Personal Statement: Beyond the score, behind the lens

Illustration by Amy Mackens
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By Teresa Mathew, Managing Photo Editor
Published October 6, 2014

They tell you that college will change you.

That you will look independence in the face, with its wide, sharp fangs and intoxicating grin, and you will succumb to vices you had thought yourself immune to. For some, that means getting involved with drugs, sex and alcohol. For me, it meant developing an unlikely preoccupation with sports. And for a brief moment, after I got tackled on national television by a Northwestern running back while shooting football for The Michigan Daily, I wasn’t sure which was more dangerous.

I didn’t grow up around Michigan Athletics. I didn’t grow up caring about sports at all, and my brief stint playing basketball in middle school can be best characterized by our every-game losing streak my first year. But then I came here. And suddenly, I was a sports photographer.

Perhaps “suddenly” is a little hyperbolic. I was terrified of shooting sports when I first joined the photostaff. But I can remember the exact moment in the fall of my sophomore year, sitting in the Union’s Pond Room and grumpily studying for a Calculus exam, when The Daily’s managing photo editor texted me to ask if I wanted to shoot that Saturday’s football game against Northwestern. I said yes.

And just like that, I was hooked.

I was hooked even though I didn’t know the first thing about football, even though the length of the game confused me and the running around the sidelines was exhausting and, as my relatives and the staff of The Daily love to remind me, I got tackled. That’s what happens when you have two cameras, three lenses, and a monopod weighing down your 5’5” frame and a football player is charging toward the sidelines at twenty miles an hour. But the atmosphere and being on that field were intoxicating, and I thought it was the coolest assignment in the world. Maybe shooting sports is awesome after all I remember thinking. And it is. But for all the glory and fame and tradition that surround Michigan football, I soon discovered something far more addictive.

I started photographing men’s basketball.

Doing so is a privilege for those of us who work at The Daily. That wasn’t always the case—when I was a freshman, men’s basketball didn’t have the same coveted status that football did. But as the team got better, the assignments did, too. And so, when I became The Daily’s co-managing photo editor, I decided to use my powers in one despotic way: to shoot as much basketball as my sanity and time would allow. Over the course of the winter semester of my junior year, I would see Team 98 and The Daily’s basketball beat writers more often than I would see my friends.

For a photographer, basketball has numerous advantages over football. You’re inside, which means that no matter how frigid the temperature is, how strange and shifting the light is and how much the rain is pouring down in icy sheets, you don’t have to care. It’s almost like you’re a sports writer! (Am I bitter that they always get to sit in a cozy press box? Ha ha no, what would give you that impression?) You are also stationary, seated under the hoop or somewhere near it, which provides a blessed contrast to the frenzied running around that football demands.
But, at the end of the day, I just fell in love with the sport. I am atrocious at playing basketball, but I like watching it and I love covering it. I love the sound of the soft swoosh when a perfectly timed shot enters the net, watching the arcs of frantic passes and perfectly executed drives. I love the fast pace, the lines of paint on a scuffed wooden floor. I love leveling my camera to frame a pass, to freeze a dunk, to capture a moment. And, to some (completely professional and unbiased) extent, I also loved the team.

I don’t want to speak for the writers, but as a sports photographer, you have an odd connection to a team. I photographed these student-athletes for a semester, through unexpected wins and heart-wrenching losses. Having to go into the locker room after the team’s loss in the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament and photograph their reactions was the worst and most difficult thing I have ever had to do as a photographer. As a journalist, it’s your duty to remain unbiased. We can’t wear maize and blue or any Michigan gear at games; we can never cheer, but it’s impossible not to feel for a team you cover day after day, week after week, for four months. When the team lost in the Elite Eight, I was more heartbroken than I would have ever thought possible. Sitting on that arena floor when the buzzer went down to 0.0 and Kentucky declared victory and advancement to the Final Four was indescribably crushing. Why ever bother breaking up with someone, I angstily thought afterwards, when sports can break your heart just as badly?

And when it came to hearts, I never thought I would be able to date anyone who was a sports fanatic. But after falling into that category myself by accident and through way of a camera lens, I wasn’t sure if I could ever be involved with anyone who wasn’t — at least a little bit. How else could someone understand why I still carry a piece of the net from the Elite Eight game around with me in my wallet? So much of my college career has been defined by press passes and weekends spent with a camera in my hands and my heart in my throat. This is the logic I employed upon realizing I officially had a crush on a boy when, while playing a game of True American, he was the only one who knew not only that Spike Albrecht and Glenn Robinson III played for the team, but that they were both from Indiana (I’m not a complete wierdo, there were other reasons. Yet I would be lying if I said that didn’t help provide a spark). But that isn’t the point — this is about my love affair with sports.

It has branched out some, and I’ve gone from being solely obsessed with shooting games to enjoying reading about and watching them. Experiencing a game as a fan has its perks — you can do so with your friends, you can eat and drink and, most importantly, you can cheer your heart out. As a fan, you can sing “The Victors” and hold up ridiculous handmade signs. You don’t have to worry about whether or not you managed to capture the shot that Caris Levert made — you just have to care that he made it. (Half of the stress of shooting Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen game last year came from the game itself, but the other half came from an unholy terror of not capturing an important moment. It’s the closest I’ve ever coming to throwing up on the court.) I look forward to watching games — basketball, football, soccer and gymnastics — as just a fan. I’m writing this the night after going to a women’s soccer game (for the first time with a student ticket instead of a press pass) and it was awesome. Their student section has some really weird chants.

But there is nothing like being on that court, that field, that stadium floor, covering it with every ounce of you focused and razor-edged under bright lights and surrounded by cheers, chants and color. After a semester spent covering the Michigan men’s basketball team cross-legged and wide-eyed under a hoop in arenas all over the Midwest, I have earned the right to call myself a sports photographer. And when my job ends in December and I hang up my last press pass, I know I’m going to be saying goodbye to one of the best parts of my college career.

I used to judge people who loved sports. I just didn’t get it. Why would anyone care so much about a stupid score, a game that in no way affected their day-to-day lives? And it took me coming to Michigan and working for The Daily to finally understand. Even now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m any kind of sports expert. I listen to the sports journalists at The Daily and half the time I still have no idea what they’re talking about. I have no interest in professional football and a limited one in the NBA. College athletics, with all of its controversy, tradition, and heartbreak are where my heart belongs. But shooting sports lead to me reading the sports section of The Daily, which is where I discovered the beauty of sports journalism and longform. Sports longform continues to be one of my favorite genres to read (second only to children’s literature, so if you want to talk about Kevin Durant or Anne of Green Gables, just hit me up). Through reading but, more importantly, though shooting, I began to learn that sports aren’t just about a score, a ball or a team. Sports are about devotion. About loyalty. About hope. We don’t follow teams because we know they’ll win. We follow them because we tie ourselves so inextricably to them.

If you’d told me as a high-school senior that so many of my best memories of college would be tied to sports — from singing along to Broadway musicals on the way to cover a game, to witnessing first-hand a win in the Sweet Sixteen, to dancing on the sidelines during a game against Notre Dame, to being called the “toughest girl on the field” — I would have laughed or stared or wondered. I still wonder. I know that sports may seem trivial in the face of other things. But what sports have taught me about this campus, about human stories and about myself, is not.
Sports culture has issues that extend beyond the court, field, or stadium — I understand that. I’m not here to defend what cannot and should not be defended. Loving sports isn’t just about the love of the game. It’s about the love of everything — the team, the emotional investment, the tradition — that goes with it. At the end of the day, at the end of the game, sports don’t have to mean anything. But they do. And the fact that they do, that they can, that they always will — that means everything.