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Research roundup: Sports media and mental health
Also, the one where I defend Nate on Ted Lasso (kind of), and dad jokes.
One of the main reasons I started this newsletter (as articulated in the italicized text that should come at the top of the email) was to take the research that’s happening in the sports communication world and contextualize it for a more professional audience.
Truth be told, I’ve been slacking in that regard.
It’s one of the hazards of the academic world. The day-to-day work of teaching, grading, administration, and working with your students are all front and center, and so it’s easy to let journals pile up on your desk. That’s especially true in my area, where we’re also keeping up with the news and how news is covered and all of that.
But a new issue of Communication & Sport dropped this week, and rather than letting it sit, let’s dive right in. One of this issue’s themes is mental health in sport, which is a topic I’ve written about in the past. This is a longer topic for a future newsletter, but generally I think we’re doing a better job talking about, thinking about, and covering mental health in sports but we’ve still got a long way to go.
One of the definitive stories in this space in the past few years was Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open in 2021 after saying she would not do press conferences in order to protect her mental health. Zhijing Chen and Dr. Dae Hee Kwak from the University of Michigan conducted thematic and sentiment analysis on 5,563 Tweets sent in the first 10 days after Osaka’s initial announcement. Among their findings was the fact that debate about press conferences were the most common theme (31 percent of tweets), with mental health matters closely following (26.6 percent) — these tweets included things like “mental health is health” themed tweets.
What’s most interesting is that a majority of all the tweets studied — 51.4 percent — were positive and supportive, and only 19.3 percent were negative or critical. The supportive number rose in direct replies to Osaka’s Tweet, while the most negative responses came in replies to SportsCenter and Bleacher Report’s retweet of Osaka’s news. “When athletes were tweeting out breaking news, significantly more comments were centered on showing empathy and support toward the athlete than when sport media handles retweeted the same breaking news.” (p. 453) This has implications for athletes breaking their own stories on social media rather than leaking the news to a reporter or media member.
The Osaka story was a high-profile one in this space. A slightly-less high profile story — D.J. Carton taking a leave of absence from the Ohio State men’s basketball team — was the focus of research by David Cassilo of Kennesaw State University and my friend Yannick Kluch from VCU. Cassilo and Kluch did a straight framing study, looking at how the media framed Calton’s decision which (yes) he shared on Twitter. In the 63 stories they analyzed, they found five distinct frames — humanizing the athlete, Carton as a mental health advocate, changing athletics culture, support for Carton and commodifying Carton. The authors noted (and I found this super interesting) that the “mental health advocate” was a mediated frame. Carton did not declare himself an advocate, the media did simply because he took this break.
As Cassilo and Kluch point out, four of the five frames are positive ones, which speaks to the growth in this area. But they also point out that the fifth frame — speaking of Carton as a commodity, identifying him only by his value as an athlete and his place on the team — is significant.
Therefore, while initial media coverage about Carton’s mental health disclosures was encouraging due to its subject matter and the support described within the coverage, it is perhaps more noteworthy how quickly he became commodified, especially since this frame was introduced by the journalists themselves and not through Ohio State coach or player quotes. While it is not the responsibility of journalists to solve all the problems that riddle the NCAA and how its structure exploits the college athlete, it is important to note that the media can be a powerful tool to further contribute to the dehumanization of athletes by framing them as commodities rather than human beings. Simply put, if the athletes are covered as people, it is more likely they are treated as people. (p. 477-8, emphasis is mine.)
Defending Nate (kinda?) … Ted Lasso Spoilers.
I wrote this on a thread started by the great Alan Sepinwall over at his newsletter. There are spoilers for the third season of Ted Lasso, so if you need to, scroll until the next subhead. It’s a short little thing, but I’m proud of the way I was able to put my fandom/contrarian nature into words that I hope make sense.
Again, spoilers until the next subhead:
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As a bit of a Ted Lasso apologist. I'm probably way more sympathetic to Nate's character arc than anyone else on this thread but I don't think the Nate redemption arc is at all out of sorts with the overall theme of the show.
Hear me out: Seeing Nate "earn" redemption would be very satisfying for us as viewers. But it would also seem to contradict Ted's core ethos. Hurt people hurt people, right? You don't have to earn forgiveness. It's not something you give the other person, it's something you give yourself. That speech to Jamie was Ted's speech to himself over Nate. And so from Ted's point of view, Nate doesn't have to earn forgiveness. It's Ted's to give. And by not seeing Nate earn it, we take the same journey as Ted does..
As far as Jade, she's kind of a stoic, British tweak on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's thoroughly unimpressed by Nate, in the best possible way. She's the first person who likes/loves him regardless of what he accomplishes but rather for who he is. The first person other than Ted.
Now the execution has been weirdly paced. The start of the last two episodes (Nate quitting, the guys visiting Nate) have given off real THE DEAD SPEAK! vibes. But thematically, I think they work (and like the last Star Wars flick, I enjoyed it a lot once I said "Oh, that's what we're doing here? Sure, go with it." Anyway. I'll stand alone on this one.
The Other 51 update
This has been a killer month at my podcast, The Other 51. I’ve had so much fan making this show lately, and it’s been an awesome reminder that when I focus on doing this for the right reasons (getting to talk to incredibly smart and cool people about something we both care about) rather than the wrong ones (caring about audience size), having a podcast is kinda dope.
Anyway, here are the three most recent episodes from May. More great ones are coming in June, so make sure you subscribe wherever you get podcasts.
Weekly Dad Joke
(This new feature is brought to you by Ben Grieco, my friend, former student at SUNY Oswego and new sports writer at the Pensacola News Journal.)
"I was going to tell a time-traveling joke, but you guys didn't like it."
One last thing
A note of personal and professional pride to close things out. Earlier this month, our first cohort of online masters’ students at St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli school graduated. I’m proud what our students are doing and going to do, and grateful for the alums that paved the way for me to come home to build a program that stands on their shoulders.
One of our students, Richard Vara (the newly employed Richard Vara) was selected as the grad student speaker. His speech brought the house at the Reilly Center to its feet, and the final minute gives me chills.