Since I was 12 years old, I wanted to be a sports writer. Everything I did in high school and college was directed toward that goal. With such intensity aimed at one goal, I achieved it right after I got my undergraduate degree in Journalism in 1996. For the next 12 years, I covered everything from little league baseball games to the Super Bowl, from community college water polo to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, from JV girls basketball to the U.S. Open tennis championships. And, without exaggeration, I absolutely loved my job.
When the newspaper for which I worked was closed in the spring of 2009, I came to Ohio University looking to burn a year and get a master’s degree. It was during that year that I took Susan Burgess’s Law & Sexuality class and I realized how smart all the people around me were.
I knew immediately I wanted to stay in this environment and that I could never go back to being the sports writer I was before I came to OU.
My master’s thesis derived directly out of my previous working experience. I wrote about ethical and legal challenges – of which there are many — in covering college football recruiting, which is strong for practical application. But, with one class (Burgess’s) out of the way, I decided to make Women’s & Gender Studies one of my specializations for my PhD requirements and, suddenly, I was around all these smart people again in classes with Julie White, Judith Grant, and Ron Hunt. My head was spinning and I wanted more.
How I ever wrote about college athletics without this cultural awareness is embarrassing to me now. But, I still see it every day on ESPN, on newsprint, in blogs – the “blue-collar, hard-working athlete” (ie, the white athlete), the “athletic, flashy player” (the black athlete), how we see female athletes in terms of their fathers’ accomplishments or as unfairly compared to male athletes. I see what New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden calls “The Jockey Syndrome” (in his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves), or when sports rules are changed to benefit the white athlete when the black athlete gets too good within the old rules. I see labor disputes in professional sports and images of Marx pop into my mind, and a white bourgeoisie and black proletariat. I see college football scandals and can think of little more than blatant exploitation of raced and gendered young athletes.
So, now my research interests are vested in this. I wrote a paper last quarter in which I looked through the theoretical lens of critical studies and utilized Frank Rudy Cooper’s concept of “bipolar black masculinity,” which is born out of Critical Race Feminism’s intersectionality theory, as well as framing theory. I examined coverage of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who had become the poster boy for helmet-to-helmet, “illegal” tackles in the National Football League, as provided by USA Today and the national newspaper’s website USAToday.com. The study asked the question, “How does USA Today’s coverage reveal and describe James Harrison as a raced and gendered body?” and it provided the answers through a textual analysis of the USA Today articles. I am considering building upon this study through more textual analysis, content analysis, and possibly audience interviews for my doctoral dissertation. It may also include more athletes and get into Rhodes’s Jockey Syndrome, as well. (This would make it a monster of a project and turn it from a journalism study into a sociological study, as well.)
But, I may also stick with practical applications and some political economy stuff that has to do with university-produced websites vs. traditional media websites. So, I’ll let you know as I figure it out.
Regardless of what I choose to focus on for my dissertation, my biggest challenge in the field of academia is helping to turn out future sports writers who know what I did not know when I was working. I love teaching and I am passionate about the idea of helping students to look at their subjects with a culturally critical eye.