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Choi: The remaining assignment

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Over the past year or so, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of being part of the Stanford Daily sports section. Writing for the sports section gave me the opportunity to tell the stories of so many incredibly talented athletes, and I feel privileged to have reaped such access as a student journalist. 

In particular, I enjoyed writing feature stories. Undoubtedly, thrilling moments like buzzer beaters (this one’s my favorite by Kiana Williams from this past season) are one of the most fun to watch. But even these nail-biting moments are more enjoyable once you follow the narratives of the players who go beyond the game. How were they first introduced to the sport? What challenges have they faced? What is their relationship to their teammates? What do they enjoy outside of the sport? It’s always more fascinating to follow the games when you know a little more about the people who are playing.

Surely, many athletes are able to do superhuman things — they tend to be faster and stronger than many people, including myself. The best athletes model good sportsmanship, leadership and resilience, which are qualities to admire. When they win something, it makes their community proud. For these reasons, athletes are frequently revered as heroes. 

And that is all fine, but I do think if we trade the idolization of the athletes for a sincere appreciation of them as members of our community, we’ll find ourselves rooting for teams that we are truly able to call our own.

This is particularly true at Stanford. With most students living in close vicinity to one another, we formed a community where students lead, support, protest, teach and learn from each other. At Stanford, athletes are very much part of this community we formed — they were peers we did p-sets with or who we ate with at Stern Dining. It’s cool in and of itself to watch Katie Ledecky smash her own world records — it gets even cooler when she lived in your freshman dorm. It’s cool to follow Stanford women’s basketball’s four brilliant seniors’ campaign to advance to the Final Four, just as they did at the beginning of their undergraduate journey – it’s even cooler when one of them is your co-writer at The Daily. In that respect, I felt that it was valuable to share stories about Stanford athletes that stretched far beyond their season stats — I felt sports became more meaningful when we could appreciate, learn from, question and listen to athletes as members of our community. 

Most recently, more athletes across the country have begun to use their platforms to engage in conversations that at first glance, may seem outside the boundaries of the game. But we often forget — the game has always been bigger than ball. One of my most important takeaways from writing about Stanford athletes is learning that these athletes have always been members of our community, and that the game they play is only a prism that opens a window to a larger narrative they collectively carry as a group of individuals. 

Whether it’s the female athletes who fight for equal pay, the athletes who vulnerably share their struggles with mental health or the athletes who kneel to protest against police brutality and racism — none of these conversations have ever existed as storylines exclusive to the game. When athletes play the game, they are bringing themselves — and all the narratives they carry as individuals — to the field. This is the same for fans of the game: We, as members of the community, are cheering on for members of our community. Perhaps it’s time we become more honest with ourselves and confront the truth: The game has always been bigger than ball. So let’s talk about it.

As we open these conversations that intersect sports with narratives of our community, we must make it a goal to make the sports community more inclusive to truly reflect all members of our community at large — this includes coverage of sports. As a student journalist, I often prioritized sharing the stories of women or people of color, who oftentimes are overlooked in coverage. At the same time, I cautiously struggled over how I could best respect the athlete to speak about their identity in whatever way they chose. A former editor of The Daily replied in a Q&A that he was cautious to be a “sports writer that happens to be Korean” as opposed to the “Korean sports writer.” Similarly, I walked this fine line whenever I interviewed any athlete. For example, in our Women in Sports series that ran this past March, we were careful to celebrate women in sports while preventing the fact that our interviewees were each a “woman in sports” to be the only narrative unless they personally opted for that story. The athletes allowed me to share their stories, and I wanted it to be authentic to their own narrative. 

With all these thought processes involved, I thought that by telling the story of a diversity of athletes, I was doing the best I could to make coverage inclusive. I told myself that sometimes, the sport itself was not diverse in the first place, so there wasn’t much I could do besides trying to spotlight the few diverse narratives. 

But I believe now, more than ever before, that this is not enough. We need to strategically think about ways that we can push for more diverse narratives in sports in a way that proactively questions the status quo we are given. We need to dig deeper and brainstorm further. We need to be intentional about the stories we produce. One way we can start is by getting more voices and perspectives in the newsroom.

It is my dear hope that we can all work together to intentionally amplify efforts to make newsrooms more inclusive. Over the past few weeks, a number of problems that are intertwined with the lack of diversity in newsrooms have resurfaced. I think it’s important that we all work together on this effort: My fellow graduates, current students, alumni, faculty and staff who may read this, I use my senior column to kindly request that we work together to make decisions that will get more people a seat at the table. In addition, I kindly request that we work together to develop efforts to make everyone feel more included and heard once they get a seat. 

As I write this, I feel like the student who wants to speak in class but hasn’t done the reading. Or the student who makes a strong argument but hasn’t put in the work to support it. That’s exactly right. We know where we need to go, but we have so much work we must put in together. We must continue to educate ourselves by listening, reading and engaging in conversation. There is no clear-cut solution at this point, but there is no doubt we must try. 

I bid farewell to the sort of sandbox Stanford has functioned in my transition to adulthood to now join my fellow classmates to the so-called “real world.” With graduation set online for the time being, I confess I don’t feel the full sense of closure to a chapter of my life. But perhaps, it’s not only the virtual ceremony that makes this moment feel more like a semi-colon than a period. Perhaps, it’s that I leave with one of the largest assignments that has yet to be completed — one that may never fully be complete in the course of my lifetime. Together we enter a world that needs more kindness, equality and justice. We enter a world where we must proactively try to build an inclusive community for ourselves. 

That’s our remaining assignment. 

Addendum: 

Thanks for reading through this piece. 

Here are some journalism organizations supporting diversity in newsrooms that I encourage you to donate and support, if you are able:

National Association of Black Journalists

Asian American Journalists Association

National Association of Hispanic Journalists 

Native American Journalists Association

International Women’s Media Foundation

Contact Inyoung Choi at ichoi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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