Sports & Media [July 5-9, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday July 5, 2010 – Roopika Risam (Emory University) presents: 100 Years Later: Race and “The Fight of the Century”

Tuesday July 6, 2010 – Gregory Zinman (New York University) presents: The Impossible Dream: Fake Sports Online

Wednesday July 7, 2010 – Emily Newman (St. Cloud University) presents: Finding Cullen Jones: The Complicated Position of Race in Swimming

Thursday July 8, 2010 – Mabel Rosenheck (Northwestern University) presents: Selling Strasburg: Baseball, Broadcast Flow, and the Commodity Audience 

Friday July 9, 2010 – Travis Vogan (Indiana University) presents: 30 for 30 and ESPN’s Quest for Cultural Consecration


Theme Week organized by Collin Coleman (Georgia State University)

Picture by Wally Gobetz via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License permission and altered with permission from the photographer.

  • 100 Years Later: Race and "The Fight … by Roopika Risam

  • One hundred years ago, on July 4, 1910, boxers Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries undertook “The Fight of the Century.” While other matches have been billed as fights of the century, the Johnson-Jeffries fight foreshadowed the real fight of the 20th century that continues today: the struggle for equality, rights, and full citizenship for African Americans.

    Much more than a boxing match, the Johnson-Jeffries fight symbolized the struggle for power and manhood between “white man’s hope” and the “black peril,” in the words of the Chicago Tribune. Johnson’s triumph would boost the flagging spirits of African Americans at a time when the failed promises of Reconstruction loomed large. The New York Times worried, “If the black man wins … his brothers will misrepresent his win to much more than physical equality with his white neighbors.” This fight would have global significance too, wrote Reverend Reverdy Ransom: “The darker races of mankind and the black race in particular will keep the white race busy for the next hundred years in defending the interests of white supremacy.”

    This clip, from Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, recounts a July 5, 1910 article on Johnson’s win from the Los Angeles Times: “A word to the black man…. No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.” Despite media efforts to downplay the significance of Johnson’s win, violence erupted around the country as angry whites confronted black victory celebrations.

    Johnson’s win launched a blow at white supremacy, inciting white fear for the changing racial landscape in the United States. It set in motion other racially charged events in sports history that unfolded alongside black freedom struggles, such as Jackie Robinson crossing Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, Don Haskins’ decision to start five African American basketball players for Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA tournament, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ fist-raised protest at the 1968 Olympics.

    The Johnson-Jeffries fight began troubling the notion that sports are apolitical. This myth remains popular today, but the fight of the century for black emancipation has played out across many facets of American social life, including sports. For, as Tommie Smith told the Daily Telegraph in 1993, an African American athlete can represent the United States in the global sports arena but “come home and be just another nigger.”

    Author’s blog:

  • The Impossible Dream: Fake Sports Online by Gregory Zinman

  • For an assignment in the Sports on Film class I taught this summer, one of my students posted a clip on the class blog of a seemingly impossible feat: a man rocketing down a multi-story waterslide, launching off the end, and landing in a kiddie pool 100 yards away. A discussion about the clip’s veracity began online and continued in our classroom. This led to our watching several other clips of the “seemingly impossible physical feat” genre, such as a “Liquid Mountaineering” clip of outdoorsmen perfecting their techniques for running on water. That piece, which has racked up over five million views on YouTube, turned out to be a viral ad for Hi-Tec, a line of athletic gear.

    Which brings me to the clip to the left, of a young man with tousled hair and baggy shorts making an unlikely basket from an airplane. Having first attracted attention for their home videos of unlikely swishes, the trick-shooting cadre of Dude Perfect have been called up to the big leagues. The former roommates from Texas A+M, who describe themselves on their website as “a group of college guys that follow Jesus,” have recently made a slate of television and internet ads for GMC trucks. The clips each follow a similar pattern: the group contemplating an impossible hoop dream, strategizing about the shot (while holding pieces of paper filled with arrows and diagrams—planning!), and then nailing the superhuman J. These are not game-winners (although they are, quite literally, money-makers), but instead, feats of daredevilry. The clips’ immense popularity is almost entirely fueled by debates over whether or not what is occurring on screen is real. Dude Perfect claims they made the crop-duster shot on their second try.

    The increasing prominence of these trick videos raises a number of provocative associations and questions. These works contain the central technological dialect coursing through  the history of the moving image: the camera’s ability to assist and deceive vision.  Of course, trick photography is as old as cinema—Méliès’ was given the sobriquet “cinemagician” for his ability to manipulate time and space with the camera. These videos also recall the idea of the cinematic apparatus as prosthesis, as in the case of Dziga Vertov’s “kino-eye,” which augments human sight and our ability to understand the formerly unseen workings of the world.

    In “The Myth of Total Cinema,” André Bazin prophesized that our collective hunger for a realistic representation of the world would result in the production moving images that were indistinguishable from reality. What these trick videos show, however, is that the technological capacity of today’s digital image-making results not in a re-presentation of the world, but in its re-creation. In these videos, the laws of science are rewritten, and the impossible is perpetually leapfrogged over, with style to spare.

    The progenitors of these trick videos are the indie sports releases of the 1980s and 1990s. Motocross, skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing VHS tapes eschewed narrative—not to mention organized competition—in favor of boundary-busting improvisation and death-defying spectacle, usually funded by whatever sunglasses, bikes, and boards were simultaneously on display. Just as these “extreme” sports made the leap from subculture to mainstream, Dude Perfect’s DIY aesthetic, coupled with their undeniable creativity, has catapulted them to national prominence.

    Also worth mentioning is how these superhuman acts are tacitly (in the Hi-Tec clip) or explicitly (by the members of Dude Perfect) conflated with religion, particularly Christianity. American athletes are a religious bunch (it is estimated, for example, that between 35 and 40 percent of pro football players are evangelical Christians), and invoking the lord as a bodily presence on the field of play or in the parlance (“Hail Mary”) of the game are over-familiar endeavors to imbue athletes’ physical successes with patina of the miraculous.

    It might be said that in these ads, faith trumps physics, while the stakes—and sales—are raised.

  • Finding Cullen Jones: The … by Emily Newman

  • The 4x100 Freestyle Relay Race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be remembered as one of the greatest races in history. The United States team of Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak was not favored to win; rather the French and their dominant sprinters were favorites. Phelps led the team, in hopes that he might be able to claim another world record. Surprisingly, Australia’s Eamon Sullivan touched the wall first in world record fashion on the first leg. Weber-Gale gained some ground and put the US into first place. Jones goes next, but cannot hold off Frederick Bousquet, who swam nearly a second faster than Jones. Lezak is almost a body length behind French sprinter Alain Bernard. In one of the most remarkable swims ever, Lezak catches Bernard and out-touches him by eight hundredths. Celebration erupts and the cameras point at Phelps and Weber-Gale as they jump and scream in jubilation.

    Lezak is still in the water, but Jones seems to have disappeared. To better see the finish, Jones had gone to the side of the pool. In doing so, he completely missed the initial celebration and somehow found himself excluded from the first documentation of the victory. This is evident in the pictures that accompany the interview that I am showing, and were published in newspapers and magazines across the country. While Jones describes this one-of-a-kind experience in the clip, the photographs mainly illustrate his white teammates.

    After a near-drowning experience, Jones took up swimming. This relay represents the pinnacle of his hard work and efforts. He is only the third African-American to make the Olympic team, the second to win a gold medal. His absence from the celebratory pictures reflects the historic whiteness of competitive swimmers. The stereotype that people of color cannot or do not like to swim persists, and instead of heralding Jones’ achievements and using him to demonstrate the falseness of the stereotypes, the media chose to focus on Phelps’ remarkable number of gold medal swims and Lezak’s amazing comeback.

    Besides his physical presence, Jones’ position as third in the relay contributed to his disappearance, which is complicated by the fact that he cost his team important ground (oft forgotten is that very few people in the world could have kept the US in the race at that point). Jones’ efforts must not be dismissed, rather they deserve recognition. Today, Jones is involved with USA Swimming’s Make a Splash Foundation, helping to encourage minorities to take up swimming. Jones’ disappearance represents a moment that could have celebrated and encouraged diversity in the sport but instead becomes a place where the media lost sight of the entire picture.

  • Selling Strasburg: Baseball, … by Mabel Rosenheck

  • Last month, Stephen Strasburg made his Major League debut for the Washington Nationals. He sold out the ballpark, increased local tv ratings more than twenty fold (and national ratings ten fold) while striking out 14 and regularly hitting close to 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. Strasburg’s was widely considered the most anticipated, most hyped debut of any professional ballplayer ever. Sportswriters searched for comparisons, but unlike the monumental debuts of players like Hideo Nomo, Fernando Valenzuela or even Jackie Robinson, Strasburg has not been promoted in terms of any broader social, cultural or political significance. Strasburg is not being used to construct a global audience or a Latino audience or a black audience for the game, yet the hype surrounding Strasburg is nonetheless linked to his ability to sell the sport and to sell the sport to a specific audience. In an age of niche audiences, Strasburg is unique not because he appeals to narrow racial or ethnic demographics, but because the (perceived) neutrality of his whiteness and wholesome masculinity can construct and draw a mass viewership not only to the ballpark but to the broadcast— which is where the real money in baseball comes from.

    As numerous scholars have argued, in television what is being sold to advertisers is not just programming but an audience to buy those advertisers’ products— the commodity audience. Televised sports and televisual flow are particularly relevant in this respect because sports are one of the few arenas left in which traditional flow between program segments and advertising still reigns supreme. Thus analyzing the continued presence of flow in televised sports provides a space in which to examine how the audience is constructed as a commodity by organizations like Major League Baseball and the Nationals and networks like the MidAtlantic Sports Network or the MLB Network. As much as Strasburg is a product to be sold to MASN and to the advertisers who buy ad space both at the ballpark and on the network, he matters because he can be used to construct an audience that will come to the ballpark that is being used to revitalize the historically black, urban district of Southeast Washington. The selling of Stephen Strasburg as part of the televised game and the use of flow in the construction of the commodity audience thus provide an access point from which to examine both the interests of baseball and the ongoing presence of historic television strategies and baseball’s appeal to a mass (read white and male) audience.

    Author’s Blog: 


  • 30 for 30 and ESPN’s Quest for … by Travis Vogan

  • 30 years after its founding, ESPN is a lot of things. It’s an ever-expanding network of television and radio stations, the host of the world’s highest-traffic sports website, and even the theme around which a chain of restaurants—the ESPN Zone—is organized. Despite its many forms and seeming omnipresence in contemporary popular culture, there is one thing that ESPN is not, or at least was not until fairly recently: an outlet that produces art.

    Sure, there is undeniable artistry to the network’s innovative production practices and the clever wordplay that has transformed anchors like Chris “He…Could…Go…All…The…Way” Berman and Stuart “Boo-ya!” Scott into household names. But ESPN’s productions are not typically considered to be art and those who create them are not typically considered to be artists. To reference the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, ESPN is not part of an “artworld.” Its content and producers entertain and inform but they do not enrich, or at least are not commonly understood to perform this function.

    ESPN has recently been working to enhance its cultural pedigree by allying itself with film and recognizable filmmakers. In 2008, it changed the name of its subsidiary production company from ESPN Original Entertainment to ESPN Films. The rebranded subsidiary’s most ambitious project thus far is 30 for 30, a series of 30 documentaries made by 30 different filmmakers to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary. All of the films concern events in the world of sport that occurred between 1979 and 2009. The series premiered in October 2009 and will wrap up this fall.

    The clip I’ve included features a trailer for the series that provides what I think are some provocative indications of how ESPN is currently using film and filmmakers to build and assert its cultural prestige. The trailer displays several of the directors ESPN commissioned for the project—a group that includes Brett Morgen, Barry Levinson, Ron Shelton, and Albert Maysles—commenting on their contributions to the series. The directors, who are captioned with their names and the title of their most famous film, discuss in general sport’s capacity to tell dramatic stories and explain in particular their personal relationship to the topic they chose to explore. Interspersed with the directors’ commentary is a graphic of a film strip with the 30 for 30 logo on it accompanied by the sound of a projector. The trailer, or at least these components of the trailer, positions ESPN as a media outlet that encourages, and indeed enables, these artists to tell their stories. It also suggests that these stories are most dramatically and artfully conveyed through film—a medium with which ESPN has not traditionally been associated.

    What most intrigues me about this trailer is how ESPN, via ESPN Films, advertises its relationship with recognizable filmmakers and uses the medium of film as a signifier of art and culture. While these efforts serve strategic institutional and branding purposes for ESPN that distinguish it from other sports media outlets, they also speak to the persistence of authorship and film as indicators of aesthetic prestige within the context of cable television, and popular media more generally. They work to broaden and amplify ESPN’s significance in contemporary media culture. Simultaneously, they reinforce a very traditional conception of what constitutes art and what qualities television productions in general, and sports television in particular, ought to possess if they are going to be treated as art.

    To be sure, much else can be said about this series, the manner in which ESPN packages and markets it, the branding and programming functions it serves for this ever-expanding media institution, and how it fits into the broader tradition of sports documentaries.

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 05 Jul 2010 04:02:00 +0000