Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports

The NFL, college football, and Twitter have a massive problem with sweeping generalizations

The landscape of sports journalism has moved away from thoughtful, reasoned, and suggestive offerings and replaced them with divisive, fiery, and often politically charged issues meant to drive debate. The problem with doing so is that the very basic tenets of academic research are ignored in favor of morning shows featuring shouting and fighting. For the debate surrounding Dan Snyder's Washington team, no intellectual compromise appears to be on the horizon.

Hot takes, sweeping generalizations, and poorly researched points of view are something of plague in today’s media. No matter where readers turn, they’re almost certain to encounter strong political opinions littered throughout journalistic content. One of the rubs of that political content is that it will not sit right with everyone. There are going to be those who see the world through a different lens.

It’s these rich variety of perspectives that make a career like sports journalism so interesting. Something as simple as an interview can turn into a lifelong friendship or partnership, but it’s also important to have opposing points of view. Society is a living and functioning being like anything else and each organism is meant to serve a critical function, though sometimes in direct opposition to another organism.

Much of the content being produced by today’s bloggers, journalists, and sports entertainers is phenomenological in nature. Phenomenology is nothing more than the study of things, the appearance of those things, how those things manifest themselves in our daily experiences, or simply just the way that we experience different things. Simplifying a bit further, phenomenology is the study of things as we see them.

But the thing about phenomenological points of view is that they’re often very ethnocentric. This has become a divisive problem in journalism. The on-going feud between Bomani Jones and Clay Travis is a shining example of this dynamic at play. Rather than recap ever Twitter feud they’ve ever had, I will just direct you to Google, where you can pull up any number of spats between the two of them. If we’re being honest, not many of them are even worth printing because they’re so petty.

Today’s feud was about a recent poll indicating that Native Americans are totally fine with the term Redskins as a team name. Citing a poll that had exactly 504 respondents, all of whom were called by phone and asked the same set of questions. I’m not really sure if Travis even bothered looking at the methodology of the Washington Post’s poll, but it wasn’t exactly the type of survey you’d normally issue if you were looking for deeper answers about this issue. In fact, 56 percent of their respondents admitted to having barely heard anything about the subject.

But that’s far from the only issue with this survey. Among those who responded, 56 percent of them were not even enrolled in a Native American tribe, which is problematic if you’re trying to provide a realistic representation of those who may or may not be offended. In fact, 48 percent of them said they didn’t even watch football. Even the population areas they surveyed were largely useless for the data being collected. Why are 79 percent of the participants living in an area where there are zero tribes or reservations? Not exactly the most informed study.

Additionally, the questions being asked of the respondents did not give them a wide variety of answers. They were given the choice of “offensive,” “does not bother you,” and “no opinion.” It limits the ability of the respondent to interact with an answer that may better fit their thoughts or feelings. This isn’t just a problem with this survey.

Arizona State W.P. Carey marketing professor Cheryl Burke found that survey design errors can produce results that are skewed by as much as 555 percent. Furthermore, Burke went on to state that surveys are often misinformed by trying to measure beliefs and attitudes the same way we measure weight or length. By itself, quantitative research is not an end-all, be-all. In the case of the Washington Post, they used multiple choice and Likert Scales to publish this data, but offered zero qualitative responses by those who participated.

Every study has their shortcomings, but this becomes slightly more problematic when an individual with 186,000 followers appeals to his own authority as a lawyer to promote the notion that 504 people responding to a very limited survey somehow is proof positive that Washington’s team name absolutely does not need to change. This survey is a piece of information that we can add to the larger picture, but it is by no means a definitive study on Native American feelings on the Washington team name.

Travis admits that he is not a statistician, but that’s the least of his problems. He’s also not a qualified social psychologist nor is he an expert in field methodology. In fact, based on anything researchable about Mr. Travis, he has no formal training in anything close to special population studies, operationalization, or ethnomethodology. This is where his rhetoric becomes a danger to the ongoing problems surrounding the sports world.

Human beings are influenced by their own perceptions and those need to be accounted for in honest academic discussions about serious issues. Reducing content like race or domestic violence to a hot-take is about the least productive thing a person can do if the overall goal is to find workable solutions to improving the problems facing today’s society. It probably takes more time to write a scorched earth article than it does to put down some thoughtful and reflective thoughts meant to drive meaningful discussion.

Sociologist Dorothy Smith helped pioneer the idea of standpoint theory, or the idea that an individual’s ability to understands and interprets events is directly affected by their place within the larger societal framework. To put that into a simpler form, people understand the world around them through the experiences they’ve had in life.

Standpoint theory consists of three major points.

(1) No one can have complete, objective knowledge; (2) no two people have exactly the same standpoint; and (3) we must not take the standpoint from which we speak for granted. Instead, we must recognize it, be reflexive about it, and problematize it. Our situated, everyday experience should serve as a “point of entry” of investigation

Smith makes it perfectly clear that biases do exist and that we must do everything to avoid these biases in research and our everyday lives. Smith believed that we should begin our investigation from our standpoint but realize that if we restrict our research to the world as we see it we will inherently fail to see the views and beliefs of other individuals and they will be excluded from our findings.

That brings us full circle to the problems facing our nuanced and politically charged discussions on sports. People do not have to agree, they do not even have to be friends, but the spirit of academia should provide a basis for thoughtful and reasoned discussion about these matters, not hot-takes that end with self-aggrandizing claims of scalp collecting. These are real problems and they're not going to disappear because of a cleverly worded article or a fiery hot-take. 

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