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Social Studies

Sportin' Life

By Vincent Williams | Posted 8/30/2006

Last week Bryant Gumbel caused a bit of a media firestorm on his HBO show when he suggested that outgoing National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue should show new commissioner Roger Goodell "where he keeps [NFL players union chief] Gene Upshaw's leash." Because of the inflammatory comment, folks are all upset and Gumbel's new gig as an NFL commentator this fall is in jeopardy. I'm a big fan of Gumbel's show, Real Sports, and was watching when he said it, but I didn't expect the brouhaha because, well, I don't watch sports.

And, damn, it's frustrating because I really, really want a piece of this story. The thing is, I don't understand the complexity and texture behind the statement. Yeah, it's a dis and, yeah, I can figure out that Gumbel is saying that the players' union president is the commissioner's bitch. But now I'm done. I tried looking up some background and differing opinions like a real journalist, but it started to make my head hurt after a while. Once again, my sports deficiency bites me in the ass.

I've never liked sports. I mean, I liked going outside and playing, and I really liked playing baseball and soccer. But just sitting and watching some kind of game on TV or talking about stats or any of the other activities that have arisen from our sports culture just bypassed me somehow. And most of the time, it doesn't bother me that much.

Sure, my ambivalence about sports makes interactions with other dudes a little bumpy. Y'know, when you meet someone for the first time, it's social tradition to find some kind of innocuous subject to talk about. Hey, how about that weather? Can you believe these gas prices? And, yes, something about some sports stuff. This is especially true among men. I've lost count of how many times I've been at barbershops and barbecues as guys have gotten to know each other through the eternal ritual of bitching about football teams or basketball stats as I've stood silently by the side. One of my favorite pieces of clothing is a replica of Pelé's Brazil jersey. No reason--I know Pelé was a soccer player and remember him in the inspiring film Victory or, as I call it, Soccer Conquers the Nazis, but really, I just like the way it looks. Can I just tell you that people were yelling "Ronaldo, Ronaldo" at me all summer, and I never knew who they were talking about until a couple of weeks ago?

It's even worse in my own family. My brother and father and I lovingly argue over politics, music, movies, television, philosophy, religion, the best cut of steak, etc., etc., but there always comes a point when the two of them get into it over, I don't know, somebody bouncing or throwing some kind of damn ball, and I have to be quiet and go fetch beers like I used to do when I was a boy. This thing has become a running joke with my wife's family. My father-in-law is a sports fanatic and, like the sun rising, every time I see him, he asks me if I saw somebody bouncing or throwing some kind of damn ball, and I say, "No . . . I don't really watch sports," and then he just keeps talking about it, at which point everyone else in the room snickers under their breath. It's like, he loves me so much that he can't wrap his head around me not knowing anything about sports, so his brain won't let him comprehend this deficiency in my manhood.

But even with all that, it's only touchstone moments like this when the sports thing is problematic, because sports are tightly entwined with the issues of race that interest me. In A Hard Road to Glory, author and tennis legend Arthur Ashe theorized that sports have such an appeal in the African-American community because it has historically been one of the few venues in which black folks can't be cheated. If someone scores more points than his opponent or crosses the finish line before her opponent, it's almost impossible for racism and bigotry to take that away. This column's mission statement is to examine and explore issues of race, class, and culture in America, (y'know, while slipping in references to The Jeffersons). Arguably, there is no subject that encompasses all of these facets like sports.

So I read those types of insights from Ashe and watch documentaries like Hoop Dreams and see cats like Stephen A. Smith or, yeah, Bryant Gumbel who brilliantly articulate these issues in sports, and go, "Boy, I wish I could do that!" But then, I say the same thing when I see Dr. Mae Jamison: "Boy, I wish I could be . . . an astronaut!" Sigh. Some things just aren't for some people. Maybe next week there will be a controversy about racist imagery in Japanese anime. That I can talk about!

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