Hoop Dreams and Bootstrap Journalism

Sports and class go way back.  Sports writers often talk about teams, coaches, and players in terms borrowed from the language of class.  That was evident last week as the NCAA basketball tournament drew to a close.  As many commentators noted, the final match between Michigan State University and North Carolina was more than simply a game,  especially for MSU whose team was described as having blue collar, rust belt values and carrying the hopes and dreams of a deindustrialized region.

Popular culture often relies on misrepresentations that reinforce negative stereotypes of the working class.  In his documentary Class Dismissed, Pepi Leistyna outlines how television especially stereotypes the working class as both unintelligent and lazy and often reactionary in their political beliefs. The working class is only valorized during sporting events. Both teams and individuals are lauded for their commitment to hard work, attention to detail and task, and their toughness.   While television sitcoms often lampoon the working class, in sports working-class people – especially men — are often heroes.

A similar pattern applies to communities.  As we’ve found in studying representations of Youngstown, deindustrialized communities are often described as survivors.  They are seen as tough, proud places where hard work and commitment to others are valued.  In case of the NCAA championship game, the commentary and references to the working class and to Michigan as part of the “rustbelt” assigned extra significance to the tournament.   MSU’s success, some suggested, provided hope for workers in the region who had been displaced by disinvestment and deindustrialization.  The tournament also offered psychological relief from the pain and anxiety of unemployment, as well as an economic boost to a struggling city.

Talking about the team and the tournament in these ways falls into the category of what I call “bootstrap journalism” – reporting that emphasizes the ways that people and communities are “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”  It focuses on survival and hope, but that often, unfortunately, excludes serious analysis of the causes and effects of the economic problems associated with deindustrialization and unemployment.  In other words, it ignores the real experiences of people in the region.

I’m not suggesting that sports writers shouldn’t use working-class imagery to talk about sports, or that the excitement of seeing an area team make it to the finals isn’t real.  Indeed, sports success matters.  A successful team can give a struggling community a new identity, both locally and nationally.  As British sociologist James Rhodes has recently argued in a study of how boxer Kelly Pavlik has become a new symbol of Youngstown, winning athletes can help create positive images for their hometowns.

And I’m all for the idea that winning something, whether it’s a boxing match or a new factory contract, helps people feel hopeful, and hope counts.  Hope can give people the energy to work through difficulties.  We see that in the success of Barack Obama’s campaign.  Hope is audacious.  And  powerful.

But it isn’t enough.   It can’t address the underlying economic realities that have given Michigan among the highest unemployment rates in the country.  It can’t in itself provide jobs or clean up abandoned properties or reduce crime.  It will take more than a positive attitude to do that.

So, yes, we should respect and appreciate the strong values of working-class culture and the way economically-displaced people and deindustrialized communities keep on struggling to survive.  And we should also analyze the causes, effects, and most important solutions to the problems they face.  That means we have to look beyond stereotypes. We have to stop blaming either workers or their communities for causing what is in fact a global economic change.  We must also develop more realistic expectations for what it means and what it takes for people and communities to recover from economic hardship.  Recovery often isn’t simply a matter of positive attitudes and hard work.  Our bootstraps are broken.  America’s working class needs serious attention, better policies, and real change.

John Russo

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7 Responses to Hoop Dreams and Bootstrap Journalism

  1. Pingback: Youngstown Renaissance » Blog Archive » Sports not enough to turn economy around

  2. Pepi Leistyna says:

    Very important insights John! Journalists, if they are really doing their job, need to inform the public rather than just entertain us. Unfortunately, corporate-managed media have largely ignored the influence of social and economic conditions on the lives of everyday people while constructing their own tales about social class. As you contend, it is important to look at these images, not simply as a random collection, but as a mediating force that affects social relations among people. Commentary like yours, and the important work that your center does in Youngstown, helps the public look at these stories historically, politically, and critically and it encourages readers and viewers to explore whose interests are served by media representations of the working class, whose depictions are narrowly circumscribed, and why.
    It’s critical to recognize that while capitalism consists of a structural reality built on political and economic processes, institutions, and relationships, its proponents also rely on the formative power of culture to shape the kinds of meaning, desire, subjectivity and thus identity that can work to ensure the maintenance of its logic and practice. Corporate bodies take very seriously the fact that culture shapes our sense of political agency and mediates the relations between everyday struggles and structures of power. In fact, in this age of globalization and postmodern technologies that can saturate society with media messages, elite private interests have worked diligently to monopolize the means of production and distribution of information and ideas so as to be able to more effectively circulate, legitimate, and reproduce a vision of the world that suits their needs; a world where the monopolization of power, values, and profit trumps everyday people at every turn.
    While there is a plethora of ways in which agencies of knowledge production like schools, houses of faith, and other public institutions are strategically used to engineer history and shape public consciousness, one of the pedagogical forces that needs to be watched more closely is mainstream media, especially when it comes to entertainment television and sports. As I argue in my film Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, that you cited in your piece, it’s critical to engage readers and viewers in understanding how entertainment television has been used as a tool to justify the current class structure and help maintain the myth of meritocracy in the United States where hard work and persistence are deemed the essential ingredients for success. And of course this ideology is perpetuated with no mention of any of the critical factors that inhibit upward mobility such as labor, wage, and tax laws that favor the wealthy, a public school system that is largely funded through property tax, or gender discrimination and racism—just to name a few.
    Thanks for moving basketball beyond mere entertainment and spectacle and problematizing such representations of youth. Your commentary and critique offer very important insights that are helpful in generating public dialogue rather than passivity and indifference, which to the detriment of any participatory democracy, are the ultimate goals of corporate, profit-driven media in this age of neoliberalism.


  3. Homer Warren says:

    Clarity of thought and thought provoking are weapons (forgive the war metaphor) in the hands of great bloggers. Good thing reviewers of good writing don’t have to be held to the same high standards and may be exonerated for the following musings:

    The word intentionality comes to mind. Most modern journalists find it easier to entertain (versus clarity of thought and thought provoking) by objectifying events. Hence, half baked metaphors of “lazy” journalists may be excused. “Hoop Dreams”, however, awaken my conspiratorial inclinations about the truly skilled journalists of the “estate”. Now, the words ideology and false consciousness come to mind. Given that the victim’s hero seldom on their own can effectively resolve the victimization, half baked working class metaphors in the hands of the skilled only serve to contribute to the victimizers’ negotiation leverage over the victimized.

    Maybe a bit over the top, but thanks for thought, John

    Homer Warren


  4. Jen Schradie says:

    Great piece on the ubiquitous misrepresentation/stereotyping of the working class (when labor/class/poverty is represented at all). And “bootstrap journalism” is such an insightful way to describe the “American Dream” narrative pervasive to the MSM.

    Jen Schradie
    UC Berkeley (& Duke fan)


  5. J. Catano says:


    Nice piece.

    It reminds of a quote from Steel Voices: “The only time you see workers on TV is when they’re on strike.”

    Clearly, they appear at other ‘useful’ times. I wonder when we’ll get a blue-collar golfer at the Masters. That would be a stretch.

    See you in June at WCSA.




  6. Tim Francisco says:

    Really excellent post, John. One of the interesting things about the last Pavlik fight was that in local discussion blogs and in Letters to the Editor of the Vindicator, Youngstowners debated the whole packaging of Pavlik and the city according to the dominant paradigms you discuss here. I think the discussions nicely evidence your point that ours and any community for that matter is more complex than easy analogies might afford.


  7. Excellent entry, John. I especially appreciated the conclusion: “our bootstraps are broken”. Well crafted and provocative.

    Let me share a bit of good news… this year I coached a United States Academic Decathlon team at Youngstown Christian School. USAD is the nation’s foremost academic competition. Initially, it was difficult to get the program off the ground. Athletics are more quickly funded than academics and have a much quicker turn-around, as you point out in the blog post.

    However, my team of nine juniors and seniors from here in Youngstown, Ohio, at least half of them EdChoice students from the inner-city, won the Northeast Ohio Regional Championship and the Ohio State Small School Championship for the United States Academic Decathlon. It was a remarkable achievement in an academic competition, not physical sports.

    I suppose the same psychology is in play as athletes rising to “survive” in the midst of economic change, but in this small success story it was more than physical grit that enabled these students to emerge as winners. It demonstrates, in my opinion, a shift toward the demands of a changing economic landscape. Youngstown doesn’t only produce talent boxers and football stars — we can outshine the smartest minds Ohio has to offer as well.

    Very inspiring and critical thoughts, John.


    Joshua Reichard


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