FreeDarko Book Club #2: Of Frank Obsequious Necessity
Now, please gather round for what might prove to be the most arduous of all these FreeDarko Book Club exercises. The second reader on this accursed thesis of mine is none other than John Hoberman, author of the daunting Darwin’s Athletes. When I spoke to Hoberman on the phone for the first time and attempted to explain FreeDarko, I came away with the distinct sense that he thought I was an idiot. As it turns out, our entire project is just a slightly more palatable version of his chief ideological target. Underlying all of FreeDarko is the assumption that athletic exploits have meaning beyond themselves, and that they have some sort of positive relationship with race and class in this country.
Hoberman’s book—and Hoberman himself—would insist that this is contrary to giving race any real political oomph. When he told me to consider the Romanticism/realism, I’d thought this was a question of aesthetics vs. socio-cultural concerns. Now, I’m fairly certain he’d consider our interest in race and class tainted, itself an attempt to remake politics in the image of style-centric athletic performance. Which would presumably be either absurdly naïve or vacuously postmodern.
For the record, the basic argument of Darwin’s Athletes goes like this: mythologizing sports leads to a gross over-estimation of their societal worth, and ignores the pernicious effect the have had on the black community. Kids want to be athletes, who ultimately are not that special or interesting and are stuck in a white-controlled business venture. Few of them will get to become one of the pros they emulate, so they’ll have effectively forfeited their future. Compounding the problem are black intellectuals, who see sports as a meaningful cultural contribution. Comparing sports to jazz is an example of this. Seeing sports as a meaningful vanguard of racial harmony is another; this is also a tactic employed by white liberals who like their politics anthemic. There’s also a ton more about the intersection of race, sports, science, and prejudice, but I think we’re immune to those accusations.
I want to preface my self-defense by pointing out the obvious: there has been a lot of FreeDarko written, some of it on the fly, much of it in the irreverent spirit that pervades these interwebs. If some of it has no choice but to submit to the ironic/pathetic diagnosis, I’ll at demand that you recognize these as kind of fun. And perhaps illustrating the bind we’re in: how does a critique of traditional fandom lead directly to a new kind of fandom? Silverbird is fond of the phrase “liberated fandom,” but aren’t we still talking about a form of fandom? I want to say that we’re advocating a more enlightened way of viewing the same sport-object; Hoberman would argue that this does little to spur real justice, in sports or in the world that looks to them.
After having spent the better part of an airlift grunting over this, I’ve come up with what follows. I’m not convinced that sports can make a difference. At the same time, very little of FreeDarko smacks of real world triumphalism. I can’t recall any of us seriously suggesting that the NBA is proof of a better day—or even that it provides a clear model for a solution. What I do think, however, is that today’s NBA can provide us a heightened, dramatized version of the socio-cultural issues we all swim in daily. Fine, players are incredibly wealthy and lucky, and yet they still find themselves in a workplace where very mundane black/white issues come up. Hoberman cautions against viewing sports as a theater of social progress; most of the time, I see it mostly as a theater of vulnerability and dysfunction—social, cultural and personal. Or, put simply, you can read the world onto the NBA, but you can’t read the NBA back onto the world.
All our talk about style doesn’t mean that style can save the children. But if the NBA is understood as a fiction, and its players cast as larger-than-life parables, why can’t there be an added element of fantasy? Our political usefulness comes in our insistence that, through the NBA, we can be compelled to frankly discuss race. Our release comes in embracing style, which is a byproduct of a very particular situation. There’s nothing that says I can’t both hanker for entertainment and be aware that this entertainment occurs in a politicized context. The flighty gospel of competitive style is its own reward, one that happens to have an aesthetic component we'd classify as "black." On the other, anyone worshipping Avery Johnson is practically forced to expect his more “real” success have some bearing on the real world.
Prince’s halftime show was an absolutely tremendous feat of entertainment, but it also had unmistakable political implications. I don’t think that his bringing the house down did anything to change attitudes about race or gender identity. It was an artistic statement, plain and simple, and its production can be measured only in those terms. But as Mr. 5000 pointed out, having Prince strut out there suddenly threw into sharp relief a lot of the latent political (catch-all term there) assumptions that the Super Bowl, and the NFL itself, tend to make.
Not to give the sport of my choice too much credit, but the NBA doesn’t need Prince for a whole mess of social issues to jump out and bite you in the face. Maybe it’s the seeing of faces, or the smaller teams, or the room for expressive play, or the high pay. . . whatever, anyone with half a brain can’t watch a half of Association play without remembering how many unsolved conundrums our great nation still has. That’s not because Allen Iverson actually is poor, or discriminated against in any spine-sharding way. However, what we see, and the way its dealt with by media and the fans, is certainly an effective metaphor for situation he would face if he didn’t ball.
Hoberman himself actually has some priceless example of this. He wonders “how many African-Americans look past [Rodman’s] antics and find themselves engaged in the spectacle of his loneliness and psychic pain?” And it’s suggested that Kevin Johnson’s “evil alter ego” Mevin could be a case of “black athletes acting out the social schizophrenia that is an integral part of the African-American experience.” I don’t point these out to undermine Hoberman, or to suggest that he’s prefigured FreeDarko. It seems to say to me, though, that there are forms of myth-making that can serve a political purpose without offering a false hope or loopy directive.