Sport is a powerful platform for social change because...
A look back on two years of the Social Sport podcast
After taking a few months to think about the future of the Social Sport podcast, I have decided to take an indefinite step away from it to focus on other story-telling opportunities. There are a lot of reasons for my decision, but it boils down to this: I want to tell stories that feel important to me, to the best of my ability. At this point, that means focusing on my writing. I hope to revisit audio journalism (and maybe this podcast) at some point in the future. But at this point, hosting and producing a long-form interview podcast no longer makes sense for my goals and other time commitments.
Importantly, I plan to continue releasing this newsletter, and hope to use it as a place to explore sports and social change through writing! I will also continue writing about the connection between sports and social change on a freelance basis. If you every want to connect around this topic, I am easy to reach via email (email@example.com).
The whole backlog of the Social Sport Podcast (all 83 episodes!) are not going anywhere. You can find them on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, Stitcher, CITIUS Mag, and wherever else you get your podcasts. Stepping away is definitely not an easy decision, but it’s certainly one that feels right.
Now, a look back on the last two years:
I started Social Sport in a basement in Chicago. My parents basement, to be exact (hey, the acoustics were solid)! My exact location was not something I shared with guests on the Social Sport podcast (hi, my hame is Emma and I host a podcast in my parents’ basement. Can I interview you?) In fact, there were a lot of things I did not share with guests. For example, the fact that Social Sport came out of a spur-of-the-moment post in a freelancers’ Facebook group.
At the time, I was 24 years old, had some interview experience from previous jobs, and wanted to start a podcast on the intersection of endurance sports and activism. Still, it was just one of the 10,000 wild ideas that pay rent in my brain at any given moment—often taking space that should go to sleep and/or a sound mental state (I could still use a bit more of those two things). I posted in the Facebook group, introduced the podcast (which was really not a podcast at all, but a rough and nebulous concept) and called on anyone with relevant contacts. Within a day, I had 30+ comments and messages. Oh shit, I thought. I really have to start this thing. And then, there was Social Sport.
Social Sport happened in a basement in Chicago. Then, it happened in an apartment in New York. When I moved to Brooklyn, I recorded in a very non-soundproofed apartment on a very non-quiet street. Most of my guests experienced a “hey so sorry about the loud [construction, motorcycle, siren, child screaming] noise” apology at some point during the interview. For two weeks, when I was in between living situations and quarantining, Social Sport happened in a hotel in Connecticut. In October 2020, Social Sport joined the CITIUS Mag Podcast Network.
Since Social Sport’s launch, I have produced and released 83 episodes. Each episode has featured folks using endurance sports to talk about justice, equity, climate change, mental health, and more. I have met some of the most inspiring, intelligent, intuitive, world-shaking people. I have gotten off of recording calls and started crying. Or, been unable to move. Or, needed to move—to run out of my apartment and keep running. I have been rendered speechless countless times. Social Sport has accrued a steady increase in followers and been highlighted in popular newsletters, publications, and on other podcasts. Overall, watching this project grow has been one of the most invigorating experiences of my life so far.
And yet, it has not been a solely positive experience. Social Sport was a couple months old at the time of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent racial justice reckoning. All of a sudden, it seemed that every athlete, every publication, and every company wanted to use their platforms for social change. This could only be a good thing, right? I wasn’t sure. It was hard to differentiate optics from commitment.
In 2020, when I interviewed folks doing racial justice work, I often asked them something along the lines of: “Countless companies have released statements on their commitments to racial justice. How can we tell which statements are genuine and which are marketing ploys?” Or else, “How can we ensure that this work is not a temporary trend, but a long-term commitment?”
My guests often mentioned the black Instagram squares posted on June 2, 2020. We discussed how organizations must move beyond signaling their commitments to justice (Instagram squares), and towards long-term and comprehensive action. Would this “moment of racial reckoning” last? Unfortunately, since 2020, I have seen many companies and publications shift their commitments away from justice. Now, when I pitch a story on racial injustice, there is hesitancy again. Countless publications say it’s “too political.” Usually, they don’t use those exact words. But the code is clear.
To me, the symbolism of the black Instagram square is all too stark: justice work within the confines of a 1080 X 1080 pixel box. Those little black squares seem like prophecies now.
For my part, I promise to never shy away from justice-centered stories. I hope that more publications realize that talking about injustice (talking about reality) is not political. It’s just good journalism. And it’s necessary.
All-time most popular episodes of the Social Sport Podcast:
#68 - Lucy Bartholomew on sustainability, body image and being a positive role model for young athletes
#45 - Elise Cranny on RED-S body changes and inspiring young runners to celebrate their strength
#71 - Emma Gee, first openly LGBTQ+ athlete at BYU on the performance enhancing benefits of being your authentic self
# 51: Grayson Murphy and David Roche on environmentalism and coaching the whole person
#25 - Therese Haiss on authentic conversation around mental health & depression and empowering LGBTQ+ community members
#58 - Rosie Cruz on athlete abuse at Loyola Marymount University and an "NCAA problem"
#70 - Chris Mosier on the ‘Changing the Game’ documentary and supporting transgender youth in sports
#50 — Heather Caplan, anti-diet dietician on weight-stigma in sports and beyond
#81 - Caela Fenton on media representations of women distance runners
#44 - Rachael Steil on breaking misconceptions on eating disorders in running
#74 - Hannah Borenstein on Ethiopian women's distance running and power dynamics in track and field
#53 - Dinée Dorame on living her values as a Navajo woman in sports media
#49 - Zoe Rom on climate change and environmental justice in sports journalism
What I’m reading:
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation by Sarah Schulman — one of the most essential books on gentrification, the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, class war, art and activism that I've read. I think everyone should read it. It will challenge you, and surely make you angry at times. But it will also push you towards a more justice-centered understanding of crisis, urban development, and their effects on mental and artistic capital.
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles — won the national book award for good reason. The breadth of research that went into this book, following the movement and meaning of an embroidered sack passed through generations, is incredibly impressive.
Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Last week, there was construction happening on a street near my apartment, and one of the construction workers was managing traffic. It was not clear whose turn it was to cross the intersection: the cars or the pedestrians. So, I went for it, perhaps a bit aggressively (I made eye contact with the drivers first, don’t worry)! I can tell you’re from New York, the construction worker said to me, laughing. It was the best compliment I’ve received in weeks. All of this is to say: if you are a person with a love/hate relationship with NYC (especially if you’ve ever lived here), these essays will give you all the feelings.
What I’m writing/speaking on:
This profile on Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director of LA’s Inclusive Action for the City, for Trail Runner
I spoke about Social Sport and beyond on two recent podcasts: Grounded with Dinée Dorame and Lactic Acid with Dominique Smith
Why is sport a powerful platform for social change?
I always end the Social Sport podcast by asking guests: “Why is sport a powerful platform for social change?” I have 83 intelligent answers to guide me. But I want to answer this for myself now:
If you think of sports and activism, some big names might come to mind: Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick. In track and field, you might think of Tommie Smith or John Carlos. Gwen Berry. Raven Saunders. Nikki Hiltz. You might think of Alison Felix or Alicia Montaño, who fought for maternity rights. Otherwise, you might think of Simone Biles, who spoke out about mental health. Or, all the women who fought against sexual assault in USA Gymnastics. If you were to ask any of these athletes why they took the stances they did, I can imagine part of their responses would involve platform.
We care about sports. We pay attention to sports. Professional, college, even high school sports. We give sports so much weight and attention in this society. Many of the athletes listed above saw something that was wrong. They knew they had a platform to speak out about this wrong, due to their sport. Perhaps they knew there could be repercussions to speaking out. But, they saw their stage as big and they saw the issue as bigger, and their fears seemed small in comparison.
Or perhaps, they would never forgive themselves if they didn’t use their platforms to fight against societal wrongs. In other words, sports make us pay attention—to the screen, the field, the track. Sports can push us to pay attention to broader, societal issues, too.
But, I think there’s something else. Sport is a powerful platform for social change because movement — in countless ways — is an act of resistance. Each day, there are countless institutions that function, predominantly, to keep us from the simple joy of moving: careers, household responsibilities, family responsibilities, financial strain, injuries, mental illness. Then, we consider identity — race, ethnicity, gender, age. Then, we consider location. For certain folks, it is much less safe to run and move outside than it is for other folks. Moving for the joy of it is a statement of resistance against all the barriers that hold a person back.
Throughout time and place, different groups of people have used movement (running specifically) to resist oppression. Indigenous prayer runners have used running, and continue to use running, to fight environmental injustice. Kathrine Switzer continued to run in the Boston Marathon, despite being physically attacked by race organizers, ultimately revolutionizing women’s running. Civil Rights movements have been headed by prayer runs. Marches. Walk-outs.
When I consider all the people who have used movement as protest throughout time and place, as well as all guests on the Social Sport podcast, I can't help but think: sport is one of the most powerful platforms for social change that we have.
I am immensely grateful for all who have made the Social Sport podcast possible.
You can find me on the internet here. Feel free to contact me for freelance or other inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay sporty and keep resisting,