In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, novelist Marcus Burke and sportswriter Shira Springer discuss writing and basketball with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. As March Madness arrives in full force, we talk buzzy topics in the sports world: apprenticeship in college basketball, the need for consistent coverage of women athletes, and the importance of women sportswriters.
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Readings from this episode:
Team Seven by Marcus Burke · Hennessy and Red Lights by Marcus Burke · “7 Ways to Improve Coverage of Women’s Sports,” by Shira Springer, Nieman Reports · “WNBA superstar Sue Bird rates sports coverage and finds room for improvement,” by Shira Springer, Nieman Reports · La Liga turning heads with women’s soccer · “What If the United States Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?” by Shira Springer from Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History · One on One by Tabitha King · The Crossover · A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee · Burn it Down Podcast · “The Meaning of Serena Williams,” by Claudia Rankine · Citizen by Claudia Rankine · R. R. Knudson, a Writer Whose Subject Was Sports, Dies at 75 · “Grant Hall,” in A Region Not Home, by James McPherson · The Bad News Bears · The Girl Who Wanted to Run the Boston Marathon, by Robert McKay · Champion’s Choice, by John R. Tunis
VVG: So a lot of the basketball that Andre plays takes place off-screen in the novel, and what we see is mostly his life in the neighborhood like that scene. But I’m really interested in the figure of Mr. Fulton, who seems like he’s similar in some ways to the kind of AAU coaches we hear about on the news, and usually we hear about that in the context of those coaches who—maybe with the help of an Adidas sales rep—are doing something that the NCAA would disapprove of. And here Andre sees Fulton as a straight arrow, a law and order guy, and I’m wondering if you had a coach like that.
MB: Oh God, yes I had many coaches like that. I had many coaches like that. Well, I’d say the biggest one that I had—I don’t know, it’s questionable about his character, if he’s a decent individual in life, but he told me straight one time, he was my—I won’t name him—he told me straight, this was a coach that I had that was running an AAU program, he was probably making over 100K a year doing it, and—
WT: Oh man, that’s a good deal. I would take that!
MB: I mean, he’s probably made himself a millionaire by now. And he said to me one time that he was the biggest con artist in the city of Boston. And I was like, “oh my gosh.” And this was in reference to me telling him that I was mistreated in an ambulance after I had gotten injured, and he yelled at me and said, “Why didn’t you call me?” and I was like, “Because I called my mom,” and he was like, “I’m the biggest con artist in the city of Boston. You always call me.”
VVG: Oh my God.
WT: Wait, so you were in an ambulance because you got hurt playing ball or got hurt doing something else?
MB: No, I got hurt playing ball, and that chapter is in the new book. I got injured playing basketball, and I encountered some really—I mean, I’m pretty sure they were racist EMTs, and they really didn’t want me in their ambulance, and so, it was the middle of the winter, ’cause you know, basketball, it was probably around this time of year, it was late February, and I’d been injured, I had a high tertiary sprain in my ankle, and I couldn’t walk. They were taking me out of the gym on the gurney in my uniform, so I’m hot, I’m sweaty, it’s the middle of winter and I’m like, “Excuse me, I need a blanket, my coat, it’s cold outside,” and I was on the phone with my mother because they didn’t let me get my things, and so I called my mother, and I said, “Mom, they won’t let me get my stuff.” And so the lady was like, “Uh-uh, give me that phone.” She took the phone from me, and I don’t know what took place between her and my mother, but all I know is she just said, “This is an ambulance, we’re not a home-keeping service,” and hung up on my mother.
WT: Oh my God!
MB: So when that happened I said, “Y’all can just let me out of this ambulance—this is not going well.” And that’s when, the second I said that, she said, “code red” into her little microphone, and then they stopped the ambulance, they opened the doors, and we sat there and waited for the police to come.
VVG: Oh my gosh. Marcus, how old were you?
MB: I was probably sixteen. It was amazing because I don’t know, I feel like you start to learn about racism in the world. It was interesting because I was at a really fancy private school. So if it had been a year before when I was in public school, I don’t know what would have happened to me. But the reason that things worked out was because one of my affluent teammates’ mothers, who was a lawyer, was following the ambulance, and she got that lady fired, I believe.
VVG: My God, Boston.
MB: Oh, Boston.
WT: Well, while we’re here, we wanted to ask you what you were working on. Did you say you were writing about this? Those are the rumors we’re hearing—that there’s gonna be a follow-up to Team Seven. There was a chapter from the new novel in McSweeney’s last spring, right?
MB: Yes, I published a chapter from the novel in McSweeney’s last spring, and I am working on a follow-up. I’m actually working on—I guess I’ll just say this—it’s a trilogy of books, where the concern is kind of varied. It’s funny because people say that Team Seven is a basketball book, and Sugi had mentioned most of the basketball happens “off-camera,” and that’s just because I feel like in the first book, the phases of basketball that he was in were not as interesting as the ones he goes into. And so, in the first book you don’t really see that much basketball, but in the next one you’ll see a lot of basketball. He spends a lot more time at the gym and you get more of the AAU stuff just because that’s another world. I think if people aren’t familiar with it, they’ll be blown away. I played for a AAU team in high school and we were traveling around the country, and I don’t know who was paying for all that stuff.
[. . .]
WT: I think we might all know each other because of the fact that we studied with Jim McPherson—James McPherson—at Iowa, and he comes up on the show a lot, and I was thinking about if I had even talked to him about sports, and I don’t think I ever did. But he does have this essay in his essay collection, A Region Not Home called “Grant Hall” that’s kind of an anti-athletics essay. Are you guys familiar with that piece?
MB: I am familiar with that piece. It’s funny, I did study with Jim as well, and I don’t recall ever really talking about sports with him because I was only a year removed from being a college athlete myself, and so it was something that I didn’t really want to talk about because I think I was still working that out of my system, trying to become a little more human.
WT: He talks about the ways that athletes that he runs into, at Grant Hall in particular, they’re like Spartans, in that way that they’re also like hedgehogs: they know one thing that they know how to do really well, and he talks about wanting to become an Athenian who can skip around and improvise and doesn’t have to be aligned with one particular group. For me, the team concept of being part of the team is so intense when you’re playing athletics, but also it is limiting. My teammates did not like it that I read and took creative writing classes and gave me shit about it all the time. Was that true for you?
MB: They gave me shit about it sometimes, but honestly it was more tongue-in-cheek, because I think they all really thought I was pulling their leg. Because they all had a joke like, “Oh, yeah, you’re writing a book! Put me in your book, man!” and I’d be like, “You don’t really mean that because I’d have to look at your life, and I’m your teammate, I know your life. You don’t want that.”
I remember one time we were on a road trip and a book came out that I wanted, and this was back when Borders was still around. We were at a pre-game meal, and I asked my coach if I could go to Borders and buy a book and he looked at me like I was sick, and he was like, “If you wanna call your girlfriend, just say so,” and I was like, “No, really, I just wanna go buy a book,” and when I came back with it everyone looked at me like I was a Martian. They were like, “Wow, you’re really gonna read this book with all these words.” And I was like, I am.
So no, I think they were more confused by it a little bit, but they were pretty supportive. I was sent to Susquehanna by the coaching staff, or at least somebody on the coaching staff at a Division I program—they’re not there anymore. And when I decided that I wanted to write, he was really angry—the coach that I told you was making all the money—he was really mad. Because we weren’t happy at Susquehanna at all, and he wanted us to leave. And he wanted me to come to Carnegie Mellon. And at the time they didn’t really have a creative writing program I don’t think, or at least not that I could find. And he wanted me to either go to Carnegie Mellon or to Robert Morris. And Robert Morris—Mike Rice was coaching there. And Mike Rice had been abusing players and I had already worked out with him before and I was like, “There’s no way in this world I’m gonna get mixed up with that crowd.”
And then he freaked out on me in such a real way. He said to me that he’d pulled up the statistics of people that make money graduating from college and people that do writing are at the very bottom, and he told me that I was going to be suicidal and alcoholic.
WT: Well, I mean those things are true, but what an asshole for bringing it up! For crying out loud . . .
MB: And so every time I get writing news, I think he always gets a little nervous.
WT: Earlier this year, you published a couple of articles about coverage of women’s sports and highlighted basketball in particular through a conversation with Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm. You picked out Sugi’s favorite WNBA team, the Minnesota Lynx—which have the coolest name of any professional sports team, in my personal opinion—and the Minneapolis Star Tribune as an example of women’s teams getting good coverage. What are they doing right?
SS: I think it starts with consistency. You know when the Star Tribune is going to cover the Lynx, you can expect it there on a regular basis, so I think it all starts with consistency. They have committed to coverage—they are doing games, they are doing features, they are doing analysis, they send columnists to games. All of that is important, and also, they give it a prominence in the newspaper. You’ll see it on the first page of the sports section, you’ll see it in the Star Tribune’s magazine. And they do big profiles. And I think another factor is they also treat it like they would treat any of the men’s professional teams. And that sometimes means being critical, so some of their analysis, some of the reporters’ analysis of the team is critical. It’s critical of the players, it’s critical of the coaches—so all of that combined makes good coverage.
WT: I love the piece that you wrote for Nieman Reports about this—ways to improve coverage of women’s sports. Sports coverage to me, in the way that it relates to writing and literature, what’s most important about it is narrative, and it’s generational narrative, right? So when you talk about that consistency of coverage, it’s that the narrative has to be consistent, you have to know why it matters how the Lynx are doing this year as opposed to two years ago, and how this player has overcome this problem that they had four years ago. That’s the kind of thing that I follow in sports, in men’s sports. Is that what you’re talking about—that kind of consistency of coverage?
SS: Yeah, you bring up a really good point, and what’s interesting about women’s sports and sort of problematic is that it hasn’t been around for that long, and you don’t have that institutional memory. So you don’t have this great history and this great wealth of narrative to draw from, and it’s so important that the writing we do now about women’s sports establishes that narrative. Because there are great stories out there to tell. And that was really Sue Bird’s point, which was like, “Tell our stories, dig into them, make female athletes three-dimensional,” which is something that doesn’t always happen. So I think you’re absolutely right. There needs to be attention to the narrative of female athletes and also to the narrative of their teams. You know, you’re lucky there with the Lynx in that they have a storied history. I mean, I think they’ve won the most WNBA championships in league history. So they’ve been incredibly successful, and there’s a wealth of stuff, a wealth of stories you can choose from, and I think the Star Tribune makes good use of that and makes good use of that history. But not every city is lucky enough to have a team like that, not every athlete is lucky enough to play on a team like that. So it is, I feel, the responsibility of news outlets to really start telling these stories and telling them on a regular basis.
VVG: So have you seen coverage of women’s sports over the period of time that you’ve been a journalist—how have you seen it change?
SS: Not enough. I wish it had changed more. In the story I point out how coverage of women’s sports only accounts for 4 percent of total sports coverage in the U.S. That’s a really paltry number given how many women are engaged in playing sports at all levels. But I think what’s interesting is since I’ve started covering sports you’ve had the addition of espnW, which is this platform that’s totally dedicated to women’s sports, which is nice. But I’ve personally been impressed with some of the smaller enterprises that are out there and doing coverage, whether they’re feminist podcasts like the Burn It All Down podcast—
WT: Yeah, that was fun to read about. I didn’t know about that podcast.
SS: Exactly, and it’s a great listen, and it’s really fun to hear what they have to say and hear a group of women talking sports—not necessarily women’s sports—but just talking sports and viewing it through a feminist lens, which is always really fun. There’s also a website called Equalizer Soccer. It’s dedicated entirely to women’s soccer, and I know exactly where I will be going for the in-depth Women’s World Cup coverage that I want. I will be going there. And there’s other entities that I mention in the article, like Her Hoops Stats, and I actually just met with the founder of Her Hoops Stats at a sports analytics conference, and he’s doing vital work.
VVG: As a kid, I was a tennis player in addition to a basketball-watcher and also a tennis-watcher, and I remember all of these things about women’s bodies and women’s clothes. When a woman’s body because the object of viewing, how does that affect the writing? And who’s doing the writing?
SS: Well, first of all, not enough women. And somewhere around 10 percent of editors are women. And that’s where the real problem exists because if you have men doing the primary decision-making about how sports get covered and who gets covered, then it often means that women’s sports don’t get covered as much as they should. It also impacts—you talk about image—it also impacts photo selection, the photos that go with the articles. But as far as how the type or the gender of the writer affects the coverage, I think it’s a question of—I look at a female athlete when she’s competing much different than a male colleague does. I may have some male colleagues that object to that, but I’m sorry, it’s true. I would bet that I am much more focused on how she’s competing, her athleticism, her skill level, her talent level, and not so much focused on how she looks or what she’s wearing. I mean, I just cringe now and I still can’t believe it’s done, when I read a lede about a critical match—whether it’s a tennis match or even a critical basketball game, or a track race, or a marathon—and somewhere in the lede there’s a sentence, or even a half a sentence, that focuses on how a female runner looks and connects her look to her accomplishments.
VVG: I was asking that question thinking specifically about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which includes material on Serena Williams. And what a pleasure and a revelation it was to look at Serena Williams through Claudia Rankine’s eyes. As a kid I read a lot of sports and I was always looking really specifically for feminist sports fiction and still have some of those books that I read when I was a kid— you know, the girl who joins the boy’s baseball team—and I remember there was a series for kids—
WT: Does “The Bad News Bears” then count?
VVG: (laughter) No! Definitely not.
WT: Probably not.
SS: But they had a really good female pitcher. Wasn’t she their savior?
WT: Yeah, that was the whole idea!
VVG: I think I was the kind of kid who was perhaps not allowed to watch “The Bad News Bears.”
WT: Oh, okay. Well we watched it over at our house last night, and my kids learned a lot of new words. It was very fun.
VVG: That’s why I wasn’t allowed (laughter). But there was a sportswriter, John Tunis, who wrote a series of books in which each book focused on a different sport. And then the tennis book focused on women, and—I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the end of the book here—at the end of the book, the woman tennis player gives up in the final of I think Wimbledon, because she wants to get married. And I’ve never felt so much like just hurling a book across the room, which I would never do, but also was just so ticked off about it.
SS: Do you mind if I just wander a little bit from my earphones because you were talking about fiction, and my mom was cleaning out her attic, and she found a book she bought me, and it was about a woman running the Boston Marathon. And I can see it on my bookshelf. I’m just gonna grab it, okay?
WT: Yeah, do. Go ahead.
SS: Okay, I’ve got it. And it is a love story, I think. I’m just gonna describe it. She said she must have found it in some old discarded bin because it’s quite old. The title is The Girl Who Wanted to Run the Boston Marathon. Because at the time I was young, but I had always had a fascination with running the Boston Marathon. This is a novel by Robert McKay. And this is the description on the back cover. You ready?
WT: I’m ready.
SS: “Chris was literally knocked off her feet the first time she met Skip. She’d been running laps around the reservoir, preparing herself for the Boston Marathon, when they collided. At first, she thought he was quite ordinary. Then she realized he was special. Not only good-looking, but ironically, a world-class runner. Fate united these star-crossed lovers and then conspired to separate them before they had even begun to enjoy their love.”
VVG: Dear God.
SS: So it’s supposed to be a story about a woman who wants to run the Boston Marathon, and I have to admit, I may have read it a long time ago, I don’t really remember—it’s a hundred and ninety-page paperback, I should probably read it— but it certainly seems like this book that you would think from the title is like, “Oh, all right, female athletes! Go!” is really about this woman falling in love.
VVG: I loved reading these books by R.R. Knudson where this girl named Suzanne—nicknamed Zan—plays a different sport in every book. And she runs the 1984 L.A. Marathon in one of those books, and she wins. And she never falls in love anywhere in any of the books. I loved these books so much. This girl was such a good all-around athlete that in every book she would play a different sport. And there was one in which she played basketball. And it was probably the first novel I read in which a woman played basketball. And I tore through that whole series really, really fast. I loved it. I remember the ending moments of that marathon book—she makes friends with a Chinese runner and they run together at the end of the marathon. And I must have read that book in 1988, so it really made an impact on me.
SS: Wow, yeah. And you know you’d hope there would be more books like that and fewer like The Girl Who Wanted to Run the Boston Marathon.
VVG: Right, or the girl who gives up in the Wimbledon final to go get married. He can’t just wait until after the final? I mean, what?
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Amanda Minoff.