Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Race in sports

This is what I think to be a very good analysis of the "Richard Sherman situation" and race in sports in general.  Essentially the author argues that the white US public loves watching black athletes perform physically, but then places heavy censures on them if they act with insufficient deference or submissiveness off the field.  I agree with this argument, and would take it further.

I have never been a huge fan of watching sports.  When I was playing a lot of sports growing up, I could get really into watching NBA games or college basketball, or even football, but I always far preferred actively playing a sport to passively watching it.  Over time, it's become almost physically impossible for me to sit through and pay attention during an entire sportscast.  Aside from the barrage of overbearing publicity everywhere you look (around the court or field, on players' jerseys, in announcer plugs, and in the constant commercial breaks), it is particularly difficult for me to get excited about the racial dynamic of pro sports in the US, which I think is a huge part of our collective ritual obssession with watching them.

The institution of the post-game interview shows just how ritualized it all is.  Reporters ask the same questions, players give the same typical answers (I'm happy we won, we won because we worked hard, the game was tough, it was a disappointing loss, etc.).  No one would ever watch such drivel unless it fit into some larger ritual scheme, giving us solace in the repetition of the same old tropes.  The post-game interview of course also gives the first chance to comment on naughty behavior during a game, or even to elicit some unexpected, "thuggish" comment that departs from the normal sequence of the ritual.

I came to the conclusion long ago that spectator sports, with the accompanying shows, commentary, ads, pop-culture references, etc., serves largely as a formalized, socially-acceptable forum for the general public to comment on what is and is not appropriate for black men to do with themselves.  I'm not even talking about the use of the N-word or calling players thugs (though that's part of the pageantry too), but the constant, minute dissection of what players did or didn't do in a way acceptable to some prudish, hypocritical Puritan ideal of behavior.  It's like a permanent rehash of dividing the black players into "house" and "field" categories.  Dennis Rodman was a good, quiet, hard-working player until the 90s--lots of hustle, good on defense (if a bit dirty sometimes), not a big showoff.  But then he dyed his hair and started saying crazy things, which gave everyone the occasion to comment on the utmost minutiae of his personal life.  Cue same story for Allen Iverson, Latrell Sprewell, that mentally-unstable guy who was involved in the big Pacers fight, etc., etc., etc., up until Richard Sherman.  Charles Barkley went from threatening bad-boy to fawning, smiling yes-stooge on one of those ESPN programs, and they've even squeezed Scottie Pippen into a suit and put him up on display, the "great tamed black thug giant".

In a very post-modern twist, the entire general public is involved, whites and blacks and everyone else, and the players too, such that everyone falls into and communicates in terms of these pre-established roles.  Whites can play the aggressive racist role, with lots of derision and N-words, or the affable, colorblind oppressive avuncular type who just wishes for the old days, when players were polite, good sportsmen, and either white or submissive blacks.  Blacks can be the ahistorical, hard-working good boy that is just looking to sweat and jump around and entertain and perhaps someday fully incorporate himself into the good graces of the white bourgeois social structure, or players can be a heel like Richard Sherman, with dreadlocks or tattoos or a generally untamed, bozal attitude that immediately makes white women alternately fear or fantasize about getting ravaged by them.  But everyone is playing into these ritualized roles, whichever role they choose or are assigned to.

Given all this, I decided long ago that I just didn't want to participate in the whole deal.  The only thing less interesting for me than sitting around and watching other people doing stuff, is sitting around and weighing in on whether or not I think so-and-so has shown sufficient deference to the mores of the decent white viewing public.  Even if I were going to comment on the appropriateness of other people's behavior, I'd be more compelled to do so for the business barons and policymakers that promote unsportsmanlike, indecent behavior in our socioeconomic system, than for a guy who spends his life throwing and catching a ball.

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