About Michael L. Butterworth, Ph.D.: Michael L. Butterworth is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin’s (UT-Austin) Moody College of Communication. At UT-Austin, Dr. Butterworth also serves as the Founding Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media and the Governor Ann W. Richards Chair for the Texas Program in Sports and Media. His scholarship includes prominent work on the intersection of sports, militarism, and national identity both in the United States and internationally. His publications include the books Baseball and the Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror, Sport and Militarism: Contemporary Global Perspectives, and Sport, Rhetoric, and Political Struggle. He has also published numerous essays in journals such as Communication and Sport, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, and the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, and International Review for the Sociology of Sport.
In addition to his work at UT-Austin, Dr. Butterworth serves as the Vice Chair of the Sports Communication Interest Group for the International Communication Association, and served as the Chair of the Communication and Sport Division for the National Communication Association. Furthermore, from 2012-2015, he was the Founding Executive Director for the International Association for Communication and Sport.
Dr. Butterworth earned his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and his Master of Arts in Communication from Northern Illinois University, and subsequently received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Public Culture from Indiana University-Bloomington.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How would you define sports communication and the field of sports communication studies? In addition to sports journalism (reporting, documentaries, etc.), what are other prominent forms of sports communication and their significance? What is the history of sports communication studies, and how has scholarship in the field impacted the industry?
[Dr. Butterworth] Part of the challenge with sports communication is that we are operating in a discipline that is itself multidisciplinary and fragmented. The breadth of communication as a field of study is its strength as well as its liability. We bring together a number of traditions, both humanistic and social scientific, as well as critical, in terms of theoretical worldviews. We then apply those worldviews to a vast array of contexts, from interpersonal communication to public speech to organizational communication to mass media. The challenge of defining sports communication more narrowly is, “From which of those vantage points and the discipline broadly do you make that definition?” On the one hand, it has been great for us to have such a big terrain to cover in our scholarly work, but on the other hand, it becomes harder to define sports communication as a subfield. As a result, people will have different definitions of the field based on their own scholarly tradition.
For example, as a rhetorical scholar I’m particularly interested in the way that public symbols constitute attitudes and induce behaviors. If I were an interpersonal communication scholar, I might instead be more interested in the way that sports model interpersonal interactions, such as athlete-to-coach or athlete-to-parent or other kinds of dyadic forms. But if we go into mass media forms, then we’re interested in some of the industry questions about what kinds of pathways there are for people who want to be practitioners in sports media or sports communication. If we go at it from the perspective of sports marketing and sports management, which operate outside of communication studies but have an interest in communication from a dissemination standpoint and a strategic standpoint, we’re going to have very different kinds of questions.
I realize I am giving you a long answer, and one that is not terribly concrete; that is in part because we have so much territory to cover. At the end of the day, what unites us is that we all recognize that sports provide an important site for communicating messages and generating meaning. What kind of meaning sports may generate depends on those contexts that I’ve been talking about. But we’re all interested in messages, we’re interested in the way those messages are communicated, and what kind of meaning people derive from those messages. And ultimately, we all use sports to get at those questions in some way.
I come from the rhetorical tradition that views persuasion as a public good, and as an essential component in a democratic culture. The questions that I’m interested in revolve around the degree to which sports can either facilitate or debilitate democratic discourse and democratic practices. I am always interested in the relationship between politics and sports generally, and I get particularly focused on the way that sports become a symbol for the things that revolve around democratic politics. Examples of this include sports’ connections to actual campaigns and elections (although that tends to be less the case for me), as well as to political mythologies–such as American exceptionalism or the American dream myths in United States political culture. It might also revolve around questions of citizenship and of political identity.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of your principal findings at the intersection of sports, militarism, political ideology and practices, national identity, and history vs. public memory? May we have more information on your articles such as “Adrian Peterson and ‘The Wussification of America’: Football and Myths of Masculinity,” as well as “Cross-Cultural Comparisons of Religion as ‘Character’: Football and Soccer in the United States and Germany”?
[Dr. Butterworth] The Adrian Peterson essay emerged out of a controversy in the NFL about running back Adrian Peterson admitting to disciplining his child by hitting him with a stick. It incited a conversation about cultural norms in terms of parental discipline and also about toughness, especially within the culture of football. My co-authors were my graduate advisee, Gus Foote, who was the lead author, and then our colleague Jimmy Sanderson. We were interested in how this mythology of sports and toughness showed up in social media conversation. We specifically focused on Twitter, which tends to drive a lot of sports conversation. Our objective was to say, “Okay, how does this work in the context of a broader political culture that has emphasized particular styles of leadership and authority?” We placed our research question within the context of studies of masculinity, and it was based on a concern that any kind of critique of masculinity is often met by certain quarters of the sports fan population as being a sign of weakness. You could make a connection to the way that people respond to the concerns about head injuries in football as another example. The assumption that, “Oh, if we keep changing the rules to try to keep players from getting concussions, we’re just going to make the sport wimpier.” There is considerable dialogue that reveals this kind of thinking.
I wrote the other essay you mentioned, “Cross-Cultural Comparisons of Religion as ‘Character’: Football and Soccer in the United States and Germany,” with a colleague of mine, Karsten Senkbeil in Germany. Karsten and I are both interested in politics and ideology in sports, and we focused on football in each of our respective cultures. Of course, football means something different in Germany versus the United States. For us, it is the NFL and American college football, and in Germany it is what we call soccer. We were interested in the way that religion functions as a discourse in those sports.
Both the United States and Germany are predominantly Christian identifying nations, but the United States is much more overt about those identifications, especially among its athletes. It becomes, in a sense, a virtue for athletes in the US to signal their Christianity, whereas in Germany it would be more in spite of their Christianity that they would be successful athletes. We were interested in the difference in that representation of Christianity and Christian values, and its implications in these sport-specific contexts. Our study paralleled other research that I’ve done that examines the way that Evangelical Christian identifications in particular have become more visible in sports in recent decades. I’d say that has actually ebbed a bit in more recent years, but in the first decade and a half of the 2000s there was an increase in Evangelical Christian visibility within sports.
One topic I would like to investigate further in all of the above is how American sports and sports communities are coping with COVID-19. Sports scholars such as myself and my colleagues are now having these conversations in the midst of the pandemic shutdown and the absence of sports. COVID-19 has really highlighted the ways sports are believed to be a site of political unity. Sports is often upheld as a unifying force in our culture and that’s part of the reason why people are missing it so much right now.
Other interesting ways in which this shows up are the nationalistic and militaristic themes that are so commonly rehearsed in sports. Much of my work is focused on the way that we have normalized practices that would otherwise stand out as being unusual through the medium of sports and their associated events, messaging, and media. We make quite a production during sporting events of flyovers and patriotic songs and references to the troops overseas–a whole host of things that normalize and encourage a sense of nationalism. We are not entirely unique in doing that, but we are pretty unusual in the way that we foreground those rituals. Furthermore, we have done so in tandem with military policies that I believe could be seen as highly questionable. I have been interested in this phenomenon for a while, and therefore it has been a theme in my research for many years. Sports give us an opportunity to come together and have a shared experience and identify with one another. And while there’s definitely value in that, the unity that sports imagines is often an illusion and it ignores the fact that there are lots of people who are left out of that community for various reasons.
[MastersinCommunications.com] So could you elaborate a little bit more on how the kind of nationalism that is integrated into the sports experience relates to the military decisions the United States has made in recent history?
[Dr. Butterworth] Certainly. I think that, for the average sports fan, standing up and singing the anthem is just part of what we have become accustomed to doing. If we sing “God Bless America” in the seventh inning stretch of the baseball game or have a military flyover at an NFL game, it is seen as a point of pride, and a sign of our patriotism. I think most people do respond to it that way. However, sports leagues have made conscious and strategic decisions to foreground political and nationalistic rituals, and many of those decisions have been made with actual consultation with actors of the U.S. Military, and even the government.
For example, with regards to the National Anthem ritual, which has gotten so much attention in the last four years because of the controversies over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, most people you asked would say, “Well, we’ve always had the anthem before sporting events.” In actuality, that is not accurate. We made a conscious decision to include The National Anthem at a certain point in time in our political history. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was on occasion performed before a baseball game as early as the 1860s (a lot of people will cite the 1918 World Series as the first time that it became a ritual practice); however, it was at the seventh inning stretch and not at every game. It was not until 1942, the season after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II, that major league baseball made the decision to perform the National Anthem before every single game. Other sports followed suit from there. While that was 80 years ago, it is important to remember that integrating patriotism and patriotic symbols into our sports events was not always the default experience.
Over time, we’ve ramped those elements up. The Super Bowl introduced the flyover as part of the pre-game ritual at Super Bowl II in 1968, and now, of course, the Super Bowl has become one of the most visible signs of national and military identity–as an annual, unifying, and patriotic ritual.
My attention as a scholar has focused primarily on the moments after 9/11. And of course, we celebrate sports for the role that it played after 9/11 because they really did give people something to feel good about. There is no harm in saying that sports can provide people an escape from some of the troubling things that they may be thinking about. But what is ironic about that is, while the narrative overwhelmingly said sports enabled us to get back to normal by helping us escape from the horrors that happened on 9/11, in reality sports did the exact opposite, because we installed a host of practices and rituals that were not normal, and which put that event front and center in people’s minds. It was not normal to sing “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch. It was not normal to have first responders on the field before every game. It was not normal to have a video message from the president broadcast into the stadium to give us updates about what was happening in Afghanistan. All of those things may have made sense in context, but they were anything but normal. They then became normal over time. And so now, again, we’re at a point where we just take for granted that if we’re watching a World Series game, for example, we’ll have a member of the U.S. military perform the National Anthem or God Bless America. We will have a flyover. We’ll have elaborate ceremonies at the All-Star Game. In 2019, for instance, we had an elaborate ceremony with Medal of Honor winners on the field.
On the one hand, those things are nice. There’s no reason we can’t pay our respects to people who have served honorably. But how did we get to a point where that has become a commonplace, expected part of a sports event? There is no inherent reason for a sports event to be a militaristic ritual. It was especially important in the years after 9/11 because while sports was not the only site where this happened (there were lots of places where Americans were invited to identify with the then-called War on Terror), sports became one of the places where we were able to foster a kind of unity, a kind of national identity that desensitized us to decisions that were being made. Sports allowed us to feel proud and patriotic as the flyover went over our heads, but deemphasized the importance of critical thinking, deemphasized the importance of wondering what it was that our leaders were doing. And in fact, we went forward with a number of decisions during the War on Terror that I thought at the time were probably not wise and in retrospect, there’s good evidence suggesting that they were not wise.
So if we are using sporting events as a way to fuel patriotic fervor and to make sure people feel happy and excited, and that comes at the expense of critical thinking about the decisions we are making as a nation, that is a real concern.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are the author of Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror. May we have more information on this book, its central arguments, and its impact on the field of sports communication and political communication scholarship?
[Dr. Butterworth] The premise of this book started with the recognition that there were meaningful, substantive opportunities for people to gather together in baseball stadiums starting six days after 9/11. Those were emotional and legitimate opportunities for people to heal together. I was struck by the speed with which those rituals of healing, by my judgment, transformed into rituals that were encouraging us to accept a nation at war. So, my book started with that, but then the premise of the book evolved to say, “Okay, what are the various ways in which baseball–the so-called national pastime–is being used as a rhetorical resource that helps us accept the current political order? How do the nationalistic rituals integrated into baseball events distract us from thinking about some of these issues of political power and identity more critically?”
I began with a focus on rituals in ballparks. Then, there was a traveling museum exhibit sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum that was called “Baseball as America.” I have a chapter on the use of steroids and President Bush’s reference to steroids in professional sports in the 2004 State of the Union address. There is also a chapter about baseball coming back to Washington D.C., a relocation from the franchise that had been in Montreal, and then a chapter about the beginning of the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament loosely modeled on soccer’s World Cup. All of those are connected by the rhetoric of purity, the idea that baseball uniquely makes arguments about America that identify the country as being pure in particular ways and that baseball is a symbol of that purity. There is so much nostalgia that is anchored to our understanding of baseball as well, as a symbol of a bygone era, a simpler and purer time.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also the editor of the book Sport and Militarism: Contemporary Global Perspectives. Could you elaborate on this book and its varying perspectives on sport and militarism?
[Dr. Butterworth] I open the book with the Kaepernick story because one of the outcomes of Kaepernick taking a knee was the allegation from individuals who didn’t appreciate Kaepernick’s actions that he was being not only un-American, but also specifically disrespectful to the military. I used that as a way to talk about how, within the sports context, ownership of the flag has been given almost exclusively to the military. That is not a critique of those who have served with honor, but it is a reminder that there are multiple ways of understanding citizenship. Anyone who is an American and acts on behalf of the nation’s values can arguably be labeled a patriot and arguably be labeled a model citizen, but the definition of what constitutes American values is subjective. And according to some people’s views and values, they disagreed with Kaepernick’s actions very strongly.
In my personal opinion, Kaepernick’s actions were done with an intention of drawing awareness to a social problem and an effort to try to help make things better. That, to me, is a pretty clear act of citizenship and an act of patriotism. I saw this anecdote as an opportunity to question the way that we have taken for granted that certain symbols are associated only with certain institutions. It was a reminder that sports in the United States in particular (and especially post-9/11) had become highly intertwined with the military. I made a quick reference to an example of this phenomenon earlier–the NFL and other leagues have explicitly partnered with the Pentagon in terms of charitable efforts. There were many recent sports fundraising and charity events that looked like they were grassroots efforts, but which were actually Department of Defense initiatives. One of the more infamously labeled instances of paid patriotism was the revelation in 2015 that the Pentagon was actually paying the NFL to sponsor Military Appreciation events.
My book opens with that framing, especially in the context of the 15 years post-9/11. It then makes the move to say that even though the United States is an acute example of this, and has in fact influenced others around the world, the relationship between sports and the military is not unique to the United States. My aim for the book was to present an opportunity to think about multiple ways in which the military is woven into the sporting experience worldwide.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Interesting. What are some examples of this that come to mind?
[Dr. Butterworth] One that readily comes to mind is Germany, as an interesting contrast to the United States. The degree to which the German military has integrated with state-supported sports differs strikingly from how the United States does. Many German Olympians are actually members of the military, and that’s because there’s an integrated institutional program to do so. And that’s actually quite common around the world, this integration of military service into civic duty and civilian life, but it’s not the case in the United States. Ironically, concurrent with this lack of military-civilian integration in the United States is the integration of sports and militarism that I described in depth above.
In contrast, in Germany there is no foregrounding of sporting events with militaristic or nationalistic rituals. The degree of nationalistic performance in a US sporting event, such as a routine baseball game, is something you wouldn’t see in a place like Germany. Part of that is the context of a country which, 75 years later, still bears the scars of the Third Reich and Hitler. In general, it is not accepted practice to have a stadium full of tens of thousands of people singing the German national anthem. It connotes too many memories of the ’36 Olympics. It connotes too many memories of the kind of collective nationalistic, ritualized expressions that make people very uncomfortable.
With that said, one of the chapters in that book discusses how the language is actually starting to shift a little bit. When Germany won the men’s World Cup in 2014, some of the sports language began to shift a little bit, in terms of more affirmative uses of military-inspired language. There are other examples across the globe–the military influences in the sport of sumo wrestling in Japan, the historic tensions between paramilitary groups and soccer leagues in Colombia, for instance. So it is a global phenomenon that is constantly evolving, even as it looks different and operates differently across various countries and cultures.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your work as a Professor and as the Director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media, you are also the Vice Chair of the Sports Communication Interest Group for the International Communication Association, and the Director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media for The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication. Could you elaborate on your responsibilities in these roles?
[Dr. Butterworth] Both my position at the International Communication Association and my role as Director at the Center for Sports Communication and Media at UT-Austin are connected to the same disciplinary history. The sub-field that is often called communication and sport or sports communication is relatively new, if you look at the history of communication practice and scholarship from a North American standpoint. We’re primarily thinking about it in terms of the definition provided by the National Communication Association (NCA). It’s only very recently that we are seeing work that regularly focuses on sports. It was the work of other disciplines like sociology, history, philosophy, and sport management that helped set the stage for sports communication to develop as its own discipline of research and practice. It was only in the 1970s that academic inquiry of sports became viewed as a legitimate thing.
Within communication studies, sports communication lagged behind other disciplines in terms of gaining recognition. The sub-field that jumped on board soonest was media, or mass communication as it would have been called then. But by the early 2000s there at least was enough movement that a small group of scholars started to get together to create something called the Summit on Communication and Sport. That started in 2002–it was a group of eight people (I was not among them). They met in Arizona and came from various sub-fields in the discipline to talk about creating an agenda to say, “This is a legitimate side of communication inquiry. Sports is one of the most influential industries in the country. It captures our attention in all kinds of ways. It is a fundamentally communicative phenomenon–why as a field are we not giving this the attention that it deserves?”
Out of that conversation emerged a whole host of things, and to make a longer story much shorter it has led to the Summit on Communication in Sport now being an annual conference. It’s affiliated with the International Association for Communication in Sport (IACS), for which I served as the Founding Executive Director from 2012 to 2015. With the IACS’s establishment of the annual conference, along the way all of the major organizations in communication studies and practice–the NCA, ICA, and AHEAMC, among other organizations–began to form sports communication divisions. The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) was actually the very first to have an interest group or a division in sports communication. Now, all of our major academic organizations in communication and media have a division. What that has allowed us to do is institutionalize, which has led to special conferences, issues of journals, and now even standalone journals like the Communication and Sport, which I think is the leading journal in the subfield.
As the field of sports communication has expanded and organizations in the discipline have formed divisions, there has been an increased need for people to step into leadership roles to help direct and further expand the discipline. I have served in several such leadership positions over the course of my career in sports communication scholarship. For example, Andy Billings and I collaborated to finalize the proposal for a Communication and Sport Division at the NCA. He was the Founding Chair and I was Founding Vice Chair and Division Planner. From 2016 to 2017, I served as the Chair of this Division. I am now serving as Vice Chair of the Sports Communication Interest Group at the ICA, and am working with this organization to host a virtual conference in sports communication to provide people in this discipline (or who are interested in this discipline) the opportunity to present their work, find avenues for publication, and to think about diversifying the field.
Without a doubt, sports communication, or communication in sport, as I tend to refer to it, has made great headway, but I still think we have a long way to go in terms of becoming as robust as fields such as interpersonal, organizational, environmental, family, and health communication. That is a primary goal of these divisions and my role in them. We also, in the ICA’s case, want to internationalize the sports communication discipline in more meaningful ways. A lot of the scholarly work in communication in sports still comes from the Anglo world. We have lots of attention on mainstream sports in the United States, and lots of attention on football and soccer in Anglo-European countries. But we definitely need more work from the global south–we need more representation from the entire continent of Africa. And so these are some of our ongoing goals.
These goals also contribute to some of the things that capture my attention as Director of the Center for Sports Communication in Media. Now my goal or my task there is a little bit different. As a Center in the Moody College of Communication at UT-Austin, we are serving multiple audiences. One of those audiences is the academic audience whom we’re trying to support through funding, research mentorship, networking and events, etc. For example, we provide grants to faculty and graduate students who affiliate. We also put on programming that is designed to feature research, as we want to advance those opportunities for graduate students and faculty. We are also very focused on undergraduate student opportunities: we sponsor a sports media minor on campus, and try to do as much programming as we can that gets students connected to each other and to industry professionals. There is no equivalent to the kind of networking that you can build that way. In that regard, we lean on The University of Texas at Austin’s tremendous alumni base, as well as the people and organizations who are interested in working with us because we have a lot of brand recognition as a university. On a related note, we are also active in developing partnerships with local organizations in Austin and in Texas, including local, state, and national sports media organizations where we can.
The Center for Sports Communication and Media is fairly new–I came here in 2017 as the Founding Director, so we really haven’t been around a long time. Our long-term goal is to be an authoritative, multidimensional, and dynamic resource for sports media students, professionals, and organizations, as well as people who are simply looking for information about how sports function in and impact our society. That includes how we–the sports industry at large–can do better.
When operations are back to normal, we will resume a number of things that we had put in place in recent years to place a spotlight on important conversations about the ways sports can function as a perpetuator of the status quo, or a instigator of social change. We have done symposia about head trauma in football, about sexual assault incidents among Olympic athletes. We also host standalone lectures with people in sports media who deal directly with these and other issues of diversity, social equality/inequality, and social justice within the sports arena. Our goal with these symposia and lectures is to help the next generation of sports journalists and sports communicators to be more ethical practitioners, who are more aware of the existing issues in the industry and how to potentially combat them.
Another way in which the Center for Sports Communication and Media serves the Moody College of Communication is by helping other students in the College to explore communication in sports and how this area intersects with what they might be studying. In the Moody College of Communication, we have five degree-granting units: Communication Studies; Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences; Journalism and Media; Radio, TV, and Film; and Advertising and Public Relations. While Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences tends to be a more clinical field, the other four majors have direct opportunities in the field of sports communication. Some of our students aspire to build careers as sports writers and broadcasters, or to work on the production side of sports journalism, or to work in public relations and advertising for an athletic department or a sports team. There are also students who, like me, are interested in how sports operate in society from a scholarly perspective–the role sports play in society, politics, and culture, and the concepts and values they communicate to participants and audiences.
Whatever a student’s interest in sports communication may be, our job at the Center is to connect them with alumni and successful people in the field to really help them understand the field and build formative relationships. For example, we had Bob Costas here a couple of years ago, to a standing room-only crowd (of course, such a thing wouldn’t be possible now during COVID-19 times). There are very few people who are on the figurative Mount Rushmore of sports media personalities, and Costas is among them. People were just beyond excited to be able to see him. He gave a great, unfiltered talk about his experiences in the industry, and students got a lot out of that. But beyond that, what we also tried to do is find opportunities to say, “Okay, can we get a group of students to sit down and have lunch with him and have a conversation where they can ask their individual questions and get direct input?”
There is value in these direct, more conversational connections because in the back of many students’ minds when they attend a talk like Bob Costas’s is, “What do you recommend I do to be able to have a career like you?” And it’s important to recognize that that career path is, to the say the least, unusual, but there are underlying principles within that path to success that students can benefit from hearing about, especially within the context of what they are learning in the classroom. We have a lot of prominent professionals and alumni as well who come to campus and meet with our students and then stay connected long afterwards. We’re at our best when we’re able to give students an early start on building those relationships and knowing to whom thy can turn in their careers moving forward.
Thank you, Dr. Butterworth, for your excellent insight into the field of communication in sport!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.