August 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
This fall, I’ll be inaugurating a new course at Michigan: Comparative Literature 100: Global Sports Cultures. The aims of the course include introducing students to a necessarily narrow slice of global sports culture, familiarizing them with concepts useful in thinking critically about sports, and developing what you might call their “literary skills” as critical readers and clear, coherent, thoughtful and honest writers.
We’ll take C. L. R. James’ rhetorical question from Beyond a Boundary—“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”—as our guiding challenge. And, to meet that challenge, we’ll refer to Ben Carrington and David Andrews more fleshed out description of the tasks of students of sport:
“to think about sport as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints, to examine sport as a form of cultural struggle, resistance, and politics whilst recognizing that it is also compromised by forms of commodification, commercialization, and bureaucratic control, and to consider sport as an embodied art form that is formed in relation to both intrinsic and extrinsic goals and rewards that sometimes over-determine the stated aims of participants” (“Introduction: Sports as Escape, Struggle, and Art” from Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies Volume 37: Companion to Sport [John Wiley and Sons, 2013])
I’ve learned so much in doing the research to prepare the course syllabus, including how much I don’t know about global sports culture and how many brilliant writers, journalists, scholars, athletes, and film and video directors there are out there who know a great deal and generously share their knowledge in interesting ways. I’m very excited to teach the course and so thought I’d share the basic reading schedule for the course, the fourteen weeks of which I’ve grouped, by lecture topic, into four broad units. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
I just can’t let this go. My distaste for Bill Simmons’ smug pseudo-argumentation has led me on a four-day journey down a rabbit hole of advanced statistics and I feel compelled to share my report of the trip. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
I don’t often write about sports other than basketball, but when I do, I prefer to unchain the deep irrationalities of my idiot sport heart. To wit: my handy, interactive rooting guide to the 2014 World Cup Semi-Final match between Argentina and the Netherlands.
May 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
Somewhat under-examined in the Donald Sterling Shit Show of the past week has been Sterling’s rhetorical question asserting his creative importance as owner: “Do I make the game? Or do they make the game?” Though Sterling has appropriately been chastised, lampooned, and punished for these and other remarks as well as for past behavior, I believe he has also to some degree been scapegoated by other owners, league executives, the news media and fans availing themselves of the easy opportunity to distance themselves from the kind of extreme and easily quotable form of racism that, too often, is the only form of racism acknowledged to exist in sports and in this country more broadly. As Tim Marchman has put it, “Sterling isn’t some anomaly; he’s the perfect representative of his class.” Indeed. In fact, his claim that it is the owners, rather than the players who “make the game” expresses a key component of a myth that runs like a fault line back to the very foundation of the NBA. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Following upon my brief but mighty appearance in POLITICO this week (which itself followed the viral thrill of my rant about Mitch McGary just last Friday), I continued my meteoric ascent to the dizzying heights of media stardom in an interview with Jonathan Zarov, host of the Friday morning Eight O’Clock Buzz on my hometown Madison, Wisconsin’s community-owned WORT FM.
Here’s the (very brief) interview:
April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Donald Sterling story that has filled sports pages and overflowed into mainstream news coverage and water cooler conversations over the last week provides reason #50 why we need the Allrounder and why you should support us today.
From the tactical to the cultural to the historical, from the political to the legal to the economic, Sterling’s case exemplifies perfectly the sort of complex breaking event in the world of sport that arises out of the intersection of a variety of forces in human society and that the Allrounder, with its pool of teachers and scholars from different disciplines will be poised to cover, as I explained to The Classical’s David Roth last week.
Just imagine, if the Allrounder already existed, you might have read Professor David J. Leonard (author of After Artest: The NBA’s Assault on Blackness) contextualizing Sterling’s taped remarks and backhistory within the broader framework of the league’s racial history.
But what about the economics of the case? Without a search or even a change of website, at the Allrounder you might see Professor Stefan Szymanski (sports economist, director of the Michigan Center for Sports Management at the University of Michigan and author of Soccernomics) break down the bewildering legal and economic issues and implications of the NBA’s response in ways we can all understand.
Of course, we all know that sports aren’t only about the bottom line. What might the Clippers and other NBA players be thinking about their options? How do these options fit into the history of Black athletes and political protest? Professor Amy Bass, historian and author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle the 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, would provide you with thoughtful reflections on these questions.
Sure, there have been, amidst the din of noisy jackassery that is the mainstream sports media, a handful of clarifying pieces by smart journalists. But they are scattered across the web and, besides, who helps you think critically about even the best journalism?
Your professors! Think back to when you were in school and some news event broke that touched directly on your professor’s area of expertise. How excellent was it to be able to ask her directly in class what she thought of what going on? Don’t believe me, then ask POLITICO, which just yesterday phoned yours truly, Allrounder editor Yago Colás, for his views on the Sterling affair.
That’s who we are at The Allrounder: your sports professors! And we will give you just what professors can give: an informed expert’s opinion on what you care about. But it’s even better because it will be more like a team-taught course by some of the most experienced, accomplished and accessible individuals teaching about the world of sports in all its many dimensions.
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But whatever the amount, the important thing is for you to please give today and help us continue to move towards our goal of providing the best single stop source for intelligent, accessible writing on all the breaking news that you care about from the world of sport.
April 28, 2014 § 2 Comments
In my post yesterday, I analyzed the structure of a foul call in an NBA game to show that a foul doesn’t cause the whistle to blow (as the rules prescribe); the whistle blowing causes a foul to come into being. But neither the rules of the game nor basketball common sense acknowledge the real nature of the foul call or the quasi-divine power NBA refs enjoy to actually constitute (not just identify) illegality. And, if this power isn’t acknowledged, it cannot be challenged. This is where ‘Sheed and “Ball Don’t Lie!” come in.
In fact, I consider his 317 career technical fouls a rough index of his ability to convey to referees his intent to expose and challenge their power. It may seem at first glance that, like basketball common sense, “Ball Don’t Lie” also mistakes the referee’s speech act as a descriptive statement, one with which ‘Sheed (or, actually, “Ball”) merely disagrees. But I believe the outraging power of “Ball don’t lie!” goes beyond simply countering one description of reality with another. It may do that. But its power and danger lies in drawing attention to the power of the referee to create a reality within which the players must play and which they must accept without question.
“Ball Don’t Lie” does this by offering us the possibility—however fanciful it may seem—that other powers, greater even than that of the referee, are weighing in as well. And this implicitly reminds us of the referee’s powers. Indeed, the very absurdity of the “ball” making a call draws our attention to the fact that the referee was not actually objectively describing a play but exercising what are within the universe of basketball quasi-divine powers to bring a foul into being.
‘Sheed isn’t just disagreeing with the call, he’s exposing these powers and in exposing these powers he is also calling into question the hierarchical structure of the sport whereby a referee is uniquely endowed with the powers to define reality. Indeed, I think ‘Sheed’s 2012 ejection from a Knicks-Suns game occurred not because ‘Sheed applied “Ball don’t lie!” to an ordinary personal foul call whistled against him, but because he applied it to a technical foul call: in other words, he challenged the referee’s authority to enforce conformity with his decisions.
So Rasheed Wallace lays bare and challenges the power dynamics of the NBA, but he also affirms a positive alternative. The phrase “Ball don’t lie!” comes from the culture of recreational or “pickup” basketball played on urban playgrounds. In such settings, without referees, players referee themselves, calling their own fouls and violations. Of course, just as in any formal game, disagreements may arise. One way these are often settled is by one of the disputants taking an uncontested shot from the top of the key. If the ball goes in, his or her claim is upheld, if it doesn’t go in, his or her claim is rejected. Though some grumbling may continue, the dispute is definitively settled because, well, as everyone knows and accepts: “Ball Don’t Lie!”
By introducing a phrase from this setting into the NBA, ‘Sheed reminds us that players can and do play basketball without refs and their transcendent powers. Viewed from this angle, “Ball Don’t Lie!” doesn’t so much invoke a transcendent power higher than that of the referees. It rejects the very idea of transcendent power. Instead, it invokes a lower power—or, more accurately, a power that circulates horizontally among equals rather than vertically from the top of a hierarchy to its bottom: that is, the immanent, self-organizing autonomous power of basketball players. I share with Rasheed this belief in the crucial importance of the self-organizing autonomous power of players. In fact, I’ve tried to let this power guide my my approach to basketball history in my teaching and in writing Ball Don’t Lie!
But the urban playground is more than just the site of “informal” play outside the sanction and control of hierarchically organized institutions. It also signifies within basketball culture the big city and, via an associative chain, impoverished urban neighborhoods and the residents of those neighborhoods, who early in the 20th century were already playing pickup ball because, with its relative simple requirements where space and equipment were concerned, basketball lent itself to cramped and crowded spaces and limited resources. Over the course of the middle of the 20th century, as ethnic immigrants migrated out of America’s urban core and African-Americans migrated in, and especially in the second half of the 20th century, urban pickup basketball came to be associated with African-Americans in the American cultural imagination.
When ‘Sheed yells “Ball don’t lie!” then, we should imagine the phrase as a kind of kite pulled onto the center of the NBA’s stage. Attached to that kite is a string of associated phenomena: not only player autonomy, but also both the stereotypes and the real material conditions that link urban Black males with basketball. Beginning with its integration in the 1950s, but in a more marked way since the mid-1980s the NBA, as Todd Boyd, David Leonard and others have shown, has sought to profit from the black bodies of its players (and from some of the stereotypical images of black male urban culture) while simultaneously maintaining a “safe” distance from the less broadly marketable images associated with Black urban males. The NBA treats “Blackness” and its stereotypical signifiers as a kind of fluid cultural currency: it wants that currency to flow into the NBA in the form of talent and marketable cool, but it wants to control the flow.
“Ball don’t lie!” then also brings the playground into the mainstream arena of American culture, but in a way that resists defusing appropriation because it appears as a direct challenge to the authority of that culture as embodied in the referees and the league and its vertical, hierarchical power arrangement. The political importance of “Ball don’t lie!” then, resides, in its affirmation of the autonomous self-governance of intersecting populations (basketball players, the poor, urban dwellers, African-Americans in general and young black males in particular) whose capacity for self-governance public policy and popular culture attempts to hamper and then denies exists.