There is a chance — not a large one, mind you — that in 2012 the most important athlete to enter public consciousness in the past few decades was drafted into the NBA. I am not talking about Anthony Davis.
Unless you are a basketball junkie, you have, even now, probably never heard of the person in question. But, if we are all lucky, supportive, and motivated, perhaps there will come a day when everyone will recognize the name Royce White.
If you are already familiar with White, it may be that you met him only recently, thanks to a story written by Chuck Klosterman
. The article is not a bad way to get to know the man. This is not because Klosterman provided a thoughtful, sympathetic, or insightful portrait. (Not at all, in fact.) It's because the story Klosterman wrote, and the person he reveals himself to be as the interviewer, is a perfect representation of the broader ideological challenges that White faces, and challenges, as interviewee. Chuck Klosterman represents common sense neo-liberal capitalist ideology. And maybe, just maybe, Royce White represents the antidote.
Before I delve into Klosterman's mis-reading of White, I want to provide a little context for the development of my own awareness of White and his increasingly well-publicized struggles with mental illness and basketball culture.
I first learned of White's story last year when he was starring as a point forward for the Iowa State University basketball team. Myron Medcalf wrote a lengthy profile for ESPN
chronicling the difficulties White had experienced -- specifically, with anxiety -- while at the University of Minnesota (which he attended prior to transferring to Iowa State). As someone who has experienced a fair share of anxiety myself — and as the child of someone who suffered from acute mental illness — I felt tremendous empathy for what White was going through, and tremendous admiration for his willingness to speak publicly despite the persistence of stigma in relation to all forms of mental illness in general.
I watched with interest as White was drafted 16th by the Houston Rockets in the 2012 NBA Draft, after an interview process in which he spoke openly (video)
with teams about his anxiety and his desire and need to work with an organization that would accommodate him. (If you watch the linked video you may be struck by how remarkably articulate White is, and also how candid he is about the challenges he faces. I was.) I hoped for the best for White (who happens to be a supremely gifted player) but didn't think much more about it at the time.
Then, in November, I noticed that White was back in the news, this time for what was offensively described by various media outlets including USA Today
as the Royce White Twitter Rant
. I'll reproduce this so-called "rant" in its entirety below.
On reading these Tweets (let's stop calling them a "rant" shall we?), I was immediately struck by a few things:
First, White's politics are far more sophisticated than I initially imagined. He understands that the NBA commodifies its athletes. He also grasps that, as a consequence, the league has little regard for the long-term health and well-being of its players (beyond the short-term ability to put them on the floor).
Second, White is remarkably courageous. We all know the kind of abuse that finds its way onto social networking sites. By making his position so public, White opened himself up to assault from legions of fans who believe that players are part commodity, part avatar for the vicarious fulfilment of their desires and aspirations.
Third (and this point is inextricable from the second), White consciously chose to articulate his position via Twitter in order to circumvent mainstream media outlets which are invested in the political economy of the NBA and thus, unlikely to fairly or accurately represent his position. The very fact that this sequence of arguments was framed as a rant by USA Today
and others testifies to the prescience of this decision.
This brings me to Chuck Klosterman, long-time music writer who has increasingly taken the liberty of reporting on and analyzing sports since the establishment of Grantland
last year by Bill Simmons and ESPN.
(Klosterman is listed on the website as a "contributing editor.")
Klosterman, according to his testimony in a podcast
taped with Bill Simmons immediately after the publication of the story on White, suggested that the impetus for the interview was a long-standing desire to explore the relationship between mental health and professional sport (he claimed to have attempted to pursue the same story with pitcher Dontrelle Willis). This may explain why he ends up finding himself so far out of his depth so quickly. For though Klosterman is interested in producing a de-contextualized puff piece on anxiety and performance, White forces him to confront political economy. And, unfortunately for Klosterman, that is something he appears, at least in the article itself, woefully ill-prepared to do.
Let's start at the top. After introducing White, Klosterman helpfully explicates the terms of his "contractual, philosophical dispute with the Houston Rockets." I quote at length:
"White wants the Rockets to implement what he calls a "mental health protocol," a medical curriculum that essentially hinges on White having his own personal psychiatrist decide when he's mentally fit to play. The Rockets feel they've already done enough (including agreeing to transport him to drivable away games so he won't have to fly). They want him to accept their compromise and show up for work. And for most people, this is the whole argument. If you side with White, you believe that his anxiety disorder is no different from a physical injury, and that his mental health advocacy is warranted and overdue; if you side with the Rockets, you suspect that White is something of a con man whose adversarial attitude is an affront to his $3.4 million contract and the calculated risk Houston took by drafting him 16th overall. It's a clash between labor and management, and his supporters and detractors tend to split down those preexisting lines."
The problem here is that Klosterman immediately informs us that this contractual dispute is not what is important. He writes, "But that practical dichotomy tends to de-emphasize something that's considerably more complex: Royce White's radical (but not absurd) belief about mental illness as a whole." Klosterman's failure here is not in his acknowledgement that there is something more at stake than a labour dispute; his failure lies in his inability to understand that the contract issue and the larger discussion around mental illness are one and the same.
White's argument and Klosterman's failure to comprehend it are evident in the transcript of their interview, which Klosterman, to his credit, provides. However, before getting to the interview, it is worth pausing to dwell on a passing comment Klosterman choose to make, for it is an early sign of the ideological investments that frame both the story and the broader society it can be seen to represent. Klosterman writes of White, "He's built like a double helix of panther sinew — whenever he adjusts his left arm, the biceps bulges so dramatically that it's distracting." What is evident here is a classic instance of racial coding. Klosterman's first reaction upon meeting White is to reduce him to base physicality.
Frantz Fanon wrote about this phenomenon in Black Skin, White Masks:
"There is one expression that through time has become singularly eroticized: the black athlete... The Negro symbolizes the biological. First of all, he enters puberty at the age of nine and is a father at the age of ten; he is hot-blooded, and his blood is strong; he is tough...I have always been struck by the speed with which 'handsome young Negro' turns into 'young colt' or 'stallion,'" (1967, 158-167).
Or, in this case, "panther." Fanon is indexing the tendency within hegemonically white societies for the racialized other to be fetishized and fixed as fundamentally physical or biological. The non-white other becomes an object onto which the fears and desires of the white subject (Klosterman) are projected. In the process, the objectified other (White) is dehumanized.
By engaging in this form of objectification from the outset of the story, Klosterman (likely unconsciously) undermines White's subjectivity. That is, he creates a contrast between his own implicit authorial omniscience and White's comparative corporeality. The power of Klosterman's description is that it draws on widespread cultural codes associating blackness with the body. Readers are pre-disposed to see White (as black athlete) in bestial terms; all they need is for Klosterman to push the necessary buttons.
Thus, by the time we as readers are confronted with the text of the interview itself, a power dynamic between interviewer and interviewee has already been established. Here is the first exchange reproduced at length (note that Klosterman, as questioner, is bolded in the source material):
Do you believe 26 percent of the league is dealing with a mental illness, or does mental illness prompt those dealing with it to self-select themselves out of the pool? Are you the rare exception who got drafted?
The amount of NBA players with mental health disorders is way over 26 percent. My suggestion would be to ask David Stern how many players in the league he thinks have a marijuana problem. Whatever number he gives you, that's the number with mental illness. A chemical imbalance is a mental illness.
So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that --
That's a mental illness. A gambling addiction is a mental illness. Addiction is a mental illness.
Well, then what's the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?
The reality is that you can't black-and-white it, no matter how much you want to. You have to be OK with it being gray. There is no end or beginning. It's more individualistic. If someone tears a ligament, there is a grade for its severity. But there's no grade with mental illness. It all has to do with the person and their environment and how they are affected by that environment.
OK, I get that. But you classify a gambling addiction as a mental illness. Gambling is incredibly common among hypercompetitive people. The NBA is filled with hypercompetitive people. So wouldn't this mean that --
Here's an even tougher thing that we're just starting to uncover: How many people don't have a mental illness? But that's what we don't want to talk about.
Why wouldn't we want to talk about that?
Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they're the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, "You stay over there and deal with your problems over there."
OK, just so I get this right: You're arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.
Exactly. That's definitely correct.
But — if that's true — wouldn't that mean "mental illness" is just a normative condition? That it's just how people are?
That doesn't make it normal. This is based on science. If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn't make it normal … the problem is growing, and it's growing because there's a subtle war — in America, and in the world — between business and health. It's no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.
So … this is about late capitalism?
There is so much to unpack. Let us begin with Klosterman's first questions about mental illness. Clearly, as discussed above, this is the story he is interested in telling. Yet, something strange emerges from the outset. As White begins to make a perfectly conventional case about addiction as mental illness (saying, "a chemical imbalance is mental illness"), Klosterman reacts as if this is a startling revelation: "So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that —."
There are three possibilities here. Perhaps, Klosterman is woefully ignorant about the nature of mental illness. This is possible, although highly improbable and distinctly unprofessional given that he has set out to write a story on the subject. There is also the possibility that Klosterman is simply teeing up White to provide the obvious answer to the question (which he does). This is the most generous reading, but it is also the least likely. For, upon hearing White's thoughtful answer, Klosterman attempts to problematize it: "Well, then what's the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?" The third possibility, and the most probable, is this: Klosterman is attempting to undermine and humiliate. He is trying to provoke White to fulfil his role as a bumbling athlete. There's only one problem. White refuses to play his part.
This becomes ever-more apparent as one reads White's testimony. He is a young man who has fully worked through the logical implications of his argument. We see from the transcript that Klosterman wants this to be a story about mental illness, or perhaps, if that story does not play out the way he has in mind, a story about a recalcitrant athlete using mental illness as an excuse for his own indolence and greed (which is how Bill Simmons seems to interpret White in the podcast mentioned earlier). What Klosterman is unprepared for is a story about how the NBA stands in as a microcosm for the way in which mental illness and capitalism are linked.
Again, I will let White explain in his own words:
"At the end of the day, we don't associate mental health disorders with having severe health risks. And they do," he explains. "In that Real Sports piece, they only touched on the addictive traits and the suicidal and homicidal behaviors [associated with mental illness]. But there are other elements that no one wants to talk about. Stress is one of the number-one killers of human beings. Stress hardens your arteries. And that's scary for a lot of humans, so they don't want to talk about it. It's like — what is the pollution in the air really doing to us? We'd rather just tiptoe around that idea and argue that it's the food that's killing us. But the reality is that stress is a killer of humans, and if we don't support mental health in the right way, the nature of the illness causes people to become overly stressed. And that's serious."
..."My request was to have an addendum to my contract," he begins. "Now, would that set a precedent? That's not really my thing. I asked for something to be put into my contract. Not something for all players to use."
But then he continues talking. And this is where it becomes difficult to see how White and the Rockets will ever find real common ground, even if he eventually ends up on their roster.
"But if you want to talk about it through that lens, every player should have their own doctor. The reality is that American businesses are built on the idea of cutting overhead. And how do we cut overhead?" White points to the door that leads from the patio to the main restaurant. "Why do restaurants put exit signs over every exit? I bet if Cheesecake Factory didn't have to do that, they wouldn't. Because it would cost less to do nothing. They have to be forced to do that. So if a team or a business can save money by making things less safe, they're going to do that. They don't care. It's a conflict of interest to have the team doctor paid by the team. What we need is a doctor who can look at a situation and say, 'Listen, I know the team wants you to do this, and I know their doctor is saying you should do this. But as a non-biased doctor with no interest in how you perform athletically, I recommend differently.' Right now, you have players pushing themselves back in three weeks who have three-month injuries."
I ask him if he understands why NBA owners might be reluctant to give players that level of input into when they're ready to play basketball, particularly for a disease that's invisible (and arguably subjective).
"I'm always going to run into problems with people who think business is more important than human welfare," he replies.
White's struggle is not just a contract dispute. It is not just a struggle with mental illness. It is both. White understands that capitalism inherently isolates, alienates, and dehumanizes. It is a system in which people are treated as commodities and in which generation of wealth is the highest social end. These are not simply abstract concepts, however. They have a palpable impact on people's lives. Marx gives us one vocabulary to talk about this (the one I have been employing in this paragraph). White simply gives us another: mental illness.
The reason why this is important is because it allows White to produce a sophisticated, logically-developed argument that connects subjectivity (experience) to political economy. In other words, it prevents him from betraying precisely the naivety that Klosterman craves and expects. Klosterman wants White to fall into the trap of admitting that he has a unique problem requiring a special solution, and that this is an indefensible position if taken to its logical conclusion (for, if he gets special conditions in his contract, everyone else will want the same, and the league will collapse). Only, White has thought of that.
What if stress is just part of it?
What does that mean, "It's just part of it"? That's like saying people getting killed is just part of war.
But people getting killed is part of war. That's the downside of war.
It doesn't have to be, though. We choose that. When you say, "That's just part of it," it implies that this is natural. Volcanoes don't kill human beings. Volcanoes kill human beings because human beings build houses right next to them.
Yes. But when I ask, "What if stress is just part of it?" I'm really asking, "What if it's just part of the choice that society has made?" It may be problematic, but what if we've all agreed that this problematic thing is part of the experience of being involved in a rarefied profession?
That's fine. But don't act like this wasn't a choice.
So what would you have done if, upon drafting you, the Rockets had said this: "Look — this is going to be hard for you. It might, in fact, be detrimental. But that is just part of competing at this sport at this level."
You can't do that, though. You can't discriminate against somebody, because that's ADA6 law. People say I'm getting special treatment, but it's the NBA who wants special treatment. They want to say they're this rarefied profession where laws don't apply. But ADA law is federal. I've always said the NBA should have a mental health policy. I didn't know they didn't have one, until I got drafted. But the NCAA doesn't have one, either … I had to sit my first year at Iowa State, because there was no mental health protocol. I transferred on the basis of mental health issues. Both my doctor and my psychiatrist wrote letters to the NCAA that said my staying at Minnesota would not be healthy, because I'd just been through a three-month case where I was targeted by police for a crime I was not guilty of, and that I needed a fresh start. Because I have a mental illness. But the NCAA denied my waiver.
What was the NCAA's argument?
They didn't really have one. They said it was my choice to transfer.
In a new paragraph immediately following the above exchange, here is how Klosterman responds: "There are times when White seems like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can't stop talking about it. He's arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be." There is tremendous irony here, for in this passage Klosterman displays the height of self-aggrandizement and insulting condescension. The reality is that it is he, not his interview subject, who is "not as wise as he believes himself to be."
The reason for this is quite simple. Klosterman is attempting to critique White from precisely the ideological position that White is in the process of deconstructing. Because he does not recognize his own ideological investments, Klosterman believes that he is outside of ideology itself and thus suitably-positioned to analyze it. In fact, this ignorance leaves him completely unequipped to understand the extent to which he embodies the very object of White's critique.
White is suggesting that those born into capitalist societies are socialized to see such a social structure as natural and normal. From this standpoint, it becomes very difficult to imagine another way of organizing society. Thus, on his podcast, Klosterman dismisses White's argument as ultimately absurd because it would culminate in chaos for the NBA: each player with his own physician determining whether or not he can play. Such a conclusion makes sense for someone who cannot imagine his way out of capitalism; who views its institutions as timeless and inevitable.
Fortunately, White is not similarly myopic. What Klosterman cannot understand is that the entire purpose of White's pesky, uninteresting contract dispute, his 'irrational' outbursts on twitter, and his "radical" views on mental illness is to challenge the very structure of capitalism itself, and following from that, all of the forms in which capitalism manifests, from the mass media to the National Basketball Association. The fact that genuine concern over mental illness (and other forms of bodily injury) might require a complete reorganization of the NBA to the extent that power would have to shift from ownership to labour is not a reason to throw these arguments away. They are the very reasons why such a radical change needs to occur and should be fought for. White gets this; Klosterman does not.
Clearly, much can be understood about the promise of White and the limitations of his society by reading his ideas in literal conversation with one of capitalism's organic intellectuals, Mr. Chuck Klosterman. However, I want to conclude by imagining White in the shadow of a person with a very different legacy: Muhammad Ali.
It is difficult now to imagine a moment when athletes stood for something more than their own brand. The last few decades can be summed up largely in Michael Jordan's infamous claim that "Rebublicans buy sneakers too." This has become a mantra to live by for America's most celebrated athletes, from Jordan to Tiger Woods to LeBron James. There was, however, a time when American athletes chose to use their remarkable public platform to challenge the inequities of racism and capitalism. Perhaps no one embodied that confluence of celebrity and political radicalism more fully than Ali.
At the end of his superb exploration of Ali and his era, Redemption Song, Mike Marqusee writes:
"If one day we're lucky enough to live through a sporting revolution in which the domination of finance is overthrown and sport is at last permitted to come into its own, not as an instrument for monetary gain, or national aggrandizement, but as an exercise with no end but itself, I have no doubt the revolutionaries will draw inspiration from Muhammad Ali. His example of personal moral witness, of border-crossing solidarity, belongs not to sixties nostalgia, but to the common future of humanity," (2005, 298).
Royce White may not see himself as the heir to Muhammad Ali. He doesn't have to. He has already demonstrated the same spirit of political conviction and courage that animated his predecessor. Now, all he needs is the stage. The challenge for White will be to find a way to reconcile his distaste for the structures of capitalism and the NBA and the political imperative to carve out a prominent place in those spaces. If he cannot, Klosterman may be the last obnoxious pop-journalist to be befuddled by him, not just the first.
We live in a unique era: one in which we can speak directly to those we might otherwise admire from afar. White has already demonstrated the power of social networking to disseminate an unfiltered message. It's time we showed him that he does not walk alone. Tweet your support to Royce at @Highway_30.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks
. New York: Grove Press.
Marqusee, M. (2005). Redemption song: Muhammad Ali and the spirit of the sixties
. London: Verso.This post was originally published by the journal Left Hook
The 2012 London Olympics mark the first time that the quadrennial celebration of athletics (and cold hard cash) will include women’s boxing as a medal sport. As one might expect, this has led to plenty of publicity around the event, from a feature in The New Yorker
to Cover Girl ads
. What this coverage shares is a fundamentally celebratory tone. The inclusion of women’s boxing is read as another important step for the women’s movement.
This is a very tempting narrative. It is
inequitable for Olympic events such as boxing to feature only male eligibility. Likewise, it has
been a struggle to achieve recognition and inclusion. In short, the idea of jumping on this bandwagon is awfully appealing. Except that, this triumphalist discourse happens to obfuscate some significant issues around gender, race, class, and, perhaps, most of all, violence.Women’s Boxing as Feminist Project
In order to unpack what I mean, let us turn to the aforementioned piece in the May 2012 issue of The New Yorker
penned by Ariel Levy and entitled, “A Ring of One’s Own: A teen-age Olympic boxing hopeful.” The article chronicles the meteoric rise of seventeen-year-old U.S. boxing aspirant Claressa Shields, taking us through her successful journey to the U.S. Olympic Trials. Levy portrays Shields as a gifted and driven young woman who seems equally bent on winning gold and busting stereotypical attitudes about women and women’s boxing.
Levy’s article is marked by the sort of triumphalism I referenced above. Early on, Shields describes why she, at age eleven, wanted to begin boxing, suggesting it was to follow in her father’s footsteps: “He said, ‘H, no! Boxing is a man’s sport.’ I just started crying. I didn’t talk to him for two days. After he told me no, that kind of motivated me, really, just to prove him wrong,’” (pp. 40-41). This is the seed of what will become a sort of feminist kunstlerroman,
the story of a girl who is able to live her ceiling-busting athletic dream.
Levy provides examples of the misogynistic culture Shields is up against, telling us that trainer Tommy Gallagher sees women’s boxing as “wrong and unnatural,” that Joyce Carol Oates called boxing “‘the obverse of the feminine…[it is] for men, and is about men, and is
men,’ and that New York Times
sportswriter Robert Lipsyte referred to women’s boxing as “‘a freak show,’” (p. 41). In much the same vein, she goes on to catalogue the history of women boxers, producing a sort of genealogy that becomes more of a teleology in the context of Shields’ rise.
The teleological nature of this narrative is driven home by powerful quotations from Christy Halbert, a sociology Ph.D on the International Boxing Association’s Women’s Commission, and from Shields herself. Halbert explains that boxing, like other sports, does not allow women to play in exactly the same way as men. In boxing, this is because women have shorter fights (four two-minute rounds instead of three three-minute rounds). Halbert explains the difference this way: “‘Because what if the women are better at this event than the men?’ she replied. ‘What does that mean for gender? What does that mean for men’s power?’” (p. 43). This is a thoughtful and compelling case. Shields adds: “‘It just hit me. The reason that I box is to prove dudes, men wrong. They say women can’t box?… I’m finna [fixing to] start training so hard there’s no male can even see a mistake in me,’” (Ibid.).
I don’t question the feminist bona fides of either of these women. Halbert connects patriarchy to boxing in an incisive way. Shields proves that challenging gender inequity is at the forefront of her own project. Both of these women deserve to be lauded. Indeed, the article ends with Shields describing her beloved coach as “a male chauvinist,” (p. 47). The problem with Levy’s article — and the broader discourse that it represents in its most self-reflective and refined form — is what it fails to sufficiently foreground about the politics of boxing.Is Women’s Boxing Liberation?
The first issue to address, in peeling back the laudatory veneer of women’s boxing as liberation, is the precise nature of that liberation. That is, we need to examine exactly what kind of feminist project this is. Despite the protestations of Halbert, who seems concerned with actually interrogating the very notion of gender and its relation to structures of power (for which I applaud her), this is much more of a second wave project aimed at achieving institutional equality. Again, women should
have institutional equality. The question is whether that is enough.
The picture of Shields used to introduce the article shows her gazing contemplatively downward while leaning her face on her boxing gloves, which sit in the foreground of the image. This is unremarkable, except for the fact that the gloves are bright pink. Soon after, still on the first page of the piece, Levy informs us that when he meets Shields before a match, she is “wearing Betty Boop socks that stuck up above her boxing boots,” (p. 39). Indeed, Shields’ trainer tells us, “‘She’s real emotional–yeah!’ He laughed. ‘A sixteen-year-old!
You’ve got to deal with the boys! You’ve got to deal with the up and down and all around! Oh, man! I mean, this has been hell for me!’” (p. 40). As difficult as he finds it, “this is not to say he wants Shields to appear unfeminine. She told [Levy], ‘I was going to come here with an Afro, but people’ — she indicated [her trainer] with her eyes — ‘got stuff to say about that
.’ He had directed her instead to get the long braided extensions she was wearing. ‘She has a real good personality,’ [her trainer] explained. ‘So I want her to have the appearance to go with it — ‘Oh, hey, she looks nice and she talks nice,’” (p. 46).
New Yorker photographer Pari Dubovic is sure to capture Claressa Shields’ pink boxing gloves for this feature piece by Ariel Levy.
What all of these examples reveal is the way in which Shields is gendered. Her ability to challenge the glass ceiling of boxing has had little to no effect on the expectation she fulfil her designated gender role. She must appear feminine in order to have public appeal. That is, she must be objectified as a sex object as much as an athlete. Moreover, she is still perceived through the lens of gender essentialism; as a woman, her trainer tells us, she is “emotional.” His job, as patriarch, is to regulate her sexuality.
Shields is not the only boxer subject to this gender surveillance. Another U.S. Olympic representative, Marlen Esparza, remarks, “‘When people say, “You don’t look like a boxer,” I’m like, “Thank you!”‘ she said. ‘It sucks whenever I want to wear a strapless shirt or a dress. My shoulders look all strong.’” Evidently, she has internalized the expectations that have been placed on her, struggling to fulfil them by appearing in a Cover Girl campaign with Canadian boxing champion Mary Spencer (see the above link) in which they flaunt their femininity, ostensibly in their athletic apparel, yet, meticulously made up, styled, and groomed. It is little wonder, then, that although many members of the women’s boxing community are openly gay, they are forced to grapple with the perception that they are “‘brutish’” “‘bull dykes,’” (p. 45). In fact, the president of USA Boxing, Hal Adonis, says that although he has no problem with homosexuality, “‘Only thing is I don’t want to see — we had a situation with one of the girls, she was on the elevator kissing her girlfriend…we have a public image. We don’t want to have, when we’re trying to get girls into the sport, their mothers saying, “Gee, I don’t want my girl to be around your gay girls because they might try to make her gay,”‘” (Ibid.).
Much as we might want to believe it is, this is not a community that represents liberation for women. It is a world where gender norms are clutched all the tighter for fear they might slip away in a sea of sweat and blood. There is a form of feminism at work here, just not the robust form required to push for profound structural change.
Race, Class, Violence, and Boxing
Although my preoccupation to this point has been with the extent to which women’s boxing may or may not be perceived as a feminist project, this is actually not the most fundamental problem I see with the triumphalist discourse associated with its inclusion in the Olympics. What I want to take greater issue with is the endorsement it provides for the sport of boxing itself. For, the most equitable development that could occur within the world of boxing is its outright abolition. To put it as concisely as possible, boxing is an exploitative and dehumanizing spectacle. This fact is not the fault of boxers, and so I celebrate the women who have finally received deserving recognition for their labour. It is, however, the fault of institutions like the Olympics, which have simply found a new way to cash in.
Boxing, like other sports, draws heavily for participation upon the most disadvantaged groups of society. Poor and racialized youth, with few opportunities for economic and social advancement in an American society that relies upon their insecure socio-economic position for cheap labour, come to see sports like boxing as a way out. The intense brutality of the sport is much less of an inhibition for those who face such conditions in their everyday lives. Again, Levy’s article — and Shields’ life story — provides a neat lens for examining the matrix of race, class, and violence that comprise the structural context of boxing. Levy writes (and I quote at length here because of the salience of this passage):
“Clarence Shields has been an important but intermittent figure in his daughter’s life. ‘I’d go two, three months without seeing him,’ Claressa told me. ‘Then I’d call and he’d be like, “Oh, what’s up, Muffin?” I’d be like, “How come we never see you?” “Oh, I don’t like y’all coming around here when we ain’t got no money.” I was like, “We already living in poverty, and you’re just making it harder.”‘ Broken stoplights dangle over many of the intersections in Flint. Most of the streets have boarded-up houses, like the one next to Clarence’s home, and the town is patched with blacktopped expanses where Chevrolet and Buick factories used to be. When Jason Crutchfield drove me through the abandoned downtown, under the ‘Flint–Vehicle City’ arch on Saginaw Street, he said, ‘I remember my grandmother walking me through here. It used to be packed.’ Both Crutchfield and Shields have relatives who worked in the auto industry, and their fathers both spent time in prison after it disappeared. Clarence Shields did seven years for breaking and entering.”
The context for Shields’ boxing career is not just some innate passion for her father’s sport. It is intimately connected to the political economy into which she was born. The destructive effects of globalization upon the U.S. auto industry; the consequent formation of a rust belt of hollowed out former metropolises with few sources of employment; the ghettoization of urban cores due to white flight and redlining practices; all these factors, not to mention earlier histories of accumulation and dispossession due to colonialism, slavery, and capitalism frame the range of possibilities Shields was born into. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, in a racialized community in an urban ghetto in the heart of the rust belt, few choices were available to her. The appeal of a sport that might allow her to fight her way out is not hard to imagine.
Flint, MI, is one of America’s most infamous examples of urban poverty and decay. (Photo: Brian Finoki.)
Indeed, it is precisely those who experience the most extreme forms of violence and abuse (above and beyond poverty and racialization, although, no doubt, associated with the desperation they cause) who are most susceptible to the sport. Levy writes of USA Boxing president Adonis, “Adonis himself was qualified to box because ‘my father invented
child abuse,’ he said, with an incongruous smile. ‘I learned how to play chess when I was six years old. My father would have a strap and smack me across the face if I made the wrong move. So when I got onto the streets and got into boxing, I was so used to getting hit it was like, ‘Hey, this is nothing!’ When he trained kids, he said, ‘before a fight I’d start smacking them real hard in the face. Because you feel, in boxing, the first couple punches. After that, the endorphins kick in and it’s like someone gave you Novocain,’” (p. 44).
There is something fundamentally diseased about a sport that requires abuse as a form of high-performance training. Yet, it is logical that it would, given the damage boxers inflict upon one another over the course of a typical fight. Studies
associated with another, comparatively less violent sport, football, suggest that concussions cause significant long term harm, even if the short term effects seem manageable. The very premise of boxing is to inflict so much damage on the opponent that they are unable to continue. Nevertheless, the defence is often offered that at least boxing (and other violent sports, such as football) offers some form of hope for those with few other sources of opportunity. But does it really, or is this hope it provides really something quite a bit more illusory?
Levy’s story helps us answer this question. Writing of one of Shields’ teammates, Tyrieshia Douglas of Baltimore, Levy says, “Just after she won the semifinals of her division, we spoke outside the ballroom. ‘I don’t get paid,’ she said. ‘I don’t have nowhere to go. This right here is my ticket out.’ Douglas, who has a wiry frame and a sweet face, grew up in foster care while her parents were in and out of prison. She got into boxing through a compulsory community-service program after she broke one girl’s jaw and another’s nose in a street fight. ‘My dream was to finish high school, to go to college, take care of my mom, my daddy, and my brothers. I stopped going to college for boxing. I gave up everything,’ she said, choking back tears. ‘No one’s taking my ticket. No one’s taking my last piece of chicken.’ She walked away, crying.”
Later, we learn that Douglas does not make the Olympic team. She has nothing to show for her efforts. Young racialized aspirants like Douglas and Shields are told that boxing offers them a way out of the ghetto. They are told to eschew education and other avenues of personal development in order to concentrate on the sport. Yet, the probability that a pot of gold awaits at the end of the rainbow is infinitesimally smaller than the reality that all they will be left with is a damaged body and a battered brain.
There is no simple solution. The eradication of boxing will not solve the structural issues that plague our world. It will not end patriarchy or the objectification of women, nor will it equitably redistribute wealth or abolish racialization. These are all projects that we must pursue more broadly if we want to live in a just world where Tyrieshia Douglas and Claressa Shields have a fair chance. What such a step will accomplish is end the propagation of false hopes and dreams, aspirations that fuel the corporate machine that is the Olympics.
*The full quote reads as follows: “In the center of the room, Crutchfield [Shields’ trainer] was watching two boys sparring in the ring. ‘Put your hands up, fool! It’s time to man up!’ he yelled at the one who was getting cornered. ‘He hitting like a girl!’” (p. 47). This post was originally published by the Journal Left Hook.
On Monday, Major League Baseball (MLB) held it's (oddly in-season) amateur draft. This has become an important annual event for Blue Jays fans, who have had more to cheer for at the draft (because the team has spent buckets of money to purchase talented players other cost-conscious teams have shied away from) than during the rest of the season itself (since the Jays have not spent on the free agents that might have pushed them to contention). Sadly, this year, even this small pleasure has been snatched from us with the revised rules to the MLB draft
that limit the amount teams are allowed to spend on players. Or so I thought. In fact, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopolous seems to have found a sneaky way around these pesky rule changes
The devilish little fan version of myself masquerading as a Blue Jay perched on my shoulder tells me (chirps to me?) that I should be delighted by the new Blue Jays draft strategy. Has Anthopolous found a new market inefficiency ? Is drafting college seniors and then paying them a fraction of what MLB says they should get for their draft slot--in order to conjure enticingly over-slot offers for high-upside high school seniors--not exactly
the sort of wizardry a fan should celebrate? Well, yes... and no.
This is why the fan on my shoulder has a distinctly satanic quality: over and over again, fandom produces and legitimises behaviour that would (I hope) otherwise be viewed as unethical. In this case, as it so often does, the fan lens conveniently transforms human, labouring athletes into objects that can be manipulated by a team towards the goal of winning. College seniors who want to play professional baseball have no choice when confronted by a low-ball offer but to accept it (unlike high school players or college juniors, who may reject the offer and re-enter the draft in a subsequent year). This means that they will labour for the team--risking debilitating injury--for an even lower wage than they previously would have received. These are precisely the sort of professional athletes who put the lie to the notion that athletes should not be seen as exploited given their multi-million dollar wages. Most professional athletes will have careers, like these college seniors, which pay little and leave them with damaged bodies.
In a sense, the Blue Jays have found a way to twist a system engineered to improve equity between teams of varying market sizes (previously, big market team paid big bucks to sign high-upside players with later draft picks who fell to them because poorer teams feared being unable to sign those players) into one that is even more inequitable for the players themselves. Top prospects will continue to reap huge signing bonuses, only now, this money will come from the pockets of other players instead of the coffers of mega-corporations.
Clearly, this is a structural problem with the MLB slotting system more than an insidious product of Anthopolous' imagination. Nevertheless, as a human agent with considerable power, the Blue Jays GM has the ability to treat these young men right. That he won't is little cause for celebration.
When I was a child, I often imagined myself as a star athlete. High school, college, professional, it didn't matter. I didn't have a video game system, so I would create the scenarios in my head--whole seasons that I would play out in my basement, meticulously recording the schedules of the teams involved and the statistics that they (through me) would accrue.
I was captivated, not merely by the playing of the games, but also by the aura attached to them. By the sense that they meant something incredibly important. So, in the course of my play, in addition to trying to put the ball in the basket, or complete the touchdown pass, I would also high five fans and teammates, and answer question from the press.
These fantasies of athletic success are still with me. They linger in the recreational sports I play, infusing them with meaning and value, fuelling my lust for competition and validating the significance of my occasional victories.
One of my recreational teams. "Topps" image by teammate Neil Shyminsky.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that I understand how difficult it must have been for Sidney Crosby to even contemplate the idea of retiring from his professional hockey career. I suspect that in his childhood, he entertained similar fantasies. Unlike me, though, he has not been confronted with the disillusionment of failure and the consequent deconstruction of the meaning of sport that, for me, followed. The kid was and is a star. His life has been a series of affirmations--of his personal worth and of the importance of sport. (This may have been different if Crosby had been born American; as a hockey-playing Canadian, he is at the pinnacle of athletic importance in this country.)
Much like LeBron James, Crosby was anointed as the chosen one while he was still a teenager. He was seemingly predestined to be one of the great athletes of his time. And he, like James, fulfilled that promise. He was (and is) beloved by fans and, no doubt, bolstered by their love.
But, as often happens in sporting life, he got hurt. And he missed time
: 102 games. His injury was not to his arms or legs or chest; it was to his head. Specifically, to his brain.
Photo via National Post; Brian Babineau/Getty Images
Oddly, it seems our society has only recently awakened to the realization that head injuries are extremely dangerous
. (Odd because the significance of brain trauma should be obvious and intuitive.) These days, ESPN's injury expert Stephania Bell likes to say that there is no such thing as a "mild" concussion. Studies have revealed
that repeated head injuries have lead to the onset of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the symptoms of which range from memory loss to dementia. In other words, repeated concussions can often cause serious brain damage, whether or not symptoms manifest in the short term.
The problem for Crosby, I imagine (because, of course, this is only my own personal reading of Crosby's dilemma), is that the repeated blows he suffered are not the only way in which he has been hurt. If it was, basic logic would dictate that he never play hockey again. He is an exceptionally wealthy young man who has already accomplished much in his field. The possibility still exists for him to have a fulfilling life, free of significant risk.
My fear is that Crosby was a little boy like me. He played because he loved to and because sports seemed to matter. And, as he kept playing, he found that it did matter. That people loved him because of how he played. That he was as important as he imagined he deserved to be. When he was injured, that went away. Not immediately, but slowly, and steadily. Those desperate for his return, originally so distraught at his absence, began to look elsewhere for heroes. And others stepped forward to take his place. Sports Illustrated
, for instance, recently declared, "Long one of the NHL's best, the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin has emerged from the injured Sidney Crosby's shadow as the finest player in the world."
Very young Crosby, images via and via. Cover image via The Hockey News, 2008.
This is the way of sporting culture. It grants the sense of omnipotence, but then it snatches it away. I think this is why Michael Jordan kept coming back, trying to recapture a feeling he felt was suddenly lost. It's an impossible goal and an unfortunate impulse, of course, because bodies are fragile. They break, or at best, wear down. There is always someone younger, newer, springier offering himself up as the vessel for collective desire.
Sidney Crosby may never again be the chosen one. People will care about how he plays and will comment on it. Fans will cheer for him. But he will never be what he was to them.
I don't think he knows that, though. I think that for Crosby, the pain in his head over losing the connection with fans and teammates is greater than the discomfort caused by his injuries and the fear of further damage.
I think that's why he's coming back.
I think, if I were him, that I might return too, even though it is a terrible choice, likely one that will lead to more severe injuries and the possible loss of what might otherwise be a normal, healthy life.
I don't blame him for it. This does not mean that there is no one to blame. There is something perverse about a culture that makes doing something that has no inherent meaning or utility so important that a person will literally risk his life to continue doing it.
As I think I have been making clear, I don't think that Crosby's psychology is exceptional. Rather, I think his exceptional circumstances cast in sharp relief the predicament of all iconic athletes: they are the bearers of the hopes and aspirations of millions of people who were children like me. This privilege comes with a cost: for this fantasy of of purpose to sustain itself, the stakes must be high. If the players acted like the games they played were meaningless, then the fantasy would collapse (think of Vince Carter's refusal to play hard at the end of his tenure with the Toronto Raptors, and the resulting fury of fans that has yet to fully abate, so many years later). No, an athlete's responsibility is to treat sport as sacred--they must be willing to sacrifice completely for it.
What I think Crosby does not realize, as I have explained, is that it is too late for him to reap the rewards. The meaning of sport will persist, but in the body of another.
I was lucky. I did not make it as an athlete. I didn't even come close. I had to find personal worth in something other than sport. The betrayal of my childhood self was the salvation of the adult.
As a sporting culture, however, we are still governed by the dreams and desires of the child. It is the Crosbys, too talented to find the fortune of failure, who pay the price, whether the cost is the body or a sense of personal worth.
And it's too expensive.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a comment on a post I wrote about Jeremy Lin
that got me thinking about the question of sports spectatorship in the abstract. The commenter wrote:I generally view the time I devote to spectator sports as proof of one of my many character weaknesses; but being able to learn about Gramsci's definition of hegemony in your post ("the widespread acceptance as common sense of ideas that legitimize the power of some in society over others") is proof of the opposite. Thanks a lot, Nathan!
There is, I think, much to be gleaned from this. First, we have the issue of whether watching sport is indeed "a character [weakness]." Second, there is the question of whether there is some redeeming quality to sport spectatorship. These are problems that, although seemingly secondary to the day-to-day existence of my reader, are absolutely central to my own experience.
My professional life (such as it is) is as an aspiring academic, currently working on a doctorate. While the department in which I work is broad in its scope (Social and Political Thought), my own research concentrates on the study of sport, with a particular emphasis on spectatorship itself. I have taught in courses on the socio-cultural analysis of sport and written academic texts on the subject.
What I am trying to say is that the question of whether sport is "a character [weakness]," or vice, is absolutely critical to my daily life. Which is to say that I should probably have a neat, logical, and compelling answer. But, I'm afraid, I don't.
For some, this question may not seem like a question at all. What's wrong with watching (and playing) sports?. Much could be written in response to this pivotal query, but I will try to keep my explanation relatively brief
Rugby image from the Pacific Times, uploaded by Adrien Veczan.
The contention has been made, justly, that the very notion of competition, central to all sport is anti-social. It teaches us to act as Darwinistic individuals rather than members of a broad and inclusive community focused on the interests of the collectivity. (This is particularly true in individual sports, but even team sports retain these dynamics in their oppositional format and the internal struggles that occur over playing time and primacy.) This is a compelling case, and I have friends who resist playing, let alone watching, sport for this reason. I do not dispute the premise of this position.
Another problem, not applicable to all forms of sport, is the question of violence. This is, in a sense, an extension of the first point. Much sport is competition taken to an extreme. Violent sports teach not only to privilege the self over the other, but that it is acceptable to physically dominate an opponent in order to achieve this end. I have written about this issue before in the context of high school football
. Currently, it is in the news again with the NFL's bounty scandal
, which raises the question of what level of violence is appropriate in a sport that is predicated upon it in the first place. This is a position that I find to be nearly unimpeachable. Sport that teaches and endorses violence does not have a place in the theoretical society in which I want to live.
Image from Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece, "Offensive Play."
Photo: BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED/GETTY
If we step back from sport proper, and look at spectatorship itself, other issues emerge. The spectatorship of college basketball and football relies on the exploitation of labour
. Watching professional sport means embroiling oneself in a world of spectacle (distraction from more pressing social and political issues) and advertising. It also funnels capital into the coffers of mega corporations
. Indeed, even being a fan--such a pure and noble occupation according to Bill Simmons (note: the links to most of Simmons' older columns in which he explicitly outlines his rules for fandom are broken. Blame ESPN.)--is fraught with complication.
Fandom produces miniature national communities that follow a strict "us against them" logic. While the community of fans seems on one level to produce comraderie and act as a source of meaning, by the same token it also relies upon an opponent against whom the team defines itself. In this way, fandom teaches what has been called a Manichean--good vs. evil--way of thinking that is not, in my mind, unrelated to broader destructive ways of thinking that continue to be so prevalent in our world.
Sounders fans in Seattle. Photo from Curator, a Seattle PR agency.
The above is merely a thumbnail sketch of some of the problems with sport. Countless posts, or books, could be written on each, and on others I have not even touched upon. This, however, should suffice to demonstrate why it is difficult for me to reject the claim that sport is a vice.
Clearly, it is.
This may seem to be a resolution to the question at hand. Logically, it is. The problem with sport, though, is that logic has little to do with popularity. This is certainly true in my own life. Despite all that I have said above--and I believe what I have said--I still love sport. It is still, as loathe as I am to admit it, one of the principle sources of meaning and pleasure in my life.
I play sports (softball, basketball, volleyball, currently) and look forward to games all week. I watch on television and still live and die with the fates of the teams with which I identify. I even consume sports media, and not merely in a watchdog capacity. I play fantasy sports and make transactions daily, often spending ages pondering the moves I will make.
This is not the product of some kind of in-born natural inclination. I was socialized--taught--to love these games. I was given balls and bats and sticks to play with when I was young and was shown how to use them. I watched games on television with my father and learned who to cheer for. Why I was cheering for them didn't really come up.
Sport has been paralleled to religion, and I believe this is why the analogy is so pertinent: both are systems of meaning that are taught early and come to structure desire and purpose.
I have learned to accept that I am stuck with my sports passion. To repress it would be to repress a now fundamental part of myself. To give it free reign, however, would be to eschew my own system of ethics. This is a delicate balance that I constantly try to strike--a dialectic, tension, contradiction, hypocrisy.
Is there a lesson in all this? I think there is, and I think it is the point that my reader made: perhaps the redemption for those of us socialized into simultaneous obsession and discomfort with sport is that it is an arena we can learn from. There is genuine value to immersion in what is perhaps the most popular form of recreation in North America today.
There is value to be found in staying involved: we can remain participants in the conversation that is sporting culture and by participating, seek to alter its terms. This is not simply a noble quest--it would be pathetically disingenuous to suggest that there isn't pleasure in it. But, as my reader asserts, maybe through this pursuit of pleasure we can gain surprising bursts of enlightenment. Perhaps, balance itself is the key. Instead of embracing sport as it is or rejecting it outright, we need to play and watch while experiencing the struggle.
The alternative is to become ascetic--to disavow and reject. But what does this accomplish or change? Little, I think.
This is the power of the dialectic: through the contradiction, something new can be born.
The fall, America was gripped by a bizarre form of collective hysteria that has been called "Tebowmania
." This condition was characterized by ecstatic devotion to the exploits of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who defied NFL norms to achieve considerable success as a run-first pivot.
This winter, a new form of popular psychosis has replaced Tebowmania in the minds of Americans: "Linsanity
." This, of course (who hasn't heard of Linsanity by now?), refers to the way in which the performances of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin have been received in New York, the United States more generally, and even beyond. Lin is a Harvard graduate, who, in his second year in the NBA, was days away from being cut
by the Knicks before exploding as the Eastern Conference player of the week
Time Magazine, February 27, 2012
It is tempting to infer that Tebowmania and Linsanity are related afflictions, even that the latter is a mere extension of the former. Indeed, it is easy to assume that both are simply manifestations of a more transhistorical and universal adulation of the underdog, of David vs. Goliath.
I draw upon this religious imagery because it is relevant. Tebow and Lin are both devout and outspoken Christians. There is no question that this is part of their appeal in the context of a nation that has seen a renaissance of evangelical Christianity. However, the degree of relevance is asymmetrical in relation to the two athletes in question.
Tebow has become a religious icon whose endorsement has been sought
by candidates in the Republican presidential primaries. It is as an icon of this political movement that Tebow has found such widespread popularity. Thus, it is little wonder that his athletic accomplishments have been widely discussed (both in jest and more seriously) as evidence of divine intervention
The Jeremy Lin phenomenon is somewhat different. Certainly, his religion and underdog status have contributed significantly to his appeal. It would be ludicrous to deny this. There is, however, another aspect to Linsanity that has received barely any play (and trust me, having spent the past week in the United States, that is saying something given the ubiquitous Lin-talk): Jeremy Lin has been embraced because he represents the model minority.
A much older cover from Time Magazine.
What is a model minority? Basically, this label captures the way in which certain members of racialized groups in a society that is dominated by whites come to exemplify characteristics perceived to approximate the governing standards of whiteness. While many who use the term do so to encompass the way in which entire minority groups are represented, I find this approach to be over-generalized bordering on essentialist. Rather, I prefer to apply it to individual non-white subjects who, while never quite attaining the status of whiteness, nevertheless tend to satisfy middle class white values. In doing so, they reassure the white majority that they will not pose a threat to the general structure of society, which continues to privilege whiteness in various ways.
Rita Dhamoon and others have written about how model minorities also need to be understood in the context of their binary opposite: the 'bad immigrant.' The bad immigrant is a racialized, working class subject who is not easily assimilated. So-called bad immigrants are essential to the workings of nations like the United States in that they provide much of the labour required for these countries to function. Nevertheless, they are perceived to be a threat in numbers and culture to the social structure.
The issue of Jeremy Lin as model minority subject has been touched upon by academics writing in the mainstream media
and others writing in blog form
. Even here, though, the predominant concern is with whether Lin, as basketball player (a non-conventional occupation reserved for more recalcitrant marginalized groups, namely African-Americans), breaks down the model minority stereotype (yes, writes the author, David Mayeda). Although I credit Mayeda for raising the issue, he has it wrong.
Lin has been glorified precisely because, unlike the many African-American basketball players who have preceded him (many of whom have been born into working class communities and nearly all of whom have been assumed
to have such a history), he is a model minority subject. His Harvard education, his business savvy (he has filed to trademark the term "Linsanity"
), and his deferential manner have all endeared him to the U.S. media.
By repeatedly extolling Lin, media commentators disseminate an image of what all non-white citizens should aspire to. This is not only true of white media members, because hegemonic whiteness is ideological; it is not the necessary product of some mythical racial essence. Thus, writing in the Miami Herald
, Leonard Pitts Jr.
distils the lesson of Lin for black American readers: It is always jolting when someone breaks out of the context to which you have subconsciously confined them — like when you run into your teacher, at the mall with her kids. Similarly, when it comes to Asian guys, we expect that they will excel in engineering or chemistry. We emphatically do not expect them to break the defender’s ankles and take the rock to the rack with malice.
There is a word for expecting things from people based on the racial, religious, gender or cultural box you have put them into. The word is “stereotyping,” a form of mental laziness in which people believe they can know who and what you are simply by seeing you.
You should know all about that. After all, the stereotypes about you are manifold. You are supposedly given to innate criminality, promiscuity, rhythm, athleticism and, more to the point of this column, stupidity, i.e., the inability to conquer chemistry, master math or otherwise do well in school.
As troubling as it is to know other people believe such things about you, it is infinitely more troubling to know you too often believe such things about yourself. It is difficult to escape that impression when one hears you using the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite racial epithet. Or defining yourselves as thugs. Or suggesting that speaking English is “acting white.” Indeed, one is reminded of the axiom that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth — even the people being lied about.
It takes a prodigious strength of mind and sense of self to resist that. How many times do you suppose Jeremy Lin had people tell him there was no way a Chinese guy could compete in a game dominated by African Americans? Yet there he is, ballin’ at the highest level.
So, the most admirable thing about him is neither his scoring nor his assists, but, rather, the fact that he refused to allow other people to define him. He knew he was capable of things they’d never expect or believe. And guess what?
So are you.
A high school yearbook photo of Lin, from linsanity.com.
Pitt Jr.'s article is a neat illustration of the way in which model minorities are used to discipline other members of minority groups. Those represented as model minority subjects are examples of how it is possible to achieve acceptance by the white majority. Their successful realization of this version of the American Dream becomes more damning evidence that those who "allow other people to define" them as failures and threats are personally responsible for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. In other words, the celebration of the model minority subject conceals the existence of structural inequities, reducing them instead to questions of individual merit and responsibility.
It is not Jeremy Lin's fault that he has become represented as a model minority subject. His story is unusual, even genuinely exceptional, and he deserves credit for what he has accomplished. However, if Lin aspires to be a true role model in a society rife with racial prejudice and inequality, he needs to bring race to the foreground. In practice, this means that the next time a media outlet makes a racial slur out of a headline
, Lin cannot simply brush the issue aside as an accident
This is a lot to ask of a young man who is simply happy to have the opportunity to do what he loves. It is not his responsibility to solve a structural problem all on his own. It is fair, though, to ask those of us who produce and consume sports media to take a more critical stance. The very language of "Linsanity" betrays the way in which we have abdicated our duty to think carefully about what is happening.
It is precisely this sort of collective madness that contributes to what Antonio Gramsci described as "hegemony": the widespread acceptance as common sense of ideas that legitimize the power of some in society over others. The model minority is such an idea. By completely succumbing to Linsanity, that is, by failing to ask why it is we shower him with a level of adulation barely ever extended to others, particularly African-Americans who defy norms of whiteness, we are tacitly accepting a system of white privilege and racial inequality.
Beyond pacing in circles and pausing to huddle around the fire barrel, what we were tasked to do during our daily duty on the line was to talk to the people sitting in their cars, waiting to enter the premises. We were, after all, an information picket, and the purpose of our presence was to educate people driving onto campus about the nature of our labour action.
Just over three years ago, I was a member of the union of teaching assistants and contract faculty on strike at York University. This fact comes back to me now that it is snowing, for I think I will always associate painful, freezing, numbing cold with the endless circles we walked on the picket line.
I remember how these conversations went. The gist of it was this: I would start by bringing up the key issues at stake in the strike. I would say that we were fighting for job security for contract faculty who did not (and still do not) know if they will have work year-to-year. We were fighting against attempts to roll back the benefits our union had fought for in preceding rounds of bargaining. We were fighting to keep class sizes manageable. The list goes on, but it is unremarkable that these were the issues being contested during a university strike in a neoliberal era that has seen academic institutions come to be run like typical corporations.
What was striking (ha ha) to me was the nature of the answer I so often received. That answer was "So what?"
Time and again, I heard, "I don't have job security either. No one has job security. That's just how things are these days. There's nothing you can do about it." Of course, I would suggest in return that we all
deserve job security, that this was just one front in that more general struggle. They would listen, politely or not, and then they would drive off. I was not so deluded as to imagine that I had changed minds.
More disconcerting were the attitudes expressed beyond the purview of the picket line. Undergraduate students rallied against us
. The Ontario government allied with the York University administration to legislate us back to work
. And, across the internet
, the public unleashed the worst it had to offer in the comfortable confines of anonymity. Here is a sampling of the bile on the Toronto Star story linked-to above. It is merely representative:Pat6290: Fire them all and pay me the $35 an hour to mark. I'd be glad toVancouver [a York parent]: Frankly I could care less if CUPE's asses are frozen to the concrete on the picket lines. This strike is based solely on greed... go to hell CUPE MARXISTS!!JayJayz: These people on strike should get fired, then replaced by people who do care about students and education--then they'll appreciate their jobs!Bkeeling: Fighting to provide job security and wage increases for people who will not be here once their grad studies are over is insane. They are using us to their advantage and why not?SOC: Grow up and do your jobs or quit. I'm sure there are plenty that would gladly take your place.If there is a prevailing sentiment here, it is the sense that the union is victimizing students in a selfish (and, apparently, irrational) ploy to better our own already lavish quality of life. I don't think I need to dwell on why this was a misreading of the situation. Instead, I want to focus on the notion of third party (in this case undergraduate student) as victim in a labour dispute.I highlight this because it seems to fly in the face of the conventional labour struggle dynamic: workers vs. employers. As evidenced by the above comments, public discourse around the York strike came to focus not on the hard line that the university was taking with its employees, but on how the union was holding undergraduates hostage. Due to the increasingly widespread common sense understanding that job security and decent wages are no longer something people should expect, the union was actually painted as more of a culprit than the employer (who was simply doing the best that it could in tough economic times) for demanding such anachronistic perks. Undergrads, like children in a gruesome divorce, were seen as the only real victims of this narcissistic squabbling. It was their plight that became the cause célèbre
The York strike and its convoluted narrative of victimization are on my mind, not only because of the season, but also because of the recently concluded NBA lockout. Much like the strike I participated in, this was a labour struggle between an employer and a set of employees generally viewed as privileged. Likewise, both labour disputes featured an employer who was making concessionary demands (that is, imposing a worse contract upon the union than in the previous round of bargaining, thus forcing the union to concede gains it had previously fought for). In this case, the owners were generally pushing to take a greater percentage of Basketball Related Income (BRI), while those of smaller market teams sought a harder salary cap that would prevent star players from coalescing in desirable cities and thus distribute talent more evenly throughout the league. While these were the main issues of the lockout, the overarching public narrative was somewhat different. Much like at York three years earlier, was a story of how a third party was being held hostage.For the NBA, the third party in question was made up of fans. Members of the sports media, like Bill Simmons on his BS Report podcast, framed fans as the victim of the lockout. Millionaires and billionaires were squabbling over cash and the people truly getting hurt were the poor, innocent fans who would not be able to watch basketball.In the end, the players conceded nearly 7% of BRI relative to their previous collective agreement. Owners conceded a hard cap. Nothing changed other than the fact that players (the only reason people are interested in the NBA) gave money back to the owners (who only have the privilege of owning a team because they have exploited labour in some other arena previously and thus have enough cash to control the players and act like the league is beholden to them). It is difficult to argue that the players did not lose this labour struggle. It is also hard to frame this as anything but a defeat for fans, whose favourite players remain as likely as ever to "take [their] talents to South Beach."This is the moral of the story, just as it is the one that should have been learned on the picket lines at York three years earlier: when the public turns against labour and anoints a third party the victim in a labour struggle, only the employer prevails.At York, class sizes remain as large as ever. Contract faculty teach myriad courses in order to make a living, diminishing the quality of the education offered in each. Underpaid graduate students scramble to earn enough to get by. This is not a recipe for a quality post-secondary experience, particularly one that undergraduate students pay more and more dearly for.These are not merely abstract meditations. In Toronto, teaching assistants at the University of Toronto and teaching assistants and contract faculty at York are reaching the end of another contentious round of contract negotiations. Both universities are driving a harder bargain than ever. Strikes may again ensue.Undergraduates are the victims in this story. What the public needs to recognize, though, is that it is university administrations and the provincial government that supports and subsidizes them that are the real culprits. University teachers, like NBA players, are the reason that these institutions exist; they are the reason that tuition is paid and tickets are purchased. It's time to learn the lessons that recent history has taught us. If students and teachers unite, there will be no victims.
Please excuse my topic today, which is more than a little self-indulgent.
My least favourite corporation is Rogers. This is a rather strong statement because a) I am not exactly a fan of corporations in general and b) there are probably at a bare minimum of thousands
of corporations out there, harming the world and its people more significantly than Rogers is.
And yet, I hate Rogers most of all. There are two reasons for this, both of which I will discuss at some length. The first: I am a Rogers customer. The second: I am a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, a sports franchise owned by... Rogers.
Residents of Toronto are victims of a telecommunications oligopoly featuring Rogers and Bell. There are far worse forms of victimization in the world (practically every other form is worse, actually), but that fact does little to mitigate the frustration this causes. What I am saying is not to be taken in any way, shape, or form as an endorsement of Bell. I am certain that Bell is awful, possibly worse in many ways. But my experience is with Rogers.
Currently, my partner and I receive cable television and internet from Rogers (I say "currently" because we live on the perpetual verge of cancelling these services). We used to get home phone as well, but in a moment of good sense and abated masochism, switched to a VoiP provider that is infinitely less awful.
Because Rogers' only real competition, especially for television, is Bell, they are able to charge exorbitant (and constantly increasing) prices. This is the basic reality of an oligopoly, which which we are no doubt all familiar. It is frustrating and, even for an ardent free market capitalist, impossible to defend. It is also the logical outcome of unregulated free market (neoliberal) capitalism. But, that is a discussion for another day (in my case, practically every
No, the real reason why I hate Rogers is that, simply put, they don't give a shit about their customers. A telephone conversation with Rogers is... well, it's hard to articulate without resort to some sort of clichéd invocation of Kafka.
Certainly, it involves dialing a number listed on a bill as the appropriate contact for questions about, say, the internet. It then entails pushing a variety of numbers to signify, according to an automated message, the precise nature of your call. From there, you are likely to reach an employee, who will ask you for information about your problem. After listening politely for a detailed five minute description, you will be likely be told, "This is the wireless phone department. let me transfer you to our internet services."
This, on its own, seems like rather a small issue. That problem is that, as a Rogers customer, one is constantly compelled to phone in. So this senseless rigamarole will happen again, and again, and again. You will double and triple check the telephone numbers listed on your bill, but you will never get the right department on the first try. Never. And you will have to keep calling. Thanks to frequent billing errors (coincidentally never in your favour, or at least never in my favour) I have to call Rogers nearly every month.
For example, the other day I discovered that I had been billed an extra four dollars for internet usage that exceeded my allotted amount. This was galling, not least because during the month in question, I had received a notice the day after the billing period had ended telling me I had exceeded my limit and had phoned in to inquire about the issue, only to be informed unequivocally that I would not be charged a penny more than my usual rate.
So, upon receiving the bill with the excess four dollar charge, I was irritated. Four dollars is a small amount, but when your bill is wrong nearly every month, the small things begin to feel like big things. I called in.W
hen I recounted the story to the Rogers employee who answered my call (and believe me, I feel badly for hapless employees of Rogers and regret that I am not always chummy during our phone calls), I was informed that this would be the one occasion on which I could remove such a charge from my account.
What, I asked, if I am incorrectly billed again?
Oh no, he told me, this was the correct billing.
But, I said, I received the warning after the month was over, so it's not possible that I went over my allotted usage. The month was already over.
The warning is delayed, he said. If you continue to use internet after the warning, you will be charged. Right, but I didn't continue to use the Internet after the warning, because the warning came after the end of the billing period. A new billing period had started, and I was at the beginning of a big fat new allotment for the month.
So again, I didn't use the internet for the period in question after the warning. Actually, he said,
the warning is just a courtesy.
Around and around we went.
Silly me. I assumed a notice asking me to acknowledge that continued use would lead to a charge had some actual bearing on if and when I would be charged. I observed that Rogers' corporate policy in this regard seemed both deceitful and disingenuous. He didn't seem to appreciate this observation, but he stopped arguing and proceeded to use my "one time only" exemption to remove a four dollar charge. Another satisfied customer served.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this already-bloated post (once I start ranting about Rogers I just don't seem able to stop) I am a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Before proceeding, a note on fandom: I am the first to acknowledge that professional sports fandom is an absurd exercise. Why am I cheering for a bunch of athletes who have been hired to represent the place in which I live? Why do I care if they win? What does that actually mean? These are all perfectly legitimate questions to which I have no real answer but to say that I have been socialized to care about this to the extent that it sometimes seems like one of the most important things in the world. I am ashamed, but I keep watching and cheering. In a sense, I suppose, the teams I support are like teddy bears -- beloved childhood transitional objects I cannot yet (and may never) relinquish. Incidentally, I also love teddy bears. Make of that what you will.
Back to Rogers. Rogers, it turns out, is the wealthiest owner
(scroll down to the fourth paragraph after following the link) of any Major League Baseball team. This would seem to be a very good thing, given that MLB does not feature a salary cap that limits team spending. Potentially, the more money that an owner has, the more money can be spent on a team.
Prior to this season, Rogers has not spent as if it was baseball's wealthiest owner. It has not spent like it was one of baseball's ten wealthiest owners. In fact, its spending has been more akin to Ebenezer Scrooge's (if he owned a baseball team). One reason for this, in recent years, is the poor construction of the team. Former General Manager J.P. Ricciardi showed little foresight in the way that he put the Jays together, signing mediocre players to expansive contracts (examples include this
, and this)
and paying little attention to amateur scouting and development.
His replacement, Alex Anthopolous, in a sense, started from scratch. Anthopolous hired new scouts, traded away those contracts he could, and got incredibly lucky when a journeyman player magically transformed
into the best player in baseball, and then skilfully parleyed that luck into a very affordable contract
with the newly-minted superstar.
Through these moves and others, Anthopolous was able to improve the team and stoke interest among the fan base. All of which leads us up to the winter of 2011-2012, a period of anticipation for Jays fans, who wondered which free agents would be signed and how Anthopolous would improve the team.
The optimism of fans was dealt an early and painful blow during the Winter Meetings, a time typically noted for wheeling and dealing by General Managers throughout baseball. At the Meetings, Anthopolous delivered a press conference in which he said: "I have boundaries. I believe, if I do my job, and we as a front office do our jobs, and the team gets better, there will be greater interest in the club as you win more games. Greater interest should drive revenue even more, and as such, I think those boundaries, or parameters, will rise."
This was news to fans and media alike, who were under the impression that a) no payroll parameters existed and b) money would be spent in order to entice fans to come to games, not vice-versa. As Cathal Kelly
of the Toronto Star
has pointed out, this is an absurd form of passing the buck, of blaming the consumer for the inadequacy of the product. It made Jays fans angry.
This anger turned right back into excitement, however, during the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. Darvish is a Japanese-Iranian pitcher whose Japanese league club decided to sell him to a MLB team for a posting fee. The posting system is an archaic silent auction system in which the rights to a player are sold to the highest bidder, who is then given a window to negotiate with the player. Darvish was said by analysts like ESPN's Keith Law
(insider only) to be the premier pitching prospect available in free agency, well-deserving of some MLB team's ardour. Early on in the posting process, a funny thing happened. Word leaked out that the Jays had won the bid
For the next few days, a tidal wave of excitement built among Jays fans online about how this would change the team's prospects, what other moves might follow, etc. As such waves often do, however, this one crested anti-climatically. The Jays had lost the bidding, had not even come close. And Rogers had allowed it to happen. Rogers had somehow decided that if they crossed their fingers and didn't say anything to anyone, no one would notice that they had not in fact submitted the fifty million dollar bid that had been credited to them. In other words, they hoped that they could somehow get the credit for making a bid that they never made.
This is why I hate Rogers.
It's a corporation that provides a sub-par product and totally ineffective and obnoxious "customer service". It's a corporation that regularly steals my money and my time. It's a corporation that ruins my favourite baseball team
. All of these reasons are fuel enough. But what makes Rogers truly loathsome is that it treats us like dupes. The corporation's powers actually seem to believe that they can trick us into being satisfied through disingenuous warning notices, syrupy employees spouting the company line, and lies of omission on a grand scale.
What was Bell's number again?
Not long ago, I was talking to a friend who had recently been to the Mid-Western United States for the first time (we live in Toronto). She had been there for a sports-related academic event and had been hearing a lot of discussion about whether university athletes should be paid or not. Many of the people she had been listening to were fervently opposed to the idea; knowing my politics, she wondered what my take would be.The question was both entirely reasonable and completely absurd. Reasonable, because it is only natural to question one's own perspective when confronted with ubiquitous disagreement. Absurd, because of the nature of the premises upon which that disagreement was founded.In the October issue of The Atlantic, Taylor Branch makes a case for paying college athletes
. The argument is as simple as can be. Branch writes, "In 2010, despite the faltering economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference (SEC), became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million."
The scholarships that athletes earn are not just compensation for the revenue that is generated by their labour. Not even close. Although this seems pretty self-evident, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated disagrees
. He writes, ...did you know that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black? And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable? That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called nonrevenue sports... Branch derides college athletics as "Very Big Business," but the truth is, it's actually a "Very Lousy Business."Davis may be right that college sports is "lousy business," but that doesn't mean it isn't big business as well. Regardless of how athletic department revenues are spent (whether it is on state-of-the-art facilities, marquee coaches, or expensive trips to bowl games), the point remains that revenues are enormous and they exist because of the labour of athletes.Scholarships that cover exorbitant tuition fees are not meaningless or insignificant (although the very fact that U.S. fees are so high raises another set of questions beyond the purview of this post). However, neither is the amount of labour that goes into playing college sports. This is no part-time, extracurricular commitment. A 2008 NCAA survey found that college football players spent over forty hours per week in team-related work, be that practices, games, film study, weight training, etc. In other words, they work full time at a craft that generates universities millions of dollars.That isn't fair. If those governing college sports think this is a bad business model, they can change the way they do business. Here's guessing that they won't. The bottom line is that as long as this system persists, athletes deserve a commensurate share of the revenue they generate.
The other day, I had a brief exchange on twitter with Dave Zirin, who covers sports and politics for The Nation
. Normally, I agree with Zirin. For instance, I nearly wrote a blog post on the subject of Tim Tebow before I realized that Zirin had for all intents and purposes said what I wanted to say
.I didn't agree this time, though. Zirin was responding to a series of tweets in which former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington denounced the hiring of Bill O'Brien as his alma mater's new head coach
. The context for this, as I'm sure practically anyone who follows the news in North America is aware, is the allegation that Jerry Sandusky, one of the team's long-time coaches, repeatedly sexually assaulted minors. Moreover, others involved with the program, including members of the school's administration and head coach Joe Paterno, allegedly learned of at least one of these crimes
and both failed to inform police and continued to allow Sandusky to be involved with the program.
Zirin retweeted Arrington's tweets and then added, "This is real courage by @LaVarArrington
. He's right. The bureaucracy at PSU needs to be cleared out, not the coaches." When I responded that I thought the coaches were also accountable, Zirin wrote: "@nkalamb @LaVarArrington
But to scapegoat coaches and leave admin in place is worst of both worlds."I must respectfully disagree. Certainly, if those in the administration at Penn State are not held respponsible for what they have permitte
d to take place, there will have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Yet, to place blame solely on the administration is to ignore the basic reality of US college sports: football coaches are often among the most powerful members of an American university's payroll.It only requires a quick peek at salary information to get a handle on where priorities lie for top football universities. At a whopping thirty two of these institutions, head football coaches earn at least $2,000,000 per year (this does not include a number of top schools which have not released salary information).
Of athletic directors at these schools, however, only four ("only" is, of course, a highly relative term) take home over $1,000,000
. As of the year 2007-2008, just one university president earned over $1,000,000
.Needless to say, at least financially speaking, these individuals are not suffering. Still, the relative difference in pay reveals the esteem coaches enjoy and the amount of clout they wield on campuses across the United States. With this information in perspective, I find it difficult to see an attempt to hold a coach accountable as mere scapegoating.The fact is, although Penn State is likely an exception when it comes to the particular nature of the dysfunction on campus (although it is not the only exception of this kind
) it is nevertheless symptomatic of structural issues that permeate college revenue sports more generally.
This is a system that has come to revolve entirely around capital. Whether or not this makes sense as a business model is a separate question that I will touch upon in a forthcoming post. Regardless, what is clear is that in order to generate revenue, schools must win games and garner national attention. And winning games requires hiring coaches who are able to recruit talented players and utilize the most effective tactics. Coaches who are successful become invaluable to their employers, who are willing to fork over incredibly high salaries in order to ensure continued loyalty.
They are also willing to hand over near-complete autonomy.
This is the financial context for what happened at Penn State, just as it is the context for nearly every other major program around the country. There is a broader context here as well: the professional sports leagues that rely on colleges to provide occupational training. And even that is the tip of the iceberg. What professional sports really represent is the overarching context of global capitalism.
In an economic system based on the generation of wealth at all costs, anything that provides a possibility for profit (and college sports does) will be mined for all the wealth it has to offer. The ultimate solution to this problem is so fundamental and radical that it hardly bears mentioning. The profit motive in college sport is not going to change until the profit motive is no longer treated as the principal guiding principle for human social relations.
Let's face it though, that dream is probably (definitely) not right around any forseeable corner.
This is a very long way of saying that there is more than one way to see scapegoating. Sure, we could say along with Zirin that the Penn State administration is scapegoating its coaching staff by forcing coaches to take sole responsibility for Sandusky and then claiming that the problem has been solved. We could also say, though, that Zirin's implicit assumption that firing the entire administration and coaching staff would have a similarly cathartic effect is comparably hypocritical. A
s long as we exclusively hold accountable individuals and their actions, while ignoring the system in which they live, we are all guilty of scapegoating.
It doesn't really make sense to get too worked up about who Penn State chooses to fire. The coaches had power and privilege and, allegedly, they failed in their moral responsibility. If what they were accused of is fact, they should be removed, and were. The same is true of the administration. If members of it are guilty of the behaviour that has been imputed to them, they should not retain their jobs.
Regardless, no matter who goes, we shouldn't be so smug as to believe that the problem is solved. As assenting subjects of an economic system that's sole end is to generate profit at the expense of the world and the people who occupy it, we are all complicit in what happened at Penn State. To claim otherwise is just another form of scapegoating.