Schaerlaeckens Prepares Sports Comm Students for the Unpredictable
“I think the least interesting thing about sports to me is sport itself.”
With bylines in the New York Times, Yahoo, ESPN.com and more, Leander Schaerlaeckens evolved a childhood passion into a prolific career in sports communication. He holds a Bachelor's degree in print journalism and economics from City University in London and made his foray into the industry overseas in Brussels.
Schaerlaeckens furthered his studies with a master’s in broadcast journalism and economics from American University in D.C. and continued to gain traction as a sports writer. He’s covered two World Cups and countless other games, but Schaerlaeckens always seeks stories bigger than the game. Now as a part-time Yahoo Sports writer, a professional lecturer at Marist and the adviser for the college’s CenterField online publication, he strives to bring his seasoned perspective to the classroom and guide the next generation of sports writers.
What were the moments in your life that led you to become a journalist?
So I’m kind of weird in that I made up my mind what I wanted to be when I was, like, 13 and then actually became that, which doesn’t happen a lot. I was obsessed with sports as a kid and I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t good enough to play sports for a living, as most of us aren’t. So I thought, “Alright, what’s the alternative?” and I like to write, so there you go.
The first job I had coming out of grad school, I was covering NATO and the EU for UPI [United Press International] - which was a wire service that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore - and The Washington Times. All the while I was trying to get into sports and I started writing about soccer for The Guardian. So I wound up having a ten-year, full-time sports writing career until before last year when I decided to take this job teaching and now I just write on the side.
What have been the most memorable stories that you’ve written?
I think the most memorable story was one about street vendors I did in Johannesburg because I spent an afternoon in the inner-city...which is a terrifying place. I had a security guy, which ESPN got me. It’s completely occupied by squatters, to the point where there’s no electricity. So you’ve got this sort-of this central skyscraper neighborhood in Johannesburg that doesn’t have any power. So how did they have lights at night? Well, they light tires on fire. It’s this kind of apocalyptic place with burning tires everywhere. I spent the better part of a day there, and on that same trip I got to pet some lion cubs.
So would you say, as far as sports stories, that you like to take sports and put them in a greater social context?
What happens on the field is great, I love it, but it’s the least interesting thing about sports. It’s what happens around it that I find fascinating. It’s the culture of it, the politics of it, and the way that it becomes a proxy for war and conflict. And the way it tends to bring out these societal issues like poverty, like the stratification of wealth. I really like to kind of turn my back on the field and see what’s happening on the other sides, in the stands and where these sports are played.
What are the most important skills that you hope to impart to your students?
I think the most important thing we can teach them is that storytelling always survives. Everything in the end boils down to telling a good story. The tech is going to change, the medium is going to change. We’re going from newspapers to websites to apps. As an industry, sports communication and journalism as a whole are undergoing all this rapid change, so it’s hard to anticipate that in a college setting.
I can’t tell you what skills you’re going to need 10 years from now, but I can tell you that if you can tell good stories 10 years from now there will probably be a place for you, whatever side of the industry that’s on. I try to impart to my students to learn how to convey stories and to be flexible, to see where the industry goes and to roll with it.