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Editor’s note: this is the second piece in “It’s time for a less reductive news media.” Part three will be published this week.
Having discussed the issues in media and politics — though they are largely interrelated, let’s talk about sports.
Allow me to set the ground rules. Sports are political. Always. Whether you hold the normative opinion that they should be separated from politics is understandable, but one that I do not share. If you think they are not meant to be related, ask yourself: Why are recent NFL stadiums often built in the suburbs? Why does rugby have two codes: union, where professionalism was outlawed until 1995, and league; where it was professional from the late 1800s? Why does Formula 1, America’s new favorite piece of the sporting cultural exchange (and one that I admit to being a fan of), race in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, or even Canada; among others with myriad human rights issues; but Russia finally became a step too far this year? Why did NBA players strike after the murder of Jacob Blake? Why do we play the national anthem before sporting events, honor veterans of foreign wars during them, and have flyovers from jets built under the world’s highest defense budget? Why do you all suddenly care about women’s college swimming?
If you read all of these questions and decided that there is no connection to be found, then I don’t think this article was for you in the first place. Otherwise, an examination is in order.
American sports leagues — the NBA and NFL in particular — have large broadcast agreements with companies such as ESPN; whom I consider to be the progenitor of the truly awful “take-industrial complex” making its way to television from talk radio — and need to generate conversation that surrounds an increasingly player and personality centered sporting atmosphere. Watch any ESPN morning show and you’re likely to, at any time of year, be met with debate over the relative greatness of specific players and teams (Is LeBron James really the greatest player of all time? Are the Dallas Cowboys finally a top x team in the NFC? These seem to be some of the favored evergreen wells to draw from). Stephen A. Smith will call something or someone blasphemous in his almost self-caricatured manner, and we all roll our eyes and move on. It’s not to say that sporting media are always averse to discussing important or nuanced issues, nor do they need to be discussed at all times — TNT’s Inside the NBA is a good example to the contrary. I watch sports for escapism, too, and it would be unhealthy to lament every instance in which entertainment media does not discuss the societal conditions in which it operates. However, it does feel lacking sometimes. When the NFL says “It Takes All of Us,” it can feel hard to take seriously when they are alleged to have discriminatory hiring practices and a willingness to treat its labor force with little — if any — respect.
Disney — ESPN’s owning rights holder — is very cautious about the conglomerate making statements about anything that it doesn’t have to, unless that statement is donating to politicians who backed the Don’t Say Gay bill or introducing its first gay character over half a dozen times. Oops!
That said, let’s talk about Lia Thomas.
Often, Thomas isn’t a faster swimmer than her competitors and does not have any inherent biological advantages for being assigned male at birth. What makes a faster swimmer is someone like Michael Phelps, whose body is longer in the right places, double jointed and creates less lactic acid than his competitors to enable him to swim and recover faster. These are not gendered traits.
Anybody can have a disproportionate wingspan or be double jointed, and nobody has ever thought to bar Phelps from sport. Former NBA players Yao Ming and Muggsy Bogues had egregious height (Ming was 7 foot 6, while Bogues stood 5 foot 3) and unnatural athleticism for those heights. To take the examples in the other direction, let’s talk about Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, or better known as Socrates. Socrates was taller than the average man, almost entirely unconcerned with the idea of maintaining a good playing shape — going so far as to call himself an “anti-athlete”; and earned a physician’s license during his playing career where he was often lauded as a highly intelligent player. If his academic prowess and natural fitness were able to propel him to status among the greatest footballers of all time, why was he not barred from competition?
The instances of athletes being banned or put into separate categories — with some notable exceptions like weight categories or differently abled sports like sled hockey — often stems not from the idea of protecting the athlete, but protecting the power structure that they threaten. The difference between individual athletes’ skills is part of the nature and appeal of sport, and is something that has always been celebrated. Sport might never be fair, as the linked tweet humorously implies, but it should always be inclusive. And it would be nice to see that inclusivity applied to the trans or intersex athletes for whom sport is an important part of who they are. I encourage you to read this thread for more information.
But instead of recognizing the humanity of transgender athletes as people, they are reduced to stumbling blocks for cisgender athletes. It’s an easy well to return to for inclined media outlets, doubly so when there are so few transgender people in the United states in the first place and even fewer outlets for them or their allies to be taken seriously and fairly.
Of course, this all takes a narrow, arguably dim view of establishment media. Arguing against myself for a moment, I am somewhat flattening these issues by writing about them in a compact format. Near-infinite examples supporting all manner of political arguments of the points I have made exist. The relationship between media, social institutions and culture is one that could be the topic of a graduate thesis or a long musty tome that will get great academic reviews and be read by no one.
And yet, this piece has a while to go yet.
Harrison Markfield is a sophomore in community and regional planning.