 2010 “One Shining Moment” “messed with” a pristine tradition, the highlight has been revised throughout its history.  However, none of these previous versions generated nearly the outrage Hudson’s performance precipitated.  Some fans were so offended that they sought to erase Hudson from this tradition of sport media by creating their own “One Shining Moment” videos that edited her out of the highlight’s visual component and added Vandross’ performance as the soundtrack.

Given the facts that CBS had previously included the singer who performed “One Shining Moment” in the highlight package and had made other changes to the production over the years, the key difference between the 2010 version its predecessors is Hudson’s position as a woman.  Some of the discourses surrounding the 2010 highlight explicitly suggest that the song—which, at the level of music and lyrics, seems perfectly suitable for a female crooner of even the most feminine variety—loses its intended meaning when performed by a woman.  As one viewer noted, Hudson’s version “seems like your little sister telling you how great you are, Vandross’ version is a father or coach telling you that all your hard work will pay off.”

The discourses surrounding Hudson’s performance suggest that her rendition disrupted a sentimentality specific to the relationship between men and sport.  The demands that CBS return to Vandross’ version and CBS’ acquiescent response to them indicate that “One Shining Moment” conveys, or at least ought to convey, nostalgia for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament that is designed for a male viewership and that is only authentic when delivered by a man.  More specifically, these demands suggest that “One Shining Moment” communicates nostalgia not simply for the tournament, but for the act of watching it on television.  Like the gendered circumstances David Barrett claims fueled his composition of the song, reception of “One Shining Moment” indicates that the relationship between men and sport, as it is constituted through television, harbors specifically masculine feelings.  In doing so, these discourses, along with CBS’ response to them, disregard women both as authentic producers and consumers of sport media, and sport history more broadly.  Furthermore, “One Shining Moment’s” recent revisions suggest that the mythic meaning the highlight attaches to the men’s tournament is contingent upon the stability of the gendered television viewing experience it constructs.

That said, enjoy the rest of the tournaments.  May your brackets never bust.




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