Dr. Michael Serazio holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he won the National Communication Association's Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award. A prolific journalist, he has written for such publications as the Houston Press, Salon, Bloomberg, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. His book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press) won the Susanne K. Langer Award from the Media Ecology Association and the National Communication Association's Visual Communication Book of the Year. Also an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Boston College, his research and teaching focus on media production, advertising, popular culture, political communication, and new media. We talked to him about his latest book The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture (NYU Press).
Why did you think this book was important to publish -- and to publish right now?
Like so many forms of pop culture, we tend to see sports as escapism. It’s supposed to be a respite from the problems that plague contemporary American life, both individually and collectively. And, yet, almost every aspect of that experience beyond the sidelines of gameplay shows up in sports culture itself – from religion to media to politics to gender. Sports tells us stories, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, about what America is and what America could or should be. Above all, that’s what the book is about. We're in a time of tremendous transformation and upheaval in American life, which seemed like a good moment to look at the mirror that sports provides to see what it’s showing us.
What's the most compelling point you hope a reader leaves with?
For decades, as sports became wildly lucrative, there's been pushback that "sports and politics don't mix" from journalists, sponsors, and players. According to a national survey that I fielded with a colleague, most fans agree with this statement as well. But on the two issues that have probably most dominated U.S. politics in the twenty-first century – economic inequality at home and hawkish interventionism abroad – sports buttress deeply conservative ideologies and myths. No other form of pop culture better justifies wealth disparity (as the product of meritocracy on a "level playing field") and militaristic foreign policy (thanks to paid patriotism PR before and throughout games) more than sports. Thus, I'd hope that readers took away the message that sports are always already deeply political.
They may be political, but they can also unite families.
It's not just families – it's broad swaths of America. One could argue the dominant cultural trend of the twenty-first century is fragmentation, coupled with diminishing faith in all manner of institutions. This point is obvious in our polarized politics, but it's equally true of our pop habits: distracting smartphones, infinite niche content online, bewildering "peak TV" plotlines. Sport cuts through that clutter, powerfully. It centralizes and monopolizes our focus. Forty years ago, almost all of America was watching one of three channels every night. Sport, anachronistically, still kind of approximates that collective consciousness – binding families of blood relation and, metaphorically, the national family.
Tell us more about the "values vacuum." Americans are turning to sports over religion?
Recent Pew research suggests that almost 60 million Americans are now religiously unaffiliated – an ever-growing share of the population. I would argue that sports culture is the definitive folk faith of our time – filling that spiritual vacuum. Like religion, sport provides "totems" for tribes to organize themselves around. It furnishes the language of belief, feelings of moral judgment, and systems of meaning-making. It offers coherence, community, identity, and structure. It simulates the human experience long derived from religion when many are formally divorced from that. Through sports, we think, feel, and act spiritually.
So journalists and networks aren't always unbiased in what they report or air? What's the central problem here?
Sports might be the toughest beat for journalists to try to maintain objectivity. There are the obvious examples like ESPN, an NFL broadcast partner, dropping out of the League of Denial documentary investigation of concussions, but I discovered less obvious ones like newspapers covering teams more if they advertised, the revolving door of sycophantic athletes-turned-media members, and regional sports network reporters feeling (and acting) like they're part of the teams they covered. These realities makes it hard to be hard-hitting when scandals arise and economically incentivizes them to be swept under the rug.
Speaking of reality: discuss sports as reality TV -- and the exploding documentary industry around it as well.
Sport is the original and still-reigning reality TV format – it tells us what time it is. It anchors us – as players, as fans – in the present moment. It concentrates all that vast psychic energy on what's unfolding before us right now. There are very few aspects of American culture that still synchronize our schedules and coordinate that collective experience quite like sports. DVR and, subsequently, streaming robbed TV of much of that immediacy, but audiences still desperately seek that shared time together, which makes sports incredibly lucrative to advertisers who are equally desperate for our attention and our unification at a time when both qualities are almost impossible to come by (and to come buy).
What's wrong with the "hot-take industrial complex"?
The "hot take industrial complex" is my phrase for what the sports media – and really all news media – have become: a space where most distinctions between reporting and commentary have effectively eroded, confrontation is packaged as entertainment, and trolling turns into a journalistic ideal. As former ESPN host Jemele Hill told me, "I don't think our audience really wants facts. They want their opinions validated." These production logics have governed sports talk radio since its inception, but have since seeped into broadcast and internet formats as well. Partly this circumstance is driven by the abundance of content available nowadays. Opinion genres are cheaper to produce and thought to cut through the cacophonous clutter of competing media noise. But they radicalize the discourse toward ridiculous extremes and empty arguments, which feels democratically corrosive, even if the subject is just fun and games.
There's also a "hyper-commodification."
Advertising is, as another scholar once put it, "geographically imperialistic, looking for new territories it has not yet conquered." It's almost impossible to watch American sports nowadays without a brand, aggressively, annoyingly, poking in the way. And media companies and sports properties are more willing than ever to carve out new inventory and trample over church-state divisions of editorial autonomy: branded fantasy line-up recommendations, six-second split-screen commercials during huddles, and so on. I asked former NBA commissioner David Stern if there was any line he could envision that would be off-limits to a commercial patron. It took him a few seconds to respond – as though I'd asked him if he'd want to leave his wallet on a Central Park bench. "I guess we could [say] sponsor tattoos. I think we've drawn the limit at [putting ads on] the body of our athletes." He was joking. I guess?
What's the biggest problem in terms of gender politics and sports?
Gender politics have never been all that subtle within American sports culture; in turn, sports has defined and dominated male identity like few other traditions. Even today, it's arguably the last space of legitimate, "acceptable" segregation and marginalization when it comes to women. But those gender roles and masculine power are shifting – in sports as in society. Sports labor is becoming much wonkier (post-Moneyball), more sensitive to the costs of brutality (post-CTE), and even feminized, as female journalists and players seek the equal respect and pay they've long deserved. All of this means that American manhood, itself, needs to rethink what exactly it's based upon. Sports represents a space where those anxieties, tensions, and negotiations are playing out. It's more or less taken for granted that the sports media helps build up "hegemonic masculinity" through the idolization of heroic athletes: valorizing strength, violence, and stoicism in the face of pain. And that macho ideal does remain the default setting – think of the clichéd injunction to "man up" when injured or the Bullygate scandal in Miami. But NFL concussions, especially, are enlightening sports journalists toward more hesitation in celebrating guys getting jacked up and even causing some to worry if they're making their living off of brain trauma "blood money." Machismo, thus, still reigns, but some sensitivity is creeping in.
How does Title IX play into this issue?
As consequential as Title IX has been for aspiring female athletes, there's really no equivalent progress for the media. Sports culture has long been deeply inhospitable to female journalists. In terms of numbers alone, more than 90 percent of anchors, commentators, and editors are men. Every time a woman breaks through that glass ceiling as a pioneer in some media capacity – a Beth Mowins, a Doris Burke – she faces backlash and is reminded of how far we haven't come since Lesley Visser and the first generation of female reporters breached the locker room seal a generation ago. These journalists routinely face vile sexual harassment (especially on Twitter) and are often caught in a double bind around their appearance: "needing" to look attractive but having those looks cast doubt on their authority. And few, if any, are allowed to play provocateur and dish out hot takes the way their male counterparts are afforded; the sideline reporter ghetto more or less endures on this front. Intuitively, too, there's probably a sense among fans that women's sports are covered much less than men's: Locally and nationally, they get just 2-3% of the TV attention. And in those limited timeslots, female players are routinely marginalized, infantilized, and sexualized. (The latter is summarized as the "Anna Kournakova syndrome," where an average player is given outsized attention due to her looks.) When confronted with this inequality, sports media leaders typically rely on a self-fulfilling circular logic: women's sports aren't hyped up (with equivalent production values) and therefore earn lower ratings, which justifies the lack of outlay.
Should athletes be more vocal in term of their religious beliefs or activism? Less so? How do network executives, journalists, and team owners figure into this equation? Twitter?
Athletes should, of course, be more vocal, if their politics move them toward that dissent. But they also know that the system and culture that they work within has little use for anything that could be construed as ideologically controversial: leagues, media, and ownership see it as financially risky, if not harmful. And, yet, we have indeed seen the rise of Black Lives Matter-related activism over the past half-decade, arguably starting with the Miami Heat posing in hoodies after Travyon Martin's murder. It's too simple and technologically deterministic to say that social media helped give athletes a voice on these issues, but, at the same time, those platforms have been instrumental in dis-intermediating journalistic gatekeepers who would otherwise misconstrue the message.
Who was hurt the most by backlash in term of airing personal beliefs?
Colin Kaepernick is probably the obvious answer here – his career, more or less, cut short because of protest – so maybe I'll aim more abstract: American culture is hurt when any public figure is denied the affordances of political speech. I wish more athletes were given license to ideological expression – whether they come out swinging from the left or the right. As noted earlier, to seal off sports as space insulated from politics seems misguided.
Your book is fun, funny and easy to read, not at all bogged down by academic or scholarly jargon. Was that a conscious decision? To make it more accessible?
Thank you so much for saying that! It was a conscious effort, though whether or not I pulled it off will have to be judged by the reader. Pre-Ph.D., I came from a background of journalism training and professional experience, so my goal has always been to try to blend the two worlds of reporting and scholarship. (This hybrid approach usually doesn't go over so swimmingly for journal article reviewers.) Anyhow, with this book, I really wanted to translate and combine the theories, critiques, and findings from academic research about sports with as much behind-the-scenes detail, quotes, and insight from those who craft the spectacle – and then, stylistically, to try to write it as accessibly as possible. Again, though, only the reader can decide whether that shot dropped.
What are you working on now?
My first book was about the advertising industry and, more specifically, how advertising in the twenty-first century tries not to seem like advertising through product placement, branded content, social media influencers, and so on. In the six years since that book came out, the creep of commercialism has come for journalism by way of "native advertising" and "content marketing" schemes that dress up corporate branding to look like news content. Drawing upon about thirty interviews with the folks who create that brand journalism, I'm working on a series of papers for what that means for professional practice, editorial ideals, and advertising ambition. Additionally, I've been trying to find ways to play off the news cycle and excerpt The Power of Sports into op-ed essay versions.
One last question before we let you go – you have personal feelings about the Chargers moving from San Diego to Los Angeles, don't you?
Yeah, those were probably the most deeply personal passages of the book. Native San Diegan here who's enjoyed a lifetime of happy memories of being disappointed by "my" Chargers. The ownership's decision two years ago to pull up stakes and haul the team north on the 5 crystallized one of the central themes of the book: the tension between authentic, meaningful identification, ritual, and community that sports culture affords and the economic imperatives that govern it as an unsentimental, profit-maximizing enterprise. We like to pretend our favorite teams are just that – ours. They're not, though; that's a trick that gets us to buy in, even as it feels real and true enough. My grandfather "passed down" the San Diego Chargers to me like a family heirloom, but I can't do the same for my daughter. In the big scheme of things – like war, poverty, racism, etc. – that betrayal is totally inconsequential, but when you realize how a team (as totem) can bind families and cities, that's culturally devastating.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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