Chad Capellman spoke with Jon Solomon, Editorial Director, Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute. Jon came to the Institute after a sportswriting career that included stops at The Birmingham (Ala.) News and in South Carolina at the State in Columbia and the Independent-Mail in Anderson.

Most recently, Jon worked as a national college football reporter at and was vice president of the Football Writers Association of America. At The Birmingham (Ala.) News, Jon twice won Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative stories.

Jon shared his perspective on the giants of college football, Clemson and Alabama — both of which he covered, on the role of college sports in states with no major professional sports teams and how even trees aren’t always safe during heated rivalries.

Jon also talked about the transition away from a sportswriting career, and the important work done in general by the Aspen Institute, and in particular in the Sports and Society Program. Jon spoke of some enduring take-aways from the recently completed Project Play Summit, and as kind enough to offer some thoughtful, first-person insights into how parents can better equip themselves to best support their children’s approach to playing sports.



Podcast Highlights

2:45 – On seeing the rise of Clemson Football and the force that they’ve become: “I thought back to that it was it was really surreal when I was at their first national championship that they won with Deshaun Watson the last-second touchdown,  with one second left and they beat Alabama in Tampa (in 2017), which also happened to be the final college football game I ever covered, too.” 

“So it’s sort of like this all coming together. That was my first beat that I covered at Clemson and then it ended up being the last game that I ever covered in college football. So I didn’t know it at the time. But it was this neat little package. They’ve always cared very passionately about football at Clemson. And I can’t say that I could see *this* coming. I actually was, you know, somewhat skeptical of Dabo Swinney being hired as the head coach because he just had no coordinating experience, much less head coaching experience. But I knew from having covered him some – he was an assistant coach near the end of my time as a beat writer there – that he was very personable. Players loved him. He could get on players, but also could talk to them. And so it wasn’t incredibly far-fetched to me. But there’s no way I could have predicted that they would have become what they’ve become now.”

5:10 – On the role of data in sportswriting in the digital age: “I’ve always enjoyed collecting data and, you know, research and numbers that could tell bigger stories and that users could come back to be able to see. USA Today does this really well. You know, another guy we know, Steve Berkowitz, he’s been great at this with the databases they produce for coaching salaries, you know, in football or athletic director salaries or athletic department budgets. And so I would play around with some things like that, nowhere near as sophisticated as what Berko’s done there. But numbers around, you know, like cost of attendance, stipends in college sports, doing Freedom of Information Act requests with all the public universities in the country that I could get to and having it all in one spot and just sort of became this place where you could come back to. And it sort of had a long tail of traffic for people when you give people some database and a repository of information, sometimes they just continue to come back to it.”

8:00 – On the dynamic of the highest-paid employee in a state sometimes being a head coach: “So it’s going to be particularly interesting to see, you know, our schools ever going to get some power back again in terms of the negotiations with coaches and their agents over the salaries, because for the longest time, the agents have run all over them. And you end up with these deals where, you know, coach like (Auburn Head Coach) Gus Malzahn, it’s always like, do you want to give Gus Malzahn a new contract extension or fire him? And it changes every year between the Auburn fan base and how people there react.  And it can end up holding you really on the line with a ton of money that you’ve got to pay off if you do reach that point when you want to fire.”

9:20 – On life and the culture of states like Alabama and South Carolina with no major pro teams: “It’s just ingrained in the culture there, and it’s and it’s different than pro sports in many ways. (In) pro sports, the players come and go and that’s true of college as well. But there’s just this culture and this belief. And that’s in many ways, it’s like a religion. It’s Saturdays are going to church in the South if you’re in college football and it matters so much to them. And typically in the South, in many of these states, you’re going to have two, maybe three, maybe more major schools in the same state, Alabama, the University of Alabama, Auburn, you know, right there in that state. Pick one. You don’t get to be on the fence. Pick one, pick your school. That’s what that is like at a very, very young age. And it’s very much a part of your identity. Are you Role Tide or are you War Eagle? That doesn’t mean that people necessarily hate each other in their everyday lives. But when it comes to that competition, yeah, it is bitter.”

“I mean, you probably know the story. I’m sure most listeners, many listeners do about Harvey Updike, you know the University of Alabama fan who in 2010 after Cam Newton, who was probably bought and paid for to play at Auburn – at least that was the allegation – led Auburn to this incredible come-from-behind victory to beat Nick Saban in Alabama. And Auburn goes on and wins the national title that year. Harvey Updike, after that game when Auburn beat Alabama, goes to Auburn and poisons the famous oak trees, you know, puts whatever he put into the ground and they died.”

“And he goes on the radio show. The Paul Finebaum is a famous Alabama broadcaster, a sort of shock-jock broadcaster and (Updike) admits to it. And like, it’s shocking. And like almost any other state in Alabama, you kind of go, yeah, that’s kind of sounds about right. And in South Carolina, I would say that the Clemson University of South Carolina rivalry is very underrated in terms of how bitter that is. In some ways, it’s more bitter, I found than Alabama and Auburn. It just doesn’t get as much national attention.”  

12:20 – On transitioning away from Sports Journalism: “Candidly, part of it was I just needed a job. So, I mean, I make no bones about it. I mean, it was a period where it’s really tough for sports journalists and a lot of people get let go. And I was at the time at and my contract was coming up and it was not renewed. (They) decided to go in a different direction. They’re focusing more on video. So many sportswriters are facing it. And it was a very interesting time. But in some ways the most enlightening time for me, because I (had) always only been a sportswriter. In many ways that was my identity, probably maybe in some ways that are unhealthy because you just view yourself a lot of times in our lives through our work. And I think journalists sometimes think this is all you can do. You’re just a journalist, but we actually have a lot more skills. So I took that time and, you know, I wasn’t sure exactly would I stay in journalism when I not stay in it, but (I) allowed myself to open up and consider other possibilities and just see what other ways my skills could help me and find a new line of work.”

13:50 – On how things are different at a place like the Aspen Institute: “This was just such a great opportunity at the Aspen Institute Sports and Society program. I know the Sports and Society Program director through crossing paths. He’s a former journalist, Tom Farrey, who worked at ESPN for a number of years, typically Outside the Lines and and a lot of times in the media … we often are very good at identifying the problems that are occurring in sports and society or whatever.”

“We’re really good at highlighting that. We’re a lot worse, journalists are, at identifying and testing out the solutions. We highlight, you know, these stories and then just sort of move on to the next story and never go back and really check. OK, how do we create some of these changes to really, positively impact society?”

14:30 – On the Work of Project Play: “So what’s really cool, the work that we do, is it focuses on youth sports for the most part. Our major initiative is called Project Play, where we develop, apply and share knowledge to help stakeholders build healthy communities through sports. The idea is, we really want every child to have the opportunity to have quality access to sports, regardless of race, gender, income, ability. Because there’s this huge divide between the haves and have nots, not unlike a part of society. And so it’s been really cool. I’ve enjoyed it. And I still get to do some reporting in ways and think strategically when it comes to editorial work. It’s different, but it’s it’s very satisfying.”

15:50 – On the 2020 Project Play Summit: “So this is our annual youth sports conference. This year had to be virtual and some great speakers Alex Morgan, Allyson Felix, Vince Carter, Adam Silver, Crystal Dunn, Terrell Owens, Tatyana McFadden, Laurie Hernandez.  Because it was virtual, (it) was our best lineup of speakers yet. It’s just a lot easier to get them to come on.”

“Alex Morgan was terrific talking about, you know, it’s really interesting. When she grew up playing youth soccer, she played AYSO and she played rec soccer until she was about 14. She just didn’t feel like she wanted to take sports seriously enough — as seriously as you need to join like a club team. And she just enjoyed having fun, you know, the camaraderie with her friends and teammates. And her dad was the coach.  And we talked some with some athletes of color about, you know, representation in sports and how important that is for kids to see, you know, a Crystal Dunn, who’s a black female soccer player. And there aren’t a whole lot of black soccer players professionally, you know, for kids to look up to. And some of their advice to kids about how they can use their platforms right now, even during this, you know, time of racial reckoning in our country.”

18:00 – On the hyperfocus on gaining athletic scholarships and how it may or may not be changing in the near future: “You know, it’s like, is the glass half full or glass half empty? It’s like it could go either way after this pandemic and my fear is it could get worse and sort of continue to grow the divide between the haves and have nots if we don’t really invest in quality alternatives for kids and youth sports. So what happens often in youth sports and this is this has occurred, I’d say, in the last 10, 20 years or so, but particularly the last 10 years, and really since the Great Recession … youth sports have become a lot more privatized. A lot of parents who have the money go to the travel sports scene.” 

“And that’s where they they go play. That’s where their time is spent. That’s where the resources and money go to. And it’s leaving behind the local parks and rec leagues, the local community leagues that don’t have the coaches anymore, that don’t have the money anymore.”

“And I think a lot of parents. I actually know this because just anecdotally, talking to parents, they don’t want to be in this travel sports scene as rabid and competitive and expensive and time-intensive that it is. They would like to get off this cycle, but they don’t know-how. And if they feel like if they do, then they’re leaving their son or daughter behind and perhaps don’t have as good an opportunity. So we’re missing what we kind of call it, this missing middle. And that is that area is more affordable, it’s more local.”

“But there’s still some competition to it. Maybe it’s not quite at the really, really low level. You know, where any kid plays and you have some kids picking grass, you know, like during a game like that kind of thing. And maybe the coaching isn’t the greatest, but we need some better alternatives for parents.”

“Because we know that that we’ve done through surveys and research, that the average child quit sports by about age 11. And it’s because it stops being fun Kids increasingly are pushed into early specialization. Pick one sport and play it pretty much year-round. And we know that can lead to overuse injuries. We know that can lead to burnout, but we continue to do the same thing over and over again. So our hope is that the pandemic maybe causes a reshaping and parents to rethink and also municipalities to invest more money into these local leagues. But I do fear that the alternative might happen and the gap just keeps growing.”

21:00 – On the role Industry can play to fight this trend: 

“So we actually have a sort of an offshoot of our work at Project Play is an organization called Project Play 2024. And this is a cross-sector roundtable that sort of uses what’s called “collective impact principles” that that for big societal problems and challenges like this, there’s not one silver bullet to find the answer. It is all of us coming together and doing our own part.”

“So the Project Play 2024 heads, organizations like ESPN, Nike, NHL, NBA, MLS, USTA, Dicks, Under Armor, LeagueApps, Team SNAP, it’s a lot of these organizations from different sectors that can play a role in trying to increase youth sports participation and also increase training coaches, which is incredibly important as well.”

24:10 – On how this understanding has affected him as a parent on the sidelines when his own kids are playing:  I never think I was an overbearing parent, but I now know what good looks like in youth sports and how to speak up and feel empowered to which I think is one of the challenges for parents. We in our society, we often view coaches, as, you know, almost like gods, right? Like they know everything. And there are so many tremendous coaches and they have tremendous value, but they don’t always know everything. And sometimes as a parent, you do know what good looks like. You just don’t necessarily know how to articulate it. But, you know, if your child is unhappy about something and it’s got something to do with the coach for the team, so speak up. Ask questions or, you know, watch practices or observe.”

“When I was living in Alabama, I helped coach my older son’s tee-ball team at the time. And it was a way-too-competitive team, way too competitive. This is kindergarten, aged five and six years old, and there would be arguments between parents back and forth. There was one game where there was a 20-minute delay and we had to wait for the commissioner to come to settle a dispute on the field between the coaches. I was an assistant coach on the team.”

“There was the kids would even fight in the dugouts a little bit because they just resembled the parents. I mean, it was a disaster. And about one month into the year, my son said, I want to retire. I can literally say that he’s like five, six years old. And but he was just like, this is boring. This wasn’t fun. And he never really picked up team sports much after that. He played soccer for one year where I coached him. I wanted to have more of a say in it but moved on more to like Boy Scouts or he rides his bike. For my younger son, who’s now eleven, I became a lot more involved in coaching and in trying to give him a more positive experience and being head coach on some of these teams, like a soccer team or basketball team. So I could have a real say in terms of making sure this is a really inclusive and positive experience for all the kids. And we’re not just out there simply trying to win games.”

26:50 – On advice to well-meaning parents who don’t always know how to best support their kids:

“One of our biggest strategies, at Project Play is asking kids what they want and it sounds really simple and that’s our number one strategy. But a lot of adults don’t do it. This is their experience. This is what their experience is going to be like for sports. We have, as adults, already, had our time. We can still play sports, but this is their experience.”

“So let’s listen to them. Let’s ask them ‘What drills do you like to do at practices? What’s most beneficial? What’s enjoyable? What position do you maybe want to play?’ And we can try you out and work you out. ‘What’s working? What’s not working?’ Make it fun. The number one reason kids want to play sports is to have fun.”

“And we often bemoan that kids are on their video games, their tablets and on the sofa way too much with technology. And there’s some truth to that. But the reality is we could all learn a lot from the video game makers because they’ve made the games kid-focused. They’ve made games where you can compete with your friends, which is what kids want to do. You can play it at different levels, depending on how good you are, your skill level. You can customize it, you know, based on what kind of experience you want. And maybe most importantly, with video games, I know this is the truth with me and my kids.”

“You don’t have adults looking over your shoulder every single minute, saying, ‘Shoot, pass, score. What are you doing?’ There’s none of that because we don’t understand video games. It’s just the kid’s experience. So imagine if youth sports took that concept and said, let’s really focus this around who our real customer is, and that is the child and listen to them and design sports around them. So they’re not quitting at age eleven.”