Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Intended Audience in Sportswriting

Some writers envision a particular audience for their work. Certainly intended audience is something that comes up in college composition courses. You need to know who you are writing for. But does that mean you should make assumptions about who you are writing for?

Matthew Berry of ESPN has written "50 things you need to know," which features interesting fantasy football tidbits, with a few life tidbits thrown in. It is important to remember that this article is stylistically organized to be directed toward "you," the reader.

Two rules particularly caught my attention:

15. Never date a woman who was a psychology major in college. (Some of these tidbits don't have statistics to back them up; you're just gonna have to trust me.)


40. Never date a girl who has a bunch of guy friends and no girlfriends. She might not know why, but you do.

Berry has revealed his intended audience. Presumably, he is writing to straight men and gay women; two of his items that you need to know specifically exclude gay men or straight women.

The perspective of reader and writer is a heavily discussed issue in literary studies. What is often called a "universal" perspective is sometimes simply the perspective of a white male from the dominant power group--this is the primary perspective, and books thought to be exploring "universal values" or "human issues" are primarily books written by white males. And where does this leave other perspectives? Secondary, of course--minorities and women are sometimes thought to be writing about social predicaments or political statements, concepts in literature that many consider secondary to "universal," "human" themes. Certainly literary theory in the past 50 years or so has been breaking down this assumption, examining all literature in terms such as class, race, and gender. But the idea of "universal themes" separate from cultural construction still persists (I cannot exclude myself here: my literary preferences lean toward the "big ideas" books rather than the social examinations). In academia, students and teachers of literature are having meaningful discussions about what values, if any, are "universal," and what values are entirely a product of culture.

I've criticized Harold Bloom for criticizing those who don't read Shakespeare the same way he does, i.e., as a white male (here and here). But I don't think this is just an abstract discussion for literary critics; it's an issue that cuts into our real lives. In graduate school I did a (very brief and non-scientific) study of book covers on books written by Asian American authors. I found that frequently a word like"universal" appears in the description or a blurb on the backs of books written by Asian Americans. My theory was that editors were trying to appeal to a majority audience (white), and wanted to emphasize that even though the book was written by a minority, it contained "universal" themes that could still appeal to a white audience.

Now let's bring this back to sportswriting. Certainly, I do assume that most people reading an article at ESPN are straight males--this is the common perception of the average sports fan (forgive me if this assumption is incorrect--it just seems to be the prevalent representation). But there are women who follow sports, and there are gay men who follow sports. They might be reading Berry's article about fantasy football, interested in the facts presented.

But how are straight women or gay men to respond to Berry's advice about what types of women not to date? While reading the article, which is directed at "you" the reader, they are required to take the perspective of a straight man (or possibly a lesbian, though I doubt Berry is considering this in framing his article, so I'm leaving that possibility aside for now). The article is written toward "you," the reader, with bits of advice framed toward "you," the reader.

So women? Gay men? When "you" read advice about what types of women you should or shouldn't date, you are being required to read like a straight man. And even if you are unwilling to do so, the article requires you to recognize your outsider, minority status, to recognize that on some level this article is not written for you.

In sportswriting, very often the "universal" perspective, the assumed audience, is heterosexual male. And again, this is quite likely the majority reader of sports articles. But when sports articles are written specifically with a perspective directed toward the majority reader, the minority is excluded. In this case, the article is assumed to be for heterosexual males, and if you are not a heterosexual male, "you" are still going to get advice about what women you shouldn't date.

Hey, I don't mean to pick on Matthew Berry. I'm sure Berry's intent is not to exclude gay men or straight women from reading his article. The assumption that sports (and fantasy sports) are primarily for men is reinforced everywhere, and I don't think there was a conscious level where Berry considered this. I happen to be using his article as an example because it shows the problem so clearly (with the explicit direction toward "you" and the gender explicit pieces of advice); if I wanted to find other examples in other sportswriters, I'm sure I could.

The sad thing is, it is not just sportwriting that assumes a majority perspective and requires minorities to subsume their own identities within the majority perspective. But sportswriting is an area where there is often not even an attempt to hide the assumption of the majority reader.


  1. I see the problem that you're pointing out but I don't know how big a problem it is in that context. As an author assumes a more conversational tone it becomes easier and easier to make a wide spectrum assumption like sports reader = man. I've recently had reason to start perusing parenting magazines and they make a similar but opposite assumption. I can get pissed off about it or I can just understand that they're playing to their major demographic. I think most people play this game.
    Keeping in the sports genre, there are plenty of columnists who lose me whenever they make a hip hop reference. So be it. They're (presumably) targeting a younger audience. I can live with that. I'd also say that I'm much more forgiving of a columnist who is trying to sell a certain voice than an analyst who should be trying to be more universal.

  2. You've stolen my thunder a bit here: I was going to add in a bit about parenting magazines in this post, but decided to save it for my wife's parenting blog later.

    The parenting magazines do assume a female readership, targeting articles and sentences toward mothers. What's interesting is this causes some controversy: people write letters to the editor complaining about it, and there is discussion about whether such language excludes fathers.

    Essentially, parenting magazines assume a "feminine universal," and a lot of fathers are upset, feeling excluded. What is odd, though, is that women deal with a "masculine universal" all the time, and are simply expected to include themselves within it. "Mankind" is used as a word that includes men and women, and both men and women will use the phrase "you guys" to refer to a group of women. Some feminist theorists have complained about this, talking about how the sexism inherent in the English language does have a real life effect. Some good essays on the subject include Nilson's "Sexism in English: Embodiment and Language," which isn't available online, and Kleinman's "Why Sexist Language Matters" is online at


    But for the most part, such language prevails: it's acceptable to refer to a group of women as "you guys," but to refer to a group of men as "you girls" usually conveys a playful insult.

    In general, a writer is going to write from his/her perspective, and that's of course fine. What stands out in this column is the direct reference to "you" and the assumptions about who this "you" is.

  3. Anonymous6:50 AM

    Wow nice subject matter.... writing styles and parenting magazines... Without saying a word (about football) you have proved my point on the sad sad state of the Vikings.


  4. Anonymous9:55 AM

    Has FIRE CHILDRESS NOW!!!! Guy ever really made a point? Not that I can remember.

  5. Yea he has.How not to post on a blog a classic case of a good computer in useless and mindless hands.Waste of money on internet connection and electricty.
    But clearly this has to be A Packer Fan no other ilk has the Tenacity to post such gleeful drivel.

  6. There is something to be said about an assumed majority perspective and, more problematic, the passive bigotry in words, phrases and everyday life, but your analysis sure isn't it.

    I have never been to your site before, so for all I know your article was written tongue-in-cheek (and if so, please ignore), but you cannot possibly be serious.

    Berry writes about chocolate milk vs. regular milk. Some people are lactose intolerant. He writes about stopping your car to buy lemonade, and buying cookies from co-workers' kids. However, some people cannot drive, and some people work from home.

    Where are your tears for the man who cannot enjoy cheese and the woman who has sworn off thin mints?

    I could go on, but hopefully you see the point. Berry has not written his 50 List from an elitist universal point of view. He has written it from his point of view. He happens to be single. He happens to be straight. He has picked up on things he considers relevant and noteworthy (and humorous, he hopes) that he wanted to pass along. Not every item has to apply to everyone.

    In fact, logically speaking, the items WOULD apply to gay men. Telling the reader not to date a female psychology major does not lose its validity just because the reader does not date women. (To argue otherwise would be, in a twisted way, to say that gay men SHOULD date female psychology majors.)

    I have gotten far afield, but the central point remains: while the assumptions of history books, nightly newscasts, government pamphlets and 21,459 other items surely hold some bias, and that is something that needs to be addressed, Berry isn't one of them. In writing an opinion-flavored column, he has to be true to his experience.

    I'm going to assume you know this, since you did not explain how to click on a link or leave a comment, thereby excluding so many people who might wish to know more.

    Either mount the scaffolding with Berry, or admit your Liberal Idealist Underoos might have contained a tad too much starch that morning.

  7. Anonymous3:56 PM

    Hyperion hit the nail on the head. Wow Pacifist Viking, way to find a problem where absolutely none exists. Congratulations, you're a complete and total tool!

  8. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Wow, what an insightful idea. Instead of writing as a white male, he should have a different target audience. Sort of a pen-perspective, if you will. I would suggest that Mr. Berry go with an armless cross-dressing hermaphrodite (however he’ll pull that off…) that types with his feet and refuses to wear anything that’s not spandex.

    Seriously, there are a ton of problems with journalism in general, and sports writing. I actually did a thesis on it in college – focused on the problem of local newspapers supporting teams to the point where it has a major impact on city legislation such as with Indianapolis when it bought the Colts a new stadium. This is just oversensitive, extremist PC garbage.

  9. The point in this post was to examine unconscious assumptions about intended audience in sportswriting. I am also raising the question, how does a reader that doesn't fit into this intended audience read an article?

    One thing I do on this blog is write about sportswriting, with an emphasis on the actual writing. Intending audience is an important component of writing. I think it is worthwhile to explore the assumptions writers have about their audience. And when an article is written with the explicit direction at "you," the reader, and it features gender specific advice, it is very clear that there are assumptions about the reader here. Thus, I think it's worth exploring.