Tag Archives: sports

Simone Biles vs. Sports Culture’s Toxic Masculinity


Real athletes aren’t supposed to have mental blocks, or yield to physical injuries. They’re also supposed to be men.

Simone Biles is widely acknowledged as the greatest female gymnast in the world, maybe the greatest ever. She entered the Olympics as the favorite to win gold medals in several different events, to go along with the Olympic medals she already has. Instead, she pulled out of the team competition on Tuesday, and then from subsequent events as they became imminent.

Biles has explained that she is suffering from what gymnasts call “the twisties”, an unpredictable (and usually temporary) loss of “air sense”.

The twisties are a mysterious phenomenon — suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.

Nobody knows whether the twisties are physical, psychological, or some combination of the two. All the gymnast knows is that some unconscious process she had relied on has stopped functioning.

Similar mind/brain failures happen in other sports, and not just to world-class athletes. Several years ago, I was playing a pick-up basketball game when the unconscious fine-tuning process that usually targets my jump shot went poof. I would leap, twist in the air to sight the basket, and then wonder “What am I doing up here?” as if I had never shot a basketball before. The next time I played, the unconscious process was back. Was it a mini-stroke? Something I ate? An emotional issue? I never figured it out.

In golf, this is known as “the yips“. One famous baseball case is the pitcher Rick Ankiel, who had started a promising career when suddenly he lost the ability to target his pitches. It never came back (but he did work his way back up to the major leagues as a hitter).

In most sports, the main risk of continuing on in spite the yips (or whatever you call them) is the embarrassment of failure. Golfer Ernie Els once six-putted from three feet out. I ended up flinging the ball at the basket with my conscious mind and hoping it would go in. The result was pretty much what you would expect from someone who had not spent hours and hours practicing shooting until it became unconscious.

But I can barely imagine the terror of a gymnast, upside down in the middle of a flip, when the unconscious process fails and she thinks “What am I doing up here?” That’s a life-threatening situation.

So Biles was absolutely right to pull out of the competition and face all the resulting disappointment and criticism. In some ways, that took more courage than just going out and hurting herself. I wonder how many other gymnasts would have invented some invisible physical injury — a groin pull, say — rather than be honest and deal with what Biles has been subjected to this week.

Reaction to Biles’ decision was not, strictly speaking, political, but it did tend to break along liberal/conservative lines.

Following superstar gymnast Simone Biles citing concerns of mental health after shockingly pulling out of the women’s team competition, a number of conservative media figures and pundits attacked her on Tuesday for supposedly being a “quitter” and “selfish sociopath” who had brought “shame on her country.”

Conservatives do love to attack Black athletes — going after LeBron James, Steph Curry, Colin Kaepernick, etc. was a go-to move whenever Trump wanted to rally his base — and they also have problems with strong women. (There’s a reason why Kamala Harris gets targeted more viciously than Joe Biden.) But I think this particular case is less about racism and sexism than hyper-masculinity, which holds that will-power and “character” are supposed to blast through mental difficulties and even physical injuries. (See Curt Schilling’s “bloody sock game“.)

The idea that you’re supposed to play hurt and risk more serious injury is one important piece of football’s concussion problem.

Unfortunately, due to [toxic masculinity], many concussions go unreported, or mishandled as a result of the athlete playing it down, pretending it didn’t happen, or simply not knowing that they actually have a concussion.

White male NFL quarterback Andrew Luck took a lot of grief for retiring young, in spite of this clear explanation.

For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.

Lacking a race or gender stereotype to beat Luck up with, Fox Sports’ Doug Gottlieb chose a generational smear:

Retiring cause rehabbing is “too hard” is the most millennial thing ever #AndrewLuck

Gottlieb has also criticized Biles, but resents CNN characterizing him as a “white male talking head”. He has claimed not to be a Trump supporter, but googling “Doug Gottlieb politics” led me to a series of conservative-leaning opinions.

Toxic masculinity is not a purely conservative problem, but there is a high correlation. (One much-admired Trump trait is his “strength”, which mainly manifests as a stubborn refusal to admit any mistakes.)

Biles’ decision was more-or-less the opposite of toxic masculinity. She faced reality, and admitted that she is not always as she would like to be. In the world of sports, that was a heresy of high order.

So like any heretic, she had to be denounced. If you happened to be conservative, the opportunity to dis a strong Black woman was just a bonus.

Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs

A labor ruling knocks the wind out of the fantasy of the amateur athlete. The Raiderettes sue. And we’re heading towards another baseball strike.

For some reason I kept running into stories about sports and labor this week. The big one was that Northwestern University’s football players are a step closer to unionizing. A ruling by National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr says:

In sum, based on the entire record in this case, I find that [Northwestern University]’s football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of “employee” when one considers the common law definition of “employee.”

Previous rulings (against graduate-student teaching and research assistants unionizing at Brown in 2004) don’t apply because the football players “are not primarily students”. Northwestern says it will appeal to the full NLRB, and from there I’d be surprised if the courts didn’t get involved. This probably won’t be resolved for years.

Citizen Kain

It sounds weird to think of “amateur” athletes organizing. But it’s hard to argue with the claim that a college football player is there to play football, not to be a student. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, I had come there to be a graduate student and was teaching to defray the cost. But football players come to Northwestern to play football, and take classes primarily to maintain their football eligibility.

To me, the players don’t resemble amateurs as much as interns. They work very hard in a business that makes an enormous profit, but pays them no salary. Many submit to this deal because they’re building a resume towards a salary-paying job they hope to get later in the NFL. Most of them won’t get that job.

The best thing I saw on the issue was a clip from ESPN’s Outside the Lines, which focused on the ringleader of the unionization movement, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. (Colter exhausted his NCAA eligibility this season, and is hoping to catch on with the NFL as a receiver. CBS Sports rates Colter as the 48th best receiver in the draft, or the 393rd best overall prospect. In other words, his goal of playing in the NFL is improbable but not completely absurd.) (Northwestern is fighting this, but I’d put Colter on the cover of my pamphlet: Northwestern shapes leaders who change the world.)

OTL traces Colter’s radicalization to the experience of his uncle, former All-American defensive back Cleveland Colter, who injured his knee in his junior year and was never drafted by the NFL. Cleveland continues to have knee issues to this day, but his medical coverage from USC ended with his playing career. This is not uncommon: A player never does make money from football, but has lifelong expenses related to the wear-and-tear on his body.

Meanwhile, the NCAA and the school can market the player’s name and image, but the player can’t. (Quarterback Johnny Manziel was suspended for half a game this season on the charge that he signed football memorabilia for money.) This system is being challenged in court by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon.

Often the player doesn’t even get a degree. In that respect, Northwestern behaves better than most universities. BleacherReport says it has the highest graduation rate: 97%, compared to 47% at third-worst Oklahoma. But even at Northwestern, the time commitment of football prevents athletes from receiving the kind of education Northwestern offers its typical student. (The findings in Ohr’s ruling indicate that football is the first commitment of a scholarship athlete; he can only take classes that don’t conflict with football practice.)

ESPN’s Jay Bilas comments on the claims that recognizing players’ rights would kill NCAA sports:

It’s amazing how the rest of us can operate in a free-market system and the world doesn’t spin off its axis, but if athletes got it, boy we’d be in trouble. … People who support the NCAA structure as is, including some politicians, say it’s going to change fundamentally, all those [non-revenue-generating] sports are going to go away, we’re just going to have football and basketball. That’s a doomsday scenario scare tactic, and really it’s shameful because it’s just not true. … But even if it were, we lay all the responsibility on the athlete: If those greedy athletes who may ask for more than a scholarship were to get what they want, all this would go away. We don’t say that about coaches who are making $8 million a year. And we don’t say that about administrators who are making millions. … Nobody says, “Hey, the wrestling program’s going to go away if we pay you this much money.”


Meanwhile, the Raiderettes could use a union (though they probably won’t get one), because the Oakland Raiders aren’t treating their cheerleaders very well. Several sued the team in January, charging that their $1250 annual salary works out to less than $5 an hour even before hair-and-make-up expenses (which the team demands but doesn’t pay for), and that they are subject to “fines” for offenses like bringing the wrong pom-poms to practice.

Forbes has estimated the value of the Raiders at $825 million. They made $19.1 million in 2012, which is low compared to most NFL teams.

And expect a baseball strike when the current contract with the players’ union expires after the 2015 season. As stupendous as those nine-figure superstar contracts sound, the players as a whole are making an ever-smaller percentage of the league’s revenues; 40% at last count. That’s down from 56% in 2002 and still falling. Hardball Times writes:

Most other major sports leagues have salaries close to half of league revenues, and baseball players were actually doing slightly better than until the last 10 years, when suddenly they started getting a smaller share.

Expect the union to want to turn this situation around, while baseball owners have consistently been the most pig-headed owners of any major league sport. If we lose less than the whole 2016 season, I’ll be surprised.

And revenue is only part of the story of a baseball franchise. As a capital asset, a major league baseball team has been one of the best investments around. After all, it’s a collectors item, one of a limited edition of 30. And Nate Silver points out one of the consequences of rising inequality: As the rich get richer, more people can afford to bid on a baseball team.

Denouncing overpaid players is a crowd-pleasing tactic, but at least the players do something for their money. What exactly do the owners add to the game? They have become the private custodians of a city’s civic pride, and they collect a massive rent on that. They profit from an antitrust exemption that allows them to limit their competition and to decide which cities can and can’t have major-league teams. (If you started a new team, the major league teams would refuse to schedule games with you at any price, which in every other industry would be an illegal restraint of trade.) Most of the teams’ wealth was actually created by government, not by their owners’ entrepreneurial creativity.

Do the owners provide any value for their billions? Back in 1979, Allan Jacobs published a story in Harper’s,The Civil-Service Giants“, in which San Francisco took over its baseball team under eminent domain. It was intended to be humorous, but if such a takeover really happened, if every team wound up being owned by its city, who would know the difference?

Race, Sports, and a Doomed Civilization

I just watched ESPN’s Ghosts of Ole Miss about the University of Mississippi in 1962, a year when they had a great football team and the campus rioted in an unsuccessful attempt to stop integration.

“Mississippi in the fall of 1962,” the narrator says, “is a doomed civilization at its peak.”

If such rhetoric sounds overblown, look at this Sports Illustrated cover. What country is that?

The narrator is ESPN’s Wright Thompson, a Mississippi native too young to remember 1962, but embedded in the white culture that has tried to forget it, minimize it, or whitewash it. His article in ESPN: the Magazine inspired the film, which beautifully walks the line between shame and nostalgia. He never loses sight of the ugliness of racism, but also does his best to make comprehensible the white-supremacist Ole Miss of 1962.

One hundred and one years earlier, all but four students at Ole Miss dropped out of school to form Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry. The University Greys. On July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, the unit rose from safety and made a futile rush from Seminary Ridge. Everyone was killed or injured, and history named their suicide mission Pickett’s Charge. The school’s sports teams would be called Rebels to honor their sacrifice. The young men and women in the stands today are just three generations removed from those soldiers.

When the governor won’t negotiate James Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss, President Kennedy sends U.S. marshals to take over the Lyceum, the building at the center of campus where students are registered. The students riot, rowdies join in from far and wide, people are killed, and the marshals can’t contain it. So the 82nd Airborne (“Union troops”) has to finish what Thompson describes as the last battle of the Civil War. (The riot was covered, coincidentally, by a very young Dan Rather.)

Meanwhile, there’s a football team having the only undefeated season in Ole Miss history. When Meredith wants to be an ordinary student and go to a game, the decision goes all the way up to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy: No. The federal government isn’t willing to commit enough resources to keep him safe there.

Thompson pulls a timeless, universal theme out of his subject: If you can’t deal with the bad things in the past, the good things — like the 1962 Rebels — get lost too. And he makes personal the process of sorting the past’s relics, culling what is too ugly to be preserved from what is too beautiful to lose. The stars-and-bars, he concludes, has to go — both at Ole Miss and as the state flag. Colonel Reb as mascot — he’s out too. But what about the Rebel name and Pickett’s Charge?

And “Dixie”, which can still make Thompson cry when they play it slow. Can he keep “Dixie”?

GoOM reminded me of several other articles and books that examine the intersection of race and sports.

Blindsided By History — A 2007 Sports Illustrated article on the 50th anniversary of another undefeated football team whose achievement was overshadowed by a shameful racial controversy: the 1957 Central High Tigers of Little Rock, Arkansas. They didn’t repeat in 1958 because Governor Faubus closed the school to prevent a second year of integration.

Thornridge: the perfect season in black and white by Scott Lynn. This is the other side of the race/sports coin: How one of the greatest basketball teams in Illinois high school history helped a white suburb accept integration. (This was Quinn Buckner’s team. I was there when they beat my high school in the state finals.)

If Only You Were White: the life of Leroy Satchell Paige by Donald Spivey. Paige was the greatest player of the late Negro Leagues, and stayed good long enough to follow Jackie Robinson into the majors in his 40s. Spivey not only makes Jim Crow real for a generation that didn’t live through it, but captures the compromises successful blacks had to make. Paige could be proud and “uppity”, but he could also play to the clown/minstrel stereotype when he needed white acceptance.

Some of the issues around integrating the majors (which killed the Negro Leagues) have been forgotten. For example, the Negro Leagues provided jobs for hundreds of black athletes and opportunities for black promoters. The majors accepted a comparative handful of black players, and no owners, managers, or executives for a long, long time. Paige wanted something more like a merger, in which two or three of the best Negro League teams would be admitted to the majors intact. But that was too much to ask for in 1947.