Doctoral Student of Sociology at Michigan State University
Course: Qualitative Field Methods
Instructor: Dr. Steven Gold
The platform of participative media used by fans to influence the understanding of athletes’ identities is examined. In this article, I develop an understanding of the social phenomena of American sport by analyzing the comment sections within standard mass media news articles. This new medium provides a podium on which fans can voice descriptions that shape the identities of athletes. This analysis is vital because of the new situations being created by increasing commenter participation in standard media. There is a new frontier of sports commentary, coming from the minds of individual fans and connected to the readership of those who seek out standard mass media news articles. How is race distinguished and conveyed among the comment sections of these articles? I utilize three case studies and draw respective conclusions from them. The findings are: (i) fans who comment on articles make connections to prior instances of failure by race; (ii) fans who comment on articles express their views of media credibility; (iii) fans take sides on issues that are not fundamentally racial yet develop such instances into matters of race; and (iv) fans generally group athletes as separate from the regular population. The third finding is supported the least while the fourth and final observation opens the door for wider interpretations of this micro-analysis.
Changing media platforms that shape identities: A new look at sports commentary
Individual athletes regularly attempt to define who and what they are. When Charles Barkley infamously expressed he felt he was “not paid to be a role model” the statement was discussed in terms of whether he was correct or not (Newsweek, 1993). Arguments were subsequently held between media pundits and fans alike. Fellow professional basketball player Karl Malone even responded, “Charles… I don’t think it’s your decision to make.” Among the many issues embedded in a scenario like this, one question is quite clearly asked: Who determines what the athlete “is” and what he is not?
Recently, LeBron James moved from Cleveland to Miami in one of the most highly publicized migrations of a professional basketball player ever. He announced his plans to just under ten million television viewers during an ESPN TV special coincidentally titled “The Decision” (Shea, 2010). Although Karl Malone did not provide input for the decision this time, Cleveland Cavaliers fans definitely felt a sense of abandonment and were offended that they were not asked for their collective opinion about who LeBron should play for. Of course, Cleveland fans wished the superstar had stayed put. Before he left, LeBron was beloved by Cavs fans and even considered a native son since he grew up in nearby Akron, Ohio. It was commonly believed that his selfish act of departing his hometown was a decision made for individual monetary gain and future success potential. The Cleveland fans no longer get to have the privilege of rooting for their native son during upcoming seasons. LeBron was certainly aware that he made a decision against the wishes of Cleveland fans. In the wake of his decision, he starred in a rather lengthy Nike shoe commercial during which he repeatedly looks into the camera and asks “What should I do?” LeBron even mocks Barkley’s “I am not a role model” statement. LeBron made the decision on his own volition. Of course, he probably consulted various accountants, family members, and mentors. Still, the decision was his own. It came from within him yet resulted from interactions with others.
In this article, I examine the social phenomena of American sport. These phenomena generally involve participation by many actors including athletes, institutions like professional leagues and amateur teams, fans, and sports media. All of the groups merit analysis but the focus of this research is on sports fans. The instances of participation include comment sections of standard mass media news articles. These sections allow fans (a loosely defined term meaning “interested individuals”) to post comments that other fans can ignore or reply to. This creates a dialogue between fans and allows them to participate in commentary. This new medium provides a platform on which fans can shape the identities of athletes. This is a new frontier of sports commentary, coming from the minds of individual fans and connected to the readership of those who seek out standard mass media news articles. How is race distinguished and conveyed among the comment sections of these articles? I focus on one platform: anonymous person-to-group communication transmitted over the internet on public message boards. Particularly, I gather data on message boards that are connected to standard mass media news articles.
This analysis is vital because of the new situations being created by increasing commenter participation in standard media. Not only is journalistic authority shifting because of changing reputations of mass media (Hove, 2009), new validity is being attached to formerly discredited sources. Certain bloggers, for example, are gaining authority while various media outlets lose it. A great deal of their authority is built on status power (Milner, 2004). As bloggers accumulate approval of the views they express, they gain status. Status increase coincides with a simultaneous rise in power. As a result, some internet bloggers have more power than traditional media.
A common way that prejudice appears in the public context is through stereotypes (Lambert et al., 2003). Stereotypes provide a simple way of acquiring support from a fellow commenter. Then, the resulting “pile on” of support enhances the power of the original commenter. Unlike traditional media, the comments section is an ongoing responsive dialogue between users. More importantly, the users can be of any race, gender, age, or other demographic whereas mass media has traditionally been viewed as serving white audiences through the white lens (Hoberman, 1997). If a white-dominated media has driven perceptions of athletes in the past, this is not the case today. Even without personal access to the internet, individuals of any race can simply walk to their local community center and log onto the local news website to post a comment on any article.
Those who post comments on mass media articles, the group under study for this article, are like “mini-bloggers” in that their comments are brief. Also, those who comment can gain support if their point is well liked by the reader group. When the commenter receives more positive feedback than the author of the article, he has become more powerful in shaping the story. The articles I analyze here are stories of athletes. Therefore, the commenter occasionally holds more power to shape the identity of the athlete than does the traditional media.
The central research question here is: Who determines what the athlete “is” and what he is not? Another question is how the identities are shaped, particularly: how is race distinguished and conveyed among the comment sections of these articles? In what follows, I will analyze comment sections of standard media articles to find who shapes athletes’ identities, through what processes those identities form, and where the interactions occur that create athletes’ identities.
Defining the essence of an individual or group can be done in a variety of ways. Sociological research is often performed both qualitatively and quantitatively on the same situations. Furthermore, there are specific methods within that dichotomy seeking new and better ways to interpret identities. I build my research on the following framework. First, I assume that instances of social phenomena are influenced by multiple actors. Mutually influential relationships combine to produce an outcome of perceived instances of social phenomena (Harris, 1983). Second, I form that basis off the assumption that multiple truths exist (through various perceptions) and it is the charge of the sociologist to produce an interpretation of those truths individually and collectively (Sparkes, 1992).
Certain theoretical models logically follow another. Comte claims that humans know nothing but phenomena (Mill, 1866). Social constructionists and symbolic interactionists argue that actors define phenomena before experiencing emotions (Kemper, 1981). All place importance on and define essence as the phenomenon itself. I define the phenomenon itself as the human experience of reality. The same scenario can be witnessed by several individuals and each can interpret it differently. Ultimately, the realities are many and “what happened” is defined in a variety of ways by several different individuals. Therefore, “what happened” is best understood by reviewing and analyzing those individuals’ multiple descriptions of reality.
This theoretical perspective is important to the study of sports sociology because sports are instances of phenomena. Games are generally timed competitions between actors. Sports are especially appropriate to the discussion of “what happened” and “what is” because of the differences in multiple actors. American sports are spectacles. The cultural performances based on American sports are both entertaining and can exemplify systems of meaning. Historically, during ancient times much earlier than American sports, games have been understood as actors’ performances on display for viewers (Kyle, 2007). American sport is no different. Athletes are meant to perform for the audiences there to watch.
However, the relationship between viewer and performer is constantly changing. In fact, the definitions of viewer and performer are changing, too. Modes of sports writing have been researched and the role of the newspaper writer comprehensively examined (Dahlgren & Sparks, 1992). Rowe proposed four modes of sports writing, concluding with “reflexive analysis” that is characterized by a shared experience between the reader and writer (Nicholson, 2007). Although Nicholson argues Rowe separates how the sports performance is “seen” versus how it is “socially constructed,” I blend these elements together and propose that American sports are increasingly socially constructed through the experience of multiple actors. As viewer and performer draw closer together, the relationship changes to become more in common, and their respective influence on “what happened” becomes more similar.
This article is not a review of sports media. Rather, it is an analysis of everyday interactions between people. I explain how the social phenomenon of fan participation in media is transforming the essence of American sport. I assert that the dividing lines between athlete, journalist, and fan are blurring. I seek understanding of the effects this will cause as each actor’s influence on “what happened” at the game changes. Additionally, I look outside the scope of the game and propose that sports culture is seeping into other areas of individual perceptions of phenomena, like race issues. I agree that “we will not be able to determine what’s new about new media if we ask old questions” (Rakow, 1999). Most prior research has focused on how individuals (fans) respond to mass media. I show how they participate in it.
In recent years, sport has been used as a model for interpretations of race. Certain moments within the spectacle of sport can strengthen or disregard racial stereotypes (King & Springwood, 2001). Those moments occur in real time and as recounts of the event. Billings & Eastman (2001) show how depictions of race happen during sports broadcasts. In that study, black male college basketball players were generally described as naturally athletic, quick, and powerful. At the same time, white male players were described by sports commentators as hard-workers, mentally skilled, and putting forth great effort. Billings (2004) also analyzed professional football and found that blacks were viewed as gaining success through their natural skills while white players, particularly quarterbacks, were described as lacking innate ability. Substantial research exists regarding descriptive differences in the ways whites and blacks are conveyed through the media (Rada, 1996; Biagi & Kern-Foxworth, 1997; Miller & Wiggins, 2004). The research on media and race goes beyond the forum of sport and extends to newscasts and sitcoms (McDonald, 1992; Matabane & Merritt, 1996). The purpose of this study is not to judge which ethnicity receives more favorable descriptions, but to describe how and where the differences are present.
Much of the discussion of blacks’ participation in sports has been at field level, ranging from black masculinity and sports as expression (Whitehead, 2001) to blacks’ athletic dominance and stereotypes affecting performance by race (Sailes, 1991; Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999; Entine, 2001). Blacks are often viewed as increasingly participating in sport on the field and are represented by the mass media (Hundley & Billings, 2009). However, blacks’ participation as a part of the media is often overlooked. “A lot of white media have no idea what’s going on,” says Glenn Harris, black sports anchor (Jet, 1993). It is common to see the media labeled as “white” with the counter being a black non-media caucus. Another paradox is that white athletes may be turning away from traditional sports and participating in extreme sports because of the black domination of mainstream sport (Kusz, 2007). It is a far leap to assume that whites seek alternative sports due to their inability to perform successfully in the main stream.
Yet, none of these historical distinctions can be applied to the new frontier of platforms available for commenting on sports. Unlike traditional media, the internet is highly democratic and not under a centralized control mechanism (Volti, 2000). I will not make light of the “digital divide,” but such a debate of its existence is outside the scope of this research. I assume that the bulk of Americans who are interested in popular sports can connect somehow with these online forums. Whether at their buddy’s house, logging on at a community center or university, or accessing a site on their smart phone, the ease of connectivity is continually on the rise. One limitation of this research is the inability to assess the race of the commenter. Further study is necessary to go into great detail on the demographic make up of those who comment.
Among the subjects discussed in this article, there are many debates. Which race has greater access to the internet? How has the mass media, dominated by whites, shaped viewers’ understanding of racial differences? Is the mass media dominated by whites? Which ethnicity participates more frequently as members of the fan, media, and athlete groups? These are important issues that are argued outside the scope of this article. I remain focused on a single question: How is race distinguished and conveyed among the comment sections of these articles?
I performed a case study on several online articles with comments sections. I explored the issue of racial distinction through analysis of cases within a bounded system. The boundaries formed around anonymity, publicity, relatively unlimited opportunities to comment, and permanency of the post. The objects under study were those who posted comments. The unit of analysis was the comment or set of comments, which ranged from one to twenty pages. I selected a sample of cases based on the rationale that the forums were available for comments from anyone and the original intent of the traditional media author was to discuss an individual athlete. In other words, I did not select articles about a team, city, university, or other institution. The case study method is appropriate to analyzing an event, activity, and more than one individual. I developed an in-depth description of the collection of cases (Creswell, 2007). This provided an ultimate understanding of race in society through a sports lens.
The greatest limitation of this research was the inability to demographically analyze the culture-sharing group. The common thread was that these individuals submitted comments for public viewing. Very rarely did they state their race, age, location, or other identifying characteristics. I looked for patterns in what the group said, but had a limited perspective. A more holistic view would have included the respondents’ age, race, education level, and location.
I did not review the following cases through a symbolic interaction lens for several reasons. First, conversation analysis is best suited to examine the world as-it-happens (Becker & McCall, 1990). The comments online were typed and possibly edited. In fact, respondents are able to submit immediately or draft a response and wait a week before submitting. I had no way of knowing the time frame of development for each comment. Therefore, I did not consider this “talk as data.” Second, the conversations held on comment boards are not necessarily sequential. Sequential organization was stressed by Sacks (1995) and I have no intent to prove or disprove its importance. I simply chose to analyze the comments as a collection rather than a sequence. Finally, and ironically, I am providing an analysis of analysis. I did not find it appropriate to engage in a critical conversation about the performance (Garfinkel, 1986) of the respondents who were in turn having a conversation about the performance of the athlete.
The cases under review are: (i) Korie Lucious arrested for drunk driving; (ii) Dion Sims computer theft accusation; and (iii) Brett Favre sexting scandal. I acquired data by accessing traditional media sources online. I only used reputable and recognized traditional media sources, e.g. the local newspaper or the NY Times. I avoided non-traditional blogs or message boards. This controlled for source and how the respondents become involved in the conversation. To comment, the user is required to seek out and access the traditional news article. Each article is based on legal wrongdoing. This controlled for the general substance of the article. I did not use articles that praised white athletes and denigrated blacks, or vice versa. To stick with the unbiased framework, I named each case study using neutral terms. For example, Korie Lucious eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving (ESPN, 2010). However, most of the initial comments came from the original article about his arrest for drunk driving. I do not discuss whether the timing and title affect the comments. I do not have a personal relationship with any of the respondents. In addition, the anonymity provides me a data set that is unbiased on the surface. I will consider all responses as viable to the study, omitting any tendency to choose only those that support the conclusions. Furthermore, I am not discrediting or negating any hypotheses here. I only provide support for the following: (i) fans who comment on articles make connections to prior instances of failure by race; (ii) fans who comment on articles express their views of media credibility; (iii) fans take sides on issues that are not fundamentally racial yet develop such instances into matters of race; and (iv) fans generally group athletes as separate from the regular population.
Photos are provided in this article to clearly convey what the users saw and commented on. Imagery is vital to the overall understanding of the responses given. Certain comments even mention the images used in the articles. I provide no conclusions based on the reactions to the images other than the fact that the images are part of the entire article presented to the user. Comments on the images support my conclusions, however none of the hypotheses discussed in this article are based solely on imagery. I do not provide interpretations of the images, as is typical with visual sociology (Prosser, 1998), but I do offer analysis of the users’ interpretations.
Korie Lucious Arrested for Drunk Driving
The initial reports of Korie Lucious (African American) being arrested for drunk driving were written on August 31, 2010. Earlier that morning, Lucious was arrested for drunk driving in East Lansing, Michigan. He reportedly blew 0.09 during a breathalyzer test, however he was not of legal age so the level of intoxication was not as important as the fact that he was drunk at all. At the time of his arrest, Lucious was a point guard for the highly ranked Michigan State University basketball team (The Grand Rapids Press, 2010). I reviewed seven articles, each with comments ranging from 2 to 56. I focused on ways that race was distinguished and conveyed among the comment sections of all seven articles.
First, the respondents discussed the legalities of the situation (Eisenberg, 2010). This was a common theme throughout all the articles. When an individual is involved in misconduct, there is an overwhelming tendency for users to discuss the punishment. Right from the start, users bantered about the fact that Lucious was underage and therefore the breathalyzer result was unnecessary. As long as it was above zero, Korie was in trouble. Surprisingly, it was the writer and not the fans who drew connections of misconduct to another black athlete. Former Spartan Chris Allen (African American) was cited for his tardiness, missed curfews, and academic issues. I expected users to make these types of connections to unrelated black athletes, not the writers.
Second, the respondents offer the viewpoint that Lucious “should be treated like any other college student or minor.” This is to say, Lucious is not special or distinct from normal. Such an observation is in contrast to my hypothesis that users would distinguish athletes as different from the norm. However, the underlying intent of such a comment must be extracted. The comment is more likely to be the user’s expression of opinion on punishment rather than an attempt to place Lucious in line with the normal population. It only benefits the respondent to do so when making an argument to increase punishment of the black athlete.
Respondents continue to submit negative comments like “shame on him,” “no sympathy,” and “off the team!” Lucious is connected by user “GoGoman” to the MSU football team and the opinion that he is an example of “the Spartan culture” (WXYZ, 2010). The correlation with deviant athletes continues. “These athletes are very high paid employees of the university. They should have a better understanding of what is expected of them.” This statement supports hypothesis (iv) that fans generally group athletes as separate from the regular population. In regard to athletes’ misconduct, “Paul” states that he is “so sick of these athletic stars that have it all handed to them on a silver plater (sic) and cant use any self control to keep things like this from happening” (Staudt, 2010; no photo). More comments convey that fans are “so fed up with the Sports stars of MSU being drunk, starting fights, being bullies” and that all the athletes do is play sports. One user also labeled Lucious as thinking he was “invincible” (Ashcroft, 2010; no photo). Ironically, Adolph Rupp famously refused to recruit black players because they would not fit well on his “invincible” team (Fitzpatrick, 2000; King & Springwood, 2001).
The article from the State News contained nine comments. The first connects Lucious to Chris Allen, similar to the article of sportswriter Eisenberg (2010). “Dan” generalizes college athletes as “mostly immature” and says they “make the same kinds of mistakes that ordinary college students make.” While Dan does group athletes, he does not separate them from the regular population. Again, this fails to support hypothesis (iv). Yet, Dan expresses his amazement in reading the extremely negative comments. This viewpoint supports hypothesis (iii) that fans take sides on issues but Dan does not mention race. The final commenter blatantly distinguishes athletes from the regular population: “So let me get this straight: Drive drunk as a non-athlete, get a DUI. Drive drunk as an athlete, get a reckless driving ticket???” One user exemplifies an awareness of quick-trigger media by surmising that “before the internet this would have been a local incident swept under the carpet” (MSN Fox Sports, 2010).
The final article from the The Grand Rapids Press (2010) conveys the most comments (56) and was shared on Facebook 201 times. The thread begins by calling Lucious a “dbag” and continues with a legal discussion regarding blood alcohol limits and the drinking age. User “buur” likely jokes that she/he is sure “Glenn Winston is somehow involved.” Winston (African American) was an MSU running back sentenced to six months in jail for a fight on campus (Rittenberg, 2010a). This comment, like the connections to Chris Allen, support the hypothesis (i) that fans who comment on articles make connections to prior instances of failure by race. “TouchdownThere” says “this dude is an athlete, nothing is going to happen” and asks “Did his car smell of marijuana too?” Other comments mention Kevin Grady and Darryl Stonum, two black University of Michigan football players who were arrested for alcohol related incidents (Heuser, 2009; Reens, 2010). Another commenter went so far as to draw a connection to Larry Harrison, a black U of M football player who plea bargained a charge of indecent exposure many years before the Lucious incident (Philp, 2006). A final derogatory but non-racial comment regarding Korie’s physical stature was that he might need “to sit on a phone book or two to reach the pedals.”
Dion Sims Computer Theft Accusation
The Dion Sims situation produced hundreds of comments in response to the five articles that were analyzed. The most comments (117) were attached to an ESPN article which provides a national perspective. The Korie Lucious section only analyzed articles originating from the State of Michigan. Although there was no way to determine the location of the respondents, it is more likely that a higher proportion were local when submitting comments to local articles. During Fall 2010, Dion Sims pleaded guilty to receiving and concealing stolen property. The property included laptops belonging to the Detroit Public School system. Sims was one of ten men in a ring that netted nearly $200,000 (Rittenberg, 2010b). The sophomore tight end from Detroit was suspended from the team and is an African American.
One of the first connections a user made was to Jeremiah Masoli who stole a laptop from a fraternity house along with black teammate Garrett Embry, both former Oregon Ducks football players. The story of Masoli was especially popularized because of the national media’s distribution of the 911 call recording.
Pictures do not clarify the race of Masoli although Embry is clearly black. The white 911 caller described Masoli as “Samoan” and tells the operator “if you want to find the height/weight, it’s all online; these guys are football players.” In an article from an Alabama standard media source (Woodbery, 2010), there is a discussion in the comments section about Masoli’s race.
- Fastlap48: “i have a big feeling the QB’s are going to run more than pass :p never seen an african american pocket qb since mcnair”
- audan2000: “Are you saying Masoli is African American? geez…..See Jason Campbell as a pocket QB”
Prior research has clarified media depictions of black quarterbacks (Billings, 2004). Although it is not the purpose of this article to take that discussion further, it must be noted that new democratic media like comment sections can be analyzed in much the same way as standard media. I encourage further research to uncover similarities and differences in such depictions. The Masoli case would provide a solid foundation for discussing media credibility because there is rumor on the internet that the white fraternity brothers called the non-white football players “hoodrats” (Marx, 2010). Other connections contained in the Sims article comments section include references to the University of Washington football team (The Seattle Times, 2008) and two MSU basketball players accused of sexual assault (Mayo, 2010). Glenn Winston is mentioned and “NorthernWolverine” says that Sims should be considered “another criminal to be added to MSU’s list of convicts.” Cam Newton, an African American quarterback who formerly played for the Florida Gators was mentioned as a laptop thief (Associated Press, 2008). A connection is made to black football defensive back Demar Dorsey who was charged with two felonies, burglary and robbery, in 2008 (Burns, 2010). Amazingly, the degrees of separation become greater when the same commenter mentions that Dorsey’s cousin is Denard Robinson, a black quarterback for the University of Michigan. “Denard isn’t anything special? Any black athelete could do that?” asks kgroff531. It is quite clear that the comment section is laden with connections to other black athletes. No white athletes are specifically mentioned as law breakers in the ESPN article comments.
The MLive article (Foley, 2010) provided support for hypothesis (ii) that fans who comment on articles express their views of media credibility. User “mrdubbs” says it is “unprofessional to pull a photo from facebook” to which the actual traditional media author responds:
“We’ve used Facebook photos in coverage in the past. In many cases, Facebook pages become news themselves — as in the case of Sam Riddle, the Detroit political consultant, or the young Pontiac woman charged with murder after making threats via Facebook, or even the recent case (not in Michigan) about the 12-year-old harassing another 12-year-old by hacking into her Facebook. Facebook (and Twitter, and MySpace despite its waning popularity) is a part of many of our lives and, in many cases, provides another resource of information for subjects covered in news.”
Further research is necessary to determine whether the interactivity built into new media influences the original article content. User “natron3030″ continues, “I kinda agree here… to go on facebook and find the most ‘thug’ looking image possible isn’t a exactly a ethical move here. There are plenty of pictures of Sims without a wife beater on and his finger in our faces.” IdolofMillions: “Well it might be the best picture they had of him.” User “gvsu1unc2gsu” ends with: “I agree dubbs, highly un-professional to grab a facebook photo.”
In an article originating from Lansing, the themes of the comments are judgment (of Sims and the coaching staff respectively) and more connections to other athletes who broke the law. Glenn Winston is mentioned yet again. Others mentioned:
- Boubacar Cissoko: black; theft, robbery, assault (Higgins, 2010)
- Obi Ezeh: black; drunk driving (Morris Daily Herald, 2007)
- Danial Horton: black; domestic violence (Associated Press, 2005)
- Justin Feagin: black; conspiracy and drug charges (Nash, 2009)
- Kevin Grady: black; drunk driving (Ann Arbor News, 2008)
- Mike Milano: white; assault (Calero, 2008)
The USA Today and State News comment sections provided moral support for Dion as well as admonishment. Ties are drawn to his father who played a role in the theft ring. Dion is called a “fool” and compared to “Spartie thugs.” The term “thug” is used several times. The Sims article provides adequate support for hypothesis (i) that fans who comment on articles make connections to prior instances of failure by race.
Brett Favre Sexting Scandal
“Sexting” refers to the practice of sending nude pictures via text message (CBS News, 2009). Brett Favre, white quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and formerly of the NY Jets, is accused of sexting former Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger (who is white). He admits sending text messages but denies sexting Sterger. There are thousands of comments regarding the manner. I reviewed articles from The Washington Post (zero comments), KTLA (7), The New York Daily News (17), The New York Post (39), Fox News (228), and The Huffington Post (671).
The first two articles provided no substantial themes. Judgment is a theme among some of the 17 New York Daily comments, both of Favre’s wrongdoing and Sterger’s attractiveness. This comment section also mentioned another athlete: Tiger Woods (black; marital infidelity). Many of the NY Post comments also refer to Sterger’s “hotness.” Although no image of Favre was used in the article, one user felt it necessary to contribute: “He does have a stupid look about him.” A second correlation to an athlete criminal is made when “abusing animals” is mentioned. This is obviously in reference to Mike Vick, who was convicted of abusing and fighting pit bulls (Werder, 2007).
The Fox News article had 228 total comments so I sorted by “Best rating” and “Popular now” to analyze that respective set. This was the only article that allowed me to sort using such criteria. The Huffington Post sorting mechanism did not seem to work precisely. User “NK@yahoo” posted a comment that supports hypothesis (iv) grouping athletes into a separate class: “another rich married athlete is caught trying to hook up with some skank … what else is new? These guys are either criminals or perverts and the world adores them because they can catch or throw a football.” 45Rifleman70 agrees: “They are all overpaid, arrogant, gladiators.” “We value the jock and the homecoming queen far more than the academic, precisely for physical reasons. So, they rise to the shallow standard we set for them.” The “dumb jock” stereotype is covered extensively in prior literature (Nelson, 1983; Sailes, 1993; Edwards, 1984; Pressley & Whitley, 1996; Whitley, 1999). Surprisingly, the commenter proportions “value” and provides comparison with “the academic,” which are two themes in prior research.
Some mention is given to the lack of credibility of the news story as well as feelings that “professional athletes sleep around.” Amazingly, the article itself mentions Ben Roethlisberger who was accused of, but not charged with, sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman. Yet, I did not find a single mention of “Big Ben” in any of the comments. For only the second time in the data, a commenter associates the scandalous athlete with a white male. Surprisingly, the connection is made to David Letterman (Dowd, 2009). However, a deeper understanding of the Letterman correlation is necessary. Letterman was generally given sympathy even though he admitted marital infidelity because he was the victim of an extortion plot.
Toward the end of the comments, one stands out:
“Brett Favre has never been a role model”
The Favre article and adjoining comments show that fans do not necessarily make connections to prior instances of failure by race when discussing white male athletes. The comments provide evidence that fans who comment on articles express their views of media credibility. Fans took sides on the issue, although this article was more about sex than race. Fans generally grouped Favre as separate from the regular population. The final observation opens the door for wider interpretations of this micro-analysis.
In this article, I performed three distinct case studies on athletes who conducted some form of legal wrongdoing (drunk driving, theft, sexual assault). The platform of participative media used by fans to influence the understanding of athletes’ identities was examined through an analysis of comment sections within standard mass media news articles. This new medium provided a podium on which fans can voice their opinions of the identities of athletes. Such an analysis is vital because of the new situations being created by increasing commenter participation in standard media. There is a new frontier of sports commentary, coming from the minds of individual fans and connected to the readership of those who seek out standard mass media news articles. How is race distinguished and conveyed among the comment sections of these articles? I conveyed four hypotheses: (i) fans who comment on articles make connections to prior instances of failure by race; (ii) fans who comment on articles express their views on media credibility; (iii) fans take sides on issues that are not fundamentally racial yet develop such instances into matters of race; and (iv) fans generally group athletes as separate from the regular population. The fourth and final observation opens the door for wider interpretations of this micro-analysis.
The data assembled for this article provided the strongest evidence to support hypotheses (i). An abundance of examples of respondents connecting black athletes to other black athletes is given. All but one of the connections put forth in articles about the two black athletes (Korie and Dion) were to other black athletes. Surprisingly, many of the racial connections made with the white athlete (Brett) were to black athletes even though a very current and similar instance of sexual assault involving a white athlete was available. Support was given to hypothesis (ii). As stated in the literature review, those who comment gain more democratic authority when traditional media loses credibility. Authority is built on status power and the discrediting of traditional news media is a predictable way for the respondents to acquire more validity and status power. Unexpectedly, there was at least one instance where the traditional sports writer engaged in dialogue with the respondents. Hypothesis (iii) was only partially supported. Fans regularly took sides on an issue, however they never developed a clear differentiation between racial sides of an argument. Paradigms exemplified in the comment sections included male/female, coach/player, and punitive/forgiving. Yet, the discussion never turned into a “black versus white” racial issue. Further research is necessary to develop understanding on how subtle racial divisions may exist in the comment sections that are less apparent than a “black versus white” argument.
The final hypothesis opens the door for wider interpretations of this micro-analysis. The gap between fan and player is shrinking. Additionally, the wall between the fan and the sportswriter is coming down. In this article, I show how the media and fans are coming closer together to engage in dialogue and commentary. The fans’ voices are read alongside traditional media accounts of sport. This development stems from the new media platform built on forums like these comment sections. Other new media, especially social media like Twitter, connects the fans with athletes. In this article, I show how fans generally group athletes as separate from the regular population. Twitter fundamentally negates that separation. For example, a fan can have a direct and immediate two-way conversation with a famous professional athlete now. A fan can even “watch Monday Night Football” along with his “virtual friends” on Twitter, some of whom are responsive professional athletes. The question for future research is: will fans continue to consider athletes a special separate group or will fans begin to define athletes as within their same “social circle?” Currently, as I have shown, fans still view themselves as a separate group. I predict that new media, following the course of the comment forums in this article, will gradually assist in drawing the groups closer together while encouraging fans to describe athletes as part of the same group.
Given more resources and more time, how would you improve your study? How did your methodological approach shape your process of discovery?
There are many ways that I would like to further improve this study with more time and resources. This desire is clearly shown through the changes in edited drafts. Initially, I chose to pursue a research objective that would be greatly supported by ethnographic study. I was quickly aware that I did not have the means, especially lacked the time, to conduct a comprehensive ethnography. Yet, my research question was appropriately analyzed through ethnography. Midway through the semester, I focused on phenomenology. Again, this methodology would provide thorough understanding of my research question and objectives. However, the interviews did not produce adequate substance and the data acquired through social media was insufficient. Notice, I have not yet stated my research question in this reflection.
The most difficult part of the changes in methodology was that my research question was affected by each new approach. The first research question, which I planned to study through ethnography, was too broad: What does it mean to “be” an athlete? This original question was heavily influenced by the ethnography (Brooks, 2009). As I changed to phenomenology, my research question became: Who is defining the athletes’ identities and what is the process of identity formation? Again, the question was too broad. In one rough draft, I bounced between interviews, social media, and content analysis. The thesis became very blurry.
For the final draft, I chose to focus on using the best data I had assembled (comment sections of news articles) and omitted the data that lacked any support for my initial research questions. I also decided that if I could not support those research questions, I should not ask the questions in my paper. So, I excluded those question. This allowed me to refine my research and I present clear questions in my final draft. I even clarify my study on the presence of race in my data set.
Ultimately, this research will benefit from the original methods and intent of the first drafts. Given more time and resources, I will conduct ethnography on the life of an athlete over the course of a season (at least). I will assemble more social media content. As I acquire more data, I will be able to propose clearer research questions. With more data (field notes of an athlete’s season and more social media comments), I can ask questions as clear as those I have asked in the research I am submitting for my final semester project. These added approaches and methods will allow me to further my studies of race and sports, especially seen through new social media. For better or worse, I was able to use one method (case study) for this project to analyze one platform (comment sections) and one group’s (fans’) descriptions. Future research will use multiple methods (ethnography, phenomenology, content analysis) to analyze multiple platforms (social media, institutional websites) on multiple groups (athletes, institutions). I look forward to it.
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