Understanding the humans in a human interest story

I initially posted this as a thread of tweets, but the thing about Twitter is that, after just a few hours (or minutes or seconds) online, ideas can easily disappear into the ether, never to be seen again. I didn’t want that to happen here, if for no other reason than I want to be reminded of this every so often, like stepping on the scale to refresh your goal to eat healthier (which I also need to do, but that’s a different story).

Still, the starting point comes from Twitter, from @PrimeDiscussion, a Florida State fan I’ve followed for years, who continuously offers insight that requires me to think deeper about my own opinions and choices on things like race and politics and, occasionally, FSU football.

(Note: There’s more to Adam’s thread that’s also worth reading, but this was the jumping off point for my thread.)

(Second note: This is lightly edited from the original Twitter thread to add context and account for the lack of a character limit here.)

Adam’s tweet got me thinking a lot about how we tell the human stories of college athletes, and that’s required me to take a hard look at the process. Adam’s larger issue is 100% right but I want to address the “tragic stories overcome” trope, which runs deep.

First, since he’s mentioned in Adam’s tweet, let me say that there’s no nicer human in this business than Tom Rinaldi, so none of this is a critique of him. Rather, it’s a critique of me and (hopefully) a point to consider for all of us who tell stories for a living.

I like to fancy myself a feature writer. Maybe not a good one, but it’s the part of the job that gives me the most satisfaction. The best advice I’ve ever gotten is that all stories are stories about people, and features let me tell the best people stories.

When telling a feature story — or any story, I guess — you’re really giving your perception of someone else’s story. I hope my reporting is thorough enough that my perception matches experienced reality, but that’s especially hard when writing about black athletes as a white reporter.

Let me give you an example. I wrote this piece about former FSU star Devonta Freeman and his pal, former Syracuse DB Durrell Eskridge a few years ago. I liked it. I thought I did a good job showcasing why they were so close.

Reading it now, with a focus on how my life as a white guy might’ve played a role in how I told their story, I see some obvious flaws, starting with how innocuously I framed the lede, suggesting something less important to me (sneakers) was unreasonably important to them.

In their neighborhood, sneakers were status, so Devonta Freeman and Durell Eskridge took their shoes seriously.

A new pair of Air Jordans might gobble up most of a week’s pay from their mommas’ pocketbooks, if this was one of the weeks they were working, so eventually Freeman and Eskridge found ways to pay for shoes on their own. They hung around the gas station, pumping gas in hopes of a tip. They carried bags for customers at the nearby Winn-Dixie, pocketing loose change for their efforts. They would visit Coach Luke — former member of the rap group 2 Live Crew and neighborhood mentor Luther Campbell — and clean his pool or mow his lawn for a few bucks.

Eskridge is nearly six inches taller than Freeman, but when they would scrape together enough for a shopping trip, they were careful to buy clothes and shoes that fit them both. They had different classes, so no one noticed when they would swap sneakers or T-shirts, doubling their wardrobe to keep a clean look on a tight budget.

After school, they would join pickup football games in an open field at the Miami housing project where they lived. They played in socks, bare feet or an old set of cleats to keep their shoes from getting scuffed. In a place where violence was around every corner, few things in Freeman and Eskridge’s lives were so devoutly protected as those sneakers.

“Don’t step on our shoes,” Freeman said. “We didn’t play about that.”

But it goes deeper than that. I remember interviewing Freeman, who was really smart and sweet and soft-spoken with the media during his time at FSU, and he was tremendously engaged in telling this story. I was super appreciative. It felt meaningful.

But I also remember the details felt a bit polished — almost as if he was telling me what he thought a middle-aged white guy expected to hear. It’s not that any of it wasn’t true or that I disbelieved him — just that he might’ve said it differently to a black person.

In fact, I mention in the story how Freeman’s neighborhood in Liberty City was a frequent setting for episodes of “The First 48” crime show because Freeman told that to me. How engrained, then, must the stereotype be? How would a white guy know about where Freeman’s from? Oh, he must’ve seen it on a TV show about cops solving murders.

Let me give you another example. I did this story on Deshaun Watson some years ago, about his work with Habitat for Humanityafter his mother was given a Habitat house when Deshaun was a kid. Again, good story I thought.

Yet I also remember when I interviewed Watson for the piece, I asked him a lot about the housing complex where he lived before getting his new home from Habitat. He offered some generic “lots of crime and drugs,” and I got the sense he knew that’s what I was expecting to hear.

For what it’s worth, I went to his old complex after we talked and met with neighbors who’d known Watson as a kid. I went back again the next year for another story. People there were thrilled for Watson. I didn’t see drugs or crime (which isn’t to say they weren’t there), but there was a lot of poverty. A church mission group was handing out lunches to a line of kids during one of my visits.

What bothers me now is, Watson had a tattoo representing those old apartments on his arm, a reminder of where he’d come from. He had friends there, and clearly that place shaped him. He wasn’t ashamed. He was proud of it.

So why did he feel he had to tell me about the drugs and the crime but not focus on the better stuff? Because he knew it was a story about Habitat for Humanity, where the entire project is about taking people out of a bad situation and giving them a better option? Perhaps he knew it didn’t help Habitat’s cause to also remember the positive aspects of his old stomping grounds. But maybe he just didn’t think I was capable of understanding how complex his relationship with that place was.

He wasn’t wrong. I did go into that interview with an expectation that he’d say his old home was bad and the Habitat home was great and that getting away from crime and drugs was the key to a new Watson. It’s an easy narrative that was partly true — but only partly.

I genuinely try to be open to where a story takes me, not assuming too much before I start — but that’s a hard thing to do, particularly when narrative tropes around certain demographics are so ubiquitous, and I lack the experience to imagine another reality. Usually you don’t know what you don’t know.

There are so many really talented people telling great stories about these athletes — from Rinaldi to Gene Woj to Wright Thompson, who’s written beautifully on raceover the years but can never truly write it from the perspective of a black person.

So I wonder how much we’re truly telling of these men’s stories, and what damage we do by perpetuating tropes about heroic white coaches and damaged black athletes. There can certainly be a kernel of truth in that trope — no doubt many college athletes have benefited greatly by their collegiate experience — but it’s a flimsy foundation for real reporting.

Is a coach a hero because he rescued a black man from drugs and violence in a bad neighborhood to let him play football and go to college? Or is that narrative just a reflection of a flawed system that creates a power imbalance from the moment those athletes are born?

When we tell stories about athletes escaping the hard life in the streets, are we creating a mythologized picture of blackness for a largely white audience & applauding men for adapting into a more white-accepted culture under the guise of bettering themselves?

In those tropes, it’s impossible to avoid the obvious parallel: The good guys look like me, the bad guys look like them, and the athletes benefit from the opportunity to move from bad to good. It’s created to make us, the largely white audience, feel better.

That really undersells the complexity of their lives and the very fundamentals of who they are as people. It exacerbates coach worship and adds to the narrative of white culture being good and black culture being bad. It’s a black man’s life through white eyes.

So, what’s the answer here? Do I give up feature writing? I hope not. I love it too much, and as imbalanced as some of those stories may have been, I do think they impacted some people, helped shed some light on the subjects, if not perfectly.

Instead, I think we need to make a commitment to putting more people of color in a role to tell these stories too, to offer more insight, to add to the mosaic so that, in totality, a fuller picture can be seen.

That’s not a great answer either though. There’s no overnight way to change the demographics of newsrooms, and the industry’s rapid decline certainly doesn’t make for a lucrative future for anyone — let alone writers of color.

So it’s also up to people like me to understand our preconceptions, to course correct during interviews, to earn the trust of our subjects and to be aware of how we frame stories, so we’re really writing about their lives, and not the lives we assume they’ve lived.

When I wrote about a coach’s wife battling cancer, I asked friends who’d had similar fights before I did the story so I went in w/an appreciation of the dynamics. Why don’t I do that with stories about black people, too? I should. We all should.

As well intentioned as we might be, the tropes we’ve helped perpetuate have a lasting effect on how power is divided, how black men are perceived & the hero worship of coaches who benefit from a flawed system. We need to break down walls, not add more bricks.

 

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