Saturday, October 12, 2013

From a Left Wing has retired, Long Live The Sport Spectacle

I wrote From a Left Wing from December 2007 until July 2013. For much of that time, I averaged one post a week; some years I wrote more than that. In that time my interests have changed, and much as I love From a Left Wing as a writing-space and as a community of readers, I decided to retire this blog and start a different project, The Sport Spectacle.

How can I possibly express my gratitude to the people who've supported From a Left Wing by reading, engaging, sometimes correcting and arguing with me?

Thank you, and I hope you like the new blog.

Find me at the new site, which alternates between image-heavy and text-heavy posts.

@FromaLeftWing still tweets.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

All in One Rhythm: Brazil Rejects the Pure Spectacle

The people taking to the streets in Brazil are demonstrating the only right and true response to the militarized boondoggle of international sports festivals like FIFA's World Cup and the Olympics. These are serial spectacles - a rotating cast and set acting out the same story over and over again - a massive fiction about fairness and a "level playing field." It is fiction in the sense of the lie, the scam. The complicity of any government with the production of these spectacles is a scandal.

from Christopher Gaffney's Geostadia
The level field of the pure spectacle is flattened by bulldozers, helicopters and police. The formal image of the World Cup: a green rectangle of the best grass for the best game - a painted-on Imperial green that registers nicely in HD and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the fields that the world's people actually play on. Our own lived experience of the game is mediated through it. The beautiful game is turned into a game of deficits - the distance between that artificial image of the perfect conditions and the actual conditions in which we live, work, play - that distance itself is captured, packaged and sold to us as a form of global longing - a shared spectator experience that we indulge every four years and from which we turn away, like uncertain addicts - disgusted with ourselves and with the things we want. (This is why I am not going to the World Cup.)

It may seem a strange moment for me to remind you of Brazil's women's team. The CBF has never done right by the women's team. They are still here nevertheless as embodiments of everything FIFA resents. The impure spectacle, the spectacle of intense skill and joy that takes us all by surprise every time we see it because we consume it through a system determined to forget every sick pass, every goal or supernatural save. A system that can't hold onto her joy - for that kid of joy is a poison to its system. So a women's club will win its national title before an all but empty stadium. A player might grow her hair long and indulge a manager's impulse to put her in a uniform so tight it doesn't allow her to move her arms. But she knows it won't work. She remains an irritant to the apparatus. A grain of sand, a splinter.

Perhaps this is why FIFA wants women to play their World Cup on plastic. Or why we forget that people have organized international tournaments for women (e.g Mexico, 1970) - at a time when supposedly nobody cared - and these games drew massive audiences (e.g. Estadio Azteca, 110,000). I can hardly get myself wound up about the "failure" of women's soccer. I like to think of the dogged failure of the women's game to attract as a sign. It is an unspectacular spectacle, an impure spectacle of the lowest order.
From a PRI story, "The Struggle for Equality in Brazil" 
Given that the men's world cup is in essence Moloch's game, I find it hard to root for "equity" for the women's. Instead, I like to remember the activist and egalitarian spirit of the women's game as a counterpoint. FIFA hates women, FIFA hates feminists - and in this simple fact we see that it actually hates the grassroots it purports to nurture - the same grassroots spirit it appropriates as a marketing strategy - the favela fantasy, the favela as the soul of the game - the "slum," the "street" rendered in one commercial after another (teeming with life and with talent) from an actual community into the commodity's patina.

Demonstrators in Brazil are telling us what we already know: we need to hate these systems back - properly, and in numbers. It is not enough to want a "better" World Cup, just as it not enough to want the state to be more efficient in the ways that it strips our educational, health care and transportation systems for parts, to build higher fences and thicker walls. 

There is a lot of good writing about what is happening in Brazil right now. I recommend Christopher Gaffney's blog Geostadia, from which I pulled the photo at the top of this post. It's a smart starting place for the English-language reader. Check out this post on Social Text too

Friday, June 14, 2013

Are the Doncaster Belles being punished for their history? Or for the history of women's football?

Moira Lovell, "John and Precious" from Stand Your Ground
Doncaster Rover Belles players and their coach
The unfairness of discrimination can be so lacerating, so outrageous that you hesitate to speak directly to the experience of it. Once you start, you are sucked into a tornado of totally justified and completely disabling paranoid thinking. Who wants to count the ways in which the game is fixed, ruined at the outset? That's the pall that the English FA is casting over the women's game it claims to want to develop.

At the start of this season, the FA announced its plans to relegate the Doncaster Belles from its "Super League" no matter how well they perform.* This is so that they can make room for Man City's women's club, which finished 4th in the "Premier League" (the 2nd tier league in the women's system). Man City is to be promoted no matter how poorly they do.

To say that this would not happen to a men's side is to say the obvious. That complaint doesn't say much. It is perhaps more accurate to say that this decision represents an attempt to map the lack of integrity of the men's game onto the women's game in the name of the latter's "development" - as if one could squeeze grassroots football out the women's game overnight and replace it with the hollow commercialism of the men's game.

The FA believes that Man City is a better product than the Doncaster Belles, and that fans are satisfied with the fact that women play, and so it doesn't matter who plays on what team or how well.

The Doncaster Belles have played in the top division in women's football for 22 years. They are founding members of the National League (the FA's first women's national division), and completed the 1991-1992 inaugural season without conceding a single game. Why did the Doncaster Belles enter the first season of FA-sponsored women's football as the overwhelmingly dominant club? Because they'd been playing since 1969: they were founded before the FA allowed women to play. They are, in fact, England's longest continuously operating women's club. (For a good portrait of the club, read The Popular Stand's The Belles Toll.)

The Doncaster Belles are a model organization: In 2009, they established "The Belles for the Community" initiative, integrating the women's club into "community, social, health and educational services." They are (according to their website) the first women's club in Britain to do so - in doing so, they honor the roots of the women's game as not only grassroots, but communitarian.

In early years of the women's game in England (1919-1921), clubs raised money for the community - for injured and unemployed veterans, for war widows, and eventually in some cases for striking workers. People knew that in turning out to watch women's football, they were supporting each other - so they turned out in huge numbers and raised an astonishing amount of money from communities with few resources to spare. Barbara Jacobs, in her must-read history of the women's game, speculates that the communitarian orientation of women's game was one of the reasons behind FA's 1921 ban. She writes:
For the FA, the psychological reason was that women's football was something they were powerless to control. It has sprung up as the spontaneous expression of free-spiritedness by the lower orders, in a totally different way from that in which men's football had developed. Men's football had initially been a game for gentlemen which had only later, after its control by the FA, turned into a rough-house performed for the working classes by the working classes, which they and they alone paid to see while the owners and investors pocketed the proceeds....But in women's football there were very few rich men, just a lot of common factory women. There was no League structure, no hierarchy,no fees paid to accountants, no skimming off dividends, no affiliation to a professional body. Women's football was random and organic.... It was out of control, and it was a bad example to set the nation as a whole, which was already rebelling against the old power structures.  
If women's football, which had shifted slightly from its factory roots and begun to establish itself as a sporting means for raising huge sums of money for charity,were to continue, how long would it be before the man in the street...started to ask - where does the money raised in men's football go to? (Jacobs, The Dick, Kerr's Ladies, 166)
Jacobs's analysis of this history is important. Sexism does not stand alone. The FA did what it could to kill the women's game in the 1920s not because women weren't suited to football (that's the official reason they gave), and not because the women's game was corrupt (ironically, that's another reason they gave). The FA did what it did because the women's game was organized differently. It represented a different cultural possibility. This was expressed in the game's material structure - in particular in the way that the people organizing the women's game approached the money. Money, in the women's game in those years, was meant to circulate - it was not to be gathered by a single owner or set of investors. The women's game was a means for taking care of each other.

I see the echo of this moment in the FA's current behavior towards the Doncaster Belles - otherwise why single out the most stable club, with the best playing grounds and with the most articulated relationship to its community for this treatment?

I've resisted thinking about this (I'm writing this months after the FA announced its intentions) because the idea of it is just so painful. As one fan put it to a journalist reporting the story for The Independent:
Doncaster have one of the best stadiums in the [Women's Super League]...Arsenal play at Boreham Wood, Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon, Liverpool at Widnes. We have a 15,000 seat stadium. We have eight England internationals...we could lose all these players.
The Independent rightly called the story a "relegation scandal." The Doncaster Belles are appealing this decision - the stakes are high. Not just for the Belles, but for every fan of English football. If the FA feels it can go after the integrity of the women's game, perhaps it feels it must, because the integrity of a side like the Doncaster Belles throws the state of the men's game into such stark relief.

*For US-based readers unfamiliar with the relegation/promotion system that defines this sport: Teams that finish at the top of their division are promoted and teams that finish at the bottom are relegated to the next division down.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Runner's Runner

I've long wanted to write about Justina Cassavell. My sister has been the cross-country coach at Voorhees High School in New Jersey since the mid 1990s. She is also the head track coach (boys and girls). She announced her resignation yesterday - within minutes it seemed, the story was posted on

Under her leadership, the girls cross-country team has been one of the best teams in not just the state, but in the northeast. One local paper summed up her accomplishments: "Cassavell is recognized as one of the top coaches of distance runners, male or female, in New Jersey state history." She was inducted into the NJSIAA Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame. Her team has won [thirteen] state sectional titles, nine state titles, and three Meet of Champions (all group) titles (thanks to my brother-in-law for keeping the stats!). In recent years, they've also qualified for national competitions three times (placing first or second in the northeast in 2007, 2010 and 2012). In addition, she's coached individual runners on her teams to national ranking and helped them establish a foundation for their development as college athletes.

My sister is known for helping runners realize their talent (e.g. gifted athletes like Liz Wort who graduated from Duke in 2007, was a 3-time all-American in the steeplechase and is now head cross-country coach at TCU, and Melanie Thompson, a University of Oregon runner and 2-time All American, also in the steeplechase). But my sister is also known for cultivating the good runner, the life-long runner. Running, I've heard her say again and again, should make you happy. I've also heard her say that she thinks of herself as a coach who really enjoys coaching a team.

That's a special thing: because that coach takes an interest in the All-American but also in the struggling athlete, the injured, and the ordinary hard-worker. She knows that a good runner can be any and all of these things. Journalists covering high-school sports in the area tend to describe her as a "whisperer" - signaling the degree to which such attentive coaching seems like magic in a world that sells us pretty much one vision of what an effective coach looks like (a man) and does (yells, a lot) in the service of a single aim (win at all cost).

In his most recent column, Dave Zirin argues that youth sports culture seems to cultivate aggression of the worst sorts. Increasingly, people experience youth sports as an apparatus that enables the abuse of power and authority. (My experience with AYSO in Los Angeles sadly affirms this.) Even as youth sports operates in American mythology as a kind of idyll - as a place we imagine as innocent and good - the reality is quite different. Zirin asks, "Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? Why, and this is the most serious point, can it turn suddenly violent?" He writes:
I spoke with Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, pastor and founder of Coach for America. Ehrmann has devoted his life to fighting this societal tide and making youth sports and coaching a positive for children. He said to me, “My belief is that while youth sports originated to train, nurture and guide children into adulthood many programs/coaches have taken over to meet needs of adults at expense of kids. Sports should be a tool to help children become whole and healthy adults who can build relationships and contribute as citizens, but the social contract between adults protecting and providing for the needs of children [instead of their own needs] is broken.” ([Zirin's] emphasis.)
Those are strong words describing the experiences of a great many parents and kids. Where some aspects of youth sports has been taken over by selfishness, greed, and cruelty, I've had the distinct pleasure of seeing the other side: The world being cultivated by the women who entered sports in the 1980s with a little help from federal legislation (my sister's scholarships were no doubt created by Title IX equity requirements). Those women ran in college and now they coach other young women at high schools, colleges, summer camps. Athletics is a way of life for them. And it's a sustainable way of life. That way of being in sports nurtures competitiveness, because that kind of competition is good for everyone. One person inspires another. A collective feels wonder at what one person among them can do. There is something both humbling and empowering about running alongside someone who is much faster, stronger than you.

Over the past fifteen+ years, I've loved going to watch the Voorhees girls run. There's something so perfect about a cross-country meet. About being outdoors, about running along the course to cheer. About watching teams try. I love seeing how teams gather together at the end of the race - how the older athletes look after the younger ones. How kids look after teammates with different needs, how they lift each other's spirits. It's so damned nice to be reminded of what youth sports can be.

As a person coaching teenagers, my sister quite literally coaches her athletes from childhood to adulthood. The high school coach has an incredible responsibility. I think she's really joyed in watching the people on her team mature, take responsibility for themselves and each other. If she likes to coach a team, perhaps that's why - part of being an adult involves learning to understand oneself in relation to, among others. Cross country is just a cool sport when it comes to that balance of the self with others. Nobody can run for you; everybody needs you to run your best.

While my sister is eloquent on the thing that makes for a great competitor (the insane drive that will make a runner not just want but need to win the race) she has dedicated years of her life to helping young women find balance, to run their best, together.

When I go home, I run with my sisters (both of whom ran track at Rutgers, my other sister worked with autistic children for years, and is an equally gifted teacher). Justina has taught me to keep myself relaxed, to take hills slowly, to let myself take my time so I can run long (after one session in which she talked about pace, I nearly doubled the amount of time I was able to run). I learned to listen to my body. I learned to notice when I was holding myself back.

Running with Justina has helped my writing. It's helped me to take notice when I begin to move away from trying. When I think I can't do something, I put on my shoes and run. It seems like an escape, but it's really a kind of meditation. A practice, a way to tune in. The things you learn from having a holistic approach to a sport carry over into other areas of your life. We hear that all the time. But there's something to it: you don't just work out a problem through the mind or the body. You can work something out in one domain and bring the wisdom you found there to the other. Sometimes you need to do both at once, to trust yourself and give it a shot. She's the person that taught me this.

I wish that when I was in high school I'd had access to coach like her. It's hard to imagine what a difference having a person like this can mean to a teenage girl - having access to a role model in the form of a grown-up woman, a person guiding you in developing a healthy relationship to your body, and doing so in a way that isn't about being pretty or cute or skinny or perfect but is about being strong, healthy and balanced.

Anyway, all this is just to say I'm fiercely proud of my sister and all that she's accomplished as a coach at Voorhees High School.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Brittney Griner, Jason Collins and the Sex of a Story

The (not-homophobic side of the) sports world has invested a lot of magic in the currently-professional-and-playing-out-gay-male-athlete. It's no wonder, given how elusive that athlete has been.

Jason Collins comes out decades after Stonewall, he comes out long after Ellen DeGeneres came out while professionally-active-and-on-television and then recovered that career with her talk show, months after Frank Ocean came out about his love for a man. Johnny Weir was never not out. Orlando Cruz - a boxer - came out in October. Transgender athlete Renée Richards entered women's professional tennis in 1977: she had to sue for the right to do so. Hers is a landmark case. NBA, NFL and baseball players have come out before, but in retirement. In 2009, Gareth Thomas, one of the most famous rugby players in the world (captain of the Welsh team) came out while he was still in the game - he told first his coach and then his team. They embraced him. Thomas has been eloquent in his description of what being closeted as such a public figure means. In a recent interview for BBC, Thomas explained, "when you lie every day, you begin to hate yourself." It made him suicidal. Lists of athletes who have come out while they were playing date back quite a bit - take Billie Jean King, for example. Her 1981 outing was painful, not her choice and a powerful, frightening example - the story became a headline, a scandal and "in 24 hours" she lost all her endorsements. She went on to be an inspirational figure, a leader in the fight for a better game. The list goes on in all sorts of directions. 

Even given the diversity of public figures who have come out over the years, Jason Collins is the first pro in one of the sports that anchors mass sports media in the US to come out while still on the roster. As an active player, his livelihood is dependent on a patriarchal, racist and homophobic machine. It is no surprise that it has taken so long for a man in this particular sports environment to identify himself as a member of that class of people mainstream sports culture defines itself against. Coming out is huge.

People have been chiming in with a list of other names. People want to remember the women who've been there before. In addition to those mentioned above: Martina Navratilova (who, like King, came out in 1981), Amelie Mauresmo, Sheryl Swoopes, Chamique Holdsclaw, Missy Giove, Natasha Kai, Megan Rapinoe, Vicky Gallindo, Liz Carmouche. There are a lot more gay women in sports, but the media doesn't quite know how to address them - or their fans. We can see this in how Brittney Griner's "coming out" is presented as a story about how her coming out is not a story

Garance Franke-Ruta thus opens her article for The Atlantic with the following: 
Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshipped as exemplars of traditional masculinity. Extremely sporty women have to fight stereotyping that they are lesbians and ignore all manner of unkind commentary about how they are mannish, while sporty men are seen as participating in a form of the masculine ideal.
This is given as the context for understanding why Brittney Griner's coming out isn't news. The rhetorical frame here accepts the "either-or," gender segregated structure of mainstream sports culture. It reinforces common sense about what matters, and how. Collins's coming out means more than Griner's. To whom? 
Griner, responding to Maggie Grey's question about homophobia and sports on
My mind was properly blown by Griner's so-called coming out. Not because I thought Griner was straight. But because in that interview (for, because such interviews with women aren't conducted on, say, television) Griner was so damned smooth (her outfit!). It wasn't a "coming out" so much as an "always already been out." (This is also the style of Rapinoe's coming out). 
SI Video host Maggie Gray: "Another big topic in sports recently is sexuality, especially with the NFL. In football it was rumored that maybe one or more players were going to come out--that would become huge news in the sports world and in general. In female sports, women's sports, in the WNBA, players have already come out, and it's really accepted. Why is there a difference between men and women in that issue?"
Brittney Griner: "I really couldn't give an answer on why that's so different. Being one that's out, it's just being who you are. Again, like I said, just be who you are. Don't worry about what other people are going to say, because they're always going to say something, but, if you're just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don't hide who you really are." Griner, Delle Donne, Diggins Discuss Sport and Sexuality on SI
It's a nice conversation. Gray opens the door and Griner walks right through it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Because in her world, it is. 

But Gray opens this interview with a telling observation - an observation that allows us to see why Griner's coming out isn't a story: "It's not often we get to talk to three world class athletes that are also women." It isn't often, in other words, that we get to have this conversation (with women, between women) at all. 

Lost in the story about it being "easier" for lesbians in women's sports is the larger apparatus that aggressively marginalizes women athletes. There's a relationship between the relegation of Griner's statement to a web-only platform and the making of Jason Collins's coming out narrative into a Sports Illustrated cover story. Griner's is a women's sports story - and women don't merit headlines, they aren't the lead story, they just don't mean as much - they aren't worth as much. 

Minimized in language about how women athletes are always already gender non-conforming are the stories of butch women athletes who have been kicked off teams, harassed, assaulted - killed, even. Being an out gender non-conforming woman athlete is hard, and in some contexts it is dangerous. And that isn't much of a "story" either. 

Mainstream sports culture devotes an enormous amount of energy to keeping things that way. Its commitment to maintaining the delusion that there are no gay men playing in the NBA is a part of the same problematic system that minimizes the whole of women's sports as less interesting, less valuable, less meaningful. 

The ecstatic language that greets Collins as the magical figure that will transform sports culture has a weird shadow. Ecstatic: Finally, a man! Weird shadow: Because women can't have that magical effect on a patriarchal space from which they are banned. 

Collins's coming out won't make the NBA into a queer space. But it does makes a little more room in the mainstream for gay and lesbian athletes. And that's no small thing. 

But it's perhaps not quite as exciting - or as revolutionary - as what's happening in women's sports. Which isn't so mainstream. Which is why it is, and isn't news.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Jason Collins Comes Out (and Leans In)

NBA center Jason Collins came out in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. People are celebrating him as the first man in a "major sport" to come out as gay. That is true only if we limit our examples to the US.

Justin Fashanu was the first athlete to come out as gay while still playing as a pro. The first black footballer to earn a million-pound contract came out to a UK tabloid (The Sun) in 1990. The scholar David DiBossa uses the word "apprehension" to describe the terrible and confusing legacy of Fashanu's story - its been relegated to the shadows for good reason. He was an exceptional player; his relationship to the tabloids was exploitative and toxic; his performance as an athlete was alternately promising and depressing; he found God; he was discriminated against; he was exiled from the game (by mutual spirals of injury and scandal); he lingered in the sport's seedy margins. He was accused of raping a minor (a 17-year old boy). He killed himself and was tried in the headlines.

There is no aspect of Fashanu's story that can be recovered as a positive example. His story is so difficult that few have dared to "go there" and really consider it, even as his name is routinely invoked in anti-homophobia campaigns. Thus DiBossa uses the word "apprehension" to name the chest-tightening anxiety one feels in the neighborhood of Fashanu's story. (To learn more about Fashanu see Jim Read's review of a recent biography in WSC, and Julie Jacques's essay for The New Statesman.)

Jason Collins's coming out story is a positive counter-narrative. It is not only important because it is a first for an American athlete (male, pro). It is also important as a counter-example to Fashanu's story.  Collins is the first athlete to come out and tackle its long shadow.

Collins's narrative could not be more different than Fashanu's - Collins's family is supportive and loving, his upbringing stable, his history proud. He has a gay uncle in a loving relationship - he grew up with gay role models and mentors. Furthermore, the story published in Sports Illustrated is his story. This is a first-person narrative. It opens:

I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay. 
I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. (SI: The Gay Athlete)

The story he tells is empowering, and the fact that he is telling the story - that he is controlling the narrative, that he is its author - is important. The relationship between any pro athlete and the media is vexed. SI is willing to be the platform for Collins's coming out; it is also part of a media culture that surveils him and every other pro athlete in its view; it is part of a public culture that surveils black men with particular violence. Collins signals this as a worry carried by the people around him.

My maternal grandmother was apprehensive about my plans to come out. She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest aspects of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn't have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ's. (SI: The Gay Athlete)

If his grandmother is apprehensive, it is because she is knowing. Collins explains that he has decided to lean into the problem - later in the interview, he suggests that this is in harmony with his style as a player. He's a "pro's pro" willing to charge, to foul - to play hard. That might reflect a fear of being read as "soft," he writes, and it might also reflect a desire to make room for the impossible.

It is worth remembering that Justin Fashanu came out in the midst of the AIDS crisis. In 1990, public discourse on homosexuality was defined by panic, phobia, fear and fascination - it was a generally awful moment even as it also gave us the activist organizations that helped redefine public culture in the US. Think back to 1991 and recall the confusion that shaped the response to Magic Johnson's coming out as HIV positive. How could Magic be HIV positive? Was he gay? What was going to happen to him? The assumption was that he'd retire - not only because (it was assumed) he was sick, but because people were afraid he'd infect others. It's hard to imagine the difficulty of integrating an HIV positive player into the televised sport spectacle in the early 1990s. And then there was the fear was that he'd die, because so many did. (See this GQ oral history of the moment.) A phobic language of infection and disease had been built into public discourse on homosexuality long before the AIDS crisis. That fact is one of the things that made the AIDS crisis so terrible: priests and presidents treated the virus as a judgement from the heavens. And that fact has everything to do with the complacency that some people have towards their own homophobia.

These are different times. Today, kids have in Magic Johnson an example we could never have imagined possible. He's alive, first of all. (When he got the diagnosis, he was imagined he probably had "a couple of years.") He's a popular public figure and a proud parent to a (particularly fabulous) gay son. (See this recent interview with Johnson on TMZ.)

23 years after Fashanu became a tabloid headline, 22 years after Magic Johnson blew the sports world's collective mind, Jason Collins writes that he wants to participate in a gay pride march as an out and proud black gay man. He can write, in Sports Illustrated no less, that he wants to get married and have kids - and people understand what he means. He doesn't sound like a martian. The desires he expresses are recognizable to a lot of people as normal. Opponents of gay marriage belong to a shrinking - and shrieking - minority. Gay marriage has become so visible a part of the normalization of homosexuality in the US that it's hard to remember how alien the idea has been.  And how long it's been that way.

In 1968, Yayoi Kusama staged a gay wedding in New York as a "Happening." The idea of two men getting hitched was magical and weird, and seemed a direct challenge to dominant ideology regarding the family. She officiated the ceremony as the "High Priestess of Polka Dots." She designed a dress that two men could wear at the same time. They swore their love not on a bible, but on a New York City telephone book. In 1968, gay men in a wedding dress expressed utopian impulses. They were unicorns with the power to change everything. They were the future.

For a long time, the gay male pro athlete has held a similar magical power over our imaginary. A black gay NBA player? What couldn't this man accomplish for a whole world? What can't he do? The answer to that question is everything.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Vulnerable Spectacle: Notes on the Bombing of a Marathon

The bombing at the Boston Marathon - what is there to say about such a thing? Already, barely a day into the story the story is on repeat. Terror, heroism, terror, heroism. How many are dead? Wounds and more wounds. Women & children. Look out for a dark skinned man in a hoodie. It's an awful mix.

Violence and the sport spectacle: they are not exactly strangers to each other (Munich, Hillsborough, the parking lot of Dodgers Stadium). Nevertheless, it is hard to place this event in a sport context. The obvious point of reference is Eric Rudolph's bombing of a crowd at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (which killed one person, and in which another died of a heart attack, and in which a great many were injured). If the media has shown any restraint in naming suspects (while giving in to its instinct to visualize that suspect for us), we can thank poor Richard Jewell, a security guard who actually saved people's lives when he spotted Rudolph's backpack. Jewell was falsely accused of the bombing and vilified by, sacrificed to the media gods. 

The reasons for Rudolph's attack are confused: it was part of a series of bombings - the others were attacks on health clinics (which provided abortions) and a gay bar. Although people assume his actions were part of some kind of homocidal anti-abortion campaign (as if that in and of itself isn't already crazy), investigators reported that people who knew him understood him to be anti-government, a racist, sexist and a homophobe - they couldn't recall that abortion was his issue. He was, more nearly, full of hate and violence. It seems likely Rudolph was drawn to the Olympics because it was a national spectacle at which large numbers of people were gathered and on which cameras were turned.

It feels weird to talk about this bombing as a sports story. This story is atypical - it isn't the spike in domestic violence associated with Superbowl Sunday, it isn't the mob taking-to-the-street after a team's loss or victory, it isn't an explicitly political attack on athletes representing the enemy, it isn't the stadium disaster brought on by indifferent capital, squeezing as many into as poor a space as possible. 

Perhaps this doesn't feel like a sports story because the marathon is a weird sport spectacle. It's an individual sport that provides the space for the articulation a specific kind of public. We don't think of the Boston marathon - or any marathon, really - as a nationalist spectacle (even one staged on Patriot's Day). Events won year after year by Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes remain popular, in every sense of the word. (An American man hasn't won the Boston marathon since 1983; an American woman hasn't finished first since 1985.)

Marathons are occasions for civic hospitality. That is the defining element of the major events staged in the US: the New York, Boston and Los Angeles marathons are city-stories. The metropolis shuts down its streets, interrupts its routines for a festival celebrating one of the simplest of things - running. Running for hours. Running on boulevards you know from your car, from buses, or from the movies.  

Spectators are right there on the street with the athletes. The spectacle unfolds lazily (for spectators) over hours. Spectators gather not just for the elite - they gather for the ordinary. And spectators are important: runners need their energy, their support and their cheer. There's something just plain generous about the marathon, as an event. It is a mass event - everyone on the sidewalk is part of the event's support team.

My yoga studio faces Sunset boulevard and has a large store-front window. The Los Angeles marathon went right past us. Our teacher turned the class so that we practiced facing the street. He led as through slightly more than 26 sun salutations so that we might celebrate and thank the runners. So that we might participate in the event with them. Outside, music blared, people cheered and handed out water. 

I hope this bombing doesn't change the culture of the marathon - its openness and generosity, its civic-mindedness, its celebration of the common runner and the commons through which she runs. If this is the thing that makes it vulnerable, it is also the thing that makes it valuable.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lament for the Injured: "I Have No Achilles"

It's not every day that I think, of a player like Kobe Bryant, "I know how he feels." A few days ago Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon. He was remarkably composed in the interview he gave right after the game. This injury is one of the worst. Few come back from it. He might very well have just played his last game as a professional athlete. Asked what he was thinking right after it happened, he said that he was hoping that the sensation would come back to him. "What sensation?" a reporter asked. "I have no Achilles," he answered. Meaning, he lost the sensation of having an Achilles tendon in that foot.

Shortly afterwards, Bryant gave us surprising access to his feelings in a now widely circulated lament. (From Kobe Bryant's Facebook page.)
This is such BS! All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I've done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen ?!? Makes no damn sense. Now I'm supposed to come back from this and be the same player Or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that??
I have NO CLUE. Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing? Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. 
Maybe Father Time has defeated me...Then again maybe not! It's 3:30am, my foot feels like dead weight, my head is spinning from the pain meds and I'm wide awake. Forgive my Venting but what's the purpose of social media if I won't bring it to you Real No Image?? Feels good to vent, let it out. To feel as if THIS is the WORST thing EVER! Because After ALL the venting, a real perspective sets in. There are far greater issues/challenges in the world then a torn achilles. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever. 
How we rubber band in our sense of injury - from "this is the worst thing ever" to "this is not the worst thing ever." From "this is hopeless" to "I can fix this." From feeling like you've been robbed - as if all your training and care somehow was supposed to make you invulnerable - to recalling that this is what happens. And maybe that same training will make you "invulnerable" again. Despair and denial. I've been there. Who hasn't? Or won't be?

Immediately after the injury - an injury Bryant can't blame on anyone or anything - he took two free throws and tied up the game. He must have been filled with dread. He must have been hoping that the feeling of his foot as a "dead weight" might pass, like a mood. He would have been trying to will it to be different - to not be what he knew it was. He would have known exactly what was wrong - each sport has its own terrors. The "pop" of a tendon, a ligament. The slow erosion, the tear and disintegration of cuffs, joints, cartilage. The door through which most exit. There are things you can't see coming but which you know are very real possibilities for you. And there are things you do see coming, but which you can't - won't - think about - as there is nothing on earth you can do to stop it, except stop playing. Who can say what is worse - to have your career ended for you by a ruptured tendon? Or to wear yourself out by playing through the disintegration of (for example) your knees?

And there is the shock: that this thing that is happening to you isn't just going to take you out of the game. It is going to change your relationship to your own physicality - forever. You can't play basketball, for example, because you can't run.

There are a lot of former basketball players relating to Bryant. People who loved the game, for whom it was their most reliable source of pleasure. The game was taken from them with a pop and rip. You do not have to play in the NBA to know what that feels like. We have spirit guides in our injury. Athletes through whom we understand our own pain, our own exits. Mine is Stuart Holden, except, of course, he is still playing. I am not.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Big Money Sports Provides Training in Bullying and Harassment!: Notes on Rutgers Basketball

Rutgers's biggest problem is not Mike Rice. It's politicians digging into the university's infrastructure - taking the ongoing dismantling of affordable public education to the next level (first attack affordability, then attack the scene of education by taking away its working infrastructure, access to institutional memory, sense of community). As that complex, difficult story unfolds, Rutgers joins the Big 10 - this entry into big money sports is presented to the public as a fix. Because a winning, televised sports program makes a campus rich, right? One story is a cover for the other. 

Over the past four or five decades we've witnessed the emergence of a public culture in which one wants the best of everything - for oneself. That culture is centered in the delusion that all you need (to succeed) is to participate in a great competition - like March Madness or American Idol. All you need is a chance to be a winner! On television! But of course you are just fodder for the production of the image of victory. Even the winner is raw material for the actual product: the televised sport spectacle.  

Of course Mike Rice hurls insults, kicks and throws basketballs at his players. He's an overseer in a system that places the burden of supporting a state's public education on the backs of young, profoundly disenfranchised men. 

Was Mike Rice's behavior abusive? Yes. The whole story is a disaster. Everyone knew. Everyone worried about being sued. And now Eric Murdock (the whistle blower) is under investigation for extortion. How can you hold anything you hear against Murdock? If he had problems with Rice's behavior, real problems, as an assistant to Rice he was in an impossible position. Coming forward with those complaints is a career-killer. A permanent career killer. That is even more true for players. More than a few commentators have remarked on how easily the athletes seemed to take Rice's abuse.

Nothing about football and basketball culture as practiced in the NCAA lines up with the way we understand the right to be free from harassment and abuse. If we understood athletes as having protections similar to, say, employees, then NCAA athletes would be allowed to unionize. They are not. The NCAA works very hard, very hard, to render its athletes into children, students, apprentices, "amateurs" - anything but "professionals" (employees).

What these athletes need - more than this season of head rolling - is the right to organize to stand up for themselves, to improve their working conditions and support their education. They need a much better system, as athletes and as students. They - we - need a better university. 

HEADLINE: Big Time Sports Provides Training in Bullying and Harassment. Players Take It or Walk Away from Career. 

It is news. And, of course, it is not news. Buried underneath these headlines is a darker, more depressing story about the conversion of a great public education system into a giant system of indentured servitude - and here I don't mean the NCAA's exploitation of student athletes, I mean the generations of people that will spend their entire lives servicing unsecured student loan debt. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Blame Patriarchy: Notes on Steubenville and "Jock Culture"

In a recent polemic Dave Zirin asks if "jock culture" is to be blamed for the Steubenville case.

Responding to evidence that adults around these football players conspired to cover up the shame and the crime of it all, Zirin tackles the social structure framing the story. "Steubenville," The Nation's headline announced, "shows the bonds between jock culture and rape culture."

To summarize the Steubenville story: a group of football players raped a young woman and then went on to laugh and joke about it, and to broadcast the fun they had within their circle. Mass media outlets recently harmonized their headlines as they moved toward concluding the story cycle, presenting the case as a personal tragedy - for the men on trial. Cue a collective groan from Jezebel, Gawker, Feministing. I join the chorus here, but instead of thinking from CNN et al, I want to think from Dave Zirin's writing, which has been among the most heart-felt and intense from a sports writer.

The problem (as I'm sure Zirin knows) isn't football or jock culture. The problem is patriarchy. But "Steubenville shows the bonds between patriarchy and rape culture" doesn't make for a catchy headline.

That is part of the problem: sexism isn't news.

In other words, the problem isn't football, it isn't sports culture, it isn't the media. It's patriarchy itself. Those institutions are all ideological organs in a bigger body. Zirin writes, "We need to ask whether there’s something inherent in the men’s sports of the twenty-first century, which so many lionize as a force for good, that can also create a rape culture of violent entitlement." We could ask if there isn't something inherent in the military that creates "a rape culture of violent entitlement." Sexual abuse of men and women in the military has been described recently as "an epidemic." A little reading on the subject makes one wonder if the word "endemic" isn't more appropriate. What do mainstream sport cultures have in common with the military?

Patriarchy is such an old-fashioned word. It's so unsexy. Such a drag. And I feel like a throwback, an old feminist from another time for naming it.

I throw it out here, however, as the word for naming what the Penn State scandal has to do with Steubenville (for example) or with the ubiquity of sexual violence within the military and with the latter's inability to confront the problem. For naming what football has to do with the media's inability to tell as story about rape without recuperating men as tragic heroes of a sort. Of course people are sympathetic to these guys. They are teenagers; their lives are a mess. They are going to jail. Who wants to relate to the person who was too drunk - or drugged - to remember anything? Who was, in fact, unable to know or feel what was happening to her body? Who identifies with the person who was made into an abject thing used for collective entertainment?

Scenes of Instruction

I want to turn to an anecdote that Zirin recounted in another column, also about Steubenville. Earlier this month he shared a memory of being on a team as a high school student, of being in the locker room when a teammate made a rape-joke. The coach, whom Zirin recalled as a very left leaning and sensitive man, hauled off and slapped the offending player.

Zirin writes:
In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14-year-old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker-room rape joke of the season. (Steubenville and Challenging Rape Culture in Sports)
That is a complicated moment - it is seared into Zirin's memory for good reason. But I don't read that slap as a feminist intervention. It is a classically patriarchal moment: the good father disciplining the bad boy; a figure of masculine authority intervening in order to protect women. A fair amount of discourse on the Steubenville case has this shape.

There's no conversation in Zirin's story. Just the "understood" of realizing there are some things that one doesn't joke about - and that these are the same things that one doesn't talk about. Learning that seems to make them men.

It's helpful to look more closely at the story. It's a locker room - it's all men and boys. It's a scene of instruction and intimacy. The joke is made when the boys are told that a female member of the coaching staff at the school is coming in to talk to them. It happens at the threshold of a gendered and a desegregated social space. The joke arises at the idea that a woman might enter their (masculine) space. The imagined introduction of her body changes the imagined nature of the space. It is at that juncture that we find violence and shame, swirling around each other. A joke, a slap.

Rape isn't external to patriarchy - it is, in fact, its internal symbolic engine. Sex as violence; sex as dehumanization; sex as the rendering of the other into a thing. This is why the call to teach men "not to rape" is so ineffectual. It is no call to action. It isn't adequate to the imperative: Rape - because it's better than being raped. Rape, because that is, in fact, what makes you not a woman. Rape, dare I add, is something that men also do to each other.

In a feminist space, I imagine not a slap but a difficult, messy conversation - not between men, or between men and women - but between people negotiating gender and power. A conversation about what that joke was about. About what rhetorical work that young man imagined it would do in the service of his own power and authority - about what anxiety regarding his relationship to his teammates that joke was expressing.

In the story Zirin tells, there is no discussion. An action is committed on behalf of that woman. She doesn't figure in the story; the story isn't about her. It's a story about patriarchal authority (good and bad).

I wouldn't draw a line from Zirin's anecdote to the Steubenville thing were it not for the fact Zirin told the story in a story about Steubenville. Zirin is smart enough about sexism and sports to know that the world he's writing about (sports) it structured by sexism. Are we, collectively, feminist enough to know what it means to imagine a sports culture structured by something else?

The sociality of the sexual violence committed in the Steubenville case reminds us that these things are not about women: they are about men's relationship to each other, in which women - as objects of jokes and objects of violence - are used as props in a competition for power. This power, this authority is built on shame and fear. Teach men not to rape. What does that even mean if we don't make that lesson about how men relate to each other?

As I was thinking about this "jock culture" problem, I found myself talking to a woman who was asked to write about @SKCboobs - a Twitter account that solicits women MLS fans to broadcast pictures of their tits. (I have no idea if the account holder is a man or a woman.) That writer is a woman, asked by the guys she works with to write a story about this thing (because she has tits?).

She called and asked me what I thought of it.

Moralizing about what women do with their tits is not my idea of feminist sports writing. The media outlets that will cover Steubenville, or SKC Boobs give nothing to daily coverage of women's sports. That's what I think.

The media's idea of a women's sports story is a story about rape. Or a story about sexism. Or it is just a picture of tits presented as a story. The sports media's idea of a women's sports story does not express an ongoing commitment to the story of women's sports, it in fact expresses an ongoing commitment to NOT covering women's sports.

The whole conversation about "jock culture" and "rape culture" presumes a deeply segregated world in which one can separate men out from women and give them unique sets of instructions. 

Don't rape. Don't get raped.

Mainstream sports - football programs, sports networks, media outlets, regulatory bodies like the NCAA, the IOC and FIFA - turn patriarchy's root - the drawing of a line between man and woman, a line that marks the human and the not human - into the ritual and rite that we call "jock culture." That doesn't make jock culture the problem. It makes jock culture a tool.

How else to understand the "jocks" who pissed on a woman, and laughed about it? Who secured their bonds in relation to each other by joking "you don't sleep through a wang in the butthole" or "Finally saw a dead body." [Tweets captured as screenshots by blogger Alexandria Goddard.]

That behavior is not specific to sports. Would that it were so. Because then we could just get rid of football, and call it a day. 

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