Sunday, May 12, 2013
Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports
Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport.
(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 20 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports"). Collins received enthusiastic support from almost everyone. He even got a call from the President thanking him for his bravery. High-fives all around. But, to what extent does Collins' brave articulation of his identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.
Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.
You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).
So, do you see Jason Collins' announcement a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement. Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.
How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?