Saturday, October 12, 2013
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
|from Christopher Gaffney's Geostadia|
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"|
Friday, June 14, 2013
|Moira Lovell, "John and Precious" from Stand Your Ground|
Doncaster Rover Belles players and their coach
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
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
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.
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.
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
Monday, April 29, 2013
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
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.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
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 painHow 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? 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 . Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever.
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.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
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."
That is part of the problem: sexism isn't news.
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.
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)
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.
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 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).