Hi there, sports fans. My name is Jonanna Widner, and for the next couple months I'm going to be doing the guest-blogging about the nexus of sports and feminism. Said guest blog will fall under the name "Jock Bitch."
To start, I thought I'd just sort of spell out my relationship to/with sports, which hopefully will explain why I think sports are a feminist subject, and serve as an introduction to the philosophy behind this Jock Bitch.
First off, I am a huge sports fan. I do not qualify as a sports nut, mind you, as that would entail endless hours of trolling web sites for obscure statistics about how many strikes C.C. Sabathia throws per inning when pitching at dusk when the wind is coming from the south, but let's just say ESPN is often the first TV station I turn to when the TV comes on. Let's also say I've been known to Tivo basketball games to save for later, and that I cry regularly due to some sports-related catharsis or other. Last minute heroics are always good: Show me a walk-off home run and say good-bye to the Kleenex. And that's only during the regular season.....
I also grew up a Dallas Cowboys' fan, and I'll die a Dallas Cowboys fan, and don't think I'm not conflicted about it: I also consider myself well left on the political scale, a Marxist at heart, a queer, and a feminist, and the Cowboys are one of the most historically capitalist, redneck-y, racist sports organizations to ever exist. How do I reconcile that?
I know, too, that sports in general—both the playing of and the watching of—remain the domain of dudes. You can spout off about Title IX and Pat Summitt all you want, but, I mean…c'mon. And we all know that all sorts of anti-feminist behavior goes hand-in-hand with sports, be it Kobe Bryant-esque rape or [fill in the blank with almost any famous athlete name you want]-esque domestic violence or just plain exclusionary behavior. Plus sports are stinky, and butch, and overly competitive—and not everybody's into that, right? So when I inform my friends, No, I can't go out to see that band with you tonight, because I'm watching the Final Four/Opening Day/The Masters/some random cricket tournament piped in from South Africa, I understand when they roll their eyes ask me Why do you love sports so much?
It's a complicated answer, but one that speaks to more than just balls and strikes—there's lots of stuff going on in sports, stuff about race and politics, love and life, and, most important for our purposes here, male and female. Sports are a very primal thing on one level, but on another they are also complicated, and some of those complications make for feminist fodder.
Why feminist? Because there are life lessons in sports (it's cheesy, but it's true), and health benefits, and since sports are considered primarily boy territory, women are not exposed to them, and thus women miss out on both.
For one thing: You are probably a lot more likely to enjoy watching sports if you have played them. You will be more thrilled by a 400-foot home run if you know how hard it is to hit a damn baseball at all; and you'll be more cathartically heartbroken by a last-minute loss if you can relate to the pain.
Hell, you might be even more interested in the failures of athletes than their successes. Take this example: One of the easiest plays in baseball is throwing out a runner from the second baseman's position. We're not talking from second base—which is about 90 feet—we're talking somewhere in between, say, 25-45 feet. It's just a toss, really. And there really is no pressure—you're so close to first base that you can bobble the ball once, maybe even twice, or throw it slightly off target and you'll still beat the runner by several strides.
And yet, in 1999, the New York Yankee's Chuck Knoblauch began a famous freakout, wherein suddenly he couldn't make that exact throw. He would field the ball cleanly, his mechanics smooth and natural, until it came time to get the ball to first. At that point, in a split second, he transformed from finely tuned athlete to a spastic mess, chunking the ball over the first basemen's head, or into the stands, or—and these were the most painful to watch—straight into the ground.
This man was a professional, a top-tier athlete, known for his sound fundamentals, and yet he mindfucked himself so badly, he really never recovered.
The magnitude of the weirdness of Knoblauch's freakout is simply lost on someone who's never played ball. A layperson might sort of get it, but unless you've learned to throw a baseball, and are somewhat familiar with the particulars of the circumstances of making an infield play, you don't truly understand.
But if you've played ball, then you know. You know how simple it is to toss the ball a few feet, and how insane it feels to somehow not be able to perform the same physical action you have performed thousands of times. And you know what it feels like to mess up that badly with everybody watching. And if you know those things, then you know Knoblauch's freakout was a gift to us from the baseball gods, because it was filled with currents of empathy and catharsis.
And you know somewhere on some deep level that sports aren't just about finely tuned bodies and big muscles and jockstraps—sports involve a peculiar balance of gross physical ability and the refined, mysterious interworkings of the brain. It's that balance that makes sports so…human. Relating to that humanity when it succeeds (e.g., winning a World Series) is fun, but relating to it when it fails is even more significant. In that, sports are like this magical portal into the dark recesses of the human soul—they allow you to safely dig through fear and failure, to check it all out, and then come back to your everyday life. It's like what Aristotle said about watching a tragic play—the action "through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of…emotions"—and believe me, there was never a play more tragic than a jacked-up Knoblauch throw.
So that's why I like sports. And that's why I think it sucks that most young girls' relationship to sports gets all messed up by stupid factors—factors I hope to investigate with this blog. For starters, hopefully the next entry will be an interview with Jennifer Ring, who wrote the recently published Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball.
For now, though, I gotta log off. The Dallas Mavericks playoff game is about to start, and having won game one their first-round series against the Spurs, things are looking pretty good. I hope they don't mess it up. But if they do, you can bet there'll be a lesson in there somewhere, and I'll be damned if I don't have as much access to it as anybody else.