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. 
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