Producer Appreciation Weeks: Cat Sposato
Melissa Harris-Perry: I am Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. We're counting down the days to our final episode on Friday, June 2nd, and we're spending these days on something we think is really important.
We're saying thank you to the producers of Team Takeaway who've poured their hearts, souls, and talent into making great radio for all of you to enjoy. Yes, y'all, these are our producer appreciation weeks. Today we're highlighting work of one of our newest team members, Cat Sposato.
Cat Sposato: Hi, Melissa. Thank you so much for having me today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. Now, as one of the newer members of the team, you had a pretty busy start here. Tell us about it.
Cat Sposato: I did. I started in September and was actually finishing my last semester of grad school during my first three months at The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which is wild. You were working full-time and you were a full-time student. All that, and you're still just 24 years old, right?
Cat Sposato: Yes, I am. I was born in 1999, a year that has historical significance when it comes to this first topic we're about to discuss. It's the same year of the Columbine shooting. According to research conducted by Professor Ralph Larkin at John Jay College, Columbine significantly influenced this trend of school rampage killings across the US.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I will never forget Columbine. A mass shooting of that kind in an American school, it was simply unheard of at the time. I can remember thinking, "I would always remember where I was when it happened because surely nothing like this would happen again," [chuckles] but I was naïve. Cat, I've spent more than a decade in national media, and at this point, I routinely cover school shootings. In fact, back in October, right after you joined the team, we discussed the 2018 Parkland Massacre.
Cat Sposato: Right. Back in February 2018, a 19-year-old gunman entered into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an assault rifle and killed 17 people. Most of the victims were high school students. It was horrific.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then last October, almost four years after the massacre, the killer was finally sentenced.
Speaker 1: Eligibility for the death penalty. We, the jury, unanimously find that the aggravating factors that were proven beyond a reasonable doubt outweigh the mitigating circumstances established as to count four. No. Signed and dated October 13th, foreperson Benjamin Thomas.
Cat Sposato: Soon after the sentencing, it became very apparent that the families of the victims were unhappy. They were calling for the death penalty.
Speaker 2: Our daughter was Alyssa Alhadeff who was brutally murdered on February 14, 2018. This should have been the death penalty 100%. I sent my daughter to school and she was shot eight times. I am so beyond disappointed and frustrated with this outcome. I do not understand. I just don't understand this.
Speaker 3: Today's ruling was yet another gut punch for so many of us who devastatingly lost our loved ones on that tragic Valentine's Day. 17 beautiful lives were cut short by murder, heinous, pre-planned, torturous murder, and the monster that killed them gets to live another day.
Cat Sposato: That anger is valid. This man killed their loved ones and yet he gets to live, which is why we asked our Takeaway listeners to call us and tell us how they felt about the sentencing.
Jerry: Hi. My name is Jerry. I'm calling from Corvallis, Oregon. I think the jury has shown that you don't have to have forgiveness to show compassion for another human being. Obviously, this is a flawed human being who has significant issues living in society. Life without parole is perfectly appropriate.
Cat Sposato: This call pointed to a real question here, did the rage of those directly impacted by the shooting have a place in our legal system? Should the suffering of the families be at the forefront of our legal process? To answer that, we talked with the legal expert, Alexis Hoag-Fordjour, an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in the death penalty.
Alexis Hoag-Fordjour: The death penalty had an overhaul in this country in the mid-1970s. In many states, the death penalty was an automatic sentence when someone was sentenced to a particular crime. There were no guidelines for jurors. There were no guidelines for a decision-maker. There were crimes like aggravated rape, particularly in the South, particularly when they were Black male defendants, that if that was the conviction, then the death penalty was automatic. Then the 1970s, we realized there should be some sort of guided discretion for decision-makers.
Case law, over time, has limited the use of victim impact testimony. It can come in sometimes after a conviction, sometimes after the potential sentences are identified, but it's limited by law and by the US Constitution, which dictates what is the appropriate punishment, what would be cruel, what would be an unusual punishment. It's also tied to aspects of due process. As laypeople, there's a desire for people that are directly impacted to have a direct say in potential punishment, but that's not necessarily what our law allows for.
Cat Sposato: Melissa, I think this really shows just how difficult it is to define justice and to actually achieve it within our current system.
Alexis Hoag-Fordjour: Rhetorically, from the reports [unintelligible 00:06:03], many of the parents, their initial reaction was, "Why do we have a death penalty? If not in this case, then when?" I think the decision of the jury reflects the fact that there has been this chained public sentiment around the death penalty. A question that I was introduced to by former professor Bryan Stevenson while I was in law school was not that does a person deserve to die for what they did but rather do we as a society deserve to kill. I think the jury in their decision yesterday in Broward County said no.
I think our understanding as a society of the fact that they're not necessarily evil people but they're people who are human beings who have had bad things happen to them where they then get involved as Mr. Cruz did in this highly aggravated murder, multiple murders. I think there's a more nuanced understanding that we are all human beings. Yes, vengeance and retribution are very natural human instincts, but so is mercy.
That's a hard result to come to mercy, understanding empathy, grace, but that's ultimately what the jury's decision yesterday reflected and the fact that there is decreased support for capital punishment in this country. We understand as a nation that the death penalty is a flawed operation and that it is riddled with racism bias. We target people in this country who are racially marginalized, who have intellectual disabilities, other mental health ailments, who are indigent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I get it, but this is just so hard. You can be completely aware of the statistics about inequity and injustice in the system, but when it's your loved one, your child, your parent, your neighbors, and if you have certainty about guilt, it's pretty hard to think the system shouldn't be taking your wishes into account.
Alexis Hoag-Fordjour: What I also find interesting in terms of victims' participation and dictating how a criminal case should be prosecuted or what punishment should be available, sometimes local prosecutors, federal prosecutors, aren't necessarily always in conversation with the victim's family members, or if they are in conversation, they don't necessarily allow their decisions to be impacted by what the victims want.
I'm thinking principally of the mass shooting in South Carolina with Dylann Roof. There were no uniform sentiment among victims' family members, but some victims' family members did not want the federal government to seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof. We know that's not what happened. I'm thinking of other situations where victims' family members didn't want to go through the whole trial process, would have preferred a guilty plea to avoid a protracted proceeding, having to relive, be re-traumatized by the gruesome facts of the crime.
Cat Sposato: One of our Takeaway listeners, Lynette from Virginia, called in and asked Alexis a question that really pointed to the ways that this sentence felt like an evasion of accountability.
Lynette: My immediate response was would an African American male receive the same sentence?
Alexis Hoag-Fordjour: No. I'm so glad the caller asked that question. Jennifer Eberhardt is this fantastic psychologist at Stanford, she headed this study called Looking Deathworthy. This was 2006. They looked at the phenotypical features of a hypothetical defendant and defendants who were more phenotypically Black, so darker skin, broader nose, coarser hair, were more likely to be sentenced to death than hypothetical defendants who were less phenotypically Black. That was particularly true when a hypothetical victim was white. All other factors in this study were constant except for the phenotypical blackness, the appearance of the defendants.
All throughout history, it's tied to the United States' legacy of enslavement with Black people, there is this overriding presumption of criminality and dangerousness associated with Black people. It's combined often with a jury selection system that often excludes people of color from juries. As a post-conviction lawyer, I used to represent, and still do, people sentenced to death in post-conviction.
Looking at the trial transcripts in which prosecutors have primed jurors with racially coded, dehumanizing language to really create this rift between the jurors and the defendant that somehow the defendant is less than human, is not deserving of empathy, I've found in my own research, in my own practice, that Black defendants, particularly Black male defendants, are subjected to capital punishment at higher rates and it's most pronounced when there is an interracial nature to the crime. It's a Black defendant and a white victim.
Cat Sposato: Another listener discussed the expense of a life sentence.
Beth Reynolds: Hi. My name is Beth Reynolds. I'm calling from St. Petersburg, Florida. I'm very disappointed in the outcome of that Parkland shooter. We, the taxpayers, are supporting this person for the rest of their life. This person should be put to death.
Alexis Hoag-Fordjour: It's interesting, but the cost of sentencing somebody to life and incarcerating someone to life is actually less than if we were to sentence someone to death. In this country, even when a death sentence is rendered, the individual is not executed right away. I think that's a false perception. In my own practice, I worked for the federal public defenders and represented people who had been sentenced to death in their post-conviction, so after-trial proceedings. Many of my clients were still on death row, in some cases, decades later.
There are additional stronger constitutional protections in place for people who are sentenced to death. There is funding and there is time and there is funding allocated to the court system to allow for legal appeals and representation during those appeals for people who are sentenced to death.
Cat Sposato: To me, this was a really important point. When I was producing this segment, I learned that people sentenced to death in the United States spent nearly 20 years on average between sentence and execution. Of course, digging into research for this segment, I also had a chance to learn about how deeply flawed the process is. Since 1973, more than 190 people sentenced to death row have been exonerated. That's so many lives that might have been wrongfully taken. That really shook me.
For Alexis, the risk of putting innocent people to death makes the death penalty untenable.
Alexis Hoag-Fordjour: What we have found is that's necessary. Florida has one of the highest numbers of complete exonerations of people who have been originally sentenced to death. We have found gross constitutional violations for people who were sentenced to death and may have been involved. There was no innocence claim. They were involved in the aggravated act that resulted in the murder, but there was a constitutional violation having to do with the effectiveness of their representation, having to do with the very nature of the way that the trial was conducted. There was perhaps a structural error with maybe the judge or some aspect of the trial or sentencing proceedings.
Cat Sposato: Every year, the MacArthur Foundation announces a new class of MacArthur Fellows. These fellows are nicknamed the MacArthur Geniuses. These brilliant folks from across a number of disciplines are selected to receive a substantial amount of money in a no-strings-attached grant. It's one of the highest honors in the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that back in October I got to talk with one of my favorite living writers who is also part of the class of 2022 MacArthur Fellows, Kiese Laymon. He is the Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of Creative Writing and English at Rice University and author of Heavy: An American Memoir.
Cat Sposato: This was a great conversation. Let's listen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about the ways that your work reveals something about Black Southernness and what that rootedness in Black Southernness is for you.
Kiese Laymon: That's a wonderful question. I think my root in Black Southernness and particularly Central Mississippi Black Southernness that was created and cradled by Black women, my grandma, my aunties, and my mama, for me, it's just a sight of absolute paradox. The most horror in the world, I think I've experienced in different parts of the South, but revelation and absolute joy come from living in the South. I don't want to live anywhere else but the South. I live in Houston now. I lived in Mississippi for five years before that. I was in New York for 15 years before that.
It's also tied to that thing we were talking about how sometimes we can hide from ourselves. It's harder for me to hide in Mississippi because I think that the culture and the history and the people actually see you and literally say hey to you and I think, sometimes, want to hear the stories. I think that's it. I think sometimes we need to accept that we come from a place where people actually want to hear stories when you pass them in the street. I actually want to hear stories.
New York is incredible. Some of the most incredible people in the world to me live there, but there are so many people. You just can't look at people in the eye and listen to 'em or people think you want to fight 'em or step to 'em or mack on 'em or something like that. I just like being a home fan where you can breathe and you can see out. I'm not trying to idealize it, but it's familiar, but it's also, I think, the cradle of direct action. A lot of what we do is about direct organized action, whether it's literary or actual action.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's not idealized. The comfort goes in and out. I think it can be tough for Black folks in America where the land isn't ours. Where there is always that sense of disconnection and yet, for me, the South is the place that feels most like this feels like mine.
Kiese Laymon: Yes. The thing that I really love about our South, I'm just going to say, I love that I was born in Jackson and every Black boy, girl, genderqueer person I know born in Jackson has one foot in Jackson and one foot in the rural community that their grandparents or uncles or great-grand-- We literally are straddling these country supposed rural-urban lines. As a storyteller, I think that makes some much more lush storytelling. It's not like the story of the city versus the country.
Yes, you can get that, but most people straddle. Most people who leave the Deep South in these little country blacktails inspire not to go to New York or Chicago. When I was coming up, they aspired to go to Jackson, to Birmingham, maybe Atlanta.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maybe.
Kiese Laymon: Maybe, but for real, I just think that straddling of the rural and the urban can open up some lines literally that I think I don't see open up a lot of other places.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to talk about something that you did that's astonishing. You got your rights back to two of your previously published books, Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and re-release them. You did it in 2020. Why?
Kiese Laymon: [chuckles] One, I got my money up and I had the money to do it, from hustling and selling these books and going all over the place talking. Two was because I signed one of those no-limit literary deals. I gave my first book away to the publisher for $1,000. It's called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Then I gave my novel away for $4,000. I gave all the rights away. I had to buy my books back because I wanted to do something more with those books.
Those books were never published the way I wanted to, and after five years, I thought a lot about a lot of different things and came to a lot of different conclusions. I wasn't comfortable with my name being attached to some of those conclusions. Some of the things that I said about Kanye in the first version of my essay book, I couldn't sit behind that. Some of the stuff I said about Michael Jackson. It wasn't about those people. It was literally about my changing.
I was a different person who no longer wanted to have my name attached to a literary artifact that was connected to some of what Kanye West was doing, for example, and I didn't want to be connected to that person who bought my books for $1,000 and $3,000 anymore. Instead of giving me the books back, the person was like, "Oh, you can buy them back." I was mad as hell. Then I just bought 'em back and put 'em out the way I wanted to so I could control the film rights, the TV rights, the international rights. Actually, I saw rappers do, so I was just like-
[laughter] -"I always wanted to be a rapper. This is the most rapish thing I can do, get in a terrible deal and buy myself out and then brag about it." That's what I tried to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. I love that you said that because I was about to be like, "Well, now you sound like a rapper," but there's something else that it sounds like. Here we are people who are creatives. We create this thing that we put out into the world and it exists far beyond our reach and control and even our capacity to revise, which is terrifying, but also because the thing that we make isn't a thing. It's not a widget. By owning the rights, again, it feels very Southern, it's like you bought some land, son.
Kiese Laymon: Yes. That's exactly what it felt like. We come from people. My grandmama never-- She finished high school through correspondence courses, worked in a chicken plant her entire life, worked as a domestic, but she had land and a house at 18 or 19 from working around and getting some money from the church. She brought the man who she chose to mess with into that house, into that land. We didn't have a lot, but what we did have was ours.
Those books were in the world and that's how I got my start, thank goodness people read any of them, but they weren't mine, real talk. I was renting those books. I think that's a terrible feeling once you accept that, especially if you come from the Deep South that we come from.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's so great to listen to Kiese Laymon again. All right, Cat, take us out of here.
Cat Sposato: Don't go away. Up next we're talking about infrastructure, Puerto Rico, and Bad Bunny. This is The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. You're listening to the latest installment in our producer appreciation series as we head toward the final episode of The Takeaway on June 2nd. I'm here with one of our producers, Cat Sposato. All right, Cat, I know that this next story is one very close to your heart.
Cat Sposato: That's right. I think we have to start with a little music.
[MUSIC - Bad Bunny: El Apagón]
That's El Apagón or The Blackout by Puerto Rican pop superstar Bad Bunny. He's one of the biggest artists in the world right now. His album Un Verano Sin Ti has been at the top of the Billboard chart since it came out about a year ago. It's now the longest-running number-one album of the last five years. Here, Bad Bunny is taking a pretty explicit political stance on gentrification in Puerto Rico. The lyrics here directly translate to the phrase, "I don't want to leave. I don't want to leave. They should leave. They should leave."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Cat, this song is about the displacement of Puerto Ricans from the island as a result of government mismanagement of infrastructure, right?
Cat Sposato: Yes. The cool thing about this song, Melissa, is the music video. It's not a regular music video. For starters, it's 23 minutes long.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yo, 23 minutes? That's basically half an episode of The Takeaway.
Cat Sposato: Right. It's mostly that long because it features a full-length documentary on gentrification in Puerto Rico. The documentary is called Aquí Vive Gente, which translates to people live here. For this segment, you talked with journalist Bianca Graulau, who worked on this documentary.
Bianca Graulau: This is a topic I've been covering for a while now. Ever since I've been getting messages from people showing me the letters that they've been getting saying that they have to leave their apartments in 30 days because someone has bought the building and they have different plans for the building. I've been covering some of those cases. When the opportunity came up to do this documentary for Bad Bunny's channel, then I was able to contact some people that I already knew were going through this situation so that we could tell their stories about how they're getting pushed out because there are people coming in with a lot of buying power and acquiring these properties and asking people to leave.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You said, when this opportunity came up to work with Bad Bunny, how did that opportunity emerge?
Bianca Graulau: I believe he had seen some of my previous reporting on the topic, and when they were talking about the music videos, he had the idea to attach a news story to the music video for the song El Apagón because, at the end of that song, the lyrics talk about displacement in Puerto Rico, about how Puerto Ricans want to stay here because this is their land, they don't want to leave and it says they should leave. Then I got a call saying that he would like to allow me to use his platform to have my reporting seen by more people. Then that's how it started and we got to work and I started making calls for this story.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you tell me about Act 22? What is it and how is it implicated here?
Bianca Graulau: Act 22 is a tax incentive that the government of Puerto Rico approved about 10 years ago. It is now part of Act 60 and it is an incentive for individual investors. What it does is that it gives a 0% capital gains tax to people who move here. That means that people who invest in things like property, cryptocurrency, stocks, if they acquire those assets while they're living in Puerto Rico, while they have already become residents here, then they don't pay any capital gains tax on those assets. That's a really good deal for people who have a lot of investments. That means that it has been attracting a lot of people to move to Puerto Rico.
What we found in the story is that there is a connection between some of the people buying up properties who also benefit from this tax incentive. We analyzed areas of Puerto Rico where a lot of properties have been bought up, we looked at who has been buying them, and we saw a significant number of those properties are now owned by beneficiaries of Act 22.
Cat Sposato: Now, MHP, I have to confess, I'm a major Bad Bunny stan.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, everybody here on Team Takeaway knows that.
[MUSIC - Bad Bunny: El Apagón]
Cat Sposato: Part of the reason for my love of Bad Bunny is the way he leverages his platform to speak to political realities in ways that most pop stars wouldn't, which is why I really love this conversation with Bianca Graulau. Bianca compared Puerto Rico's tourism economy to the plantation economies of the Americas during slavery. You talked to her about how she drew those historical connections
Bianca Graulau: 120 years later after the US invaded Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico is still a possession of the US without representation in the US government, without voting representation in the US government. It was important for me to see how in the past US companies benefited from Puerto Rico being a territory of the US from the US having acquired Puerto Rico and how we still see that today. One of the things that you hear people talk about with Act 22 is that the reason it's so great and attractive is because it's the only place within the United States that you can have 0% capital gains tax.
The fact that Puerto Rico is a US territory makes it that much easier for people to take advantage of this tax incentive because they don't have to give up their passport, they stay within US territory when they come and move to Puerto Rico. The only reason that that incentive exists is also because Puerto Rico is not a state. A state is not able to offer such a tax incentive. Now you have these factors that have to do directly with Puerto Rico's status that attracts people here. What we're seeing is that that's having an effect on the local population.
We see how Puerto Rico's status today plays into that just like it did years ago in the '20s, '30s, and '40s when US companies were able to come to Puerto Rico because now Puerto Rico belonged to the US.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us about Puerta de Tierra.
Bianca Graulau: Puerta de Tierra is a neighborhood that is very strategically located in the sense that it is the entrance to Old San Juan. Most people when they hear Puerto Rico, they think of San Juan. San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and Old San Juan is a very visited place. Puerta de Tierra is that entrance. It has beautiful ocean views. It is where the capital of Puerto Rico, the capital building is located. It is also a historic neighborhood in the sense that the people who lived there initially were the ones that the elite of Puerto Rico wanted to keep out of Old San Juan.
That's why it's called Puerta de Tierra because there were these big walls that closed off Old San Juan. Former enslaved people were pushed out of the city, so they lived there. Now, fast forward to today, that's a neighborhood that has become very attractive because it is a place where tourism could be booming in the eyes of some people. Now, the people who are now the descendants of former enslaved people who live there are fighting to be able to stay there because all of a sudden their neighborhood has become attractive.
What they've seen is a lot of people buying up properties. That is one of the neighborhoods we analyzed and looked at and we saw that some of the people buying up properties benefit from this incentive. They're fighting to stay there. They've been there for generations. They want to stay there, but they're finding it difficult because as people acquire more properties, they feel like they're getting pushed out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Cat. For this one, you had a chance to head out into the field or maybe I should say onto the court. Tell us about pickleball.
Cat Sposato: Oh, Melissa, where do I even start? Pickleball is a wildly interesting sport. Andy Peeke, one of the instructors I interviewed earlier this year, put it best.
Andy Peeke: Pickleball is like tennis and ping-pong had a baby.
Cat Sposato: Now, pickleball has been around since the 1960s when it was first invented by founders Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell, but in recent years, pickleball has really caught the attention of the American public. It may be hard to believe, but according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball has been America's fastest-growing sport for the last two years with 8.9 million players picking up the pickleball paddle in 2022.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's a plethora of people playing pickleball.
Cat Sposato: Where there's a ton of popularity, there's also some real problems. Across the country, there is some real beef between pickleball players and tennis players. Now, that's because pickleball players across the country are tampering with tennis courts. Let's listen to some of our special Takeaway reports on pickleball.
For critics like Caitlin Thompson, co-founder of Racquet Magazine, the idea that pickleball courts are replacing tennis courts across the country is a real disservice to tennis players.
Caitlin Thompson: In the past couple of years especially, tennis has benefited from a huge surge in growth among Black, brown, and Hispanic players.
Cat Sposato: Specifically to Caitlin, it's a disservice to the kinds of people who play tennis.
Caitlin Thompson: To me, that's so exciting and that's what I'm seeing. A real sport is getting obscured by this fad that is, I don't want to say totally in service of, but certainly catering to a white, largely baby boomer audience for recreational players, which, look, if you're going to be on the couch or go do a thing, go do a thing, but when it comes at the expensive tennis, both in terms of hype and literally space, because these pickle ballers, like a lot of colonial thinkers, tend to think that they get to decide how space is used and they feel entitled to it, that's when I get really upset.
Cat Sposato: It's true that pickleball's demographic makeup of recreational players tends to skew older. According to USA Pickleball, 79% of casual players are 65 or older. Whereas, in tennis, the demographic makeup is becoming more diverse than ever. Data from the US Tennis Association states that people of color represent 38% of the total tennis-playing population. In the last three years, the number of Latinos playing tennis has increased by 90%. For Caitlin, space is a massive issue for tennis players because tennis isn't as portable as pickleball is.
Caitlin Thompson: Tennis is a sport that you need a purpose-built space for. I use that term really specifically, purpose-built. It's one that urban planners or architects use. Something that's specifically for a thing, right? Pickleball is essentially a bar game. It's no different in terms of skill or athletic exertion than darts. It's fun, but you don't need to build a special darts hall to play darts, any wall will do. Pickleball is the same thing, you can play on a parking lot, you can play on a sidewalk.
Cat Sposato: Repurposing these sports spaces is the real issue according to Caitlin.
Caitlin Thompson: Because of the hype of pickleball, and again, the types of people who've been playing it, white, older folks who feel entitled to spaces, there's been some beefing. It's mostly happened with tennis players because there's already a net, but it's also happened with basketball courts and a number of other civic spaces where these entitled people feel like they can come onto the space, a space that's already pretty limited and under-resourced and feel like they can run it over.
Cat Sposato: Caitlin makes the case that the easy access and low barriers to entry to playing pickleball don't translate into real accessibility for young players of color.
Caitlin Thompson: I take huge issue with us prioritizing that over the growth of a real sport. The other thing is tennis is a real sport. It's a really competitive sport. There's athleticism required, there's years of training. Listen, that's not to say that it's not fun to play kickball or pool or whatever. Those are difficult things to do quite well, but the difference between something being accessible and something being difficult is not the same thing.
Is it accessible to become a professional tennis player? No, but it's not as accessible to become a NBA player and that doesn't stop the city, rightfully, and communities from investing in creating blacktops for people to play basketball. For me, I think the fact that people can get good at it very quickly is definitely a selling point for why it's a recreational thing, but it doesn't mean that it should be, I think, prioritized over something that has history, tradition, a sport you can play until you're very old.
That doesn't mean you have to get good at it, but pickleball doesn't give you much exercise and it's actually not a real viable professional sport because it's not a real viable truly athletic activity. It's not a lot different than if we decided to make huge swaths of the city dedicated to shuffleboard. Is it fun? Great. Is it accessible? I guess, but is it a good thing to prioritize over something that gets our heart rate up and attracts young diverse people? I would argue not one day.
Craig Morris: This is not two separate groups of people. There are a lot of people that play both sports, tennis and pickleball.
Cat Sposato: Craig Morris is the chief executive of community tennis at the US Tennis Association.
Craig Morris: It's really important that we look at this opportunity holistically and understand what players want. At certain times, as I said, players want to be able to play or compete in both activities, so we've got to make sure that that challenge that we're facing allows for that opportunity for local communities.
Cat Sposato: He says his organization is making strides to ensure that tennis players aren't displaced during pickleball's quick rise in popularity.
Craig Morris: What we've tried to do to alleviate some of the pressures, particularly parks and rec agencies [unintelligible 00:37:10] public accessible facilities where people can often walk down and play for free, which is what we want, we put out a statement of guidance to really try and help support local facility owners understand how they can support the implementation of both sports coexisting to meet the needs and the demands of those local communities that want to play both tennis and pickleball.
Cat Sposato: That idea of crossover between sporting groups extends to the competitive space too. Since the world of competitive tennis is much more restrictive and difficult to enter, many competitive tennis players of all skill levels are now looking to pickleball for new opportunities.
Pickleball does have a booming professional industry, pro athletes, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tom Brady, and Draymond Green, all own and invest in pickleball teams through Major League Pickleball, one of the biggest pickleball leagues in the United States. Think about what it takes to become a professional tennis player and play at the US Open. According to data collected by the US Tennis Association in 2010, on average, it took an investment of at least $143,000 to qualify as a professional tennis player, but in pickleball, you can become a professional almost by accident like Julie La Battaglia.
She's a 54-year-old former Montessori teacher, turn pickleball professional. She caught the pickleball bug back in 2019, right before the pandemic hit.
Julie La Battaglia: I was introduced at a local Y where I do my gym. Some people were playing and I heard the sound that some people might say it's an annoying sound. Some people might say it's a sound of life itself, the sound of a bouncing pickleball. I heard that sound and I was just instantly just curious. It was mostly seniors who were playing at that time. This is pre-pandemic, just before. They were kind and welcoming. They just described the sport to me and I was instantly hooked like everybody else.
Cat Sposato: After playing at local rec centers and in parks for a couple of years, Julie decided to try her hand at playing in a pickleball tournament.
Julie La Battaglia: Most of the tournaments that I play, initially they were local. Also, in Florida, there's a lot of tournaments and all throughout the East Coast. California is also big, Utah. They're everywhere. The great thing about tournaments is that you have both amateur and pro players, and senior pro players, all together, so you get to see all these superstars of pickleball that you just watched on a tennis channel, now you're just able to meet them at the next tournament and talk to them and pick their brain about pickleball.
Cat Sposato: From there, she was hooked. Julie started playing as an amateur in tournaments across the country as a way to meet new people. The more she played, the more she racked up points as a player. Then as she was signing up for another tournament, she found out some incredible news.
Julie La Battaglia: I just found out a couple of weeks ago as I was trying to register for the US Open actually, which I'll be playing in a couple of weeks, which is held in Naples by the way, they informed me that I was not eligible to play amateur because I'm an official pro, which I guess I accumulated enough points in the Senior Pro Tour to be ranked. Apparently, I'm ranked number 26 in the world in Senior Pro singles women.
Cat Sposato: That's right. In less than a year of playing pickleball in a formal setting, Julie racked up enough points in the World Pickleball League to become a professional pickleball player. Being a pickleball pro is a pretty big deal. For starters, it can open up opportunities to play in some of the world's best sports venues. Last year, Julie was eligible to play in the Senior Pro singles division for the Pickleball NYC Open, which was held in the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens, New York. That's also where the US Open for tennis is held. Those same courts are reserved for the matches that changed the careers of tennis legends like Serena Williams, Andy Murray, and Naomi Osaka forever.
Julie La Battaglia: Just entering it, walking through the gates, knowing that you're going to play Senior Pro and just knowing I never got to play there as a tennis player, but here I am playing pickleball on these hallowed grounds and then winning my first pro match. I was like, "This is special." What other sport can you do this? I just started playing a year and a half ago and now I can play and win a pro match.
Cat Sposato: Stu Upson is the CEO of USA Pickleball, the national governing board for the sport.
Stu Upson: I think the great opportunity for an athlete to become a professional pickleball player is that there aren't really many barriers other than you have to be really good.
Cat Sposato: He says part of pickleball's appeal is in its opportunity
Stu Upson: Because there are enough leagues with the APP and the PPA, there are plenty of opportunities for good athletes who are becoming really good pickleball players to have that opportunity to compete in the various tours and tournaments around the country. It's still a young sport, there are still opportunities for young athletes to compete at the pro level.
Cat Sposato: Being a professional pickleball player can also be lucrative. At the USA National Championship, the prize pool is $150,000. Like athletes in any other sport, Stu says that sponsorships and endorsements from athletic equipment brands and sportswear companies make big payouts to pickleball pros.
Stu Upson: The pros will generate income from prize money, from competing and winning in tournaments, but they're also receiving endorsements from manufacturers and other marketers. Where probably two years ago the top player earned maybe $50,000 to $100,000 a year, now they're well into, gosh, $500,000 or more a year, when you combine prize money, some appearance fees, and also sponsorships.
Cat Sposato: In recent years, pickleball has given athletes who never had the opportunity to go pro at racket sports in their youth the chance to gain those same experiences later in life. That is, as long as they invest enough time into the game.
Stu Upson: The professional pickleball players are those who've played competitive tennis at some level, perhaps collegiately, or maybe even at the pro level, but not a top 200 player in tennis as an example. We're finding that a lot of the pro players are really good tennis players who are realizing that they can make a good living and maybe even a better living and have a bigger career in pickleball than in tennis because again, they're not a top 100 or 200 player in professional tennis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, folks, that's all we have for you today. Before we go, Cat, I just want to take a minute and say to you that I am so very sorry that your first full-time, real big girl job in radio ended with surprise cancellation of this show. As you know, of course, by now, the production schedule on this show is very demanding. When you first joined the team, I was like, "How is it possible that she's going to school full-time and working full-time for The Takeaway?" The fact that you survived that balancing act is a testament to your drive, your vision for the future that you want to build in media.
I've got to say, I was so excited for you to join us because I knew as a young professional, you were going to have this opportunity with some of our longer-serving radio folks to be really willing and wonderful mentors and guides. I hope that even though the time here was too brief that you got a chance to learn from a lot of them. Again, I'm so genuinely sorry about the brutal lessons that you've had to learn over the past couple of months as we've been managing trying to stick the landing on this thing.
I've got to tell you, Cat, I will never forget looking at your face across the Zoom on that day when WNYC execs announced they were ending The Takeaway without any plans to reassign anyone to any other shows. I could see your shock and your sadness. I want you to know it doesn't have to be like this, that this industry is tough, it can even be painful and unfair, but you are going to be just fine. You're smart, you're tough, you've got great instincts, and the reality is you care about the stories and the people whose stories you are telling in a way that is meaningful and in a way that lasts, Takeaway or no Takeaway. I'm just glad that we get to have been at least a little part of your story.
Cat Sposato: Thank you so much for that, Melissa. My time at The Takeaway has been truly one of a kind. For it to be my first gig, I couldn't have asked for a better team of people to work with this whole time. I'm just really sad that we're ending the way that we are. I wish we had more time together.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You never know, the future is out there, although it's going to be a little longer for you than for me. [laughs] Thanks so much for listening. Now, we're back next week with more producer appreciation, and then our big finale on June 2nd. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway.
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