National Media Covers UR and VCU as Only They Can(‘t)

As the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University triumphantly earned their way into the Sweet Sixteen, the fact that both schools are located in the same city has not escaped the watchful eye of the New York Times.

To be sure, many people in Richmond are merely overjoyed that the big, fancy folk at the venerable Old Gray Lady would write anything about the capital of the Commonwealth. Accuracy be damned!  They said our name!  THEY SAID OUR NAME!

Unfortunately, there are some problems with the piece.

The over-arching issue was a fundamental misunderstanding of VCU and Richmond’s place within college basketball.  The authors inexplicably prop up Duke and UNC as the possible standards by which the Rams and Spiders could be measured: “The achievements of the two colleges in this year’s tournament are particularly surprising since neither has the history of basketball success that their two dominant neighbors just south of them do.”

This line might make some sense if the two Virginia schools in question were underachieving UVA and Virginia Tech, who are at least conference-mates with the Blue Devils and Tar Heels in the ACC.  Or, had the authors chosen to compare Richmond and VCU with our two in-state power conference teams, that also might hold water.  But does the average VCU fan spend time thinking about UNC?  Do typical Richmond supporters care much more about Duke than they do about, say, Georgetown or West Virginia?

This comparison would be roughly equivalent to someone hypothetically saying that Nevada had a great season this year, which is particularly surprising since Nevada doesn’t have the history of success that UCLA does.  Or saying that oranges had a great season this year, which is particularly surprising since they don’t have the history of success that apples do.

A paragraph early in the piece also gives the reader a furious one-two punch of confusion:
Part One: “As a result [of these teams making the Sweet Sixteen], the city of Richmond, the capital of a state normally filled with rabid football fans, is suddenly a place known for basketball.”

Is Virginia known for being rabid about its football fandom? Certainly.  But, as a friend of mine pointed out, does that mania rise to the level of a readily-accessible stereotype?  Of course not.

We love our high school football, but we’re not Texas.  We have some loyal fans at every single level of NCAA football, but we’re not Columbus, Ohio.  Most of the state’s NFL fans are die-hard Redskins fans, but we’re not Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Yet, that odd stretch doesn’t hold a candle to the last sentence of that same paragraph:
“More unusual things have probably happened in Richmond’s history, but maybe not many.”

Allow me to translate: “I’ve never been south of D. C. in my life, except in an airport or on the beach.  I don’t know much about the history of Richmond, but I’m not doing any heavy research.  So, I’ll hedge my bets a little in my phrasing.  This is probably the weirdest thing they’ve ever seen, right?  Let’s run with it.”

If you think that Richmond and VCU both getting to the Sweet Sixteen might be the most unusual thing that’s ever happened in Richmond’s history, please read up on the historical context of City of Richmond v. United States (1975).  Richmond didn’t hold city council elections for four years as a result of that mess.  And that probably doesn’t crack the top five most unusual things.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing part of the article is the authors’ attempt to explain the history of VCU for the benefit of a national audience.  The account (which is contextually-blamed on Doug Wilder): “Wilder . . . said that when VCU was founded in 1968, it provided affordable schooling for many of the blacks in Richmond who could not attend college before desegregation.”

Yikes.

This completely glosses over two key historical points.

Saying VCU was “founded” in 1968 is a little misleading.  VCU was the name given to the university created by the merger of two existing institutions of higher learning: MCV and RPI.  Prior to being rechristened, RPI was already known as the Rams, and was also already known as a school populated by “artsy” students.

The worse omission is that we had already had two prominent Historically Black Colleges in the Richmond area (one actually in the city) for decades before VCU existed.  The notion that VCU somehow sailed uncharted waters, or that blacks in the city couldn’t go to college locally before 1968,  is revisionist.

An amusing sidebar to all of this was Richmond President Edward Ayers reflexively launching into “guilt-ridden academic mode” and tripping all over himself to make sure that everyone knows that “The schools are not as far apart as people imagine” when it comes to the be-all, end-all of academia: Diversity.  He continued with his overly-rehearsed, non-basketball-related talking points by mentioning that “We have made great progress at becoming a place that looks like America.”

Because, you know, that’s the primary goal of an institution of higher learning: To ensure that the student population has a collective ethnicity that roughly approximates that of the country as a whole.  Duh.

Of course, what Ayers is saying is largely nonsense.  That at which Richmond has made great progress is becoming a very good (but still overpriced) school that caters to a quadrant of the country that generally wouldn’t have considered the University of Richmond a viable option a generation ago.

Anyway, while the New York Times article is reminiscent of a book report written by a smart kid who didn’t actually read the book, the Washington Post article on approximately the same topic does a more accurate job of encapsulating the Richmond / VCU dynamic.

Although the angle remains a little predictable and has a tinge of the old “White guys drive a car like this, but black guys drive a car like this”-style stand-up meme, it’s a much better researched and more interesting article that includes interviews from actual grads who are emblematic of their respective institutions.  That beats hearing semi-canned responses from a university mouthpiece.

I will be rooting hard for both Richmond and VCU to win on Friday, but, if they do, God help those of us who will have to endure a 48-hour barrage of mainstream media nonsense. The best-case scenario is that we would get a new round of stereotype-reinforcing columns and a similarly-toned SportsCenter montage set to the theme from “The Odd Couple.”

Still . . . totally worth it.

The ascent of these two teams has been a pleasure to watch as a basketball fan, and a point of pride as a Richmond native.  One sentiment expressed in the Post article with which I wholeheartedly agree:  I will be rooting with all my considerable might for both to win.  No matter which team you normally support, every fan of either school should pull for both of them until such time when / if they play each other.

For the right to go to the Final Four.

Bring on RVAgeddon.

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6 Responses to National Media Covers UR and VCU as Only They Can(‘t)

  1. rob says:

    Look at VCU now, Final 4 Bound!

  2. Pingback: NBA Scouts: “White College Basketball Star’s Whiteness Looks Pretty White From Here!” | The Axis of Ego

  3. Eric says:

    Actually, Michael S. Schmidt graduated from J.R. Tucker and Adam Himmelsbach is from Fredericksburg.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      You know, someone told me earlier this afternoon that Michael Schmidt is a Tucker grad. I’m guessing he wrote the latter portion of the article, about VCU almost missing the tournament.

      After hearing that Schmidt went to Tucker, I did a little internet research of my own. It turns out that he also hit well over 500 home runs as a third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies.

  4. Meredith says:

    I’m a native Virginian and UR grad and I have to say that I appreciate your response to the NYT article. It was nice to get some national attention, but I wish the article had focused less on our manicured lawns and fake claims of diversity (let’s face it: UR is sadly not diverse). Great post!

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Thanks for reading. Go Spiders!

      Also, to be fair – ESPN.com had a very good article up today (the article that the NYT *should* have done).

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