American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic

Communicative Insights

by Andrew C. Billings (Volume editor) Lawrence A. Wenner (Volume editor) Marie Hardin (Volume editor)
©2022 Textbook XXVI, 320 Pages


Warren Buffett once opined that "only when the tide rolls out do you discover who’s been swimming naked." In a similar vein, American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic focuses on how communication practices, structures, and principles change when a key locus—sport—has much of its cultural and political-economic power disrupted. How intertwined is the economic viability of an American collegiate institution to the communicative enactment of the regular staging of collegiate sports? What proportion of a sports media contract is for the competition itself, as opposed to the documentation of fans being "fanatic" as they witness contests live and in-person? Who and what is deemed most disposable, and how do such decisions play out for athletes of different genders, races, and abilities? Questions such as these form the core foci of this volume. As many have observed, out of crisis comes opportunity. In this instance, this volume provides an opportunity for leading scholars of communication and sport to consider which principles should be rethought or reconceptualized based on the effects of the pandemic on our culture, politics, and economy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Situating Communication and American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic (Andrew C. Billings, Lawrence A. Wenner, and Marie Hardin)
  • Part I: Socio-Political/Economic Contexts
  • 1. Reimagining the Role of Local Sports Media During the Pandemic Pause (Erin Whiteside and Sam Winemiller)
  • 2. Force Majeure: Pandemic Labor Insights within the Sports-Media Complex (Courtney M. Cox)
  • 3. More Than Fun and Games: How the World Will Look at American Sports—and America—After COVID-19 (Simon Ličen)
  • 4. “Year of the Bubble”: The Black Athletic Body as Event, and the Politics of Subtraction (Daniel A. Grano)
  • 5. Reading Against the Platform: Communicative Capitalism and the NBA Strike (Abraham Iqbal Khan)
  • Part II: Health Contexts
  • 6. Hegemonic Masculinity on the Sidelines: Workplace Dangers, Gendered Ideologies, and Athletic Participation in the Pandemic Era (Michael Serazio)
  • 7. Big Risks, Big Rewards: Framing the NWSL Challenge Cup Amid a Pandemic (Travis R. Bell, Christian Dotson-Pierson, and Janelle Applequist)
  • 8. “The Team’s Best Interest”: COVID-19, Mental Health, and Neoliberalism in College Football (Katherine L. Lavelle)
  • 9. Sports Figures as Public Health Prompts: The Broadening Role of Celebrity Athletes in Health Communication (Scott Parrott, Nathan A. Towery, and Andrew C. Billings)
  • Part III: Intercollegiate Contexts
  • 10. Socialization and Team Management in Post-COVID-19 Athletics (Gregory A. Cranmer)
  • 11. Coronavirus, College Football, and the Collapse of American Exceptionalism (Michael L. Butterworth and Katie Lever)
  • 12. The NCAA Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Impact on Enjoyment (Lauren Reichart Smith)
  • 13. COVID-19, the NCAA, and Title IX: A Time for Gender Equity (Karen L. Hartman)
  • Part IV: Mediated Contexts
  • 14. What Missing Sports Really Means: Mediated Sports Consumption in the Post-Pandemic World (Walter Gantz)
  • 15. Managing the Unprecedented: How Sport Organizations’ Social Media Strategy Adapted and Evolved in the Midst of a Global Pandemic (Jimmy Sanderson)
  • 16. Esports: A Pandemic-Proof Alternative to Traditional Sports? (Ryan Rogers and Lee K. Farquhar)
  • 17. Olympics in the Shadow of a Pandemic: Communication, Empowerment, and Concern through Crisis (Tang Tang, L. Meghan Mahoney, and Ashley Spiker)
  • 18. Keeping a Sense of Community: Women’s Sports Leagues and (Post-) Pandemic Communication (Dunja Antunovic)
  • Editors
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

←viii | ix→


When the 2020–2021 COVID-19 pandemic emerged, we reacted in a way that was likely similar to many others, as a confluence of concerns, emotions, and themes, came to the forefront of our minds. As academics, we were far more fortunate than others, as our jobs could still largely carry on, albeit with a bit more friction imbued within simple tasks. Our eyes turned to the disrupted world of American sport. The three of us began with simple queries among one another: Are you seeing what’s happening here? Did you see that one coming? What does this portend for the world of sport in a post-pandemic world?

As much as the narratives in media referenced a “new normal,” what we were witnessing seemed far from it. Our thoughts shifted from sport disrupted to sport revealed. Surely, others in the communication and sport were witnessing the same things, too. It was within that revelation that American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic: Communicative Insights was born.

We must thank Michael Gibson and his colleagues at Peter Lang Publications for immediately embracing the idea of this edited book. We also extend our sincere gratitude to the 26 authors who advanced work in the 18 chapters advanced here. The 2020–2021 academic year was unlikely any other that any of these authors likely had ever experienced and yet they responded with thoughtful, reflective, and prompt analyses and meditations on what the pandemic wrought and the future that was at least partly written in the process. Finally, we must thank our family members who likely thought we were crazy when our response to an international crisis was to advance a book project on top of all of the new struggles of the day.

We believe the ability to write about the pandemic in the moment was worth the stress the project caused and are exceedingly pleased with the end result. We hope readers concur.

←ix | x→

←x | xi→

Introduction: Situating Communication and American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic

Andrew C. Billings, Lawrence A. Wenner, and Marie Hardin

Time moving.

Time standing still.

What is the difference?

Time standing still is the difference.

– Lorrie Moore (2014)

For most American sports fans, March 13, 2020 was the “day the music died.” While the American public had been warned for weeks (if not months) about the potential for a pandemic, the March 13 cancellation of an NBA basketball game resulting from a COVID-19 diagnosis from Utah’s Rudy Gobert seemingly hastened the call to cancel all other sporting events, serving as one of the signals for a nation to begin sheltering-in-place. Once sporting contests were halted to limit contagion, sports programming and coverage darkened across the American mediascape. With those lights going out in ways never before experienced by wide swatches of the population, embedded patterns of “sports talk” fueled by game results and other ritualized dynamics of the contemporary sportsworld lost their anchor and were destined to be disrupted.

Warren Buffett once opined that “only when the tide rolls out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” (Tchir, 2020, para. 1). On March 13, the tide gradually rolled out and suddenly the structures undergirding the American world of sport was left for all to see. Time seemingly stopped, and the sports calendars many used to occupy their time were suddenly replaced with products such as virtual contests of basketball players competing in games of H-O-R-S-E from their homes. The centrality of sport ←xi | xii→within American culture was laid bare for all to see, taking with it many of the hotels, restaurants, and sporting goods industries that had long counted on deep-seated engagement with sport to provide dependable momentum to help fill their coffers.

Many have and will write about what happened during the atypical time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journals such as the International Journal of Sport Communication dedicated a double issue to it, partly in response to the 125 submissions received on the topic. Everyone, fans and foes of sport alike, seemingly had something to say about what this “new abnormal” would bring. And with both sport and with much in their lives grounded to a halt, there was much time for conjecture about what might or should happen. However, American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic is book that will focus on that immediate aftermath. Rather, the goal of this edited collection is to shed light on what the wake and the ripples of pandemic, as revealed through communication about it, tells us about the social and cultural contexts of sport. If the pandemic is the independent variable within this equation, American Sport in the Shadow of a Pandemic is not as much focused on the dependent variables as much as is on the communication processes, and the actions of mediators and moderators, that influenced sensemaking about the on-the-fly changing of the relationship between sport and American culture.

As such, this book focuses on what one can glean about how communication practices, structures, and principles change when a key locus – sport – has much of its cultural and political-economic power disrupted. We consider some fundamental questions. For instance, how intertwined is the economic viability of an American collegiate institution to the communicative enactment of the regular staging of collegiate sports? What proportion of a sports media contract is for the competition itself, as opposed to the documentation of fans being “fanatic” as they witness contests live and in-person? Who and what might be deemed most disposable, and how do decisions about this play out for athletes of different genders, races, and abilities? Without doubt, the 2020–2021 global pandemic featured unparalleled challenges for many nations, societies, and structures. In diverse ways, this book interrogates the elements that kept such once thought to be stable structures in sport from being challenged prior to the pandemic and considers the functions and dysfunctions of those structures in a changed sporting climate.

Consider the role of the fan. To what extent is sport fandom a three-legged stool, fusing athletics, media, and fans for a shared experience? The pandemic revealed much about both the sound and look of fans in a stadium as well as the economic role that fans, in and out of the stadium, serve. The National Football League, for instance, makes 60% of their revenue from ←xii | xiii→national media contracts before a single stadium seat or luxury box is sold (Novy-Williams, 2020). That number escalates to over 70% and sometimes even 80% when local media is taken into account. Suddenly the “bubbles” used to isolate league players to keep the game going made sense; money would be lost, but the outsized role of media could make such losses survivable.

The show must go on.

Turning to the intercollegiate sport marketplace, the amounts invested into football and men’s basketball, in particular, had been escalating for some time. The average Power Five college head coach was making US$4.4 million (Berkowitz & Schad, 2020). Some teams were even hiring “consultants” for half-million dollar salaries. When the pandemic hit, 40 of the 50 states had a highest-paid public employee who was either a football or basketball coach (Duffley, 2019). Indeed, one could certainly complain about Nick Saban’s US$9.3 million salary, but must temper it with the financial realities that the football program he leads often brings in over triple that amount in profit (Kercheval, 2015). Meanwhile, Alabama’s rival, Auburn University, was so invested in staying competitive that it has spent US$47 million in buyouts for football and basketball coaches (Wittry, 2019). Yes, US$47 million just to get coaches to leave. The pandemic revealed why such sums were spent on college sports coaches. Indeed, much of the appeal of a quintessential American university experience was predicated on more than mere class attendance. And while sport was an “ancillary” to American higher education, it had become a big ancillary, in some instances a tail wagging the dog. On many campuses, sport contributes to both socialty and identity amongst faculty, staff, students, and alumni, matters made possible by regularized major sports events and the ways in which they may be celebrated in media coverage. Faced with virtual classes and a sports calendar that precluded their attendance, the pandemic resulted in millions of out-of-state students staying home, costing schools (and local businesses in college towns) millions of dollars in lost revenue. Again, amidst these challenges, media served as a key support structure that helped many universities avoid utter financial calamity.

The games must go on.

Indeed, the pandemic showed what was intractable and what was not. As it turned out, a sports schedule was quite malleable. Coronavirus outbreaks meant that the Buffalo Bills woke up on Monday, October 12, 2020 not knowing if they were playing the Tennessee Titans on Tuesday or the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday. It turned out the Titans game (rescheduled twice already) would happen and the game against the Chiefs would move to the following Monday. Suddenly, the fact that the University of Texas and Arizona State University were already contracted to play a football game ←xiii | xiv→in 2033 seemed to embody a bit of overzealous scheduling. In the “new abnormal,” planning now entailed focusing on what might happen today or tomorrow, and, even thinking about next week presented challenges. Baseball found its schedule could be truncated (from 162 to 60 games), games could be shortened (to seven innings when necessary) and doubleheaders (previously avoided to maximize gate and media revenues) could be a regular feature (after an outbreak, the St. Louis Cardinals played 11 doubleheaders in a months’ time). The world did not stop. As sports how to continue play amidst the uncertainties of the pandemic, people still watched – albeit in smaller numbers, distracted perhaps by personal life challenges and stress, but also because of the now realigned calendar of sports events. After being stopped in its tracks, a diverse set of sports flooded the calendar all at once, in and out of season, all in a jumble, all necessarily entangled in storylines about the pandemic and the realities of and prospects for disruption. Sport had skidded to a stop, been restarted en masse, going quickly from zero to 60, but hitting a few potholes. But for sports fans momentarily mourning the loss of live sports, there was now cause for celebration, but this was a changed party.

The party still had to go on.

The examples of how sport was changed or disrupted by the pandemic well beyond those we have mentioned. These range from the changing role of activism in a time of crisis to the need for increased mental health support structures for athletes as the pandemic exascerbated stresses with new challenges. The pandemic revealed musch about what American sport culture had become. In some ways, sport’s conspicuous absence showcased just how much sport serves to facilitate all sorts of meaningful relationships amongst family and friends. From other vantage points, the often chaotic rush to restart sport showed the hideous underbelly of an institution that had become a huge behemoth, wielding much cultural power, but still fragile in that a one-year dip in their normal revenue yields resulted in both many lost jobs and considerable hand-wringing about long predictable financial models. The tide had gone out; the snake was about to eat its own tail.

We advance this book not only for these aforementioned reasons, but also because we believe that communication becomes a key disciplinary vantage point for scholarly exploration for the dynamics at play in the world of sport and its impacts on American culture. Embedded within all of these cases were the communication processes and mechanisms that were either thwarted or utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic. These forms of communication ranged from those set in interpersonal, group, and organizational contexts, to the responses of legacy mainstream media to social and user-generated media in the digital environment. Surely, communication scholars can bring ←xiv | xv→much to the table by adding insight about the how the pandemic fueled disruptions on sport were responded to and understood. Sport, it is often said, is a mirror of society. The mirror held up by the pandemic changed the reflection of sport. In this volume, leading scholars consider how those reflections and key communicative interpretations of them played out on the playing fields of sport and American culture.

Pandemical Sport Through the Communicative Lens

Social scientists base their work on the degree of probability that an isolated occurrence could be found or detected again, substantiating patterns and trends within such a process. Even though similar pandemics have happened before, most pertinently the Spanish Flu in the 1910s (Andrews, 2020), pandemics like the one that COVID-19 virus brought occur in with such irregularity that they must necessarily be viewed through a generational lens, becoming the equivalent of a “black swan” event. Black swan events are in some sense oxymoronic, seen as both unpredictable in advance and eminently predictable in hindsight. Taleb (2008) articulates the three stages of sense-making within such events:


XXVI, 320
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Sport media pandemic COVID-19 athletics athletes NCAA journalism Andrew C. Billings Lawrence A. Wenner Marie Hardin
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XXVI, 320 pp., 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Andrew C. Billings (Volume editor) Lawrence A. Wenner (Volume editor) Marie Hardin (Volume editor)

Andrew C. Billings (Ph.D., Indiana University) is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama. He has published over 220 journal articles and book chapters along with 22 book projects, the majority of which pertain to issues of media content and effects. Lawrence A. Wenner (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is Von der Ahe Professor of Communication and Ethics at Loyola Marymount University. Founding editor of the research journal Communication and Sport, his most recent book is the Oxford Handbook of Sport and Society. Marie Hardin (Ph.D., University of Georgia) is Dean of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University. Her scholarship has focused on issues of gender, diversity, and ethics in sports journalism.


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