Unsporting Behaviour, by Elayne Riggs
The 2008 Major League Baseball season is now well underway, so much so that broadcasters tend to get bored already and search around for anything else sports-related about which to pontificate; last weekend, as I recall, it was the NFL draft. Heaven forfend we stick to one sport at a time, after all. Or that we enjoy the leisurely pace of a game that used to be America’s Pastime until what happened between the lines got crowded out by commercial concerns, steroids and Americans’ need for speed.
Still, I’ll take the off-topic prattling of networks like FOX and ESPN over some of the local shmoes. Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay is particularly infuriating. Do he and his colleagues really need to make it so obvious how beholden they are to the Steinbrenner family by being completely unable to criticize the home team when the Yankees objectively act like schmucks?
Last month in spring training, the Yankees were playing the Tampa Bay Rays when Ray infielder Elliott Johnson, trying to score in the ninth inning, hit rookie Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli hard, breaking Cervelli’s right wrist. His immediate strategy didn’t work, as Cervelli held onto the ball, but it precipitated retaliation, as these things often do. On March 12 outfielder Shelley Duncan (whom Robin and I have nicknamed "Mongo") slid spikes-high into the Rays’ second baseman Akinori Iwamuri, and naturally a benches-clearing brawl ensued. It was all Kay & co. could talk about — from a strictly Yankee-centric standpoint, naturally. Those awful Rays, breaking that young catcher’s wrist! Those brave Yankees, suspended for a paltry couple of games for their rally of revenge! It’s enough to make tonstant viewer fwow up.
That the "hardball" kind of playing, the retaliations and the generally aggressive tone of these games are perhaps not the optimum way to play the game never seems to enter into the sportscasters’ consciousness. Indeed, the idea of the pitcher "brushing back" a batter by throwing inside, thus rendering the batter more susceptible to injury from being hit by a pitch, is encouraged and egged-on by these hometown media. And then they wonder why the injury rate is so high now compared to what it used to be! They seem to conclude it’s because players are more "coddled" nowadays due to high-paying contracts and endorsement deals, when the more logical answer stares them in the face.
But, you know, we can’t have them saying anything against aggression in this once-pastoral sport any more than we can have them truly analyze the negative impact steroids (the other major contributor to modern injuries) have on the game. Because, when you come right down to it, steroids may be illegal but they’re also manly. And if you can only talk about the NFL draft from a distance, you need to make the sport you’re ostensibly covering look as macho as possible. Which means condoning multiple levels of violence therein.
In 1952, five years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the big leagues, organized baseball banned women from participating in the minor leagues, which means they’ll never even get a chance to be in the majors. Every Jackie Robinson Day, I wonder when we’ll get our turn. The above link mentions that there are currently professional women’s baseball leagues, but they’re certainly not as known or have as established a history as the Negro Leagues, whose players were so popular and talented that their exclusion from playing alongside their white counterparts was so obviously discriminatory that it inevitably had to succumb to the progressive march of history. But what about half the population — heck, even as umpires, or managers, or trainers? We’re in the 21st century having Keith Hernandez, once an idol of mine, saying things like "women don’t belong in the dugout" after noticing a massage therapist and assistant trainer for the opposing team sitting there. He made a hasty forced-to apology the next day, but the message is clear. We don’t belong in a sport, any sport, that encourages testosterone-laden violence.
There’s a term for this in the English Premier League of soccer. It’s called "unsporting behaviour." In this country it’s been called "unsportsmanlike conduct" which points out even more how this aggression is expected when men are involved. I don’t watch a lot of women’s sports, mostly because the only sports I’m usually into besides Olympic ones are baseball and EPL, but I gotta figure women don’t have nearly as much unsporting behaviour as men do. We’re socialized to cooperate, not compete. So when we’re in a competition we seem to more easily acknowledge that it’s just a game, that we’re in it together not only with our teammates but our opponents. I’m sure tempers flare from time to time but I can’t see them being encouraged in a "boys will be boys" kind of way.
A bigger problem arises with sportscasters turned political pundit, who display the same mentality when they report on, for instance, the current Democratic Presidential campaign. We have two historic candidates, either of which would be exponentially better at running the country than the buffoon we’ve had for the past eight years, both of whom have said as much over and over again. But we need blood! Slugfests! Knock-down drag-outs! Which language inevitably works against the candidate whose gender still does not compete on equal footing — a level playing field, if you will — against the gender allowed to dominate sports.
Politics is no longer framed as a contest of ideas (and with these two it really can’t be, as their centrist ideologies and most of their policy proposals are so similar as to be indistinguishable) but solely in terms of a horse race — hey, how about that, another sport! And the pundits who are no different from sportscasters love this stuff, because it lets them do their favorite thing during most of their programs — spout stats! Goodness, they love their statistics and speculations as much as many comics fanboys love playing "Ho’od Win?". (And really, no different, eh? What’s the pollsters’ margin of error between the respective victories of the Hulk and the Thing?)
I’m not going to fall into the biological determinism trap of claiming that having more women competing on an equal footing with men, even in roles ancillary to play on the actual field, will automatically "feminize" the game in question. But I do happen to notice how, for women, playing sports is a lot like reading comics. You know and accept that confrontation is part of it, but you’d much rather follow the plot and see the protagonist triumph while perhaps learning something in the process. It’s like that for me with baseball, and even EPL soccer. The journey is more poetic than the destination, and I want to see team skill and prowess to achieve those runs or goals. And the fighting just gets in the way. It’s not uplifting, it’s not playing the game productively and to capacity, it’s just dropping trou and comparing sizes. It’s downright unsporting.
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging here and is currently playing through pain. Without the aid of a trainer she relies on her trusty ibuprofen.