Merlin Chowkwanyun: Interviewing Basketball Star Pau Gasol about His Work to Promote Childhood Health

A historian by training, Merlin Chowkwanyun joined Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health as an Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the fall of 2015. For his knowledge exchange project at UW-Madison, he interviewed NBA player Pau Gasol about The Gasol Foundation and his work on behalf of children’s health. You can find the interview here.

How did you get the idea for this project?

I’m a huge Lakers fan. I grew up in LA, and Pau Gasol was on the Lakers for seven seasons and won two championships with us. But he also developed a very strong reputation for being really engaged. He’s very involved in the children’s hospital there, which has a very high public profile. And he always seemed to me to be a very thoughtful guy off the court.

I knew now he’s in Chicago, and I read an interview where he was explaining his criteria for choosing Chicago. One of them was it has a great opera house. So I always thought he was an interesting dude and was curious about his life off the court.

Even when things are difficult, [Pau Gasol] tends to accentuate the better things, which is a trend in population health research I’ve liked.

He posted on Twitter, “I’m really proud to start this new foundation, The Gasol Foundation, with my brother, and it’s going to be oriented around childhood health, and our first issue is going to be childhood obesity.” So I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting because that’s what the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been dunking 2 billion dollars in for the past decade, and childhood health is a big thing now in population health.” If I had to name the big five issues now, I think early childhood health would be one of them. And the [Foundation’s] Culture of Health language seemed very compatible with his approach to things. He’s a very positive, non-cynical kind of guy. Even when things are difficult, he tends to accentuate the better things, which is a trend in population health research I’ve liked.

I didn’t use any conduits, I don’t know anybody in the NBA, I don’t know any professional sports people. I just clicked “Contact us,” and there was a form.

I said OK, I kind of want to do something out of the box this year. Why not do something where we can communicate what he’s doing beyond the professional sports audience and then bring the professional sports audience into these health orbits? Is there a way to do that? I said, “Well, Chicago’s not that far from Madison, two-and-a-half hours. And I’m from LA, and even though he’s no longer playing in LA, the foundation is still headquartered in LA, so he must come through LA every now and then. So, since I’m geographically situated in a nice place, why don’t we see if I can do a face-to-face interview with him?” So I just wrote this letter to the Gasol Foundation by clicking the contact button on their website. I didn’t use any conduits, I don’t know anybody in the NBA, I don’t know any professional sports people. I just clicked “Contact us,” and there was a form.

And he said he’d do it?

I heard back in like 2 days. His rep, who basically helps run the foundation and oversees it, says, “I think this is very interesting, and I want him to start practicing non–sports interviews, because this is what he wants to do after he retires.” He wants to be a philanthropic, humanitarian person and is thinking about how to craft that. So she says, “He needs to get used to doing these types of interviews, so I think this would be good for him. Let me check with him.”

She goes and checks with him, and a week later she comes back and says, “Yeah, he thinks this would be a really good idea, and the only thing we have to do now is figure out a time because he has to do tons of traveling because of road games.” It was about 2 months before we could pin down a date, and then I got this phone call saying, “This is actually a great weekend. Can you come to the United Center on Saturday, and can you give us some bullet points in 24 hours so he can study?” So I was like “Oh man,” but of course I say yes instantly over the phone while wondering if I should do this. I came up with my questions in 24 hours, 10 questions.

Do you think he ran his answers by the rep?

No. He was answering them real. They weren’t scripted. You know when they’re really polished… I had a radio show in college, and I could always tell if a politico was just reciting talking points. I think they just wanted the questions because he’s not used to that kind of interview, so he had some time to think about what he might say.

How did the interview go?

I got 30 minutes.

I went down to the stadium and got a tour of the facility, and then they’re like, “He’s ready,” and I sat down. The first minute was the most nerve racking. I felt like my heart was going to come out of my throat.

He’s my favorite player of all time, but it was also just mentally an out-of-body experience. He’s like 7´2´´, too, so that exacerbates it. I’m sitting across from this truly giant man, and plus he’s him. I didn’t ask for an autograph, and I didn’t mention sports at all. I stuck purely to health questions. I kind of played it like, “This is just another task.” I don’t know how convincing the acting job was.

So then we did the interview and it went well. The first question he answered really nicely, so I calmed down. And he asked a few questions, so that was cool.

Who did you picture the audience for the interview being?

I wanted health people to know that a lot of professional athletes have an increasing interest in societal issues and that from a communications perspective we should leverage that.

Academics and sports fans.

I wanted to magnify the message among different orbits. I wanted health people to know that a lot of professional athletes have an increasing interest in societal issues and that from a communications perspective we should leverage that. They have such high profiles and have a big influence, particularly on adolescents and kids who look up to them. I worked with the Culture of Health communications team [at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation], so they suggested some of the questions I asked.

The interview appeared on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation blog and that’s kind of how I sold it to the Gasol people. I said, “This is not going to appear on some sports site, it’ll appear on RWJF’s site. It’ll help you connect to this influential organization, and it’ll help RWJF.” RWJF sent me these books and said, “Can you give these to him?” I was like, “Sure.” And then he was flipping through them and was like, “Wow, I didn’t know this thing existed, this is cool.” They’re going to get in touch with each other after the season is over. He’s knee deep in playoffs now.

What was your perception of knowledge exchange before you began this project?

I thought it was great. I think it never hurts when you do things outside of academia and get skill at broadening the audience. Historians are especially bad at not remembering that more people are interested in history besides historians and getting caught up in some of our lingo and ways of framing things. It can be a detriment to broader communication. I’ve found that to communicate with people in HSS orbits, but also in public health, population health orbits, I have to couch my work in a way so it doesn’t sound like I’m just this pedantic historian busting out history facts. I always thought knowledge exchange was a good opportunity to practice that skill, hone that skill. I try to write stuff or work on stuff that I hope has some broader dissemination beyond academic products, so I thought this was great for that.

This seems like a really successful knowledge exchange project. Did you try to measure the results somehow?

I was tweeting it, so I was happy to see a lot of sports people retweeting. I tweeted it out to a couple beat reporters for the Chicago Bulls, and they tweeted it out. RWJF did a lot of tweets, his foundation did a lot, he tweeted it out... that was surreal.

RWJF said it got a lot of Facebook likes and stuff. They put out a weekly newsletter called RWJF Advances. They showcase three items on it that anyone affiliated with RWJF is doing, so they put that as one of the three items.

Did this project have a lasting effect on your work?

I was in a great mood for like a month afterwards. When I started HSS, I was a bad public speaker, lacked confidence, and it showed. I feel like I’m a lot better at it, because at HSS, as you know, you’re always meeting these big-shot people who come through and you have to talk to them. And you have to give presentations at the annual meeting.

In some ways, I felt like this thing was kind of a culmination. It was just kind of surreal when I think about it. I had to give two conference talks and a regular lecture at Minnesota, and I wasn’t nervous at all.

Some researchers are skeptical about knowledge exchange because they feel it can easily veer into advocacy. What do you think about that?

I strongly think you can do quality work that’s empirically legitimate while still having opinions on things and passion about things.

There have been some interesting discussions within our site about the role of advocacy or explicit political positions and work. There are some who feel very strongly that you don’t allow any kind of biases and ideologies to seep through, make your work as pure and clean as possible, and you have this pure science. And then some advocates, who are not you, will take the findings and run with them.

I’m very suspicious of that. I’m much more for putting your values on the table, saying what they are. It doesn’t mean that you’re a charlatan. I strongly think you can do quality work that’s empirically legitimate while still having opinions on things and passion about things. I think knowledge exchange has been good because you often are dealing with people who have very explicit views on how the world works, and it has just been interesting to see how people think about this issue. I don’t think those conversations would necessarily happen without the knowledge exchange background.

Do you see knowledge exchange being a big part of what you do in the future?

I write every now and then. I’ll do an op-ed or an essay for a nonacademic, general audience publication. I’ve done five or six of those for newspapers and book reviews and that kind of thing. I always plan to continue doing that. My main motive for doing those is I would send an email to a friend, ranting about something, and then say, “Why not get something out of this?” So I always plan to continue doing that.

Who do you think can benefit from doing knowledge exchange programs like this one?

I was an activist in college. I’m not one now. Part of the reason I was attracted to academia was that I saw that, as fruitful as activism can sometimes be, there was just a lot of dumbing down and sloganeering. It elides a lot of the complexities of life.

When I was getting my first introduction to serious academic work and what it entailed as an undergraduate, I could see a real tension between the stuff I was spouting with a blow horn and the multilayered, “on the other hand” way of looking at things. So I was attracted to academia as a space to do that more thoughtful, meditative work.

I feel knowledge exchange is perhaps a way to get the credibility and legitimacy that’s needed to make claims about how the world works—but once you’ve done that and have a scholarly edifice, to be able to disseminate those findings beyond our immediate scholarly orbits.

But what causes me some anguish is that you see what’s going on in Baltimore and Ferguson, and you’re working on this journal article, and you feel a real disjuncture. I feel knowledge exchange is perhaps a way to reconcile that, to get the credibility and legitimacy that’s needed to make claims about how the world works—but once you’ve done that and have a scholarly edifice, to be able to disseminate those findings beyond our immediate scholarly orbits. So that is what I find attractive about knowledge exchange, and I think people who come from those kinds of backgrounds, it would really serve them well. How do I reconcile this tension between the world out there and writing esoteric articles all day? I think this is a solution to that in some ways.

People who don’t have that, who are knowledge-for-its-own-sake types, there’s nothing wrong with that. Probably, at worst, they find [knowledge exchange] a waste of time, or more charitably they might see it as undermining their work.