Sex Talk

Public discourse has not caught up with the lived contradictions that lie at the root of sexual harassment and the culture of harassment. The media can’t get enough of these stories. And yet, no amount of coverage of rape, harassment seems to shift things. The story of one’s harassment/rape has always already been written by someone else. This is one of the many things that make sexual violence so awful. It is why DJT’s language matters, why it feels so familiar. We know that sentence, because we have felt it on our bodies.

All that talk — the blaring of the story of one grope after another — we are angry hamsters in a spinning wheel.

There is no necessary relationship between how much people talk about sex, and much sexual generosity/intelligence is produced by that talk. Plenty of sex talk is abusive, phobic, sexist and harassing. Much of that sex talk is presented as “knowing” but is in fact ignorant. Plenty of sex talk is a site of intimacy, bonding and generosity. Much of that talk is staged around one’s humiliation and ignorance but is in fact wise.

People sense a hypocrisy in public outrage vis a vis DJT’s behavior but can’t quite name its nature.

Harassment does not disrupt the workplace’s order; it actually regulates it. The more hierarchical and segregated the environment, the more this is true. Those who confront and resist harassment take a beating for this reason.

Take the strange and shifting place of sexuality in this anecdote lifted from a story in The Nation, regarding a recent DJT rally. The reporter describes a conversation with a female DJT supporter:

She also mocked the women who accused Trump of assault. ‘What we say in private, who cares? The other day, a bunch of women at work: We was talking trash talk, about sex and everything else, it’s what we do. None of us are saints. Who cares?’ She doesn’t care if he grabbed these women against his will? ‘Who said he grabbed them? And lemme tell you right now: back in the day, a billionaire had come by, I’d have been wanting him to grab me! I’m sure they were wanting him to grab them.’ Then she added, ‘Even though I am a victim of sexual assault.’ I told her I was sorry for that, and she brushed it off. ‘That right there with the women, if it happened, I’m sure it was wanted.’

We should not mistake the contradictions that this woman voices for stupidity. This woman is describing the lived contradiction shaping the life of the sexed worker — the worker who embodies sex, is sex, and moves through the workplace as the embodiment of the world that has already been mined for resources before she arrives for her working day. Sex haunts the workplace as the sign of all that has been stolen from the worker before she earns a dime. Groping literalizes that theft. It is a reminder: that body is not yours. Never was. In a way, there is a cruel truth to that fact. These stories of sexual harassment are slippery. The harassment story spreads like a germ from one man to another. This sick energy swirls around the figure of a powerful woman in a pantsuit who presents herself as a soulless wall — she is irrelevant. This is what harassment does to its victim. Maybe that position advances to: She is the same as him. She is the problem. Get rid of them both. But of course, she is not.

She is different, and yes — difference is the problem here. She is the one who will embody our embarrassment. That is HRC’s struggle — how not to become that figure (which has never not haunted her, as the public’s “good wife”).

We bemoan the fact that DJT’s racism never grabbed the public’s fascination in the way that his sexual behavior does — that, too, is a difference problem. One is knotted into the other: his campaign opened, after all, with the declaration that Mexicans are rapists. And because this country didn’t, in numbers, at that moment, recognize the seriousness of the problem in his candidacy — we are here, now, counting the numbers of women willing to come forward and tell the stories of how they were touched.

Until we get how harassment grows from the contradictions which structure our lives, until we come to grips with how, as Silvia Federici once put it, “sexuality is work,” we will not get very far in cleaning up this mess. In part because we’ve grossly underestimated its scale.

Passions United, a review

The bored room.

A FIFA boardroom, in which passions are united.

United Passions is fascinating. Not as a movie, of course. FIFA’s 30 million-dollar self-portrait is, instead, fascinating evidence. FIFA leaves its fingerprints on every aspect of the work’s form and content.

Structurally, the film stages a bold intervention against story-telling practice. United Passions demands that cinema catch up with the times: the dominant narrative form used by the people who govern our lives from conference rooms is that of the bullet-point presentation. This biography of a corporation thus appropriately takes the form of Powerpoint Cinema.

Blocks of information are presented in a static visual form, usually in a manner that is not entirely unlike this sentence: a passive presentation of the way things are. Randomly-generated transitions move the viewer from one information block to the next. A cause-effect relationship will be implied by the flow of one slide to the next. Sequencing is, in and of itself, all one needs in terms of structure. Information flashes across the screen; the audience is spared the burden of understanding and insight. This presentation of information is usually accompanied by an image grabbed through a google search.

One might call this a “lie-back-and-think-of England” approach to one’s audience.

This phrase, “lie-back-and-think-of England,” for the reader lucky enough to not know, refers to the advice given to women regarding the inevitability of sexual coercion in their married lives. United Passions gives us a new spin on that phrase, as several bullet points are dedicated to demonizing the men of the English Football Association. The English FA’s pomposity is here developed as a background — perhaps the only available background — against which FIFA leadership might indulge the idea that they are merely humble servants to the beautiful game. FIFA/the English FA: this the film’s most compelling face-off. Or perhaps I should say, “most compelling bullet-point sequence.”  The only thing that unites the passions of FIFA’s founding characters is their shared hatred of that other imperialist congress of entitled white assholes. (To be clear, true to its form, this is indicated in the film, rather than, say, written and acted.)

Passions United is admirably open about the scale of self-serving ambition that lies at the root of the organization. FIFA was founded, we are told, for the sole purpose of having total control over the game everywhere such control matters, mainly because a few European men were annoyed that a few English men were bitchy to them. Men in suits, largely indistinguishable from each other, declare that the only rules of the game that will matter are their rules, that the only associations that matter will be FIFA associations. Voilá! FIFA Article I: Football will not exist outside of FIFA. This naked desire for monopoly is presented by the film’s swelling score as a “win” for the game.

Sprinkled throughout Passions United (I can’t get enough of this title) is imaginative thinking which presents FIFA’s so-called political neutrality as a simultaneously anti-fascist and populist politics — e.g. a party sequence in which an English FA executive spews racist and sexist nonsense at a horrified woman (Rimet’s daughter, more on her below), a bizarre boardroom scene that recycles debunked myths regarding wartime matches (these stories are also so badly told that one can’t actually follow them anyway, so their veracity is perhaps less an issue than their coherence). These moments are reassuringly familiar as staple elements of FIFA’s pantry: bad faith and pure bullshit.

Of course, as a feminist football critic, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that women are not only not forgotten by United Passions, they are all over its Powerpoint script, as is, shall we say, the idea of Africa.

The film confirms something we have long suspected: women and Africa occupy similar, even perhaps the same symbolic territory for FIFA. The film wonderfully maps out FIFA’s psychopathology so that we might better understand the exact roles that women and Africa play in the organization’s self-understanding. Women and Africa appear in United Passions as spaces of conquest, ownership, and creepy intimacy.

Africa functions as a scapegoat for FIFA’s corruption. One scene (one bullet-point) identifies Africa’s increased participation in FIFA as a “pandora’s box”—Africa functions in this film at once as a territory to be rescued, the locus of all foul play, as cash cow, and as a trophy. Women operate as both an alibi guaranteeing FIFA’s good intentions and, also, as evidence demonstrating the nature of FIFA’s bad intentions.

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The daughters of Jules Rimet and Sepp Blatter are given a shocking amount of screen time.

Nary a scene happens without one or the other fille: they are represented as essential conversation partners—the people with whom Rimet and Blatter talk out all of their ideas—within the script they are, really, the only people that these patriarchs can trust. This creates a little confusion. Normally, when a man talks this much at a woman in a film, it is because she is the object of his sexual interest; possession of her functions as an affirmation of his phallic power.

In short, the father-daughter partnerships of United Passions are startlingly incestuous. This is in no small part because Rimet, played by Gerard Depardieu, constantly puts his hands on his daughter (played by Jemima West), and because in at least one scene, in which the two are standing in an empty, large open public space, they stand so closely that Depardieu’s belly touches poor West. It is also because both women “characters” (that is really not quite the right word for them) function as fluffers: their sole function is to pump up Daddy’s ego. Take one of the most infamous lines of the film—as Rimet worries that playing a World Cup during the Great Depression might be wrong, his daughter says: “When have dreams ever been appropriate?” Indeed.

I appreciate the way that United Passions re-envisions Hollywood casting practices, in which women young enough to be the daughters/granddaughters of the male lead will be cast as their romantic object of interest as if such sexual relationships were fun to watch. Here, at least, that romance is called out as fundamentally incestuous—and it is presented as extremely uncomfortable viewing.

But this perhaps also reflects FIFA’s actual world, in which women can never function as equal partners, or should I say co-conspirators? The only appropriate position for a woman is as a “daughter” to FIFA’s “daddy.” Lie Back…

[I now have to wash out my eyeballs and scrub down my brain.]

Readers totally unfamiliar with the most banal conventions of the sports film might be surprised to learn that the film’s narrative superstructure is provided by a joyous pick-up game, played by children who have taken over a dusty pitch in a worn-out stadium on the edge of a city in an “emerging” nation. They are the children of the world—one of every color, and even one of the “other” gender (fair-skinned, of course). This sequence, which opens and closes the film — a “bullet point” which declares the game’s universal appeal — was filmed in Azerbaijan, whose government generously funded Passions Uniting Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, and is therefore listed as a production partner.

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This sequence, ironically depicting exactly the kind of game over which FIFA has no control whatsoever, as well as a kind of match (mixed-gender football) that FIFA explicitly prohibits, is the part of United Passions that one might equate with the google-search-produced image dropped into a Powerpoint slide. Of course, at first the lone girl resigns herself to playing goal. And she doesn’t know how to defend, apparently, because she makes barely a gesture to blocking shots—accepting humiliation and uselessness as her gendered lot—until, at the last moment and for no particular reason, she takes the ball, dribbles it up the field, shoots and scores. Her teammates are overwhelmed with joy. “Who would have believed this!” The film’s audience is asked this in a voice-over—an editorial accident superimposes the surprise that FIFA has lasted as long as it has, “accomplished” as much as it has, over an image which suggests a community’s surprise that a girl knows how to kick a ball.

Embedded below, the film’s conclusion. “Enjoy” it while you can.

A People’s Cup

Each broadcast of FIFA’s World Cup opened with plastic samba and cartoon favelas—the actual streets of Brazil were off-limits as far as FIFA’s marketing department was concerned. They are not up to standard, and so they were replaced, like so much else.

Around the world, however, people practice the sport according to a different set of guidelines.  Las Futbolistas, for example, offer a weekly kickabout where “anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, liberation-minded lovers of the sport [can] go to relearn the game.” This past weekend, the Los Angeles collective staged a small game in Skid Row, a neighborhood in downtown LA with a large homeless community. They then marched to the Federal Detention Center, and projected the 3rd place match on a wall across the street from the building. Las Futbolistas were kind enough to share video highlights from the day.


No Lesson Plan: notes on a shooting

As something people experience and express, sexism is intensely variable. For some, systems of hate and fear are never more than a background hum. For others, those systems manifest themselves as discrimination in the workplace, police violence, and worse.

People with the Isla Vista killer’s suite of disorders (a cocktail of schizo-paranoid-psychotic thinking mixed with who knows what disorders) will tap into the grid of hate and fear. Sexist thinking seems to have given a shape to his persecution complex. It seems to have legitimized a God-like complex. This is to say that aspects of this person’s writings are surely sexist, but they are also hallmarks of certain kinds of paranoid/psychotic formation. Supremacist logics are grounded in these paranoid/psychotic/schizo formations. History does not suffer from want of evidence on that score. What to do with the coincidence (the happening-in-the-same-time-and-place) of the crazy and the real? With the singular (the “shooter”) and the systemic (“sexism”)?

Not all people who go on murder sprees leave an accessible archive of their psychosis behind them – this seems to be more and more common, however, as social media gives people new ways of expressing those thoughts. How should we read them? In fact, why does the public read them at all? What do they tell us that his murder spree doesn’t?

I’ve had the unfortunate fortune of working with detectives who specialize in threats, stalking, and intimate partner violence. They have an interesting way of looking at things. They are concerned by the way that a person’s tilt into violence is generally accompanied by a suicidal not-caring about what might happen to others, or to themselves. These detectives have a chance to prevent murder. What makes a person violent – as a question – concerns them deeply.  One scary scenario involves the projection of the death-drive onto the object of a campaign of harassment – in which hate/fear/desire drives a fantasy of mutual destruction – the object of their hate/fear/desire (the person who is the object of attachment but also rage) is absorbed into a suicidal mission. A person might dream of that cataclysm, but an awareness, a certain grip on the sane – a desire to live, a desire to stay out of jail – might keep them from acting that fantasy out. When that awareness falls apart – when that sense of a modest future of not-murder/not-suicide fades – that is one place where murder happens.

Women victims constitute a vast majority of their cases; perhaps because in disordered thinking the consequences of harassing and threatening women feels less serious – easier to get away with. That is, indeed, one shape that sexism takes. And, statistically, men are more likely to act out these murder/suicide fantasies – one of patriarchy’s signatures is its naturalization of a man’s impulse to harm and destroy. (A bitter twist: socially, threats of violence issued by women are taken less seriously; threats between men may also be taken less seriously as men are imagined as less vulnerable. So same-sex intimate partner violence may be ignored, minimized, its murderous potential disavowed or absorbed into a homophobic narrative.)

Sexism circulates as an explanation and as a fertilizer and as a foundation for all kinds of misery. It explains everything and nothing.

What made the people murdered by that guy vulnerable to his violence? Sexism is a part of that story, but there are other things that escape that word. One might meditate on sex and its relation to power; one might consider this historical moment as one in which things feel pointless, when life within the US feels pretty desperate – like living in the middle of an egomaniacal and embittered monster. What makes the world so chaotic, what makes the college campus and the female student such a compelling target? That’s sexism but it is also, say, a distortion of class warfare.

What makes someone want to burn down not only their life, but the world? To shoot up a sorority or deli, to drive his car into a crowd, to murder men while the sleep (one theory as to how he killed his roommates). To mainline the worst of everything?

I will not read that guy’s text or watch his video – I refuse out of respect to his victims, for, in fact, the broadcast of those messages – some kind of master-narrative – was surely one of his desires – but I do not need to read them to know what they say. Master narratives are always sexist and racist, self-serving and, at their core, crazy.

Sexism gave a sense of legitimacy to his psychotic narrative. And yet he didn’t only murder women; he started off by murdering his male roommates and one of their friends. He did not only blame women for his unhappiness; he blamed the men around him, too. Yes, we can understand that as part of sexism’s logics. We might also understand heterosexual culture as fucked up – the designation of women as the obstacles to sexual happiness is one of the heterosexuality’s worst features. He started off killing the people closest to him, however – these men (whom we can guess he was also harassing) were murdered with a knife. He murdered two women, four men. Most of his victims were men of color.

Sexism is such a powerful narrative structure – it gave him his “reason” – should it also give us so much explanatory force with regards these horrific events? People are compelled by his own explanation for his actions. But how much more do we need to know in order to understand that racism, sexism and class warfare were part of his life, and are part of ours?

Of course it is a good thing that so many people are thinking and talking about the relationship of sexism to violence, especially if that conversation unfolds with an awareness of how proximate discourse on “protecting” women from violence is to racist expressions of violence, especially if that conversation unfolds in the interest of maximal sexual freedom and happiness, and less carving up of the world by gender. As a queer theorist, however, I notice that the state of sexual emergency which we encounter in and around today’s campus makes advocacy for sexual freedom, for sexual generosity more difficult. More confusing and strange.

That this killer – a man – drove to a sorority seems to give this story some kind of shape. But does it, really?

Last week, in Santa Barbara, a profoundly distressed young man took all the pain and all the misery of his experience and loaded it into a gun. He enacted a murderous fantasy in the name of his desire. Whatever his rationale, he was an equal opportunity killer.

The knife, the gun – the act of violence – what meaning it bestows on the world is itself a brutality. What is there to think from such a place?

On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics

“People want excellence in sports, and the quality of women’s soccer is not there.”

“Nobody wants to watch women’s sports.”

“The top women can’t take on the top men.”

These three things were said by attendees at a recent congress of leading scholars and journalists working on soccer.

The organizers of Soccer as the Beautiful Game deserve a lot of credit for bringing scholars and sports writers together. What follows is not a criticism of that conference, or of its organizers – quite the opposite. At this moment, it is not possible to organize a conference at which the above statements would not be made, unless one either excluded women and women’s football from all discussion, or invited only feminists to the table. The conference’s organizers worked to make sure that feminist scholars like myself were in the room because they are committed to changing the field.

As long as people writing about the men’s game write only about men, they can maintain the delusion that their work isn’t sexist in its very foundation. But the world does not line up with their writing. It isn’t composed entirely of men – not even where the men’s game is concerned (one scholar’s presentation on the recollections of English women football fans of the 1966 World Cup was illuminating not only in its content, but also in its rarity – even scholarship on fans tends to assume that they are all and always only men). With even just a few women in the room (men outnumbered women at this conference by what felt like 7 to 3) – with a just a handful of experts on the women’s game among the audience – overt and inferential expressions of sexism were inevitable. You can’t put us – feminists, women, women’s football fans – in a room with them – sexists (men who only care about men’s sports) – and not provoke some awfulness from a few of the sexists. (Most sexist sports scholars and critics are benevolent in their approach to women’s sports: they want to see the field developed – by women.)

From left to right: Simon Kuper, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Grant Wahl, Peter Alegi and Charles Korr.

From left to right: Simon Kuper, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Grant Wahl, Peter Alegi and Charles Korr.

To wit: A plenary panel composed of leading scholars and journalists addressed their experiences writing about the sport. Each panelists spoke briefly about the way the sport’s history, politics and economy impacts their practice as scholars and as journalists. Featured on the panel*: Grant Wahl – [until recently] the lone full-time journalist covering soccer for Sports Illustrated; Brenda Elsey – one of the conference organizers and author of Citizens and Sportsmen (a study of the amateur men’s fútbol clubs in Chile; she is writing about the history of women’s fútbol in that country); and Simon Kuper – author of Football Against the Enemy and a journalist for The Financial Times. Kuper, in particular, is a darling of the academic world, frequently invited to speak about the politics of the men’s game – his book is something of a sports-writing/academic cross-over.

In their opening remarks all of the panelists spoke about their writing about the men’s game. That the context for the conversation was the men’s game was taken as a given. During the Q&A, I raised my hand to ask Elsey and Wahl (who have both written about the women’s game as well as the men’s) to address how the situation changes when their writing turns to women. (For example, with the men’s game journalists and scholars both wrestle with economic and political pressures unique to the scale of its economy.) Elsey made a provocative point when she asked how dangerous must the women’s game be to have been banned for so long in so many countries – especially as the men’s game has been the site of so much important social organization. Wahl pointed out that if he wrote about another sport, he might never get a chance to report on women athletes – he considered himself lucky on that front.

Some hands went up in the audience, and the moderator – Charles Korr (a distinguished sports historian at the University of Missouri, St Louis) – picked a man I don’t know (I think this man was a member of the public, neither a scholar nor a journalist). That man said something like the following:

The thing is, people don’t want to watch women’s soccer: they want excellence, and the women’s game is not as developed as the men’s game. It’s slower, not as powerful.

I can’t quite remember what happened. I made a noise of some kind and some sort of gesture; a whole bunch of hands went up. Another man was picked to speak. He sounded relieved. Finally someone expressed something that everyone knew but didn’t feel like they could say in front of people like myself – although they were clearly dying to.

This man, Kevin McCrudden – a local journalist – invoked the WNBA as a evidence that “no one” wants to watch women’s sports: they need to be subsidized by the NBA, right? Unlike men’s teams, women’s teams lose money. (McCrudden seemed unaware of the fact that the television audience for MLS is smaller than that of the WNBA.) Other men jumped in to argue with these statements.

None of the senior feminists in the room raised their hands that I can remember. We did some combination of the following.

We locked eyes with each other.

We thought “what do we do?”

We debated in our minds if we could walk out. (As a keynote speaker at the conference, I did not feel I could.)

We tweeted.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 2.11.12 PMThe conversation seemed to go on, no one seemed able to stop the flow of sexist statements.

Finally, a young woman in the audience stood up and called out the sexists on their language: their imperial “we” and presumed “no one” left no room for her, as an ardent fan of women’s soccer who sought out every opportunity to watch it. I think she had to stand up because the moderator hadn’t called on her. I think, too, that she was a student.

If I didn’t say anything it was because I’d given a keynote address earlier in the conference; I had called out the segregated structure of sports scholarship as part and parcel of the sexist, homophobic and transphobic segregationist logics that underpin administration of the sport. I had also asked the question drew out the sexists – a question not aimed at the sexists, but at the people who make women’s soccer a part of their work.

I didn’t want to get into a shouting match with idiots. The other women in the room were far more seasoned that I am and even less likely to take the bait. I’ve spent most of my career writing about queer performance art, after all. Jean Williams literally wrote the book on feminist sports history where soccer is concerned. (Actually, she’s written three.) The fact that none of us spoke up at this point was evidence of our collective experience – these “conversations” go absolutely nowhere. They are not conversations. They are symptoms.

And I was particularly tired, because I got caught in a similar “discussion” the night before, in a sports bar, with at least one of the men on the panel.

In any case, the moderator stepped in to kill the discussion – it needed to happen but it felt like the wrong kind of intervention. Had I been moderating I might have just called out those remarks as sexist, and asked Wahl and Elsey, for example, how such attitudes shaped their experience writing about the women’s game. That isn’t what happened however. The moderator just wanted to put the whole mess back in the box – which makes sense, as I don’t think he’s ever written about women’s sports or sexism and perhaps he couldn’t handle it. Because if you don’t write about women’s sports or sexism in women’s sports – well, you have no expertise in the expert non-defensive communication skills required of such a situation.

Brenda Elsey, however, does. The lone woman on the panel leaned forward at that point and asserted her prerogative, as the conference co-organizer, to have the last word. She said something like:

“This whole conversation – the fact that it is even happening – is sexist.”

The mere introduction of women’s soccer as a subject of conversation provokes “common sense” observations from sexists about how “no one wants to watch women’s soccer” because women are weaker, slower etc. That is sexist. That the people who work on women’s soccer have to defend women’s athletic ability in order to participate in any conversation about women’s soccer – that is sexist.

And as it happens, I had spent the previous night arguing this point with Simon Kuper.

Earlier that evening, I’d been hanging out with Jean Williams and Stacey Pope, swapping notes on the talks we’d seen. We talked about Pelé, who was honored at a banquet that night, and gossiped about NY Cosmos goalie Shep Messing, who seemed to be flirting with everyone – me, but also David Goldblatt, for example.

I was feeling really high on the whole experience: Joshua Nadel, a scholar at North Carolina Central University, shared television footage of the 1971 Mexico City women’s world championship tournament – an event I’ve been obsessed with because it is the largest known audience for a women’s sporting event: over 100,000 filled Estadio Azteca to watch Mexico lose to Sweden. I’d only seen references to the event, I’d never seen actual footage of it until Nadel shared it with me. Stacey’s presentation on English women’s recollections of the 1966 World Cup was really moving and inspiring. I wanted to hang out with these folks, kick back and relax as all of us had given our papers by then.

We got separated, though, as we caught different shuttle busses back to the hotel. I went to the bar with fellow blogger Andrew Guest, Simon Kuper and a bunch of other attendees.

Within minutes of sitting down, Kuper and I became embroiled in an argument. Kuper returned to my keynote address – I had come out as hating the World Cup, not only because it’s a completely corrupt boondoggle, but because it replicates segregationist logics and broadcasts a fantasy world from which women have been banished. I posited another kind of football culture – one that fought segregationist logics rather than reproduced them. So, Kuper baited me:

The top women can’t take on the top men.

He continued by making assertions like: women are slower than men; women are weaker than men. And he kept returning to the following:

Marta could not take on Neymar.

I replied with something like:

They would not take on each other; they are both attacking players. They’d likely be on the same team, or on opposite ends of the field. You mean ‘Marta could not take on Puyol.’ And I want to see that. Maybe she couldn’t, but what if she could? People don’t always ‘take on’ other players by, say, outrunning them. And if she’s slower than Puyol (I don’t know that she is), she’s also a lot smaller. He’d have a hard time tackling her.

Kuper didn’t find this satisfying: he kept returning to the statements about women’s physical weakness, and he seemed to need me to agree with him on those points – that I refused to do so seemed to rattle him, but in a way that I think he enjoyed. I think he thought I was enjoying the conversation too.

I was rattled, however, in a way that I do not enjoy: because there I was in a sports bar, wrangling with the most primary expression of sexism. Those attitudes were being expressed by a man that people in the field think of as an important intellectual where this sport is concerned. (I, for the record, do not.) Everything Kuper said in that conversation was sexist, and what was particularly shitty was that he seemed not to know this.

As he pressed on, I thought to myself: This is why Simon Kuper has never examined the situation of the women’s game in any of the stories that he has written about football and international politics. Why SAFA or the Nigerian or the Spanish FA’s behavior towards their women’s sides (each its own scandal) isn’t newsworthy to him – or to most people who write about football, be they scholars or journalists. Such stories, in the mind of the sexist journalist and scholar, cannot be connected to Politics or Economics because the abject status of women’s football is a product of Nature.

They find talking about women’s sports a drag because they know nothing about it. They only thing they “know” is that women are weaker. And so that’s the conversation they insist on having, over and over again.

Oh, how I wish that I’d been having drinks with Grant Wahl instead. So that we might process the recent dismissal of the USWNT coach, so that we might talk about the upcoming women’s world cup being played on artificial turf, or the uneven development of the women’s game, and what is going on with Brazil – with the women’s team, that is. So that we might cast our “dream” mixed team. Oh, that I’d been sitting at a table with Jean and Stacey – so that they might chime in with their perspective on the Super League, and continue our conversations about their work as public historians.

But no. I was in a sports bar having an argument with an “intellectual” who wanted me to agree to his premise – that women are weaker – an argument that I also had with boys on the school bus when I was 8 years old. This perspective does not mature as boys turn into men; men either shed that attitude or it cements into their brain structure, like some kind of thought-killing plaque.

I refuse to have ANY conversation about sports that naturalizes women as the weaker sex as a precondition for entering into the discussion. So, in our discussion I kept returning to Kuper’s desire to force me to “admit” that Marta was somehow less of a player than Neymar, as if the aim of my own scholarship could be boiled down to this point. (People like Kuper do not read the work of people like myself.)

Thankfully, Andrew Guest partnered up with me in this discussion. So I wasn’t alone. But we were in a minority.

If you are woman forced into having that conversation over and over again, at some point you really just want to leave the room. At some point you might decide that life is too short to waste your time talking to these people. So the next morning, when a conversation about the material difference in the experience of writing about men’s soccer and writing about women’s soccer turned into the “natural” difference between men and women, I was not surprised but I did want to leave the room.

What does surprise me is how oblivious people in the field are to the toxicity of such conversations – it shows a total disregard for the conversation one might have in reply to a conversation like “how dangerous must women’s football be to have been banned for so long.” There is a place we can go that looks less like an elementary school argument, and more like the utopian “universalism” to which discourse about the game appeals. A place of not only gender equity, but gender fluidity. A world divided not in two but united in its assembly of singularities. Not Marta or Neymar, but Marta with Neymar.


*The panel was organized by The Football Scholars Forum, a terrific on-line seminar run by terrific scholars at Michigan State – Peter Alegi and Alex Galarza. Also on this panel was John Foot, who is based at the University of Bristol and is an important sports studies scholar in the UK.


raising a fist at the fix

“Since the time of Jesse Owens it has been presumed that any poor but rugged youngster who was able to jump racial fences into a college haven was happy all day long.” So wrote Harry Edwards in The Revolt of the Black Athlete (p. 75). The observation describes the ruling common sense, which is to say, a ruling ideology – in which an education is a blue ribbon or trophy (something you win, rather than earn); a college campus is “a haven” and the black male athlete is imagined as the eternal supplicant, “happy all day long” because he has been saved (from what? himself? his world? his color?). Any poor but rugged youngster – any “Jesse Owens” – must be running with joy, he must run as a means of joyful escape – running isn’t his job; it isn’t his work. If he’s happy all day long, it is because this discipline is his pleasure.  This is perhaps, more true today than it was in 1969, the year Edwards published his account of the radicalization of the black athlete, of the movement that led to one of the most enduring images in sports history – Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the Olympic medal stand, heads bowed and fists raised.

NKU @ Garmsville1968_BlackPowerSalute1

Tommie Smith (the gold medalist) has a dim view of college athletics (even as he has a real love for his sport). Smith is one of the greatest sprinters to have ever taken to the track – he was, of course, a stand-out at San José State, then known as “speed city” for its sprinting program. Smith’s memoir, Silent Gesture, is remarkable for many reasons – he is an incredible person – but many would likely find his lack of nostalgia for his college years bracing. Smith describes his relationship to his alma mater as a big fat blank. Recalling a trip to San José State to participate in events honoring Smith and Carlos’s shared legacy, he writes,

I didn’t feel anything from the faculty and the administration when I was a student, I didn’t feel anything after I graduated and I didn’t feel anything that night [when he and John Carlos were honored] or since.

Smith is clear in his memoir: college sports is a fraud. Black athletes playing big-time sports then and now are ruthlessly exploited; they are treated as frauds (as undeserving), they are abandoned to a world of lowered expectations, used until they are used up. Smith doesn’t think that much has changed since the late 1960s, neither does Edwards.

The myth of the grateful black athlete puts a gloss on the collusion between universities, the NCAA, media and sports corporations – systems that bank on the spectator’s investment in the idea that this athlete is, indeed, “happy all day long” because the world is doing him one favor after another. That spectator’s pleasure is easily purchased, but the cost for the athlete is high. 

Fraud charges were filed last month against a former professor at UNC Chapel Hill, the latest plot twist in an old fashioned college sports scandal that’s been at a gentle boil for over three years. (See The Daily Tar Heel’s “Tracking a Sports Scandal”) It’s a particularly depressing story. 

Professor Julius Nyang’oro (who retired in 2012) chaired the African and Afro-American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for 20 years.  Today, he stands accused of defrauding UNC by accepting pay for a 2011 course that he basically didn’t teach. That summer course, according to the Raleigh News and Observer

is one of more than 200 such lecture-style classes dating back to the mid-1990s that show little or no evidence of any instruction. These classes included roughly 500 grade changes that are either confirmed to be or suspected of being unauthorized. (See Dan Kane, “Former UNC Official Nyang’oro will fight felony charge”)

The  course in question had enrolled only current and former athletes, and athletes in the school’s football and basketball programs dominate the roster for the other classes. It seems pretty clear from media reports that this faculty member, with the support of administrative staff, helped athletes out by giving them course credit for courses that were barely taught. An NCAA investigation was conducted, and UNC responded with a report. Some tutors and  coaching staff were fired; an athletic director retired. A host of athletes were benched, declared ineligible, dropped and disciplined. And yet it seems the professor stands relatively alone in criminal court. It would be nice for UNC if it could wind this story up by claiming the campus was defrauded by a rogue faculty member – but it defies belief that the situation described in the press could have been conducted without – at the very least – an intense and deliberate blindness. It defies belief that the level of fraud implied here could flourish in the African and Afro-American Studies department without the collusion of the university administration – a New York Times journalist reports:
People in the department described it as balkanized — professors stuck to their own courses and research — and said that Mr. Nyang’oro was an inattentive administrator who was often out of the country, even when he was supposed to be teaching. They said that his continual reappointment as the department chairman, a job most professors hold for 10 years at most, reflected the university’s indifference to what was going on there. (Sarah Lyall, A’s for Athletes)
It’s a Philip Roth novel: by which I mean, it’s a white supremacist fantasy – the corrupt black studies professor as the instrument of a corrupt athletic department, affirming the “common sense” that the black athlete has no real place at all in the classroom – the student is a fraud and so is the black professor. It’s a terrible story – one that reminds us of Edwards’s strident calls for deep reform:
Like a piece of equipment, the black athlete is used. The old cliché ‘You give us your athletic ability, we give you a free education’ is a bare-faced lie, concocted by the white sports establishment to hoodwink athletes, white as well as black.
First of all, there is no such thing as a ‘free’ ride. A black athlete pays dearly with his blood, sweat, tears, and ultimately with some portion of his manhood, for the questionable right to represent his school on the athletic field. Second the white athletic establishments on the various college campuses frequently fail to live up to even the most rudimentary responsibilities implied in their half of the agreement. (Edwards, 16)
In the UNC report regarding the empty credits awarded to student athletes, we see that if anything has changed, it’s the complexity of the system. It’s a miserable story; here I’ve outlined just one or two aspects of its ugliness.

A Thought Against the World

The critic who would try to think of a world outside the World Cup and The Olympics is faced with a unique problem. FIFA and the IOC have a stranglehold on the global sport spectacle, on the presentation of the sporting event as a World Event. Their hold on the idea of the global event is so tight that even their harshest critics imagine that change will be brought about by participation in those events, or by boycotting those events. Within that critical discourse, change is possible if only we provide the right kind of pressure.

But real change will not happen either way. The larger these events become, the more media space they take up, the more public resources they use up – the worse it gets. By “it,” here, I think I mean “life.” Real change – is that a better Olympics? A better World Cup? Does one celebrate a Qatar World Cup or a Russian Olympics in the hope that these events will make Qatar and Russia more liberal environments for gays and women? In calling for that outcome, we enlist “gays and women” as neoliberal alibis, and lend legitimacy to the notion that the Olympic games improve every city that hosts them and that the idea that the World Cup unites the world’s football fans and creates possibilities for social change and better living. We all know that’s a lie.

These organizations are more notorious in sports media for their corruption than for their discriminatory practices. Sports media cares about the former only as long as it doesn’t jeopardize advertising revenue, and it doesn’t care about the latter at all. FIFA and the IOC are happy to deploy female, black and Muslim athletes as alibis justifying their work. That work being not social justice, but the amplification of their hegemony.

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