Still not cool

Still not cool

Recently there have been three very different media controversies over sportspeople and politics in the USA, and I think all three are really good examples of how many countries treat their sports people in a really terrible way. In particular, I think these cases show the huge pressure modern sportspeople are under, and a lack of perspective on sport. The three cases in question, which all show very different aspects of this common problem, are Ryan Lochte, Colin Kaepernick, and Dwayne Wade. Each of these cases shows a slightly different aspect of the unrealistic and unfair attitude that modern sportspeople have to deal with, though of course being American they’re leavened with a whole bunch of extra race politics.

The first case, Ryan Lochte, on the surface seems a classic case of white “privilege” and a star treating ordinary people terribly. It appears that Lochte and friends, drunk after a big night out to celebrate being every American’s hero, trashed a public toilet and pissed on it, then the next day made up a story about being harrassed by local police. This led to uproar and cries of white “privilege” and terrible American attitudes towards foreign countries. Lochte is a kind of poster boy for this kind of thing because he’s obviously a kind of clueless jock, and although everyone wanted to suck up to the clueless jock in school, we all want to tear him down once his jockish ways lead him to ruin as an adult. Except in this case, everyone criticizing him seems to be overlooking the fact that he was forced at gunpoint to hand over money to pay for the damage he did by some kind of security guard or policeman (it seems likely it was a policeman). In Australia and the UK, and I suspect the USA too, if a policeman or security guard forces you to hand over money at gun point for any reason, any at all, that is either robbery or serious corruption. In Australia that act would have the security guard/policeman in jail, and possibly the petrol station owner facing charges of receiving stolen goods. Although much of the press is up in arms about Lochte being treated leniently, it appears to me that he and his friends were either treated in a deeply corrupt way, or treated exactly as the locals would be (perhaps with a foreigner surcharge). I don’ t know which, but I’m very sure that the way the police/security guard treated them was dangerous and reckless well beyond the level commensurate with the crime, and even if they’re used to guns, being threatened like that is a terrifying response to pissing on a wall and smashing a toilet. The coverage of Lochte’s misbehavior and subsequent “lie” stinks to me of a media class enjoying payback against the kind of person they think is an overpayed, unqualified idiot. Which he might be, but this is the same media class that lauds the olympics and feeds on just so stories of valour and struggle by people like Lochte for a ridiculously hyperbolic three weeks of jingoism. It’s a little rich to build up these people as pure heroes of American goodness, and then to knock them down as over-privileged idiots when they act like the jocks they are. The sudden surprise that a swimming star who has never done anything else is a bit out of touch and clueless is a little rich coming from a media that has done all it can to make men like this think they are gods – especially when the heart of the story is an actually quite terrifying story of police corruption.

Colin Kaepernick’s case then shows what happens if a sports star tries to show that they are not a clueless over-privileged idiot, and actually engage with the political issues of the moment. Kaepernick exercised his right to free speech by not standing up for the US National Anthem, apparently because he thinks the US hasn’t resolved its race relations issues yet, and he can’t stand proud of his nation while it is treating black people worse than white people. It seems to me, looking in from the outside at a nation that claims to have enshrined free speech in its constitution, that Kaepernick has every right to do this, and that he isn’t disrespecting his country by saying he wants it to improve before he honours it publicly. There’s a rich vein of important political debate to be mined here in a respectful exchange between opposing views about why a black sportsman would feel he had to take such an extreme position to make a point, but it doesn’t appear that much of the media took him seriously at all. He was derided for disrespecting the troops, told to stick to sport, and sneered at for being a rich man completely out of touch with his peers – again, sneered at for being over privileged. So here we have the media that got into uproar over Lochte not behaving like a responsible adult and for not respecting his role as an ambassador of the USA getting in uproar over an athlete who cares about using his public role as an ambassador to change things; and the same media that benefits from the huge money sportspeople make, sneering at this rich sportsperson for being out of touch. In Kaepernick’s case as a black athlete this latter charge is particularly smelly, since we know that it’s much harder for black people to be successful in the USA and sport is one of the few ways that mainstream racist culture has allowed black people to be successful; but now that this man is successful his very success is used as a weapon to discount his attempts to represent the political issues he believes in. Kaepernick seems to have behaved fairly well in response to this, meeting an ex-veteran footballer for a long chat and then moderating his stance to a one-knee protest that he claims simultaneously respects the troops but maintains the protest. He also has given a million dollars to community groups, which seems to suggest that the only way he can be taken seriously is if he gives up money for a cause. When was the last time a journalist was expected to give money to a cause before criticizing a politician or engaging on a particular issue? How many of the sports journalists outraged about Kaepernick’s behavior have given even a cent of their easily-earned money for a cause?

Finally we have the case of Dwayne Wade, who was thrown into the public spotlight after his cousin was shot in some kind of tragic drive by, and Cheeto Jesus used Wade’s family tragedy to further sink his electoral prospects in a singularly tasteless tweet. Wade didn’t ask to be thrown into the spotlight – he’s just a sportsman who wants to do sport! – but he made the mistake of mentioning gun control, which is disaster for any American in public life. He then had to give interviews about this issue, which is just terrible – his cousin has been murdered and he has to give interviews about how he feels about some stupid carnival barker using his personal tragedy for political traction. I think anyone reading this would feel a kind of deep dread at the thought of having to go on national TV to talk about their feelings in a case like this – and Wade has to do this in the context of Kaepernick’s ritual humiliation and the scorn shown to uneducated and ignorant jocks like Lochte. Wade seems to have managed to handle this by some deftly understated scorn, but many is the sports person who in this situation would melt down and suddenly become the bad guy of the case.

I think it’s safe to say that in all these instances, these guys didn’t ask to be spokespeople for their country, for their racial group or for a gun control cause. They didn’t expect to be in these situations, and they probably assume – wrongly, it appears – that if they are they will be afforded the same basic human decency and respect that everyone else is. Instead they are subjected to a kind of trial by fire, in which the rules are constantly changing and their lack of education or eloquence or political sophistication becomes a tool to be used against them. They aren’t politicians or journalists or scientists, they’re sports people who have devoted their whole lives to a career that does not reward learning to speak well, articulate ideas or give nuanced responses to complex and difficult problems – and they also happen to be rich and, yes, privileged, often by random luck. But through this random luck and the subsequent privilege of wealth and exposure, they suddenly find themselves unwitting ambassadors, or prisoners of their own conscientious actions, or just randomly cast into a situation they probably can’t handle, with a jealous and mercurial public and media waiting to pounce on any error, and punish them for not living up to standards that they have been set up to fail by a sports complex intent on victory and achievement and entertainment over all else.

These guys aren’t the only recent cases, of course. There are some – like Hope Solo – that appear completely terrible from the outside, and others like the completely horrible treatment of Gabby Douglas for not being exactly like everyone else. I think it’s obvious that some – like the treatment of Kaepernick and Douglas – has an additional racial bias that they can’t control or in Douglas’s case even predict, but even for the “privileged” white boys or crowd heroes there is still this rapid and unreasonable fall from grace after they make a single slip. I think this is a deeply unreasonable and irrational way to treat sports stars. If you don’t like them being rich, don’t pay them so much; if you don’t like them behaving like princes and princesses, don’t treat them like that; and if you don’t want them taking unpopular political stances, don’t treat them like role models. If you’re going to sack a football player (or a cheerleader!) for some minor transgression against your role model code, don’t be shocked when they decide to act like a role model and take a strong political stance that is unpopular with your viewers – you told them to be a role model, so deal with it. If you’re going to take them out of school at 15 and sequester them in a jock- and testosterone-filled bubble, then pay them fantastic amounts and market them as heroes and sex symbols, don’t be surprised when they act like dickheads. And don’t forget that they’re human, and maybe won’t behave well when they wake up with a hangover after a night of being threatened with a gun by a corrupt policeman.  And if you do decide to treat these people with this kind of ridiculous and unpredictable double standard, don’t be surprised when some of the smarter ones troll you like this.

It’s very clear that a lot of sports stars are overpaid and treated like heroes when they’re just ordinary men and women who are very good at one thing that probably shouldn’t really matter. But this isn’t a situation of their making – it’s a world they fell into because they were lucky enough to be good at that thing, and usually in getting into that world they had to close off a whole range of other, probably safer options, and they also had to leave the ordinary world behind. I’m a big sports fan, but I’m in favour of salary caps and a more rational approach to sport that doesn’t elevate these people to some lofty pedestal and reward them with orders of magnitude more money than they need. But if that’s the world that we have created, I don’t think we should then drag these people down because they are rich, or they decide to use the fame they have been gifted for some cause, or because they’re clueless after living their whole lives in this bubble. It’s the sports world that needs to be torn down, not the people who live in it.