I follow Chris Kluwe on Twitter (@ChrisWarcraft) because his tweets are frequently fun and often insightful on a number of subjects. For those who don’t know, Mr. Kluwe is, among other things, an athlete; he was the punter for the Minnesota Vikings (and a very good one) for several years, and was famous, or perhaps notorious, for his outspoken support of marriage equality. Following him, I sometimes pick up information that is usually not on my radar, mostly about professional sports and how it interacts with the rest of society. Some of the stuff, as you might expect, is kind of ugly. So we have Chris Kluwe receiving a death threat because someone thinks he might embarrass the Minnesota Vikings, and this comes right on the heels of the NFL cheerleaders lawsuit, and of the revelation of the naked greed of the World Cup, with the brutal oppression of the Brazilian workers that was a part of it.
The thing about being a socialist and thinking about professional sports, is that it just isn’t as simple as you might expect. I mean, it’s really easy to be dismissive: “It’s just about the money,” one might say, which on some levels is certainly true. Or one might make simplistic remarks about “bread and circuses” and such. And certainly, there is no shortage of things in the relationship between capitalism and sports that make one grit one’s teeth–what has happened to college sports is a good indicator. When child molestation is covered up and permitted to continue because (at least in my opinion) revealing it could hurt income, you know things have reached new heights, or rather depths.
But there’s more going on here.
First of all, remember that for many of those we euphemistically call “inner city youth,” professional sports provide some hope of escape, and is, in my opinion, a better choice than entering the military to shoot down “inner city youth” who happen to live in a different timezone. Moreover, the decay of capitalism is providing us with more and more broken and shattered towns where unemployment is the main occupation and the local professional, college, or even high school football team is the only thing to cheer about, which I mean in a frighteningly literal way. You can, of course, make snotty judgmental remarks about their priorities, but, if you do, I’ll make snotty judgmental remarks about you. Sorry, it isn’t that simple. The massive obsession with football that infuses places like College Station, Texas reeks of unhealthiness; but finding a similar attitude toward their local high school team in some of the small, broken Texas towns is moving to anyone with the empathy of a stone.
Also, in my opinion, there is much to admire in an accomplished athlete: the discipline, the learning of complex and nuanced skills. In general, it is inspiring to see someone who has trained his or her body into a fine instrument in the same way one cannot help but admire a classically trained singer. And in watching sports, particularly team sports, it can be engaging on many levels to watch the clash of strategy. Also, in team sports, there can be a thrill and a fascination to seeing the individual simultaneously sublimate him- or herself to the needs of the team, while also rising to new personal heights. My point is, while no one expects everyone to enjoy watching every sport, or, indeed, any sport, to be dismissive of all sports is no more virtuous than to be dismissive of anything else in which human beings passionately engage (yes, this from the guy who, for several years, took great pride in never watching TV; not watching TV is fine, being proud of not watching TV is just silly).
And then there’s the hypocrisy built into the news coverage of sporting events. Over and over, as sport becomes more and more about the money, the message is more and more, “winning is all that matters.” Even on the high school level (hell, even on the grade school level), it is rare to find a place where the term “sportsmanship” is actually used. And yet, when an Olympic athlete or a baseball or basketball player–usually a working class kid who is desperately trying to escape his condition–is accused of using steroids or shaving points, the same talking heads who were just telling us that winning is the only thing that matters are now full of self-righteous indignation about “the integrity of the game” and all fingers point at that player as if shocked and appalled that anyone could do such a thing. Should players follow the rules? Of course. But can we please do without the hypocritical bullshit? It just leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
So, with all of that in mind, here are a couple of brief stories that point to some things about professional sports–particularly Minnesota sports–that have informed my attitude.
1. My heroes in Minnesota sports are Bud “when you reach the endzone act like you’ve been there before” Grant, and Tom “what the hell, babe, it’s only a game” Kelly–two guys who were famous for strategy, for a scientific approach to their game, and for not blowing up under provocation. To me, they were not only very good at what they did, but they were good in a way that, if I may, fit in with the feel of what I like about Minnesota. Bad call by the umpire? “Ya, sure, well, I saw that one different donchaknow.” Trailing by three touchdowns at half time? “Let’s shift a few blocking assignments now, youbetcha.” As a Minnesotan, you kind of have to love it.
2. There was a thing that happened several years ago that expressed to me why I wanted to identify myself with my local sportsball team. I watched two football games in a row on a Sunday afternoon, and there were two almost identical incidents where a player was hit so hard he was knocked out. In the first game (I don’t recall the teams) the player who’d hit him jumped and strutted and cheered himself. In the second game, the Vikings player who had made the hit stopped cold, looked at the opposite team’s bench, and signaled them to say, “Hey, this man is hurt, get out here now.” To me, it felt like that expressed the different cultures of the teams. Whether there is any justification for me to identify with a given team merely because I live where they play home games, I don’t know; but at that moment I wanted to identify with them, to say, “Yes, that is us.”
Things have changed. The greed inherent in the new stadiums that are all about the corporate boxes, the sacrificing of game integrity for TV revenue, the intolerance of anyone or anything that might interfere with profit, were all there thirty years ago; but now it is right in your face, and that is a difference. It is the difference between, yes, the US has had “black ops” murders of non-combatants without trial for at least 75 years, but now it is being publicly justified, and that is a difference. It tells us something about naked force and naked greed. When they stop hiding it, there’s a reason, and it matters. Those who hear about Obama’s drone assassinations and go, “that’s just business as usual,” are missing the point. It isn’t. The open and public contempt for democracy by the ruling class is new, and it is scary.
The changes in professional sports reflect this; they’re part of the same process. Yes, I remember how every time players talk about striking, all the talk is about how much the players make, and the subject of what the owners make never comes up; that part is old hat. (Although I’m still waiting to hear someone talk about “overpaid cheerleaders.” Heh.) But there are new things here, and we can learn from them. The drive for profit to the point of no longer even hiding it, is new. The stadiums we pay for that profit the owners, the callous disregard of the health (short- and long-term) of athletes, the enforcing of social backwardness for fear of losing TV viewership are worse than they have been, and paying attention to these changes is enlightening, and that is a good thing, even though it is much harder for me to get excited about the Twins and the Vikings than it used to be, and that’s kind of sad.