Friday, April 22, 2011

Subdivisions, exclusion and communities in sports

I was reading Gary Smith's fantastic, tear-jerking piece entitled "The Wheels of Life" in my most recent Sports Illustrated magazine today, and it got me thinking. The piece is a superb tale of Dick Hoyt and his paralyzed son, Rick, and how they've worked together to compete in everything from marathons to triathlons for over 30 years. On one level, it's a great story of two people who have overcome incredible adversity to do things that many able-bodied people never will be able to, but I think there's a broader point there as well, and one that applies to our current sports world. Read this paragraph and see if you can figure out where I'm going with this:
Race day came a few days later. So closeted were the disabled in 1977 that many people, including Dick before the birth of his first son, had never laid eyes on a wheelchair or a quadriplegic, let alone one in a five-mile race. Dick's two other sons, Rob and Russ, wisecracked that the Hoyts' race number, 00, summed up their chances of making it to the finish line. Most people figured Dick would shove the kid as far as the first corner and peel off. None had a clue what happened inside Dick Hoyt's head when it bumped against a task.
What I take from that is that Dick and Rick's racing career isn't just a man-versus-himself conflict (them trying to overcome their physical limitations), or a man-versus-nature one (them trying to overcome the racecourse), or even man-versus-man (them trying to beat other racers), but also contains a profound element of man-versus-society. For them, racing is a way to prove that Rick in particular belongs and has value, despite the world's attempts to say that he doesn't. That point is emphasized more prominently in a later section of the piece, describing what happened after Dick experienced severe medical issues following their first race:

One hour. That's how long Dick remained under the impression that their short, happy, hellish racing life was over. That's how long it took Rick to squeeze out a single sentence and get his father off the floor to read it.

Dad, when I am running, I don't even feel like I am handicapped.

It dawned on Dick as he stared at the screen: I run. I push. He is.
Obviously, not everyone faces as difficult of a struggle for societal acceptance as Rick Hoyt, but many of us have gone through that on a smaller level. It's something that has more of a role in sports than you might think, too. One thing that came to mind was this piece on the Baltimore Orioles' Luke Scott, a reaction to a recent ESPN piece that included disturbing scenes like the following one, in reference to Dominican-born Orioles' outfielder Felix Pie:
"Felix is my friend," he says. "I give him a hard time. The reason why I give him a hard time is because there are certain people you deal with and you go up and talk to them, and it doesn't work. They don't understand.

"I tell him about some of the ways he's acted: 'Look, you're acting like an animal, you're acting like a savage.'"

Scott turns to his locker and pulls out a bag of plantain chips.

"So I throw bananas in his helmet. Here are my banana chips to remind him that whenever he acts like an animal, 'Hey, that's what other people are thinking. They're just not telling you, but that's what they're thinking about. And I'm telling you so that you're aware of that so you can make a cognitive decision to not behave like that.' I would want someone to tell me that instead of letting you making a jerk of yourself."
For the record, I haven't heard Pie complain about that, and black teammate Adam Jones did defend Scott's behaviour as innocent joking around. To me, though, regardless of what Scott's motivation is there, his actions seem to suggest an attempt to "other" players like Pie and try and get them to conform to Scott's social norms. Maybe Scott would act the same way towards a white teammate, maybe he wouldn't, but throwing bananas has long been associated with trying to portray non-whites as animals. Whatever Scott's intentions may be, his actions seem to showcase some of the tensions and difficulties that lurk in locker rooms. They're not just centred on race, either; former NBA player John Amaechi had an interesting piece at The New York Times on how being gay often made him feel excluded, and how Kobe Bryant's recent use of "faggot" has the potential to make other gay players even more uncomfortable. The divisions go beyond race and sexual orientation too, as there are plenty of straight, white players who don't necessarily fit in either; there's an excellent discussion on that in Dirk Hayhurst's book, The Bullpen Gospels, which goes into some of the difficulties he faced trying to fit in with other baseball players (a particularly notable moment in there is where Trevor Hoffman mocks him for asking a question in a rather verbose manner). In essence, professional locker rooms are just like any other clique or group, and Rush summed them up pretty well in the following song, Subdivisions: "Be cool or be cast out."

Dividing, assigning, disparaging and judging others thanks to one specific quality or stereotype is hardly something that's exclusive to professional athletes, though. We all do it from time to time, and examples are common throughout the world of sports. A particularly troubling aspect of this is the barriers women in sports media still face. Consider how the Masters decided to ban Bergen Record columnist Tara Sullivan from a dressing room this year solely because she's female (which Joe Posnanski perfectly roasted here). The Lisa Olson story from 1990 isn't all that long ago, and there are still plenty of cases of discrimination; read Nicole Auerbach's comments on being kept out of a minor-league locker room in 2008, and Jessica Quiroli's thoughts on what it was like being a female reporter covering the Can-Am League (although she noted that things got better after she complained). One piece that really stuck with me this week was Julie Veilleux's post on why she quit doing sports radio. This part in particular jumped out:
I thought I’d be called upon to be a voice for women into sports everywhere, to tell a story of exclusion, prejudice and passion, and encourage women everywhere to get involved and break down barriers. Instead I learned that I was to comment mostly on the physical attributes of athletes, and found that my co-hosts remembered to introduce me more often if I was wearing something that was appealing to them, that they would also mention on air. Be as asexual as possible, unless of course you expect on-air time at all.
In a lot of ways, these are the obvious examples, and they're the ones a lot of people have problems with. I think the use of divisions goes deeper, though, and it's something that many people still fall into in ways they might not even think about. Dividing people into us and them, good and evil, is something that goes back throughout history, and it's an instinct we still indulge in inside the sports world. For example, even being a fan of a team is in one way a divisive stance; you're identifying yourself with one team and its supporters, and many people also take that to mean identifying yourself as against that team's rivals. In a lot of cases, that isn't necessarily bad; rooting against a team isn't inherently wrong, and it can be a lot of fun. The problems can arise when that goes a bit farther, though; there are those who attack media types on Twitter for criticizing their team, or fans who tweet (probably in a joking manner, but still) that they'd like their opponents to die. While those aren't behaviours I like or endorse, even they're not as bad as the actions of those who turn fandom into an excuse for property destruction, poisoning trees or attacking other people.

Again, most people don't take it to those extremes, and that's a good thing. It's worth thinking about our own tendencies to judge and exclude people, though, and perhaps considering how we might change our approaches to be more inclusive. In a world of extremist positions, hyperbole and outright trolling, it's all too common to see exclusionary arguments. "My position's the best and yours is completely wrong!" "My team's the best and yours sucks!" We even see it on the levels of whole leagues: "You're an idiot for watching basketball while hockey's on!" "Soccer isn't an American sport!" "NCAA basketball's awful; you should only watch the NBA!" "Only morons like the CFL; real men watch the NFL!" We see it with fans insulting each other, writers attacking each other, radio hosts going after each other, mainstream media types bashing bloggers (and vice-versa), the war between the statistics and traditional communities, and plenty of other situations. It's like Lord of the Flies; we form tribal communities that are as much defined by what they're opposed to as what they're in favour of, and never realize that the beast was within us all along.

I'm not saying everyone should abandon their fandom, give up on defending their ideas and their principles, or never criticize anything. All of those things have their place. Maybe, though, let's take a little more time to think about how our communities, our words and our actions impact others. Are there specific people or groups we're excluding or targeting? Are we defining ourselves by what we're not, instead of reflecting on the positive things that we are? As I wrote a little while back, I see writing as a way to challenge myself, not a way to compete with others or try and insist that my ideas are best. That's why I love the conversations I have with fellow writers, both on Twitter and at various events like the Blogs With Balls sports blogging conventions; in my mind, we're all in it together. Maybe we can extend that approach across sports and life, recognizing the extraordinary abilities and strengths of people with disabilities like Hoyt, appreciating the diverse perspectives players like Pie, Amaechi and Hayhurst and writers like Sullivan bring, reaching out to and including fans of other teams and sports, celebrating sports and teams for what they are rather than what they're not, and appreciating the work of others even when we don't agree with it. To modify Rush a bit, perhaps it's possible to be cool without casting anyone out.

No comments:

Post a Comment