Monday, March 14, 2005

Runners Response

Moroccan-American Khalid Khannouchi

Thank you to everyone who left a comment on the Runner’s World critique post. I just want to clarify some points and respond to a few of your comments.

My motivation in posting the Runner’s World critique was two fold. First, I am an assistant track & field (distance) and cross country coach at an inner-city high school school in San Francisco. Our student athletes are predominantly Chinese, Pilipino, African-American, Latino and mixed race kids. Mixed race in SF in 2005 can be everything from Russian-SPI, to Irish-Asian to Afro-Mexican. These are kids who achieve amazing results without the benefits of ideal practice facilities (the “track” is either a borrowed city college facility, or the streets–right alongside traffic, triple jumpers work out on the public beach). They need magazines that encourage and represent them as runners.

I take the bus with them, run workouts, hang out after practice and get to know their tastes over the course of some pretty long and intense seasons. I know for a fact that they’re far more inspired by the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods and even Trinidadian-American (new 400 meter record holder) Kerron Clement than most of what they read in Runner’s World. I feel its RW’s job to reach out to potential and growing running communities, to make everyone feel included weather or not they nosh PowerBars or have the latest Asics Gel Keyano’s.

There was a time when tennis and golf were considered “white” sports, and the media (Sports Illustrated aside) have, by-in-large, reinforced this image until recently. Now, you can’t pick up a sports magazine without seeing a William’s Sister on it. Not true in Runner’s World. They’re not encouraging or representing a highly successful class of athletes in their field, and this is detrimental to the kids I coach, the future Tiger’s, Kelli White’s and Khalid’s.

My second motivation was spark a debate about what we see in mainstream magazines, and challenge what we see based on the real world around us. One of the functions of institutional racism in America is to perpetuate the myths of the dominant economic class at the expense of the poor majority. Furthermore, these myths (namely that whites should always been the chosen representatives in media marketing) fly in the face of the majority brown population in the United States. Magazine’s like Runner’s World seem content to hang on to a manufactured vision of America (and its runners) that isn’t the world we actually live or run in.

In my opinion, it’s necessary to single out injustices done by those with the most at stake. To protest rainforest destruction caused by cattle grazing in the Amazon, it makes sense that one target McDonalds, a corporation that profits from every tree felled. Likewise, to draw attention to sweatshop labor it made sense to embarrass Wal-Mart and Nike. Hence, I chose Runner’s World to raise the debate about who is represented in niche sports magazines, and in particular how RW stacks up against other as successful magazines like ESPN, Slam, 90 Minutes (Soccer) etc. in terms of ethnic representation.

Now on to some responses to your excellent opinions:


Response:--Nah, with all due respect, it would be too easy to just "let it go." This blog is about confronting what's wrong with the dominant culture, and the presumptions made by those with money and authority about culture I participate and help make. I don't think we public citizens need to cede our moral authority to corporate entities (or misguided semi-independent running magazines) supposedly looking out for our best interests, and whose focus group & groupthink mentality reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. If Runner's World wants me to race with them to the societal bottom, I have the right and duty to zag off course. That's what I'm trying to do here. You know, lets spark some debate, and not take for granted what some want to offer as the status quo.

Comment: "So by your own argument - that the top runners are black, so why exclude them - you have your answer. The magazine isn't catering to them and doesn't pretend to. It is catering to the larger group which will make them more money - fat upper-middle-class white people who will keep buying the magazine"

Response: But Runner's World covers road racing (all distances) and marathons every issue, so its obviously catering to runners who run those races, many of the top finishers of which are African, Latin, Asian and other races. Yet all I ever see in Runner's World are articles on Dan Brown and Shayne Culpepper, who are usually third, fourth, sixth, twenty-fifth etc in their fields. I mean, I'm not naive--I get their formula--put attractive light skinned people on the cover and in prominent articles, because it’s perceived as “safe”, or “inoffensive” to the average consumer. And this assumption that RW is promoting and buying into begs a lot of questions. All I'm pointing out is that this is a highly suspect and potentially bankrupt set of decisions RW’s making. I base this opinion on my real-world experience at races, and as a coach. Runners World have decided to only market themselves to a fraction of the actual professional and amateur running public, and that, in my opinion, is misguided at best, and racial biased at worst.

Comment: “I am their target audience- I like the training articles, the motivation articles, the crazy-pro-of-the-month articles. I would buy them if they had covers representing all the races out there racing. Who do they think I am?"

Response: You got it. Part of my point is that Runner's World might think their audience is primarily white, middle class suburban runners, but that’s not what you and I see. The world has changed, and quickly. Fact: more and more non-whites are running for sport and fun than ever before. As the commenter mentioned, go to any gym, and even, increasingly, your average 5K, 10K or half marathon, and you'll see runners of all races. This is the new status quo, and Runner's World is not representing it. Why should they? Because the old Wall Street formula of selling mainstream magazines based on a lily-white public persona is the product of media consolidation beginning in the '80s. Its 2005, the game has changed.

Comment: “The Xterra is made by Nissan, not Toyota."

Response: You are correct, I was in error. Post updated.

I also got a lot letters to the effect of “why do you care, RW just wants to make a buck. They don’t care about image or content, it’s a business.” And my response to that was pretty clear in the original post. I’m in the magazine business. You can thrive without selling out. You can be profitable and truthful at the same time.