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How do media impact sports in Canada?

MRU profs and alumni expose the effects of commercial interests on athleticsSports participation is down and the fortunes of the Canadian media are increasing tied to both owning and selling sports. Does this result in too much influence on this country’s overall perception of amateur and professional athletics?

Several well-known industry figures including Mount Royal University professors and alumni are answering this question – plus many more – in a collection of essays titled How Canadians Communicate Sports (the fifth installment of the How Canadians Communicate anthologies), which cover everything from how sports are reported (will the CBC be able to remain a player?) to how the voyeuristic draw of incidences of drugs, violence and death both attracts and repels viewers. And because of our fascination with pucks and frozen ice – and our excellent track record in the sport – there is, of course, a complete section of five different works dedicated to this nation’s cultural phenomenon that is Hockey Night in Canada.

How Canadians Communicate Sports (the fifth installment of the How Canadians Communicate anthologies).

"Sport plays such a huge role in the way Canadians think about themselves. I think it really helps us define who we are. And this book does such a wonderful job of breaking down the influence of media coverage of sports on Canadian culture and identity,” says Brad Clark, broadcasting and journalism chair at Mount Royal University.

“Every chapter takes you inside a different aspect of Canadian sports, like the early days of professional wrestling in Canada, or the rise of fantasy sports leagues."

Receiving national recognition and considerable media attention in its own right, How Canadians Communicate Sports was released in 2015. Mount Royal journalism professor David Taras, PhD and the Ralph Klein Media Studies Chair, was co-editor along with Christopher Waddell, former national editor of the Globe and Mail, former parliamentary bureau chief for CBC television, and current Carleton University journalism professor.

“The book is a look inside Canadian society, a look inside Canadian identity, it asks all the hard questions about media and sports, about athletes, about parents and about physical health,” says Taras, who notes the extensive work of Mount Royal faculty and alumni in the anthology.

“Many of our contributors have strong views and have done a lot of research on the subject. MRU really helped steer this book,” says Taras, who also believes a big part of the anthology’s success stems from contributions put forth by Waddell.

“He was the one who got us, the ‘who’s who.’ Having someone like Roy MacGregor ― a columnist for the Globe and Mail who has written a lot about Canadian identity ― is pretty special,” says Taras.

MacGregor’s essay, “Troubles in the Toy Department: Conflicts of Interest, the Triumph of Trivia, and the Changing Face of Sports Journalism,” delves into what it’s like to be on the front lines of sports journalism. He outlines the degree to which we look at the relationship between media and sports, using examples where media companies now own sports franchises.

“It’s created a lot of difficulties for journalists, on one hand there is pressure to be a journalist and on the other there’s pressure to be a promotor,” says Taras.

Sports can be a controversial battleground, says Taras, and is a way of taking a look at how we live.

Mount Royal Policy Studies chair, Duane Bratt, PhD, is also a contributor. In his essay, “Questioning Assumptions: A Comparison of Canadian and American University Sports,” Bratt looks at major differences between the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports) leagues.

One is not better than the other, Bratt says. Although demonstrating that for the athletic experience, the NCAA is better, and that the spectacle is substantially bigger in the NCAA, the overall educational experience is better in the CIS. The student life experience is different between the two, and there are several reasons that explain these differences: private/public schools vs. public schools, national sport systems, location of schools, and even drinking laws.

“I had assumed that the vast amounts of money that big-time NCAA football and basketball programs brought in was shared with the university as a whole. Or even with the rest of the sports program,” says Bratt.

“Instead, in very few cases was money used to buy dentist chairs or library books, or even to fund a gymnastics coach. Instead, the sports that brought in the money, kept the money. This is why a football team has a massive sole-use weight room and 12 coaches, while smaller sports struggle with part-time coaches.”

When asked to provide a preview of what readers can expect when diving into this book, Bratt reminds us that often Canadians don’t know everything there is to know about our own sporting culture.

“The grass is not always greener on the other side. We often look at the NCAA with envy. After all, the crowds are huge, the quality of play is high, there is glamour. This is why there are NCAA fans in Canada.”

In total, nine of the 20 entries to How Canadians Communicate Sports have been created by Mount Royal professors past and present or alumni. Taras believes this reflects the expertise and passion that the scholars at Mount Royal have.

“At the end of the day we looked at all the top questions, we didn’t duck anything. We might not have answers but we pose some tough questions.”

Taras opens the book with an introduction arguing for the transformation of the Canadian Football League into a league entirely employed by Canadians. His students will be using the text in an upcoming winter course, looking at journalism, media and public policy and digging deep into how Canadians view sports.

Oct. 31, 2016 ― Jonathan Anderson