“How we ‘come to terms’ is really what I’m asking.” –Andrew Grainger
“Our morals are so out of place/and got our lives full of sorrow/waitin’ on someone to pity us/while we’re finding beauty in the hideous” – Black Star
A few months ago here on The Corpus, Andrew Grainger posted a position statement on his feelings about being both a critical, sociological ‘academic’ and a sport fan. In a way that perhaps only Grainger can do, his prose was both thought provoking, inspiring,troubling, frustrating, and, at times, read as an US Weekly for aspiring young academics(see: Naomi Klein and Homi K. Bhaba’s outside influences). At present, this post is aresponse to Grainger’s incisive points and dream of ‘coming to terms’ with conflictinginterests. My point is not to dismiss the post forthwith, but work with and against hisunfinished position to perhaps ‘get somewhere better’ (Grossberg, 1992).
Well maybe not better, but different.
To me, throughout Fear and (Self) Loathing, Andy seems preoccupied with the constant struggle to remain innocent of any wrongdoing, yet still remain passionate enough to have a vested interest in critical studies of the body and sport. Sort of a play on the old christian saying (I think) “let him [sic] who is without sin cast the first stone” (jesuschrist, not sure when) while (perhaps) forgetting that no one cast the stone in that story.
Which always disappointed me a bit – maybe that’s why I stopped going to church?
On the flipside, however, there’s a part of Grainger that seemingly wants to get out and throw stones, roll boulders, maybe even “blow this motherfucker up” (Newman, personal communication, all the time). This is the part of the post that I really can get behind,because, of course, no one is without sin…I’m sitting here typing this in a pair of Old Navy gym shorts, UnderArmour University of Maryland golf shirt, and New BalanceSneakers that some children in some Third World country (Third World because theirbodies are clearly not worth as much as First World bodies – or so we seemingly inherently understand) undoubtedly sewed for me at 1/1000th of the cost to produce each article of clothing.
Maybe this is why so many socio-cultural-historical types succumb to socially, physically, and mentally degenerative activities (“succors,” in Grainger’s terms) likegambling, drinking, smoking, pornography, sports, and so on?
Make no mistake; this is often depressing stuff that we do. This is a type of research and writing commitment that frequently leaves us feeling helpless to stop that ever-expanding orb of power known as white, male, patriarchal, heterosexual, neoliberalempire (Pieterse, 2007) from strengthening its hold over us and the world. In fact, as Grainger points out, what we do as academics as well as sport fans actually feeds into thesystem as much as any other profession. As such, part of his argument asks who are we to call others out when we work for corporate Universities, selling ourselves in the nameof profits for rich white people all over the world, and not challenging the necessity forliving in a ‘publish or perish’ lifestyle in any real ways…particularly when publishing often necessitates writing a whole bunch of things that might mean something, but neveractually says anything.
Of course these are the types of papers which get published because corporate publishing houses, Universities, and professional organizations would rather us write detached, and/or apolitical articles and books full of clever theory and seemingly deep thought which does little to actually say anything that upsets those in power – or is curtailed, discouraged, or outright stopped before it ever gets that far. As Noam Chomsky (2001), the most quoted American public intellectual (hmm… I wonder how that happened?), writes, his political theory is:
often denounced from both the left and the right for being non-theoretical-and that’s completely correct. But it’s exactly as theoretical as anyone else’s, I just don’t call it “theoretical,” I call it “trivial”-which is in fact what it is. I mean it’s not that some of these people whose stuff is considered “deep theory” and so on don’t have some interesting things to say. Often they have very interesting things to say. But it’s nothing that you couldn’t say at the level of a high school student, or that a high school student couldn’t figure out if they had the time and support and a little bit of training. (p. 229)
But as Chomsky states, and I agree, he’s privileged to the point that he can write in a way that he finds fit, and still get published, read, and listened to. The rest of us have to revise and resubmit articles until they are satisfactorily meaningless until we get tenure – and even then our careers in the sanitized environ known as the corporate University are not safe (see: Ward Churchill and Henry Giroux). Thus we have to find a way to survive in a world where we have “less civil rights than a cat” (Chomsky, 2000), whereby if you don’t find your niche in this system you “can just die for all anyone cares”. Given this sort of Debordian defeatism as a contextual backdrop, perhaps Grainger is right; maybe we do need to be sport fans, despite the inherent inequities, to find a slice of happiness in an otherwise dominated existence.
Like that ESPN commercial “Without Sports”: where would we have happiness despiteracism, classism, (hetero)sexism, ageism, etc…sort of an evening of drinking/drug usewithout the hangover (although anyone who was supporting Pedro and the Red Sox in 2003 might contend that a sport hangover is just as painful)…oh crap I just called himPedro and not Pedro Martinez. Does this mean that I am taking part in a type of neo-colonial racism?… Maybe!
Thus, to a point, I agree quite readily with most of Grainger’s views, particularly in hiscontextual understanding of the contemporary moment within which we exist. However,I do find some of his arguments quite contentious. For example, his assertion thatchoosing Sport Studies, in its myriad forms, was easy because he was already into sportssimilar to those who conduct ‘Buffy’ studies (thereby “justifying their/our pleasure”) seems to trivialize matters in two important ways.
First, and where I find Grainger’s suggestion that many are “justifying our pleasure”dangerous, is the fact that perhaps we study things that are important to us, trivial or not,because they inform our daily lives to the point that we can and do become irrationally involved in them. Further, what does his suggestion say about people who conduct studies on the social construction of fat, sexuality, class, race, etc., which may actually be fun for them but actually really do potentially affect students/readers of their work in very real, emancipatory ways, despite the fact that it may be to the detriment of the many?
Thus, for me, I don’t care about coming to terms with my fan self and my academic self –it’s essentially irrelevant. If I choose to root for particular teams, despite their inevitablehistorical and contemporary sociological failings (if you look –it doesn’t have to be too hard- you’ll see them), does this make me any less apt to instruct/learn from/with othersabout them? I guess what this means to me then is that support for a team is no more orless damning than working for a University, wearing clothes bought from Old Navy, or writing blogs on a PC or Mac. In other words, for me to come to terms with being a fan and an ‘academic,’ I recognize that its wrong on a grand scale, but I also realize that thereare things to be gained from sports – even sporting contests – that seemingly offer little to challenge ‘norms’. As David Zirin (author of A People’s History of Sport) said in his2007 speech at the University of Maryland, Jackie Robinson was a first choice forspeaking about civil rights in front of Martin Luther King Jr – that’s powerful stuff. Howard Zinn (2003) writes about how sporting heroes and musicians and artists have allplayed profound roles in getting society where it is today, both affirming and/orsubverting dominant society – again another way to shape society without necessarily having a prerequisite class positionality that affords an individual that time of power.
The second thing that bothers me about Grainger’s post is the fact that despite its seemingly questionable source of interest, important work can be done in these fields particularly at the teaching/learning level.Take my alma mater, Ithaca College, for instance. Prominent alums from that school include Michael Iger (CEO of Disney), David Boreanaz (Angel on Buffy), and Jason Gonnella (one of the most successful salespersons in professional sports). If Iger took a class with Henry Giroux (author of The Mouse that Roared) before graduating, would itmatter that Giroux liked Disney movies? Would he have heard any less subversive ideas about how to understand the meaning of these films, how they a/effect peoples lives, and how the repercussions of the choices made at Disney within our neoliberal system serve as a profound source of public pedagogy? Similarly what if Boreanaz took class from one of those scholars who conduct “Buffy” studies? Same with Gonnella, who did take courses with Stephen Mosher and Ellen Staurowsky, individuals who have influenced not only me, but also professors Kyle Kusz and Michael Giardina through their courses. Mosher loves the Boston Red Sox, historically the most racist team in all of MajorLeague Baseball, but did that prevent him from being a good teacher to his students? I don’t think so. As Giardina outlines in his book, these two teachers introduced us to thinking about something that we take on so readily and emotively without question in adifferent light. Their positions were also much more compelling choices than what ourseemingly luxurious (maybe) internships afforded us.
For example, I was lucky enough to go to London for eight months and work for MajorLeague Baseball International. During that time I was doing something I loved –teaching kids how to play baseball. The problem was that while I was teaching kids howto play baseball, I was also handing out Detroit Tiger, New York Yankee, and Boston Red Sox caps to help cultivate a new crop of consumers for MLB. Had I never taken courses with Staurowsky and Mosher, would I have questioned what I was doing orwould I have continued on my path of indoctrination into overt and heartless capitalaccumulation? Probably the latter.
In other words, what I am saying is that yes, fandom of particular sports teams found me,but studying sport critically did as well. As Grainger says there’s no easy way around it other than to refuse to turn off your critical mind while watching teams and athletes that welike, just the same way we don’t turn off our critical minds while we read socialcommentators that we like.
Did you know that Chomsky doesn’t like Althusser or dialectic thinking? I like them both. Should the theoretical me and the atheoretical me now do battle?