Sunday, June 16, 2024

Soul, empathy, and sport

I used to have no doubt about the unifying superpower of sports — how they turn strangers into teammates and teammates into family, how they make community out of motley spectators, how they raise the curtains for societal progress. I used to believe it was an imperishable kind of magic. I don’t anymore. Or rather, I can’t. Division has seized too much control. -- Jerry Brewer, Washington Post sports columnist

Mr. Brewer offers what is, so far, a four part series -- Grievance Games -- which illustrates why sometimes sports journalism is some of the most insightful social commentary around. 

“The first part of the project centered on exclusivity: who gets to play and who gets to lead,” [Arizona State sports historian Victoria] Jackson said. “In America, so many of the origins go back to White males controlling the access. The second part, and it’s still going, is inclusivity — people of color and women gaining access on the field and behind the scenes.
“That’s how sport reflects society, and the way it handles its own issues of exclusion and inclusion has a great influence.”
 ... For more than a century, American sports have manipulated politics for their benefit.
The most prominent leagues didn’t become lucrative entertainment giants because they kept the nation’s problems and politics from eating away at them. They succeeded precisely because they swallowed politics whole, turning the public craving for diversion into negotiating tactics to receive government subsidies and influence lawmakers to champion their most ambitious profit-boosting ideas, all under the guise of bringing people together.
When pressured to change, the gatekeepers return to where they have always gone in times of need, expecting the politicians and traditionalists to help them maintain their systems — while claiming to be apolitical. One group gets mocked and ordered to stick to sports. The other attempts, without apology, to stick it to sports.
“We don’t see the politics of the privileged,” Jackson said. “We only see the politics of those challenging privileged authority.”

A statue of Jackie Robinson was cut off at the feet by a White man who claimed he'd "stolen it for scrap metal" in Wichita in 2024

At the beginning of the modern era of there was Jackie Robinson who broke the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947: The trailblazer’s story symbolizes the pain and resilience of America. Can the reality outlast the myth?

How we remember Robinson says much about how we view America. It symbolizes our cruelty and our glory, our pain and our resilience. It’s the most important tale in our sports history, a breakthrough of incalculable moral, cultural and financial proportions.
[Robinson] wrote: “There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

Brewer calls contemporary sports media to account: The media’s role in fracturing sports: As societal grievance divides sports fans, will media members meet this moment or get trampled by it?  Brewer has much to say about the enterprise of which is he is part.

... The pursuit of truth now competes with the desire for attention. It’s no contest, sadly. Instead of reporting, instead of wondering and scrutinizing, instead of building trust and gaining insight and providing context, we exhaust too many diminishing resources to facilitate screaming. There is seldom enough fresh information to react to, so we regurgitate arguments, only louder, all in the name of provocation. ...

... At worst, it creates “a grievance industry for fans who love sports but hate the people who play them.” That’s the perspective of Dave Zirin, a journalist and author who lives at the intersection of sports and politics [at the Nation.] ...

... “In some ways, I think the evil empire has kind of won,” [ESPN commentator Robert] Lipsyte said. “I think sportswriting has gotten a lot better, but I think there’s no real call for it anymore. Fans don’t really want real journalism. They don’t want to read the truth about their entertainers. They really don’t want to read the truth about how predatory everything around sports can be. They used to have to listen, but there are institutions happy to give them exactly what they want.”

Brewer's struggle with sports journalism's infirmities moves naturally on to the hot topic of the moment: The panic over trans sports inclusion: In the fight over transgender participation in U.S. sports, the right to play is simply an opening act. In this extraordinary installment, Brewer cuts to the heart of what competiton means to any athlete, a struggle to be one's best self.

Before the hate, she changed in peace, transforming out of her body and into herself. She started to look the way she felt. She saw it in her breasts, hair, skin, muscles, fat, bones. She knew the person in the mirror.
Then she would go to the track — her refuge — and experience a different reality. As she ran, her legs would not fire the way they once did. She could not shift gears. She did a standard 150-meter acceleration drill, progressing from jog to stride to sprint every 50 meters. Her calf muscles begged her to stop. After the workout, she struggled to walk. She did not know this person.
“I could feel how abysmally slow I was,” she said. “It started to take a mental toll.”
So she did what athletes do. She spent more than a year adjusting to the effects of the gender-affirming hormone therapy. She relearned her body — every movement, every twitch — amending a lifetime of instincts. She dared to compete again. In December, at a college invitational, she had the nerve to win again.
Immediately, the success thrust her into the fiercest political battle in American sports. Sadie Schreiner became the latest exception made to seem like a widespread threat: a transgender women’s sports standout. ...

Brewer doesn't claim to know what it means that some people who've been born with one set of anatomy might feel themselves fully alive only when identifying with a different or even apparently constrasting gender. But he's not going to claim they don't exist among athletes and try to throw them out of the human family. He can see them as humans -- such a little thing -- and so huge too.

The links in the article are all gift links -- read Grievance Games for yourself.

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