Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sports Competition & the Culture Wars

Recently I got a Moron Alert warning me about the end of Western civilization. The Moron Alert quoted Arnold Toynbee to prove that Western values are
collapsing and cited the drafting of the first gay NFL player as the proof of the decline. What fascinates me about this linkage is how people see sports as a reflection and driver of culture. To many folks sports epitomize American values and can be a harbinger of decay or progress.

The American self-narrative about fairness and meritocracy—(talent + dream + hard work=success) is manifest in athletic competition. The media coverage and movies memorialize these values in their sports stories. At various times such as Olympics, sports even becomes a surrogate for political and moral superiority across political systems and countries.

This personal connection of sports to identity mean athletic competition has been entwined with the American culture wars around race, gender, religion and other differences for the last 100 years. Sports have often served as a weather vane for issues of inclusion and fair chance against cultural bias to exclude individuals and groups from domains of life. Athletics’ role is often symbolic; it can open paths for fame and economic success but also provides a public morality play where the excluded fight for the right to achieve acknowledgement and success through competition, merit and fair rules.

This public battle for a fair chance to compete in a brutally transparent environment marks sports convergence with the American cultural narrative At certain points it even permitted sports to nudge or move ahead of society. This ability to move ahead is not due to altruism. First, athletic talent is at a premium in elite sports competition and market pressure pushes owners and coaches to seek the best talent—period. Second many individuals from lower economic or immigrant groups do not have fair access to education and traditionally have chosen entertainment or sports as a way out. This creates the incentive and reward for teams to open competition to excluded individuals if individuals possess the talent and work ethics. It can even give teams competitive advantages if they get to the population pools first.

This inclusion of the excluded through sports does not transform society and can be premature, purely symbolic and falsely reassuring. The case of Jesse Owens carrying the banner for the United States against Germany in the 1936 Olympics illustrates such an anomaly. His victories connected to no movement to change and his personal life never could capitalize on the fame and achievement. However, the promotion of Jackie Robinson from the Negro Leagues to be the first black player in the major leagues both symbolized and fed a country-wide battle on civil rights and including the excluded. His promotion and success set a precedent where many other black players followed him to professional baseball.

Two recent controversies illustrate the intersection of culture wars and sports competition. The St. Louis Rams picked defensive end and SEC co-defensive player of the year MichaelSam in the 7th Round of the NFL draft. The pick was a straight up football pick of a possibly marginal player with an upside. National controversy erupted because Sam had come out as a gay football player several months before. In being drafted and entering the NFL as a gay player, Sam challenges what is regarded as one of the most homophobic and traditional male cultures in sports and the country—of course that can have been said of the army a decade ago.

Sam’s announcement and his drafting lead to serious and hysterical discussions over the nature of American culture. The nexus of the hard right assault against his draft is similar to their resistance to gays in the military. Gay football players would subvert the sacred violence and ritual brotherhood of the military or that most violent of sports, football. To many on the American cultural right, this draft pick defiles and endangers one of the last bastions of a traditional domain of manhood linked to strength and violence and competition. The threat unfolds in two ways. First, it publically permits such a person to enter the domain; second and even more dangerous it means that the excluded persons might actually prove that gay men can succeed in the world of manly violence and competition, much as gay soldiers and basketball players succeed their domains.

This one action represents only one play in a national long-term culture war over the role of gay individuals in public and professional life. It also matters because it challenges so many of the implicit stereotypes about being gay that deny gay men the right to be considered male by traditional standards. Interestingly it complements already widely acknowledged and accepted female athletes in professional sports from basketball to tennis or golf. It also extends the boundaries that courageous individuals have pushed in less public sports and recently in professional basketball.

The point here lies in extending the public and transparent morality play of American sports where excluded individuals—East European immigrants in the twenties and thirties; black players in the fifties and sixties; women in the eighties and nineties; Latino and gay players today—these individuals consigned to the margins of society prove their work ethic, talent, capacity for loyalty, self-discipline and teamwork and for achievement under pressure before the millions who follow the sports. Their success in sports undermine many of the character stereotypes that people use to exclude them from other fields.

This public morality play also pushes out in the culture at large where celebrity and role models influence not just citizens but also children. A critical line from Jackie Robinson movie 42 where Branch Rickey tells Robinson, “I saw a young white boy wanting to be like a black man.” This stood as a revolutionary moment for American culture in the fifties, but feels a norm today where white children aspire to the images of minority athletes.

But the proof of players competing conquers one symbolic layer—individuals can prove that he or she can compete in the game with its rules and clarity of competition and skills. But another level of power looms that involves moving into layers of authority and ownership. When the Brooklyn Dodgers drafted Jackie Robinson as the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues from the Negro leagues, the team had to fight against other owners who threatened boycotts and banishment to the owner Branch Rickey. At a critical level, owners could “own” players and still be racists or sexists and exploit the players for the profit of the team. Rickey deployed power and wiles and courage to achieve his goal and he proved that Negro players made his team better; but it took power to make the change stick.

Now the battle moves not just along the lines of gay players, but moving minority players who dominate the largest revenue college and professional sports into positions of authority in coaching and management and ultimately ownership. This involves another level of culture battle. It involves not just opening up competition, but demanding power not just employment. For instance the NFL created the Rooney rule to require NFL teams to interview minority head coaches when an opening existed. The rule resulted in immediate gains as well as the slow and steady progression of minority coaches up the coaching ladder in professional basketball, football and college basketball and at a much slower rate college football.

Now the culture wars in sports is playing out at a very different and startling level—ownership. For years people have known that the NBA owner of the Los Angeles Clippers Donald Sterling had a long history of discriminatory behavior against minorities in his real estate holdings and rumored in his NBA actions. NBA great Elgin Baylor termed his team a “plantation culture.” The NBA benignly looked the other way under his friend Commissioner David Stern; but four months ago Sterling was caught on tape slurring minorities and blacks. The slurs were caught in a very strange almost poignant and very confused private conversation with his girl friend. He concludes by asking his mixed race girl friend—he is married—to not bring black players to his games and not appear on her facebook site pictured with black people.

This private conversation became public and unleashed a national firestorm of criticism that went far beyond the sports media. It singed players who were well paid millionaires employed by a racist billionaire. Here in a sports dominated by the talent of black players, the owner expressed sentiments quite compatible with an ante-bellum plantation owner.

Today in all walks of corporate and sports life, executives, players and coaches can be fired or severely reprimanded for racist and sexist comments. The Sterling problem posed the question of whether the same standards applied to the owners of capital, not just the hired help. The NFL was grappling with a much lower profile issue of whether Jim Irsay the owner of the Indianapolis Colts should be allowed to return to executive status after drunk driving indictments.

The power dynamic changed here as the players union got involved and prominent black coaches spoke out. BomaniJones had identified Sterling’s consistent racist history of employment and discrimination in 2006; now this information entered the public domain again and fed the firestorm. Other owners who knew little or had sat passively by were embarrassed by the plantation imagery and Sterling’s words and actions. Minority coaches demanded action; players, caught between very high salaries and fear of losing a year or two off their very short careers, had little to say but relied upon the union and coaches.  The story had legs and Sterling’s protector David Stern no longer had his back.

It is important to remember that the NBA is corporate association with strong rules on membership and behavior with the ability to wrest control of franchises away and ban coaches and player and even owners from participation in the sport. The new Commissioner Adam Silver took full advantage of these corporate powers.

Adam Silver had no patience with the moral ugliness implied in Sterling’s words and history. He consulted the players and union and acted decisively.

Silver expressed his “moral outrage” at the “hateful opinions.” He publically apologized to the black community and players and especially to Magic Johnson who had been singled out by Sterling. Silver orchestrated a “lifetime ban” from Sterling participating in the operation of the team or even going to games. The owners unanimously supported him. With some grumbling they also followed him to force a sale of the team upon Sterling. At this point it became complicated and was revealed that Sterling’s own judgment might be impaired—suddenly four weeks later the Clippers had been bought for a record amount and the case was over

Sterling’s befuddled racist comments to his mixed race girl friend resulted in the ownership group setting new boundaries upon the racist behavior and rhetoric of owners of professional sports teams with their symbolic and community stewardship responsibilities. The full weight of this sudden precedent may play out later; but here the culture wars have moved into the owner’s suite. The owners themselves probably do not understand the full implications of the new rules they have set for themselves and will probably migrate to other professional sports leagues.

An owner was removed and forced to sell. Capital attacked capital; billionaires policed billionaires and stated that ownership of NBA teams, and by implications public professional sports teams, involved a level of public stewardship about race and inclusion that the league and owners would now enforce, not just on employees, but upon owners themselves.

The actions of the NBA, to be honest, make the drafting of Sam pale by comparison. Sam’s drafting represents one more breakthrough against a set of collapsing dams around the country on gay exclusion; but the Silver and NBA action against an owner changed the rules of the game.

This precedent demands that rhetorical and behavioral respect for individuals and groups extend not just to players and managers, but to how the real powers frame their rhetoric and judgments.

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