In which I continue to make a feminist case for my sports fandom the
old-fashioned way--with a Top Ten List. It's coming to you in a series
of posts. Consider this my response to well-meaning friends who look at
me incredulously and point out that the sports world is saturated with macho posturing; it frequently excuses the bad behavior of its heroes; it celebrates brute force; it's history is poisoned by cheating and drug-use; and it is often actively and explicitly hostile to women.
Because, folks, I still love sports and I love being a sports fan.
Need to catch up on my other reasons why I'm both a feminist and a sports fans? Check it:
#7: SPORTS ARE INHERENTLY OPTIMISTIC
Hope and faith are elevated in the sports fan. In the bleachers, you come to hone your sense of the possible and impossible. "Believe" say so many signs in the stands during a team's sports season. "Do you believe in miracles?" rang one of the most memorable sportscasts of all time, and then, a second later when the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team of amateaur college players improbably won a game over the Soviet team of pros that clobbered them 10-1 in an exhibition game a week before, the voice rang again in answer to his own question, "YES!"
Sports fans are fond of counting down the "greatest sports moments of all time," and they are always weighted with stories of hope and faith, of surprise and improbability, of underdogs who make good, of perseverance rewarded. There's almost a fairy-tale element to these stories, and I, for one, am rapt. Consider these classic moments in sports, and how they are grounded in inherent optimism and human potential:
During the 1976 Olympics, Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10--and this 14-year-old Romanian girl did it a mind-bending seven times. (See Comaneci make the crowd gasp here.)
With the NCAA championship on the line, N.C. State dunked on Houston in the last second of a breathlessly close basketball game, sparking an electric celebration that can still be felt when you watch footage now, twenty-six years later.
Derek Redmond and his dad finish the Olympic 400-meter race together. It was 1992, and Redmond--who had been injured and missed the 1988 games at the last minute--fought through five surgeries to get back to the games. In the semifinals for the 400, Redmond is running his heart out and is a shoo-in to make the finals. And then. In the last 175 meters, Redmond collapses. He'd hurt his right hamstrang. Medical personnel rush to him as the runner cries and realizes that, again, he missed out on his dream. From ESPN: "Then, in a moment that will forever live in the minds of millions, Redmond lifts himself to his feet, ever so slowly, and starts hobbling down the track. The other runners have finished the race ... Suddenly, everyone realizes that Redmond isn't dropping out of the race by hobbling off to the side of the track. No, he is actually continuing on one leg. He's going to attempt to hobble his way to the finish line. All by himself. All in the name of pride and heart." Redmond's dad finally makes it through the crowd to join him. "Together, arm in arm, father and son, with 65,000 people cheering, clapping, and crying... A couple steps from the finish line, and with the crowd in an absolute frenzy, (the dad) releases the grip he has on his son, so Derek could cross the finish line by himself."
The women's World Cup championship game in 1999 between the U.S. and China was fraught. More than 90,000 fans watched as ninety minutes of regular play, and then another thirty minutes of overtime, and then another fifteen minutes of double overtime, the two teams kept each other scoreless. The game came down to a series of penalty kicks: each team gets five kicks on the goal. In the midst of the tension, goalkeeper Briana Scurry blocks a near-impossible shot from a Chinese player ... setting up her teammate, Brandi Chastain to win the Cup for the U.S. with the last penalty kick. And does she? As thousands stand, as her team holds hands and their collective breath, does she? Oh, friends ... she does.
You might argue that of all things to catalyze the faith of millions, why must it be sports--a mere game? You might say, how could sports possibly be worth all this emotion and energy?
And I would say to you--as we chat over this at a pub or in the stands or at a victory parade that draws more than a million people outside on a weekday--I would say, sports are worth this emotion just as much as any art form is, like painting and novels and films. I'd add that sports heals the cynicism that marks too many day-to-day lives. The same people who have a tendency to expect the worst from other people and from the world find themselves provoked to optimism by sports.
I don't mean that sports is a form of escapism (though it may be to some people). I mean that sports offer space to rehearse the sort of emotions that make for a better world outside the stadium; it's no coincidence that so many "greatest sports moments" have a meaningful social resonance--like when Jesse Owens' triumphant performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, breaking three world records on the track and winning four gold models, was a profound rebuttal to the Aryan myth of the Nazis. (Indeed, the Nazi audience for these races, including Hitler himself, was visibily troubled.) This video of Owens (who was a grandson of a slave) running in that Olympics makes me choke up.
Sports bring it all: hope and faith; loyalty and a belief in what hasn't yet been seen; support for one another when we are disappointed and a sense for what can be done so things will be better next season.
About the Images:
First photo pictures a Cubs fan who believes; via Sports Illustrated.
Second photo pictures Briana Scurry, soccer goalkeeper, during the 2007 World Cup semi-finals. Her team won the 1999 World Cup; via Sports Illustrated.
Third photo pictures Derek Redmond and his father finishing the 400-meter race in the semi-finals of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona; via Sports Illustrated.
Last photo pictures the summer silhouette of a pitcher for the Denver Rockies; via NBC Sports.
*** My list is primarily focusing on professional sports...
though I trust you smart people can extrapolate easily enough about how
this same feminist reasoning applies to collegiate, school, community,
and youth leagues.