The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

IMG_2056 (1)I spoke recently to the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. I enjoyed reframing and revising the work on LeBron James’s “Decision” and “Return” that I published in Ball Don’t Lie! and also producing what I hope is an engaging visual accompaniment.

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

Inventing Basketball Autonomy (Ball Don’t Lie! Excerpt)

Allen Iverson was recently elected into the basketball Hall of Fame. To honor his inspiring career, I offer this excerpt from my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.

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.”

Read the rest of Ball Don’t Lie!

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Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post.  In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.

Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.

In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally.  I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them.  In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.

At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.

Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so.  For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers.  But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.

Some Premises

First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.

Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.

I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric.  That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.

Thoughts and Questions on Winning

That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball.  It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams.  Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point.  And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.

But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.

  • Is the drive to win really natural?
  • If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
  • According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
  • How were those criteria determined? And by who?
  • What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
  • What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
  • What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
  • How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
  • Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?

I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time.  I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here.  But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight.  In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.

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“Gladiators” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 6)

Hans Gumbrecht continues his brief history of sports in the West by turning from the ancient Greek games at Olympia to the very different events held hundreds of years later at the Colosseum in Rome.  Gumbrecht’s account of this is divided between descriptions of these events and an interpretation of what allure they may have held for the tens of thousands of spectators who attended.

Gumbrech vividly fills out our often oversimplified stock images of these events.  Thus, a program of events, usually paid for by a sponsor to curry favor with the populace and organized by a hired planner (called an “editor”) might last several days and include Greek style athletic events, simulated hunts, chariot races, reenactments of historical battles, music, and, yes, as the culminating attraction, gladiatorial combat. Here, though Gumbrecht professes to be wishing to stress discontinuities in sport history, he notes the obvious ways in which these extravaganzas resemble our contemporary mega-events.

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna --- Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna — Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

The most interesting part of this section of the book is, I think, Gumbrecht’s speculation concerning what might have been fascinated Romans about this.  We tend to think it is a kind of frenzy of distraction and bloodlust.  But, as Gumbrecht informs us, modern research maintains that by a ratio of 10:1, vanquished combatants were not killed, but rather released. So it wasn’t likely to be the prospect of seeing some hapless possibly overmatched or outwitted fighter killed that made these battles the main event.

Gumbrecht:

Together with the initial asymmetry between the combatants, the moment of truth must have drawn the crowd’s attention exclusively toward not the victor but the loser, who—for a few moments at least–lived publicly in the face of death (p. 105)

And what they wanted to see, Gumbrecht argues (prefiguring some comments he will make in a later chapter describing our own contemporary fascination with suffering) is “composure, a face ‘frozen as ice,’ ‘hard as stone,’ impenetrable as a mask” (p 106).  The combat in itself therefore was less important, he claims, than the moment it led up to; the moment in which the defeated gladiator could be transfigured through his public stoicism in the face of death into a heroic “icon for the psychic strength required to brave human frailty” (p. 106).

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Two aspects of this strike me as interesting.  The first is how strikingly familiar this attraction seems to me as a contemporary fan and student of sports cultures.  That is, not only is the stage spectacular mega-event context for the moment of truth somewhat continuous with modern sports, but so is appeal of the image of the human face overcoming the agony of coming to the limit point of physical destruction, mental stress, sheer exhaustion, or even simply tragic defeat.  Again, I’m a bit surprised to find that Gumbrecht’s own accounts, aimed at disrupting a “romantic view” of continuity between ancient and modern sports continue to show the opposite, at least as I understand them.

The other striking element of this is the important role played by competition in this scenario.  In his definition of athletics, Gumbrecht stressed the defining importance to his conception of athletics of arete (the striving for excellence) at the expense of agon (competition).  But here, it seems, excellence really doesn’t play much of a role and, even if competition is not the ultimate aim, it is a necessary catalyst to the staging of the moment that Gumbrecht believe was most fascinating to the ancient Roman spectator.

I’m interested in this because I’m continually trying to find ways to articulate my own sense that competition and the drive to win is essential to my enjoyment of sports, but not because winning (or losing) is especially interesting to me (even as a partisan of particular teams). It is because of all that competition sets in motion before, during, and after a contest.  In this too, I see more continuity than discontinuity between the fascination of modern sports and Gumbrecht’s description of sports in ancient times.

“Demigods” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 5)

Having defined the key terms of his investigation, “praise,” “beauty,” and “athletics,” Hans Gumbrecht proceeds, in the “Discontinuities” section of his In Praise of Athletic Beauty, to provide an outline history of sports in the West.  But he wishes, he states from the outset, to disrupt what he calls the “romantic view” of this history which sees it as a continuous line from the ancient Olympics to the mega-events of today’s sports world (p. 85).

Instead, he argues, if you look at the history of sport from the vantage point of the variables he has already defined, “present-day sports are no longer the endpoint of one of htose long sagas of progress or decay that we have all read so many times” and this, he claims, is important because it “allows us to ask how it was possible—historically possible, I mean—that sports became so expansive and so important in our own time” (p. 88).

To that end, he will provide “brief sketches” of seven moments, each summed up with a one-word title.  Thus, “Demigods” refers to Ancient Greece, “Gladiators” to Ancient Rome, “Knights” to the middle ages, “Ruffians” to the Renaissance, “Sportsmen” to the 19th century, “Olympians” to the 20th century, and “Customers” to our own era. I’ll be covering all of these, but for today’s post, I’m gonna stick to just the first of these: “Demigods.”

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Olympia around 325 BCE

Gumbrecht begins by evoking an image of the arduous journey of days and even weeks undertaken by hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to the village of Olympia every four years between 776 BCE and 394 BCE in order to ask the question that’s been driving most of his reflections thus far: ‘what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been? (p. 91). After briefly describing the lush, remote valley setting of Olympia, and the religious rituals and athletic contests unfolding over the five days of the games, Gumbrecht turns to the Odes of Pindar to get some answers to his question.

[For those whose knowledge of classical literature is sketchy, a little background information might be helpful here. Pindar of Thebes was a poet who lived from 518 BCE to probably 443 BCE. In the words of my colleague David Potter, in his work The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, “Pindar was a poet who became famous because he wrote poems about the famous. His subjects were people who won at one or another of the four great athletic festivals of his time” (The Victor’s Crown, p. 37). And, according to Donald Kyle in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Pindar was “the greatest writer of victory (epinikian) odes,” having “composed 45 poems for victors from 16 states” in which he articulated “an aristorcratic ideology of athletic preparation, competition, and victory.” (Sport and Spectacle, p. 203) Pindar’s Odes, then, are widely used by scholars trying to convey a sense of athletics in Greece during this period.]

Gumbrecht sees in Pindar an “obsessive focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs” (p. 96) and so draws from this the conclusion that for spectators must have been drawn to the experience of “being in the presence—in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance” (p. 96).  And he goes on to emphasize that this pleasure would be heightened by the “winner-take-all” emphasis at the games and, according to Gumbrecht, “in many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece” (p. 96).

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It’s all about the W.

I understand that Gumbrecht’s emphasis on the appeal of physical presence echoes the importance he has already sought to bodies and presence in his more theoretical, definitional meditations. And, though I am no expert in classical literature and culture, what little I have read of Pindar’s Odes seem to support his conjecture.  I was, however, surprised to find Gumbrecht emphasize the central importance of winning (and so of competition) to the fascination of the games for spectators given that in his definition of athletics he argued that competition (agon) is secondary to excellence (arete) in athletics.  But perhaps for Gumbrecht this exemplifies the sort of “discontinuity” that he wants to highlight.  However, since I don’t really accept, theoretically or practically, his hierarchization (and occasional separation) of “excellence” and “competition”, his description here strikes me as quite familiar: “Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness” (p. 97). GoBlue.

The continuity between the ancient and the contemporary is even more evident when Gumbrecht turns to what was it in for the athletes: a springboard to success in other careers, fame, and fortune.  As he rightly concludes, in the ancient Olympic games “a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the ‘amateur’ in the modern Olympic tradition” (p. 98).  There’s an irony there involving, to put it bluntly, the hypocritical and ahistorical nonsense involved in deploying the category of the “amateur” as a moralizing bludgeon in the contemporary sporting universe, especially in the United States.

“But above all,” Gumbrecht comes to his conclusion, the games were appealing because “being in the presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods.”  He reminds us that unlike in the monotheistic traditions, the line dividing the divide from the mundane was porous.  Rather than a transcendent deity perched on an immaterial throne, Greek gods roamed the earth and messed with human beings.

This, Gumbrecht argues, would dispose the Greek imagination to experience the athletic contests and achievements they witnessed as on a continuum with the divine attributes and battles with which they were familiar.

Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of ‘hero’ is ‘demigod’). (p. 99)

To be in the immediate presence of such figures would understandably become an ecstatic experience, one that would make them feel “not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part” (p. 99).  Again, I’m not expert enough to gainsay this explanation.  It seems plausible to me, if perhaps overly general and somewhat simplified.

But here again, I’m struck that Gumbrecht doesn’t seem, given his avowed dedication to establishing discontinuity, to recognize the continuity here between the classical and the contemporary.  Pretty much every experience and value he attributes to the ancient Greek spectator (or athlete, for that matter), I think we could find in contemporary athletics. This doesn’t of course mean that there is an unbroken line connecting them, some transhistorical essential experience of athletics that simply incarnates itself continuously in every society at every moment in time over 2,500 years.  But it does suggest that seeing some continuities might be more than just a romantic tic.  What’s more, it suggests that seeing continuities might as important to understanding the scope and nature of modern sport in the West as recognizing discontinuities.

I’ll leave you with this astonishing and hilarious exhibition of how, for us as well, at least for some—for many—of us, “religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”

“Beauty” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 3)

What are we saying when we say that an athletic play is “beautiful”? This is the question to which Hans Gumbrecht turns in the second subsection of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty. You might recall that in the preceding section he defined “praise” as speech or writing, motivated by gratitude, that lays bare the complexity of forms exhibited in athletic performance and relates these to their function and effect.  How, he’s now asking, should we understand “beauty” in the context of athletics?

Gumbrecht begins by observing that, at least among intellectuals or those he calls “cultivated people,” use of the word “beauty” tends to be reserved for canonical objects of high culture such as poems and novels, paintings and sculptures, musical compositions and dramatic performances.  Aesthetic experience, he considers, is thereby reserved for an intellectual elite and divorced from everyday life experiences.

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Immanuel Kant, Sporty Dude

This leads him into the first of the two major parts of this chapter, in which he turns to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who authored a highly influential treatise on aesthetics.  For those who have tangled with Kant’s famously difficult prose, this might seem like a strange resource to bring into a battle to make a common vocabulary for describing aesthetic experience available to sports fans.  But Gumbrecht contends, correctly I think, that Kant’s treatise, called Critique of Judgment, was undertaken as “an attempt to understand the implications of the everyday use of the word ‘beautiful'” (p. 39).

Though, I must say that I think Gumbrecht offers one of the most lucid summaries of Kant’s work that I have encountered, one that even my group of undergraduates with next to no experience in the humanities seemed to be able to grasp, I think there are more promising sources in the history of aesthetic philosophy for this task.  John Dewey’s Art as Experience comes to mind as a more contemporary (it was written in the 1930s), more accessible, and more persuasive attempt to redress the same cultivated aversion to the beautiful the experiences of daily life.  And, indeed, Dewey’s work has inspired some contemporary philosophers (to name just a few: Joseph Kupfer, Drew Hyland, Randolph Feezell, and indirectly Richard Shusterman) who have undertaken to understand the aesthetic dimensions of sporting experience.  That said, I do think Gumbrecht pulls off the use of Kant quite effectively.

To do so, Gumbrecht attributes to Kant four defining qualities of what we call beautiful, or, to put it slightly different, of aesthetic experience. First, it is “disinterested,” meaning not that we don’t care about what we find beautiful, but rather that in experiencing and valuing something as beautiful we are not motivated by instrumental concerns such as making money, or finding a better job, or even winning a game.  That doesn’t mean that those concerns may not play a role in creating something beautiful (Steph Curry is trying to get paid, after all, as he should be), but rather that success or failure in that regard have no impact on our judgment of the thing as beautiful (pp 40-41).

Second, aesthetic experience is felt (“an inner pleasure or displeasure”), rather than grounded in or aiming at conceptualization.  This speaks to the material basis for aesthetic experience (the very word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek word meaning simply “sensation”; so that “anesthesia” is a substance that deprives us of sensation).  Before we can think about it, we call beautiful that to which we are drawn (and “ugly” that by which we are repelled) (p. 42).

Third, aesthetic experience partakes of what Kant calls “subjective universality.”  It is an irreducibly subjective, even private or intimate, experience, but one that invites others to share in them. In Gumbrecht’s words, “our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even then invitation, for everybody to agree” (pp. 42-43).

Lastly, those objects (or activities or experiences) we tend to call “beautiful” exhibit what is usually summarized by the formula: “purposiveness without purpose” (p. 44).  It need not have a purpose, let alone the purpose to be considered beautiful, but it appears to have had a purpose or design to it.  You can think of ocean wave or an oak tree in full autumn colors.  And, indeed both Kant and Gumbrecht stress the kinship between the properties of what we call beautiful in, say, art (or sport) and what we consider beautiful in nature (p. 45).

Before moving on from Kant, Gumbrecht devotes a few, mostly dismissive words, to what Kant called “the sublime,” distinguishing it from “the beautiful.”  The sublime refers to objects or experiences that, in contrast to the formally limited nature of the beautiful, generates an experience of limitlessness, of “that which is absolutely great…in comparison with which everything else is small” and that which may threaten to overwhelm us.  Here, following Kant directly, you can think of “nature in its chaos and in its wildest and most unruly disorder and devastation.”  Gumbrecht considers that, despite the interest of many sports lovers in records which would seem to suggest an investment in quantitative greatness, the “sublime has less of an affinity with sports than does the concept of beauty.”

landing-overview

If this is sublime…

Maybe or maybe not.  But my students and I found ourselves thinking that Gumbrecht underestimates the role of the sublime in our aesthetic experience of sports.  We considered that action sports offer superb opportunities for spectators to experience the sublime.  And moreover, that certain exhibitions of unparalleled domination (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, for example) or of simply superlative performance under severe duress (Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” Isaiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter in a playoff game on a badly injured ankle, Curt Schilling pitching with a torn achilles tendon) can also stimulate this experience: a deep sense of awe at the overwhelming magnitude of the play or performance we’ve just witnessed.

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isn’t this?

But regardless of that minor difference, the point of what Gumbrecht has done with Kant was to convince readers that “watching sports may be a case of what philosophers call aesthetic experience” (p. 48).  And in this I believe he succeeds.  But he worries that Kant may be too dry—ya think?!—and so he moves to what I find the most inventive part of this chapter.

122fffdc20137d7ba2a92016abef1310Recalling an autobiographical account by Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales of his experience as a spectator watching Evelyn Ashford running the anchor leg of the women’s 400 meter relay in the 1988 Olympics, Gumbrecht seizes on Morales description of what he saw in Ashford.  She was, the swimmer said, the “lost in focused intensity” and the power of that brought Morales back, despite reservations about the sacrifices involved, into competition after a four year layoff.  Gumbrecht breaks this phase down, riffing off each of its component terms, as a way, he hopes, to get a little closer “to an understanding of the specific beauty of sports among all other varieties of aesthetic experience” (49).

“Lost” Gumbrecht understands to be the equivalent of Kant’s “disinterestedness,” the athlete “alone with herself, lost to the world, disconnected from all the goals that made up her everyday life, even from the goals that—extrinsically or intrinsically—belong to the athletic event in which she participated” (p. 52).

“Intensity,” in the first place, refers what Morales believes describes Ashford’s feelings, “both her emotions and the perception of her own body” (p. 52).  Gumbrecht interprets this term to suggest an intensification or “heightening of qualities and impressions that always already exist for us” and concludes that “athletic experience—and aesthetic experience in general—is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” only that in this case “our physical and emotional capacities are operating close to their maximum” (p. 52).

That’s nice, and I agree wholeheartedly.  But I (nerdily) kept wanting to say “John Dewey! John Dewey!” for this is the entire point of Dewey’s own aesthetic treatise, Art as Experience, which takes as its points of departure and as the core of all aesthetic experience “the live creature” in its environment, citing as examples of the aesthetic in daily life:

“the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders. . . . the tense grace of the ball-player.”

But okay, that’s enough of my riding for Dewey. For whatever reason, Gumbrecht prefers Kant.

Lastly, the “focused” part of Morales’ formula suggests to Gumbrecht the stance that Drew Hyland has called “responsive openness” in the chapter on “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic” in his 1991 work, Philosophy of Sport.  Here, though, Gumbrecht adds something useful (and likely to be recognizable to anyone with athletic experience) by pointing out the seemingly paradoxical combination by which an athlete both excludes potential distractions and remains open to the unexpected.  There is here a hint of what Gumbrecht will dwell on in the next section defining athletics as “presence.”  But that grounded presence in the here (space) and now (time) makes the athlete available to respond gracefully to what may arise unexpectedly from elsewhere (space) in the next unfolding moment (time). A bit later, he’ll sum this up by saying “great athletes make things happen by letting things happen to themselves” (p. 56).

I find Gumbrecht at his most compelling here in his way of describing what Andrew Cooper, following athletes themselves, describes as “playing in the zone” (linking it to spiritual practices) and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.”  But we’re talking about watching sports, not playing them, remember.  So Gumbrecht brings us back to that by simply recalling his own experiences as a spectator in which that feeling of being “lost in focused intensity” have taken over: “moments when my attention grows sharper and my emotions become overwhelming” but that are ‘always accompanied by a feeling of composure” (p. 55).  He’s capturing an experience of spectatorship that encompasses partisanship (wanting your team to succeed) but goes well beyond it to include an absorption in the unfolding action that allows Gumbrecht at least to “feel I can let go and let come (or not) the things that I desire to come. I am open to the next experience, whatever it may be (p. 56).

With this passage, Gumbrecht gets at something I’ve experienced myself and that the philosopher Steven Mumford has analyzed thoroughly in his book Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion.  Though Mumford, to his credit, attempts to make room for a question raised by one of my students:  can we still call a play beautiful if the athlete making it is, off the field or court or ice, ethically repulsive (say, like Schilling)?  What is or should be, in other words, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  As I explained in my earlier posts on Gumbrecht, he’s so averse to what he dismisses as socio-cultural interpretations of sport that he really leaves no room to consider this question, which I consider a perfectly valid one.

To pivot, finally, to the next section of the book, Gumbrecht reminds us that all of this has really been about the “subjective conditions” under which “we call sports beautiful.”  But we also need to discover “whether there is anything intrinsically specific about athletic performance as an object of aesthetic experience”; anything, he wonders, “that could ‘objectively’ account for its irresistible appeal and for its so often overwhelming impact.”  But I’ll leave my account of his response to that line of questioning for my next post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of the classroom whiteboard diagram reflecting my Writing the Sporting Body students’ discussion of this reading:

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“Praise” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty)

“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:

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Nothing, Everything, and Something: On Watching Association Football

In my Global Sports Cultures course this fall, we’ll devote two weeks to association football.  The first, early on, will focus on the issues at stake in the 2006 Men’s World Cup Final between Italy and France, in which French star and captain Zinedine Zidane head butted Italian defender Mateo Materazzi (who, it appears, had made some inflammatory comments to Zidane). Zidane was ejected and Italy won the match on penalty kicks.  The second unit, later in the term, will be on what you might call the Legend of Diego Maradona. In other words, we’ll look at how Maradona is perceived and, in fact, constructed by the media, fans (and haters), and artists. Some excellent, thoughtful material has been produced on both these topics. And these materials will anchor our discussions.  But I wanted to share some of what I’ll offer my students by way of orientation to the world’s most popular sport.

First thing, we’re gonna call it “football” or “association football.” Yes, I know we’re in America and if I don’t like it I can just, blah blah blah.  No, duh, I’m not going to make you call “elevators” “lifts” or make you raise your hand for permission to go the “lou.” Yes, I recognize the confusion since, as Michigan students but above all as Americans, football means something else to you, something much closer to your heart.  And no, finally, it’s not that big a deal whether you call it “football” or soccer.”  It’s more like a small deal that’s connected to bigger deals.  So let’s call this little exercise practice for the bigger deals.

Naming matters. They may in some ways be arbitrary, but they matter because we care about the things named and we care about the things because we’ve got something of ourselves bound up in them.  Through names we come to express and shape who we are as individuals and as members of groups and through names we exercise our power to shape our place in the world and the paths of our lives.  That’s what the rest of the world (except Americans and those who speak Afrikaans) are doing when they call the sport they love and devote themselves to “football” (or something that sounds like it).

What are we doing—in relation to them—by insisting on calling it “soccer”?

Let that question percolate in the back of your mind this week as you participate in this awkward linguistic experiment and learn more about the sport, its history, and its relationship to world politics.  I’m not saying we have to be absolutists or purists about it.  I’m not going to correct you everytime you make the mistake.  And I’m going to make the mistake myself.  But just while we’re working in this class let’s try the exercise and the experiment of adopting the language of the rest of the world and see if that doesn’t start to help us feel a little bit what the rest of the world feels and understand a bit of what the rest of the world understands.

Now, I’m imagining that few of you make watching football a regular part of your sporting diet.  I’m guessing that if I asked most of you why this is you’d say something like it’s kind of boring, you don’t like the dives players take, and it’s stupid to have ties broken by penalty kicks.  You might grudgingly admit that the players are impressive athletes, and you probably will know someone who (or you yourself will have) played as a kid, and, finally, you probably follow the fortunes of the US men’s and women’s national teams—USA! USA! (who in the world doesn’t love that?!)—every four years during the World Cup organized by FIFA (the International Football Federation).

All of this is the product of a combination of factors (involving corporate media, American popular culture, the structure of sports, and so on) that have, in effect, caused you to develop certain habits, expectations, and attentional rhythms in relation to watching sports.  I’m not thinking that two units on football is going to undo all that.  But I am hoping that by  being exposed to the ways, both painful and inspiring, that the rest of the world cares passionately about the sport—and in tandem with having to call it football—you can begin if not to care about the sport yourself, then at least to have recognized that there is nothing natural or objective or necessary about your disinterest or aversion.

That said, in the spirit of walking that path with you in solidarity, let me just share with you some feelings that I have when watching football.  I played it from the time I was a kid through high school, and was a pretty good player.  But it is not my favorite sport to watch.  In fact, my favorite sport to watch—basketball—is in at least one way about as far from football as you can get.  In the average 48 minute NBA game last year, 200 points were scored.  That’s more points than were scored by all the teams in any single World Cup tournament in history put together.  Now, I must say that the heroic individual goal scored against all odds is pretty stirring.

But that doesn’t happen all that often.  So football would seem to hold little promise for a hoops junkie like myself, accustomed to a basket being scored a couple of times a minute.

Still, despite all this, I enjoy watching football from time to time.  What do I enjoy?  Well, for one thing I like what appears to me like calm.  It seems not uncommon for players at times to jog or even walk up the field.  I like that. It reminds me that even in the midst of some important tasks it’s important to pace myself, which is to say, it reminds me of the importance of breadth in perspective.

In fact, I see in those islands of calm a demonstration of perspective in relation to some pretty fundamental life categories: time (I’m walking because I’m aware there will be another moment in which all my energy is required), space (I’m walking because I’m aware that the action is elsewhere right now), purpose (I’m walking because I’m aware that the needs of my team require me to conserve my energy), and self (I’m walking because I’m aware of my role in the unfolding action of this match).  These are pretty important life lessons.  I sometimes lose track of them.  And so I find it helpful, and refreshing and reassuring to encounter them in the midst of a football game.

The next thing may sound like  it contradicts the first.  I like the rhythm, in a football match, of long stretches of what seems like nothing, punctuated by instants of what seem like everything.  Because isn’t that a bit like life as well?  Let me explain with an anecdote.

Close to twenty years ago I took a class in Zen Buddhist Meditation at the temple on Packard Street here in Ann Arbor.  When I arrived for my first class, one of the assistants greeted me at the door and asked me to take my shoes off.  I wasn’t expecting it, but it didn’t surprise me since it fit with my preconceptions.  But, as I begin to sort of wrestle off my left shoe with the sole of my right foot, he gently stopped me, invited me to sit down on a nearby bench, and to pay attention as I took my shoes off, first one, unlacing, using both hands, and then the other, unlacing, using both hands.  And to pay attention as I placed them, carefully side by side, laces now tucked unobtrusively into the tops of the shoes, in the place reserved for them.  Now I was surprised, and a bit perplexed.  I also felt a bit ashamed, as if some longstanding clumsy oafishness on my part had suddenly been exposed to me and to the world.

By way of explanation, the assistant explained that 99 % of life is made up of things like taking your shoes off, mundane things—we see them as necessities, or transitions, or delays, or interruptions—that we do on the way to the “important” things that actually only make up 1 % of our lives.  We expect ourselves to perform at top capacity for those important moments and activities: to be fully present and prepared to think, feel and act in graceful concert.

But we haven’t given ourselves a very good chance to do so if we haven’t trained ourselves in presence, if we haven’t cultivated in ourselves the ability to be fully absorbed by and responsive to the needs of every present moment.  Paying attention during the 99 % of our lives that seem unimportant is, among other things, a way to prepare ourselves for those things that happen less frequently and carry greater emotional impact:  the career-changing professional opportunity, the wedding, the birth, the death of loved ones, our own aging, illness and imminent death.  Seems like football players get this.  Or at least, when I watch, I’m reminded of it.  And it seems I can never get enough reminders of or practice in that.

Now, as a spectator, it can be harder to maintain that focus that football players have throughout the match.  But, when I can manage to absorb myself in the long stretches of what looks—to my basketball eye—like nothing, I find, well, something.  Maybe not everything.  But something. And, moreover, I find the ways in which that something that previously looked like nothing is actually seamlessly connected to the parts that seem like everything.  Suddenly, the continuity of action that used to just get in the way of me getting more nachos or going to the bathroom for fear I’d miss something—everything!—becomes a riveting lesson in the dynamic, complex web of cause and effect that makes up life.

Who is to say, in that flowing river of action, where exactly the beginning and the end lie? Do you suppose that something has ended when a goal is scored? Do you think the players on the pitch feel that way?  Who is to say what was important and what was not important in the combination?  And who is to say what was necessary and what was accidental? For, it’s not that it suddenly appears that every thing led perfectly and inevitably to that outcome.  I can see all kinds of little chance wobbles and bounces and deviations as destiny runs its course.  At any moment, it seems, it could have gone a different way. But there it is. It went this way, and who is to say?

Then, when I stop looking at what is in fact something as if it were just a barren nothing between rare and precious everythings, then that something reveals beauties and charms of its own.  These may or may not have value I can perceive in terms of their relationship to, say, the scoring of goals.  But, in this absorbed state of attention, they possess an intrinsic value.  The arc traced by this player as he loops behind a teammate, while another teammate charges, straight, down the far sideline, the tap tap of two short passes, the ball tumbling along carelessly, before rocketing off the foot of a midfielder to sail, sail, sail—as bodies rearrange themselves in anticipation—before landing, corralled by the foot of a striker, who manages this even while keeping an eye on a defender closing in fast and hard.

This is something.  There is something in this.  Something that is valuable in itself.  And something that is valuable because of the way it is also nothing and everything and so temporarily collapses the hierarchical structure I’ve made of the world.  Sometimes, don’t get me wrong, this makes me anxious and stressed out and annoyed at the sport. Like I said, it’s not my favorite sport to watch.  But sometimes, the result is not the chaotic rubbled heap of ruined projects and plans (or at least not only that), but also serenity and the enjoyment of seeing possibilities playfully popping up at every turn.  That it can provoke this effect at all, in the face of the combined force of corporate media interests, American imperialism and, not least, the inclinations and aversions marking my own personality, is a testament to its power.

On Boxing

Here’s a little introductory reflection I just wrote for my Global Sports Cultures students in preparation for our unit on Muhammad Ali, which will be in our second week of classes.

Probably when most of us think of boxing we have strong reactions.  You may have mixed feelings, but I think few people are indifferent to boxing.   It’s good to note the difference between emotional ambivalence and emotional indifference.  Mixed feelings can sometimes be hard to tolerate, especially when they are strong.  Strong mixed feelings can be confusing or disorienting.  Usually when we have a strong feeling we take it as a pretty clear guide to action. Love something? Go toward it! Hate something? Go away from it.  But what if you have mixed feelings? What do you do then? How do you decide what to do?  Many people try to make this confusion and paralysis go away by simply pretending that one of their feelings is the “real” one, and they explain away the other as “false.”  Or, at least, they might decide that one of the feelings is just the most important one.

It sounds like I think this is a bad thing.  But I don’t think so, not necessarily anyway.  When we have to act, urgently, it’s important to prioritize and compartmentalize this way.  But, when we have the luxury of not having to act immediately, when we have the luxury of taking the time to experience our feelings and to reflect on them and whatever we think is causing them, we have an exceptional opportunity to learn a great deal about ourselves and our world—an opportunity that is not to be missed; an opportunity you have right now just by being in this course.  So take it.  Here, I’ll go first.

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I’m terrified of boxing.  I’ve never once in my life struck another person or been struck by one (if you don’t count a spanking my father gave me when I was a little boy). The force of the blows in a boxing match make cringe.  I mean literally, physically cringe.  And wince, and kind of crunch up my shoulders, as if to protect myself from something.  And the anticipation of more punches, more force, more contact, more blood, more violence gives me a feeling similar to what I get watching a suspenseful horror movie (which I also hate): a kind of knot in my stomach that seems to tie together all the tensed muscles in my entire body.

All of this, I notice, also makes me feel something like a creeping sense of shame. When I look at that shame I see that it resembles the feeling I have when I enter a hardware store and have to ask questions, or when I go take my car to get fixed and don’t know what they are talking about.  It is as though I’m somehow not man enough.  After all, these activities—fighting, tools, cars—have been traditionally associated with men.  I’ve grown up in the same culture as everyone else and however much I may be aware that there is no intrinsic, necessary connection—no causal—connection between punching someone, hammering a nail, and changing your oil and being male, I’m still prey to a certain insecurity in those moments.  It’s an insecurity about my masculinity.  Probably to compensate for this, or defend myself against the belief that really truly I do have a reason to be ashamed, I also notice a rising sense of disdainful superiority toward those who gleefully revel in every punch, watching the critical highlight over and over again.  I think that feeling lets me imagine something like this:  “You may be more of a man than me, but you’re less of a human.”   I don’t say it.  I’m not even conscious that I’m thinking it in the moment that I have that feeling.  But still, there it is.

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However, it doesn’t stop there.  I’m also fascinated by boxing. Having never once been in a fight, the image of two men fearlessly (or bravely, because they overcome their fear) charging at each other, trying to hit each other in the face as hard as possible, hopefully to actually render the other man unconscious is utterly alien to me—I just can’t put myself in that picture, you know?  However, it’s also strangely familiar to me, because even if I haven’t ever been in a fight, I’ve certainly felt the desire to strike other people, even to pound them mercilessly within inches of their lives.  And in that fantasy, knowing the whole time that I’m asserting my domination over them, and that they know this too only sweetens the image.  So there’s something at once completely foreign and distant and something intimately familiar, primally my own in boxing. It appears I find that combination fascinating.

Now those are just some of the feelings, mixed and strong, as you can see, that I notice in myself when I encounter boxing.  I want to explore your versions of these this week.  To narrow that a bit and provide a focus, we’re going to look at one boxer in particular, Muhammad Ali and even at one fight in particular, his 1974 heavyweight championship fight against the reigning champion and heavily favored American boxer George Foreman.  That will give us something very specific to consider. And, we’ll see, in the course of this (that is, if we didn’t know or imagine it already in our foolishness), the technique, intelligence, imagination and artistry that boxers weave into their sport.

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But, to complicate this, we’re going to provide a framework for thinking about how we feel about boxing, about Ali, and about that fight.  That framework will involve culture, and society, and history.  Boxing—that elemental human thing going on it between two men, Ali and Foreman, between the ropes—will also be inseparable from (shaped and shaped by) world political events like wars, dictatorships, colonization and revolution and by human attitudes and practices both vicious (like racism and slavery) and inspiring (like courage and political protest).  And finally, since none of this is unfolding live before our eyes in real time (but even if it were, as you’ll learn), we have to  think about the ways in which these events and figures are portrayed (in technical terms, that’s called the problem of “representation”).

misc_93_20140503_1535945948To help us do this we’ve got two reading assignments and one movie to watch:

When We Were Kings(D. Leon Gast, 1996)

Harvey Young, “Between the Ropes: Staging the Black Body in American Boxing” from Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), pp. 76-118 [CTools].

Michael Ezra, “Introduction” and “Good People” from Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), pp. 1-3 and 135-197 [CTools].

Why (and how to) Read CLR James on Cricket

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What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

Over the past month or so, I’ve been reviewing my plans for Global Sports Culture, a course  I’ll be teaching for just the second time this fall. I knew there were some things I wanted to improve upon based on my first go round and so some changes I needed to make to the content and structure.  I’ve done a lot of that work, including create an interactive concept map which I’m going to share here once I’ve finalized it.

But for all the changes I’ve made (and there are many), one thing I knew early on that I wouldn’t change was the reading assignment for the first week’s lecture, in which I introduce students to the challenges, opportunities, and methods for studying global sports cultures. That’s a week where I want to entice a couple of hundred adolescent sports fans at a Big Ten university that reflecting upon their passion and the cultural objects that incite it can be a valuable thing: not only edifying, but pleasurable in its own right, and even, enhancing of the enjoyment they currently take in sports.  To aid me in this task I have recruited two different, short readings, both of which elegantly—though with different kinds of elegance—make the case for keeping our thinking brains working even as we let our feeling brains run riot in our encounters with sporting cultures.

Sports as Escape, Struggle, and Art

In their superb introduction to Blackwell’s A Companion to Sport, a comprehensive volume the two also edited, Ben Carrington and David Andrews—two of the most prolific and well-regarded sports studies scholars writing today—explain how the study of sports can move us past unhelpful dichotomous approaches to sport that either unsubtly trash it as a kind of opiate excess or naively adore it as a repository of proper values.  Instead, Carrington and Andrews encourage students of sports culture 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 the participants.

This is sport, in their words, as escape, struggle, and art.  We are to see not one or the other, but all three functions at once served in some way or another, though probably in different proportions, in every sporting event.  And, moreover, we are to see that sport’s ability to fulfill these three functions is constrained by the very condition that allows it to serve these functions: namely, that sport is a swatch in the social fabric.

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In this, Carrington and Andrews draw their inspiration from C. L. R. James who thought about sport, they write

as an activity that is simultaneously a space to which we escape for fun, relaxation, and enjoyment, a space charged with social significance and political possibilities for expressing who we are as individuals and the larger communities to which we belong, and as an embodied art form, a physically creative and aesthetic mode of being human, a world replete with all the ugliness and beauty, tragedy and joy, that resides within human society.

James, therefore, provides the second reading with which I begin my course.

For those unfamiliar with him, Cyril Lionel Robert James was, to put it simply, one of the most awe-inspiring cultural and political figures of the twentieth century. Novelist, playwright, philosopher, literary critic, historian, teacher, activist, journalist, cricketer and sports fan, James, who was born in 1901 in a small village in then-colonial Trinidad, lived, traveled and worked in Latin America, the United States, Africa, and England (where he died, in London, in 1989).  James is probably best known for The Black Jacobins, a definitive history of the Haitian revolution.  My personal favorite, for the record, is Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In.  James presents Moby Dick as a prescient portrayal of the industrial and imperial might American would come to acquire in the century after the novel’s publication.  James wrote the book in the United States, while interned on Ellis Island as McCarthy’s HUAC investigated the activist work he’d done in Detroit. James believed the book would reassure his persecutors of his love for what he called “American Civilization.” It didn’t work.

Yet Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, like all his writing, is imbued with extraordinary erudition, a breathtaking capacity to grasp as ambiguity not as an impediment to commitment, but as its precondition, and by an elegant style balanced by a teacher and activist’s commitment to clarity.  All this is in full force in Beyond a Boundary (1963), the work that inspired Carrington and Andrews (and before them several pioneering generations of students of sport and society).  Beyond a Boundary deftly mixes autobiographical recollection, historical analysis of West Indian decolonization, and reflection on the moral, aesthetic, cultural and political dimensions of West Indian cricket (here, by the way, is a documentary that was made of Beyond a Boundary in the late 70s).

Even this brief description probably explains how Beyond a Boundary complements Carrington and Andrews in helping get students to think about sports.  Because of time constraints, however, I can’t assign the entire work.  Instead, I ask them to read Chapter 1, called “The Window,” and the Preface.  Here I just want to share with you my way of reading the Preface, which is extremely brief and yet somehow, remarkably, already expresses in a kind of holographic magic, the whole of Beyond a Boundary and, for that matter, the whole of my course. In fact, it’s so brief that I can show it to you right here.

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Questioning

Now let me show you what we might make of it in class.  The first thing I notice is that James begins by telling us what this book is not: neither “cricket reminiscences nor autobiography.” This might seem curious since the book clearly includes both, and in great detail. So we have a puzzle right from the start: how do we make sense of this? James helps somewhat in the very next sentence, when he tells us what the book is, or rather—significantly—when he tells us what it is by telling us what it does: the book, he says, “poses the question [emphasized by italics] what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”  The question, through its repetition of the terms, requires us to think about the relationship between cricket and knowing (which is to say, for my students, between sports and study).

Imagine that you are sitting with an alien from outer space during a Michigan football game on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn.  The alien has asked you to explain what you are witnessing together. How you choose to answer says a lot about what you know about football but also about what you think is important to know about football.  Would you identify the teams and the players?  Would you talk about where the players come from and how they came to be here? Would you mention that most of them are black? Would you talk about the individual fundamental skills and techniques they are exhibiting? The strategies and tactics employed by coaching staffs and players? The rules? The violence? The behavior of the fans? The history of the stadium? The relationship between what is happening on the field and the mission of the educational institution to which it is attached? The economic aspects?

If you imagine a sport (like cricket or football) as a country with a border clearly separating it from another country, then you might imagine that the best way to know that country would be to ignore everything on the other side of the border.  But James implies with his rhetorical question that to know that country you have to know what is not that country, what is on other side of the border.  But sports and countries aren’t the only things with borders.  Books and genres have them too, or at least we are used to thinking of them that way:  “cricket reminiscences” is a country, clearly separated from another country called “autobiography.”  So now, perhaps, we can see that with his opening line, James is rejecting those confining categories of thought.

Borders and boundaries.  Notice the title of James’s book: Beyond a Boundary.  In cricket, the word “boundary” refers to two things: 1) the edge of the playing field (like the homerun wall in baseball if it encircled the entire diamond and not just the 90 degree slice extending out from home plate); 2) a run scoring play in which the batsman hits the ball over the boundary (like a home run).  But, considering the emphasis James has already placed on crossing boundaries, the title itself echoes and expresses the central lesson: to know—not just cricket, not just sport, but anything—is to cross boundaries, which is to say, to travel (an image the importance of which James will emphasize momentarily).

It’s striking too that James presents this point as a question rather than simply stating: “those who only know cricket don’t really know cricket.” It’s striking, I mean that a proposition about knowledge and its limits should be posed in the form of a question.  For questions, as forms of discourse, are invitations to come to know, to do the traveling required to get to know.  In this sense, James seems to avoid the trap of illusory certainty.

However, the question is also a rhetorical question in two ways.  First, in the usual sense in which the question isn’t really or only a question but also a way of offering the answer: in this case, “nothing.”  But the question is rhetorical in another sense.   On one side we have “know-cricket” and on the other side we have “cricket-know.”  This structure actually has a name: chiasmus (pronounced “Kye-as-muss”).  It is named after the Greek letter chi (which looks like our “x”) because of the criss-cross pattern of the word repetition.
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The symmetry of chiasmus offers a feeling of closure and a sense of completeness that can lead the listener or reader to feel that all aspects of an issue have been accounted for. This is part of what makes chiasmus effective as a figure of speech.  But if the chiasmus work partly because of the impression of completeness and the confidence it can impart to a listener or reader, what happens when a chiasmus takes the form of a question (as it does here)? And a question that challenges the assumptions we might have about the completeness of knowledge?

James’ ironical, rhetorical question doesn’t hold still while we pin one meaning, one answer to it. Just when we try to frame an answer, some solid ground we could stand on, protected by firm boundaries separating us from ignorance, it shifts. James seems simultaneously to be challenging the claims of knowledge that base themselves on the fixity of categorical boundaries and to be trying to inoculate that challenge against itself falling prey to the same trap.

James has very assertively set down a challenge regarding what it means to know a sport.  That’s an excellent way for us to begin a semester in which we too are studying sports.  So let me pause to go into greater detail here on this question of knowledge.

Knowing

James brings up knowledge twice in the Preface.  First, in the rhetorical question we just looked at, then again in the final sentence:  “To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Though brief, this is a tricky, but very important, sentence.  In part, it’s tricky (at least for most of my students) because of the references to Caliban and Caesar and then doubly so because the references are employed metaphorically. So let’s just see who they were to begin with, then we can look at how they work as metaphors, and then finally we can tackle what it means that Caliban must go into regions unknown to Caesar.

Caliban is a character in the play “The Tempest,” written by William Shakespeare.  The play is set on a tropical island, where a European nobleman named Prospero has set himself as a ruler over the island’s native inhabitants, including Caliban, whom Shakespeare portrays as a kind of animal.  For example, in one scene, Prospero berates Caliban for ingratitude, reminding him that he didn’t even know how to speak until Prospero arrived and taught him.  Caliban’s sharp retort to this is that he wished he had never learned to speak, since the only good it has done him is that now he can curse Prospero for occupying his island and enslaving him.  Though “The Tempest” is not set on any actually identifiable island, Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when Europeans like himself were becoming familiar with reports from the English, Spanish and Portuguese men who explored and colonized the Americas, including the tropical islands of the Caribbean that we know today as the West Indies.  Some of these included descriptions of native inhabitants as barbaric and uncivilized cannibals.  Some scholars believe that the character of Caliban (whose name is almost an anagram of the word cannibal) is loosely based on these descriptions and that the play represents the European colonization of the West Indies.

Around the time that James was writing “The Window” numerous artists, intellectuals, and political leaders in the Caribbean who were dissatisfied with the effects of colonial rule on their native lands had seized on this idea and began to use Caliban as a symbol for themselves and their people.  Just as Caliban cursed Prospero in the language the latter had taught him, so these individuals claimed that the Caribbean people would have to dismantle the effects of colonialism by using the tools—meaning the language, ideas, and social institutions—imposed on them or their ancestors by their colonizers.  This process of dismantling the political, economic, cultural and psychological structures of colonialism is called “decolonization.”  And decolonization, in a word, is the metaphorical meaning of Caliban as James here employs the name in his Preface.

Caesar you may be somewhat more familiar with, perhaps by the name Julius Caesar. He was a Roman statesman and military leader who amassed popular power at home and expanded the territory under Roman control all the way to what is today England and Germany as a means of transforming the democratic Roman republic into the dictatorial Roman Empire.  As he did with the fictional character of Caliban, James is using the historical figure of Caesar as a metaphor: in this case, a metaphor for imperial rulers.  Through these metaphors, though Caliban is a fictional character created fifteen centuries after the death of Julius Caesar, James creates an image of a relationship between colonized (Caliban) and colonizer (Caesar).

Now, as I mentioned above, the “regions Caesar never knew” are metaphorical as well.  James isn’t necessarily talking about literal exploration of unknown territories.  We can tell from the context (the sentence immediately before this describes, autobiographically, the process by which certain ideas James first encountered as a boy in the West Indies could only be tracked down and tested when he’d gone to England) that these regions probably refer to regions of thought.  So the metaphor “regions Caesar never knew” means something like “thoughts or ideas that colonizers and imperial powers never knew.”  Caliban meanwhile, who is the colonized, will have to “pioneer” those regions, that is, to go beyond his colonizing rulers in order to discover these “regions” of thoughts and ideas, these bodies of knowledge, that they never knew.  And he must do this in order, James tells us, “to establish his own identity.”

So knowledge of ideas and the world, according to James, is inseparable from the process by which we come to form ourselves as distinct individuals with unique identities.  This is true for all of us, of course, but James is especially concerned with those, like himself, who grew up as colonized individuals within a colonial empire.  James reminds us that the very structures and dynamics of colonial society establish the ideas, customs, morals, and values of the colonial rulers as natural and superior, while the ideas, customs, morals and values of the natives are seen as strange and inferior.  It follows from this that within such a system the “best” that a native (or colonized) individual could become is something like an adequate copier of the colonizer’s superior way of life.  But in doing so, this individual must distance himself from his own native way of life as well as from the history of his land and his ancestors.  The result is a kind of unbearable duality of experience for such individuals one with serious and documented psychological effects:  among the colonizers he can only ever be a second-rate copycat, while among the natives he is an alien, a poser who has forfeited his native identity for a kind of second-hand foreign one.

When James speaks of Caliban establishing “his own identity” he means an identity that escapes from this lose-lose dichotomy.  Rather than either rejecting or trying to copy wholesale the ideas of the colonizer, Caliban can combine his unique experience and various acquired ideas in order to discover new thoughts and ideas and in this way “pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Of course, we should keep in mind that the fact that Caesar “never knew” these regions doesn’t mean that Caesar never traveled to them. I’m not saying he did.  Just cautioning that given the rhetorical question with which James began, we should beware of conflating different sense of the word “know.”

Part of what makes this passage so powerful, in my opinion, is that in this sentence James (following from the preceding, autobiographical sentence) is using the metaphors to speak of himself and his own experience but in terms that render that experience more general: it becomes the possible experience of every colonized or formerly colonized person.  In this way, it is a kind of battle cry or slogan, meant to inspire others like himself to establish their own identities.

But even so, the other part of what makes this passage powerful, again in my opinion, is that it is built around metaphors drawn from European culture (Caliban and Caesar) and, specifically, from the history of conquest and colonization (including “pioneering” and “regions”).  These metaphors, in that sense, are European tools in two senses:  first because they come from European texts, and second because they are about European conquest and colonization.  You wouldn’t think such metaphors would be very promising raw materials for a sentence describing the process by which a colonized individual can free his or her mind, but James makes them just that.

To know is to travel and to travel, in this world, is always to go where someone else has already been. Whether they know where they have been is another, open question. And what we do in that encounter with the other person is yet another, also open question.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget, all of this begins with an ironic, rhetorically posed challenge to remember that if we only know cricket, then we don’t know cricket.  Is all of this, on knowing, and Caliban and Caesar and traveling all part of the response to that question? Part of its elaboration? Perhaps part of what we need also need to know if we are truly to know cricket is the history of colonization and the process by which native subjects try to free themselves of its influence by using the tools of colonization.  And this is because cricket—like language and Shakespeare and the history of the Roman empire—is one of those tools.  And to see the ways that cricket is more than cricket, or rather that cricket is also a means for political domination and political liberation (which is the subject of James’ book on cricket), is precisely to pioneer into regions Caeser never knew.

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