My Last Sports Post and #travelreads

Odds and ends.

I’ve been talking a lot about sports lately, and I’m sorry about that. They’ve been on my mind, I guess, because there have been so many stories (Sandusky scandal, Fine scandal) that involve sports, but are not necessarily about sports; they’re about horrific crimes that are made no more horrific by their association with games; these are stories that have been leading the nightly news, stories so toxic that ESPN anchors get visibly uncomfortable talking about them, as it’s not their meat-and-potatoes brand of “huge hit here, droppin’ dimes there.” (You can always tell when “Sportscenter” personalities get uncomfortable with talking about realer or more devastating stories. It’s always right before a commercial, and the bass-line that accompanies the  “coming right up after the commercial break…” montage is neutered.)

All of these terrible crimes, however, have opened the floodgates for a weird and unsettling and kind of insensitive commentary from decidedly non-sporting folks. Katha Pollitt’s charged “Penn State’s Patriarchal Pastimes” (for The Nation) sticks out foremost, as it was a rather on-the-nose piece about how college athletics should be abolished. Erecting a bridge between university officials covering up child rape and the abolition of college athletics is a little like tying Chandra Levy’s murder to the immoral state of the Democratic Party; that is to say: not liking sports and then using unspeakable tragedies as a means of getting rid of what you don’t like is a brand of demagoguery usually reserved for right-wing talk radio hosts.

Pollitt’s broad assertions in the piece are, to steal a phrase from DFW, so stupid they practically drool. Citing the cost of athletics programs (scholarships, uniforms, facilities), Pollitt attacks the sports-academia industrial complex from a fiscal standpoint, all the while ignoring the boatloads of cash-money major sports bring in. Not to mention the more anecdotal, crudely romantic point of view for why the balance sheet favors the athletic departments: sports on campuses help foster a sense of community among many–not all, settle down studio art majors–members of the student body; this sense of community is ingrained and carries on beyond the four years of undergraduate studies; theoretically, this then leads to a more concrete sense of identification between alumni and college; finally, these alumni then donate more money to the school because they had fond memories of their days playing or watching their school on the field/court/mat. I was skeptical of this, until a very passionate fundraiser for my alma mater laid it out in a jarring-yet-still-convincing presentation.

Writing for an incredibly liberal magazine, Pollitt is naturally aware of a liberal argument for college athletics.

People defend these programs as offering hope to black and low-income students, especially boys, who otherwise couldn’t go to college at all. But what about their high school classmates who do better in school and can’t afford higher education either? Where are our priorities?

I hate to be curt or obvious or unwittingly narrow, but what about student loans? Sure, you’re in debt up to your eyeballs for the next forty years, but in my case I’d say it was worth it. I was decent at golf, but didn’t work hard enough to earn a Division I or II scholarship, so I took my financial lumps to play Division III golf and study at a mid-level liberal arts college.

But, as Pollitt argues, the mere fact that I play (or played) golf is evidence of something being wrong with me.

Moreover, sports scholarships don’t just go to poor kids. They also go to wealthy suburban kids who play golf, squash, lacrosse, tennis and other games favored by the elite. Those kids not only get a break on tuition; they get indulgence for mediocre grades and low SAT scores.

And here is the elite prejudice against the elite. There’s no doubt that Katha Pollitt herself is a member of the elite, born into an upper-class family, later attending Columbia University. Certainly nothing wrong with that! I envy that kind of upbringing-slash-pedigree, but respect the true randomness of circumstance. Good on her.

But here’s a member of the elite flinging fig spread at people who play supposedly “elite” sports. This, of course, ignores people like me (and I don’t want to get too personal here), who played with hand-me-down clubs from the age of six, who couldn’t afford to actually play very much at all, and instead would spent significant fractions of days at short game practice areas, shag bag in tow, working on shots that were more theoretical than practical. (Since I don’t play much, how do I know that I’ll ever be faced with this sort of shot?) I’m not trying to paint myself as some hero because I enjoyed golf and played it, despite the financial gulf that existed between kids like me and most golfers. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the blatant stupidity of Pollitt’s position: what makes kids who play squash or golf or tennis or lacrosse (a game with a very non-elite history, whatever the contemporary cultural stereotype) any less deserving of a scholarship?

Of course, Pollitt doesn’t seem to know that most athletes who play these “elite” sports are also given fractional scholarships that only pay for, say, twenty to thirty percent of just tuition (and this is in most cases). This is an incredibly broad and flawed argument, if only because it doesn’t recognize the diversity of 1. student athletes 2. athletic programs 3. NCAA Division (I, II, III).

And I’m not even sure what this last bit means.

Basically, colleges are saying to kids lucky enough to go to excellent resource-rich high schools, Don’t worry about that missed chemistry lab, those 200 pages still to go in One Hundred Years of Solitude, those French irregular verbs—bring us your backhand and your butterfly stroke.

Again, athletes who excel at sports are not necessarily from resource-rich high schools. And if Katha Pollitt truly believes that by taking sports out of academics all together we will somehow get disinterested youth excited about One Hundred Years of Solitude and French irregular verbs, I suggest she gets out of Manhattan and sees what it’s like west of the Hudson (or, you know, in any high school or college classroom). This is why people identify with the idea that New Yorkers (or liberals in general) are somehow pointing their noses down at “real America” (a phrase I neither endorse nor tolerate); wealthy essayists/poets who actually make the argument that the only thing standing between underprivileged, inner-city youth and a subscription to the Iowa Review is the expunging of college athletics are toxic to their own cause.

It gets worse, and decidedly more political, so I won’t really go more than waist-deep in Pollitt’s murky argument. (Emphasis mine in the following excerpt.)

And that brings us to the patriarchal aspect of the Penn State scandal. I know it’s predictable and boring, but come on, people! There really is a message here about masculine privilege: the deification of a powerful old man who can do no wrong, an all-male hierarchy protecting itself (hello, pedophile priests), a culture of entitlement and a truly astonishing lack of concern about sexual violence. This last is old news, unfortunately: sexual assaults by athletes are regularly covered up or lightly punished by administrations, even in high school, and society really doesn’t care all that much.

I will buy every single trivial (see: two can play the pissing-on-something-I-don’t-see-much-cultural-value-in game!) poetry or essay collection Pollitt has ever released if she can just provide me evidence that “society doesn’t care all that much” about the cover-up of sexual assault? Has she been watching the news? Is she aware of the backlash about the very scandal about which she’s writing? Humorously enough, Pollitt buries this loaded accusation in the final paragraph because, really, why not?

And why does she go to such great lengths to separate herself from society? One could point to the moment in this particular essay where she lumps in football with God, the military, and the family in a strange argument about its cultural entrenchment (because the military’s getting all the free breaks, apparently; someone email Pollitt the statistics about homeless veterans, STAT), institutions she either doesn’t appreciate or doesn’t value as much as most Americans. (And that is her deliberate fracturing, not mine.)

She goes on.

According to USA Today, an athlete accused of a sex crime has a very good chance of getting away with it.

1. You’re citing USA Today? 2. The greater societal issue is that anyone accused of a sex crime has a very good chance of getting away with it.

Then, of course, there’s the unconscionable position I’ve seen many take up in the wake of the Penn State scandal, one so transparently self-serving and weird that I’m surprised it slipped past the editors of The Nation.

If Sandusky had abused little girls, let alone teenage or adult women, would he be in trouble today? Or would we say, like the neighbors of an 11-year-old gang-raped in Cleveland, Texas, that she was asking for it?

There’s really no point in asking a question like this, because it goes out of its way to alienate the victims, somehow insinuating that these young, male victims of child rape have benefited from society’s inherently sexist attitude. Does she honestly believe that were the forcibly raped children Sandusky kept on hand female the outcry would have been quieter? I can’t comprehend this. Though, she does pad her argument with the subhuman words of a few misguided idiots in Texas; so there’s that.

It just seems really crass and narcissistic and insensitive when an essayist uses such horrific crimes as a way of introducing an argument or stance that’s been waiting in the weeds the entire time.


I’m a little tired. While we’re all traveling this weekend, we might as well read an appropriately scaled piece about baseball, right?

Chad Harbach’s “(Almost) Winning in Milwaukee” (via Grantland)
Grantland gets beat up a lot for being far-reaching and cheesy and pedantic, but they occasionally bring great writers to great subjects; Harbach and the 2011 Brewers are a fine example. Harbach’s lapidary prose is well-suited for a piece about a team that brought so much hope, first in the regular season and then the divisional series, before fizzling out to an old foe.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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