Here’s my take (including personal experience on a gay-identified sports team) on the recent decision upholding the right of a gay softball team to restrict the number of straight players.
This is better than I expected. I’ve figured out how to make my enchanted iPhone transmit the live tennis broadcast from Wimbledon, and I’ve been listening to it in the car on my commute.
Tennis on the radio? Yeah, I’ve got a case. And no, it doesn’t work — at least not in terms of play-by-play action. But the British commentators are worth the price of admission (free Wimby app!), as their comments seem spouted by John Steed and Emma Peel from the Avengers. A few of my favorite comments and exchanges:
- “And then she hit the ball into the half of the court where her opponent simply…wasn’t.”
- [Steed]: “This is some stiff competition for her. Too bad she couldn’t start out by playing someone a bit easier.” [Peel]: “Like a British girl.” [The eight British women all flamed out in the first round. Would American commentators have been equally mercilessly funny about a similar flop at the US Open? You tell me.]
- [After a primal scream by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga]: “He seems slightly perturbed.”
The very best exchange took place late today, when play had been stopped on most of the courts. Steed tried to convince Peel that she must hie herself to the last remaining court, to report on the action. The courts were adjacent, but Peel kept trying, playfully, to bow out, claiming, variously: not to know where the court was; not to be able to get there in time; unable to comprehend what was being asked of her; and so on. (Of course she gamely soldiered on over.)
In this era of idiotically besuited sports anchormen, shouting out their opinions as though the fate of the Gulf depended on them, this charming, love-of-game approach won me over — right away.
Try it. You won’t miss talk radio as much as you think you might.
Now I have to go read some poetry by the official Wimbledon poet. There really is one, and his name is Matt Harvey.
Here’s a video from the just-concluded Penn Relays, an annual joy within walking distance of my house that I somehow haven’t attended in many years (even though I really enjoy track (field, not so much)). You might do better watching the original from ESPN (esp. if this one gets yanked, as I expect), but here it is anyway:
I’m kicking myself because I was out in a nearby park with one of my daughters, just practicing her wiffle ball skills (ever-improving, thanks for asking), when I saw a phalanx of Jamaicans walk by. (How did I know they were Jamaicans? The hair, the accent, and the joie de vivre were clues, as were their tee shirts that said: “Jamaica.”) I didn’t make the connection that they were headed to Penn to see Usain Bolt — has there ever been a greater name for a sprinter? — and only later learned that Superman had been in the house, anchoring the 4 x 100 relay with some physics-defying split.
The Penn Relays, traffic annoyances notwithstanding, are a great local event that I now resolve to resume attending — especially since the 4th grade class at my girls’ future elementary school copped the Second Place Medal in their 4 x 100 relay. This will be fodder for our local newsletter for months to come.
Warning: Here comes some negative eye candy, an avert-your-eyes pic of Christopher Hitchens. He’s guy who took off on a flight of anger against all things sport, using the just-concluded Winter Olympics as the excuse for his rant:
Perhaps the screed would have more stick had it come from someone who understood the first thing about the rush that exercise and competition can provide the body and (yes!) the soul. Surely Christopher Hitchens is aware of the compelling body of evidence linking physical activity and fitness to health and even to mental acuity, but that didn’t blunt his clumsy attack — a broadside launched against sports writing (and reading), poor sportsmanship and downright cheating, the sports themselves, and blah blah blah, in the usual, and by now wearily predictable, Hitchens style.
So let’s see: Here’s a guy for whom fitness is far, far, down on his list (although for some reason he feels the need to strip his body of evidence-concealing body hair), thundering against anything sports-related that popped into his head, and concluding with a condemnation of the “pulverizing tedium” of the Olympic events themselves. He wrote that he couldn’t escape the events, but why? Is it that hard to stay out of bars for a few weeks? I don’t believe that he actually did see much of the competition; had he put down his poison pen for a few moments, he would have witnessed some stuff that only the most curmudgeonly among us could call tedious. Here I’m thinking of the conclusion of the fifty-kilometer, cross-country ski race, where the exhausted, close-to-truly amateur competitors managed to sprint up a final hill toward the finish before collapsing in complete exhaustion; and of the gold-medal hockey games between the US and Canada, the men’s version of which was extended dramatically into OT1 on a goal with scant seconds remaining, before being won by the host team.
Of course, his article contains many truths among its efforts to explain away inconvenient counterexamples, notably the events that inspired Invictus, a case for the other side he would have been better off conceding. But Hitchens doesn’t do nuance or complexity.
What he misses, colossally, is this: There’s something vital about sports, and for those of us who struggle to rise above our own mediocrity in engaging in them, something transcendent about witnessing — yes, even cheering — those who have attained mastery over such difficult and challenging tasks. Such mastery eludes almost all of us. It’s certainly harder than writing angry, blunderbuss polemics against sports. That, in turn, is much harder than reading or writing sports, according to Hitchens. The adults, he snoots, prefer the rest of the paper.
Look, people get their emotional rushes in different ways. Some exult in their proofs against the existence of God (here are some excerpts from Hitchens’s influential book, “God is Not Great”), others in success by their favorite sports figures or teams. It doesn’t mean they apply this same “us v. them” logic to politics, or that sport assumes an unhealthy fixation for them (although that’s certainly the case for some). But no part of the opposing case is in evidence in Hitchens’s windy article.
Being a provocateur is easy, really, and clever in its way: Even by responding, one has taken the bait — been provoked enough to respond. That’s a desirable outcome in the case of arguments for or against, say, the existence of God, because it’s one or the other. A bright provocateur can get the interest, the juices, flowing. But most of life doesn’t operate according to a binary yes-no principle, and “‘The Case Against’ This or That” would be stronger if it acknowledged its own weaknesses. Otherwise, case dismissed.
- That’s “overtime,” for the proudly sports illiterate. ↩
I know my readership includes many fans of pro football. After reading this post, I invite you to tell me why you support this sport.
Whether or not you’re a fan, you’ve by now likely heard of the flap concerning Larry Johnson, a successful Kansas City Chiefs running back. After yet another crushing loss last weekend, Johnson “tweeted” his disrespect for the team’s coach. His nasty provocation drew responses from some outraged “followers,” who couldn’t help pointing out Johnson’s history of violent run-ins with the law (including domestic violence, throwing a drink at a woman in a nightclub, and pushing another woman’s head).
Johnson decided, in that way that Twitter seems to have been created to foster, to kill the messenger. According to outsports (much of the rest of the blogosphere has maddening in its reserve), Johnson responded as follows:
“[T]hink bout a clever diss then that wit ur fag pic. Christopher street boy. Is what us east coast cats call u.”
Actually, this troubles me less than the rest of the story. I don’t expect civility (or…anything) from Twitter exchanges, and one might charitably laugh this off as part of a nasty, fleeting exchange. But then Johnson closed his tweet with this epigram:
“Make me regret it. Lmao (“Laugh my ass off”). U don’t stop my checks. Lmao. So ‘tweet’ away.”
U don’t stop my checks. That’s really it, isn’t it? Translation: “I make the big money, and I’m the sh*t,1 so I’m above your criticism (and the law itself.)” And of course the NFL enables this sort of thing: not so much by its reaction to the event (Johnson received a two-week suspension, which will only result in one missed game because of a “bye” week), but by its ceaseless glorification of these men who, for several hours each Sunday, collide with each other with force sufficient to…I’m coming to that.
Why wouldn’t Johnson, along with every other major football star, feel himself entitled to do whatever he wants, including this follow-up with the press the very next day: “Get your faggot asses out of here.”
Of course, the obligatory acts of contrition followed, but it was really no apology. It began: “I did not intend to offend anyone…” Are there responsibility-acceptance programs alongside those in anger-management? (Inexplicably, GLAAD applauded the statement.)
But it’s the NFL that has the last laugh, not the unrepentant players. For all pro football players strike a Faustian bargain: A few years of glory and almost limitless license, in exchange for a shorter life — and a cognitively and physically crippled one, at that. In this New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell raises this provocative question: How different are pro football and dogfighting, really? Is Michael Vick’s conduct (which ranks high on the reprehensibility scale, to be sure) any worse than what the NFL, and indirectly, millions upon millions of fans enable each week? Let’s end with this somewhat lengthy excerpt from the article, where Gladwell considers the case of now-retired offensive lineman Kyle Turley. Then let’s hear from the defenders of football:
He knew all the stories about former football players. Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler and one of the greatest players in N.F.L. history, ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Another former Pittsburgh Steeler, Terry Long, drifted into chaos and killed himself four years ago by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters, a former defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, sank into depression and pleaded with his girlfriend—“I need help, somebody help me”—before shooting himself in the head. There were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football. But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.
“Lately, I’ve tried to break it down,” Turley said. “I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”
“Then, there was the time when I got knocked unconscious. That was in St. Louis, in 2003. My wife said that I was out a minute or two on the field. But I was gone for about four hours after that….”
“They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it….That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”
- Johnson apparently is closing in on a Chiefs’ career rushing record, although that’s not much better than closing in a Washington Nationals record in baseball. ↩
By an uncanny stroke of luck, I was at Yankee Stadium last night when Derek Jeter delivered base hit number 2,722 for his career, surpassing the tragic Lou Gehrig for the all-time team record. This NY Times tribute by George Vecsey sums up my feelings pretty well. At-bat for the second time during a lull in the squalls that fell throughout the day and threatened to postpone the game, Jeter smashed a single inside the first-base line. A righty hitter, he’s made a living by “inside-outing” the ball to right field. This isn’t the easiest way to get hits, but it works with relentless consistency for him; it’s an underappreciated kind of motor genius that’s allowed Jeter to pile up a mountain of (mostly) singles that will likely place near the very top of the all-time heap in number of hits. I’d be shocked if he didn’t finish at least among the top ten in that category.
I typically attend exactly one game per year, at the invitation of an old law school friend who’s had season tix forever. This was my game for 2009, arranged a couple of weeks ago and, by great fortune, turning into an event I’ll long remember. I’ll have lots to say about the Yankee organization in an upcoming post (most of it not very good, I’m afraid), but for today I wanted to pause to acknowledge the relentless, consistency cum excellence of Jeter that sometimes covers a multitude of institutional sins.
So there I was in a cafeteria-style diner this morning, reading about Jeter and looking for news about the sodden U.S. Open, when I ran across an article about Roger Federer’s charmed year. More than one sports yakker (OK, all of them) have focused on one shot that the precise Swiss delivered at this year’s French Open as the inspiration for Federer’s renaissance. Down by a couple of sets and a break point to German Tommy Haas and on the verge of being bounced out of the tournament, Federer took a decent return of serve by Haas and converted it for a winner by running around his backhand side — and crushing an inside-out forehand within millimeters of the line. After that, a renewed Federer ran out the match, the tournament, and then Wimbledon. Oh, and he and his wife then had healthy identical twins just in time for his return to the U.S. for the hardcourt season, where he’s continued to thrive all the way through to the U.S. Open semifinals.
And among Federer’s many ridiculous motor skills is the ability to hit this inside-out forehand, again and again, with lethal accuracy. Doing so requires footwork and timing that the other players just can’t duplicate. For the sake of comparative elegance I’d like to say that this is his signature shot in the same way that the inside-out base hit is Jeter’s, but Federer has so many options and so much expression in his game that one can’t really designate a signature shot.
But Jeter’s better and more complex than his inside-outing facility, too. Because he also has the ability to play his best when the stakes are highest. (Compare: Alex Rodriguez.) Sitting in a hotel room in State College, PA, with David asleep on the bed, I was startled from my drowsy hazy during the playoff game with the Oakland A’s in 2001 when Jeter appeared — from who-knows-where — near the first-base line to cut off a throw from right field and then shovel the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who then applied a tag at home plate to the lumbering Jeremy Giambi, nailing him by an inch. Game saved, sweep averted, and the Yankees then went on to win the series. What on earth was the shortstop doing there? “That’s where I’m supposed to be,” I recall him answering, as though puzzled by the question.
What’s inside Jeter and Federer comes out in ways that continue to delight and amaze. Given the brutal logic of physical decline, neither can be expected to remain at the top of his game for much longer. Enjoy them.
This just in: the South African track star, Caster Semenya, turns out to be of ambiguous gender. Testing reveals that the athlete, who competed in the recent World Championships and easily won the 800-metre run, has internal testes that produce a large amount of testosterone. There are currently no plans to strip Caster of the gold medal, but there’s talk about awarding a second gold medal to the runner-up, presumably on the basis that the winner enjoyed an unfair advantage over the other competitors, though not intentionally. (I’m assuming that Caster’s visible sex organs are female; in any event, she and her family raised her as female and have always considered her so.)
As I wrote previously, this may be one of the cases where we do need to make a determination about gender, because sports competitions are generally divided by sex because of the physical advantages that men possess in most (not all) sports. So going forward, my guess is that Caster Semenya will be required to compete as a male.
But whom should she be allowed to marry? Should the gender chosen, as a matter of necessity, for the limited purpose of athletic competition extend into every aspect of her life? Since her gender is decidedly ambiguous, should she be able to marry the person of her choice, male or female?
In South Africa, the question won’t arise, because that country’s constitutional commitment to equality, which expressly extends to matters of sexual orientation, has been interpreted to embrace the right of gays and lesbians — and, I assume, folks like Caster Semenya — to marry the person of their choice.
Here in the U.S., of course, we’re much more committted to sniffing out gender unambiguously. I’d guess that where that can’t comfortably be done, those who recite the mantra that “children need a mother and a father” would prefer that Caster Semenya not be permitted to marry anyone. Too weird.
As a recent decision by the federal appellate court for the Third Circuit reveals, though, this boxing and commitment to gender has all sorts of strange consequences. In a case arising in Western Pennsylvania, Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, the appellate judges had to sift through a gay man’s allegations of workplace harassment to determine whether the mistreatment he complained of was because of his sex or because of his sexual orientation. Why bother? And what’s the difference, you (non-lawyers) may be asking?
Well, federal law protects against sex-based discrimination but not against discrimination based on sexual orientation. The seminal(?) case involved a woman who alleged discrimination because of her non-conformance to the gender role she was expected to fill. (She “wasn’t charming,” for example.) That kind of gender stereotyping, the Supreme Court ruled in Price Waterhouse, was sex-based discrimination and therefore prohibited by Title VII, the federal law that applies to such actions. So if Prowel can show that he was harassed because he wasn’t “typically” male, he’s got a claim — even though he also “happens” to be gay.
Both his behavior and that of the “real men” who harassed him are the stuff of easy parody. While he “filed” his nails, the other guys “ripped them off with utility knives.” What? Really? Utility knives? Oh, and he pushed the buttons on his work gizmo “with pizzazz”! What kind of real man does that?
So now the lower court must let the jury decide whether Prowel was harassed because of his failure to conform to gender stereotypes. If so, the court seems to say, then any mistreatment because of his sexual orientation is beside the point — he’s got a claim. But if the mistreatment were because of sexual orientation only, no claim is stated. There’s still no federal law prohibiting discrimination on that basis.
This is just silly. If Prowel’s allegations are true, he was harassed because gay men, especially but not only effeminate gay men, make some straight men uncomfortable to the point where they feel a need to…rip their nails off with utility knives. Sexual orientation is itself a failure to conform to gender stereotypes, but somehow that most basic point isn’t legally cognizable. The law only protects against sex-based discrimination, so claimants and juries are tasked with separating out two things that…are really one.
Before long, these legal niceties and the more general obsession with gender will come to be seen as historical curiosities — except perhaps in those few cases, like sports, where what’s being measured is something quite specific. We like sports because results are clean and clear, and because there’s an unambiguous finality to the outcomes. But the rest of life isn’t like that, however much some wish it otherwise.
The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will now feature a “Pride House,” where gay and lesbian athletes can hang out. Will there be any openly gay men or lesbians competing in these Games? I don’t know, but the organizers say that all athletes are welcome. (Well, they can’t exactly check for sexual orientation at the door). The next question is: How many straight athletes will be confident, or curious, enough to visit the place? Maybe at least a few, one can hope.
Is the very existence of this facility progress? At this point, it seems more symbolic than anything else.(And the story has apparently been removed from 365gay.com, where it resided for only one of 365 days. Weird.) Openly gay athletes, even at the amateur Olympic level, are few (but not zero). That’s one of the reasons the Gay Games were created.
Yet few remember that “Gay Games” became the event’s name only after the “real” Olympic Committees (both U.S. and international) objected to “Gay Olympics” and sued to prevent that name from being used. You’ll notice that no objections to “Special Olympics” were filed, so the concern seems to have been the usual homophobia (ho, hum). Would these committees object were this request brought before them today? If not, that would be progress, signifying that the mighty Olympians didn’t fear the association with gay athletes any more than that with disabled competitors.
Meanwhile, there’s Pride House, which I’d expect to be frequented, if at all, in the same way that gay bars were a couple of generations ago: furtively. Or maybe not; most of these athletes are of course quite young, and not steeped in the Ubermacho culture of American mainstream sports. Even today, there’s not been a single openly gay player in major league baseball, the NFL, the NBA, or even something called “the NHL.” (The few that have come out have only done so after retiring.) When will, say, Derek Jeter or Lebron James1 come out? That’s still a few years away, I’ll bet, but there are hopeful signs. (Meanwhile, pro athletes make sexual headlines for other reasons. Note Comcast’s stupidly jokey approach to this story about an alleged sexual assault by an NFL player.)
This will all seem so silly before too long. For now, let’s hope the “Pride House” is at least as much fun as some well-known structures of pop music. Perhaps it will be “a little ol’ place where we can get together” and “shake it down” to “music so high, you can’t get over it; so low you can’t get under it.” (Special no-prize honors to first reader to identify all of the “building songs” containing these quotes.)
- No, I don’t have any info on either guy. Just fer instances. ↩
This morning I found out that former major league pitcher David Cone is to testify as a character witness at the trial of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I learned this during a panel discussion on MSNBC that included Stephen A. Smith, former Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter and ESPN talking head. I’m sure former ESPN star Keith Olbermann will have something to say about the list of character witnesses, as well.
I’m somewhere between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the majority of my fellow, sports-obsessed Americans. Cooper, if you didn’t know, dissected a Palin spokeswoman’s defense of the daft governor’s decision to step down, and refused to be drawn into some inane sports analogy comparing Palin to a point guard: “I don’t know anything about sports,” he said. Whether he does or not, this was exactly the right response. He might as well have said: “Stop blathering and answer the question.”
But even for those of us who know or care about sports (I like exactly three of them), there’s something off-putting about the instant cred that sports stardom — whether as player or as pundit — confers. It’s not that the sports world doesn’t cough up bright, even brilliant, people. Among those who still concentrate on sports, Frank DeFord, Jon Wertheim (read his “Strokes of Genius”), and Diana Nyad come to mind as great journalists, writers, and observers. And those who have made the transition to other areas of interest are often pretty good, too. I think Olbermann, while a fellow traveler politically, sometimes lets his bluster and sarcasm get in the way of his message; but he’s bright and can be very effective. Stephen A. Smith I’ve not heard enough of to reach an opinion, but his constant talking over the other panelists this morning was irritating. David Cone is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful professional athletes you’ll ever hear. Read Roger Angell’s excellent but overlooked book, A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone for evidence.
By why do these folks find their access to more mainstream topics so easy? Because sports is so central that they’re widely seen, and heard, and respected for their views on, say, basketball or baseball; and then it’s assumed that viewers will follow them, and continue to respect them, when they talk about Iran or the Supreme Court. Often, this works. But it reminds me that SportsCenter and its ilk could only have succeeded in a sports-mad culture, and that they, in turn, constantly increase their own market share by convincing the audience of their importance.