Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sports reporting that idealizes rural America

Two recent sports stories from the New York Times struck me as interesting in relation to their angle on small town America. The first, about a high school football powerhouse in northern Kansas, appeared on the paper's front page recently. In a way, it's just another story about football madness in the "fly over states," but the reporter also provides demographic and economic context for the town of Smith Center (population 1,931), where the football team just won its 52d consecutive game. While its economy isn't diversified, and its population is shrinking, the school district is actually growing a bit (high school enrollment: 154). Some attribute this modest growth to a new ethanol plan nearby, others to a transcendental meditation center set to open next year. Perhaps my favorite part of the story is the quote from the coach: "What we do around here real well is raise kids." What he says next, though, is rather sad, and also explains, perhaps, the decline in population: “In fact, we do such a good job at it — and I’m talking about the parents and community — that they go away to school and succeed, and then pursue opportunities in the bigger cities."

The second story plays up "rurality" in the context of a story that is less centrally about a rural place than the football story. The story is about Ryan Shay, the 28-year-old elite runner who died in the Olympic marathon trials last weekend in New York City. Ryan grew up in the town of Central Lake, Michigan, population 990, and the reporter begins by focusing on his hometown's response to his death. That is just a poignant jumping off point, however, for a story that is more about the athlete as a person, his extraordinary career, and the circumstances of his death.

I think both stories illustrate, perhaps to differing degrees, nostalgia for our rural past and how rurality still attracts and sells -- even in the context of sports reporting.

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