As I am revising my book-length manuscript, The Literate Practices of Big-Time College Sports, I am tossing aside some sections that just aren’t fitting with the larger project. Here is the second of these sections. (see my previous post on copyright and scripted sports plays).
In her Computers and Composition article “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetorics and Circulation Studies” (2013) and award-winning book Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetoric (2015), Laurie E. Gries reports data from her five-year case study on the digital circulation of the iconic image Obama Hope, designed by Shepard Fairey and used in Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign. For Gries (2013), circulation studies examines how discourse is “produced and distributed” (Gries 2013, 333) and how “once delivered, [discourse] circulates, transforms, and affects change through its material encounters” (Gries 2013, 333). Often theorists conceptualize delivery as the explicit handing-over of text from the rhetor to the audience; ancient western rhetors conceptualized delivery as such, and John Trimbur (2000) talks of delivery as “getting [writing] delivered to where it needs to go” (189). However, Gries and others like Jim Ridolfo (2015) are invested in following the text after delivery and are thus “pushing . . . to trace and follow things’ dynamic movement” (Gries 2015, 19).
At the core of Gries’s work is her commitment to studying how images spread and go viral. She helpfully contributes a definition of going viral—a phrase creeping close to an empty signifier—by offering that “we reserve the descriptor going viral for things that are highly mobile, contagious, replicable, metacultural, and reflexive” (Gries 2015, 285). Building on this stipulative definition, she suggests in her conclusion that “we can learn to spread our messages more widely by thinking more carefully about how circulation unfolds in a digital age and making delivery a forethought in our composing practices” (Gries 2015, 285). Certainly, Gries methodologically and theoretically grounds her work in much different terrain than I do; however, I turn to Gries here because I see two strands connecting her work as representative of the current state of circulation studies and my own. These strands further conversations on burgeoning interest in circulation studies and forecast avenues for future research into the literate practices of big-time college sports.
The first strand asks a seemingly simple question that I explore more in my book: how do scripted sports plays go viral only a little bit? In other words, coaches script plays for the use of the many players on a team. Through a variety of means, coaches disseminate these plays to their plays and leverage specific technologies to accomplish this circulation. But then the circulation has gotta stop; the opposing team, for example, can’t get the play. So, I wonder, what rhetorical or technological practices are in play to allow a play to go viral—just a little bit.
The second strand connecting Gries’s work and my own offers a potential avenue for future research. Digital delivery and circulation drive Gries’s study. Her work in grounded in the digital age. Graphics editing software, social media, and video-sharing websites pushed Obama Hope through the fiber optics cables linking our screens to the Internet and plastered this iconic image—and all the many reimaginings of this image—onto and into our city walls, our clothing, our screens, our lives. Images certainly circulated prior to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and all the many memes to which these platforms gave rise; however, like the printing press of the late fifteenth century, the digital age sparked an increase in how and how rapidly images proliferate. Against this digital age backdrop, Gries allows us to see new ways of writing and how writing works. Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle DeVoss (2009), offer a rich and succinct description of how the digital age has refigured writing: “composing in the digital age is different than traditional practices of composing. Rhetorical practices in a digital age are different than traditionally conceived. Electronic copy-and-pasting, downloading, and networked filesharing change the dynamics or writing and, importantly, of delivery” (n.p.). I could turn to any number of scholars for such a descriptive quote. I turn to Ridolfo and DeVoss because of how they link writing in the digital age with issues of delivery, the final canon of ancient western rhetorics and a gateway into considering circulation. As Gries and Ridolfo and DeVoss argue, digital writing refigures circulation.
College sports, much like professional sports, is slowly creeping into the digital age. Again, innovation comes slowly to sports. The NFL partners with Microsoft and now pushes the Surface tablets on players and coaches. Instead of huddling on the sidelines over binds of papers, coaches and players are huddling around a screen. But the NFL is the exception and many college programs engage in traditional literacy practices: pens, pencils, dry erase boards, binders, and piles and piles of paper. How might the literate practices of big-time college sports—with an eye toward circulation studies—change once programs and coaches adopt digital methods of creating, drafting, delivering, and circulating writing?
In a November 2013 article posted on USAToday.com, Jon Swartz offers a glimpse into how the University of Georgia’s football team has adopted the use of Apple products. Swartz describes a video suite down the hall from the head football coach’s office complete with 64 video screens powered by MacBook Pros, Mac Pros, and iMacs. Georgia uses the technology to serve various needs: recruiting future student-athletes, watching game and practice film, scouting opposing teams, and disseminating playbooks.
Georgia is not unique. Since 2013, other schools leaped into the digital age. LSU partnered with Overtime Software to develop a free app found on the App Store: the Les Miles Method, named after their head football coach. Other big-time programs quickly followed suit; Arizona State, for example, also partnered with Overtime Software, and released a free app on the App Store called Graham 360, also named after the school’s head football coach Todd Graham. Arizona State released their app less than a month after LSU released theirs. Schools such as USC and UCLA fly drones over their practice fields to capture still and video images of their practices, an innovative move certainly but also one that has the FAA a tad worried and struggling to forward effective legislation without crippling the burgeoning drone industry.
What I am particularly interested in here in regards to technology, college sports, and circulation studies, is the migration of plays from physical playbooks to tablets. Some football programs have made this migration but few basketball programs have. The head of the men’s basketball team at the University of North Georgia, Chris Faulkner, doesn’t use tablets and relies on traditional forms of writing (largely dry erase boards and a rainbow of dry erase markers) to communicate written plays to his players. I have yet to see or hear of a basketball program using tablets to disseminate plays or watch clips of game-action during a game, like college football programs do.
Coach Faulkner scripting a play during halftime of a game against Clayton State.
So we have two connected lines of future research grounded in circulation studies, which ask how technology use impacts the circulation of plays as text. The first line considers college football and the growing movement toward disseminating plays and entire playbooks via tablets. This first line asks how tablets facilitate the circulation of the play as text in ways that meet the rhetorical needs of the rhetor(s) and audience. The second line considers college basketball, a sport with little engagement with digital technologies to disseminate plays. This second line asks how traditional forms of writing facilitate the circulation of plays as text in ways that also meet the rhetorical needs of the rhetor(s) and audience. Again, pairing these questions offers a rich picture of how circulation looks through traditional and digital writing but also reveal a great deal about the different rhetorical needs present in the two largest and most lucrative college sports.