Photo Credit: Nathan Rupert, Flickr CC

In case you were otherwise occupied, on Christmas Day the Associated Press named the “NFL National Anthem Protests” the top sports story of 2017. In a year of many huge sport stories both on and off the field, the AP said the story was the “runaway winner” for its staff. This doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve studied sports-based social activism for a long time, but I’ve never had more media calls and requests for interviews in my career than these past few months.

The single biggest reason for the story, I’m pretty sure, involves our President’s seemingly unprompted and unusually profane attacks in September on football players who had engaged in demonstrations and the NFL. For better or for worse, Trump’s attention provoked a tidal wave of unprecedented gestures of protest and support across the league (and across both racial lines as well as those of management and ownerships) that gave the story its scale, scope, and intrigue. But there’s much more to say about it than that, much more.  I’ve been tracking this all fall as part of my own research project on the “new era” of African American athletic activism we are currently witnessing, and I am going to pull some of that together in a commentary with my sport and politics collaborator Kyle Green.  We are hoping to run that piece in the lead-up to the Super Bowl here in the Twin Cities at the end of January, so stay tuned!

There are two points I’d like to address here, by way of year-end retrospective: “kneeling” and “remembrance.” On kneeling, why do athletes feel the need to protest?

“Why do they do it?” is far and away the most common question I get from journalists and regular folks alike. Underlying this inquiry is the sense (a) that these demonstrations are disrespectful and (b) that professional athletes are super-rich, superstars who should be so satisfied with their lives and salaries and fame that they’d have no reason to complain or be angry, much less act out in public. At best, they see African American athlete activists as spoiled complainers, more interested in politics, making news, and making money than anything else. For many Americans, athletic protests are as incomprehensible as they are inappropriate.

Based on the athletes I’ve talked to and my earlier research on black athletic activism in the 1960s, I see the issue quite differently. and commitments. In a society that continues to be plagued by disproportionate police brutality, persistent racial gaps, and overt bigotry and bias, they feel compelled to do or say something. Sometimes it is in support of communities of color—their communities—who continue to face persistent racism and discrimination. Sometimes it is quite personal, stemming from their own ongoing individual experiences with racism and discrimination. And almost always it is quite principled and reasoned, with a clear understanding of the costs and consequences (which are far more real and extensive than most of us realize). Athlete activists don’t take their activities lightly or think of them as disrespectful or anti-American. Quite the contrary, they understand activism as consistent with the higher moral standards, ideals, and aspirations of both American democracy and sport culture.

But there is something else here too: It is also the fact that many —to make it seem like everything is okay. This was a major motivator for the African American athletes who participated in protests in the year leading up to the 1968 Olympic Games. As high jumper Gene Johnson explained in support of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights:”

“The United States exalts its Olympic star athletes as representatives of a democratic and free society, when millions of Negro and other minority citizens are excluded from decent housing and meaningful employment” (Race, Culture, and the Revolt, 2003, p. 84).

Or, as the OPHR organizing pamphlet put it: “We must no longer allow this country to use black individuals of whatever level to rationalize its treatment of the black masses.” 

So, that’s kneeling, now for remembrance. A few weeks back I was interviewed by a Time reporter for a special 50th anniversary retrospective issue on the tumultuous year of 1968. Among other things, the reporter asked me what my research on Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s iconic victory stand demonstration taught me about the meanings and implications of the protests of Colin Kaepernick and his NFL brethren. “How will we remember what is going on today, 50 years from now,” she wanted to know?

Social scientists like me, I told her, are loath to make predictions. However this topic is one where I was willing to make an exception. I’m pretty confident that one day in the not-to-distant near future, Kaepernick and company will be remembered far more positively across the American populace than is currently the case. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, once the specifics of this moment and the larger racial politics that are unfolding are behind us, these athlete activists come to be revered as courageous, admirable, or even heroic—certainly ahead of their time. If you’re interested, my little quote to this effect can now be found in print on page 92 of the latest issue of Time (dated Dec. 25/Jan. 1) as well as online here.

Such historical re-remembering is a familiar pattern in American culture. It happened to our collective conceptions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Perhaps most pertinent to this discussion are the memories that surround the perpetrators of one of the most iconic sports demonstrations of all time, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s 1968 clenched first, victory stand demonstration at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Today, most Americans celebrate Smith and Carlos as heroes of the Civil Rights Movement; back in 1968, they were seen as villains, traitors, and worse.

History and memory—what happened and how we think about what happened—are two different things. All too often, the way we remember and romanticize images, individuals, and events comes at the cost of forgetting all of the actual social issues and context that gave rise to them in the first place. As this year draws to a close and we begin to look to the future, let us not lose sight of the racial disparities and social injustices at the root of the biggest sports story of 2017.

I turned 50 this summer so maybe I’m feeling a little sentimental. Nevertheless, in this season of tumult, Trump, and 140 character tweets that pass for news, I have found myself sustained by the some of the most old-fashioned modes of media—weekly and monthly news magazines, and, more specifically, long-form journalism. Here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks, categorized in the ways that I think my sociology friends and colleagues would find meaningful:

Social movements: Nathan Heller’s analysis of the efficacy of collective protests “Out of Action: Do Protests Work? The New Yorker, August 2017.

Popular culture: “How American Lost its Mind,” a piece on culture and populism by Kurt Andersen in The Atlantic, September 2017. (Other solid treatments roughly in this category/vein: “The New Paranoia by Colin Dickey in July’s The New Republic; and “European Disunion: What the Rise of Populist Movements Means for Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, also in TNR, August/September).

Sociology of knowledge: David Session in The New Republic, “The Rise of the Thought Leader: How the Superrich have Funded a New Class of Intellectual,” June 2017.

Media studies: a trip down memory lane by my favorite television critic of how Donald Trump built his popularity (and personality) in and through the small screen, Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, July 2017.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Traditional journalism doesn’t (and can’t) solve all the problems of our fractious world, and indeed I sometimes worry that all of this great writing and reading can be its own kind of distraction or delusion. But the clear-thinking, the ability to put things in broader context, and the commitment to synthesizing social facts and cultural complexities—all qualities that us sociologists aspire to—displayed in these pieces is admirable and much needed. And I can only shake my head in awe for the way these writers, reporters, and critics are able to produce such great, insightful content in such timely and engaging fashion.


Julian Povey//Flickr CC.
Julian Povey//Flickr CC.

This fall I’ve been working on the address I’m supposed to give as President of the Midwest Sociological Society in Chicago this coming March (23-26). Playing off of our program theme of a year ago, it is tentatively titled: “Sociology and its Publics: The Next Generation.” Among the themes I’ve been reading about and trying to think through are the social conditions and institutional infrastructures of public engagement—and very high on that list are all the new social media forms that began to appear just as the thing we call “public sociology” was beginning to be named and championed by Michael Buroway.

If you are interested in such topics, Kieran Healy has a great piece on social media and public sociology that you should take a look at. It is based on a talk he gave recently at UC–Berkeley.

Almost as if by ESP, Joel Best of the University of Delaware sent me this little reflection he wrote about the evolution of media coverage of his research on fear and Halloween over the years. It seems both timely and appropriate to share (with his permission).

“Experiencing the Death of Print.”

In 1985, I published my research on fears of Halloween sadism, first in a sociology journal and then in Psychology Today magazine. My principal finding—that I could not find any reports of children being killed or seriously injured by contaminated treats received while trick-or-treating—struck the press as newsworthy, and I wound up giving a couple dozen interviews that year.

That was the beginning of a seasonal job. For 31 years, I have fielded late-October calls from reporters at all sorts of media—a few hundred in all, I suppose. The great majority came from newspapers. Typically, a reporter would be assigned to write a story about Halloween safety and, not really knowing how to proceed, she’d often check LEXIS-NEXIS to see what other reporters wrote on the topic the previous year, find me quoted, and then give me a call.

This year had a normal amount of traffic—eight requests for interviews, which covered the usual topics. But there was one difference: I spoke to only one newspaper reporter. All the other interviews were for podcasts, websites, or other Internet-based media.

We hear a lot about the death of print: newspapers and magazines have declining circulations. Young people, in particular, prefer to get their news through electronic means. As a result, newspapers are publishing fewer pages of news and employing fewer reporters to write stories. The inevitable result is fewer feature stories about Halloween safety, and therefore fewer print journalists contacting me. Print journalism may not be dead, but it doesn’t seem that healthy. Once again, Mills has been proven right: the sociological imagination can link my personal experiences to larger public issues.


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This week on The Society Pages, we tackled drug addiction and harm reduction, body image and stigma, Twitter as a public forum for shaming, marriage equality and health, and the thin line between The Bachelor‘s Juan Pablo and Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson. Plus much more (as always)!


RU013114This week, on The Editors’ Desk*, Doug Hartmann enumerated and tried to define** six elements of the sociological worldview. Elsewhere on The Society Pages, our many contributors worked to demonstrate that worldview—enjoy!

*That’s right: we all share one desk. It’s adorable. Possibly even adorkable.

**See what I did there? The man never met a conjunction he didn’t like. more...

RU120613This week we played around with #socgreetings, got excited to see movers and shakers talking about the We Are All Criminals project, and mourned rabble-rousing change-maker Nelson Mandela while hoping those he inspired would continue bending the arc of history… and society. Here’s what else we got up to. more...

RU092013For the next couple of Roundups, I’d like to welcome TSP’s graduate editor Hollie Nyseth Brehm. She’ll be covering for me as I head off on a 3-hour cruise. Actually, there’s no cruise. But I do expect to find myself washed up on a beach for a stretch, so I won’t be rounding up the site until… October 11th? Craziness. For now, one last hurrah before heading for the airport (yet again). more...

This photo does not depict either Doug Hartmann or Chris Uggen, but it comes courtesy Tommy Japan via
This photo does not depict either Doug Hartmann or Chris Uggen (nor any of the reporters they work with), but does come courtesy of Tommy Japan via

When scholars think about doing interviews with the media, we often imagine ourselves to be doing some kind of great public service–wherein we deign to come down from the ivory tower and share our wisdom and knowledge with naive, uninformed journalists and their massive, mostly ignorant, and fundamentally distracted masses. There is some truth to this conceit. Writers and producers often approach a story or a topic with a limited, fairly narrow frame of reference, and sometimes don’t even know the most basic facts or more general trends that are involved.  I average maybe an interview a week, and find myself spending much of my time in these exchanges trying to get the writer or producer on the other end of the line to expand their scope, attend to some of the broader social forces or issues, or reframe their pieces in one way or the other. Sometimes this effort to frame and/or reorient stories works, sometimes it doesn’t (and rarely do we get credit either way).

But none of that is really the point of this post. The point of this post is that journalists often know a lot more than we give them credit for, and that we scholars–especially us sociologists–have got a lot more to gain from working with them than we usually realize. more...

RU071213Double Your Fun

Time to play catch-up!

In Case You Missed It:

Thinking About Trayvon: Privileged Response and Media Discourse,” by Stephen Suh. A roundtable discussion from just months after Trayvon Martin’s death, this piece looks at media framing and public responses.

The Editors’ Desk:

The Home Stretch (Or: Introducing Our Third Book),” by Doug Hartmann. In which Doug details some of the coming content for Color Lines and Racial Angles, TSP’s third reader from W.W. Norton (the first two volumes are due out by the end of the year). 

Citings & Sightings:

Economics, Sentimentality, and the Safe Baby,” by Letta Page. An economist walks into a baby expo… and calls on some classic social science.

The People’s Art,” by Letta Page. If a society is enriched by its art, is it impoverished by keeping that art in museums?

A Gender Gap and the German Model,” by John Ziegler. An emerging education gap shows women outstripping men in the race for diplomas in the U.S. Does Germany offer a solution?

‘Spiritual’ Scofflaws,” by Evan Stewart. What happens when there’s neither an angel nor a devil on your shoulder.

A New South Africa?” by Erin Hoekstra. In post-Apartheid South Africa, Somali refugees are everyone’s target.

A Few from the Community Pages:

Scholars Strategy Network:

Why Immigration Reform with a Path to Citizenship Faces an Uphill Climb in Congress,” by Tom K. Wong.

What Happens if [Now that] the Supreme Court Weakens [Has Weakened] Voting Rights?” by Gary May.

How Conservative Women’s Organizations Challenge Feminists in U.S. Politics,” by Renee Schreiber.

Circus Tent by Thomas Totz via
Circus Tent by Thomas Totz via

This past weekend I came across a piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Gareth Cook in the Boston Globe about new research showing that spending time helping others can actually make it seem like we’ve got more time for ourselves. It sounded like a great, eminently sociological project in so many ways: its emphasis on the social meaning and variable experience of time, the importance of selflessness and interacting with others, the use of interviews and experiments, and, of course, the classic, counter-intuitive conclusion that the best solution for not feeling like you have enough time is to make time for others.

My first thought was to throw it over to our Citings & Sightings team as another cool case of how sociological research finds its way to public attention in and through the mass media. But a closer look made me pause. It turns out the research was produced by a team headed up by a professor in a business school (Harvard, no less).  Scholars who teach future MBAs to make millions taking on questions of selflessness and the social experience of time? Suddenly I found myself getting cynical about the researcher’s claim that such activities give us confidence we can get things done and allows us to feel more in control of our own lives.

Lately, whether it is management professors, researchers in public health, or cultural studies critics, scholars all over the academy seem to be taking on topics and using methods and theories pioneered by sociologists. It is easy to be a bit skeptical or defensive, but rather than getting caught up in turf wars, I think it better to celebrate such insights and accomplishments as part of the structure and functioning of social life, claiming them as part of the big, broad sociological tent. It’s not important who is researching sociological questions, but that scholars of all stripes are calling attention to the importance and complexity of social life and interactions—a broad context that’s so often missing from the individualist, economistic, and biological visions of human beings and social life that are otherwise dominant in our academic culture.