In this episode of Edge of Sports, host Dave Zirin highlights two takes on the gender politics of sports culture. Dr. Cheryl Cooky joins the Ask a Sports Scholar segment to discuss the history of sports and gender equality, as well as her book, No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change. Finally, W. Kamau Bell climbs aboard for a special interview looking back on his career as a media personality, from the early days of Totally Biased to United Shades of America.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen
Dave Zirin: Welcome to Edge of Sports, the TV show, only on The Real News Network. I’m Dave Zirin, and this week, we have TV host, comedian, and documentary filmmaker, a guy who’s just killing it these days: W. Kamau Bell.
Also, in Ask a Sports Scholar, I’m talking to Professor Cheryl Cooky at Purdue University in a segment that we call Ask a Sports Scholar. And, I have choice words about Ja Morant and this country’s sick, hypocritical, and altogether racist relationship to the gun, as well as some final thoughts about someone whose name, if you don’t know it, you will: Victor Wembanyama.
But first, as promised, we have director and executive producer of the HBO documentary 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed, as well as the four-part Peabody Award-winning Showtime docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby. He won a rack of Emmys for his award-winning CNN docuseries United Shades of America – A show that was canceled, and we are going to speak about that – He is the ACLU Celebrity Ambassador for racial justice: W. Kamau Bell.
Dave Zirin: First question for you. I got to ask, it’s not a question really. It’s more of a joke that I made up and I figured you of all people would appreciate this as a master of the comic arts. What’s the difference between Kamau Bell and Meryl Streep?
W. Kamau Bell: Oh my God. What’s the difference between, I don’t know, I can’t even, my brain is broken.
Dave Zirin: Kamau’s got a bigger trophy room. That actually leads into my first question. You’re getting a lot of shine right now with your projects, and I know it wasn’t always that way. You’ve been in this business a while. How do you understand that yourself? What is it about 2023? What is it about the kind of work you’re doing that’s getting this attention and recognition?
W. Kamau Bell: I was always the comedian who, especially when I started to really figure out what I wanted to do, that I cared about the outside world and also was always the kind of comedian who didn’t do it the way that I was told we were supposed to do it. I never moved to LA. I didn’t audition for a bunch of things. I didn’t, which none of that’s bad. But I look at a lot of my friends or people, my peers, where they moved to LA and they audition for stuff and they get some things, they don’t get some things. And you can seem like I’m with my kids all the time. I know that guy in that commercial. You know what I mean? I know that guy in that movie or the voice of that cartoon animal is a friend of mine.
It’s like that, but I didn’t do that stuff. And so I just followed my nose and then found myself surrounded by people who eventually trusted me to do things that I had no qualifications for. And then it’s the man meets the moment or the moment meets the man. Suddenly it’s that weird twisty journey I took, prepared me to do things that I didn’t know that I was preparing to do. And now we’re in this era where, and then it became cool to care. I don’t know if it’s cool to care anymore, but it became cool to care for a while and suddenly I was a guy who had been caring for a while. It was like, “Oh, that guy cares. And he’s funny. I want to care and be funny.” Now I think it’s that thing has been over quoted, but the 10,000-hour rule. I did my 10,000 hours of being me and now the world is ready for it.
Dave Zirin: Nice. You’re giving me an image of studio executives in the movie The Player gathered around a table saying, “We need someone with that caring feeling.”
W. Kamau Bell: Exactly. That definitely happened.
Dave Zirin: Who’s got that care vibe?
W. Kamau Bell: Years ago, you know my show, The Bell Curve, I did. Which is the thing that the project that really broke me through. I remember being in a manager’s office, a very powerful show business man. Well, he worked for a very powerful management company. He was not powerful at the time, but it was a management company that I really wanted to be a part of because they had everybody. They had every comedian. And he was just there like, “Yeah. I know a lot’s happening with you and there’s something here,” but you can tell he is like, “I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do with it. People laugh when you say things, but you’re not saying things I normally expect people to laugh at. And I know that people are starting to talk about you, but I don’t know what to do.” He didn’t say that, but he never signed me, so clearly he didn’t know what to do with me.
Dave Zirin: I want to talk to you about the docs that you have out, especially the most recent one. I Am 1000% Me. First, got to ask, because you were talking about how you came up and I know someone who was important to your early career was Chris Rock.
W. Kamau Bell: Sure.
Dave Zirin: You mentioned Totally Biased, your talk show that Chris helped facilitate. Here’s my take, I’m totally biased, so this is an agree or disagree question. It was once said about Velvet Underground’s first album that, and you probably know this quote, that, “It only sold 100 copies, but everybody who bought it started a band.” And that’s how I feel about Totally Biased. The legacy is profound. Your thoughts, years after the cancellation as you look back on Totally Biased?
W. Kamau Bell: Yeah. Last year was the 10-year anniversary and it didn’t sneak up on me. I knew it was coming, but it was just to know that people are still talking about it. I still hear about it. And also it’s that thing now where I’ve talked to fully grown adults who were like, “I was a child.” I’m like, “Oh my God.” And I’ve talked to people who literally said it helped them get into movements and helped them get into a career in activism. And I certainly think that at the time when it was over as much as it hurt, to look up within a couple of years and see John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha B, now the difference between me and them is that they all went to Jon Stewart University. They had a different level of education than I had about being a TV host.
And then to see Robin [inaudible] show, it felt maybe I was the John the Baptist who got his head chopped off. But then a bunch of Jesus came behind me. And I definitely know the show had an impact and still has an impact. Dwayne Kennedy, who you know, good friend of mine who works on the United Shades of America is always like, “We should start it, we should get it back together.” He wants to start the band up. I was like, “Dude, you are the one who wanted it to end.” The New York Times wrote an article a few years ago about it as a way to say what the impact of the show had been. And a lot of people were on that show like Hari went on. Obviously Hari Kondabolu, The Problem with Apu is a doc that was literally inspired by a segment from Totally Biased.
Guy Branum has a career. It’s funny, Hasan Minhaj, we kept trying to figure out how to get him in, but we couldn’t. He was definitely in those, we were talking about him in those writers rooms. Pardona Sharela and just the people who were on that show, many of them have gone on to do lots of great things. Oh, Kevin Avery, a young man named Kevin Avery who went on to write for the first two seasons of the John Oliver Show and Win two Emmys. It definitely felt the people who worked on that show and really got what we’re trying to do have gone on to have careers. And that makes me very proud.
Dave Zirin: Yeah, I know Kevin Avery, of course from the world-famous Denzelits podcast. Which explores all manner of the films of Denzel Washington.
W. Kamau Bell: Denzel Washington is the greatest actor of all time. That is the [inaudible].
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. And Jon Stewart University, I was actually a mascot. The Fighting Hasids. But let me ask you this. Well, I Am 1000% Me. You’re coming off this Peabody winning Cosby documentary that shook things up from a news perspective in terms of people. It became a news story that you made this doc. And so assumedly you could have probably picked your project coming out of this success, and this is where you went. Talking about mixed race kids and how they navigate the world. Why was that the choice for you?
W. Kamau Bell: It really wasn’t like I started working on 1000% Me, when we were still in post-production on the Cosby doc. We were still wrapping it up and HBO approached me and said, “Have you ever thought about directing a doc about your mixed race kids? Or doing something about your mixed race kids?” They didn’t even really know I was working on this Cosby doc because it was just not, we hadn’t made any announcement about it. They just thought, “Oh, United Shades, he could do something about his kids.” And so I was like, “Oh, well I actually am directing now.” And then I was like, “I could do,” and so they, HBO docs are the greatest people in the world and so they just basically let me experiment. And it became this way to experiment on when we first started filming it, it was really just HBO gave us some money and said, “See what you can do. See what you come up with.”
It was both a low pressure situation because HBO didn’t have a lot of demands and a high pressure situation because me and Melissa decided our kids could be in it. And friends of my oldest daughter, Sammy, were in it. It was like we were using our community to experiment with. But also, no, this was not the pressure of the Cosby doc. Really it was a relief to work on this. And you got to remember, the Cosby doc hadn’t come out yet and I was like, “That Cosby doc might end my whole career.” At least I have this, at least this will come out after my career has ended. And it will be a totally small tiny thing that probably no one will ever notice in the wake of the end of my career. And so it was really refreshing to work on.
And then the Cosby doc came out and it actually did not end my career and people appreciated it. And I’ve had survivors from who were in the doc say they felt it helped alter the narratives around them and the way in which they’ve been, the media and then even trolls deal with them in a different way now for a lot of them. And so I was just like, “Yay.” And then I realized, “Oh, that’s where 1000% Me is coming out.” And I really still thought this is a tiny thing that involves my kids and their friends. It’s not going to get that attention.
But then I started getting excited about the fact that it was such a different feeling than the Cosby doc. That it was going to let people who maybe hadn’t heard of me before, maybe the Cosby doc was the first thing they ever saw that I was involved in, to know I’m not just that guy. And so for me it was really great to know that it wasn’t like I was the next, now I’m going to take down somebody else. And the fact that the mixed, that 1000% Me is actually hopeful in a way that most of my work isn’t actually, there’s hope in it, but it doesn’t end in rising hope the way 1000% Me does.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. I was thinking you might do a Michael Landon doc after Cosby, just all 80s sacred cows called Highway to Hell. The Michael Landon Story.
W. Kamau Bell: The white dad. Yeah.
Dave Zirin: The father on different strokes, that could make a hell of a doc.
W. Kamau Bell: Oh my God.
Dave Zirin: The Conrad Bean story. But let’s take it to the dock itself. I would look you right in the eye and tell you the truth if I thought your kids dropped the ball. And I would do it happily. Your kids are so cute and they’re so good in this doc. And I’m sure you knew that before you turned the camera on that this would be a winner. What were the conversations like with you and your partner Melissa, though, about do we do this? Do we not do this?
W. Kamau Bell: A lot of it came out of the, so I guess I’ll just back up and you know this about me. And you’re probably in similar positions sometimes. A lot of people love me. A lot of people hate me. A lot of people can’t stand me. And they let me know in various ways. And especially after the Cosby doc, there’s a lot of heat around me that I really was, I’d be in airports and people would look at me and I would just be like, “Oh, is this it? Is this the moment?” And then I’d be like, “Well, at least they went through security so they don’t have a weapon. I don’t think.” But there would be just-
Dave Zirin: Unless you’re in Texas.
W. Kamau Bell: Yeah, yeah. True.
Dave Zirin: Just kidding. Not really.
W. Kamau Bell: Yeah. It was really about, so we’d worked hard to keep our kids out of the spotlight of my career and this was a choice to put them right in the middle of it. But we just knew if we were going to make a doc about mixed race kids and not include our kids, it would just seem dishonest. And also our kids would be mad at us. They would just be like, “Why? How could you talk to my friend and not talk to me?” And our kids have been around my career enough. All of them, but especially the two oldest ones that they understand what they’re looking at, they understand they’ve been on set of United Shades. There’s a little bit of excitement of like, “Oh, we finally get to participate.” And even down to the, we rented houses to film in and they brought stuff from our house to set decorate.
And they were excited about decorating the set. And they brought games so that the other kids could play games while they were waiting to be interviewed. And they brought Uno cards and there was a trampoline at this one house and all the kids were in the trampoline. They were hosting the kids.
Dave Zirin: That’s amazing.
W. Kamau Bell: And so they really wanted to be a part of it and really were a part of it. And so it really was just it’s jumping into the deep end of a pool, you grab your nose and you jump in and you just hope it works out. And do everything you can to protect yourself. Wear some floaties if you can’t swim. That’s what we did. And it was scary. It was scary up until the moment it came out. It’s still a little bit, every time I get tagged in a comment on Instagram about the doc, I’m like, “Don’t say anything about my kids.”
But they are really, my oldest daughter, as she says in the doc, wants to be a musician. For her, it feels like the beginning of a career. For Juno, she’s more like me, I like attention, but I don’t like everybody looking at me. Which is how, I like attention, but don’t look at me while I’m getting attention. She has, her big struggle is, “I was so young back then”, even though she’s two years older now. But they have really enjoyed it. Even my youngest kid, Asha, who was three when we filmed it, just liked the fact that she’s in it. She just likes seeing her face in it.
Dave Zirin: I turned to my wife during it and I said, “Juno’s nickname should be Juno Carson.” Like Johnny Carson, but Juno Carson because she delivers the line so well. The timing is so good. I was like, “She should.”
W. Kamau Bell: No, she’s good. We actually call her Kamau Junior. I call her Kamau Junior because I feel very, I can see her brain working, but it doesn’t always come out of her mouth because I used to be like, “I don’t know if I should say this,” But yeah, Juno definitely did the thing.
Dave Zirin: Kamau Junior’s better than Juno Carson.
W. Kamau Bell: But you wouldn’t have necessarily known Kamau Jr.
Dave Zirin: It’s true.
W. Kamau Bell: You don’t know Juno like I do, Dave.
Dave Zirin: No, that’s true. Yeah, just a little less. I saw her in a doc and I was like, “She’s funny.”
W. Kamau Bell: Yeah, she is.
Dave Zirin: Well question for you on the issue of doing it in the Bay and focusing solely on the Bay. I remember seeing your standup, you introduced me to the concept of Bay Area Brown and what that means. And how much of a conscious choice for you was I’m staying in the Bay because there’s a very specific set of circumstances here? Or was it more just this is my kids’ milieu and I want to explore that?
W. Kamau Bell: No, we definitely, when we first started talking about it, and this is how it’s like I said, HBO was like, “Whatever you want, however you want to do it, let’s figure it out together.” And so of course we were like, “Oh, we’ll fly all around the country and talk to mixed race kids all around the country.” And then we shot the first weekend in this developmental shoot and we talked to, I don’t know, seven or eight kids that weekend. And after it was over, I was like, “I think we’re done.” It felt like we had already had enough for the film or we had the core of the film. And I knew if we flew around the country, the film was never going to be four hours long. It wasn’t a four part thing. It was only going to be one part. At the most. It could have been maybe an hour and a half.
I know from United Shades if you shoot too much, you’re just using less of anybody or you’re going to cut people out. You’re going to just end up wasting time and resources and people’s time. What we have here is enough to turn into a film. And also, let’s remember, when we started filming, it was October 2021, COVID was still, it’s still COVID, but it was like, “Oh wait, it hasn’t gone away yet.” Actually my first case of COVID I got during the time we were filming.
There was also a thing about, it’s just really hard to go out into the world and film right now. And I was also filming United Shade. I knew that it was hard to be out there and also to talk to kids. It felt we have enough here, if this is good, if we do a good job, if HBO is open to it, hopefully we can make more. And we actually, at one point I put in one of the early edition, one of the early rough cuts. Volume one. And they were like, “Take that out.” I was was like, “All right. I tried. I tried.”
Dave Zirin: Yeah.
W. Kamau Bell: And then it became about, the Bay Area is a really special place. It’s been like a lot of places, it’s been affected by a lot, but it is a very special place. And there is something specific here. And I wanted people to know this is the Bay Area. Don’t think this is mixed. It very became important to be like, “This is what’s happening here. It’s not the same for mixed kids in Appalachia. For mixed kids in Alabama. For mixed kids in the Bronx. Or mixed kids in Idaho.” It really felt like a time to lean into the Bay Area in this that I love being living here and being here. And it was an opportunity to really lead into what I love about it.
Dave Zirin: I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of folks these days who are feeling a little bit down about the present and even about the future. How did working with these young people and interacting with them to this degree, did that change your perception at all about where we’re going?
W. Kamau Bell: I always feel, Juno told me recently, she’s like, they’re doing some unit in her third grade class about optimists. And she’s like, “Guess who I chose to write about?” And I was like, “Who?” She’s like, “You.” And I was like, “Huh.”
Dave Zirin: Wow.
W. Kamau Bell: Am I an optimist? And so I like the fact that she sees me that way. While at the same time I think the only way for me to hold onto optimism is if I think we are doing the work to get us to a better place. For these kids, I am so happy they feel so, especially at their young ages, tuned into the world and so accepting of who they are. But also as we show in the film, by the time you get to some pre-teen kids and some teenagers, that feeling of acceptance starts to get pushed by the outside world.
And so to me it’s if we all do the work for these kids, then they can stay in this special place. But we all got to do the work. We definitely live at a time where if Ron DeSantis is the next president, I think it’s more likely Trump is president from jail than Ron DeSantis is president. Honestly, I believe that’s true.
Dave Zirin: I do too.
W. Kamau Bell: But yeah, we’re definitely living in a time where hard fought things we thought we want are being taken away.
Dave Zirin: I don’t think Ron DeSantis is ready for prime time. And you’re starting to see that in local elections in Florida as well. LGBTQ Pride as we’re doing this broadcast in Tampa was just canceled. There is a lot that I think people are going to resist when it comes to him going on the national stage.
W. Kamau Bell: That is what is so weird about, can we talk about that for a second?
Dave Zirin: Yeah, please.
W. Kamau Bell: That is what’s so weird about Florida. Florida is a state that is super LGBTQ, separate from the DeSantis part. It’s super LGBTQ-friendly. It’s got a lot of different types of people there especially because of Southern Florida. It’s a very diverse state. There’s a lot of celebrities and wealth there because of the tax. It is a very diverse, upwardly mobile state with a lot of, there’s definitely conservatives there as I’ve seen in United Shades of America. But it’s like he’s acting like Florida isn’t that.
Dave Zirin: Exactly.
W. Kamau Bell: He’s acting like he’s the governor of some state in the middle of the country that doesn’t have diversity and doesn’t have an LGBTQ community and also doesn’t have an economy based on those things.
Dave Zirin: No, that’s a great point. Indeed. My mom’s from Florida and she grew up with people who were from the Dixie South basically. It was Dixie where she grew up. Back of the bus, all of that. And a lot of expat Cubans who are not exactly friendly to progressive politics. And a lot of Jews. I think it’s a unique sauce. Factor in Haiti now. And factor in countries that aren’t as resistant to progressive politics as Cuba. It’s its own soup for sure.
W. Kamau Bell: But he’s pretending it’s a thin broth and it’s not. That’s why I think it’s so strange about.
Dave Zirin: No, it’s gumbo. No doubt. I would be remiss if I can’t let you go without asking you about United Shades of America. One of my favorite shows, so incisive. Won enough awards to make the aforementioned Meryl Streep very angry. I heard she’s vicious, come award season. Why was it canceled? What happened?
W. Kamau Bell: CNN canceled. When they canceled Tucci, I was like, “Oh man.” Tucci won, my last two interviews I was up for, he won them. And his show was doing well. Just forget United Shades and whatever it was doing, Stanley Tucci show was doing well for CNN and doing the thing that show was supposed to do, winning awards. It won a bunch of, it won, I don’t know, it won three or four Emmys in the two seasons it existed. It’s clearly not about these shows not doing well. It’s about the entire direction of the network changing. Think when I got to CNN, I got there and I really felt I could be there because of Bourdain.
There was, and the news section of CNN was over here and I was in Bourdain town. And I got to follow his show. I got to go with him to Kenya before he passed away. That’s what drove me to CNN. Bourdain wouldn’t be at CNN right now. And so for me, if you don’t want that spirit there, then I’m happy to go because there’s that. Because I don’t do the rest of this stuff. When I knew, and I knew, it’s one of things where you see the writing on the wall before the public sees the writing on the wall. We started, and I was really happy the Cosby doc in some sense was coming out because I was like, “It will define me in a new way for a lot of people and give me something to, if it goes well,” we kept saying, “If it goes well,” and luckily it did go well enough.
It really was a sense of, I’m already headed a different direction. By the time the general public, and some people really, the funny thing is I was in CNN last week because I did a couple appearances for 1000% Me. There were people in the building who don’t know the show is off. They didn’t really make a big deal out of it. And I didn’t make a big deal out of it. But yeah, it was just, if it was like, “We’re keeping every show except yours.” It would feel like something, I might feel a type of way, although I’m also like, “If you don’t like me, I don’t like you.” But it was the fact that they cleared out the whole, they cleared the whole deck and are clearly going a different direction. And that’s not a direction I’m headed.
Dave Zirin: And I can’t really understand why a news network would attempt to appeal to the very people calling in bomb threats to their headquarters. That seems like an odd calculation.
W. Kamau Bell: It’s a very difficult thing. It’s a very, I don’t know, it’s been very publicized. They have people who own lots of stock there who feel like Fox News has gone too far. And so they want to a CNN, Fox News, whatever. Good luck to them. There’s a lot of good people in that building. I know I did good work for them. And I know I did a thing on their network that nobody else was doing and maybe nobody else could do. And so I feel very proud of that work and I also know that because I don’t stop working. I’ll be fine.
Dave Zirin: Kamau, you’ve been so generous with your time. One last question for you. I do asking people what they’re reading these days, and I’m reading a book, I’ll just shout out Jessica Luther recommended it to me, Boom Town, about the history of Oklahoma City that draws in the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s an incredible fever dream of America told through the lens of Oklahoma City. Great book. Well what’s you reading these days Kamau?
W. Kamau Bell: I’m just Reaching for it because I actually, it’s a homework assignment because I’m doing an event with Kwame Alexander. But it’s Why Father’s Cry at Night. And it’s written, some of it is poems, some of it is letters, some of it is essays about being a black father. And I happen to have opinions about being a black father so this is what I’m reading right now.
Dave Zirin: Wow. Everybody check that out. Why fathers cry at night? Powerful title.
W. Kamau Bell: Yeah, no, for sure. It’s one of the things you’re like, “I don’t don’t know if I want to read this.” Because it’s making me cry right now.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. Hell with night. I’m crying at two in the afternoon. But Kamau, I really do appreciate it, man. Thanks so much for joining us here on The Real News Network and Edge of Sports, man.
W. Kamau Bell: No problem. Thanks for having me. The Last Dance is one of the great documentaries of all time. All right, good talking with you.
Dave Zirin: Next time. Michael Jordan, let me tell you. Okay. We’ll be back right after this.
Dave Zirin: And now, I’ve got some choice words. Okay, look, Ja Morant holds the attention of the entire sports media right now, and for all the wrong reasons. The 23-year-old all-star Memphis Grizzlies guard was seen brandishing a gun while laughing and listening to music in a car, riding in the passenger seat while an alleged friend was live-streaming the party over Instagram. This comes just two months after Morant had been suspended from the team and was compelled by the NBA to enter counseling after also showing off a gun on social media.
And that came on the heels of a series of accusations that Morant had, among other things, flexed the gun during an alleged assault. Now he has been suspended indefinitely from the Memphis Grizzlies and all team functions. Ja Morant, the $200 million point guard, the face of the franchise, the person that Daily Memphian columnist Chris Herrington said to me is, “The most important person to the city since Al Green,” is in danger of throwing it all away.
Yet, anyone being pious about Morant’s behavior or arguing that he deserves some kind of maximum sanction is engaging, I believe, in some all-NBA hypocrisy. I do not defend treating a gun as a fashion accessory, but I am wondering why Morant is subject to this level of scrutiny, ensuring more time in some therapeutic clinic while this country’s gun addiction rages out of control. Why aren’t GOP politicians who arm their kids to the teeth for Christmas card season, or sport AR-15 lapel pins where flags used to go, compelled to lie on a psychiatrist’s couch?
This country’s gun addiction is fostered not by young Black men, but by a far right drunk on fear, with visions of race war dancing in their heads. Ja Morant deserves the attention, but he doesn’t deserve to be a symbol for a country that glamorizes, fetishizes, and even deifies the gun, not when we have arrived at a place where these weapons of war have more right to exist than school children. Our culture has been long poisoned, and Ja Morant is a product of that culture.
Look, everyone should read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, to understand that the embrace of the gun didn’t begin with the marketing of the AR-15, or rap music, or even with the founding of the NRA. It started with Western expansion, when barbarity was justified by vicious racism and the ever-present terror that the oppressed might come looking for payback. When all the dust and debate is cleared, the book makes clear that the roots of the Second Amendment lie in a romantic ode to White vigilantism.
The support for this kind of violence is seen in presidential wannabe Ron DeSantis’s raising money for Jordan Neely’s killer, which only escalates the probability of more death. And here’s a shocker: The NRA has not stepped forward, as of this discussion, to defend Morant’s right to bear arms. It would actually be smart politically if they did. But racism trumps a political strategy, especially when their billionaire Nazi memorabilia collecting dark money backers demand it.
The fact of the matter is that until we develop the mass political will to truly challenge the valorization of violence by the NRA, the gun manufacturers, and the fascist right, the bloodshed will continue. So please spare the sanctimony about Morant. He may very well need help, but if he needs professional assistance to wean off his weaponry, then we are going to need a mental health Marshall Plan for the rest of us. For a nation that bans book bags before guns, a collective trip to the couch could not come soon enough.
Dave Zirin: And now it’s time for our segment, “Ask a Sports Scholar.” This week we have the co-author of several books including No Slam Dunk, Gender Sport, and the unevenness of social change. She’s also a professor of American Studies and Women’s Gender and Sexuality studies at Purdue University. Her name is Cheryl Cooky. How are you?
Cheryl Cooky: I’m doing great, Dave. Thanks so much for having me on the show.
Dave Zirin: I’m thrilled to have you. I’ve been reading your stuff for a long time, you are definitely a target for us in terms of someone we wanted for this segment. I’m really interested in the title of one of your books because I think sometimes we’re taught that social progress is this linear formation. Particularly in terms of racism. Oftentimes it’s taught in terms of, I refer to it as segregation, integration, celebration, and yet you write very specifically the unevenness of social change. What do you mean by that especially in regards to gender and sports?
Cheryl Cooky: Yeah, I think, Dave, you hit the nail on the head, particularly when we talk about the stories and the narratives that we like to tell about progress and history in the sense of there is this real investment in a view of history as happening in a upward and onward progressive trajectory in a very linear upward fashion. And I hear this from students, I hear this from people I talk to. It’s like before Title IX women didn’t play sports, and certainly that’s not the case. I think what we were thinking about when we’re using that term, the unevenness of social change, is the ways in which progress and resistance or progress and stagnation happens simultaneously.
I think each moment in history when we’re talking about sports and whether it’s the focus is on women and women’s equality, or racial equality, or the intersection of multiple social locations, what we’re really looking at are these moments that can really be best characterized by the tensions and struggles between advancing and moving forward, and maybe the forces of backlash or resistance to that progressive change.
And that’s really, I think what we were trying to capture in the book is the ways in which a idea or perspective of progress happening in a linear fashion is really simplistic and erases a lot of the nuance in terms of how really important advances get made throughout history, but are also corresponding or happening alongside of oppressive restrictive resistance to that change.
Dave Zirin: What’s something that you’ve learned by studying coverage and commercials related to women’s sports and related to gender? What’s something you’ve learned that either really surprised you or you think would really surprise our audience?
Cheryl Cooky: Gosh. Well, I think the one thing that really surprises people when they first hear about it is the longitudinal study that I’ve conducted with Michael Messner at the University of Southern California and some of our colleagues throughout the years, which in that study, what we found was that when we were looking at our particular sample that we focused on, which was televised news and highlights shows, was that in fact, over the course of the 30 years that we’ve been studying that particular area, the coverage of women’s sports has not significantly changed in any meaningful way.
And in fact, the latest iteration of the study was published in 2019. The coverage of women’s sports was very similar, if not less than the coverage in 1989 when the study first took place. And I think that’s a really surprising piece for people. As a component of that study, we’ve added on online media and social media as the media landscape changed and how people produce and consume data has changed.
And in fact, looking at legacy media, again in those spaces of online and social media, not a whole lot of coverage of women’s sports, and in fact, it doesn’t exceed double digits. And we think maybe, “Oh, well, there’s more coverage online or there’s more coverage in social media.” And that hasn’t been the case. Where I think the change is happening is really in the niche spaces for women’s sports.
And I think that’s been one of the areas that’s been most surprising for me is the ways in which, in this current moment, those who are producing content, the decision makers and those who are responsible are now women athletes, former women athletes, women who’ve worked in the industry, in legacy spaces, male dominated spaces, who are now either creating their own content, their own platforms, and really taking the reigns and instead of waiting for change to happen, they’re actually making the change happen for themselves, which I think is surprising in a good way.
Dave Zirin: Angel Reese, Caitlyn Clark, LSU versus Iowa, NCAA Women’s Finals, higher ratings than the World Series. Are we seeing, if not a revolutionary change, an evolutionary change in terms of the popularity of women’s sports?
Cheryl Cooky: Gosh, I hope so. Yeah. If you follow the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament this year, gosh, what an exciting event. What a high quality product, really interesting stories you’ve mentioned. I think that we are on the precipice of change. I think maybe the NCAA Final Fours is a snapshot or maybe a piece of that. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the driver. I have somewhat mixed feelings about the, not so much the event itself, but the ways in which the media and social media conversations framed that event.
And I think on the one hand, the story between Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark really resonates, I think with much of the narratives around sports that we tell, the rivalry, the two teams or the two athletes who are competing against one another at this high level. And it brings an excitement, and it’ll be interesting to see how that translates into next year with respect to ratings, and coverage, and social media content.
I think in some ways it’s a good thing, for a lack of a better word, that we’re seeing women’s sports covered in those exciting ways and through those narrative structures. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a paper that I wrote, and it’s in that book, no Slam Dunk with some colleagues that was on the Don Imus incident in 2007, I believe. And the ways in which, at the time we were looking at print media, but the ways in which print news media covered the Final Four event and ways that really focused on the controversy of Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers Women’s basketball team, which were racist, and sexist, and classist, and problematic on a number of different levels.
And that actually garnered more coverage than the tournament itself. And in some ways, I feel like that controversy between Angel Reese and Caitlyn Clark resonated in many ways with what we saw back in 2007, particularly the ways in which the racialized and racist commentary happened where you have legacy sports commentators calling players. I don’t know if I can swear on the show, but effing idiots and disparaging her, Angel Reese. And particularly what we’ve seen in the research is that black women, women of color, often face a different scrutiny, a different lens that’s both speaking to racialized sexism and gendered racism.
And it was unfortunate to see that happen. That’s why I’m a little bit lukewarm in terms of whether this is evolutionary or revolutionary. I think it’s definitely speaking to larger changes that are happening, but also, again, I think echoing that theme of unevenness of social change is really also speaking to some ways in which racism and sexism are still permeating these spaces.
Dave Zirin: I will say as a note of hope, of course, that the ratings preceded the controversy, which is a good thing. It wasn’t going into the game.
Dave Zirin: Professor Cheryl Cooky. Yo, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports here at the Real News Network. Really do appreciate it.
Cheryl Cooky: Thank you for having me, Dave. Always a pleasure.
Dave Zirin: And now I just want to end with a segment that I’ve decided to call Hold Up, Wait A Minute. Okay, Look. Victor Wembanyama, the seven-foot-five French teenager who is the most highly touted and hyped incoming NBA player since LeBron James, if not ever, will be going to San Antonio. The NBA lottery balls fell in place and the Spurs franchise forever changed overnight. I love this landing spot for the man they call Wemby.
Greg Popovich, their Hall of Fame coach, has had experience with two all-time greats, described coming into the league as can’t-miss prospects: David Robinson and Tim Duncan. But here’s the thing about can’t-miss prospects: Sometimes they miss, especially when in an organization that doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing. Ask Luka Dončić, a generationally great player who didn’t even make the playoffs this year because the Dallas Mavericks front office made a series of moves that gutted the franchise.
But Greg Popovich knows how to coax a Hall of Fame career out of a potential Hall of Famer. And for that reason alone, I’m thrilled with this, because it gives us one of the most beautiful and rare things in sports: seeing someone with limitless potential actually given the space to play like the sky is, in fact, the limit. Victor Wembanyama, Greg Popovich, San Antonio, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Well, that’s all the time we have for this week. For The Real News Network, this was Edge of Sports. I’m Dave Zirin. Stay frosty, people. We are out of here. Peace.