The New York Times Whitewashing of the NBA’s Stephen Curry: The Audacity of White Privilege Amidst America’s Racial Anxiety

Featured

White privilege is so powerful and pernicious that it literally blinds us to history; it is a willful repression of facts that are pushed aside for a false narrative, which, in turn, becomes the truth. A whitewash, literally.

This is what I came away with after reading Scott Cacciola’s New York Times piece, “Even Ballet Dancers Are in Awe of Stephen Curry’s Moves” (Nov 24, 2015).

Can we turn Stephen Curry into something white?

Want more? Read on, here …

Advertisements

The Decision II: LeBron James and the New Owners

Featured

“Who owns this body, this body of work?” asks David Shields in his great book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony

As I write, we’re amidst the NBA Free Agency Period, 2014: Carmelo Anthony is touring Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles (where he, too, has a home), while still holding on to the Knicks – at least on paper; the Houston Rockets have “ramped up their pursuit of Chris Bosh”; and King James is on vacation while his agent contemplates offers.

“Who owns this body, this body of work?” Indeed.

In “The Bottom Line Should Decide,” Forty-Million Dollar Slaves author and New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden asks, “Who makes the game?”

Answer: “Networks televise the game. Advertisers buy the games. Fans support the games. Players are the game (italics mine).” Rhoden, consistent with his seminal work, Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, continues:

Anthony should keep that in mind and not accept a nickel less than he feels he is worth. Athletes are conditioned early on to feel grateful to be on the team. The reality is that their schools, and, later, their franchises, depend on the athletes to have a program. Athletes are the show.

 

If the Knicks ask Anthony to take a pay cut, or when Pat Riley appeals to James’s sense of loyalty, the Clippers’ pending sale should be a glowing reminder to say no.

 

In an often coldblooded industry focused on the bottom line, players still invariably lead with their hearts, often to their detriment. The new rules of engagement should be, simply, money first.

Who owns the body – and the game? Players.

LeBron James

LeBron James

This a decisive moment in the business of sports, particularly the NBA. For us, the fans, the spectators of the modern age, we began to see this change with “The Decision,” LeBron’s move to Miami, which, says Rhoden, “showed how valuable he was not just to his team but to an entire region, with Cleveland’s economy seeming to take a hit.”

We’ve seen this kind of thing when Tiger Woods plays golf – or doesn’t and TV ratings take a hit; we see this in tennis, too, when the Williams sisters cherry pick which tournaments to play, unlike any other player on the tour, including the top names.

We saw this in the great Muhammad Ali who, says Rhoden in Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, “brought home the concept of principle, that there was something greater in life than wealth, though wealth has its place; something greater in life than fame, though fame has its place. And he taught [me] that in the right hands wealth and fame, the fruits of athletic success, could be used as a tool in the ongoing struggle.”

This is where we are – an ongoing, historical process. We’re fixated on tweets and on headlines, going back and forth between salary caps, salary commitments, how much is this guy or that guy leaving behind, but failing to see that we’re moving into uncharted territory where ownership of the game, by star players, is dominating.

The Decision II – yet to be made as of this writing – will put a hole through the old plantation model. What commentary is missing, but, I think, management realizes, is that, “the history of African American survival in the United States is the history of teamwork and a history of individual expression within the context of the larger group,” as Rhoden tells us.

We’re witnessing an unprecedented amount of teamwork – at the business level; in turn, the business of basketball is showing how powerful these great players really are. I agree, these players own the game. They’re moving into ownership without knocking on doors – something Michael Jordan tried with the Wizards in 2000 and was rejected, even fired; they’re simply walking through, commanding leadership roles that will determine the future of the game.

The Meaning of LeBron James

There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama — has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

Obama and Romney Win, the American People Lose

The real winners of Wednesday night’s first Presidential Debate were President Obama and former Governor Romney. I have to say that. They win — a tie. And we lose. Last night’s debate is a perfect mirror of who we are, what we’ve become.

And in this America, defined for us last night, we, the people, were left wondering what’s going on? Where are we? Where exactly are we going? We’re still left wondering who these people are and, given our challenges, how are we going to approach an equitable future where everyone has their shoulders to this daunting wheel we need to push up this steep hill?

Obama and Romney, no matter who is president, will forever be absolutely fine, sailing a prosperous wind to posterity. The rest of us, as it’s been made clear by both Obama and Romney, will hold them up — as we’ll hold up others, too, that have their grip on the socioeconomic reins that pave our future and may deny our dreams.

In the middle of this circus, adding to the confusion, the media insisted on covering the debate as if we were watching the NFL or a boxing match, looking for zingers — body blows, as one commentator called them. Mark Shields, on PBS, actually went as far as using boxing terminology — who won what round — to bring the debate’s substance to light. Who’s ahead now? What will the polls say? The sports metaphors — all of which are place holders for a confused American masculinity — abound, but without substance; these metaphors are kept alive only to bolster a narrative that is not about us, the American people, but about them. The debate was a splendid picture of a divided America — one that’s confused, even desperate and longing, the other that demands, confines, privileges.

History could have a lot to say about this, but it’s being left out as a framing device that’s essential for us to to be able to contextualize what each man is — and is not — saying about the role of government. This, after all, is at the heart of the election, at the heart of ideologies that are always warring in America. How much government do we need? For those that need a hand, those that are struggling, how big should that hand be? And how should it be applied? Who will determine when enough is enough?

The debate about the government’s role began with the Federalist Papers, a document that is the foundation of this country but which no American has actually ever read — unless you’ve studied American Government in college or gone to law school or graduate school in political science. This magnificent document is left solely to those people that have to read it. Yet, America’s current ideological struggles begin and end with the Federalist Papers, a sweeping work that defines our character, our principles — and not our ideologies.

Ideologies have come about because of bipartisan rancor; they come about when politicians need to conceal the true engine of government — money and who controls the purse strings. In our case, the purse strings are not held by politicians we elect; rather, they’re held, in a broken system, by those that fund the careers of politicians and demand that they receive something in return. This is why, when we need to know what’s going on, we get two adults that don’t know how to speak the truth.

The end result is the debate we just witnessed — a listless encounter between two men that are nearly saying the same thing. The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is but a sliver; the difference, defined by the extreme right, is being made more evident solely by misguided social concerns that, when you think about it, is the most egregious infiltration by government into our private lives. Nowhere in the Federalist Papers do we see such a desire — and need — to enter into the private lives of citizens, yet extremist fundamentalists want it this way. Go figure.

Both men will use government to cut taxes (Romney and Obama) and create some revenue (Obama); both men will use government to regulate, differing only by degrees; both men agree that health care is a problem, and in last night’s debate Obamacare became Romneycare; both men also agree that education has challenges, Romney opting for vouchers and charters, Obama for bolstering public education and charters — both plans disastrous and failing to see some real urgent problems, such as ridiculously bogus teachers, a lack of resources, standardization, and the effects (this data from science and medical research) of poverty on the minds of children; and, both men agree that a strong military is essential, particularly as demands in the world continue to challenge our readiness in cyberspace, clandestine operations and special forces. We’re nowhere new.

So where are we?

We’re in the same Bush-Cheney era, showing us how damaging it is to follow this uncreative path: drone strikes will continue, as will clandestine operations, as will the support of Israel, even when hawks rule this policy; poverty will increase as either man’s broad, even ambiguous statements pursue a line that’s been always ongoing, business first, the rest will just have to come along, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps — sink or swim; education’s achievement gap will widen, as some kids will have better access to better teachers and creative uses of technology, others will whither; health care costs will increase as America continues to increase its girth, beers in hand, pop corn on the lap, chips flying into our wide open mouths, watching the NFL, which is far more important to us (witness the outcry during the referee strike) then how we’re going to get along, move forward, and provide a future that is healthy, safe and creative.

Prevention, whether its preventive health practices, a preventive, inclusive educational system that conflates socioeconomic needs, the environment and health care with self-actualization, an energy policy that prevents further deterioration and that doesn’t sustain us, because that’s now impossible, but rather begins to learn how to live with the disasters we’ve created, offering up creative, technologically rich solutions, is out of the question. Not even on the radar for Obama and Romney. Frankly, it’s disgusting.

Both men failed at describing, concretely, how we’re going to pay for the mess we’re in — except to say that the middle class is going to be burdened, either way; we’re the ones who will lose footing, while some, granted, will gain something or other, though very little and will always be looking over their shoulders wondering when it’s all going to cave in. But it’s safe to say, in either man’s rather nebulous picture of the American Future, the ideological lines of demarcation will be greater, the fallout more dramatic, the result being two, maybe even three unrecognizable Americas. Nothing like this was foreshadowed in the Federalist Papers. Nothing. A selfish ambition, rather then ambition tempered by ambition, which is what Hamilton said, is killing us.

We don’t know where we are, in then end, nor where we’re going, except that it looks bleak.

Gabby Douglas and the True Story of the Olympics

This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.

Gabby Douglas — winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.

Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve been waiting for — the humanity we long for: people of disparate backgrounds coming together to bring out the best that a person can physical do, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.

The story about these Olympic Games is not about broken records and who won the most medals; it’s about the coming apart of rigid boundaries — nationalism, socioeconomic divisions, race and ethnicity; it’s about how these man-made constraints are dissolving, being replaced by cooperation and collaboration.

Social media has gone wild with Ms. Douglas. Congratulations and self-adulation, as Americans, abound. But there is something deeper happening on social media: on one end of the scale comments are paralyzed by the trivial, wondering about Douglas’ hair, for instance, as if this is important; on the other extreme there are questions about the media’s insistence that Gabby has two mothers, and one is white. Much of the social commentary is perplexed by the media privileging the whiteness of one mother, and in the same sentence suggesting that Gabby couldn’t have done it without this white Iowa mother. These comments remind me of something Cornel West once said (I’m paraphrasing): beware of the white liberal that believes that the African American needs the white savior.

Social media chatter, as it’s always destined, falls short. There is no analysis so we can’t go to the next level of the story, beyond the manufactured constraints that compel us to repeat what separates us, over and over, as if we can’t think beyond what’s served up as Reason.

Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mother, says that, “It’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child.” Ms. Hawkins opens her story by announcing her trust in love as a universal unifier, a way towards trust and collaboration. Yes. Love. That subject — and word — we never talk about (Kristof, in endless depictions of our soulless world, never raises the obvious subject). Yet, given what we face as a civilization, I feel we’re compelled to do so because it’s the only way to break down the man-made barriers that keep us down — and apart. Trusting love is Ms . Hawkins’ message — and the story of these Olympics.

Gabby was a very active child, to say the least, according to Ms. Hawkins. Gabby’s older sister suggested, to her mother, that she place Gabby in gymnastic classes. Ms. Hawkins agreed — and the rest is now history, two gold medals. It’s obvious that in this household, everyone has their shoulders to the wheel; that is to say, love and what accompanies it — cooperation, collaboration, empathy and honest dialog — are at the heart of the Hawkins family. The result is trust. Nothing supernatural here. I love you, that’s all, I need you. That’s it. The most frightening things to say to someone because it comes with vulnerability — and it has to be returned equally. Ms. Hawkins’ family, at a vulnerable time, relied on one another for answers, for direction. And Love and Trust opened their worlds to what was, at one point in their lives, hardly imaginable. It can be like this for all of us.

As she evolved and matured, Gabby’s ambitions could not be denied. Ms. Hawkins trusted that what she saw in her young child, which at the time was not a gold medal winner, (a long shot, given the odds of something like this ever happening), was true. Let me put it another way: a young mother who knew absolutely nothing about gymnastics, trusts what she sees, trusts her young daughter, the spirit in her talent. This is only possible when one firmly believes that love is a guiding principal: vulnerability, which is an obvious strength, compels us to turn to love because in love there has to be trust.

What happened next is significant because it’s an important — and dramatic — theme of the Olympic Games: Natalie Hawkins and Gabby sought out Liang Chow, from Beijing China, living in West Des Moines, Iowa, where, with his wife, Lewin Zhuang, opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in 1998. Chow is a former gymnast and personally coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic Gold in 2008.

Shawn Johnson, and now Ms. Hawkins and Gabby, placed their trust in Mr. Chow. They saw beyond ethnicity, beyond gender. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, Ms. Hawkins had to see beyond her own sense of race, and trust whiteness, a white family living in a blue state, Iowa, that from Virginia Beach, Virginia, must have seemed like an ocean away.

Media and politicians, both, have constructed a Harry Potter-like narrative that keeps playing over and over; it’s simple: it’s always about good vs evil. But this is not true at all. Our existence is forever relegated to the gray areas of life, the not easily understood, where each one of us has to make moral decisions that require we examine our hearts and our minds. This is how we try to navigate our realities. For Ms. Hawkins, she had to read her heart, her daughter’s, and the Parton’s, too, to understand how to trust beyond the disabling mediated rhetoric so content on delivering the simplest denominator, good vs evil. Reality for Ms. Hawkins — and Ms. Parton and her family — is somewhere beyond black and white, good and evil. It’s more fluid, more consistent and virtuous. Hawkins and Parton, tell us in their story, that we live together, suffer together and that we can love someone that is completely different from who we are; we can even love enough to help the Other reach unimaginable dreams. Gabby Douglas is case in point. This is the true story — not the gold, though Gabby’s success is amazing, and it’s not Gabby’s hair, since it has nothing to do with anything, other then to suggest that many on social media insisting on the subject have somehow been relegated to the margins of society where reality tv, the Kardashians, and Dancing With Anyone are it.

In Des Moines, Iowa, loved by her mother, Natalie, Gabby Douglas lived with the love of the Partons, a different kind of love, and worked with and trusted a Chinese coach that she originally saw on television. This is the solution to our problems; this is what the Olympic Games are telling us: boundaries have been broken; and there are people willing to help us break down more barriers .

The great runner, Alberto Salazar , coached the gold medal winner and the silver medal winner in the ten thousand meters. Salazar was born in Cuba in 1958. He moved with his family to the US, migrating to Massachusetts. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his New York Marathons in the early ’80s. Mo Farah, running for Great Britain, electrified the crowd winning the gold. Close behind, the American, Galen Rupp, won the silver, marking the first time, since Billy Mills won in Tokyo in 1964, that an American medalled. During the race, the NBC commentator wondered whether Farah and Rupp would run as a team, though from competing countries, to counterbalance the strong Ethiopians and Kenyans. They did and kept to the same Salazar strategy: the race is won in the last 100 yards. So we have a Cuban-American training a Somalian and an American — and the Somalian, having arrived in Great Britain at the age of 8, matured to be one of the country’s favorite athletes.

It’s not about what country I’m from, nor is it about the perceived constraints I think have been placed on me; it’s about dreaming, first, then finding a path, a journey that must begin with love and followed by empathy and cooperation. Then, and only then, will we find cooperation, such that each and every soul will be able to dream, plan and execute with the help of others; they, in turn, will achieve the same, in their own time, with their own prescriptions.

We’ve seen these blurring of boundaries throughout the Olympics: athletes from different countries, training in each other’s countries and sharing foreign coaches. Nationalism holds nothing in. The Olympics have become like much of what we buy: Made in fill in the blank. In essence, the Olympics are finally living up to their goal of bringing all of us together. The desire to win, to push towards — and in some cases beyond — our perceived capacities, have lead us to reach beyond man made boundaries. And if we look a little harder, we learn that these boundaries have, to date, been disabling. We win when boundaries dissolve.

The Gabby Douglas story is about breaking boundaries that, for years, have been disabling us. Salazar, Farah and Rupp show us the same. In literally every sport, in these games, the same can be found : it’s the new truth.

And this coming Thursday, the US Women’s Olympic Team, coached by Sweden’s legendary player, Pia Sundhage, will meet Japan. The US team got to the finals after beating Canada in what was a most dramatic game. Ten of the eleven Canadians, announced the NBC color commentator, play in the US. Who won that game? US Soccer? Soccer or fútbol as a universal equalizer? Can we continue to talk about winners and losers as if these happen in a vacuum held tightly by nationalism? Do we need to begin to speak about humanity’s role in fostering the love, trust, and patience we each know we require to forge ahead — and win medals?

The US Olympic (Dream) Basketball Team hasn’t had it so easy. Why? Because everywhere they turn, they bump up against other (foreign) NBA players. Nothing is the same anymore.

The Olympic Games are no longer about who wins the most medals. These games are about why some countries win more then others given the level of communication and dynamic interactions the most powerful nations enjoy with each other. The Olympic Games are offering a model for success that does not pit one against the other behind plastic barriers, rather, the games demonstrate that the cross-pollination — training, philosophies, education — truly enables each and every individual to work to her or his capacity. In this way, it truly is one person against another — not one country against another — in healthy competition, even in team sports. This is the Olympic hope. It has finally brought forth the importance of love, vulnerability and trust to the forefront. This level of collaboration and cooperation is the only antidote for our apparent decline; it’s a road, with visible success, that we can all travel. But we must all be willing to push boundaries back, be these geographic, institutional and national.  Let’s call it, Gabby’s Model.

Barack Obama and the Power of Style: Why the GOP Can’t Find Its Soul

Barry Blitt has done it again, a provocative cover for the February 6, 2012 New Yorker.

In this complex image, we find a very relaxed, smiling, from ear-to-ear, President Obama, beer in one hand (could it be a foreign beer, a Heineken?), a football in the other. He’s in a white Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up to his forearms ( he’s yet to have to pull them all the way up and go to the hard work, perhaps — or maybe he just makes the hard work look easy?), sitting in a comfortable chair — a moment for the president to chill out and watch a GOP football game on a wide screen tv.

The Big Game by Barry Blitt

The players, in a full stadium (presumably the public watching; mediated sports, here, functioning as “a continuing tension — relationship, influence and antagonism — to the dominant culture,” as Aaron Baker tells us in “Sports and the Popular,” in Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity), are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

A bulldog-faced and bruised Newt is being tackled by a flying Mitt, his face serious and determined. Helmets have flown off, noting the violence of the game — football and politics as high-stakes contact sports; both players are marked up, bruised, as is the GOP. And the football is out of their hands — a fumble, or the ongoing fumbling so much the definition of the GOP during this vicious political cycle pre-November.

Blitt is asserting an essential characteristic of Obama’s popularity that we’ve failed to see or if we’ve seen it, we’ve failed to acknowledge: Style. I’m suggesting that it is this Style that repels many white citizens — and politicians — but which will undoubtedly be an asset in his re-election.

Blitt deconstructs our “shortsightedness,” as I’ve said before, by conflating African-American style, coming into prominence through music, and mediated sports, especially America’s favorite contemporary passion, football, a game consistent with crisis management (we’re always in a crisis, in war with this or that — the Taliban, drugs, poverty), the taking of territory with power and wit, much like armies do, and restricted by time and space, the perfect metaphor for a world that has to deal with limited resources.

Everywhere we turn in football — and politics — there are constraints, limitations and crisis. And we’re always running out of time; there’s never enough. It’s now or never; there’s no long term plan. Attack, attack, attack. Leave no one standing. It’s not surprising that topping the sports news these days are concussions, the short athletic lives of football players and the compromises in later life. This is the American way of life. We can see that now. Fight, fall, endure — not much of a future in this.

But Obama offers us style as an antidote — and those that see their former lives metamorphosing into some unknown are fighting back like mad, rather then seeing the errors in the ways that have gotten us to this point. Republicans never talk about one reality, for instance (and the popular media never pursues this line): we’re living through the wonderful world left us by Bush-Cheney. The GOP has amnesia.

But where does style and the animosity towards it come from?

In the now classic Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, William C. Rhoden, of the New York Times, in “Style: The Dilemma of Appropriation,” tells us that in the summer of 1963, he remembers watching Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs‘ third basement, hit a deep fly ball in the gap between right and center.

Willie Mays drifted across the outfield like Charles Coles, the great tapdancer whose footwork was so sweet and smooth that they called him “Honi.” He arrived at his spot under the baseball with no apparent sweat, even though he’d had to run for what seemed like miles to get there (147).

Following the catch, “Santo kicked the ground in disgust.” But, Rhoden says, the “most memorable part of the play took place after Mays made the catch”(147). Mays “nonchalantly picked up the ball out of his glove, tossed it back to the infield, coolly walked back to center field, flicked his sunglasses back up, and waited for the next play. His body language suggested annoyance that the batter hadn’t presented a greater challenge”(147-48).

Our Mays is Obama sitting back with shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, beer in one hand, a football on the other — nonchalance, de rigueur for Obama. It’s how he strolls to the podium; how he must play basketball. It’s how he sings Al Green. And the plastic, always scripted Mitt Romney has no style at all. And Newt is a playground bully, unlikable, menacing.

Mays came along after Jackie Robinson, who had to watch every aspect of his life; he made room for Mays. After Mays we have Muhammad Ali, Charlie Parker earlier. Miles Davis introduced Americans to “cool” and “hipster” in the late 1950’s (Rhoden, 152).

“In virtually every decade since the 1950s, black athletes have been at the core of some stylistic or structural innovation in sports”(152).

These changes, as television — and the image — begin to dominate, run parallel to political figures — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, and Carol Mosely Braun.

Barack Obama is now the most famous African-American; in him we see the political rise of the African-American. But we also see the manifestation of style, its rise out of R&B and Rap, out of the style so endemic of the NBAtats and all. The power of style is that “in some ways [it] underlines the [Black athlete’s] inability to define themselves in more substantive ways and find acceptance” (156).

Obama still can’t “define” himself in “substantive ways and find acceptance,” in general. With Obama’s current approval rating, the up-tick in employment figures and the ever present , though slow, upswing of the economy, the Republicans have little to address. Even Romney was bold enough to say that the current unemployment figures had nothing to do with Obama; however, Gingrich did say that, in the end, some credit would have to be given Obama. Which is which?

The GOP can’t coalesce around a singular message. This means that it’s going to get nastier; this means that direct attacks on Obama’s personality — his style, which for the African -American is synonymous with “soul” — will increase. The most violent and angry segments of the GOP are overtly racist, though their kids listen to Rap, wear caps with brims sideways and their boys sport baggy jeans half way down their buttocks (without knowing what this means).

The problem — and challenge — that the GOP image makers face is the “fact that black style was quickly commodified by white power, which became addicted to this other new form of black gold”(168). Style is something we require of our leaders because it shows how a candidate connects with the general public; it is powerful because it’s visceral, sensual and sexy. None of the GOP candidates are sexy. Women, minorities, the young all gravitate to “cool,” witness the rise of Apple, the wooden descriptions given Microsoft, lackluster and stiff, like its creator, Bill Gates.

America is a house divided by style. This is to argue that America is self-divided by a confusion concerning a change in the balance of power perpetuated by the rise of the black politician that, for the most part, comes with a history that’s quite different from the history experienced by the dominant (white) class of privilege. And one definitive — and powerful — characteristic of this style, as Rhoden argues, is that it’s a consequence of great suffering.

In an America that is suffering profoundly, only a leader that has suffered, personally and with his people, can lead. It’s a matter of grace, something Hemingway would argue, but which the GOP fails to see.

The GOP nominee will be Mitt Romney, but he’ll fail because he lacks the grace — and dignity — to address deeply felt suffering with style that says, I understand. We can overcome by making it look easy.

Media, Sports (NBA) and the Order of Things

It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.

Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night.  A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets.  These records show how major corporations work:

The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.

As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality.  In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.'”

Media is the tool that attractively packages  the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us.  It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.

The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money.  This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.

Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm.  The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate.  Who is he protecting?

These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are.  How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed?  “The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”

Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.”  So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball.  Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench.  There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston.  Fans understand that.  But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”

We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives.  What’s left but illusion?

It’s best to let Hedges end this post:

Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.

We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.