Storify of the Football Scholars Forum on Academic vs. Journalistic Writing About the Game. Featuring: Simon Kuper, Grant Wahl, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Peter Alegi, and Chuck Korr.
Shortly after Peter and I proposed this panel on collaboration between journalists and academics, I was contacted by a team of four young sports journalists interested in my dissertation topic. They all graduated with degrees in sports journalism, but haven’t found opportunities in investigative reporting. When we sat down for coffee, they shared a documentary they produced about horse racing in Buenos Aires that also examined the sport’s history and how it related to gender and class. While brainstorming their next documentary, they became interested in Boca Juniors’ failed attempt to build a massive stadium and sports complex in the 1960s.
The Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, was built on artificial islands spanning thirty city blocks in the Río de la Plata. The plans featured the region’s largest soccer stadium, a drive-in movie theatre, a fish-shaped aquarium, eighteen tennis courts, and tower with a rotating restaurant. Unfortunately for Boca Juniors, city and state officials, and the nearly 200,000 Argentines who bought raffle tickets to finance the project, rising construction costs and political in-fighting at the club doomed the project when all but the stadium was built. Boca eventually sold the property to a Soros-backed real estate development firm in 1991. Today the vacant lot sits next to a shantytown and one of the city’s most expensive districts, juxtaposing the city’s uneven development produced by neoliberalism.
The story of the Ciudad Deportiva resurfaces every few years as plans to redevelop the property are proposed without success in the city legislature. Surprisingly, no history of the project exists and journalists provide few details on how and why a project with a relatively recent history failed. Searching for clues, the team of journalists who contacted me heard about my research through a mutual journalist friend and were delighted to find I had spent nearly two years of fieldwork studying the Ciudad Deportiva. Though still in the early stages of pre-production, we have decided to produce a documentary together. In the short time we have collaborated, I have learned a great deal about how journalists and academics can work together.
First, we had to agree that rigorous investigation and wide diffusion were our primary goals. Neither the team nor I are seeking to turn a profit on the documentary, making it easy for me to sell the idea that we release it under a creative commons license. Working under a CC license frees us to focus on disseminating a story backed by sustained research with the shared benefit of exposure and production experience.
Second, the knowledge transfer of my research so far has been made far easier by Zotero, software that allows users to collect, organize, and cite sources. I had shared sources with fellow academics through Zotero before, so the documentary team has benefitted greatly from the meticulous digitization and organization I invested time in since starting fieldwork in 2010. While the neatly organized PDFs and notes are the crystallization of tedious labor on my part, I also counted on the generosity of other academics, journalists, club officials, and fans to digitize these sources in the first place. There is little danger here in being ‘scooped’, as I have already shaped an online identity around my research topic.
I had to reorganize my research library in Zotero for a new group library organized around the specific questions and goals of the documentary. These questions and goals are different from that of my dissertation, which aims to contribute toward a scholarly conversation on several historiographies including those discussing modern Argentine politics and economics, urban history, and soccer’s multi-faceted impact on society. For example, I had my work organized by archive, a mark of my discipline and collaboration with other historians working on soccer in Argentina. For the documentary it made more sense to separate sources into folders of ‘press’, ‘legislative’, ‘interview’, and ‘club document’ sources.
My collaborators will spend the next month during pre-production working with me in the archives and conducting interviews. Their perspectives as local sports journalists lend a new dimension to my work and analysis, while allowing them to immerse themselves in the sources that are shaping our documentary’s narrative. The documentary is also forcing me to synthesize analysis on sources for the purpose of sharing it with my journalist collaborators in a timely fashion, a healthy challenge I think from the longer timelines social scientists and humanists are used to. Surely more challenges await us as a team, but we are motivated by a shared interest in telling a story that reveals the impact the Ciudad Deportiva had on Buenos Aires.
In the spring of 1995, during my junior year at Princeton, I met with the head of the politics department to pitch an idea for my senior thesis. I wanted to spend three months in Buenos Aires studying the political culture of soccer clubs. It seemed like a worthwhile topic. In a still-young democracy like Argentina, the nation’s soccer clubs had been a thriving part of civil society for decades. With memberships ranging from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, the clubs often had multiple political parties (agrupaciones) and election campaigns that received more attention in the media than governmental elections. What’s more, the function of soccer clubs in civil society had barely been explored by academics at the time. In Making Democracy Work, a classic study of Italy’s political culture, the Harvard professor Robert Putnam had mentioned the nation’s hundreds of soccer clubs before dismissing them in a single sentence, never to return to the topic again.
It was though the academics I encountered viewed anything sports-related as somehow not worth their attention. And, sure enough, the meeting with my university professor—a somewhat fossilized character named Paul Sigmund, the department’s main Latin American expert—did not go well. He called my thesis project “a silly idea,” dismissing it in a single sentence.
Fortunately, I met with another professor who did like the idea. His name was Carlos Forment, and it only took him a matter of minutes to volunteer to be my thesis advisor. We discussed the topics I might research, and I made plans to live in Argentina from June to late August that year. Forment always wanted to go big on projects—this is a guy who titled his own book Democracy in Latin America—and he had some great ideas. Spend a lot of time in the archive of Clarín, the big Buenos Aires daily, he suggested, and you’ll find a trove of material on the history of the soccer clubs. (And so I did, piecing together a chronicle of associational life in Buenos Aires.) Visit a smaller club, he added, to understand how the membership works together. (And so I did, interviewing people at Banfield and conducting a survey at their club elections to find out if the club’s political parties diverged from governmental party divisions. It turned out they did, which was a good sign.) Finally, interview the members and leaders at a big club like Boca Juniors, he suggested. (And so I did, sitting down with Boca presidential candidate Mauricio Macri, who would go on to win that election and later became one of the country’s rising political stars.)
While I was in Buenos Aires, I also researched topics that hurt the development of the clubs’ democratic political culture: the fan violence that plagues the sport and influences club elections; the corruption of club officials; and the shortage of women involved in the clubs. It was by far the most rewarding experience of my years as a student. Not that there weren’t difficult moments. My apartment got robbed in Buenos Aires, and the university denied my request for funding to attend the Boca Juniors elections that December. (That old prejudice: One of my professors, who was on the funding committee, said they viewed my application as “someone who wanted to go watch soccer games over winter break.” Facepalm.)
In the end, though, everything came together. My thesis—Playing the Political Game: Soccer Clubs in Argentine Civil Society—won the prizes of the politics and Latin American Studies departments. Forment, the adviser who believed in the project from the start, started doing his own research on the topic. And I learned that I wanted to write about sports and soccer for a living if possible. The experience showed me that not only could academics and sports co-exist, but so could academics and journalism. What I was doing in Argentina was just as much one as the other. And yet part of me still wonders: Is there still a bias against sports in the academic world?
John Foot is Professor of Modern Italian history at the University of Bristol. He is the author of several books, including Calcio: A History of Italian Football and Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, and writes regularly for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
Both of the fascinating blogs so far (by Simon Kuper and Peter Alegi) have discussed the differences between sports writing from an academic and a journalistic perspective. I work as an academic but I also write “as a journalist,” so perhaps I can offer a contribution which crosses across these professions. Simon wrote about his academic family. Well, I come from the opposite background. My father, mother and great-uncle were all journalists, and my brother is a journalist now. I grew up surrounded by newsprint and hacks and to the sound of a typewriter and the panic of deadlines. I would often go into the huge Daily Mirror building in the centre of London (tragically now demolished) to meet my dad for lunch. I remember seeing the papers roll off the presses in the basement of the building, and all the printers having huge breakfasts in the cafe. I wanted to be a journalist but things took a different term and I ended up spending a lot of my life—very happily—in libraries.
Now, I think journalists are largely responsible for the revolution in football (and to some extent sports) writing over the last twenty years or so. I was inspired by Pete Davis, Simon Kuper, David Winner and Alex Bellos and others when I wrote my book Calcio: A History of Italian Football. I think there are some fascinating trends in footbology (as Peter calls it) at the moment outside of academia – the brilliant Futbologia project in Bologna, for example, which involves writers and others, and is an attempt to talk seriously about football—but also to enjoy the funny and often grotesque side of the game and its superstructures.
As Simon rightly says, journalists are skilled at making academics’ ideas and research readable and available to a wide public (although he is being far too modest about his own work here, of course). This is what makes Soccernomics work so well – it is serious research but made accessible and adapted. Put simply, journalists cut through the crap and the jargon and the absurd long sentences which so many academics love to use and can’t seem to get away from. David Goldblatt’s seminal The Ball is Round is an exception to this rule.
Beyond this, however, I would like to look a bit more critically at my own world – which we can loosely call academia. Firstly, there is still considerable resistance within the academy to research and writing on sport. Time and again, when I am introduced at a conference, people will laugh when my books on football and cycling are mentioned. It is as if football is still seen as a side-show, a bit of fun, a diversion from the real world and real research. So many histories of contemporary Italy, for example, fail to mention sport altogether. Or, if they do, there is a perfunctory reference to Gino Bartali or to World Cup victories. It is still incredibly rare for ‘serious’ academics to actually carry out research into sport. This is, quite simply, an absurdity – a massive historical and social error. How can you understand fascism without understanding its use of sport? How can you analyse post-war Italy without reference to the 1949 Superga disaster, Juventus-Fiat, Berlusconi’s Milan, Fausto Coppi or Ferrari? The calciopoli scandal tells us more about how Italy works than a thousand political corruption cases. The most watched programme in Italian history was the 1982 world cup final. How many people remember were they were that day? Everyone. Who are the uncontroversial national heroes of post-war Italy? Paolo Rossi and Sandro Pertini, both present (in different ways) in 1982. But still little changes. Sport is marginalised and sniggered at. It is time for this to change. Let’s hope a conference like this has an impact.
As C. L. R. James once wrote, in Beyond a Boundary, the best book ever written (not just the best book ever written on sport): the great historians of liberal England “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” Well. I can no longer “accept a system” which simply ignores, or pays lip-service to, the centrality of sport; the way it moves peoples emotions, the way it creates tribes and groupings, the universal languages it uses, its hyper-powerful global reach.
The other problem is simply about trying to write well, clearly and for an audience beyond the specialist one. It is not just a matter of academics not being able to write well. No. It’s much worse than that. Many academics revel in obscurity. The system encourages it. The more obscure the better. If something is popular, if you sell books, you are frowned upon. You are seen as unserious, as “dumbing down” in some way. This snob-culture is everywhere in academia, despite “impact.” Selling books is seen as a bad thing, in itself! The same goes for disciplines. Academics are usually anxious to build boundaries—”
I’m a historian, I’m an anthropologist, I’m a literature specialist.” This turf-marking is another way of excluding all but a small sect of specialists. Exclusionary languages are created to justify your own existence. So, academics have much to learn from journalists . . . but journalists also have much to learn from academics.
Finally, there is the question, which Peter raises, of plagiarism—of the theft of ideas and research. This problem is on the increase, and I think this increase is partly to do with the rise of new sports writing, as well as what Simon Kuper described as the death of the match report. Readers now all know what has happened in the match. They demand more, these days—history, background, stories. These pieces require research, but few people have the time to do this research. Far too much is being written (usually for free) in far too short a time. What happens is that some journalists go to their bookshelves and pick out some of the juicy quotes and ideas from their books. Say, for example, that you were writing a piece for a magazine about the Lazio team of the 1970s. Let’s say, for example, that the piece in question was almost entirely based on the book Calcio. You haven’t actually copied anything (apart from other people’s quotes, which are also part of the author’s research) but the entire edifice of the article is taken from that book—which cost the author years of work in dusty libraries. Do you even cite that book? No. Not even once. And yet you, the journalist, were paid for that piece. This is wrong, but it happens almost on a daily basis.
Finally, we have had the explosion of social media. Now, I love Twitter. In fact, you could say that I am addicted to it. However, I can see its limitations. It encourages (and almost exalts) short-termism, stupidity and under-researched writing (and comments). Last week someone rejected my considered opinion on Arsene Wenger with a tweet which read “the cunt lives in Italy.” Delightful. But there is simply too much stuff—even when it is good. Every day there are numerous excellent articles about my own little niche world: Italian football. Who can possibly read them all? Enough, already. This is unsustainable. We need a moratorium on articles and more quality control. Stop writing. Get down to the library. That’s my motto.
Reflecting on his time in the editorial pages of Mexican newspapers, the historical anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz commented, “In times of peace and prosperity, when there has been broad hegemony, historians tend to be perceived as ornamental.” That is nowhere truer than in the U.S., where, unlike other parts of the world, academics rarely enter the world of punditry. During Olympic and World Cup years, however, there is greater crossover between critical sports scholarship and mainstream media. So-called, “human interest” stories tend to either frame these tournaments as disasters in the making or, alternatively, as exhibitions of sports’ unique capacity to unite humankind. All the while, one wonders how corporate sponsorship and market imperatives shape the terms of coverage. Thornier yet, is the investment all of us have in the claims of sports’ importance. It’s a hard place for those of us trained in nuance, context, and deep research.
The U.S. academy has faced anti-intellectualism for as long as it has been around. Despite accusations that we’re too busy drinking lattes to care about the “real world” scholars have sought to apply their work to relevant social problems. This shouldn’t be surprising given how cosmopolitan higher education has become. To be a leading university, specialisms are expected in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In terms of sustained dialogue across borders, academics tend to be disproportionate to the U.S. sports’ audience. I’ll never forget my disappointment reading my favorite childhood sports’ columnist, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, railing against soccer and celebrating the insularity of U.S. sports.
Sport attracts reading publics to worthwhile stories that they might otherwise have no interest in, and both journalists and social scientists have used this to good effect. If I can get students interested in the struggle of Chileans to construct a vibrant, diverse, and just political system by talking about the 1962 World Cup, that is a victory. The solidarity they feel with players trying to maintain civility in the face of a brutal dictatorship is worth exploiting their passion for soccer. The Pinochet regime’s use of stadiums for torture and illegal detention, as well as its orchestration of the national team’s appearances to bolster its legitimacy is also a story screaming to be told and connects Chile to Argentina, Germany, China, and other parts of the world. And, I wouldn’t know any of this if it weren’t for journalists chronicling it.
Scholars have moved closer to journalists in the digital age. Social media and digital databases have at once expanded and contracted audiences. This, I think, is largely positive for academics, albeit they are still connecting with a specialized audience. Without the same constraints as print journalism, academics can wield their footnotes and forgo the “common denominator” of traditional media audiences. One of the brightest spots over the past year has been the Far Post series, which has included important pieces by Laurent Dubois and David Patrick Lane. It’s long form journalism, with enough research, timeliness, and discussion of soccer mechanics to crossover. Unfortunately, fast dissemination via digital platforms also means it’s easier to plagiarize. In the academy, the premium on “originality” of ideas makes this a horrifying prospect. Plenty of us have been interviewed for publications ranging from ESPN to school newspapers, only to see our work buried or replicated, rather than credited. In Chile, I’ve had pieces plagiarized before they can be translated.
In the last twenty years or so, there’s been a notable shift among sports journalists away from a staunch refusal to recognize the politics of sport. In the past, this set them at odds with critical studies of sport, whether because journalists tended to define politics very narrowly or because of their notion that sport was a “free space.” This supports a conservative position that defines the status quo as apolitical. In recent years, sportswriters like Dave Zirin, David Goldblatt, and Grant Wahl have taken their colleagues and subjects to task for supporting homophobic, racist, and corrupt practices in sports. Here, journalists have a harder job since they have a more tangled relationship to their informants. Historians brutally analyze and categorize their subjects, since they’re mostly long gone.
I hope to be a resource for those journalists, even if I probably won’t ever be that “one” historian who can make headline statements. In the meantime, I’ll work on answering the questions people ask when they first hear I write about the history of soccer. These present in the following order: Who should I root for during the World Cup? Who’s the greatest player ever? Should instant replay be employed? The quick answers: Chile, Pelé (with Garrincha), and definitely not, because as historians and journalists agree, it’s all about the drama.
Peter Alegi: This is my video blog contribution to the Football Scholars Forum roundtable taking place on Saturday, April 12, 2014, at the global fútbological conclave known as the Soccer as the Beautiful Game conference at Hofstra University. Comments welcome!
Editors’ note: FSF will be hosting a panel at Hofstra’s “Soccer as the Beautiful Game” conference on April 12, 9:30AM (-5 GMT). The purpose of the panel is to provoke discussion and debate on how journalists and scholars can inform our respective work. Alex, Peter, Brenda, John Foot, Grant Wahl, and Simon Kuper will be producing a series of blog posts exploring here on footballscholars.org. The posts will discuss how academics and journalists deal with sources and methodologies, topics, audience, market logic vs academic logic, and the role of digital tools in the writing and dissemination process. Each panelist will post over the next few days, starting with Simon Kuper below.
In 2007 the Turkish football club Fenerbahce celebrated its centenary by staging something called a “100th Year Sports and Science Congress”. Fenerbahce flew me to Istanbul to give a talk, and while there I met a British economist called Stefan Szymanski. (He’s now an economics professor at the University of Michigan.) I’d come across his work by then, but academic economics very rarely penetrated into sportswriting, and I don’t think I’d ever written about it before.
Stefan and I began to talk, first at the conference and later over beers in the hotel bar. What struck me was that everybody had views on soccer, but Stefan’s were actually informed by data. That’s not something you encountered much in sportswriting. By the time we left Istanbul we’d agreed to try to write a book together, a sort of Freakonomics for soccer.
The book, Soccernomics, contains ideas from both of us. It’s a genuine collaboration. But a lot of it came directly from Stefan’s academic writings. He would send me a paper that had appeared in an economics journal, and had been read only by specialists, and I would think, “This is fascinating”, and try to rephrase it in layman’s terms. I work for the Financial Times, and once spent two years there in the economics department, so I had some experience of this kind of thing.
Many of Stefan’s arguments challenged conventional sportswriters’ wisdom. Crucially, he showed that averaged out over a period of about ten years, the correlation between a club’s wage bill and its average league position is typically about 90 per cent. In other words, salaries tend to predict brilliantly where a club will finish in the table. That didn’t leave much room for other factors to matter. Consequently, Stefan thinks that coaches have far less influence on results than is commonly assumed in soccer talk. And he found that transfer fees were a much less efficient way than salaries to buy success. The correlation between a club’s net transfer spending and its league position was pretty weak.
There’s a lot more of Stefan’s academic work in the book. For instance, he used econometric methods to show that black players at English clubs suffered wage discrimination until about 1990, but not thereafter.
One of the issues for discussion at our “Football Scholars Forum” at Hofstra University on April 12 is “the impact of digital tools in the writing and dissemination process”. Stefan and I actually found the old-fashioned book pretty effective. Soccernomics first appeared in 2009, and has sold about 200,000 copies in nearly 20 languages. I think it has had some marginal influence on soccer talk. True, many soccer fans instinctively reject some of our findings. They often struggle to accept, for instance, that the coach – the most prominent voice and face of his club – generally doesn’t have much influence on results. I certainly wouldn’t claim that we’ve proven any of our arguments beyond doubt. That’s almost impossible to do in economics. But some commentators do now take our findings into account.
For me, Soccernomics is an example of something I’ve been striving for all my journalistic career: a collaboration between a journalist and an academic that presents sophisticated findings fairly clearly to a non-specialist audience. I’m the son of an academic, and know a lot of academics, and often when speaking to them I find myself thinking, “What you’re saying is fascinating. Why does almost nobody know this?”
I understand the pressures that push academics into using specialized language. As an old girlfriend of mine once told me, explaining why she’d written an academic paper on Jane Austen in almost impenetrable jargon: “If you don’t use the jargon, the other academics think you don’t know it.” But that leaves a role for journalists like me to try to popularize academic findings without dumbing them down. I think that often it can be done.
*Please leave comments below to stimulate discussion for our session at Hofstra.
On March 25, FSF members met for the second spring session with a new format. Participants picked a diverse array of new and classic books from around the world published in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.
Members shared their insights through concise reports. The Instant Messaging chat that took place during the spoken remarks was more useful than ever, as members joked, asked questions, and traded citations, ideas, and suggestions related to the books under review. (Click here for list of books covered.)
Participants included Alex Galarza, Peter Alegi, Melissa Forbis, David Kilpatrick, Andrew Guest, Brian Van Wyck, Rwany Sibaja, Christopher Gaffney, Liz Timbs, Ben Dettmar, Javier Pescador, and Austin Long.
The audio recording of the session can be found here.
Thank you Liz Timbs for live tweeting and Storifying the #FSFMarch hashtag here.
The Football Scholars Forum 2013/14 season continues on March 25, 3pm ET (-4 GMT), with a special session in a tasty new format. For the first time, FSF members gather via Skype to report on a number of different fútbol books rather than discuss a shared reading. The aim is to provide a snapshot of the “State of the Field.”
Each participant is presenting a seven-minute review of a recently published book or classic in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Confirmed titles include:
Los clubes en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (1932-1945): Revista La Cancha: sociabilidad, política y Estado by Rodrigo Daskal [@galarzaalex]
Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe [click here to read review by @futbolprof]
Soccer VS. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics by Gabriel Kuhn [Melissa Forbis]
Summer of ‘67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil [@DrDKilpatrick]
Soccer Madness: Brazil’s Passion for the World’s Most Popular Sport by Janet Lever [Andrew Guest]
Der Ball ist bunt: Fußball, Migration und die Vielfalt der Identitäten in Deutschland (The Ball is Colorful: Football, Migration and the Diversity of Identities in Germany), edited by Diethelm Blecking and Gerd Dembowski [@bvanwyck]
Dante Panzeri: Dirigentes, decencia, y wines by Matías Bauso [@rwanysibaja]
O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro, Mario Filho [@geostadia]
South Africa and the Global Game: Football, Apartheid, and Beyond, edited by Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann [@tizlimbs]
This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez by Robert Andrew Powell [click here to listen to review by @AustinLong1974]
The Containment of Soccer in Australia: Fencing off the World Game edited by Chris Hallinan and John Hughson [@olympicsprof]
Libro de Oro del Futbol Mexicano (1960) by J. Cid y Mulet [Javier Pescador]
On February 12th, FSF kicked off the spring 2014 season with Lindsay Krasnoff and her new book, The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. Sixteen participants were able to join our invited author for a lively discussion of her work.
Discussion centered on France’s role in hosting major sporting events, how football and basketball related to other sports, and the tensions of public and private support in youth development. Krasnoff also shared her experiences in writing the book while balancing her work at the U.S. Department of State and selecting her topic as a graduate student.
FSF participants included: Alejandro Gonzalez, Andrew Guest, Ben Dettmar, Brenda Elsey, Brain Van Wyck, Corry Cropper, David Kilpatrick, Derek Catsam, Ingrid Bolivar, Laurent Dubois, Liz Timbs, Peter Alegi, Rwany Sibaja, and Steven Apostolov
Audio of the session is available here
Liz Timbs created a Storify of the #fsflesbleus hashtag here.