Have You Met My BFFF?

By Dr. Daniel Durbin | 10/21/14 |


Sometime late in the summer of 2009, when the sun (as always) was shining bright in the Southern California sky, a slender young man stopped by my office and, rather apologetically and with a rich French accent, asked if I would mind very much if he took my Sports, Communication and Culture class that fall.  He told me he was a graduate student from the University of Paris, Sorbonne Nouvelle who was writing his dissertation on sports and music in American culture and he wanted to take some classes in the United States to see how we studied sports and culture.

The air-conditioning hummed in my office in its perpetual struggle to control the LA summer heat.  The office was an icebox.  Of course, I said I was more than happy to have him in the class.  It would be great to have an international perspective represented in COMM 383.

 Over the next year, Yann Descamps periodically dropped by my office.  He interviewed me for his dissertation, talked about French and American perspectives on sports, and was always profoundly gracious, constantly thanking me for my time (as if that wasn’t part of my job).  When he left to return to France, he told me he hoped to contact me in the future.  And, then he was gone.

Sometime in the winter of 2011, as I sat alone in a coffee shop in Grants Pass, Oregon, piecing together projects for the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, my phone rang.  It was 37 degrees Fahrenheit outside and snow covered the ground. The number of the caller went on about seventeen digits.  As I answered, a feather light dusting of snowflakes began to float to the ground outside the shop’s lone foggy window.

“Professor Durbin,” a familiar French voice said over the line, “I would like to talk with you about a partnership.”

Yann Descamps is a fanatical basketball fan.  He loves his Los Angeles Lakers.  He loves his Kobe Bryant.  He plays basketball in the evening every chance he gets.  But, he shoots those hoops on basketball courts in and around the city of Paris, France, some 9,000 kilometers from his beloved Lakers’ home.

For all his youthful, innocent-eyed likability, Yann is also a driven man.  A scholar of American history and culture, he is a sort of French Mamba, striking with Kobe-like ferocity, driving the lane of sports scholarship in Europe, seeking to hit an academic two-pointer with the buzzer sounding and his team down by one.  Yann wants to move sports studies further toward the forefront of research in Europe.  He wants to build international relationships between sports scholars and develop projects studying sports from a variety of intellectual and critical perspectives.  With the backing of the University of Paris, Sorbonne Nouvelle, under a cool Paris breeze, Yann hoped to further that vision of a new world of sports research by placing a phone call to an obscure snowbound coffee shop in the frigid mountains of southern Oregon.  That first small investment has, in a bare four years, produced a prodigious flood of dividends.

Incidentally, last I heard, Yann is 28 years old.

Now, when I was 28 years old, I’m comfortably certain that I could properly tie my own shoes.   Let’s have a look at a few things Yann has accomplished over the four years between that phone call and his 28th birthday.

Yann has directed or co-directed annual conferences on a variety of sports subjects, including, sports narratives as constructed in the U.S. and Europe, a comparison of the cultures of rugby and American football, sports and space, sports and a variety of social issues.  Yann has traveled to the U.S. to speak in an equal number of conferences on issues of race and sports, the Olympics experience and sports, and various other topics.

Yann introduced me to Miguel de Moragas who directed me to Emilio Fernandez Pena, one of the most likable people I’ve ever met and one of the most important sports scholars in Europe, the Director of the Center for the Study of the Olympics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.  Emilio has worked hard with us to develop international programs between our schools.  Yann helped to plant the seeds of those partnerships.

Speaking of planting seeds, Yann’s programs allowed us the opportunity to take four Ph.D. students, two scholars, and a journalist from USC to various conferences in Paris.  The conferences he’s directed have brought together students and professors, broadcasters and journalists, from across Europe and the U.S.  These programs have helped bolster the vitas of the students who participated.  Of course, these programs have also given the participants great academic and personal experiences (who wouldn’t want to travel to Paris in the fall?).

Did I mention that he’s 28?

You might see this as a story about the ripple effect of each human life.  As George Bailey found out in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (a film I could never warm up to), each human life impacts an almost infinite number of other lives.  And, Yann has already impacted many lives.  But, that’s not what this story is about.

You see, Yann is currently looking for a tenure track position in France.  A man who has flown halfway across the world to study his subject, who has produced ridiculously good academic projects for half a decade, a man who has brought together professionals, scholars, and students and who has presented his own research time and again in a variety of settings, is looking for a job.  If, over the next ten years, he accomplishes half as much as he has over the last four, the man will change the face of sports scholarship at his university and in France.

Now, I’m not blowing smoke at you about Yann.  When I was a kid, there was a hard and fast rule on tv westerns, never trust a smiler with a gun (he’ll be smiling as your body hits the ground).  In my life, it’s been talkers.  I’ve never trusted talkers.  Talkers are people who talk (and talk), but, never really do anything.  Talking is safe.  Attempting something takes risk and the possibility of failure.

I’ve never cared much for talkers, talking endlessly about themselves. I know this sounds radically counterculture in the Kardashian-driven brand management world we inhabit.  But, I’ve never trusted any current culture.  It’ll be gone tomorrow.

I do like and admire people who don’t talk a lot but who simply get the job done.

Yann doesn’t talk a lot.  But, lord, does he get the job done.  At 28 and newly married, he gets the job done.  I admire that.  And, if he won’t talk about it, somebody needs to.

So, let me introduce you to my BFFF (Best French Friend Forever), Yann Descamps.  I envy the university that hires him.