Interview: The three faces of Jason England

Witching Hour: National Anthem: The Sociopathic Nature of Racial Discourse in American Sports

Englert Theatre — Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m.
Tickets available here

Writer and University of Iowa Rhetoric Department faculty member Jason England has been a consistent voice in the arena of race and politics in American athletics, and those of us that are familiar with his work — published under the pseudonym T.D. Williams — know that world of sports journalism is that much better because of his contributions. He’s been on the pulpit, speaking his mind on The Root and Sports Illustrated online, weighing in with equal measures outrage and level-headedness on topics like the media clown Sir Charles Barkley (who England dubbed “one of America’s favorite off-color truth-tellers, a sort of lovable, inebriated, ranting uncle unrestrained by the leash of basic civility and decency that makes the rest of us mind our manners”) and the Colin Kaepernick National Anthem protest. England will be speaking at the Englert on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. for the Witching Hour festival. I sat down with the man over a cero meido at Prairie Lights.

Jason England
Jason England

I know you’re teaching a lot and you’ve got your creative life to balance and also your personal life, so I appreciate you making time. You said you’re teaching an honors course now?

It’s in the rhetoric department; it’s a great course, Creativity for a Lifetime. We’re reading Ta-Nehisi Coates now, and the kids are amazing — their enthusiasm and their sincerity [are] inspiring.

I feel like I remember you saying you have a background in education, that you taught before Iowa?

I was a dean of admissions at Wesleyan University while I was there on fellowship for American Studies, with both a creative and critical thesis. After a while I came to really see, though, how academic jargon locked people out. You needed a translator for most of the writing, academic writing — it was like business or legal speak. And I brought these concerns to my advisor and mentor and she was like, “Do something else with your life — if I had to do it all over again, I would have lived a creative life.” This is coming from a person who was truly amazing at what she did, and had a great career: She taught at Princeton and out at Reed before that. I thought for sure that my passion was to teach, and it still is, but I needed the writing too. With both teaching and with language, you have the opportunity to expand people’s minds, broaden their perspectives. With creative writing you can do that in ways academic writing can’t; it doesn’t have to lock anybody out.

Well, I for one am glad to know that you’re “expanding minds” in the classroom. I ran into you here at Prairie Lights once and you had your whole class with you, and I could see how much they loved you and how well you vibed with them.

Thanks man. You can’t have a great class without great students. Your students have to be inspiring you, and mine do. I dropped out of school the first time; I worked in Manhattan as a personal aide to the vice president of the ACLU, and then, at 21, I went back. When I was in college the second time, though, I was like, “Okay, what can I get out of this,” with every class. I didn’t take anything for granted, and neither do these kids I’ve got right now.

I’m worried when I hear people talk about education in ways that make it sound as if it’s a one way exchange: the teacher passing knowledge to the students. But anybody who has ever taught a class that felt in some way memorable knows that a good relationship with the students feels like dialogue, with the instructor learning just as much, if not more, from his students. What have you learned, lately, from your students?

Man, so much. Being a teacher you see how quickly culture and technology move — you don’t want to be that professor up there making a corny reference about Mash or Cheers, singing doo wop songs; you have to have your finger on the pulse, and that comes from contact with my students, that keeps me in touch. You can’t give them writing on gay marriage or abortion and expect them to be shocked or perceive it as being subversive. They keep me in the loop, help me stay engaged. It’s easy to get jaded or lost in your nine-to-five, in your relationship, paying rent, all that shit, but my students shake me out of that. They’re young enough to envision a better future, even if they’re a little too optimistic about that.

My buddy Alonso is teaching a hip hop and social justice course, and he came across this Colin Kaepernick piece, and he asked me, “Hey, this T.D. Williams, who wrote this article, he looks a lot like your buddy Jason. He’s also from New York …”

Yeah, T.D. Williams. I took on the pen name as a way to separate that aspect of my creative life from my teaching and professional life. I didn’t want my opinions in those pieces to impact my students. Also I don’t think my employers at the university would like to know how I really felt about the status quo in this country. Most of the stuff I publish as T.D. Williams is concerned with the intersection of sports and larger social issues. I was writing a lot about the whole Colin Kaepernick thing for The Root as that unfolded. There was something every week, other protests of the anthem, different dumb motherfuckers weighing in, voicing their criticisms — who’s that dude with the dumbass name at Clemson?

Dabo Swinney.

Dabo Swinney! Of course someone named Dabo Swinney has got something to say. Man, there’s so much paternalism and father complexes wrapped up in coaching at the college and at the professional level. It’s sociopathic, the whole racial discourse surrounding coaches, mostly white, and athletes, mostly black, in football and basketball.

You were a college athlete yourself.

For like two weeks, but I’ve been around college athletics most of my life. I went to school on a basketball scholarship, but I ended up quitting after another back injury. I knew plenty of guys that played college ball though, and I was the dean at a school with DIII athletics. You’d think athletics wouldn’t play as big a role at the DIII level but I can tell you it did. We took sports seriously at Wesleyan, and that wasn’t always a good thing the way it played out. Everyone knows stories though about athletes at DI programs who may be basically illiterate, but they’ve been admitted anyways for athletic reasons. And who do we blame in those situations? The exploited athlete. Probably not the folks on the administrative level committing admissions fraud so their sports teams can make them money — because don’t think for a second that it’s about anything else but money.

That’s another big debate: Do we pay college athletes?

If you’re 37 or almost 40, from where we’re looking at it, it only makes sense to you that student athletes should get paid, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But if you ask the students themselves, many of them are like, “Fuck no; you mean we should pay that dude on the scooter who is always fucking around?” But that’s just how it works in this country: You make exploited labor hyper visible as a means to deflect the attention from the cats really making all the money — the team owners and the university presidents. That’s why we have all this discourse about, “We should pay teachers as much as NBA stars!” And I mean sure, no doubt, but that’s not what we’re really talking about. When we see what’s wrong with all the money in sports, it’s easy to blame Kobe and LeBron, and even though they’re making a ton of money, there’s a whole lot more money that’s getting made for somebody else in the shadows.

Okay, we’ve heard from Professor England, and T.D. Williams, writer of nonfiction: What about the fiction author Jason England?

The nonfiction stuff, for me, is more like therapy — those are things I’ve got to just get out, some indignation or injustice I just don’t want to carry — but the fiction is the life of the imagination. People write and read fiction to have access to some personal truth only they know about the world. And for me that is the real work. In this business it’s either about your name or about the work. Your name is what gets write-ups in the Times, get’s you long or short-listed for awards, gets you on the jury for those awards, gets you published by your friend’s vanity press. But the work can only be built on integrity, and that kind of writing, the real thing, is lonely; you’re a lone wolf. When fiction is about the work and not your name, it’s not a team sport.

Ed. note: Portions of the original interview have been redacted at the request of the interviewee.

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