Saturday, November 28, 2009

RIP: Mike/Christine Penner, Transgender Sportswriter

Los Angeles Times announced today that transgender sports journalist Mike Penner committed suicide.

In 2007, Penner came out in the newspaper's pages as Christine Daniels.  He took a vacation, and came back as she. Daniels continued to write for the Times, and took up what must have been no small battle in her confrontation with the ruthlessly phobic and sexist sports world. Of course, most of her life she - as he - had been living intimately with those attitudes - casual misogyny, throw-away homophobic jokes and worse are so tightly woven into sports culture as to define it.

That said, Christine Daniels reported that readers embraced her - that in fact they defied her expectations with their expressions of care and support.  At the moment, the comments section for the LA Times story reporting Mike/Christine's death bear this out - if readers struggle over what pronoun and name to use, it seems to be out of a genuine desire to show respect.

About a year ago, Mike "returned." This fact left some confused. If Christine enjoyed solid support, the return of Mike was greeted with more ambivalence and judgment than compassion and understanding.

Coming out as transgender is complicated - it isn't simply a matter of opening a closet door. You don't just declare yourself a woman (for example) - you undergo therapy, you live a year as a woman while being assessed for gender reassignment, you take hormones (or you decide not to) and you explore what gender, what sexual identity and life makes sense for you. It isn't like there is one sort of femininity and one sort of masculinity - we all know this: a person may feel well defined by a term like "male," for example, but embody a radically different masculinity from his brother, who may feel just as defined by that word.

Thinking about Mike/Christine, I'm moved by the woman s/he wanted to be, and became in 2007. What would it be like to develop and express a feminine identity as a sports journalist? Women sportswriters defy gender expectations every time they go to work. This isn't a traditional femininity by any stretch. Christine, as a sportswriter, would have cut a distinctly (and queerly) feminist figure. 

There is no linear route from a public identity as one gender to another. Some people try out a gender identity, and find that a stable gender isn't what they want.  Maybe that person reclaims the pronoun they grew up with, and maybe they carve out a queer version of it.  Maybe they settle into the new pronoun, but decide to queer expectations of what that pronoun signifies.  Each person's process is different.  Mike/Christine's story was unique - unfolding in a hypermasculine world, and in public.  She was gracious in the few interviews she gave (listen to this one on NPR). She also fought to guard her privacy - pushing back on questions about the decisions she was making about her body, for example. We may know little about Mike/Christine's personal struggles - but recent events show us how intolerant the sports world is when it comes to the fluidity of gender identity.

Mike/Christine's suicide comes just days after the 9th annual Day of Remembrance for victims of violence against transgender people.  A recent study published in the Journal of Homosexuality asserts that thirty percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.  Some say that figure is very conservative, putting the number closer to half. 

Let's remember Mike/Christine for being a great writer, for being brave and for helping us to imagine an anti-homophobic, queer and trans positive sportsculture.  The world is a poorer place without him, without her.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Henry's Handball & the Moral Ambiguity of Football

The ball rebounded to Thierry Henry's hand, first once and then again. He scooped it gently, and let it fall to his feet. He made a controlled pass to his teammate William Gallas, who scored a much-needed goal against Ireland.  The referee didn't call the handballs (clearly visible in recordings of the match). Henry didn't ask him to. And Ireland are out of the World Cup.

The LA Times is running a poll, asking readers what they think FIFA should 'do' about Henry's handball.  It's a somewhat typical response: there must be one agent responsible for evil, a clear solution to a problem. Lambert is responsible for shaming the women's game (and not the referee, coaches, and the players on the field whose passivity allowed all that to happen); Thierry Henry is a "cheat." The demand for Henry's head - or for his hand - makes for good copy.

For something a little more complex, see The Guardian's interview with Irish sports journalist Barry Glendenning (one of a slew of articles on this subject, representing a range of perspectives). Of course "we were robbed by France," in a move that "would be illegal even in basketball," he comments. (Is he referring to the double-dribble?)  Henry is shown describing the handball frankly in a post-game interview (transcribed in French here). Where the American press casts his statements as "unapologetic" European journalists see it more nearly as "frank" and "honest."  Of Domenech's support for Henry, Glendenning says "If any Irish player had done the same, I'd fully expect the nation to be 100% behind him." He also points out that Henry's image has already been so compromised by his "previous chicanery" that this incident can hardly be said to be all that damaging to the star's reputation.

"Cheating" is an art in this sport. Everyone is of course remembering Maradona's "Hand of God" goal.  Maradona discussed it in an interview for the BBC: "This is something that happens...I have scored goals in Argentina with my hand." He goes on to explain exactly what he did, and how he "sold" the goal to the linesman. (The Guardian's Richard Williams minimizes Maradona's intentionality by calling it a "street kid's instinct" in his column chastising Henry from whom he expects better given his relative "sophistication": This is wildly classist - a fantasy of a pan-Latin 'favela' - and totally ignorant.) There are myriads of smaller incidents - daily actions in which players exploit the deeply subjective nature of some of soccer's most fundamental rules. Handballs, offside calls, the identification of goals and the discounting of goals, calls for aggressive tackles and diving  - all are made by referees without the help of video replay, and are vulnerable to human error and players know it - and the most competitive exploit this.  It becomes part of your game.

The French press sees the handball as representing a larger crisis on the squad stemming from the limits of Raymond Domenech's stewardship.  (For a taste of the mood regarding the national squad, see this match report - "Voyage au bout de la nuit" - from So Foot. It opens with "Blood on the dance floor. 5 minutes of play and the face of Julien Escudé, taking the place of Eric Abidal, is already cut open after a run-in with...Patrice Evra. The tone of the match is set. The Irish have already invaded the French camp.") The European press (and the soccer-blogging community) wonders why on earth France holds onto Domenech. France has at its disposal one of the most talented populations of players on earth - French athletes are stars in squads of stars, playing for the best clubs in the world.  And yet as a national team they limp along and seem increasingly disaffected. If the French public turns against Henry (and it has, again and again), it's out of a broader disappointment with a side whose fate turns on such an ugly incident.  Who wants to win this way? Well, the people who want your money.

Eduardo Galeano described 'the history of soccer' as a 'sad voyage from beauty to duty.' That 'duty' is paid to the sports 'telecracy,' which demands that its 'functionaries specialize in avoiding defeat.'  If Thierry Henry didn't, say, clear the ball from the goal (which would have been so chivalrous as to be completely scandalous), if he played the ball to his feet and passed to Gallas, he was being a good employee.  And it is ridiculous for us to expect anything different - if you want an honorable game, you are far far more likely to find it in a neighborhood park than you are on your favorite sports channel.

This morning a friend reminded me of Albert Camus's famous assertion: "Ce que je sais de la morale, c'est au football que je le dois." ("What I know of morality, I owe to football.")  This statement has been interpreted differently by sports writers - to suggest the clarity of moral obligations within a team, or to suggest the moral ambiguity of football.

How we read that statement depends on what and whose football we are talking about - just as how we think and feel about Henry's handball says a lot about what game it is we want. Are we talking about football played for beauty and pleasure? Or football played for work and profit? How can we keep the appetites of one from spoiling the joys of the other?

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Mexico/BYU: What happened to the Referee, Joe Pimentel?

Elizabeth Lambert's name is now synonymous with violent play. What happened to Joe Pimentel (pictured here, giving Lambert the one yellow card he issued)? The center referee basically folded his arms and did nothing through that match - was he suspended, pending some sort of inquiry and evaluation? Nope - He went on to referee a men's game a few days later: the UCLA/Washington PAC-10 championship match, in fact. Does that seem fair to you? This is in spite of the fact that the referee assignor and high level administrators were at New Mexico/BYU match. I've e-mailed the board of the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association, and am waiting for a reply. I encourage readers to do the same - this is not an incident in which a ref missed sly fouls committed off the ball. My faith in the fairness and competency level of refereeing at NCAA matches is deeply shaken by not just the poor officiating at the New Mexico/BYU game, but by the fact that the referee ultimately responsible for policing such things was in essence rewarded for his failings. When do we get a public statement from him, from the NISOA and from the coaching staff at New Mexico accepting responsibility for their role in keeping an out of control player on the field?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On the suicide of Robert Enke

Robert Enke worked very hard over his career for his spot on the national team, playing in Portugal, Spain, Turkey and finally in the Bundesliga, for Hannover 96. He won eight caps for Germany, and was in position to be the country's #1 keeper in the upcoming World Cup. Enke committed suicide on Tuesday, November 10th by throwing himself under a train.

Enke's death is a horrific reminder of the seriousness of depression, and the particular difficulty faced by athletes who suffer from it. Used to toughing out setbacks and injuries - taking the field with bone chips floating around your foot, fractures, sprains and worse - athletes struggling from depression may be reluctant to seek help, for all the ways depression doesn't register as "real enough," and for fear of seaming weak or losing their place on the team (see Dave Zirin's 2008 article about this). This was the case, his wife explained today (see Juergen Voges's AP news story): Enke feared that coming out about his depression would mean he would lose "his sport, his life."

Depression goes after the things that matter most to you, everything that brings you joy: it can take the sport that was once a source of pleasure and make it into a site of misery. I read once that depression separates people from who and what they love with "surgical precision." That strikes me as about right.

Enke's wife and doctor speak to his struggles at this press conference, available on the Guardian's website. There is no single event one can point to as depression's "cause." News stories point to the death of Enke's very young daughter, Lara, who died at two years old of a congenital heart problem in 2006. He apparently first sought treatment for anxiety and depression during his tenure at Barcelona in 2003. Given his dogged fight to break into the top flight, such counseling would be normal - just not perhaps for an athlete. Enke hovered for years in the #2 spot and worse for Europe's top clubs. If there was ever an effective external trigger for anxiety and depression, it's the precarious position of a keeper on the edge of playing for his country in the World Cup. News reports keep repeating how he seemed closer than he'd ever been to being at the top - as if this makes his depression more mysterious - but of course this would raise your anxiety, not lower it.

We can't say that any one of these things triggered his suicide. You can't "blame" conditions for a person's depression, and you can't blame the person either - they are already certainly in the vicious grip of a self-blame, which is part of the problem. The demon is the black sun of depression itself. Whether you are in its grip, or are close to someone who is, its nature is very hard to grasp - it infects the way you feel and think on the most elemental levels.

At my own worst moments (I struggled with panic disorder in my 20s), it was the non-judgmental, non-pathologizing understanding of a friend who intervened to help me seek treatment by recommending a wonderful therapist. My friend also suffered from panic attacks - it was a huge relief for me to hear someone talk about this very awful feeling from experience, because until that moment I thought I was not only crazy, but that there was nothing that could be done about it. I am not sure where I'd be today if it weren't for that conversation twenty years ago. My problems, however, were very small by comparison - anxiety is not identical to depression, though the two can go hand in hand. I was just twenty, and had almost no responsibilities to anyone but myself. And I've always been surrounded by art/intellectual/creative types - a queer sort of world where, at its best, we embrace each other's 'mental illnesses' with affection and humor.

Enke and his wife adopted a baby girl in the spring, and people seemed to think he was doing well. His wife said, however, he was afraid that public acknowledgment of the severity of depression might lead the state to take custody of their adopted daughter - he was terrified of this possibility. In his suicide note Enke apologized for misleading people around him into thinking he was ok - it was necessary for him to carry out his plan. The days before a suicide can be, in fact, a gruesomely "upbeat" period for the person planning to kill themselves - set on the plan, a person can even feel a sense of happiness, knowing that it will all be over. People around them relax (the easing up of their worry feels like a relief, because for the depressed person the concern expressed by those around them becomes itself a heavy burden, and source of guilt and shame). Sadly, we usually learn this only in the wake of a suicide, as we gather around and find ourselves saying the same thing to each other - "he seemed like he was doing better." It's baffling.

All we can know for certain is that Enke must have been in absolute agony to have ended his life like this.

In looking for stories about athletes who have been open about depression, I came across this July New York Times article about the brilliant basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw. After years of drifting in and out of the game, dogged by a depression which made the game joyless, she is back on the court playing for Atlanta. Stories like hers are important. In a 2007 Sports Illustrated profile, she explains that after the death of her grandmother
it was like I was in a box and had closed myself in. It was the one time I needed help and I wasn't letting anybody in.
I am not sure how people get out of this box without help from those around them. And I am not sure how we can tell when people in our lives are in these dark places - since all too often people in the grip of this sort of depression isolate themselves, so that people around them can't see what's going on. In the world of professional sports, there is already a structure in place to facilitate this boxing-in of oneself - you don't want to be a "problem," your very livelihood is in fact dependent on your ability to project an image of yourself as invulnerable. And the goalkeeper especially is the heart and soul of a team, the person who radiates confidence outwards and whose solidity grounds us. Like baseball's pitcher, this player carries a particular symbolic weight.

A death like Enke's leaves friends, teammates and family with a tremendous sense of failure. Enke's wife comments
We thought we could do everything and we could do it with love but you can't always do it.
My heart goes out to the people in his life - losing a person this way is absolutely devastating, for it seems to signal a profound failure in our ties to each other. A friend committed suicide in 1997, and those of us who were close to him are to this day marked by this sense of loss and failure.

There is no easy answer here, no smart sentence to write about this. I guess I would just say that if there was ever a moment to censor the ungenerous reflexes of sports culture - the macho , win-at-all-cost worldview, the intolerance for the possibility of failure, the disgust sports culture shows for vulnerability - and to cherish instead sport as a site of collective pleasure and interpersonal connection, this is it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

ESPN does an ACTUAL story about the New Mexico/BYU match

Watch this interview with a local reporter (Jared Lloyd/Desert News) who covered this match. He points out that the "refs allowed" for a "physical game" - and offers a well informed perspective on the tone of the game (explaining New Mexico's use of a physical style of play to break up BYU's movement up and down the field). Without minimizing the responsibilities of the individual players he more or less says that this is what happens when referees stop policing a competitive match. He also leaves us with questions about the coach. If you are invested in a player's development, wouldn't you pull them out of the match if they were playing that violently? Of course, if none of the fouls are being called, and you are in a close match, what coach would? In any case, we still have no real digging by journalists into the refereeing angle.

Why isn't the referee's name being broadcast, for example? Joe Pimentel - that's his name, and he shouldn't be allowed to work another match.

The sensationalism with which this story is being handled is much more shocking than the story itself. My god, you would think sports editors had never met, uhm, a woman. Of course women can play hard, and dirty. Just like men do. In a municipal league, when it's this obvious, you don't suspend the player, sometimes you suspend the whole team.

A lot of women and men players reading this know this - and the sports journalists covering this story ought to also know this - that a) women play dirty just like men do and b) the real story is about the refereeing and coaching. As bad as Lambert's play was, I just hate seeing her scapegoated this way as if responsibility for what happened in that match falls on her alone.

I wish ESPN had gone after the real story from the start by reporting on the actual game.

Friday, November 6, 2009

New Mexico/BYU's Bitchslap

ESPN ran a story about a recent match between BYU and New Mexico's women's teams which has become infamous for the elbows-to-the-ribs and ponytail-yank antics of New Mexico player Elizabeth Lambert. Fans of the sport are groaning, because this is what it takes to get a non-Olympics/World Cup/WPS Final into headlines - replays of bitchslap.

It seems to start with a fairly standard but decidedly unkosher elbow to the rib - as New Mexico's Lambert was sitting right behind a BYU player, the latter dug her elbow into Lambert's ribs. Lambert gave it right back, but less subtly and perhaps with more force. You could see that Lambert was furious. She proceeded to play violently through the rest of the match - incredibly yanking one player to the ground by her ponytail, and kicking a ball pointlessly into the face of an opponent, who was on the ground [This may not have been Lambert - see comments].

The obvious question is: where the hell was the referee? (Lambert picked up just one yellow card.) In that ESPN highlight video, there were two or three incidents that looked red card worthy - and they were on the ball, too, so the ref must have seen them. That she committed those offenses is bad, but that she was on the field for the duration of the match is worse because it suggests that the people controlling the match were not taking it seriously.

Anyway, it's a low point for women's soccer and I'm not going to link to the video here. If you want to find it, it's easy enough. Shame is, looking around for footage of great tackling in women's soccer, I struggled to find anything. A reminder of just how awful coverage of the women's game is. There are some fantastic defenders out there - in the WPS and internationally.

I did find this strange highlight video from a WPS match that celebrates some great keeping but looks to me like a chaotic game. Still, it's physical but clean play. But before you watch that, enjoy this photo montage celebrating the world's #1 badass, Nadine Angerer:

I also recommend this lovely montage celebrating "tough female footballers." The gal who put this together didn't have much to work with - not because there aren't great moments out there - but those moments are not recorded, broadcast, and rebroadcast. I am not sure all of the video clips are worthy of celebration, but some are and she's put in some fantastic photos and scored it all to Christina Aguilera, for good measure. Actually - I take back my equivocation: it's the best highlight reel of women's soccer I've ever seen - if one side seems weak, it's because the other is that much stronger (and yes, I'm quoting Aguilera here).

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