The Yang Slinger: Vol. XXXIII
Here's an idea: How about we journalists all agree to make history by retiring "made history" and "making history"? Plus, five questions with JMU beat scribe Noah Fleischman.
This morning, I made history.
While scrambling eggs (with cherry tomatoes), I sang the first few lines of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” as I stared down at my dog Poppy and watched her chew on a piece of paper towel. I did all of this standing in my kitchen wearing mismatched socks. One of the socks was white and cut off at the ankle. The other sock had the UNLV logo in red. I purchased the socks with the red UNLV logo for my son Emmett about eight months ago. He did not like the socks with the red UNLV logo, therefore I kept them.
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In other words, for the first time in Earth’s 4.543 billion-year run, a 50-year-old man standing in a Southern California kitchen scrambled eggs (with cherry tomatoes) while dressed in a single white sock with the red UNLV logo (socks he purchased for his son—only to have that purchase rejected), as he sang the first few lines of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” and watched his dog Poppy chew on a paper towel.
History made, bitches.
And if you think I’m being snide for the sake of a weekly Substack entry … eh, you’re right. I am being snide for the sake of a weekly Substack entry. In fact, for the first time in Earth’s 4.543 billion-year run, a Jewish man who shaved exactly 22 minutes and 14 (now 15 … now 16 … now 17 …) seconds before sitting down at his purple-Sharpe-stained Ikea desk is being snide for the sake of writing a Substack entry about sports media’s dependence on the phrase “made/making history.”
I … keep … making … history.
Can’t help it.
OK, so that was fun.
But the terms “made history” and “making history” are not fun. They’re ridiculous, overused and (save for the rarest of rarest of rarest occasions) not particularly true. They’re trite, thoughtless, lame, robotic and ubiquitous. We, as journalists, have fallen into the awful habit of labeling the not-even-close-to-historic as “historic,” without reason or context. Every team that wins a World Series has made history. Every pitcher who throws a one-hitter, too. If you’ve scored the most points as a Sacramento King against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday away games in March—history made.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Find this a bit much?
Don’t want to take my word for it?
Jan. 1, 1977—Gazette News-Current …
March 17, 1999—San Angelo Standard-Times
Jan. 5, 1965—Sidney Daily News
Feb. 6, 1984—Sapulpa Daily Herald
Nov. 13, 1981—Press and Sun-Bulletin
The above are five of (and I’m not exaggerating this figure) 1,023,990 moments in the vast newspapers.com database when a writer noted that someone “made history.” The similarly diabolical “making history” only appears 524,624 times. And if there is a lord above, let us not forget the greatest misuse of “making history” in the history history’s historic scope of historic humanity—that night in 2010 when the members of the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block made history by …
… performing together at the American Music Awards.
The merging of the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys isn’t history, or even slightly historic. To Super Glue a pair of dreadful, lip-synching has-been boy bands on one stage is as unhistoric as unhistoric gets. It’s a three-game hitting streak by Stephen Piscotty. It’s a Young MC B-side. It’s the George Washington Bridge upping its toll by a dime.
But this is what we do.1
In the leadup to this Sunday’s Super Bowl, I have been made aware that Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes are “making history” as the first Black quarterbacks to start against one another (Adam Kilgore—Washington Post), Travis Kelce and Jason Kelce are “making history” as the first brothers to face off against one another (Matt Coutee—Fox 4), the Eagles Autism Foundation is “making history” for, um, reasons sorta unknown (Sage Hurley—phialdelphiaeagles.com), TICO Sports is “making history” by providing the official Spanish radio broadcast for both the Chiefs and the Eagles (Dia Wall—kshb.com), an all-female aircrew will be “making history” by being, well, the first all-female aircrew to fly over the Super Bowl (Alex Coleman—wreg.com), Nicole Lynn of Klutch Sports is “making history” as the first Black woman to serve as an agent for a Super Bowl player (Martise Bowser—Sacramento Bee), Autumn Lockwood is “making history” as the first Black woman to coach in a Super Bowl (Sanjesh Singh—nbcsports.com) and (my personal favorite) Super Bowl LVII will, itself, be making history as the first Super Bowl to take place in a state with legalized sports betting (Max Meyer—caesars.com).
Where’s Blair Buswell when we need him?
And, to be clear, I’m not saying some of the “making history” moments aren’t cool and worthwhile. Even important. As a guy who vividly recalls Jan. 31, 1988, when Washington’s Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to start a Super Bowl, I think it’s terrific Hurts and Mahomes are squaring off. I also think we can acknowledge inspired (and important) signs of progress that Lockwood is coaching and Lynn is repping. Even the flyover thing tingles my toes.
But “making history”?
First, the term doesn’t work—and as journalists it’s fairly important that we work. “If history is in the past, how can you currently do it?” said Ted Spiker, the chair of the University of Florida’s journalism department. “That’s the problem with most cliches—it doesn’t even make sense.”
I consulted 10 historians of varied backgrounds, and Spiker’s point is the one reiterated most often—that “making history” is an impossibility, because history cannot be judged beforehand or even as the act is taking place. By definition, history—according to dictionary.com—is “the branch of knowledge dealing with past events.” So while we can believe that, perhaps, one day the Hurts-Mahomes matchup will be deemed “history” or “historic,” it is impossible to know such in advance. “For most things that historians deal with, measurement or ‘firsts’ aren’t really what matters most,” said Joshua Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Alabama. “You could say that something like Obama’s election or the Wright brothers’ flight ‘made history,’ of course, and that would be true. But for a historian, those kinds of things are just the facts out of which history is constructed. They’re significant achievements, sure, but historians are more interested in what those things mean than they are in the things themselves.”
A perfect example is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed “I Have A Dream” speech, which took place in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963. In the week leading up to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, not one newspaper referred to King’s pending remarks as “history” or “historic” or “will make history.” How could they? His speech had yet to be delivered. No one actually knew what would happen/how it would happen. Hell, King wasn’t even the marquee speaker. It wasn’t until days/weeks/months/years later that we, as a people, were able to agree that King “made history.” In fact, a newspapers.com search for “King made history” in relation that that specific afternoon shows a first-time reference date of Aug. 26, 1983, when Brian Butters of the Windsor Star wrote that, “and having spoken from the heart about his dream to the largest crowd ever assembled in the history of the movement, King made history.”
If you want to narrow this to sports, take the New York Jets upsetting the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III—the first time an AFC team defeated an NFC team in the big clash. The game, scheduled for Jan. 12, 1969 at the Orange Bowl, was spiced up by Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteeing a victory. But not one newspaper scribe deemed the boast “historic,” or even hinted that, should New York somehow prevail, the win would be “historic.” Why? Because how could anyone possibly know? Colts-Jets had yet to be played.
“I would say historians—the kind who have PhDs, teach at universities, and write books (often really goods ones) that few people read—don't use the term [make history] way you are suggesting,” said Bryant Simon, a professor of history at Temple University. “We are bit more cautious and deliberate at marking moments of change. ‘Change’ for us is typically more systemic and long-lasting. In fact, most historians use terms like ‘turn-point’ or ‘critical moment.’ Examples would be the Battle of Stalingrad or the introduction of the Model T or Elvis' first Sun Studios single. These are developments or moments that shook the foundations of society, moments perhaps when everything that came before them are the past.”
Could Namath’s words, followed by the shocking win, be deemed a turning point? Yes.
Could they even be historic? I guess.
Was he “making history”? No.
Another issue with our industry’s addiction to “making history” is it’s simply meh writing. “I would delete it and tell the student to let the facts speak for themselves or push them for original writing,” said Spiker, the Florida prof. “It’s an opportunity to play with language and come up with a clever/voice-y turn of phrase.”
Added Lars Anderson, the veteran author and University of Alabama journalism professor: “I stay away from the term, because it’s overused and serves as a verbal and literary crutch. Always challenge yourself to make stale language fresh.”
One of the best lessons I ever learned as a young journalist came during my junior year at the University of Delaware, when I sent my clips to Mike Freeman, a UD alum who was writing for the New York Times. Mike marked up everything, and the recurring message—there before my eyes in thick black ink and scolding underline—was as wise as it was painful: If something comes too easily, it’s probably lazy slop.
“Making history” is lazy slop.
Put differently, there are always new, unique and intelligent ways to explain something. So is Travis Kelse (Chiefs) and Jason Kelce (Eagles) playing in a Super Bowl actually making history? Like, is that the best we can do as journalists? Or are there ways we can break it down and make it far more tangible? For example, Kelce v. Kelce is the first time (in the TK-year history of the NFL, which has featured TK brothers playing simultaneously) that brothers have met. Find me a mathematician and crack open the odds of brother v. brother happening. Find me the siblings who came closest—gimme their sagas. Track down a geneticist to lay out the genetic freakiness of it all. What are the odds? How unlikely is this? How crazy is this? Have the Kelces answer 10 questions about one another. Have them arm wrestle. Blow bubbles. Recite Menudo lyrics backward.
Paint the fucking picture with words, with data, with vividness.
Not with dull cliche.
Oh, one more important point in this section: The winner of Sunday’s Super Bowl will not have made history for merely winning the Super Bowl. There are 32 NFL teams. There will have been 57 of these things played. Every … single … year someone wins and someone loses. So, no, the Rams did not make history last year. The Buccaneers did not make history the year before that. For fuck’s sake, it’s far more historic (well, baffling) that the Lions and Browns have existed since the heyday of the Edsel while never so much as sniffing a Super Bowl.
Moment of silence for Lam Jones.
I think my biggest problem with “making history” is how it dilutes the meaning of genuine history. When Barack Obama was elected America’s first Black president, that was clearly historic. Not merely because it was a first, but because America was built on the backs of the enslaved, and non-whites have enjoyed equal protections under the law for a jarringly brief period of time. So here, in this Senator from Illinois, was a new America.
If I check Pro Football Reference, I can see that Jalen Hurts has played in 45 NFL games; that Patrick Mahomes has played in 80. They’ve been around. They’ve accomplished things others have not. There have actually already been six Black men to start at quarterback in the Super Bowl (Mahomes included), and Hurts will be the seventh. So is the matchup of two Black signal callers “making history,” or is it more of “monumental, noteworthy development that shows racist NFL assholes are no longer switching Black college quarterbacks to safety and halfback”? Like, years and years from now, will historians be writing papers about that Sunday in February of 2023 when Mahomes and Hurts met?
Instead, it will (I’m guessing) be viewed as a special moment on the sports enlightenment/diversity/opportunity continuum. What began as Fritz Pollard and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, what continued as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, what followed with Bill Russell walking the sidelines for the Boston Celtics and Frank Robinson managing the Cleveland Indians, with Williams winning the MVP in Super Bowl XXII … has (finally) led us here. Which, though it took far too long, should be celebrated. It’s a milestone. No doubt.
But this is what we, the sports media, do far too often. We take something outstanding (or, eh, grotesque) and suggest it’s “making history.” We buy into the narrative the leagues feed us (NFL press releases often speak in irrationally historic terms) without stopping to think, “Wait—is this historic, or merely a first?” We get caught up in the hype, the snazz, the buzz—and before long we’re regurgitating tropes that never should have touched a screen or piece of paper.
“There are a handful of things that historians will point to when they happen as ‘history-making’ or the kind of thing that will be in future textbooks ( 9/11, Obama's election, Jan 6, etc.), but the bar tends to be fairly high,” said Matt Delmont, a distinguished professor of history at Dartmouth. “Maybe the distinction is between ‘notable’ and ‘historic’ Whoever wins the Super Bowl will be notable because there have only been 57, but it won't be historic.”
The Quaz Five with … Noah Fleischman
1. So you cover JMU, and for a moment this year it looked like maybe, just maybe, they had a team with legit high-level DI possibilities. I'm curious: Were you ever sold that they were THAT good?: It was definitely an interesting season to cover JMU, which made the jump from the FCS to the FBS and did it in a unique way. They were the first team to not take a transition year in scheduling, so they played 10 FBS teams and just one FCS team. Going into the year, I thought they were bound to only nab three or four wins, but they started the fall on a five-game winning streak and ended up inside the AP Top 25 for the first time ever. But then injuries started to mount and the team’s lack of depth was exposed at certain positions. I think they had a chance to make a lot more noise if they didn’t have key injuries in the middle of the season, which led to a three-game losing streak. Once those players returned, the team closed the season with three wins in a row, which would have been good enough to make the conference championship game, but they weren’t eligible due to it being their first year in the FBS. So yes, I was sold after the 5-0 start, but quickly saw the difference in play from the top level of FCS to the FBS, where backups need to be just as good, talent-wise, as the starting group. I do think they have the chance to be on the national stage very soon.
2. The world needs to know—what's it like covering Takal Molson?: Haha! Takal Molson is definitely a character, but in a good way. For those that don’t know, he’s the elder statesman of JMU’s men’s basketball team and seems to always come up clutch when they need him to. That could be a game with just five points and 14 rebounds or one with 18 points and nine assists like he had on Thursday night. He's a joy to talk to and cover.
3. You graduated from VCU in 2022 with a mass comm degree and journalism goals. This profession isn't exactly booming. Why did you decide to pursue it?: It was something that I fell in love with in high school after being placed in a journalism class my freshman year. Growing up, I hated writing. But once I took that class, I realized reporting was something that I enjoyed. As college time rolled around, I knew it wasn’t a career that I was going to get filthy rich from like some of my classmates could from being a doctor or other things, but it was something that I was passionate about. Since I’ve been covering JMU's athletic programs at the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., it’s only reinforced that this is a profession that I want to be in for as long as I can do it. I enjoy reporting and looking deeper into a topic or person, which is what keeps me motivated to keep going in an industry that is evolving as time moves on.
4. You were the sports editor at VCU's student newspaper. Back when I was in college, you'd walk thru a dining hall and see EVERYONE reading physical papers. And I wonder—in modern times, do students still read college papers? And, in your opinion, should they continue to print?: This is definitely a good question. It’s actually interesting because some students that we’d talk to wouldn’t even realize a student newspaper existed on campus. I do think that college newspapers should continue to print, but after I graduated, The Commonwealth Times switched from a weekly newspaper to a biweekly newspaper, which was sad to see, but with a small staff it made sense. We’d stay up until the wee hours on Tuesday nights while I was at VCU, making sure the pages were ready to go for Wednesday’s print edition. I still have almost EVERY SINGLE physical copy from my four years in college — 3.5 at The Commonwealth Times before I accepted the job at the Daily News-Record in December of my senior year with six months to go before graduation. There’s just something different about holding the paper in your hands then reading everything online, which also is a great resource, but I’m team physical paper.
5. What's the dream for you, journalism-wise? What do you aspire to do?: Early on in high school, my dream was to work at Sports Illustrated. I loved reading the magazine each week, waiting for it to come in the mailbox. But as time went on, I quickly enjoyed reading The Athletic, which emerged during my sophomore/junior year of high school and loved the style that it had. As I sit here now, I want to eventually end up as a national baseball or football reporter, being able to report on and write long, in-depth features. In the meantime, being a beat writer is something that I’ve learned so much in doing, which has helped me grow in a short time frame since I jumped on the JMU beat while I was still in school. So working my way on to an MLB or NFL beat writing job down the line would be the short term goal before dreaming of a more national-style reporting role.
A random old article worth revisiting …
With the Chiefs playing in this Sunday’s Super Bowl, I thought it’d be worth remembering Joe Delaney, the Kansas City standout halfback who died on June 29, 1983. Delaney didn’t merely pass—he passed heroically, diving into a lake (despite not knowing how to swim) to try and save several children. This piece, from Ron Higgins of The Shreveport Journal, tells the story well …
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Luke Lawhorn, University of Texas—San Antonio
So Luke is the sports editor of The Paisano, UTSA’s student newspaper. And what’s he’s doing that 100 percent strikes my fancy is … covering the San Antonio Spurs for the paper. Which is absolutely brilliant, and something more college journalists should go for in their markets. Like, there’s no reason Temple and Villanova students shouldn’t try chronicling the 76ers, no reason UCLA journalists shouldn’t hit up Dodger Stadium.
Most, however, don’t.
This, from the Feb. 4 Paisano …
One can follow Luke on Twitter here.
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: So ESPN’s Wright Thompson throws everything he’s got into a story, and his latest profile of former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana is no exception. The dude just knows how to report/write at the highest level. Writes Wright …
Musing 2: Stephen A. Smith isn’t wrong here. At all. But he is just so insufferable. SAS oftentimes reminds me of late-1990s Mike Lupica in his need to speak on behalf of all journalists—when he certainly does not.
Musing 3: I’m way late to this, but Russ Bengtson—my longtime pal, former Slam Magazine editor, author of an upcoming book on basketball footwear and a longtime sneaker collector—has been leaving his valuable NBA shoes various places. Just to make someone’s day. It’s classic Russ—and classy.
Musing 4: NPR’s “White Lies” is my all-time favorite podcast, and hosts Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck have returned with a second season—this time traveling back in time to August 21, 1991, when a group of Cuban detainees took over a prison in Talladega, Alabama, and demanded freedom. It’s, once again, brilliant.
Musing 5: This George Santos Tweet received more than 5,000 LIKES—which means more than 5,000 people are insane.
Odds are George Santos tells people he is president.
Musing 7: The New York Times’ Charles Blow is always good for some thought-provoking work, and his recent piece, DEAD MEN AT THE STATE OF THE UNION, is fantastic. Writes Blow: “What people are aiming for now are lesser measures on issues like funding and training. But, make no mistake, these would be tinkerings, if they could pass at all. All the while, Black bodies, from Henry Truman’s to Tyre Nichols’s, continue to pile up, and America becomes resigned to lip service at best and silence at worst.”
Musing 8: Hot damn—this call from Tim Moore! Perfect.
Musing 9: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang stars the Washington Post’s Nicki Jhabvala, the Commanders beat writer who’s covering the Super Bowl as you read this. Listen here.
Quote of the week …
“At one point, you've gotta look yourself in the mirror and realize you've built a life where you're reading Nets tweets at 3 a.m.”
To be 100-percent clear, I’ve certainly done it, too.