Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Under Further Review No. 7: Travis Waldron

The sports world doesn't exist in a vacuum, no matter how hard you try to put it in one. Sports have the same kinds of political, economic and social issues that plague the rest of the world but offer a unique platform to disguise the issues in a much more palatable context. Really it's the same way that music, television, movies or any other popular culture can shape and direct conversations.

One of the writers pulling the curtain back on these very issues in the sports world is Travis Waldron of Think Progress. What started as a pop culture section next to heavy hitters like government, climate, economy and health has now evolved into its own section, and Waldron is at the center of it. He spoke with the SMTSU about developing Think Progress' sports section, the evolution of sports coverage with online media, the public interest in the intersection of sport and politics and the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.

On May 16...
Kevin Rossi: We've talked about it over email a little bit, but I find it interesting that when you started up with Think Progress, there wasn't really a sports section.
Travis Waldron: Right.
KR: How has that developed since you've been there and how have you put your mark on how you want it all to look?
TW: We did some sports stuff before we launched the sports vertical. Even when we didn't have a sports vertical, if there was something in the sports world that was relevant to what we did, we covered it. A lot of race-based stuff, LGBT stuff, things like that that happened and we'd write about them. So, there was a little bit of a basis there. About two years ago or so, we launched a culture blog with Alyssa Rosenberg, who is now at the Washington Post. It went really well and I started doing some sports stuff for her, and eventually we decided to just spin it off completely. In terms of shaping it, we saw a place where there's a lot of issues in sport to cover that don't get covered or analyzed or talked about to their full extent because so much emphasis is put on the scores and the games. We found a void to fill that, and we did from a progressive perspective but also from a cultural, political, policy perspective. When we first started doing it, there were the labor disputes in the NFL then the NFL referees the next year and the NHL and NBA were all having disputes. Labor disputes are one of the places in sports where the void between people who aren't used to covering labor disputes make people say 'We just want to watch the games,' so there's not a whole lot about the back and forth and what the issues are and what people are actually asking for. We've tried to help shape the conversation with LGBT issues in sport, feminism and women's issues in sports, sexism and racial issues. It's kind of dovetailed with a larger focus at the site of trying to do more reporting, more longer, in-depth stuff. That's one way I've helped shape it because I have a background in reporting and sports reporting, so I knew my way around that world.
KR: I always find this area intriguing because it's real-life issues and problems but within a sports context. Technically it's sports, but really it's much bigger things. Do you ever have problems with describing these more complex issues in sports and relating them to the real-life issues and the broader spectrum?
TW:  One of the benefits for writing here is that the typical Think Progress audience understands the political and policy issues. We've covered them from a lot of different angles, but a lot of times it's making people aware that these issues exist in sports too. Or that when it comes to someone like Michael Sam, the sports world is either ahead or behind on certain issues. In recent years, the internet and the growth online media and places like Grantland, Deadspin and other blogs and websites like that have really expanded the scope of sports coverage to the point where people are used to examining sports a little more deeply and broadly. Not just what happens between the lines, but also what's going on in the business side and the what people are doing on and off the field. Not just the gossip-y stuff, but significant news from every level down like the growth of TV revenues, which has had a huge effect on consumers in sports. You said you had talked to Patrick [Hruby], and he wrote a great piece on the sports cable bubble and sports impacts consumers on that front. There's a growing conscience across the internet and across the media in that space, so it's made it a lot easier and you don't have to connect every single dot explicitly because people are aware of it now and they see it as something that they need to pay attention to. Probably the best example on that front is on the stadium financing stuff. When I first started writing about stadium financing, it was somewhat surprising to me how many people were up-to-speed on that issue and up-to-speed on how these big public expenditures weren't the economic booms that they said they were. They had some public cost that some people had experienced locally, and seeing it in a national context, how much money we're spending nationally, what these things are doing, what the academic research says--people were there for it. For the most part you don't have to be too explicit about the dots, people kind of get it.
KR: It's a lot of knowing your audience and trusting the reader a bit, which is actually something that Patrick brought up when I spoke to him last week.
TW: Yea, and knowing your audience and readers differs. If you're writing for the local daily newspaper, you're not going to have the same expectations of your readers as you would for somewhere like Think Progress or Deadspin or Patrick over at Sports on Earth. Those are all places that you would go that are not necessarily places you would go to check the box score. You're going for a deeper, broader conversation about sports.
KR: I was always like 'Oh you're a sportswriter, you have to write about the games,' but now it's all opening up a whole new area and really a whole new knowledge base linking sports and the real world. How did you take your writing experience and mold it into what it is now?
TW: I was always interested in this side of it. I started covering sports when I was at the University of Kentucky writing for the student paper. I had great editors and we had a great sports desk there, it was awesome. At UK, obviously sports are No. 1. Whether it's students, sports fans or just Kentuckians in general, everybody is aware of what's going on at UK.
KR: I'm a little bit jealous of that being at Drexel.
TW: They were always pretty cool at the paper about going out and finding feature ideas with sports whether it was profiles, whether it was I remember writing now they're getting ready to renovate Rupp Arena where the basketball team plays. When I was there, I guess this was six or seven years ago now, they came out with a plan to totally demolish Rupp and redo it. This is in the context of Rupp is right downtown, and there was this big debate about the arena and urban development and how it was all going to fit together. They had already knocked down some little old-time-y restaurants and buildings that people were really fond of to do a big hotel complex. So it was kind of tied to that debate, and since we were the sports desk, Rupp Arena sort of fell in our laps. There were a bunch of things on-campus that you just fit into it. I remember we had a player arrested on a pretty big drug crime. We had an athlete involved in a sexual assault case when I was there. So, you had all these things that were broader campus issues that played themselves out through sports. I think that first got my consciousness up on that, and the second thing was I never really wanted to be a sportswriter. I've always wanted to write about sports, but I wanted to write about different things too. Then coming and spending two years at Think Progress and doing some non-sports writing and another half a year before that all I did was cover politics, it all kind of shapes things a little differently. Then when you go back into sports you don't really have a choice but to see things in a broader context.
KR: I remember that's one of the main reasons why I first contacted you last year sometime. You were a younger writer writing about things that I was interested in, but I didn't realize the path to get there and it's always been helpful for me to hear about your path and other people's paths to figure it out.
TW: You know, I have no idea how I got here. It was a little bit of luck, a little bit of not having a clue what I wanted to do.
KR: I feel like that happens to a lot of people. They'll just wake up one day or get asked one day and be like 'Damn how'd I get to this place.' But I really love this sort of writing because it shows that sports don't exist in a vacuum and they really do have an impact on everywhere, though people sometimes wish it did exist in a vacuum.
TW: I think if you look at the broader landscape of the sports media, you'd find that with the growth of places like the Deadspins, the Sports on Earths, the Grantlands--it's so easy to find sports scores and game stories now. If you're a baseball fan, hires a writer for every team now, so you can have the scores, stories and video of every team even if you never left You could do basically the same if you never left It's so easy to find that stuff and it's so quick now that there's a lot of time and space to have the freedom to do other stuff. As you see, there's a lot more writing now that not only explores sports in-depth--because I think places like Sports Illustrated, which has been around for about 70 years now, has done that a long time--but are doing it in a way that's different. I think the internet in a lot of ways has democratized the sports media and given people a lot of different ways to do things. It's still in it's experimentation stage, but there's so many more ways to write about sports and think about sports. Even if you look at the political side with places like Think Progress, Huffington Post, which started out as politics but has branched out to sports stuff. It's a different way to see that sports are more significant that rolling a ball out on a court and watching people run around for a couple of hours.
KR: And is there a specific writer, or a couple, in your sports and politics area that you read their writing and you said to yourself 'This is the of writing that I want to do?'
TW: Definitely. I think if you're talking sports and politics, Dave Zirin. If Dave wasn't doing what he's doing at The Nation, I'm not sure anybody at a political news outlet would have the idea to cover these issues that way. I'm not Dave, we have a different style, but he does a great job of cutting through the B.S. of the sports world and the established sports world. Dave is definitely one of those people that if he wasn't doing it, then I probably wouldn't even have thought to do it. I think if you look more recently, I'm a huge fan of Patrick [Hruby]. Patrick does an excellent job of the same thing, and again in a different style than Dave and a different style than me in a lot of ways. He's a great writer and he cuts that past too. I have a bunch of favorite writers and I'm sure I'll leave a lot of them out. When I was first doing this, and you won't even think of this guy as a sportswriter, one of the things I remember reading was interesting and influential and I was lucky enough to have gone back and forth with him was Ta-Nehisi Coates [of The Atlantic] when he was doing a bunch of stuff on the NFL concussions. Even now he writes a lot on racial issues in sports. Jeff MacGregor for me was awesome back during the NFL lockout. Howard Bryant is really good on sports and racial issues; Bomani Jones the same way. That's what I'm talking about is a lot of these guys are at mainstream outlets, so it's changed in a lot of ways. People are doing this stuff all over the place, and it's not just small out-of-the-mainstream places anymore. There's a bunch of other people now. Kate Fagan at ESPN is phenomenal in the LGBT space and the women's issues space. Jessica Luther, who does a lot with sexual assault issues in sports, who I kind of got to know before either of us were writing much about sports. There's just so many people who are doing a really great job in this space right now.
KR: In going through all of those writers, you really start to see how many areas this touches. Some of these people are a little more specialized than others.
TW: There's a bunch of people that have carved out their own space.
KR: And you mentioned Jeff MacGregor... I think he's one that every time I read his writing I'm like 'Dammit, I don't think I could ever write like that.'
TW: There's a bunch people that I read that I'm like 'You make me want to quit.' Brian Phillips [at Grantland], every time he writes I say 'Dammit, you're too good and I want to quit.' But, you know, you can't quit every time you read something. Maybe I'll just quit reading him because he's so good.
KR: I guess when you have organizations like the IOC, FIFA, the NCAA, everybody in this kind of space stays employed.
TW: That's the thing, it keeps you busy. It's so funny, it's so much like political coverage. My first experience in reporting was covering UK, and the athletic department is not the most open and willing participants in media stuff. You have to badger them and cut through their stuff. Then you get FIFA, the IOC, the NCAA, no matter what your overarching view of those institutions is, there has to be someone there to question them. That's another place where I think the changing of the media--not that people never questioned them in the past. You have a lot of these new outlets, these new writers, a lot of new writers, people that don't really feel like they have any reverence towards these institutions whatsoever has kind of made this questioning mentality. In a lot of ways it has really brought the media along. If you look at some of the stuff that Patrick has written about the NCAA, if you go back a decade or two decades, and there weren't a lot of places where you could do that on such a consistent level. You could do it at a magazine every once in a while, but not on such a consistent, daily basis. It's another place where the internet has benefited from that sort of coverage.
KR: When I talked to him he said he's really benefited from writing online because there's no space limit and he can go into detail when describing these complex things for as long as he wants.
TW: Exactly. You can go in-depth and do details.
KR: One last thing... What's the one big thing you're looking towards? We have the World Cup in Brazil coming up...
TW: Brazil, man. Gotta be Brazil.
KR: I knew you were a big soccer guy.
TW: I find Brazil--obviously Qatar has a lot of issues and when you look back to Sochi, there were a bunch of issues there--but I find Brazil so fascinating because you're looking at a country that's growing and trying to really put itself in the top of the major developed countries and has so many resources, so many people. And now they're doing this. There were so many ways for Brazil to do this right, in theory, and they haven't done it. What's even more interesting about that is Brazilians have voiced their opinion more loudly than people usually do around these events. You always find activists and people from the outside and others who are saying this is a bad idea. Last June, you had a million people in the streets and yesterday [May 15] you had protests in 50 cities. It's just really fascinating how Brazilians have used their voice on this and caused some changes. Back in the summer they had [President] Delma [Rousseff] and other politicians speaking out on it. Not FIFA, of course, because FIFA doesn't seem like they care about much of anything. If there's one sporting event in the world this year that's most fascinating, it's Brazil. Not just because it should be an excellent soccer tournament, but because there are so many other issues there. When talking to some economists you wonder if Brazil will be some kind of a tipping point, or is it going to flare up again, die down afterward and everybody forgets about it and keeps going on doing these events the same way.

A big thank you to Travis Waldron of Think Progress for taking some time out to talk to the SMTSU. He will certainly be an essential follow--although he's always an essential follow--when the World Cup starts up in less than a month. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Waldron and take a read through Think Progress' sports section on a daily basis.

Under Further Review:
No. 6 - Patrick Hruby

No. 5 - Greg Hanlon 
No. 4 - Josh Verlin 
No. 3 - Kami Mattioli
No. 2 - Aaron Bracy
No. 1 - Adam Hermann


Kevin Rossi is a senior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to President. Currently, Kevin is serving as the Sports Information Assistant for Drexel Athletics and  intern at Comcast SportsNet in web production. Kevin has writing experience with, The Triangle, Temple University, and various outlets in a freelance capacity. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

Connect with Kevin Rossi on LinkedIn.

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