By Sekou Franklin for The Nashville Scene
I was disappointed to learn about the layoffs of the Tennesseannewspaper’s high school journalists, Chip Cirillo and Maurice Patton. I am not an avid reader of high school sports and don’t know the reporters, but I read enough to know the value of their work in Middle Tennessee.
Several years ago, I was asked to sit on an advisory board established by The Tennessean. The board was tasked with providing recommendations for improving the newspaper, which included enhancing its online and social media content as well as making it more responsive to community needs.
I only lasted six months on board. I knew very little about the business side of the newspaper industry outside of reading journalist/producer David Simon’s treatises on city newspapers. Yet I accepted the board’s invitation out of the concern that the Nashville news media was severely lacking in stories of interest to under-resourced communities.
My brief stint on the board taught me that the newspaper industry was in dire need of help. Frankly, I am not entirely sure what could be done to reboot The Tennessean or city newspapers around the country given the explosion of social media and online readership. Despite my concerns, I never would have guessed that the newspaper would let go its highest-profile reporters of high school sports.
Few of my friends in Nashville know that as a youth I was a year-around athlete, playing three sports (football, wrestling, track) for all four years in high school. This was during the days before the Internet, Facebook and the other social media. For my peers in the Bay Area, local sports reporting was perhaps the only and last form of public recognition attributed to us, our neighborhoods and high schools.
Media coverage of high school sports has a special place in the American political culture, more so than college and professional sports (and yes, I am emphasizing political culture), because it has the potential to uncover the micro-social and political contexts affecting young athletes. Due to racial segregation and fragmented cities — combined with decade-long layoffs of newspaper journalists — it is increasingly difficult for mainstream news to report on the lived experiences of under-resourced communities and communities of color.
When the media does give attention to these communities, it is usually interpreted through elite frameworks disguised as truth-telling assessments of diverse communities. In many cities such as Nashville, a select group of leaders is constantly asked to interpret black sociopolitical life, but this is mostly designed for white audiences and usually done to manage race relations instead of challenging racial injustice.
Coverage of high school sports is about more than just describing a football game or a pitcher on the baseball diamond. It can potentially provide a lens for understanding the athletes in the uniform and behind the catcher’s mask. If one wants to find out about the impact of deindustrialization and plant closures in a town, then examining the internal stability of a prep football team can help to understand this context. In some parts of the country, high school soccer fields provide a window into the educational and economic challenges facing students who were born outside of the United States. And many sports teams give young people the only chance for constructive dialogues across racial, ethnic and linguistic lines.
Outside of sports, mainstream news stories of youth of color are still weighted towards negative coverage. In the early 2000s, the Youth Media Council partnered with young advocates around the country to investigate local news stories of young people. The group commissioned two reports highlighting the content of local news coverage of youth of color in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. The two studies found overwhelming evidence of negative coverage of these young people, most of which characterized them as crime-ridden and pathological.
Let me be clear and say I am not a romanticist who believes high school sports can resolve deep inequalities such as racism and poverty. I have also read what might be perceived as racist coverage of some high school athletes in different parts of the country. Still, high school sports and the journalists covering them have the opportunity to describe the circumstances shaping athletes that are often overlooked by other journalists in mainstream media.
The loss of Patton and Cirillo is much bigger than The Tennessean and a dying news industry. It closes a window for entering and understanding Middle Tennessee’s diverse communities and the micro-contexts that influence the region’s athletes.
Dr. Sekou Franklin is associate professor of political science at MTSU and the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014). A version of this article originally appeared on his blog.