Ralph Wiley and The Next Level of Education Writing

College was the first time I was exposed to higher-speed Internet. Aside from downloading gigs of music in a matter of seconds, I had the opportunity to read every and any article on the web without worrying whether a phone call would disrupt my access to it. ESPN’s now-defunct Page 2 was always one of those sites. Yes, it had its share of hyperbole, as every post-Y2K moment had to be ranked and re-ranked almost weekly.

But it also gave me Ralph Wiley, one of the best writers I’d ever read in my life.

I didn’t understand the mechanics then, but his blend of fact-based argument with conversational flow read like some of the hood intellectuals I’d heard talk sports all my life. The sentences in his essay would cut through the same points through different angles. Imagine a well-made pizza and the chef using short slices, pushing his forearm into the pie with force and brevity. Observe Wiley’s thoughts on now-retired NBA legend Kobe Bryant:

“So a human thoroughbred starts to think about spitting the bit and running elsewhere, where whips and chains and self-important appraisals are not so often forthcoming, for a man without a temper is not worth his salt. Or, if he’s Kobe the Finisher, he can also become Kobe the Puppet Master, and let people rant or rave or do St. Vitus’ dance however they chose as he pulls the strings and levers of his dominant basketball talents. I’d like to see what Charlie Kaufman could do with this guy’s head. In an Association with at least eight other truly great players, and a good 50 or so who can drop 40 on a given night, Kobe rules. As yours truly pointed out in GQ last summer, days after the Lakes had won a third straight NBA title, if Kobe’s hands were as big as Michael’s, they’d have to shut down the league.”

Or how about this bit on Ali-Liston I?

Some have speculated that Liston “threw” that fight to Clay/Ali. These are people who (a) were not there that night; (b) have never honestly assessed the tapes of the fight; and/or (c) have some kind of bone to pick with Ali, some dislike of him. Because anybody who looks at that fight coldly will see that, no matter the pre-fight build-up, Liston — the “Big Ugly Bear,” as Clay called him — basically got his ass kicked. Clay backed Liston up, with hard combinations. He was just too quick, too fast, too mobile, too nimble for Liston. As amazing as it must have seemed then, and does now, Clay/Ali outclassed the champion. It was as plain as the broken nose on a fighter’s face: Liston could never beat him.

In reality, the first Clay-Liston fight was a real beat-down, a clinic, an exposé. Which led to the desperate measures of linament being applied to Liston’s gloves, and those gloves then being shoved into Ali’s eyes during clinches. The “Ali” film got all this down well.

Authenticity isn’t even the right word for why I read Wiley. It was this idea that a megamillion dollar corporation would bring him in to do this incredibly delicate job of opining without offending future prospects for the larger entity … and he still holds his feet firmly in his people. Looking at his archives, he overtly disrupted the niceties of his employer, daring them to not publish his impersonations of the people from his hometown Memphis, TN. He was at once worldly and homegrown.

And, much like the folks I know who study the game, he doesn’t care much whether you like his approach, but you will respect him.

When Science Leadership Academy principal and friend Chris Lehmann compared me to him a few years ago, when he had a rough draft of my book in his hand, I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what it meant to write the truth the way Wiley did. He allowed athletes to be complex human beings who deserved thorough analyses in a time where everyone wanted fluffy softballs thrown at them from major publications (and still do). He made sentences short and poignant. He made sentences long and incisive and replete with the “hood” language that he knew shook white America.

These days, we have a larger selection of writers doing that work. Names like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, and Roxane Gay immediately come to mind in different circles. In education? I’ll always argue up and down that education is easily one of the most conservative fields in the country, both in politic and in mindset. Plenty of education sites profess to have “great writing,” and even get award nominations for it. There’s only a handful of writers (of any color) who offer that depth, intellectual complexity, and clarity in idea.

I used to call it “nuance,” but now I have a larger rubric for it.

With all the publishers who’ve created the template for what education writing should look like, it’s incumbent upon the writers to risk upending farcical standards for expression and just go in. Too many education writers feel like they have to please their bosses. They’re easily read; their writing isn’t thorough enough to suggest they truly believe what they’re saying. Too many education writers feel locked into narratives of Common Core readiness, grit, or education technology. This belies the lack of passion behind what they’re asking readers to read. This specifically applies to teacher authors, who are always asked to write about resources and pedagogy that align to the interest of the funder. Too many education writers go off press releases without questioning or give political figures extra bandwidth to speak as they please, without two or more solid viewpoints in their essays.

Too many people pretend objectivity. Full stop.

It’s liberating seeing the few writers who steep their writing in the folks they represent. My wish isn’t necessarily for unbiased writing. If anything, I’d like to know the writer’s background and be surprised by the writer challenging their own “side” of education reform including their own friends and co-workers. I’d like to see educators in the classroom be given as much latitude and amplification for their ideas as the favorite leading researcher / speaker / policymaker at the time. I’d like to see beat writers take on the issues that everyone’s discussing, but ground it in ideas just off the mainstream path.

Or, if we are to discuss the trending topic, we should strive to ask harder questions of our own beliefs. That’s my journey into this work. I’m vested in that work. Hopefully, more of us can, nah, must speak that plainly.