Writing the Sporting Body

January 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

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This semester, I’m excited to be teaching two sports-related courses in the same semester for the first time.  First, I’ll once again be teaching “Cultures of Basketball.”  I taught it for the first time in Winter 2011, with few qualifications other than that I loved basketball and stories and had some tools for thinking about both of them.  That course sparked my interest and prompted me to learn more about the work of others who were thinking about basketball and culture within the academy.  Since then, in light of what I’ve learned, I’ve continued to teach and refine Cultures of Basketball every year.  Doing so has both informed and been informed by essays on the topic I’ve begun to publish in scholarly journals.  For this semester’s version, I’m reorganizing the course to follow more closely by book manuscript, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which I should complete—it’s about 75 % done right now—by the end of the semester. In addition, my experience with Cultures of Basketball and people I’ve met in the broader field led me to want to broaden my range, at least, for now, as a teacher.  So, last fall, I rolled out a new, large-lecture format course at Michigan called “Global Sports Cultures” and, this semester, I’m inaugurating another new undergraduate course in Comparative Literature.  Under the general, preexisting course rubric “Literature and the Body,” I will be teaching “Writing the Sporting Body.”  I want to walk you through the idea behind the course and what we’ll be doing in it.

The simple idea behind the course is that a significant part of our enjoyment as sports fans stems from producing and consuming communication about sporting performance.  We talk with friends about performances we’ve seen and those we’ve missed.  We tune in to shows on TV and the internet that broadcast summaries and highlights of the day’s action.  And, of course, we read (and sometimes produce):  daily recaps in the newspaper and online, columns and feature articles, social media updates.

What I’m especially interested lies at the heart of all that sports language: descriptions of the human body engaged in athletic performance.  From a literary studies background, these descriptions might not really seem to raise any distinctive questions.  After all, lots of literature describes the human body engaged in various activities and literary scholars have long investigated  the challenges such descriptions pose to writers, the various strategies writers employ to describe this and the different kinds of effects on readers provoked by different techniques.  In that sense, the course we’ll just be looking at “writing the sporting body” as a subset of writing in general and with the broad set of tools of the literary scholar.  But, beyond this basic point of departure, I’m also interested in whether there is anything special or distinctive about the human body doing sports things, and  about the way we partake of language when we try to describe that?

To begin to get at this question, the course will open with a series of readings and discussions that should help us build a shared vocabulary for reflecting on these issues.  That vocabulary won’t by any means be definitive or exhaustive.  It’s better to think of it as a set of experimental, conceptual lenses that we’ll try on over the course of the rest of the semester as we look more deeply at particular instances of the written sporting body (and try our hand at writing it ourselves).

We’ll begin with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s 2006 book In Praise of Athletic Beauty.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 10.45.51Gumbrecht, as sports fan and professor of comparative literature, explores whether our enjoyment and understanding of athletic performance can be enhanced by honing our ability to articulate what we have witnessed.  He begins by offering some complex but elementary definitions of praise, beauty, and athletics. In the course we’ll explore all of these in detail, on their own terms and in relation on another.  But I think it’s also useful to step back, unfocused our mind’s eye so to speak, and let the fine grain blur together.  In doing so, it seems to me that what Gumbrecht is isolating as distinctively beautiful (and so worthy of praise) in athletic performance can be summed up in one word:  presence.  The term presence points at once to the qualities of the athletic performance itself, to our witnessing of it, and to the relationship that springs up between athlete and witness in the course of athletic performance.

Now, Gumbrecht describes, and praises, much athletic beauty in the course of the book, but he doesn’t really reflect upon or analyze the nature of the writing of athletic performance as writing.  Perhaps this is in part because “presence” is exactly what we don’t have when we are reading a description of athletic performance. What are the implications for writing the sporting body that its subject is an absent performance whose distinguishing feature is presence?  There might be lots of ways to get at that question, but I’ve chosen to approach it via the term “ekphrasis.”  Since the 19th century, that term has been restricted to designate written descriptions of visual art.  Already from that point of view, I’ve long been casually interested in thinking about sports writing as a kind of ekphrasis.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.10.53But as we will discover with our next reading, Ruth Webb’s Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practicethe term once had a much broader scope meaning simply “a speech that brings the subject matter vividly before the eyes.”  Even this simple definition, taken from an ancient rhetorical manual, offers a kind of response to the problem of absent presence: ekphrasis appears to be way of using language that makes the absent present, in a certain way:  “vividly before the eyes.”  “Vividly” comes from the Latin term “to live”, and effective ekphrasis is supposed to activate the audience’s imagination, bringing its subject to life by imbuing its language with the vital energy of whatever it is describing.  I think this gives us an adequate if very general preliminary conceptual scheme.

Next, we’ll turn back to Gumbrecht’s book for his brief capsule history of athletic beauty in the West.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.24.28Emphasizing discontinuities in the history of Western athletics, Gumbrecht skips across two and a half millennia on the stones of six moments: ancient Greece (“Demigods”), ancient Rome (“Gladiators”), medieval (“Knights”) and early modern (“Ruffians”) Europe, the late 19th and 20th century (“Sportsmen”) and our own day (“Customers”).  There are other more comprehensive histories of sport, but I like using Gumbrecht’s here primarily because it’s not too long and, especially, because it relates explicitly to the rest of our conceptual vocabulary.

Informed by this historical detour, we’ll fill out our toolbox of conceptual vocabulary words with “form” and “meaning.”  To get at form, we’ll look at what might be the nitty gritty of Gumbrecht’s book, in which he explores seven “body movements” that he argues are “always already shaped by the expectations and the appreciation that spectators bring with them to the game.”Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.36.08 He refers to these—”Bodies,” “Suffering,” “Grace,” “Tools,” “Forms,” “Plays” and “Timing”— as “Fascinations” to capture the sense in which they simultaneously involve performer and spectator.   Throughout his work, Gumbrecht has taken pains to distinguish his topic from a kind of scholarly study of sport that relates sport to cultural and social phenomena outside it.  He is interested only, he claims, in sport as “form,” as distinct from cultural and sociological approaches that look at sporting performance for “meaning.”  I’m not sold, personally, on the viability of the distinction, or at least, if the distinction is valid, on the desirability of ignoring meaning.  So we will look next at Mary McDonald and Susan Birrell’s pioneering manifesto for critical sports studies in which they propose turning the sophisticated interpretive tools of literary analysis (many of which Gumbrecht himself clearly employs) to sporting phenomena.  Is there a difference between writing the sporting body as form and writing the sporting body as meaning? If so, what it is it? Can they be combined?  What does that look like?

Now that we’ve developed our share vocabulary, we move onto the practical heart of the course: actually studying seven cases of writing the sporting body. Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.44.40 For each of the seven cases, which range across six sports over nearly a century, we’ll first see a video of the sporting performance and read some simple contextual material, and then compare different written renderings of the sporting body in performance including newspaper recaps written under deadline, journalistic reflections, autobiographical recollections, historical depictions and fictional recreations. Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.45.13 I chose some because the event excites me, others because the writing excites me and still others because both the event and the writing were new to me.  In examining each of these cases we’ll be drawing upon the conceptual tools and vocabulary we developed in the first month of the course to help clarify how the writing is working.  But we’ll also use the writing as a way to test and refine our conceptual vocabulary.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.45.13(2)Finally, on the second day of each case, we’ll devote our class time to a lab in which we we do a series of timed in-class written descriptions of the case.  Through these exercises, we’ll develop our understanding of what was distinctive in the writing we’ve studied (sometimes by trying to imitate the style) but also at the same time try to develop our own visions of what it means to each of us to write the sporting body.  This will be important practice also as the students’ two major writing assignments require this kind of writing.

As for the student assignments, besides reading and in-class lab writing, they’ll be required to post their notes on the assigned reading to our on-line class forum, as well as to review the reading notes of their classmates.  For their mid-term assignment, I’m asking them to choose a sporting performance from before they were born (but for which they have access to a video) and to write a description of it, accompanied by an analytical commentary on their description that draws upon our conceptual vocabulary.  And then, for their final assignment, they must do the same, but with a sporting performance they have witnessed during this semester.

Let me finish by giving you a teaser of what we’ll be doing on the second day of class, by way of exposing ourselves to the central problematic of the course.  We’ll begin by watching this, one of the most iconic plays in modern basketball history:

Next, we’ll look at the following sequence of descriptions of the play.

First, from a side-bar column by Tom Weir in USA Today the day after the game.  It’s interesting that not one a single recap of the game mentions this play.

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Next up comes descriptions from two Chicago Bulls’ beat writers who published books about Jordan after the Bulls’ first title in 1991.  First,  from Sam Smith’s controversial book The Jordan Rules

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And then from Bob Greene’s authorized and uncontroversial biography Hang Time:

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Part of what interests about both of these descriptions is the way that both introduce the effects the play had on those who witnessed it.  Smith tells us that the crowd had seen “art, poetry without words” that could only be expressed in a gasp, while Greene depicts journalists going to see the replay on television “to make sure they hadn’t imagined” it.

Now, the next passage comes from a children’s biography of Michael Jordan, published a few years after Smith and Greene’s, by Matt Christopher:

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Besides surprising me by how similar the style of this children’s book is to mainstream sports writing, and also describing a shocked witness as a means of evoking greatness (in this case Jordan himself), this passage is notable because it is the first in which the defender, Sam Perkins, is described as challenging the shot.  Prior to this, Jordan’s move (even in his own account) appears as an acrobatic anticipatory attempt to avoid a block attempt that never materialized.  In the video, Perkins barely leaves his feet and certainly doesn’t attempt to block any shot.  (Side note: for those familiar with Jordan’s legendary ability to imagine slights and obstacles as a means to leverage performance, this play, in which Jordan makes a play harder and greater than it would otherwise be to elude an imaginary defensive maneuver, might serve as an apt emblem of his career as a whole).

Here is perhaps the most shocking description of the play.  David Halberstam, prize-winning journalist and author of the legendary The Breaks of the Game, may be the most esteemed popular historian of basketball.   Here, in his highly regarded work on Jordan, Playing for Keeps, is his description of the move:

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“Slammed it home?”  That’s an unbelievable error to me, all the more so because Halberstam, among this particular group, is easily the writer I most respect and from whom I’ve learned the most.  What could account for his massive error in describing this play?

In a 2007 book on Jordan, published in the Greenwood Press Biographies series (“for high school and public library needs” and with the emphasis “on fact, not glorification”), David Porter recalled the play in the following terms:

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Though dryer in tone, Porter too surveys the reaction of observers as a means of evoking the play’s importance.

And lastly, sportswriter Roland Lazenby offered this description in his biography of Jordan, published just this past summer and impressively titled “Michael Jordan: The Life”:

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Perkins has now vanished, reduced simply to “a defender” that Jordan encountered. But we still need to see the reaction of the witnesses (the building, Phil Jackson and Marv Albert) to help us know that the play was worth remembering.

In watching the play alongside the series of published descriptions of it, a number of things strike me: the explicit comparisons to art, the occasional exaggeration of the threat posed by Perkins, and the apparently requisite description of awestruck observers.  The play itself is certainly impressive, but, I must say, not as impressive as I had remembered.  In fact, I found the superfluousness of Jordan’s acrobatics—however physically impressive—somewhat comical.

But, whatever you may think of the play (and these exemplary written descriptions of it), I think they nicely prompt the central questions of the course a propos writing the sporting body:

How would you describe the play?  What would be your aims? What challenges did you encounter? What choices did you make to meet those challenges?

Race and Protest: A Confession from Global Sports Cultures

December 7, 2014 § 6 Comments

I hadn’t intended to write about this, but recent events have made feel compelled to do so.  First, the public displays of solidarity by athletes—from the St. Louis Rams on November 30 to Knox College women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith and from Derrick Rose to Reggie Bush and others—in support of nationwide protests against racism and police violence have brought these issues closer to the scholarly field where I do most of my work.  Second, and in view of this, I felt it important to raise these issues and discuss them in my Global Sports Cultures course at Michigan this past week.  Our course topic this week was “Watching,” as part of a semester-ending unit on “Ethics,” and so it seemed entirely appropriate to me, even urgently necessary, to tie this topic to current events.  I’m no expert in these matters, and there certainly is no lack of superbly informed and eloquent writing on the topic.  Perhaps more than anything I need to get this off my chest.  And perhaps, if I do so reasonably well, it may be of use to others.

In deciding to end my course with a unit on “Ethics,” comprising the topics of “Watching” and “Storytelling,” my aim was to get students thinking of their own involvement in global sports cultures.  And this is how I framed the unit in my lecture last Monday.  Where much of the course up to this point sought to furnish students with conceptual lenses through which to grasp some portion of the vast and complex fabric of global sports cultures, I wanted in the last two weeks to get them thinking critically about their own participation as producers of this fabric, whether as spectators or as storytellers, whether in their daily life conversations about sports or more formally.  So on Monday, I outlined the understanding of ethics I’ve derived from many years of studying and teaching Spinoza’s Ethics, for me still an unsurpassed—if extraordinarily difficult to grasp—vision of what an ethical life looks like and then suggested some ways that this might inform their spectatorship.  Each topic in global sports cultures is paired with a “case study.” This past week’s case study was to be the WNBA and there were some more mainstream works designed to get students thinking about the ethics of watching (or not watching, as the case might be) the WNBA.

Then I saw the video of Ariyana Smith stepping out of line during the national anthem prior to her Knox College women’s hoops game against Fontbonne University in St. Louis (actually the day before the Rams more widely publicized protest).  I saw her calmly walk over to face the big American flag on the wall, and fall to her knees with her hands up.  I saw her teammates glance over with curiosity or anxiety or who knows what.  Then I saw her “die”, collapsing to the ground as the anthem continued.  I saw coaches and officials and perhaps administrators walk over.  I don’t know what they said to her as they bent over her prostrate body.  She lay there for 4 and 1/2 minutes (symbolic, as everyone should know by now, of the 4 1/2 hours that Mike Brown’s body lay dead in the street after Darren Wilson killed him), as the anthem ended, and starting lineups were announced.  She lay there as players, coaches and officials conferred, wondering, perhaps whether they could or should attempt to begin the game.  And then I saw her, just as calmly as before, get to her feet, walk the length of the sideline, then the baseline, and then out the door of the gym.

And I was floored.  I admit that I’m not an especially courageous person so that my courage-meter might be a bit skewed, and I’d certainly witnessed images of actions in the streets that had struck me as spectacularly courageous over the past week.  But, perhaps because of my own experience as an athlete, I was impressed by the courage it took for young Ms. Smith to step out of line in the middle of the most highly ritualized and normative moment of an American sporting event, and to do so all by herself.  I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do so.  And so I thought: this, this is what my students and I must talk about, in relation to watching, and to the ethics of watching.

So I began class on Wednesday by telling them that I was going to show them a video, and that as they watched, I wanted them to become aware of what they were feeling and also of what their minds began, seemingly automatically, to do with their feelings.  I wanted them to notice how feelings began to slip into thought, perhaps judgment and opinion and from there concatenate into chains of silent argument to support those judgments and opinions.  They nodded.  I played the video.  It goes for some 6 minutes or more, a somewhat shaky handheld video taken with a smartphone.  Of course, there’s not a lot happening and Ms. Smith, most of the time, is a barely discernible dark smudge on the ground, beneath the flag, beyond the far corner of the baseline.

Having turned on the lights, I asked them if anybody had seen it before (nobody had) and whether they knew what it was in reference to (somebody said it seemed related to what the Rams had done on the previous Sunday).  I explained that it was related and the circumstances of the event and the protest.  Then I asked them what they felt.  I don’t want publicly to put any of my individual students on the spot, so I’ll just summarize what seemed to be the consensus among those who spoke.

First, they felt uneasiness or awkwardness.  This made sense to me, there’s something painful about watching the video to me too: I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, it just goes on and on, and a kind of tension builds between the prolonged immobilization of Ms. Smith’s body and the cheerful normalcy of the pregame rituals taking place in the foreground.  There is the passivity of the videographer, echoed in my own passivity: watching.  And then there is the curious lack of response from the sparse members of the crowd.  But this actually wasn’t what made my students uneasy or awkward.  Their feelings instead stemmed from her having done this during the national anthem.  My students felt this was disrespectful.  Many of them athletes themselves, they recalled that during the national anthem at their own events they often think of American servicemen and women deployed abroad.  They felt that Ms. Smith’s protest was disrespectful to these individuals; that, at best, she should have timed it differently and, at worst, it was rude.

I simply nodded, asking questions to get them to articulate their feelings and thoughts, at no point dissenting or offering a contrary opinion.  Encouraged perhaps, students began to venture opinions about the Ferguson case and the nationwide protests more generally:  “it really shouldn’t be made into a race thing,” “it’s really being blown out of proportion,” “protestors shouldn’t be looting and burning things.”  I want to emphasize that not everyone in class spoke, not even the majority of the 24 students, so I’m not sure what the silent members of class felt or thought.  But this is what was said.  As the comments built upon one another, I grew increasingly uncomfortable, hemmed in my own assurances that I wanted them to speak freely without fear of judgment and paralyzed by my own surprised judgments about what was being said.  As time drew to a close, I’m not sure, but I think I made some very general comments trying to encourage empathy.  I walked out of the room feeling angry, mostly at myself for failing to respond in what seemed like a crucial educational, political, and ethical opportunity.

Airing my feelings of failure on Twitter and then later in the evening with my wife (who has been facing similar challenges in her own college classroom, but handles them, in my view, infinitely more authentically and gracefully), I realized that I’d made a mistake, one I’d have to correct when class convened again on Friday.  I realized that I’d erred as a professor by granting them, but depriving myself of, the opportunity to be fully human in the classroom.  It’s important to me as a professor to cultivate in the classroom an environment in which students can come to know themselves better and learn to think independently about the issues we discuss.  Sometimes, as on Wednesday, I go too far in that direction and abdicate my responsibility to actively teach them, not what to feel or think, but how I feel and think and work through the issues we are discussing.  I worry too much that my doing so will squash their own efforts.  Or perhaps I worry that they won’t approve, or won’t like me.  I do know that the prospect of doing so always triggers a certain degree of vulnerability in me and all the more so when the issues are sensitive or controversial.  So I resolved to go in on Friday and tell them all this; all this and more; to share with them as transparently as possible all that I felt watching the video, all that I have felt and thought in the course of watching my fellow citizens take to the streets and to address specifically their two main objections: that the national anthem is not the time for protest and that it’s not about race.

So I did.  I told them that this was difficult for me.  I explained how I experienced the dilemmas of teaching.  I explained that I felt I’d failed in one of my responsibilities on Wednesday.  I told them of my admiration for Ariyana Smith.  I explained that I’d been unsettled by their reactions and had reflected on them.  That I’d reflected on the sacrifice of American servicemen and women abroad and on the purpose of that sacrifice.  I told them that I believe the purpose of the sacrifice is to protect freedom (I know that may sound naive to some, and that’s okay, I know it is only one of the purposes).  But what sort of freedom? I reminded them of the last words of the national anthem, you know, the part about “land of the free and home of the brave”?  I reminded them of the first words of the Bill of Rights, you know, the part about freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble?  And I said, I think that Ariyana Smith was in fact, whether she intended it or not, honoring the sacrifice of American military personnel by staging her protest during the national anthem, beneath the American flag: she was in fact exercising the freedoms that these men and women risk their lives to defend.  I said I think that would be a good way for my students to think about that.

Then we talked about race.  I had done some homework to prepare.  But first I told them that if what they meant by “about race” when they said “it’s not about race” was simply that Darren Wilson didn’t consciously despise black men and wasn’t thinking about his hatred for black men when he shot Michael Brown, then okay, I’d give them that possibility, grudgingly.  But I disagree strongly with that view of what it means to say it’s about race, I said.  And I think I owe you, as your professor,  my understanding of what it means to say that it is about race.  So I introduced them to the results of a few psychological studies that demonstrate how racism operates at very deep levels in our psyche, regardless of what attitudes we consciously hold and profess.  And then I explained how this racism winds up sedimented in our social practices and institutions.  I gave them facts and figures about racial disparities in unemployment rates, hunger, poverty, household income, high school drop out rates, college admissions and college graduation rates, including at the University of Michigan.

Then I moved to race and the criminal justice system.  I informed them that blacks are three times more likely than whites to be searched during a routine traffic stop, that blacks make up nearly half the US prison population, that blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, that African-Americans spend nearly as much time in prison for a drug offense (59 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61 months), that blacks make up about 31 % of the victims killed by police during arrest, and 39 % of those not attacking police when killed.  I informed them that black males are 21 times more than whites to be killed by police and that a black male is killed by police every 28 hours in this country.

This is what it means for it to be about race, I said.

I went back to Darren Wilson.  I don’t know how he feels about black men in general.  But I do know what he said he was feeling just before he fatally shot Michael Brown, because he told the grand jury:  “It looks like a demon.”  Not even “he”, I pointed out to my student, “it”: as though Mike Brown were an inanimate object or some supernatural creature, like, well, a “demon.”  If you see a demon, and you’ve got a gun, I asked my students, how do you think things are gonna end up?

This is what it means for it to be about race: that given everything I’ve just told you, and in that high-stress moment, Darren Wilson saw a demon, felt terrified, and acted on that terror in the worst possible way.

Then I told them what happens to move me. I told them about my friend Johnny, a twenty-year old African-American guy who lives nearby me and who I play hoops with a few times a week.  I told them that I can’t play ball with Johnny and then, when the game is done, just be like, “Hey J, good run. Hope you don’t get killed by a cop tonight.”

Or, “Hey J, good run, sorry you’re smart as hell, smart as any student I’ve taught at Michigan, but are working late shifts at Walmart.  Sorry your high school teachers were overworked and underpaid and that your mom was working two jobs so that you really couldn’t get the most of your high school education so that community college might be a possibility but a four year degree is a long shot and will, under the best of circumstances, require an enormous sacrifice on your part.”

Or, “Hey J, good run, sorry you got followed again by the clerk when we went to get a water at the five and dime after the game.  Sorry you don’t have a bed.”  I can’t do that because Johnny is my friend and I care about him.  And that’s also what it means for it to be about race.

Actually, Rebecca Carroll put this better than I did in a recent conversation she posted on the Guardian, but she expressed perfectly what I was trying to get across to my students when she wrote:

“Seriously, if you have black friends and black people in your life and it still doesn’t gut you when another black boy or man or person gets shot and killed, then you need to examine your friendship. If on some level you and your white peers, those racially conscious and not, don’t feel bad – like really bone-deep bad – then you’re not there yet.

Our legacy as black folks is of pain and strife; your legacy as white folks is of cultural decimation, violence and human ownership. Bummer. Who wants to look at that? And when you do, if you can, that’s gotta feel bad.”

I wish I’d had her words on Friday.

I told my kids, it’s not that I’m better than you, I don’t have a bigger heart, or anything of that sort.  I just know Johnny and Jimmy and Tim and Noland and Matt and Miles and Marcus and Sam and Devo and Ronald and Rico and Evan and Ronnie and Zak and Derrick and Glenn and Caris and Trey and Timmy and Zeke and I can’t not think of them.  Not because they are all interchangeable with Mike Brown, but because they’re not and yet are perceived to be so by the police officers who kill them, every twenty eight hours.

I don’t think, I explained, returning to those psychological studies on unconscious racial bias, that you can just reason your way out of those biases.  You can’t just be like, “well, damn, that’s wrong, so I’ll just pluck these fucked up attitudes up from out of my unconscious.”

I think your heart has to lead the way.  I think you have to know people who are different than you, and really know them: sweat with them, cry with them, laugh with them, help them up, have them help you up, listen to them and understand what their daily lives are like, that they have little brothers and sisters, and desires and loves and aversions and weird idiosyncrasies.  You have to know people and then you begin to feel, irreversibly, that they are human.

And once that genie is let out of the bottle, maybe, hopefully, there’s no going back.  Then, you’re that much less likely to perceive a demon when what is standing before you is an 18 year-old human being.  Then, you’re that much less likely to perceive disrespect or rudeness when what you are seeing is an expression of courage and an exercise of freedom borne of a profound pain and frustration that you care about.  Then, even, you’re that much less likely to stand by and watch passively as though these problems and the struggle to address them were not your own; were not our own.

I told them that they didn’t have to think what I think, but that I did expect them to consider what I’d told them openly and seriously, as with anything else I say to them.  And I thanked them for listening to me carefully and respectfully, as I had listened to them carefully and respectfully on Wednesday.  I want to close by saying, in case this suggests otherwise, that I really, really like and admire my students.  And that it is in part because I really, really like and admire them that I felt the need to challenge them by sharing with them what I feel, think, and know.



“Getting Free” and “Playing the Right Way”

November 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

Over the past year, as I’ve been working on Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballmy book manuscript, I’ve also written a couple of essays that have been published in academic journals.  Unfortunately, many of those I’d like to reach with my writing do not have access to the institutional portals that house these very expensive journals.  So I’m making them available here for those who might interested.  I hope readers find them stimulating, enjoyable and edifying, and, as always, I welcome feedback.

“Getting Free: The Arts and Politics of Basketball Modernity” is coming out in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.  In it, I try to sketch an image of a complex antagonism between, on the one hand, the creative prerogative exercised by basketball players, from the time of the sport’s invention, to continually make the game new, and, on the other hand, a state-like apparatus of basketball institutions seeking to corral, control and capitalize on that creativity.  Near the end of the chapter, I offer a glimpse of what will be Chapter Two of Ball Don’t Lie! (“June 6, 1946: The Myth of Foundation”).    You can click on the screen shot below to get to the article.

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“What We Mean When We Say ‘Play the Right Way'” was published in the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association.  In this piece, I’m trying to show how the “right” in “play the right way” often winds up meaning not only “tactically preferable” but also “morally superior.” I also argue that this tactics-moral complex then sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly serves as both support and a screen for dichotomizing racial accounts of basketball style.  Some of this material will go into Chapter 8 (“September 4, 2002: The Myth of Playing the Right Way”). Again, you can click on the screen shot below to get to the essay.




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For More, and Better, Sports Narratives

November 22, 2014 § Leave a comment


Is the sports media sphere being overrun by narratives? Are they getting in the way of facts and the truth?  A couple of recently published essays (one by Phil Daniels, writing in The Cauldron, and the other by Zach Lowe, writing for Grantland) lamenting the dangers of sports narratives might lead readers to just this conclusion.  And, while I share their dismay over the proliferation of bad narratives (I’ll come back to what I mean by “bad”), I can’t get on board with the idea that narrative itself is the problem, somehow by nature an obstacle to or at odds with the truth.

Of course, it’s really impossible to have a meaningful discussion about this question without first spelling out what’s meant by truth (or by facts).  So I want to begin by laying my cards on the table here.  Where questions of truth are concerned, I am what philosophers call a “pragmatist.”  Associated with philosophers such as William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, pragmatism holds that truth is, as James, put it “what it is better for us to believe.”  More specifically, he argued that ideas or statements get called or become “true” insofar as they enable us to get a better practical handle on the world of our experience, especially on matters that matter to us.

James and other holding this view were skeptical of a more prevalent view of truth, known generally as “the correspondence theory” of truth.  This holds, first of all, that reality exists independently of our perceptions of it and independent of any ideas we might form or statement we might make about it.  It then goes on to define truth as those statements or ideas we have about reality that “correspond” (or match or mirror or reflect) reality.  So, for correspondence theorists, reality is out there and to know whether a statement or thought is true (or “a fact”), we just have to compare that thought or statement to reality.  If they correspond, we have truth; if not, then we don’t.

James and others objected that, though reality may well exist independently of our perceptions, thoughts and statements, we have no direct access to reality independently of our perceptions, thoughts and statements of it.  For these skeptics, because all access to reality involves descriptions of reality then what the correspondence theory is really measuring, in its pursuit of truth, is the relationship between one description of reality and another description of reality.

If we accept this, then the question arises as to the criteria we use to call one description “true” (or a fact) and another false (or a fiction). How do certain descriptions of reality come to be used as the measuring stick (equated by correspondence theorists with unmediated reality itself) against which other descriptions are to be measured?  This is where James advanced the notion that “truth” happens to ideas, that it is something that through a complex, social process called “verification,” we come to call those ideas that it is practically useful to believe—so long as it is practically useful to believe them—true.  This in turn raises questions such as “practical for whom?” and “for what purposes”?  And, once we recognized that society consists of individuals with different purposes and different levels of access to material resources and discursive arenas, how conflicts over purpose, practicality (and so truth) will be resolved.

I fear this discussion might seem esoteric or arcane.  But I believe it’s the beating heart, for example, of debates (think Moneyball over the role of advanced statistical methods (as opposed to the “eye tests” favored by old-fashioned talent scouts) in evaluating talent and effectiveness.  At issue, if often at most indirectly stated, is which view offers a true or factual description of the reality of a player’s actual and potential play.  And this brings me back around to Daniels and Lowe.

Both take aim at specific (different) instances sports “narratives,” raise questions about the advantages and disadvantages of narrative for understanding (i.e. getting at the truth of) the NBA.   Daniels  laments the proliferation of “dangerous” “sports narratives” while the truly estimable Zach Lowe,  notes a similar proliferation:  “it can seem sometimes as if ‘narratives,” and the anxiety over them, are taking over sportswriting.”  More specifically, Daniels seems concerned that the Bulls’ Derrick Rose, who has suffered a string of serious injuries and nagging maladies since winning the NBA MVP award in 2011, “now seems permanently ensnared in the ‘sports narrative zone.'”  Meanwhile, the narrative target of Lowe’s critique is the common view—a propose of Clippers’ point guard Chris Paul—that the ultimate test by which an individual player’s talent, importance and legacy should be the number of NBA titles they’ve won.  These two narratives—that Rose is injury prone, that Paul can’t win the big game—become occasions for each writer to lament and caution against the misleading powers of narrative in general.  Let me be clear:  I share Daniels’ and Lowe’s objections to these particular narratives.  What Lowe calls the “NBA’s broken narrative of success,” in particular, has long irked me.

Moreover, it’s difficult, and probably unwise, to disagree with Daniels’ assertion that “much like how most stereotypes stem from at least some semblance of truth, many sports narratives are just de facto talking points—sweeping generalizations utilized to fill the demands of the 24-hour cycle” or Lowe’s that “Some narratives are also, frankly, dumb. The word ‘narrative’ can act as a synonym for ‘line of thought that exists somewhere in the world, and is demonstrably false.’ We use an awful lot of brain space addressing and rebutting “narratives” that probably don’t merit all that much attention, save for the fact that they bring clicks.”  If the point is simply that the current media sphere rewards the hasty production of something called “narratives” and that many such narratives appearing under these conditions are what might be called “dumb,” I’m okay with that.  In fact, one description of my job would be: to teach students to identify and analyze the means by which dumb narratives are constructed, gain traction and perpetuate harmful attitudes about individuals or groups so that they (my students) can loosen the grip of such narratives and empower themselves to contribute something better.

But what is that something better? What that something else might be for Daniels, seemed to me hard to identify with precision.  It’s not hard, however, to see that he is writing out of an explicit commitment to “facts” and “truth” and that his lament entails the ways in which the sports media sphere spawns narratives untroubled by either of these.  Similarly, Lowe seems motivated by a commitment to truth when he concludes his rebuttal of Chris Paul legacy narratives by asserting “the game provides truth.”  Lowe goes on to say explicitly what I feel, at least, that Daniels implies: “when you have truth, you don’t need narratives.  I can’t accept this, not for sports and not for society at large, despite the growing claims in our culture that what we need is more STEM and less art (including narratives).

I’m not convinced that there is any kind of “truth” that we can have that doesn’t entail narratives of some sort.  Sure, human civilization has invented all kinds of tools and technologies to generate truth (in the pragmatist sense of the word):  oracular divination, the scientific method, prayer, art, dance, music, literature, advanced statistical methods, old-school scouting reports, and speculative narratives.  Everyone of these tools provides, like any tool at all, advantages and disadvantages when it comes to generating truth.  Everyone of them, like any tool at all, can be abused and used, under cover of pursuing truth (or goodness or anything else we value) to mislead and, worse, to perpetuate injustice of one sort or another.  And any claim to superiority in the generation of truth that anyone might want to make on behalf of one of these tools over another, from my pragmatist point of view, must be framed carefully in terms of the practical purposes for which that tool’s description of reality is considered superior as well as of those who stand to benefit from accepting the priority of those purposes.

I’d go one step further and argue that every single of one of these tools depends, constitutively, on narrative to frame its approach to truth-generation, to advance its claims about the value of that approach and to convey the results of that approach.  There is no such thing as a narrative free zone where truth lives.  Which is why it’s not surprising to me that both Daniels and Lowe’s essays both take the form of narratives both large (that narratives are proliferating in dangerous ways) and small (that Derrick Rose is not “soft”; that Chris Paul is great even if he never wins a title).  And that, to me, is precisely the point.

For what we need in order to overpower the influence of bad narratives (which is to say, narratives that advance descriptions of reality we find impractical or, worse, contrary to our practical purposes in the world) is more and better narratives (not appeals to some illusion of “reality” or “facts” or “truth” we imagine we may access free of the irritation of noisy narrative interference.   And we need these better narratives, whether they be grounded in science, statistics, philosophy, emotion, intuition, imagination or aesthetics.   Both Daniels (with respect to Rose) and Lowe (with respect to Paul) provide us with exactly that, and for that I am grateful.  Unfortunately, with respect to narrative itself, both have offered what I consider a bad narrative.  But that’s okay, because I can offer this one instead, to affirm the strengths of their narratives and emend what I consider the weaknesses.  And, of course, so also someone now reading this can do the same with my own narrative.  But regardless, the real danger is not narrative, but a paucity of narratives or as novelist Chimmanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, much more compellingly than I could, in this TED talk, which my wife drew to my attention after I’d posted this, “a single story.”

A Case for Studying Sports

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, in a large, public meeting with university colleagues from a variety of disciplines that was devoted to a discussion of intercollegiate athletics, especially as these pertain to academics, it emerged that I offer a course on the Cultures of Basketball.  Near the very end of the meeting, one colleague surprised me by saying something along the lines of “You teach a course called Cultures of Basketball? I’d like to know how that is a legitimate course for academic study.”  He insinuated that because athletes take the course it must somehow be not a real course and expressed a concern about “public perceptions.”  Numerous colleagues in the meeting stepped up, in various ways, to call out the question as inappropriate.  Today, the colleague wrote me to apologize and to ask if he might sit in my class when I offer it next term.  I mulled over various possible responses, but finally decided that this was an opportunity to educate a colleague about what I do and why it is in fact not only legitimate but valuable.  So I wrote him.  A friend has asked me if I’d be willing to share my reply.   I want to be clear: I’m not sharing this to inflame or to shame, but rather to educate.  I believe my the assumptions my colleague held about sports studies courses are probably widely held, both by university faculty and administrators and by the general public.  I’m hoping that this brief explanation can help erode those assumptions.  So here it is, below, redacted only to preserve the anonymity of the colleague and to eliminate a few errors.

“Thank you for your message. It’s not easy to apologize and I appreciate that you took the initiative and time to do so. And I’m happy to accept your apology.

To respond to your candor in kind, I must say I felt taken aback, and then insulted, by your question. And if you will indulge me, I’d like to explain. I was taken aback, I think, because the academic field of which my course represents a part is actually quite a long-standing and well-established one. Going back more than a half a century, sociologists and economists and then scholars from a variety of disciplines (philosophy, political science, history, literature, anthropology) interested in the critical study of culture have developed an extensive interdisciplinary scholarly area of sports studies including professional associations, numerous peer-reviewed journals, annual conferences, academic units in universities and special series in academic presses and so forth. I’ve only turned to this field in the past five years, but the intelligence and depth of the many scholars working within it is already evident and in some way second nature to me. My course grows out of that academic field and so I was a bit taken aback that someone wouldn’t be aware of it. Of course, there are numerous specialized areas of study in which my colleagues around the university work of which I am totally ignorant so that I don’t feel that such a lack of awareness alone is in itself a problem.

The problem, and what caused me to feel insulted, was that given your lack of awareness, your assumption was that it must not be a legitimate course (or, by extension, part of an existing and legitimate academic field). I’m sure you can imagine how it might feel for someone to presume, simply because they are unaware of your field of expertise, that courses you offer in that field might be illegitimate. I, to give you a random example, am completely ignorant of pharmaceutical science and of what might happen in a pharmaceutical science classroom. But imagine if out of that ignorance and, say, thinking only about a television series like “Breaking Bad,” I made assumptions that such courses offered drug dealers an opportunity to learn how to make or improve their product. I’m sure that professor would feel insulted. I’m also sure that it would never occur to that professor that someone might make that assumption because the legitimacy and value of pharmaceutical science goes unquestioned in the academy. Sports studies, and many other humanistic disciplines, however, are frequently questioned, especially in today’s higher education environment, which tends to place a premium only on those fields that are conventionally considered to lead to well-paying careers.

Sports studies scholars like myself frequently suffer from the perceptions of colleagues, familiar only with salacious stories in the news media, that we aren’t real scholars or teachers. And yet sport, going back to classical civilizations, has played a significant and varied role: both reflecting and influencing cultural and political trends and events. In that sense, studying sports can help illuminate one aspect of civilization. For example, yesterday, before our meeting, I lectured in my Global Sports Cultures class. In order to talk to my students about the culture of boxing in the United States, we had to talk about slavery, post-abolition segregation and Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. In order to help them understand the significance of a figure like Muhammad Ali, moreover, we had to talk about the Olympics, religion, Vietnam War, anti-colonial movements in Africa and campus protest here at home. Of course, we also had to reflect on the ways in which the kinds of qualities—intelligence, courage, perseverance—that helped make Ali a successful boxer might carry over beyond the ring and enable him to take the various stands he took on human rights and political issues outside the ring. I could do all this because excellent, rigorous scholars specializing in sports studies had done the necessary legwork to establish important connections, that I could then share with my students.  I trust you’ll agree with me that it’s important for our students to graduate from the University with an understanding of American history and the role that issues of race, international relations and political dissent have played in that history. And of course, that’s just a small sample of the kinds of things we can— and that I do—get our students to learn about and to learn to think critically about by studying the role of sport in society.

As for the presence of athletes in such courses, I sometimes compare it to the presence of performance musicians in courses on the history of music. It seems natural to me that when you’ve devoted a considerable part of your life developing a proficiency in an activity, you’d like to know more about the history of the activity you’re involved in. Creative writers take courses in the history of literature, artists in the history of art. My late father, who was a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin, spoke to me often of the importance that understanding the history of medicine and science had for his research and teaching. So why wouldn’t athletes be in a course like this, and why wouldn’t we want them to be, if they have humanistic inclinations? Why would their presence make a course any less legitimate than a course on the modern short story in which a certain percentage of the students were aspiring creative writers?

Regarding public perceptions, we may discuss and reasonably disagree about the degree to which we in the university should concern ourselves with public perceptions. My own feeling is that when these perceptions are uninformed and those holding them show no interest in becoming informed, they are not my concern. If, on the other hand, the perceptions are either informed or those holding them show a clear interest in becoming informed, I take it as one of the most important parts of my job to communicate with members of the public about what I do, why it matters to my students and me, why it might matter to them as well, and why it’s a valuable part of the university curriculum.

I hope all this makes sense to you and helps you understand better how the situation felt from my side of the exchange.

Moving forward, I would certainly welcome a visit to my course. As you might expect, in order for your visit not to disrupt the classroom dynamic, I’d prefer if you could be a silent observer. But if that’s agreeable to you then by all means let’s touch base as the time approaches to find a mutually convenient date for your to attend.

Thank you again for your apology. I’m grateful that you were open to the opportunity to better educate yourself.”

The colleague replied to this quite graciously, again expressing his regret and his gratitude for my explanation.  He plans to visit my class in the next semester.

Values of College Sport Symposium

November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment


valuesAs some of you know, with my colleagues Silke Weineck and Stefan Szymanski I’ve organized a two-day symposium devoted to a discussion of the question: what that we value do we gain and lose by virtue of the current model of incorporating athletics into the university?

The event, free and open to the public, will be held on Friday November 14th and Saturday the 15th in Room 100 of the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan campus.  It kicks off with a dual keynote address featuring Amy Perko, the Executive Director of the Knight Commission and Taylor Branch, author of The Cartel at 4 pm and 5 pm Friday, respectively.  There will be a q and a and discussion following Mr. Branch’s remarks.

Then, beginning Saturday at 10:30 a series of panels will zero in on the guiding question from the perspectives of Economics, Well-Being, Education and Ethics.  Each panel will consist of three speakers and will include time for discussion.

So, at 10:30: Rod Fort, Lawrence Kahn and Stephen F. Ross will comprise the Economics panel.  Following this at noon will be the Well-Being panel featuring Rebecca Hasson, Jane Ruseski and Billy Hawkins.  After a lunch break, the Education panel will begin at 2:15 with me, Jimmy King and Rob Sellers.  And the final panel of the symposium, Ethics, will include Jack Hamilton, Bruce Berglund and William Morgan.

I hope those of you near Ann Arbor will be able to make it for all or some of the event and that all of you will spread the word.

Here’s the full program with the titles of the talks.

To Protest or Not to Protest: Is that the Question? On Hamlet and Athletic Politics

November 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some of you know that I was recently honored to participate in an American Studies Association round table discussion on athletic resistance and fan pleasure.  Other panelists included Jennifer Doyle, Sarah Jackson, Ben Carrington and Harry Edwards.  Our organizer, Professor David Leonard of Washington State University, asked each of the panelists to prepare a 5 minute response to the  following initial question:   “Today’s sportscape is defined by the constant solicitation, maintenance, and fulfillment of fan pleasure.  It is equally defined by a far reaching platform afforded to athletes.  How do the privileging of fan pleasure and the possibilities of protest play out in today’s sports world?”  I’m including my response below.

220px-Edwin_Booth_Hamlet_1870 I can’t stop thinking about Hamlet. You remember Hamlet: bereaved young prince, heir to an imperiled kingdom, haunted by a ghost from the past who instructs him to do something he’s not sure he should, can, or wants to do. It gets so bad for him that he seriously considers just ending it all. But even that’s too scary for him. Burdened by an acute awareness of his conflicting impulses, he stumbles half-heartedly through a plot that ends badly. “To be or not to be”: that was Hamlet’s question and the best response he could muster was a paralyzing double bind: on the one hand, overthinking stymies action and, on the other, overthinking is inevitable.

Young royalty, political turmoil, ghosts from the past: I can see why we’d evoke Hamlet as a metaphor for athletes today. And yet, I resist. For I’ve often felt annoyed by Hamlet. I doubt I’m alone. I’ve been annoyed by his self-doubt, by the limited terms he chooses to frame his dilemma, by the subtle self-delusion through which he transforms that chosen perspective into objective conditions that then justify his paralysis, and I’m annoyed by his conclusion that thought itself is the problem (rather than, say, the particular form his thinking takes). But I know that in part Hamlet annoys because I recognize in him an uncomfortable reflection of myself: distilling the complexity of suffering down to impossible dichotomies, too smart by half for my own good, not as brave as I should be, and too quick to look to others to solve the problems from which I suffer. I don’t like it. But there it is.

To protest or not to protest? Is that the question?

What do we even mean by protest? Protest what? Protest where? Protest by what means?

Are we so sure we know what should be protested, by whom, where, and by what means? Sometimes, yeah, I feel sure. But many times the complexity of suffering in the world bewilders me and I’m not so certain.

If protest here stands for something like acting politically, must protest be the only or privileged form of that action? EP Thompson, in Witness Against the Beast, his masterful analysis of the politics of William Blake, concluded the first half of the book by noting that so far he’d shown only what Blake was against, but that to really understand him as a poet, a political figure and—most importantly—a human being, we still had to discover what he stood for. Can we at least try to keep in mind that all protest worth making must simultaneously affirm something or someone?

And what if that something affirmed were to be, in fact, pleasure? After all, we protest unjust suffering. Can we not affirm just pleasures? Must resistant protest and affirmed pleasure necessarily be construed as mutually exclusive?

Now, I’m uncomfortably aware of my role in the drama portrayed so well in David’s panel description. For I am among those fans whose pleasure we imagine constrains the capacity of athletes to protest. And yet, I’ve not once felt my pleasure as a fan to be diminished by the protests (let alone the political affirmations) of athletes. On the contrary. So that makes me wonder if there isn’t something to be rescued from that and perhaps plugged into the equations we come up with for trying to understand why athletes protest or do not protest.

Finally, I’m here in this room in this nice hotel thinking and talking about why someone else is or isn’t acting. But maybe we should consider that athletes—and even, heaven forbid, some otherwise merely hedonistic fans—may also be thinking and talking about the possibilities for political action. Moreover, if we consider our professional activity here today a form of political action, why don’t we consider the professional activities of athletes, in the arena—in their arena, equally a form of political action? If our words in this arena can be political, why can’t a LeBron James tomahawk jam, or a Britney Griner rejection, be political? Is it that we haven’t learned yet to see and persuasively articulate the politics and the pleasure already at work there?

I don’t mean, like Hamlet, to paralyze the outwardly directed, historically grounded investigation that we will undertake here today. But I do mean to slow the pace: to draw attention to and hopefully disarm the painfully sharp dichotomies that divide us from our power to act, even as they empower us to judge the actions of others.

So, concretely, as we attend to specific questions and cases, I hope we take the opportunity to observe and reflect upon how the following dichotomies work in practice:

politics vs. pleasure

resistance vs. affirmation

athlete vs. fan

what happens inside the arena vs. what happens outside

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