A Seat In The Intersection: Talking About "The Allrounder" With Yago Colas

A number of sports-minded academics, including some friends of ours, are starting an academic-minded sports site. So we talked about it.
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Earlier this year, I spoke with Prof. Bruce Berglund, who was strategizing for a Kickstarter campaign for a new sports website. It was a nice conversation, because Prof. Berglund is a nice man, but it pointed out something that was, in retrospect, missing from the Kickstarter campaign behind this site several years ago.

That is, PLANNING. While Berglund and his partners were going into the process of starting this website with the same optimism we brought to this one, he also had questions that were both entirely sensible and, in hindsight, the sort of things we didn't think about until we'd had a website for going on six months. If we survived, and by some measures thrived, despite all that, then it's easy to feel good about The Allrounder, whose Kickstarter campaign went up earlier this week.

It's certainly a good thing that Berglund and friends, who include Classical contributors Miles Wray and Yago Colás, are approaching their fundraising and conceptualizing like adults. More than that, though, The Allrounder is a good idea: a place for academics, from around the world and around various academic disciplines, to write with academic rigor and non-academic prose about something that they, and the rest of us, care about a lot. I talked via email with our bud, and University of Michigan Comparative Literature and Residential College professor, Yago Colás about what The Allrounder will be, where it came from, and what the hell "intersectional sportswriting" even means. And if you'd like to join me in contributing to The Allrounder's campaign, you can do that here

So, where does the Allrounder come from? That is, what made you all want to do this, and do it now and in this way? I like to imagine this as a bunch of sports-savvy professor types emailing each other various things and then finally deciding to do a site, but that is maybe a little too Mickey Rooney-ishly put-on-a-show-to-save-the-farm on my part.

The short answer is: it came from the brain of Bruce Berglund, founder of the New Books in Sports Podcast. Another, more imaginative but also true answer is:  our avatars were all smoking pipes and snifting brandy in the digital faculty club (think Sims U) when Colin Cowherd staggered in, drunk, wearing a Tom Brady jersey and railing about Richard Sherman. We knew we had to do something.  

The Allrounder is the result of our desire to save the world from this kind of thing. Or finally, yes, Bruce galvanized a conversation over email in which many of us got a chance to share our interest in doing something more publicly accessible. In part, this is a sign of the times in academia in general, as more and more academics explore nontraditional, especially digital and social, avenues of collaboration and expression. But in part, I think, it reflects something specific about scholars studying sports: that our objects of study are very much in the public domain and so many of us imagine our scholarship as part of that public conversation. I know this has been more true for me than previous academic work I did on, say, Jorge Luis Borges.  

The Allrounder expresses this state of affairs and provides us and that broader public with a central forum for informed, critical dialogue on sports things around the world that we all care about and think about. 

What do you envision as the thing that will make the Allrounder stand out from various other sports-y sites out there, and the thing that it will contribute to the conversation that other sites can't? How will the money raised through the Kickstarter go to make that happen?

A chip on our shoulder—you know, about how dumb everyone else is, and how the world would be better if only they'd pay more attention to the PROFESSIONAL THINKERS like us! That, and a few other things. Among these, the most obvious is that our contributors, mostly academics, dedicate enormous amounts of time to actual research and serious critical reflection on sports and that really makes a difference. But there's more, because typically the time it takes to craft academic work and to publish it in traditional venues means that the work of scholars falls behind the curve of the topical.

At the Allrounder, the size of our pool of regular, rotating contributors counters this by allowing that same caliber of thought and writing to speak accessibly to issues in the world of sports that are happening right now, in real time. Then, the geographical and disciplinary diversity of that pool will make the Allrounder the only place where you can get a global perspective on sport from a variety of angles. Economists, historians, sociologists, literary and cultural critics, anthropologists, kinesiologists and others all see a different sporting universe. Their specific ways of seeing help bring different territories in the world of sport into sharper relief. No other site does this.  

Typically, the kind of writing our contributors will be doing will not be recognized as legitimate by their institutions for the purposes of promotion and merit pay increases. In many institutions, there is still a prejudice that views with suspicion academic writing that is publicly accessible and unvetted by other academics. For our first year, while we get off the ground and transition to ad revenues, the money we are looking to raise through Kickstarter—besides supporting the infrastructure of the site—helps to make all this cool think-y stuff happen in much the same way that the money in medicine, law, and business helps attract academics in those fields to venture outside the university: by giving academics a tangible reward for the time and energy they will be dedicating to generating high quality content for the site.

What are the challenges of writing about this sort of thing within academia, and what about that experience made you want to take to the web?

I've already mentioned that this sort of publicly accessible writing tends to be undervalued at many institutions. Moreover, among many academics, especially in the humanities (the case I know best), sports are viewed with disdain, as a kind of brutish populist phenomenon unworthy of scholarly examination. But it's also the case that most of us teaching and conducting research in the field of sports studies can find ourselves somewhat isolated within our institutions, even when our work is supported and taken seriously. There are still very few departments of sports studies around the world.

This means that most of us have to venture outside our disciplinary home to find interlocutors. This can happen, sometimes, in our institutions as well as through the organization of panels at conferences. But the possibilities that an online, publicly accessible forum offers for collaboration and for informing ourselves and our readers about the great depth and range of work that others like us around the world are doing simply can't be reproduced within the structure of the university and its publishing apparatus. And speaking for myself, a relative newcomer to the field of sports studies by comparison with many involved in the project, already in this early stage, the Allrounder has given me the opportunity to discover work I hadn't realized existed.  

In this sense, the Allrounder is a resource. It's like a big, awesome room someone can walk into to find that these great conversations among smart people on issues that I care about, not just as a fan, or as a sports studies scholar, but as someone who lives and cares about our world and the role of sports in it; who knows that sports isn't just escapist entertainment but a critical experience through which billions of human beings around the world shape their images of themselves and their place in local, national, and global communities. At the Allrounder, we know this about sports because we count ourselves among those billions; and we address the sporting experience with respect and with a desire to understand—and to help others understand—it more deeply, ultimately with the hope that this understanding will empower us to shape our experience of sports more actively.

The word "intersectional" shows up in your Kickstarter pitch, as it seems it has been showing up more in the discourse in general. How will the Allrounder define that word in action? That is, what does intersectional sportswriting look like, or what do you want it to look like?

Probably there are as many definitions of this as there are contributors to the Allrounder. For some, intersectional writing on sports, like intersectional writing on politics or culture more generally, will mean writing that frames an issue from multiple perspectives at once, in view of the multiple actors and social forces involved. Intersectonality, in this sense, just means thinking and writing with a recognition that any given issue in our world is shaped in complex ways by a great variety of forces, that understanding that issue means letting go of the belief that there is a single interpretive key that will unlock the meaning of a phenomenon, and that changing things in the world requires a collaboration among diverse individuals and groups whose interests may coincide around a particular issue (and then diverge again on another).  

 

But I suspect that intersectional sports writing for others involved may have more to do with [working between disciplines]: the recognition that a single event, such as the 2014 World Cup, encompasses and derives its force from human activities that are at once physical and athletic, narrative, financial, political, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical and social. In that sense, the 2014 World Cup arises out of the intersection of myriad human endeavors. The Allrounder wants to be sitting right in the middle of that intersection, taking it all in, sifting through it, and then offering clarifying, provocative analyses of how these various threads of activity, individually and together, shape our experience.


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