How does Zirin argue that sports have functioned historically to define social categories? Cite examples and explain.
Throughout the history, there have been many different functions of sports, many of which directly related to social categories including class, race and sex. Sports were outlets to escape the realities of work and war, prepare young men for battle, keep these same gentlemen out of pubs and away from other so-called negative activities and assert oneself in a larger community. With this, there are many distinctions between good sports and bad sports and which sports minorities and women were allowed to participate.
The distinction between good and bad sports was one largely focused upon class. Good sports were those that the elite could afford to participate in and that all around had a more upper-class connotation. These sort of sports were disassociated from lower-class activities involving gambling and sports such as bull-baiting and rat-baiting. These sports and activities were cheap, brutal and easy to do on the streets, thus their connection to the lower classes. Upper-classes wanted their progeny to avoid these types of activities and participate in activities that displayed “Muscular Christianity,” that would distinguish them as hard-working young men as opposed to criminals.
Another distinction in sports was that of race. There were certain sports that were seen as lowly and thus associated with minorities – African Americans in particular. Examples are horse racing and boxing. Whites viewed horse racing as a slave’s sports because they were under white ownership, and white athletes did not want to be degraded in such a manner. African Americans became jockeys because of this negative connotation. However, when African American jockeys really took over the sport – making up to $20,000 per year! – whites changed their view and kicked them out of horse racing. Boxing was also a very big sport for African Americans for a sort of similar reason. Whites enjoyed African American entertainment and flocked to watch them fight in the ring. However, once again, when they became too good, whites changed their minds. In interracial bouts, African Americans often times easily defeated their white competitors – an idea many white fans found very intimidating. Whites were quick to distinguish between races in sports, but once they thought black athletes were getting too good or gaining too much power, they quickly changed their views on who was fit to compete in even the “lesser” sports.
Women’s participation in sports made a social comment, but their activities were also very distinct from men’s sports. The fact that women formed their own basketball teams was a big deal during such a time of limited women’s rights, but their rights were also limited in the sport as well. Basketball regulations were much different for women. Such distinct rules included limiting them to dribbling the ball only once. While they made social commentary by taking the court, they were limited in the sport itself.
What can we learn about race and sports from studying Tiger Woods?
Yu’s essay on Tiger Woods speaks volumes about race and sports in the United States. He shows how multiculturalism works in the US and how the media is quick to pick and choose from these different cultures as it sees fit. With this, Yu also shows the connotations that are associated with different races and how Tiger is shown in different lights when looking at him as Asian or African American.
Tiger Woods self-proclaims himself as “Cablinasian.” When Tiger first rose to stardom (even before he had won any professional events), there was a focus on how many fractions of Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian he was. However, the title that Tiger deemed himself was very distinct to himself and him alone. This suggestion of pure, distinct fractions and multiculturalism was hard to pin down and always describe. Focusing on phenotypes, it was easiest to label and market Tiger as African American. The media, be in ESPN or Nike’s global advertising, promoted Tiger as the “first African American” professional golfer who would be a savior for his race not only in his sport, but in society as a whole.
Not only was marketing Tiger as African American an easy copout for the media, it also helped promote certain stereotypes and associations with that “race” in general. Tiger’s father was a military man who named his son after a soldier he had nicknamed Tiger. His father represented controlled violence and a military strictness in training. In photos, regardless of everyone who was in view, including his Asian mother, the media focused in on Tiger’s relationship with his father. With these associations, Tiger was viewed as a safe black man who could control his anger and be a figurehead for his race.
As his father’s health began to dwindle, the media focused more on Tiger’s relationship with his mother. Opposite of the African American connotations were the stereotypes related to Tiger’s Asian mother. The media showed his mom as a very intelligent, spiritual, docile woman. This is in stark contrast to the strong, athletic, controlled violence associated with his father.
Tiger’s image once again changed after the controversy and huge media attention surrounding his numerous affairs and his sex addiction. While it seemed as though Tiger had transcended his race by excelling in an almost all-white sport, finding fame throughout the entire world and being a savior for not only African Americans but also all other multi-cultural, multi-racial children out there, his scandal brought him right back down to Earth. Instead of the highly relatable, non-violent black man he had been, Tiger was depicted as a more intense, predatory black man. He had fallen into the “negative” stereotypes associated with his blackness. To quote Jay-Z, “the same sword that they knight you with, they gonna goodnight you with.” The media had built him up so much as a man who had transcended race and could relate to people of all colors and creeds, but as soon as that image was altered, they were quick to knock him down on his fall from grace. The media and perhaps fans wanted a savior, but as soon as they saw him as a normal person capable of mistakes, they were able to view him from a different, negative pedestal.
Explain how the concept of black athletic aesthetics can help us to understand the relationship between sports and culture, using basketball and football as specific examples.
The black athletic aesthetic is a concept that can show the relationship between sports and African American culture. The black athletic aesthetic includes individualization through improvisation and stylization, rhythmic complexity, call and response, engagement with community and social commentary through satire or irony. I will discuss individualization through improv, rhythmic complexity, call and response and engagement with community in basketball and stylization and social commentary through satire or irony in football.
Several black athletic aesthetics appear in basketball. Although basketball is a team sport, individual improve is very important to play. Unlike many other sports that specific plays are very crucial to, the fast pace of basketball often leads itself to improv. Although a coach might call a screen and roll, if a player sees an open opportunity at the baseline, as an individual, he might decide to improve and take the open shot. With this, there is also a rhythmic complexity. While white, by-the-book players began each new position at half-court for a new tip-off, black players invented the fast break. Starting from one end of the court, rushing down to the other, making a quick jump shot or kicking it out to an open teammate makes for a rhythmically complex system. So do other somewhat distinctly black moves such as the cross-over and dunk. With such intricate moves, comes great audience engagement and response. A player makes his call with a dunk, and the audience responses with applause. This engagement is not only with the community in large stadiums, but also between players who pack into small community centers to get their chance to play.
The black athletic aesthetics of individualization through stylization and social commentary are key in football. End zones celebrations are a perfect way to distinguish one’s self from the team and show off a personal style. Sometimes it can be a simple shuffle or two-step, but other times, they can be social commentary. A perfect example of this is Terrell Owens wielding a fake camera. T.O. not only showed off his own show boat style, but also used irony to make a quote on the Patriot’s coach involvement in Spy Gate, in which he taped other teams to discern their play calls. Showing style can be anything from dancing in the endzone to making a bigger comment about the game or society itself.