Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Code Inspector or Architect?: The Role of the Social Critic

Scoop Jackson -- he plays the role of a social critic and he rolls like a social critic.
Stephen A. is only a jackass that plays a social critic on television.

“Se dice bisonte, no bufalo (It’s called bison, not buffalo).” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Recently, a friend of mine and regular reader posed a question to me that I found intriguing because a) it’s a good question, one I often am asked, and its proof that readers are engaging my compositions critically, and b) it is proof that someone out there is reading!!!

The question, and I’ll paraphrase, went as such:

In your writing, you often explore racial themes in sports, but I don’t always see these situations as racially motivated or racist in nature. Why do you always write about racial problems?

Human beings, both through instinct and learned behavior, inherently search for meaning in their lives and in their surroundings. For some, this is a task that is attached, inextricably and directly, to one’s material existence, and is a simple function of making it from one day to the next. For a decreasing number of people in contemporary American society (due largely to the shrinking middle class, the lack of focus on critical thinking in public education, and a seismic shift to the bad in civic engagement) this also involves posing difficult questions about one’s environs, with intent to solve those problems. This group is composed, for example, of medical practitioners who not only treat disease, but inquire and research how those diseases originate and how to prevent them. It includes educators who not only teach children, but research more effective ways to inspire children and take their lives and experiences out of the classroom and integrate them into the learning experience. It also includes philosophers who not only record and examine, like the historian and the anthropologist, but deliberate about the best way forward.

Social critics do just that. They examine tangible societal elements (otherwise known as “culture”) and attempt to make sense of them. What do these elements tell us about ourselves? What do they reveal about our ways of seeing the world? In what ways might we make improvements and make our communities better places to live and our experiences generally more satisfying? Undeniably, social critics are arbiters of taste, often instructing the masses to enjoy or not enjoy something (think movie and food critics, book reviewers, theologians, and the like). The social critic, generally, is someone who is trained and credentialed in the area they offer criticism, and should offer that criticism for the express purpose of societal advancement. Otherwise, it is charlatanry or public relations.

By the above definition, I aspire to provide social criticism, particularly about the intersections between race, culture, and sport in contemporary society. I am uniquely, if not peculiarly, qualified to be a critic on this subject, namely because of a number of experiences and credentials that I have worked hard and am incredibly fortunate to have earned. I am a former college athlete with a Ph.D. in discourse studies, I’ve worked in higher ed for 10 years in athletics departments and as a faculty member, and I’ve researched issues in contemporary American sport extensively, publishing essays in several journals. My hope is that after reading one of my articles that the reader is provoked to consider a perspective that she or he may never have considered before. If the reader doesn’t agree with me, that’s okay. I write primarily to inform and to engage; persuasion is a secondary and often unintentional aim.

I also engage in social criticism which focuses on race and culture because those are the tools I have. If you’ve ever read good sportswriting, then you’ll know that sportswriters all have different tools. John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is an essay about Ted Williams’ last game, and in it, there is as much description of the fans and the environs as there is about Williams. Updike’s lyrical prose, wrought with evocative language and descriptors is a far cry from the straight-ahead investigatory sports writing of Peter King or the tongue-in-cheek, mock-seriousness of Rick Reilly, who often uses sport criticism to reveal absurdity and foible in contemporary American life.

Me? I refuse to see sport as the great panacea it is often cast as for commercial reasons. Sport is not, as the advertisements on NBC and ESPN would have us believe, a world devoid of racism, cultural clashes, sexism, and segregation. Unlike Howard Cosell’s erroneous claim that "Rule Number One of the 'Jockocracy' is that (athletics) and politics should never mix," I believe that it is not we who mix them, but that they are mixed in and of themselves. Sports in America happen on American soil, into which is embedded and inscribed a history of complex, debilitating, and pernicious racial segregation. Therefore, when I analyze an issue of racial or cultural disparity or inequality in contemporary sport, I am not making the issue racial, I’m simply attempting to interpret why – historically, socially, and otherwise – those racial or cultural inequalities exist.

Michael Jordan (even though he wasn’t named an executive after helping re-brand the Wizards), Tiger Woods (even though he was called a chicken eatin’ Sambo by Fuzzy Zoeller), and LeBron James (even though he was cast as King Kong on the cover of Vogue) might choose to avoid using their platform to more thought-provokingly address discussions about race, and that is certainly their prerogative. I choose to act as if sport is not immune to racism, and I cite extensive examples to ground my claims.

Alas, readers may not see it my way, and as I noted earlier, that’s okay. I much less often focus on gender discrimination or issues of sexuality in sport, as these are not tools in my toolkit. Nor am I a rabid fire-breathing sort who can tell you why only three of the six potential first-round draft picks that my favorite team is considering will help them win a championship in the next three years. I’m interested in race and culture, and see the world through those frames, including sport.

In the end, I am not the architect whose design makes or does not make racism and cultural inequality a part of American sport. I am a code inspector who is able, with the tools of my training, to analyze the structure of the building, if it is or is not properly maintained, diagnose which parts of it are adequately fortified and which need repair, and hopefully make the home a better place to live.

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