Integrity & the Athletic Activist

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Michael Bennett was the first of many athletes to back out of an NFL trip to Israel. Photo from CBS Sports. 

For fans, it can be difficult to remember that their favorite athletes are more than just athletes. It is easily forgotten that they have thoughts, opinions, and feelings, often reflecting society’s larger issues. With the backlash that often occurs when athletes do choose to take a public stance on issues, it is not surprising that many of them prefer to remain publicly neutral on controversial topics.

In our current reality of extreme controversy surrounding our president, sexuality and human rights, foreign relations, and racial tension, however, many athletes are choosing to publicize their beliefs, regardless of expected retaliation.

This can be uncomfortable for some fans—if your favorite athlete openly admits to an opinion different than yours, can you overcome the cognitive dissonance and continue to support them? Or does saying you’re a Tom Brady fan now have political implications?

Athletes should not let fear of losing fans dissuade them from taking public stances on topics they feel strongly about. Yet they also should not be coerced into publicizing premature opinions on issues they do not feel prepared to represent.

A prominent example of this notion is Michael Bennett, who recently backed out of a trip to Israel with other NFL players. After discovering that the Israeli government intended to send the players back to the U.S. as “influencers” for the good-will of the country, Bennett decided that he was not comfortable with the visit.

After publishing a letter reflecting on why he would not be attending this particular trip (but plans to go in the future), several other players backed out of the trip as well. It became evident that many of the other players did not recognize the suspected intent of the trip, and upon learning that their celebrity was potentially intended to be used as a platform for public Israeli support, they felt uncomfortable.

While Bennett potentially criticized the trip’s intentions more than necessary, his response raises an important question regarding influencing athletes, or celebrities in general, to take a stance on controversial topics.

It is entirely possible that had Bennett traveled to Israel with purely exploratory intent, he would have become an advocate for the “good-will” of the country on his own accord. But integrity must be questioned, regardless of the cause, if celebrities are intentionally targeted and given incomplete information in an attempt to cause them to take a stance on issues they otherwise may not.

Ultimately, athletes should be held to no more or less responsibility than others in the public eye in terms of becoming activists. And when they do choose to take a stance, it should be on issues they are passionate about, prepared to defend, and understanding of the potential consequences of.

 

Pitching and Pivoting- Updates on my First Feature Article

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A selection of Kelly Roderick’s project “The Stronger” is currently on display in the Ohio Union. (Photo of display taken by Sydney Sundell)

I began this assignment with the intentions to write about Tanner Laczynski, a first-year forward on the men’s hockey team who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers before even beginning at Ohio State. After doing some research, however, I found that The Lantern had already written a feature on Laczynski, and that his story did not seem to be astronomically different from those of other strong collegiate-level hockey players.

Nearly every day, however, I pass a giant photo of women’s volleyball middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe, which is currently displayed as an art project outside of the Archie Griffin Grand Ballroom in the Ohio Union. A short description of the piece is displayed alongside of the photo, along with a more feminine photo of Sandbothe in a dress, creating an interesting juxtaposition for those passing by.

After reading the description of the project, I am planning on reaching out to the artist, Kelly Roderick, as well as Sandbothe, to learn more about the piece and what it means to each of them. I believe that her further explanation from Roderick on her inspiration for the piece, as well as why she chose Sandbothe as one of her models, could be an interesting addition to this feature.

In switching focuses, I have been pleasantly surprised by the professionalism and promptness of the SIDs. Both of the SIDs I have contacted to request interviews have been very helpful and understanding of time constraints of reporters, which as a first-time sports journalism student, I did not expect.

Sandbothe’s SID quickly informed me that Taylor is already playing professionally abroad after completing her senior season in December, but that I could contact her directly since her eligibility at Ohio State has expired. The SID (Kyle Kuhlman) also noted that he would help me get in contact with her to schedule an interview if emailing did not work, which I appreciate as a student reporter.

Throughout my research, I have found that Taylor was an integral part of her Ohio State team from as early on as her freshman year. She started all games in her first season (2013), ranked 10th in the Big Ten during her second season, recorded the top-five school records for total blocks in her third season, and began her fourth season ranking top 10 in school history.

While I have found a lot of valuable reporting on her impressive career, nowhere have I seen any reports of her thoughts and feelings on feminism, which is why I am eager to explore them. In addition to Sandbothe and Roderick, I will contact Geoff Carlston, head women’s volleyball coach, to collect some further insight into Taylor’s career.

Is the Rodgers Family Feud “Fake News”?

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Dramatic photos like this are perpetuating the vaguely detailed family feud in popular culture. Photo from Sports Grid

In an era where Beyonce’s pregnancy becomes mainstream news, it is to be expected that media consumers will anxiously grab onto anything that might become a ‘story.’

This is as true for sports fans as it is for consumers of pop culture and political media. For example, take Aaron Rodgers’ strained relationship with his family. While multiple sources site this feud as having begun over two years ago, it did not catch national attention until Aaron’s brother Jordan spoke out about it on “The Bachelorette.”

Multiple sources have since investigated the cause of Aaron’s detachment from his family, including major pop culture sources (US Weekly,  People, E!). Additionally, some traditional news sources have deemed the feud to be an early news lead (Washington Post), or entertainment (New York Daily News).

What all of these stories have in common, however is that none of them have anything more than a few vague quotes and a lot of speculation as to what happened to the Rodgers family. The lack of concrete evidence in each of the articles makes them feel repetitive, gossipy, and somewhat artificial. These qualities are what make their worth questionable.

Versions of the Rodgers’ story are plentiful now, but will likely dwindle of no additional details are uncovered soon. While this topic is by no means “off-limits” to cover, there are certainly more valuable things to report on until more of the truth is revealed. It is not unreasonable for a story about an athlete’s personal life to appear in the sports section—yet it would be more appropriate if and when the athlete himself or a truly reliable source is ready to provide a substantial amount of detail.

Yet, when a substantial amount of detail is available, the story can be even harder to report. When Jack Johnson’s parents left him bankrupt, it was easier to uncover the details, because they were mostly based on publically available information, such as his contracts and court documents. Though this story may have been harder to break on an ethical level, it was arguably done more responsibly. This is similar to when Manti Te’o’s ‘Catfished’ relationship was exposed—in both circumstances, both reliable documents and the subjects themselves validated the story.

Journalists have a responsibility to uphold high ethical standards. And yet, if we let everyone else report a story that we refuse to investigate, we are seen as falling behind. Therefore, the best we can do is try to strike a balance by determining when and how to tell a story. The Rodgers’ story was not “unworthy” of being investigated, but did it warrant an entire feature? Jack Johnson’s story was heartbreaking to read and presumably to write, but isn’t it better for it to be uncovered by The Dispatch than by someone who had less access to credible facts about Johnson?

Overall, professional athletes knowingly open themselves up for scrutiny by putting themselves in the public eye, and should not be surprised when the public takes interest in their personal lives. As journalists, however, we must train the public eye to see what is worth caring deeply about, and what is just “good-to-know.”