Saturday, December 10, 2011

A new blog where athletes come first

The mainstream media are still falling behind in covering disability sports and the network of resources for athletes with disability is far from perfect, but a new blog carries a promise of making things better.

Athletes First: Sporting Abilities and Opinions is administered by Andrea Bundon, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada who, in a collaboration with a group of athletes, started a blog that serves as a connecting point for those interested in disability sports.

The idea was conceived when Bundon became a guide to a cross country skier Courtney Knight, who was at the time preparing for the 2010 Paralympic Games. During the travels for training and competition to remote locations, Bundon and Knight kept in touch with their friends and family through blogging.

“I loved that idea of athletes as sort of 'foreign correspondents' who would travel the world and do all these interesting things and then send reports back home,” Bundon said. At the same time, Bundon was aware that athletes with disability might not have the same opportunities to connect with each other as able-bodied athletes do.

“At some point the two ideas came together,” Bundon recalled. “Courtney and I started to think maybe we could use a blog to connect athlete to athlete in a way that enables athletes to be a resource to each other.”

Putting the blog together, just as most collaborative work, has been a challenging process mostly due to conflicting timelines with the athletes who are busy with competition. For Bundon, perhaps the greatest challenge, however, has been to negotiate her role as a researcher in this project.

“One question I've struggled with right from the start is 'what right do I have to do this research?',” Bundon wondered. “I'm an able-bodied athlete who has had this incredible opportunity see the Paralympic from the inside out. Because I guided at the 2010 Games, the Canadian Paralympic Committee classifies me as a 'Paralympian' but that's not an identity I claim and I'm well aware that there are many who would challenge that classification. But at the same time I saw an opportunity to combine my academic interests with my passion for sport and my belief that sport should be accessible to everyone.”

She is combining these effectively through the blog that officially launched two weeks ago and includes contributions from Paralympic athletes and guides. The blog welcomes comments from readers and encourages participation in the dialogue.

As the language around disability sports can be highly problematic and gets “complicated,” as the blog team concluded, the name of the blog was carefully thought out. Bundon gives full credit to Knight for coming up with it.

“AthletesFirst is a play on the 'person first language' promoted by many disability rights activists - for example 'person with a disability' rather than 'disabled person,' - and it also references the notion of an athlete-centred sport system,” Bundon explained. “But most importantly, it represents the desire of all athletes to be recognized for their athletic achievements.”

The members of the blog team, though dispersed geographically, are committed to making the blog a space where athletes can share their experiences and address issues they encounter in sports. Bundon finds that to be a significant contribution of the blog.

“Participating in discussions about the practices of the sport system is an important step for athletes who want to be more involved in the sport system and advocate for policies that are athlete-centred,” Bundon said. “This is particularly important for athletes with a disability given that they are operating within a system that was not necessarily designed with them in mind.”

As the London 2012 Paralympic Games are approaching, readers can expect to learn more about the preparations and the legacy from the blog and might also encounter some “star appearances” beyond the regular contributors.

“We have a few athletes who've committed to making 'guest' blogs on topics they are particularly passionate about,” Bundon announced. “There a few other things in the works - a photo contest, a twitter chat and ideas are emerging all the time. You'll have to keep reading...”

Join the discussion at

Thank you to Andrea Bundon for taking the time to share the story of the blog.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Conversation About Covering Controversy: Recap

Penn State students, community members, and journalists met last night in a public forum to debrief and discuss the story around Penn State in recent weeks. The discussion took place as “A Conversation About Covering Controversy," hosted by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

The event, a panel/Q&A session, took place in the Schwab Auditorium on the PSU campus.

On the panel were: moderator Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center; Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today and national sports commentator; Jeremy Schaap, reporter for ESPN; Mark Viera, New York Times reporter and PSU alumnus; Jerry Micco, assistant managing editor for sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PSU alumnus; and Sara Ganim, PSU alumna who first brought the story to light in March as crime reporter for The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.

The goal of the conversation was to provide context for this story and to provide professional guidance for the many journalism students who attended. While there were plenty of questions about the controversy itself and how Penn State should move forward as a community, the focus of the panel was clearly on how journalists should cover and report on such stories.

The panelists fielded questions about identifying victims’ names in news stories, using anonymous sources, and reporting on stories in close-knit communities for which the reporter is an outsider.

More general questions about how this controversy has or will affect the PSU community were also presented to the panelists. The most ardently critical voice in these discussions was Brennan, who referred to the Penn State scandal as the worst controversy in college sports and perhaps in all of sports -- and wondered whether Penn State and other universities have lost touch with their priorities. She defended a recent column she wrote in which she encouraged Penn State to take itself out of bowl contention.

The event was streamed live on the web and an archived version is available (see below).

-Brett Sherrick

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Plan now for Nov. 29 event on Penn State controversy

A discussion with sports journalists about recent events that have become national news at Penn State will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29, in Schwab Auditorium as the latest installment of an ongoing series conducted by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

"A Conversation About Covering Controversy" -- featuring Mark Viera of The New York Times, Christine Brennan of USA Today and others -- will address the efforts, role and work of journalists when covering controversy in general, and the situation at Penn State in particular.

Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center, will moderate the session.

The session is free and open to the public but tickets are required. Tickets will be distributed Monday, Nov. 28, to Penn State students and, if any remain, Tuesday, Nov. 29, to Penn State faculty/staff and the general public.

Tickets will be available as follows at four locations on or near the University Park campus:

-- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Eisenhower Auditorium;

-- 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Penn State Downtown Theatre on Allen Street in State College;

-- 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center; and

-- 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the HUB-Robeson Center.

In addition, the event will be streamed live at online.

The Curley Center’s "Conversation Series" has attracted visitors such as Bob Costas, Brent Musburger, John Feinstein and Chris Fowler. Other participants in recent Center programs include: Todd Blackledge, Mike Breen, George Bodenheimer, Matt Millen, Jim O’Connell, Bob Ryan, Lisa Salters, Jon Saraceno and Rick Telander.

The Center, established in 2003 and named in 2006 for John Curley, the retired president, CEO and chairman of the Gannett Co. Inc. who was the first editor of USA Today and served as a founding co-director of the Center, explores issues and trends in sports journalism through instruction, outreach, programming and research.

The Center’s undergraduate curricular emphasis includes four core courses -- sports writing; sports broadcasting; sports information; sports, media and society. Along with course work, the Center emphasizes internships at newspapers, magazines or electronic media, as well as on-campus co-curricular work.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Acknowledging the price of college athletes

ESPN the Magazine recently teamed up with MIT researchers to determine the value of college athletes at Florida University. (The article can also be found here through ESPN’s Insider service.)

The results shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who knows the realities of college athletics: the football players were worth substantially more than any other athletes, and the men’s basketball players were the only other athletes in the positives. In other words, athletes from other sports, including all women’s sports, are costing the university money.

At first glance, a story like this might seem problematic; quantifying young collegiate athletes, especially in dollar amounts, seems directly contrary to the purpose of college athletics.

But, as a member of the media – not of the NCAA, ESPN is well within its rights to criticize the institution of college sports. In fact, it may even be helpful.

While it seems that monetizing collegiate athletes would be completely antithetical to the health of college sports, that is what the NCAA does every year with things like bowl games and March Madness. And this is potentially a much bigger problem. As an outsider, ESPN is simply bringing light to the financial realities of collegiate athletics.

It might seem that this article tacitly reinforces the monetization of student-athletes, but it also provides valuable knowledge and insight into that process for a larger population. Importantly, it also points to a wide imbalance in the relative value of certain athletes under the current system.

This sort of tangible proof is important ammunition for critics of the NCAA. If the NCAA and its member institutions are well aware of the financial benefits that they receive from student-athletes, their opponents should be as well. Defining these benefits, as ESPN has, should only help to clarify and solidify any anti-NCAA arguments.

-Brett Sherrick

Friday, November 04, 2011

Tucker Center conference calls for change

Collaboration. Dialogue. Community building.

These were the mission statements that the Girls and Women in Sport and Physical Activity Conference participants committed to when they chose to gather for a full day of activities in the TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN.

The Tucker Center of the University of Minnesota brought sports activists, scholars and students together for an out-of-the-ordinary, interactive and dynamic conference titled Creating Change that emphasized activism and practical application of research for a common goal to create a better environment for females in sports and physical activity.

A significant portion of the conference focused on media representations and problems with popular images of female athletes. The participants of the conference enthusiastically offered strategies for change centered around the goal to give female athletes a say in constructing their own images and representations.

Unsurprisingly, a hot topic of discussion was the emergence of new media that carry the potential for creating the kind of change scholars are looking for. Multiple presenters came to the conclusion that we need to use blogs to not only share our scholarship, but also to engage in a conversation with each other, as well as with the women and girls participating in sports.

Online sites are promising spaces for advocacy. To fulfill this promise, the conference hosts led by Dr. Nicole LaVoi, Associate Director of the Tucker Center, incorporated interaction on Facebook, Twitter and ChimeIn during the program.

Utilizing online spaces to disseminate information and bring attention to voices that have been traditionally excluded from the dialogue is in the right direction towards collaboration and community building. The Creating Change conference demonstrated an effective way of doing just that.

--Dunja Antunovic

'Lacking' in teen girls' sports novels

Finding a good sports novel about teen girls has proven difficult for librarians. The genre is "severely lacking," according Erin Whiteside, a 2010 Penn State doctoral graduate and current assistant professor at the University of Tennessee.

Whiteside presented research about two prominent series of contemporary teen girls' novels, Pretty Tough and Dairy Queen, at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in Minneapolis on Friday.

The narratives the series give somewhat detracts from messages to empower teens. Whiteside said that the novels often present sports as a way to receive male approval and that sports actually create tension in their lives.

Concepts that reinforced heterosexual norms were also broached in the literature, said Whiteside, who analyzed the novels along with Penn State's Marie Hardin, Lauren DeCarvalho, Nadia Carillo Martinez and Alex Nutter Smith.

However, the protagonists' efforts to broaden the boundaries of what's acceptable for women athletes should be acknowledged as a positive, Whiteside said.

-- Steve Bien-Aime

Adding to the discourse

When it comes to disabled athletes (an already much contentious term), their voices aren't heard too much in the conventional media.

That is unfortunate because sports discourse would benefit from their greater inclusion. Well, Andrea Bundon of The University of British Columbia is working to change that.

Bundon announced during her Friday presentation at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport's annual meeting that she is collaborating with disability sports athletes on a new blog. It will examine how disability sports are performed, help athletes stay in contact with each other and bolster discussions about how to better improve athletics.

The Athletes First blog is slated to go live in the next week or so, and it appears to be one to observe regularly.

-- Steve Bien-Aime

What the blogs are saying

First-year Penn State Ph.D student and Curley Center researcher Dunja Antunovic shared findings of a recent study on women's sports blogs at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport on Friday morning in Minneapolis.

Antunovic examined five blogs in a three-month period on the Women's Talk Sports online forum, where women athletes and the issues they face are often discussed. These types of sites can serve as places to empower women as female athletes are often portrayed in dubious manners by mainstream media, she said.

The bloggers who did not self-identify as fans treated their blogs in a more communal fashion, trying to interact with all readers through events for example.

An interesting result of the study was that big issues such as Title IX or the lack of media coverage for women's sports seemed to be treated on the same level as posts about "news", such as a certain game.

Antunovic, who worked on this project with associate professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Sports Journalism Marie Hardin, concluded that there is plenty of untapped potential in blogs of this nature to advance the cause of more equality for women's sports and to raise the level of discourse at the same time.

--Steve Bien-Aime

Thursday, November 03, 2011

'Villainization of LeBron James'?

What is the media's role in turning LeBron James from fan favorite into the NBA's biggest villain? Recent Penn State doctoral graduate and current Bloomsburg University instructor Jason Genovese has some interesting ideas about that.

Genovese presented his findings Thursday at the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in Minneapolis. James' "The Decision" began the turn as the superstar forward announced on ESPN in summer 2010 that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Genovese pointed out a little-publicized fact that ESPN actually sought out James for the broadcast.

Through a textual analysis, Genovese examined how the language of articles did not really mention that James earned the right -- via the players' labor agreement with the league -- to determine where he wanted to play.

Also, columnists placed a heavy burden of three to five championships for James to validate his decision.

The James situation also went past the issue of a superstar leaving a team, delving into racial subjects. The mention of slavery drew sharp dismissals from media members, but the historical/cultural context for the slavery references were ignored.

In fact, any perceived misstep from James resulted in enormous negative reactions from the media. It seemed as though James was never allowed to escape the villain label.

When Genovese publishes his paper, it should be a must read.

--Steve Bien-Aime

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Unanswered questions

Nearly 40 years after Title IX, we are so accustomed to stories about girls playing on boys’ teams or participating in boys’ leagues that usually these cases go by unnoticed. Once in a while, however, these stories appear on the web because a team or an athlete will refuse to “compete against a girl.”

Earlier this year, a 14-year-old boy forfeited a wrestling match because he found it inappropriate to wrestle against a girl in a tournament. Issues about a girls’ place in sports arise most frequently in the context of the “traditionally masculine” sports, as these are regarded as a dangerous place for girls .

Most recently, a coach of a junior varsity football team threatened to forfeit a game because the opposing team had a girl on the roster. Mina Johnson, who is the first girl to play for her school, the Southampton Academy, decided to sit out so her team can play.

Stories such as this one raise important questions about cultural values and attitudes toward girls and women in sports. These conversations have been going on for decades, fueled by instances such as this football controversy.

The curious dimension of these conversations is the attempt to be progressive by taking a “let her play” approach, yet systemic discrimination is often uncontested. Phrases such as “she was just one of the guys” normalize the male as the athlete and suggest that a girl needs to become a “guy” in order to gain athletic credibility. And this is supposed to be a compliment.

My concern, besides the language, is interpretation of what occurred after Johnson decided not to play.

The news articles that popped up when I Googled Mina Johnson had two themes in common: wearing pink appeared to be a symbol of activism and Southampton Academy's 60-0 win showed that the "good" will ultimately conquer the "evil."

Articles, such as the one found on the Bleacher Report site, point out that Johnson’s team wore pink armbands in support of breast cancer awareness month, and is certainly not the only one on the web which claims that pink also signified support for Johnson. It is unclear if the players actually interpreted it as such, but that hardly matters. The writers are putting two completely unrelated causes together additionally to failing to address a larger issue by reducing it to a mere color.

The articles in my web search also placed heavy emphasis on the score of the game that Johnson sat out. Johnson’s team won 60-0, which apparently proved the point that the other team was wrong to threaten to forfeit. I wonder what would have happened if Johnson's team had lost. What would have the the score "proven" then? Since Southampton Academy "demolished" the other team, as the San Francisco Chronicle blog post put it, the outcome of the game served as an indicator of justice.

So next time there is a case of discrimination, we should just wear pink and let out our frustrations out by beating “those people?”

There are so many questions to ask, yet an armband and domination appear to be satisfying our need for an answer while Johnson sits on the sidelines.

Is that really the best we can do?

-- Dunja Antunovic