Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: In defense of sports

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 6:19pm

I am sitting here writing this column, and in another tab of my nifty web browser, the New York Knicks are playing. I am alone, hunkered down in my basement as wet muck falls from the sky outside. Nobody wants to watch sports with me. 

In the seconds before I tell people that yes, I’m a sports fan, a pit of insecurity forms in my gut. To give you a sense, I’m an English major with a women’s studies minor, I live in a co-op informally known as Michigan Socialist House, my full name is Isaiah David Aaron Zeavin-Moss, I’m from Brooklyn, N.Y. and I campaigned for Bernie Sanders. And the people I speak to generally associate sports with obnoxious men who yell misogynistic things about each other and excessive drinking and people rioting in the streets in destructive ways after their teams lose. My friends, dear to me, see these instances of gross behavior and they write off the entire institution of sports.

But this attitude ignores fundamental elements of sports. All social arenas as large and as layered as the world of sports — music, politics, etc. — contain cultures within them. And these subcultures respond in varying ways to the thing which they all are celebrating. For example, you are reading The Michigan Daily. This means you must respect journalism. But there is an entire cult within journalism that spends its hours debating the merits of the Oxford comma in or talking about the difference between paratactic and hypotactic writing styles in ways you would probably find obnoxious. What does any of that mean, you ask? Who cares? You wonder as your jaw hangs wide open and your friends around you struggle not to laugh because of the mayonnaise you have on your chin that you’re ignoring in order to make a point about how outraged you are about the conversation topics that people find worth their time? Yeah! Me too! But here I am, gnashing away at my keyboard for the sake of this newspaper.

Certain publications even use ludicrous, offensive language just to grab your attention. This is corrupt. News sources, as such, know they have your trust and they will manipulate you because of it. And yet no one on this campus would see somebody reading a news source and, with a blanket statement, simply say, “Oh. I don’t like news sources. Now, since that person’s reading one, I’m going to judge them. I don’t want to be friends with someone who reads newspapers.”

There is no nuance in this closed-minded perception of sports. Sports is (are? Sports lets you have fun with grammar! The beauty is in the ambiguity, people!) a celebration of psychologies, of thinking about these people as characters, of narrativizing their lives, of finding moments of attachment with these figures, the same way we watch shows or politicians on TV and think about how cute or fun or silly this person is and wow I love watching them just speak.

I think about this sort of narrativization all the time. Throughout my childhood, my family and I would watch as our favorite players would act out their extensive secret handshakes in moments of triumph. We would watch as they would hug each other, crying, after defeat. We would criticize how the most famous player would hog the ball, to the detriment of our team. Haven’t we all experienced these phenomena (communally grieving over disappointment, grappling with the selfish person who acts selfishly in what should be a team effort (think of your latest group project for reference))?

Last night, even, I had a dream about one of the Knicks’ most dynamic players, Joakim Noah. Noah is new to the team this year, and he was having a really hard time with the pressures, the limelight, of New York City. He actually went to a school where I knew people, and we connected over this! I consoled him. We sat in the backseat of an Uber together, and I told him a joke: What do you call a man with no arms and no legs who’s trapped in a pot of vegetables? Stu! And he laughed! Oh, what joy, what sheer joy. There we were — me, the blubbering and drooling and snot-drenched boy coming to the aid of the 7-foot, man-bunned, NBA superstar, canoodling and commiserating over all that life has thrown at us. These people can become figures in our lives whom we admire and adore, onto whom we project our own admirations and fears and insecurities, with whom we live and grow up.

But back to psychologies. How, for example, do these young men cope with the immense pressures that come with their job? Baseball players have fewer than five milliseconds to react to a professionally thrown pitch. Imagine having that amount of time to perform an act which will decide the story written about you for the rest of time. How would you respond to that? These are people — everyday people with backstories of triumph and tragedy and success, who are all responding to these pressures. Should we not embrace this institution?

And of course I think we need to criticize sports for all of those moments of crude, disgusting and violent behavior. They ought to be examined and they ought to be rooted out. On this campus, for example, I often cringe during gamedays where a crowd of essentially all white people drinks and parties while essentially only people of color clean up cans from the ground. Or, as has happened twice this semester alone, I was walking to the game with friends of mine from another school when University of Michigan students saw us and said, laughing, “Faggots!” What does that say about my school, that my tour of my everyday life here included this? And this violence is certainly part of the culture of sports.

But it’s also connected to cultural elements outside of football games. Greek life, for example, where all so many infamous parties take place, promotes certain prototypically masculine ideals which put enormous pressure on its members to deride those who do not set those same standards for themselves. The people who, knowingly or not, decide not to take part in those standards become “faggots.” But something about the football games helps to bring out this culture, it is certainly true.

The University, then, must do more to combat this behavior. There must be greater awareness demanded of its students of certain social issues. A more concrete administrative effort to combat this hate speech — not in the form of advertisement campaigns or slogans, but in concrete, visible action. There needs to be a greater effort to promote understanding of why this language is so impactful and so destructive.  

Like all structural systems, sports has its deep, foundational flaws that are connected to other elements of American culture. But the solution is not to turn our collective heads from these flaws. Instead, we ought to consider them, to work on fixing them, while also embracing all the beautiful elements sports offers its audience: to celebrate camaraderie and to project our own fears and fantasies and expectations and loves and wishes, and to pour ourselves into them through narrativization and celebration of human will.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu