The Fab Five first set foot on Michigan’s campus 25 years ago. The first group of freshman ever to start for a major college program, they led their teams to consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in 1992 and 1993, and sparked a cultural revolution in the sport and beyond. In time, a scandal led to sanctions imposed by both the University and the NCAA. The Final Four banners came down and were tucked away in the Bentley Library and a shroud of silence settled over the players and their era.
In honor this group of teenage black men whose messages of brotherhood, community, joy, and freedom has never been more resonant, here are 5 links to things I’ve written on the Fab 5 shared in celebration of the 25 year anniversary of their arrival at Michigan.
Still today, the most viewed thing I’ve ever written, my open letter to Chris Webber asking him to join his former teammates in the stands at the 2013 NCAA Championship game to support Michigan, and five of my freshman students, in the game against Louisville.
I have mixed feelings about reposting this because I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when I first wrote and posted it three and a half years ago. Chris showed up at the game, but never responded to my letter and, more painfully, elected not to sit with his teammates. Recently, I once again invited Chris to join his former teammates, and brothers, at a public event—Fab 5 @ 25—and once more he has not responded. So I thought about not reposting this, and even about taking it off my site—after all, the University came through by sponsoring, and paying for, this discussion. That means they would’ve bought Chris a plane ticket to get him to campus. If it he’d been willing to appear.
But so much about this conversation is about how we look at history, memory, and our own past. And so much of what is painful in this derives from people trying to erase or ignore or deny the past. I understand why this is tempting. But I think it is deadly.
The presentation was a distillation of a longer scholarly essay I wrote for the workshop which I expect will be published in the Journal of Sport History. But as I did the research for that I really became so fascinated with the topic that it has become the seed of what I envision as my next book, a companion volume to my recently published book, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketballthat I’m calling, for the moment anyway, Numbers Don’t Lie! A History of Counting and What Counts in the Cultures of Basketball. It will situate the analytics movement in basketball in broader frameworks of statistical reasoning in sports, measurement and statistics in scientific culture in the west, the use of digital technologies in the age of Big Data, and, as usual, the cultural and political dimensions of hoops.
Because the project is in its initial stages, I’m especially eager to get constructive feedback on it. So as always, but more than usual, leave me comments or shoot me an e-mail.
It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.” Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation. And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.
“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.
Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).
Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”
In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”
Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.
Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.
Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.” Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.
As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.
When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”
In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.
Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”
In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.
[. . .]
Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.
Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.
Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.
In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.
Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”
This morning I did the first of what I hope will be one billion interviews about my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.
As a native of Madison, Wisconsin, I was especially happy that this first one was a) with legendary Madison rocker Jonathan Zarov; b) on legendary Madison independent community radio station WORT-FM; c) a part of their pledge drive (in which, unbelievably to me, copies of my book were deemed donation-attracting premiums).
This morning, pioneering basketball writer Bethlehem Shoals (a friend and a strong influence on my own thinking about the game to whom I owe a great debt), voiced first bafflement about what he took to be the central position of Silverman’s essay:
Don’t understand the “Steph Curry as pinnacle of rational basketball” backlash. He’s magical. Face, meet nose!
Shoals did not direct these comments at me personally, but I nonetheless, justifiably or not, felt interpellated by them; particularly having been one of Silverman’s sources for the view that Curry, to use my own words as quoted in the essay, “embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” And, thus interpellated and, frankly, hurt, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a mischaracterization both of my views (and of Silverman’s own position—but I’ll let him speak for himself) in the essay.
Shoals’ analogy characterizes the position as “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” and then compares that to “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition.” Though colorful and clever, I feel this analogy mischaracterizations the positions that I (and Silverman) expressed in the essay.
First, it’s not clear what Shoals means by “going at” but I wouldn’t say that either Silverman or myself went at Curry. Silverman did accurately quote me as saying that I found Curry’s play “predictable” (which I do) and Shoals is right if he surmises that this is for me a mark against Curry. But it hardly seems to me to constitute “going at,” particularly when in the very same sentence I said that “I marvel at his ability” (and Silverman too devoted considerable space and lexical imagination to evoking Curry’s wondrous play).
Second, Shoals analogy conflates this “going at [X] as the face of [Y]” with “blaming [X] for [Y]. Blaming involves an attribution of causality and therefore the analogy implies that those who “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” believe he has caused “analytics-driven ball” (just as “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition” would be assert that Jesus somehow was a, or the, cause of the Inquisition). I never said that (nor did Silverman) and I don’t believe it (and I don’t think Silverman does).
Third, the analogy implies that “analytics-driven ball” is equivalent to “the Inquisition.” That may or may not be the case in Shoals’ eyes, but it is not the case in mine, and not only because of the obvious differences in scale and magnitude, which I’m sure Shoals did not mean by his analogy to gloss over. It’s not the case in my eyes because while the Inquisition is unequivocally bad in my eyes, basketball analytics is not. I don’t think analytics is bad for basketball in the way that I think the Inquisition was bad for, well, humanity.
So let me try, once more, to clarify what I actually believe (and believe I actually said in Silverman’s piece or elsewhere).
First, I marvel at Curry’s ability. I’m saying this because nobody who references anything I’ve ever written or said in interviews about Curry (or the Warriors) seems to notice. One more time: I marvel at Curry’s ability.
Second, I find Curry’s play predictable. Others may not and that is fine. I do. I can’t help that I am not surprised by what he does. While this diminishes my desire to watch him it does not prevent me from—as I said—marveling at his abilities.
Third, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” This voices my concern about Steph embodying what I would characterize as a cultural phenomenon. Apparently, I have not been clear. And I need to spell out what I mean by this more carefully so that it will not be mistaken or caricatured. To “embody” something is very different than “causing it” (I’m gonna trust y’all to look that up on your own if you’re not convinced). Moreover, the problematic cultural phenomenon I feel Curry “embodies” is not “basketball-analytics” per se, but rather “a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”
Are those two things—”basketball analytics” and a “fetish with efficiency”—related? Sure. Are they the same thing? No. Is one responsible for the other? No. It’s not that simple. Yes, basketball analytics is responsible for devising statistical tools for measuring efficiency in basketball play and for producing arguments that may be used to support the claim that efficient basketball is the best basketball. And yes, I believe the persuasiveness of this argument has led to an increased emphasis in the discourse around the game on “efficiency” an emphasis I would still characterize as a “fetish,” by which I mean an over-prioritization.
I don’t actually think that basketball analytics, understood specifically as a way of using quantitative reasoning to investigate questions about basketball play, is bad for basketball. On the contrary, I think it’s good. I think what’s bad for basketball (or bad for me anyway) is when any one way of approaching and understanding the game comes to be seen as the only, or the best, way of approaching and understanding the game. And I do fear, and I acknowledge I may be wrong, that this may be happening today. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening.
But I do not believe, nor have I said, that Steph Curry or basketball analytics are either equivalent to or the cause of this fetish of efficiency. I think the cause is much simpler: capitalism.
When I say that Curry embodies this fetish, I mean that his success and likable persona can be taken as a demonstration of the superiority and desirability of a narrow emphasis on efficiency.
Read with care, please, so as to be sure you understand what this does not mean:
It does not mean that this is Curry’s fault or his responsibility to prevent.
It does not mean that Curry is the only player (or the Warriors the only team) that could be said to embody this fetish. I don’t think that. I only think that because of their extraordinary success they can serve as a more persuasive example.
It does not mean that Curry’s play (or Curry himself as a cultural figure) can only mean that. That is obviously false, as I have written about elsewhere by now ad nauseum. “Curry” means, among many other things: talent, hard work, Christian faith, accessibility, family, fatherhood, creativity, daring, confidence, overachievement, youth.
It can be difficult, as Shoals knows better than I, to sustain thoughtful, informed, sensitive, and intelligent discourse about basketball in the sports media sphere. Long standing attitudes among fans, economic pressures, and the forms of social media themselves often seem to demand and to reward facile oversimplifications and polarizing dichotomies so long as they are cleverly phrased.
For those of us (I take the liberty of including both Shoals and Silverman) in this, who love the sport as a complex form of athletic ability, cultural expression, embodied thought, aesthetic experience and social condensor, it seems especially vital to take care that our public contributions to discourse about the game are adequate to its depth and complexity.
Having arrived at definitions of “beauty” and “praise,” Hans Gumbrecht moves in the final section of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty to the question to the task of defining athletic performance. He wants to know whether “the specific form of athletic performance”—whatever that might turn out to be in his definition—produces “a specific form of aesthetic effect.” To get there he moves through a number of steps, some complex, some dubious, some really illuminating, that I’m going to track here. Along the way, he’ll introduce several important concepts: “presence,” “agon (competition),” “arete (striving for excellence),” “tragedy,” and “transfiguration.”
The first move is to shift is actually to redefine the task of definition itself from “thinking about sports as a set of phenomena that are all rooted in a common denominator” to imagining “sports as a network of practices related through” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” in which “item A shares some features with item B, and item B shares some features with item C” so that “even though A and C may have no features in common, their shared resemblance to B keeps them all in the family” (p. 58-59). Gumbrecht hopes this more flexible approach will be more productive and encompassing and allow readers to focus on the relations connecting ostensibly very different kinds of athletic performance. I support this move, and think it inventive and useful, though I wondered whether it would be useful to consider how we determine which features we use to establish the resemblances and whether or not some features should have more weight than others. But I don’t finally think that doing so would undermine the value of the basic procedure.
The next criteria for his definition is that it should do “justice to the aesthetic appeal” of sports from the spectator’s perspective. To get at this, Gumbrecht first explores the meanings of “performance,” since “spectators in a stadium experience sports as a performance,” albeit one that differs from other kinds of performances like ballet, opera, or symphony. Here, Gumbrecht’s animus for much contemporary work in cultural studies rears up again, calling most intellectual accounts of performance “incoherent, to say the least” (p. 60) Not sure what he’s thinking of here, since he doesn’t cite anyone, and I imagine he’s probably wrong. But it’s the kind of wrong that gets him somewhere interesting after all when he jumps away from “performance” per se and lands on “presence” as a “possible opening or approach to the problem [of how] to define athletics in such a way as to take into account its aesthetic attraction.
He begins by noting that “presence” derives from the Latin prae-esse meaning “to be in front of” in order to emphasize that presence, for him, involves “immediate sensual perceptions” and, in that sense, “always binds to time and place” (p. 62). He elaborates this by going on to describe presence as a “dimension” (I think he means something like a facet of or a perspective on something) that can be contrasted to something he calls “the meaning” dimension. He then describes this contrast along seven categories, an exercise I think might be easiest to grasp in the form of a table.
This is quite condensed, I know, and does not really illuminate (or do justice to) Gumbrecht’s full exposition of the contrasts. But he does provide the following, summary paragraph to try to get at the importance for him of the analysis:
Counter to many academic (and highly incompetent) ‘readings’ of sports, athletic competitions do not express anything and therefore do not offer anything to read. They fascinate us with bodies ‘that matter’ (a useful pun invented by the philosopher Judith Butler), bodies that adapt themselves to multiple forms and functions. By interpreting these bodily forms and functions and transforming them into meanings, we run the risk of reducing, if not destroying, the unique pleasure we take in athletic events. (pp. 68-69)
As before, though I suppose there may be something, in a theoretical sense, to Gumbrecht’s perception of the perils involved in the meaning dimension, I also think he throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not sure (because, again, he offers no citations) what sort of incompetent academic readings he has in mind. Its probably the most persistently perplexing aspect of this book so far, Gumbrecht’s complaints about scholarship in sports studies. I’ll just stick to saying that I see no reason why a single account of an athletic performance cannot both “praise” (in the sense he already established of gratefully laying bare the complexity of forms involved and relating them to function and effect) and “interpret.”
In any event, Gumbrecht proposes “that we may call any human body movement a performance as long as we see it, predominantly at least, in the presence dimension” but quickly recognizes that “performance and athletics are not coextensive”: not every performance is an athletic performance. So what makes sports performances unique and distinguishable among all performances? Gumbrecht’s finds the answer in two ancient Greek concepts: “agon” (competition) and “arete” (striving for excellence).
He elaborates his conception of agon by describing it as the “domestication of potentially violent fights and tensions through institutional frames of stable rules” whereas arete by contrast “means striving for excellence with the consequence (rather than the goal) of taking some type of performance to its individual or collective limits” (p. 70). He argues that the latter is the dominant component of athletic performance, first, by reasoning that you can have arete without agon but not the other way around and second, to try to avoid making the praise of athletic beauty about praising competition rather than excellence, which, he fears “would confirm a vision of sports that has given them a bad reputation among so many intellectuals” (again, who is he reading that’s provoked such a powerful combination of fear and loathing?).
Once more, I simply see no reason to choose between them. In some performances, one may predominate over the other, certainly. But I see nothing intrinsic to athletic performance that should require the assertion of a definitive preference. On the contrary, I would say that part of my fascination in sports is the complex intertwining of these two dimension in athletic performance. Agon facilitates arete and vice-versa, without either one subsuming the other, as in this example, which I borrow from one of my students:
Either way, both agon and arete are pursued by athletes within formal constraints (rules) and informal conventions (fair play) that spur their effort and ingenuity and generate uncertainty and risk, which, in turn give rise—and here I think Gumbrecht does a great job—to moments that we may experience as dramatic, epic, tragic, or heroic (he uses these terms pretty much interchangeably here) (p. 77). What I like about the argument here is that the beauty of athletic performance can be found as easily in loss as in victory, something I’ve always found important to assert against the more commonplace emphasis on victory alone as the measure of athletic greatness. But displacing the partisan centrality on victorious outcomes is not the same, I repeat, as displacing the importance of competition to the beauty of athletic performance.
Gumbrecht himself, oddly, seems tacitly to acknowledge this when he expounds upon what he means by drama. He redescribed drama in terms of “transfiguration of great athletes within our immediate perception, and later, our memory.” Transfiguration involves, he says, a removal from one’s original place (side note: it would be interesting to think this through with the concepts of metaphor and translation, both of which, in different ways, involve such movements). Like Jesus or Elijah, then, he says, “athletic competition [my emphasis] can transfigure bodies and their movements, making them shine in the particular light of triumphant victory or tragic defeat. Rather than assigning [again, why the dichotomy?] assigning specific meanings to bodies and their movements, victory or defeat gives them something like what the Christian tradition used to call a halo—and what today we might call an aura” (p. 78) Instead of auras or halos, though, we recognize the transfigured athlete, or rather perhaps constitute the athlete’s transfiguration, by way of what he calls “the gesture”: “a specific, concise movement, a critical moment in a dramatic narrative” that makes “the pathos associated with these dramatic moments more visible and more memorable” (p. 79). Gumbrecht concludes with a series of personal memories of such gestures, all of which, tellingly, come in defeat, an experience, of course, that would be impossible without agon and insignificant, perhaps, without the arete that was exhibited in the course of competition.
“Why,” Hans Gumbrecht begins by asking, “should sportslovers learn how to praise athletes and their achievements?” His meditation upon and response to this question occupies the first of the three subsections of the “Definitions’ chapter of Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Gumbrecht quickly notes that the question invites two different paths of investigation: 1) Is there a need to praise athletes (as opposed to simply enjoying watching what they can do)? and 2) (presuming there is a need) why does it seem so difficult to use the right words and, above all, to hit the right tone. Gumbrecht begins with the latter question and so will I.
Why, then, does it seem so difficult to use the right words, and above all, to the right tone? For readers wondering about the presumption that it is so difficult, Gumbrecht acknowledges that “some good and often enthusiastic writing can be found in the sports sections of newspapers every day” and, moreover, that at least in the United States, there are cases of fiction writers who portray sports, either in essays or in their fiction, as well as journalists who have gone on to enjoy literary recognition (like Red Smith). But those really aren’t the domains that concern Gumbrecht. He’s interested in “global academia” which he characterizes as a “wilderness” in both Europe and the United States when it comes to writing about sports (p. 21).
This is the point in Gumbrecht’s argument in this book where I find my engagement to be most fraught. But before getting too caught up in that, I think it’s important for me (and other readers who are also academics with an interest in sports) to be clear about just what Gumbrecht means. Referring to the the Greek poet Pindar’s Ode on Theron of Acragas, Victor in the Chariot Race, Gumbrecht describes a “determination to see and to value athletic beauty as an embodiment of a culture’s highest values” (p. 24). This, he says, is what he means by “praise,” and this is what he believes “we have lost—to the point where the very idea can seem embarrassing to us” (I gather from the context that the “we” is intellectuals, especially those in academia).
Instead, when Gumbrecht surveys academic writing about sports he finds they “belittle and sometimes flatly denounce what famous athletes are all about” and that they “interpret sports as a symptom of highly undesirable tendencies” (pp. 24-25). Some, he claim, “denounce sports as a biopolitical conspiracy that emerges form the delegation of state power to self-reflexive micropowers” while others interpret the popularity of sports as a “sign of decadence or at least alienation from a supposed but never clearly defined athletic “authenticity.” Finally, he concludes, “even those historians and social scientists who manage to contain this aggressive tone rarely fail to identify sports as fulfulling nothing but a subordinate function with a larger or more powerful system.” (Here, his lone examples are Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu).
Now before expressing my reservations, I think it’s worth understanding the causes to which Gumbrecht attributes this what he think he’s seeing out there. First is that athletics is no longer, in his view, a canonized, high-culture phenomenon (as it was in Ancient Greece). A second, and in his view more convincing, source is that intellectuals since the Enlightenment feel an obligation to be critical. But the third and most powerful problem we intellectuals have with sports (according to Gumbrecht, remember) is “the tradition of Western metaphysics, and the related obsession of modern Western culture to look ‘beyond’ what it considers to be the merely material (or merely corporeal) aspects of our existence.” This, he argues, leads us to write about corporeal matters as though their importance must needs lie elsewhere than in their material existence. Gumbrecht:
Forms produced by body movements and the presence of these bodies, an authoritative voice seems to interject, simply cannot be important enough to care about, much less write about. We desperately want athletes’ bodies to be . . . the signifiers of something spiritual, or at least psychological or mental, or . . . sociopolitical (p. 30).
Maybe. There is something here I find appealing, as I will say in a moment. But first I must say that I find this sweeping description of academic sports studies inaccurate and a bit harmful. For those unfamiliar with the work done by academics from many different disciplines on the world of sports would be gravely misled if they accepted Gumbrecht’s account as accurate. Gumbrecht is correct that the field of sports studies was pioneered as a social critique of sports in society, and that analyses of various ways that social injustice and sporting world are interconnected and sometimes mutually reinforcing remain common. But he is ignoring the work of many, many authors who, though they may also carry out such critical analyses, are also mindful of the emancipatory power (if not always the beauty) of athletic performance. Here’s a reading list of such academic authors off the top of my head: Ben Carrington, David Andrews, Grant Farred, Lucia Trimbur, Orin Starn, Theresa Rundstedler, David Leonard, Amy Bass, Aram Goudsouzian, Todd Boyd, Jeffrey Lane, Randolph Feezell, Alejandro Meter (and I’m sure there are many, many more I’ve left off the list).
(I might add that the critical disposition Gumbrecht sees everywhere in sports studies is by no means unique to sports studies in my opinion. I myself turned away from literary studies in part because I felt a bit isolated as someone who preferred to use my work to try to understand and explain how the works I loved worked, “under the hood” as it were, rather than to expose the ways in which they were complicit with this or that form of social injustice. But that’s another story.)
Now, that said, I do share Gumbrecht’s feeling that praise is not the primary mode of academic writing about sports and that we have yet to really develop a practice of, or vocabulary for, what he calls praise. We may, as intellectuals, in our haste to deploy powerful interpretive methods that can pierce pious popular myths about the sanctity and purity of the sporting arena (and which thereby unwittingly serve to support inequities in sport and society), lose sight of the fact that in addition to all the dark things we might say about sports and society, sports is also a creative arena generative of moments of great beauty. And I do think that we would understand sporting performances and the culture that grows around them better if we could learn to balance our contextual interpretations with something like what we literary scholars used to call “close readings” of athletic performance. That after all, is why I’m teaching this course and interested in this book.
Gumbrecht offers, toward the end of the chapter, a couple of general guideposts for the practice he is calling for. First, he says he will “try to keep my eyes and my mind focused on athletes’ bodies, instead of abandoning the topic of sports by ‘reading’ these phenomena as a ‘function’ or as an ‘expression’ of something else” and he acknowledges that there is something to be learned from in this regard from “unheralded everyday sportswriting” (p. 31) I heartily agree. For example, the work of the FreeDarko collective on basketball styles has been instrumental in shaping my own academic study of basketball. The second guideline Gumbrecht adapts from “the best critical appreciations of the visual arts, literature, and music.” Drawing on these he wishes to “lay open how complex on many different layers individual works are and how their function and effect depends on such complexity” (pp. 35-36).
And here is where Gumbrecht really stirs me, when he sums up his own project:
This will exactly be my approach to praising the different types of sports that we enjoy watching. It will oblige me to stay focused on forms of athletic beauty in all their complexity, instead of giving in to the metaphysical urge to interpret them. . . (p. 36).
(Of course, as I say, I’m not sure why the two approaches (laying open and praising the complex beauty of athletic forms and interpreting sporting performances, events, and figures in social and cultural and philosophical terms) should be placed at odds. But that’s okay. That can be Gumbrecht’s problem to wrestle with. I’m happy to try to follow him and develop my ability to praise athletic beauty. Especially since, for me (as for Gumbrecht) the impulse arises out of gratitude for the countless athletic perfomances I have witness in my lifetime whose beauty have moved and enthralled me, made me feel more alive and more present to my own capacity to make beauty in the world.
Here’s the classroom white board from our discussion of this section in my course, Writing the Sporting Body:
As promised, I’m sharing my reading notes, thoughts, and questions on Hans Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Today, I want to look at the opening section of the book, entitled “Everyfan,” which occupies the place and fills the function of a preface or introduction.
In terms of structure, “Everyfan” consists of five very short sections. In the first four, Gumbrecht recalls a variety of personal experiences of watching sports. He first recalls in detail watching, as a novice fan, the then-young Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Patrick Roy in a game at the Forum. The second section involves watching on screen: sumo wrestling on television at the Kansai Airport and clips of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film. In the third, he moves back to an early memory of watching a minor childhood soccer hero (the goalkeeper Egon Loy) in person during his youth, and then running into Loy after a match. This leads him, in the fourth, to an even earlier memory (“the first individual sports event he would remember”) of listening to the 1954 German World Cup victory on the radio, to a memory, a decade later, of an aging Loy beaten on a goal by Hamburg’s Uwe Seeler, to, finally, the memory of listening to “Cassius Clay” cleverly respond to interviewer’s questions after his title fight defenses. In the final section, he reflects on what these memories might suggest about the feelings involved in watching sports, the role of memory and time in those feelings, and the potential value of trying to understand and convey the power of those experiences.
This immersion into the sensory world of Gumbrecht’s (and possibly our own) memories of fascinating sporting performances leads to a couple of different more general themes that will be important to the book. Though Gumbrecht doesn’t use these terms, I found it useful to group these themes into the categories of “conditions,” “experiences” and “tools.”
The key condition Gumbrecht identifies as “distance.” It emerges as he shifts from Roy and Jesse Owens to the lesser known hero of his childhood Egon Loy:
It need not always be the objectively greatest of all times and the best of the world for sports to transfigure its heroes in the eyes of passionate spectators. All that it takes to become addicted to sports is a distance between the athlete and the beholder—a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world. For it is under this condition that athletes turn into objects of admiration and desire.
I like this proposition because it seems to me both obviously and simply true and deceptively complex, so that I found my initial assent quickly complicated by a number of questions. How do we define the boundaries of the worlds that our athletic heroes and we ourselves supposedly inhabit? How do we measure the distance between those worlds? What is the role of proximity in that experience? After all, while that distance may be essential, I think we’re only likely to perceive it and experience it and the thrill it supposedly delivers, if we are also somehow close to those heroes—close either physically or in some other, metaphorical sense.
This same passage offers the first reference to the two primary “experiences” that Gumbrecht explicitly identifies in this section of the book: “transfiguration” and “fascination.” There’s a kind of chain of equivalence or association that stretches across these three sentences in this passage that makes me think that “transfiguration of heroes” = “addiction to sports” = “turning athletes into objects of admiration and desire” — all of which occur under the “condition” of “a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world”. Later, that “transfiguring power” will be described in terms of its effect: “drawing his gaze to things he would no normally appreciate, like grotesquely overweight wrestlers, woolen caps with shields, or half-naked bodies that hold no sexual interest.” (p. 16)
But that makes the experience of the transfiguration of athletes appear as the flip side of what is happening to us in that same moment: namely, “fascination” when something “irresistibly captures the attention and imagination of so many people like himself” or “a phenomenon that manages to paralyze the eyes, something that endlessly attracts, without implying any explanation for its attraction” (p 16).
It’s in view of this that Gumbrecht’s decision to open the book with a series of vividly described sensory memories begins to make more sense and operate more powerfully. For he’s interested, in a nutshell, in the material, sensory experiences that arise between two (or more) bodies involved (as participant or witness) in a sporting performance and he wants to isolate and convey the involuntary and pre- or ir- or extra-rational dimensions of those experiences. And this makes sense to me when I recall what I know of the history of aesthetics, which began as a philosophy of sensation (the word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthesis which just means “sensation” — we might consider this in relation to the term anesthesia). If Gumbrecht’s book is about athletic beauty and we think of aesthetics as philosophical thinking about beauty, then I see here that his first contribution is to assert very strongly, in form, style, and content, the irreducibly material quality of athletic beauty.
This emphasis on materiality, on the bodies involved, may also explain Gumbrecht’s brief meditation on the difference between remembering an athletic performance and witnessing one in the present. “Watching sports,” he reports, was about “being there when and where things happened and forms emerged through bodies, in real presence and in real time” (p. 14). In this sense, memories are a second best to “lived experience.” But that doesn’t make them useless or irrelevant. He describes a kind of mutual complication and intensification arising from the interaction of memories with lived experience whereby the past is recharged by the present and the present is complicated or enriched by the memory of the past. What strikes me as interesting here, though I don’t know whether Gumbrecht explicitly intends it or not, is that he’s suggesting that another complicated interplay between distance and presence or proximity is important to the sporting experience: the temporal distance between past and present.
Finally, Gumbrecht confesses that he really doesn’t know why this is so fascinating to him and he’s not even sure that the attraction will “become more intense if he knew its reasons. (p. 16). He’s certainly quick to say that sports don’t need “this kind of wordy blessing.” But he concludes that “he would not want to exclude the possibility that trying to understand his fascination may intensify his pleasure, and help him learn how to praise the achievements of his heroes, then and now” (p. 16).
I like this. I like it a lot. I like the idea that understanding may deepen pleasure (something I’m often trying to impress upon my sports fan students: that understanding need not be the enemy of love; perhaps even that true love cannot do without understanding). I like that the impulse to understanding is related to an impulse to speak, to praise, to affirm, not because sports needs that affirmation, but because, it seems, Gumbrecht can’t help himself; the impulse to praise is irrepressible. But I like it finally because he wants to do it well, he wants his writing in praise of athletic beauty to be as beautiful, as fascinating, as transfiguring as the performance itself. He wants, in other words, to do in words what his athletic heroes have done with their bodies: on the ice, the field, the mat, the ring, the court.
For today, I’d like to just work out a kind of overview of the text by summarizing what seem to be aims and giving you an outline of its structure. After that, I just plan to offer my readings, which is to say my understanding, interpretation, and questions concerning, the different sections of the book, in order, over the course of a number of posts.
The Book and Its Author
The book actually first appeared in a German-language edition under the title Lob des Sports in 20015. An English edition appeared in 2006, published by Harvard University Press. I haven’t seen the German and so I can’t speak to whether the English is a translation or substantially different book.
As for the author, Gumbrecht is a German-born (1948) Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. In this capacity, he writes about national literatures in the Romance Languages and about European philosophy, especially French and German and especially of the 19th century. I’m not familiar with most of Gumbrecht’s work, but what I have encountered has been very impressive to me for its erudition, its breadth and scope, the quality of its writing, and the focused attention on the relationship between everyday experience and cultural artifacts and events. His book on sports seems primarily to grow out of his experience as sports fan, an experience that is informed by his familiarity with European philosophies of art and aesthetic experience.
What is the book about?
If you look at the book jacket, it will tell you that Gumbrecht’s book proposes “a powerful and provocative” argument that “the fascination with watching sports is probably the most popular and potent contemporary form of aesthetic experience.” Where we fans might simply call certain athletic moves or plays “beautiful,” Gumbrecht’s book is supposed to provide “the means to explore, understand, and enjoy even more acutely the untamed aesthetic experience that our words-in-passing barely suggest.” I’m not certain who wrote this prose. But my own experience with academic publishing leads me to guess that Gumbrecht himself at least provided its main lines.
(I haven’t decided yet, but it may also be important that the blurbs for the book come from Walt Harris [at the time Stanford’s football coach], Myles Brand [then President of the NCAA], and Diana Nyad [marathon swimmer and journalist].)
How is the book structured?
The book has four main parts, preceded by a short introduction. In outline form, it looks like this:
Fascinations (descriptions, illuminated by examples, of some of what he believes we are drawn to in sports)
Gratitude (a kind of existential meditation on some of the deeper life issues that the aesthetic experience of sports can lead us to encounter)
I’ve organized the first seven weeks of my course around sections 1, 2, 4, and 5 (omitting “Discontinuities” from the syllabus because we’ll be getting our history in other forms). But I’m interested in the book for reasons that go beyond this course. So here I’m planning to share my experience of reading through all twenty sections of text, section by section, in however polished or rough a form my notes, reflections and questions may appear. I hope it will be of some use to some readers and, as always, I welcome responses and dialogue.