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Denmark or bust

I was at the Play the Game conference in Trondheim, Norway, in February when I looked down to see my iPhone lit. I had received an email.

The email. The one that would tell me whether I would be a Fulbright U.S. Scholar for the upcoming 2024-25 academic year.

I excused myself from the group in order to privately read the notification.

I happily returned a few minutes later with positive news.

As a newly minted associate professor, I will spend part of the next academic year on sabbatical in Aarhus, Denmark, conducting a content analysis of accepted Play the Game conference abstracts from the last 10 years. This study will allow me to organize presentations into overarching themes that I can publish for sports journalists to apply to their own respective beats.

I wanted to undertake such a study because numerous issues taking place in sport are tied to what’s happening at that sport’s governing body. These issues are underreported in the mainstream American press. This is partially because media and sport traditionally have a symbiotic relationship: Media generate enormous sales because of its sports coverage, and sports’ popularity and legitimacy in the United States grew as a result of this coverage. By the 1970s, sports journalists’ cozy, uncritical relationship with the people and events they cover had allowed international sports federations to swell with corruption (For more on that, see Arnout Geeraert's 2018 chapter in Corruption in Sport: Causes, Consequences, and Reform).

Neither this relationship nor the ensuing corruption has gone away. In the 2020 A Study of Sports Journalism (En undersøgelse af sportsjournalistik), Danish journalists and scholars August Jersild, Dejan Obretkovic, Jeppe Ørregaard, and Rasmus Vestergaard argued that sports journalism, as a practice, struggles with professionalism, discrimination, and independence, often becoming more of a cult of national heroes and rarely separating facts from opinion. As Dr. Kirsten Frandsen at Aarhus University concluded, owning the rights to cover major sport events means television broadcasters have a financial and professional incentive for promoting a positive image of said sports event. This leads to what John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson called “personality-based, sports trivia,” along with, as Frandsen put it, a “fundamental uncertainty regarding the quality of the product."

In 1997, a group of Danish thought leaders began a movement to change this. Play the Game, an initiative now run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies and based in Aarhus, held its first conference with 109 sports journalists and sports researchers. 

These conferences have resonated with a diverse score of sports stakeholders – myself included – and have become the platform for coming together to discuss international sports issues and to share research. For example, three-time Canadian cycling champion and journalist Laura Robinson, who has covered sexual abuse in Canadian junior hockey, cites the prevalence of sexual abuse in sport and the international community’s need to structure better safeguards to protect athletes. (She also leaped from a car when she was 16 years old to avoid sexual advances from a coach.)

Journalists' lives have been threatened when they began investigating corrupt sports officials. For example, Ghanian journalist Anas Aremeyaw and his Tiger Eye team’s investigation of Ghana Football Association President Kwesi Nyantakyi resulted in Nyantakyi being caught on camera taking bribes and receiving a lifetime ban. This investigation, however, also resulted in one of Aremeyaw’s investigative team members being murdered in 2019. Aremeyaw now covers his face when he appears in public – including when he spoke on a Play the Game conference about the prevalence of match-fixing in sport. Other attendees, such as British journalist David Goldblatt, called for sports governing bodies to address our changing climate, arguing that “8 out of 10 previous Winter Olympics will not be reliable hosts before the end of this century.”

Whether I’m presenting my own research or have been sitting in the audience listening to presentations, I’m continuously struck with the same thought: I wish I would have known about these issues when I first began my sports journalism career. Even just an inkling of these issues' prevalence would have been helpful. My naivete blinded me from connecting seemingly unrelated sports ills to the quality and quantity of news coverage devoted to them. Sexual abuse. Drug use. Whistleblowing. Match-fixing. Sustainability [or lack thereof]. A result of sports journalism students’ lack of exposure to these issues is that they are neither prepared nor primed to cover them. I’m hoping by undertaking this project, I can help change that for the better.

Besides producing a publishable manuscript, I plan to use these themes to restructure the Advanced Issues in 21st-Century Sport course I teach at Arizona State University (JMC 474 and MCO 526), and to help teach a master’s-level class with Dr. Jörg Krieger at Aarhus University this coming fall.

Stay tuned.

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