Being Reductive About Sport (And How Silly It Is)

Some folks dislike sport. I use the word ‘dislike’ advisedly; the members of this cohort are not offering critical, politically tinged analysis of sport’s entanglement with big business and its value schemas; they are not exposing sport’s use as an ideology promulgating system, it’s supposed facilitation of political disengagement; they are not critiquing sport for offering a domain in which sexism, racism, xenophobia, and nationalist chauvinism often find unbridled expression; they are not upset by the loss of productivity and the diminution of gross national product that major sporting events bring about. These folks just find sport silly, a waste of time, a ridiculous way for adults and children, men and women, white or black or yellow or brown, to spend their time, whether playing or spectating.  You know some of them; you might be one yourself.

There is a particular mode of description of sporting activity, much favored by these worthies. It is better shown than described. Here, for instance, is tennis: people knocking balls back and forth endlessly across a net strung up between two poles. Here is basketball: young men and women, possibly suffering from gigantism, run up and down a wooden court, trying to throw a ball through a hoop strung up on a wooden board. And here is soccer: twenty men or women run up and down a field, kicking a ball around for ninety minutes, all the while trying to maneuver the ball through and between a pair of posts put up at the end of the field.

And then, the inevitable question: why would you want to waste your time, hours and days of it, looking at, talking about, and getting all worked up over, something as inane and silly as these activities?

One would imagine, given the almost instantaneous self-parody that these reductive takes on sport produce, that the placement of such a question alongside others of its ilk such as–why spend so much time looking at ink marks on a page, or why travel to distant lands to look at ruined buildings, or why spend millions of dollars on hundreds of years old splotches of paint on canvas–would be obvious. But equally obviously, for those who employ them, such descriptions are instead, a marvelously witty puncturing of pretension.

My contribution to this ‘debate’ is going to be a good old-fashioned rehashing, from an older post on the laziness of reductionist analyses:

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses….They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

Right.

Tribalism’s Easy Allure: Brooklyn Does Not Like Toronto Anymore (in the NBA)

Tribalism in sports is a curious thing; it is especially so in professional sports, where as I’ve noted, we encounter:

[T]he mystery of how millions of sports fans, here in the US, and all over the world, develop long-standing, passionately defended and articulated, emotionally infused, personal allegiances with large, profit-seeking, corporate entities, an enterprise that should be–but most definitely isn’t–akin to finding someone to cheer for in a Ford vs. Chrysler encounter.

Tribalism in sports is a much written about and theorized phenomenon; I won’t offer further analysis here (for the time being.) I do want to point to an interesting occurrence of it this week–one of personal interest.

As NBA fans are well aware, the first round of the 2014 playoffs are underway. In the East, Washington and Miami are already through to the next round. Meanwhile, the score in Brooklyn and Toronto’s clash reads 3-2 for the latter; Brooklyn need to win tonight to force the series into a seventh game this Sunday. Thus far, despite meaning to watch the Nets in action against the Raptors I have been unable to; personal and professional commitments of all stripes have conspired to keep me away from the television.

But I’m almost certain to watch tonight’s sixth game, and what’s more, I’m itching to see the Nets thrash the Raptors. A plain win won’t do; a shellacking is called for. What’s up Doc?

Well, I’m a little ticked off at Toronto. The Raptors fans have used the Brooklyn chant to taunt the team, its general manager Masai Ujiri, at a a kickoff rally in Toronto, pumped up the crowd with a loud “Fuck Brooklyn” and lastly some Toronto fans have even desecrated the Brooklyn Bridge. Fuck Brooklyn. Not Fuck the Brooklyn Nets.  Graffiti on our bridge. Yeah, my feelings are hurt. Sniff. They haven’t been assuaged by going online to read more about the Toronto chants and Ujiri’s outburts, and finding, unsurprisingly, hordes of Toronto fans  echoing Ujiri. (And on buttons too!)

Toronto is one of my favorite cities in North America. I have visited it a few times–though it’s been too long since my last visit–and have always enjoyed its cosmopolitanism, its multi-ethnic food, its intellectual life, the list goes on. I’ve been to some great parties in Toronto; met some wonderful people; seen some great sights.

But right now, I feel like giving Toronto the finger, of sending a few ‘Fuck you’s up north, across the border–where, like any other American, they won’t need a visa–straight up the CN Tower, to be emblazoned by klieg lights across the Canadian sky. Are they all like their mayor?

My reaction is juvenile, of course, as was Ujiri’s provocation. But there is no denying the surge of irritated defensiveness I felt on reading the relevant news and viewing the videos; I identify with my city, my home for over ten years, and have become susceptible to provocateurs who seek to get under my skin by dissing it.

Of course, they weren’t dissing it. They were dissing the team. Note that at various points in my post, rather than using the terms “Brooklyn Nets” and “Toronto Raptors” I have simply gone with “Brooklyn” and “Toronto”. It is this easy contraction, this easy conflation of the city and the team, that does considerable work for the professional franchise’s marketers. Ujiri knew this too, of course; which is why he didn’t simply say “Fuck the Nets!

And it works. Read the comments on this page and you’ll see how.

Superbowl Notes: The Great Dictator, Sorry, Sports Coach

In 1984, like a good sports fan, I paid diligent attention–as I had previously in 1976 and 1980–to the Olympics, held that year in Los Angeles. Very few events were telecast live; we had to be content with lengthy packages of highlight clips. Included in them was as the triumphant march to an eventual gold medal of the US basketball team, the last amateur U.S. team to win an Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball.   It included, among others, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin and Wayman Tisdale. The team’s coach was Bobby Knight.

From the first time I saw Knight’s Knights play, I was transfixed not just by their dribbling, shooting, and slam-dunking, but also by the sideline antics of their coach. That crimson-faced worthy, seemingly permanently afflicted by a combinatory species of apoplectic fit and asthma attack, raged at all and sundry, pacing up and down like an amphetamine-fueled father in a maternity ward. He did not, then, commit any acts of physical violence–as he would later–but it did not seem it was for lack of intent. To my awestruck eyes, stunned at this sight of an infant’s tantrums embodied in an adult body, it seemed that if he could have, he would have strangled someone, anyone, that had, just for a fatal instant, dared to obstruct his favored methodology of playing basketball. Those nets, ostensibly put up as targets for basketballs, would have functioned just as easily for Bobby as gallows from which he would have strung up those that defied and transgressed his rules.

As you can tell, I was impressed by Bobby Knight; he certainly left an impression. I had never seen a sports coach behave like that. I didn’t realize it then, but I was receiving a quick education in the culture of the American coach, a figure that in this Superbowl week, as is usual, will be deified and exalted by a kind of attention only rarely directed elsewhere at other central figures of American culture.

The peculiar irony of the American coach, of course, as has been obvious to all too many observers of American sports, is that in this land of the Brave and the Free, whose politicians’ speeches are all too often paeans to freedom and the rugged individuality of its citizens, he or she embodies the Grand Vizier of Authoritarianism. No one else, sometimes I think not even corporate bosses, can control an American body and soul as much. Not for nothing did William Gass write in The Tunnel

I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called coach.

This thought didn’t cross my mind in 1984 when I watched young giants troop sheepishly off the floor to be berated and harangued by the livid Knight, but some form of it remained front and center as I came to observe more of Knight’s partners in the coaching enterprise. It is a cult that finds sustenance quite easily in its accumulated mythology.

This week, and this coming Sunday, we will witness its latest renewals.

Brooklyn is Back in the Playoffs, Or, The Lure of Tribalism

Tribalism in sports is a funny thing. Like most Brooklyn residents, I was upset and dismayed by the rushed development deal for the Atlantic Yards project, the centerpiece for which was the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, transplanted from across the river, where they functioned as the New Jersey Nets. (Back in those days, way back in the 1990s, when Dražen Petrović played for the Nets, I cheered them on till Petrovic’s tragic loss in a car accident deflated me.)  The battle over that deal, which pitted local residents in Prospect Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, and Park Slope against the Marty MarkowitzBruce Ratner combine (and sundry other fat cats), exhausted and embittered most who engaged in it; the scars haven’t healed yet and for some, appear unlikely ever to.

The Barclays Center is up and running. I haven’t been inside it yet, but I hope to. Season ticket offers have come and gone, despite my excitedly mentioning the possibility of going to see Nets games to many an out-of-town visitor. I remain hopeful that I will be able to go next year, next season. (I doubt I will go to live musical performances there though; somehow, I can’t see myself patronizing arena shows any more.) And now that the playoffs are here, I am confronted with the incontrovertible fact that yet again, the well-directed marketing of a sports franchise has worked to induce quasi-tribal feelings in the susceptible sports fan. In this case, me.

For shortly after the Nets commenced operations at the Barclays Center, I found myself concerned with the team’s fortunes. I took pleasure in the Nets’ early season winning streak; I read many a print article dissecting and analyzing the return of a franchise to this storied borough; I bemoaned stories of their internal dissent and divisions and hoped better sense would prevail; I admired their uniforms, shirts, hoodies, caps and sundry paraphernalia,  and sent out subtle hints to family and friends–all artfully ignored thus far–that the perfect gift for me was at hand; heck, I even started trash talking the New York Knicks. (I won’t be trash talking them while they play the Celtics though.)  I am not the most serious of Brooklyn Nets fans, but I at least engage in some of the rituals of fanhood and seem set to continue engaging them. I am even planning to take my daughter to their games once she is old enough to appreciate a live sports event.

My first sense that this tribalistic response had been triggered in me came when I was reading a newspaper early this season and checked the standings for the first time. There, right below ‘New York’ in the conference table, was an entry for ‘Brooklyn’. ‘We’ had a franchise again, a sports team that bore the name of my home. I never lose an opportunity to describe fandom for professional franchises as a bit like cheering for Ford v. Chrysler, but somehow, mysteriously, on that day, seeing Brooklyn’s name in print overrode that skepticism, even if it was in a sport that always ranked behind football and baseball in terms of my New York-based loyalties. (The incompetent Knicks had something to do with this emotion, I”m sure.)

I don’t think expressing allegiance to a ‘local’ sports team means I’ve finally made this borough my home, almost eleven years after I began working and living here, for I’ve felt at home even before the Nets showed up.  I do think though, that I might have been looking for more ways to make visible my allegiances to Brooklyn and the Nets have provided one more way to do that this year. (For those who would suggest resisting the Atlantic Yards project might have been a better way: I tried too. Once that ended, and the Center became a fait accompli, I’ll admit it: I looked forward to a sports team returning to the borough. )

‘OK to be Gay if You’re a Woman’: Brittney Griner Comes Out

Brittney Griner came out on Wednesday and it didn’t make news:

[Even as] there is increased speculation about whether a male athlete — any male athlete — will come out while still playing a major professional team sport, one of the best female athletes in the history of team sports comes out, and the reaction is roughly equivalent to what one might see when a baseball manager reveals his starting rotation for a three-game series in July.

What’s the story?

First, female athletes have been coming out for a while:

Individual-sport stars like the tennis legend Martina Navratilova and team-sport players like basketball’s Sheryl Swoopes and soccer’s Megan Rapinoe are among the women to continue playing after publicly discussing their sexuality.

That’s great. Griner’s ‘news’ isn’t news because it’s old news. We’re on our way to a post-gay society. Hurrah.

But perhaps Griner’s ‘announcement’ made no waves because the really ‘problematic’–and thus ‘important’–way of being gay is to be male and gay. Which is to say that if you are a woman and gay, it’s not that much of a ‘problem’, because all the problems we homophobically associate with gayness–you know, like weakness and being, er, feminine–are true of women anyway (misogyny and homophobia – a twofer!). So, your coming out isn’t a big deal. Or: Who cares if you are a gay woman? Being a woman is kinda gay anyway; if you were a man we’d pay attention. This is one big sexist mess.

“We talk a lot in the L.G.B.T. community about how sexism is a big part of what contributes to homophobia,” said Anna Aagenes, the executive director of GO! Athletes, a national network of L.G.B.T. athletes. “It’s disheartening when there are so many great role model female athletes out that we’re so focused on waiting for a male pro athlete to come out in one of the four major sports.”

And then there is the stereotype that successful female athletes are gay, that strong and athletic women are gay, and that they are so, because, you know, they are ‘manly’ and hence ‘unnatural’, which then feeds right back into the notion that women cannot be strong and athletic without being, somehow, ‘un-women.’

 “There’s certainly going to be people who say, ‘Oh, it’s just another lesbian,’ ” Murrell said….That persistent stereotype about female athletes does damage on multiple levels….While a number of heterosexual male athletes…have publicly supported the efforts of L.G.B.T. athlete groups, it has been much harder to find straight female athletes to speak out…“We’ve had tremendous success in getting straight male players to speak to the issue; we’re having a tougher time finding straight female athletes speaking on this issue because they’ve spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they’re a lesbian.”

So, take the notion that a woman being gay is not a big deal, combine that with the stereotype that to be strong and athletic you have to be a not-quite-normal-woman i.e., gay, and you’ve possibly gained some additional insight into why Griner’s news isn’t news.

Pick-up Games, Participation, and Basketball

As is evident from a glance at my “About” page, I blog on cricket. Which would seem to indicate I’m obsessed about the game to some extent. But when it comes to actually playing a game, cricket is not my favorite sport. And the reason for that is simple: cricket too often permits non-participation by players (this can all too easily be induced by one’s teammates, a fact I bemoan in my latest post over at The Pitch on ESPN-Cricinfo). For that reason, and sometimes, I suspect, for that reason alone, my favorite game to play is pick-up basketball, whether three-on-three in a half-court, or five-on-five in a full-court.

On a basketball court, during a game, no matter how poor a dribbler or shooter you are, you can contribute somehow. And the best way to do that is to play solid, vigorous defense: keep close man-to-man markings, set picks, go up for defensive rebounds; in short, put on a good old non-stop hustle. Similarly, when it comes to offense: run hard, keep your marker guessing, and get in position to receive a pass from the more talented shooters and playmakers. I never mastered a lay-up, and never had any fancy offensive moves. But I was capable of at least attempting a shot if I was not under pressure, and always managed to keep moving in an attempt to shake off my defender so that I could get the space and time required. I was not a very talented shooter either, so I need more time and space than most. But I did manage to sink a few and those went up on the scoreboard like anyone else’s baskets. Even when I played with the most selfish of players on my teams (a terrible fate for anyone playing a pick-up game), I managed to at least shutdown the one player I was in charge of marking. I contributed, somehow, in every single game I played.

Playing a basketball game involved me more completely than any other pick-up game I’ve played (even soccer, where again, players can be marginalized, frustrated and shut-out). In basketball, I was able to always make myself participate and force a presence for myself in the game. That is the particular genius of this game of nets; it manages to draw us all in, making space for competent and incompetent alike, accommodating our weaknesses and strengths, ensnaring us in its charms and challenges as it does so. In doing so, basketball accomplishes what many social orderings are unable to do: provide an egalitarian space for human endeavor, one that rewards our honest toil, and leaves us all in the end, satisfied and sweaty, with elevated heart-rates and lowered LDL counts.