Thursday, 26 March 2020

Sport, Politics, and Infantalization

Modern sport and politics, writ large and small, have a tortured relationship going back many decades. Organized sport is, of course, a salient feature of modern societies at every level. It is engaged in by children and adults alike; it is financially supported to some degree by every government on earth; it is an important vehicle of relations between national and regional states; it generates many billions of dollars per year of wealth for those who own its private manifestations (professional teams, stadia, and goods companies); it supplies metaphors to the lexicon of modern political discourse,as well as powerful symbols of national identity for religious and secular societies alike; it is, some would argue, a kind of secular religion itself. Yet, sport culture has a rich history of insisting on the essential political innocence of the games we play and watch. The world of sport never succeeds in expunging politics from sport altogether. But,in attempting to expel the explicitly political from its realm, it reinforces a deeper kind of politics-- a kind of political "anti-politics", that of the "common-sense", "way things really are" which says that sport is a purely meritocratic, rules governed, and universally accessible realm of equality and freedom. As such, we might argue that sport manages to be "apolitically political".

The "Political" Athlete:

But the culture of sport does more than simply deny the relations of power that structure the games we play. It attempts to offer something in place of politics. In short, it offers innocence, an escape from the complexities of adult life for viewers and participants alike. At its best, there is an important reality to this offer. Sport can truly be a humanizing affirmation of the beauty of pure play for the athlete who embraces it for its own sake, and as a form of pure self-actualization. And for the fan who derives real joy and meaning from the narrative of struggle, transformation, conquest, and failure that animates sporting contests in their most stripped-down forms, sport can be profoundly life-enhancing. At its worst, on the other hand, this offer of escape from quotidian reality, and from the complexly political in particular, is an invitation to repressively deny the realities of modern sport-- its abuses; its inequalities of race, class, and gender; its cynicism; and, the willingness of those who own and control its "commanding heights"-- private corporations, universities, and the state-- to bend its symbolism to crass or repressive purposes. This version of the promise of sport as a separate realm of play is an invitation to infantilization-- a reactionary denial of the responsibilities of ordinary citizenship, and not just a benign and temporary "escape" from adult reality.

The potential of sport to infantilize participants and fans alike is revealed daily, and in myriad forms. We see in the benign form of (usually male) adults who obsess over sports minutia-- its history, records, game statistics, and business machinations-- and who follow the fortunes of their favourite teams with a childlike fixation and emotional investment. But we see it perhaps most dramatically in fan reactions to athletes who break rank and refuse to simply play; in moments when players force fans to consider what playing is like for them as members of specific communities, genders, sexualities, and classes, and when they use their public profiles to tell fans what's on their minds about the world around them. And we see it rare instances-- such as those of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Saudi athlete Wojdan Shaherkani wherein simply playing a game at all is a critical reminder of the way the world really is, power-wise. We have come to call such athletes "activists", and the best known among them have been men (the aforementioned Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommie Smith/John Carlos/Peter Norman, Muhammad Ali, and, more recently, Colin Kaepernick, Micheal Bennett, and Eric Reid). But, an important (and growing) number have been women (Babe Didrickson, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Doris Brown Heritage, Katherine Switzer and, today, Megan Rapinoe and the women of the WNBA). Athletic pioneers who eschewed explicit political commentary-- men like Owens and Robinson and women like Didrickson and Brown Heritage-- were sometimes celebrated but also faced resistance, both in their efforts to become top athletes in the first place (see Owens and racism at Ohio State University), and later for merely symbolizing change within "conservative" (read: racist and sexist) societies. Most of these athletes have been lionized in the years since their retirements and deaths, their actual lived experiences erased from the historical record in societies that suddenly were, in the post-women's movement and Civil Rights eras, always accepting of black and female athletes. Athletes who have pointedly refused to "shut up and play"-- most famously Ali, Smith/Carlos/Norman, and Colin Kaepernick-- on the other hand, experienced (and continue to experience, in the case of Kaepernick and other NFL stars) forceful denunciation from many quarters for their disturbance of sports repressively apolitical innocence. The already poor and oppressed Smith and Carlos returned home as pariahs, stripped of their medals and denounced as traitors for their black-gloved protests against racism and poverty in the USA. Their white supporter Peter Norman, who, on the medals podium alongside them, wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the organization behind an attempted boycott of the '68 Olympic Games and the aforementioned salute protest, became a persona non grata in his native Australia, to be rehabilitated as a hero only following his death in 2006.

The virulent reaction against so-called "political" athletes is nothing but a demand for sport to remain innocent and "uncomplicated". We know this because the harshest criticism of athletes like Ali and Colin Kaepernick has tended to come from fans of their sports themselves. Chances are, if you're not interested in sports at all-- or in a particular sport-- you are not interested in what athletes have to say one way or another. But for fans and sometimes competitors and fellow athletes (of which more below), the "political" figure in sport is a threat to the uncomplicated enjoyment of the serious games they have experienced usually since childhood. And sports nostalgia-- while sometimes innocent and benign-- is a clear indicator of sport's potential to make us perpetual children-- but children who are sometimes deeply angered by threats to our childish reveries. Fan rants against political athletes frequently feature negative comparisons with stoic, "old time" athletes who did what their coaches, owners, and countries told them to do without question, and who did not veer out of their sporting "lane", come what may-- including racial segregation, sexism, war, and their own exploitation as cultural labourers. And it has never seemed to matter when many of these archetypal "non-political" athletes turn out to have been personally reprehensible. Disturbing the innocence of the game is always judged the greater offense. Famous political athletes have frequently been assailed for their audacity as "dumb jocks" opining on topics they do not understand, or as ungrateful hypocrites unhappy with their money and exalted status. Anything to force them back into their designated roles as fantasy figures for adult fans who desperately need them in order to sustain their own sense of childhood innocence. The struggle between the political athlete and the reactionary fan is a struggle over the meaning of sport itself. The political athlete is a lover of his sport-- and has to have been in order to have succeeded competitively-- but she is also someone who sees it as constitutive of a larger social and political context, and a context often characterized by injustice and inequality. The reactionary fan is equally a lover of sport, but he loves it as a refuge from this larger context, whatever its reality. But the reactionary fan is often also a childlike lover of the symbols of his own nationhood, among which sporting success is often numbered. He is thus apt to see the political athlete as a threat to both his own personal innocence as a fan and to the collective innocence of the nation.

The Athlete as Perpetual Adolescent:

History's best known political athletes are famous because they are exceptions to the general rule of athlete behaviour. Serious athletes, whether professional or "amateur", along with being actively discouraged from speaking publicly about the world beyond sports, are typically granted social license to remain childlike into early middle age, a license that many of them actively embrace. Anyone with the good fortune to have been in a position to pursue sport at the so-called "elite" level (which I once was) will know what I'm referring to. Athletes are typically revered in ways that other cultural professionals and enthusiasts (e.g. writers, painters, and musicians) are not-- unless the latter happen to be rich and famous. Impressed by the physical prowess and discipline of athletes, the public at large-- sports fans and non-fans alike-- are inclined to accept the idea that the pursuit of sporting achievements, like "going pro" or making an Olympic team, justifies the lifestyle required to achieve them, a lifestyle that is frequently devoid of the sorts of responsibilities-- personal and professional-- that other adults assume as a matter of course by at least their middle 20s. A look into the daily lives of athletes-- something that social media like Instagram and Twitter now unprecedentedly afford-- amply confirms that even athletes toiling at the lower ranks of serious sport often exist in state suspended between late adolescence and adulthood. And it is not that other adults do not also sometimes post pictures of themselves performing banal daily ablutions, or of their meals, etc; it is that athletes are more often excused from general condemnation for being childlike, self-absorbed, or generally narcissistic. The athletic "lifestyle" is generally understood to be an especially selfish and self-focused one as a matter of course. The kind of perpetual youthfulness believed to be required to truly excel in sports also entails, the understanding seems to be, "perpetual youths".

The generally problematic nature of athlete infantilization is brought into sharpest relief in the case of "student athletes". Colleges and universities across North America in particular every year enroll tens of thousands of students who go on to participate on school-branded sports teams. Many of these students are duly academically qualified to enter the universities and programs they do; many more are not, and would not be enrolled but for the potential value they bring to the university on the basis of their athletic abilities alone. In many instances, these student-athletes receive "grants-in-aid", or deferment of fees and other expenses associated with attendance, on condition that they actively participate on school sports teams. And the commitment required to retain this funding can be very extensive, particularly with regard to teams that generate significant revenue for the university in general. Student athletes are often prevented from being fully active members of the larger student community by the sheer scale of commitment to sport required to retain their position on their teams. But more than this, their public role within the university is largely to be wholesome "brand-ambassadors" for their schools, when they are asked to assume any public role on campus at all. The "activist" or "political" athlete on a university campus is all but unheard of, such is the precarious position of all student athletes in the face of the disciplinary power of the university. And unlike the larger university community within which they operate, athletics departments are in the "strictly good news" business. Because they are in no way integral to the mission of the university as a whole, they are not expected to draw anything but positive attention to themselves. Anything suggestive even of mere sports failure is seemingly verboten (and I challenge anyone to find even a single line of negative commentary on a university athletics webpage, wherein no blowout of the home team or losing season is without great highlights!!). Actual controversy is all but banished. This explains why, when terribly real things, such as sexual assaults or exploitation by athletes or staff, happen within university athletics programs the default of program leaders is, when they attempt to deal with them at all, to hush them up. Perpetrators are often quietly disciplined or fired, and further investigations are generally avoided. The most infamous example of this pattern-- a kind of perfect concatenation institutional power, big money, and infantile sports fantasy denialism-- is the child sex scandal at Penn State University that occurred over a period of decades, ending with the conviction of football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on sex abuse charges, and the broad sanctioning of the Penn State football program.

The hiving off of athletics from the larger culture and mission of universities and the twin exploitation and infantilization of student athletes is alarming and troubling. At the very moment of their initiation into the adult world of independent critical thought and responsible citizenship-- something that is reinforced both by their informal experience of leaving their parents' home for the first time, and through the formal lessons of their curricula-- they are invited to "shut up and play" in all forms that do not entail facile support for the winning mission of their teams and university, or for the various goodwill campaigns (often with corporate tie-ins) launched by their athletics departments. In a word, they are invited to remain childlike entertainers for their classmates, university communities, and well-heeled donors, a role reinforced by the fear of losing their position on the teams they might truly love, and thereby perhaps within the university itself. And this implied injunction to remain silent extends to speaking out about their own experience as student athletes, including the abuses they may have suffered at the hands of team mates, coaches, or staff. Student athletes are typically only "employed" for the duration of their studies, which is further inducement for them to take any concerns they may have had about their experiences with them into retirement from university athletics.


The U of Guelph Scandal: Taking Sports Both Too Seriously and Not Seriously Enough:

Which brings me, finally, to the events of the past several months, commencing with Michael Doyle's explosive exposè on alleged sexual exploitation and athlete abuse the University of Guelph and ending, it would seem at the time of writing, with my firing as Head Coach of Queen's University Cross Country and Distance Track for public comments I made before and after the publication of this story*. Details of this story are by now well known, but the questions I attempted to raise about it still remain to be seriously addressed, let alone answered. These questions concern how it was possible--and based on whose incompetence or complicity, active or passive-- for someone credibly alleged to have been both abusive and dishonest** to not only have retained his position for as many years as he did (13, from the time of the first and most serious allegation against him), but to receive ever-growing levels of support, both for his club and university programs, and for his own professional development.

And there was, at least initially, a strong chorus of agreement that accountability should be expected from anyone who could reasonably have been assumed to have witnessed, or to have had material knowledge of, Scott-Thomas behaviour plus the power and authority to have stopped it. Informal demands were made to call to account everyone from Guelph athletics administration, which may have protected Dave Scott-Thomas from serious punishment in 2006, when the father of his alleged victim reached out to it in complaint, to Athletics Canada, which was allegedly aware of the aforementioned complaint about Scott-Thomas but proceeded nevertheless to shower him and his program with funding, to assistant coaches, other senior staff and club athletes. Indeed, 200 University of Guelph Faculty went so far as to sign an open letter demanding an independent investigation into how such a person could have survived, even thrived, as a university employee for long as he did and in spite of his alleged propensities. It was in the midst of this emotionally charged cacophony of online discussion that the following remarkable statement-- remarkable, I think, in the context of sport culture in general, and in the context of university sport in particular-- appeared on the Facebook page of University of Guelph alum and PhD candidate Robyn Mildren:

I met some amazing girls at the UofG and in the broader running community, and their courage and determination continues to inspire me.

I’ve been trying to stay away from this story publicly, mostly because I’ve spent so long trying to move on and believe in myself again as an athlete. But people are rightfully calling for more voices to shine light on these issues, to try to make sense of this so that it never happens again. Here is my take.

It’s important to acknowledge that not everybody got the same coach or saw the same person. But many people experienced, saw, or were aware of questionable behaviour, and we need to do better to make sure this is unacceptable. The success of the team and the number of olympians he coached made it difficult for a lot of people to believe there could be a darker side. The institutions failed to do their jobs, but I also feel like we failed to collectively stand behind Megan when many of us heard these stories, and to help paint an appropriate picture.

After running for Guelph, I was extremely fortunate to move to a place with a phenomenal running community, coach, and track club. It breaks my heart to think about some of the athletes who’s careers did not survive negative experiences at Guelph, and who never got the chance to fall in love with the sport again. I still wonder if I could have been a better athlete if I had run for another university, but I’ve gotten more out of this sport in the last few years than I could have ever imagined at the end of my varsity career. Every athlete should be given the opportunity to have positive experiences in sport, even at highly competitive levels.

The UofG women’s XC team won 12 consecutive national titles, and year after year he was awarded coach of the year. Moving forward, I think we need to find a way to recognize and celebrate positive and nurturing training environments above simple metrics of success, so that all athletes have the opportunity to have fun and empowering experiences in sport.


I have bolded what I consider to be the most remarkable sentences in this powerfully honest probing of the question of athletes' responsibility to do more than simply play to win. Here was a former varsity athlete and current elite athlete reflecting painfully on hers and her teammates' failure to protect members of their own community because, possibly, they were too concerned about "simple (sports) metrics of success". She was admitting that she and her team mates were both taking sports too seriously (i.e. in their desire to win at all personal costs, including staying silent in the face of abusive behaviour) and not seriously enough (i.e. as a place where real human growth and mutual care can create positive experiences for everyone). And so I responded as follows:

Thanks, Robyn Mildren, for having the courage to offer your thoughts on these matters. You mention the competitive success of the Guelph XC teams. Given that, had they known what Dave had done in 06, Guelph admin would have fired him, do you think that those titles should now be vacated? How many of you would have gone to Guelph had Dave been fired in 06? How many would have gone if you'd simply known that he had been suspended for an inappropriate relationship with a female athlete in 06? I'm not trying to put you on the spot, it's just that you're the first Guelph alum I know who's offered more than a line or two of reflection. Given Dave victimization of Megan Brown, and the massive benefits Guelph enjoyed as a result of the years of coaching he stole through his lies, does either of them deserve to keep this legacy of competitive success?

And a little further on:

Points taken. But there is another side to be considered, and that's the role of cohorts of Guelph athletes in actively recruiting athletes to come to Guelph, in spite of what many have admitted to having known about Dave's behaviour (and I'm not talking about the worst of it-- benefit of the doubt can certainly be extended to athletes there). In spite of the difficulties you and others claimed he created, and that you had to endure, many of you enjoyed the personal benefits of winning, and actively sought to enlist others to come and help you continue to win, all the while potentially exposing unwitting athletes to the abuse some of you were suffering. Recruiting is, after all, a team undertaking, and recruiting is crucial to winning. What, if any, responsibility do Guelph athletes have where that is concerned?

Finally, I referred to Robyn's post as a possible "moment of genuine honesty" in which, perhaps, all options for remedies and demands for accountability might be on the table.

Again, let's be clear what we're talking about here. When titles are vacated, no one else benefits. It's not like having been disqualified. As a remedy, it is there to render the historical record more accurate. And, there are always bound to be people who feel re-victimized. But, as the NCAA has established, there are circumstances in which it is an important symbolic measure, as well as a deterrent against future transgressions. If this is truly a moment of honest reflection about what led to a sociopath being able to appear to spectacularly successful, then all possible remedies should be on the table for consideration. And my prison camp analogy was for illustration only-- i.e. of how complex culpability can be. It was not a direct analogy, of course. There are others that could be used.



Like many others at this time, I felt both anger and frustration over our collective failure as a sport community that the career of Dave Scott-Thomas represented. And I felt rage towards the University of Guelph sport community in particular, which had the greatest power of all to stop this person and to drive him from the sport. I assumed--wrongly, I quickly learned-- that Robyn's invitation to reflection and discussion extended to the question of possible institutional punishments of the University of Guelph-- which, if it had known about Scott-Thomas' character and yet allowed him to continue in his role, must have done so for a reason, that reason very likely being that he did the one job most expected of university sports coaches and teams: produce positive news. (Robyn had, after all, called for the raising of "more voices" in order to understand and prevent a scandal of this type from "ever happening again"). The details of what I initially suggested are included in my first post above, but are now irrelevant. What ensued in the remainder of the discussion they provoked was the furthest thing from a adult dialogue about institutional accountability. My interlocutors knew precisely what they didn't want to discuss, and that was their own potential role and responsibility as both possible witnesses and builders of what many of them, including Robyn herself, had already publicly admitted had been a dangerously "toxic" athletics program for many who joined it. In refusing to countenance a remedy that would potentially deny them as former student-athletes the team-based accolades they clearly still valued, in spite of all they now knew about the person who assembled and deployed them, they were re-embracing the license to remain childlike and innocent that sport culture granted them. A Guelph alum who participated in the discussion in question later offered, in response to the question of athlete complicity in situations of abuse, that serious athletes are by nature self-absorbed and self-interested and thus not fully accountable (i.e. in the normal, adult way) for any abuses they might reasonably be expected to notice and perhaps to report. The suggestion that serious athletes are prone to be insular and selfish has a strong ring of truth to it, but it's another thing entirely to adduce it as somehow exculpatory in situations of abuse! Thus what could have been-- and indeed what started out as-- a moment of honest, adult reflection deteriorated rapidly in a welter of willful misunderstandings, personal accusations, and recriminations. I can only surmise that what these alumni saw in me was not a senior member of their sport community (and one with a record of speaking out on larger issues) inviting them to discuss the biggest scandal in university sport in living memory, including the concentric circles of responsibility for it, but a hated sports rival with a longstanding record of criticizing ("attacking") the program that they in many ways still clearly loved and took pride in. Again (and with some allowance for the timing and the medium-- but these were highly charged days), they opted to respond defensively, and as child-like victims only (in spite of their advanced ages and years of removal from the program itself) when adult insight, perspective, and responsibility were needed most. Some complained that 'there' was not the place and 'now' was not the time; but, even today, more than a month on from this now infamous discussion, the number of honest, extended, public reflections on this scandal offered by those closest to it (current and former athletes themselves) numbers exactly one. Robyn Mildren's "rightful" call to "raise voices" in pursuit of an answer to what went so very wrong within the U of G's track and cross country program seems to have gone completely unanswered by her many former team mates-- and, indeed, by her university...or the OUA... or U-Sports. There is some lingering sense that "those in power" should be held accountable. And this is no doubt true. But "those in power" for the most part sat at desks, absorbed in a range of other responsibilities, from hundreds of meters to hundreds of kilometers from the scene of Dave Scott-Thomas' most intimate alleged abuses of his athletes. They are accountable for what they knew and did not act on. But who is accountable for what they did NOT know and could ONLY have learned from team staff, assistant coaches, captains, and other senior athletes-- those who spent hours per day alongside Dave Scott-Thomas, helping him build his program, and who had both the access and the credibility to blow the whistle on him at any time? Where are the voices of these people today? Where were they then?

The End of the Era of "Shut up and Play/Coach?":

Unfortunately, even with the context afforded by the larger #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements, any such announcement would be premature. There is the odd intimation that the end of the era of the athlete as coddled child and of the coach as all-powerful patriarch/field general is at least foreseeable (see, for instance, Mary Cain's revelation of her experiences with Nike's now disbanded and discredited Oregon Project, and the Wesleyan University Women's Cross Country alums' recent initiative to purge their program of sexist and dangerous body-shaming practices), but there is no new era of athlete activism in the offing, beyond a few lone voices. As for activist coaches, outside of a few well protected NBA figures (see e.g. Greg Popovich and perhaps Steve Kerr), the field is very thin indeed. Most coaches apparently do not see their leadership responsibilities extending further than their own players. And, because sport is sport, this is completely unremarkable. The expectation is that we "shut up and coach" and leave the leadership to those who own and administer our sports-- i.e. to those with no structural interest in making our sport better for those who play it, and who only react to already existing problems when others raise them, or when they emerge via scandal--and even then only piecemeal, and until public attention moves on. If sport history teaches us anything at all it is that sport administration never leads anything; that, whether we are referring to racial integration in the US, greater opportunities for women, proper remuneration for athletic labour, the tackling of corruption, or the end of practices that endanger the health (mental and physical) of athletes, it is pressure from below (crucially supported by sympathetic media), and often on the part of a few brave individuals, that is the only driver of change in the world of sport.

As a personal note, I am animated by the spirit of the whole continuum of activist figures in sport, small though my influence has been or ever will be. Because I have chosen to speak publicly, forcefully, in my own name, and in the places where athletes and fans actually gather, I have been the frequent target of cowards, reactionaries, and pettifoggers who have variously accused me of self-interest, or worse, for speaking out as I do. They have sometimes willfully misunderstood and misrepresented my style and passion. At least a few have succeeded in convincing key figures within my employ that I am somehow a danger or a nuisance to my sport community, in spite of my actual record of behaviour as a coach. These people found a sympathetic ear within the university for reasons I detailed in my comments above regarding the role of sports and student athletes within the university. When the role of sport is to produce banal good news stories and uncritical support for lucrative corporate PR initiatives an outspoken coach is inconvenient in the extreme. The free speech provisions routinely provided to others within the university-- and frequently used to make what can only be described as extreme statements-- can easily be denied to athletics staff. More often than not, they do not need to be denied at all; they are simply never demanded in the first place. What need is there to speak in ways that may challenge or offend when the subject is sport, whose only role, ostensibly, is to entertain, and perhaps to teach a few shopworn, corporate-friendly lessons about the value of teamwork and "never-giving-up"? My mistake, if I have made one, is in believing that university sport could possibly be part of the educational mission of the university as a whole, meaning that it could be a vehicle for promoting genuine critical awareness, true solidarity, and respect for the equal rights of participants, knowing that this would possibly demand outspokenness on the part of all participants. I'm immensely gratified that my now former team members have taken the lead I have given them and are fighting for what they believe is right, and for the continuation of the program culture we built together. But I am deeply saddened that I, in all likelihood, will not be around to help continue and build on this legacy at Queen's University.



*Former Head Coach of Guelph Dave Scott-Thomas was banned for life by the governing body of the sport, Athletics Canada, after this paragraph was written.

**Colleague Steve Weiler and I are in possession of extremely compelling evidence of corrupt behaviour on the part of Dave Scott Thomas and certain colleagues at the University of Guelph, with collusion by the governing body Athletics Canada-- evidence about which we have freely and publicly spoken without factual challenge over a number of years.


















1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Steve.

Skuj.

25 April 2020 at 16:51  

Post a comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home