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Politics Clashes with Sports in the United States Uncovering the Far Reach of Corporate Greed: The Perspective of a Marginal Sociologist

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These days it seems as if the culture wars are seeping into all walks of society. Previously I wrote about how political developments have affected sports in Turkey; now I am writing about how political developments are affecting sports in the United States. In the United States we are seeing how the entrance of politics into the world of sports (and wider culture) may be morphing into a fascistic movement without offering any real solutions. That sport is involved should come as no surprise; it represents—after all—a major part of culture in the United States and the world.

The biggest provider of televised sports in the United States, ESPN, has turned much of their sports programming into political programming, the fact that North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” is being debated on a sports program is (in my most humble of opinions) doing a disservice to all those who pay for ESPN in order to watch…sports (these policies have actually caused ESPN to lose money). While it is of course admirable that important societal issues are discussed on different platforms, it makes me (as a marginal sociologist) wonder whether or not we—as a society—are not muddying the waters. Could it be that sports are serving as a vehicle, by corporate interests, to intimidate people into making decisions? If this is indeed the case, what is the difference between sports organizations (like the NCAA and NBA) and the mafia man in the back alley threatening to break your knees with a baseball bat unless you do what you’re told? It’s a fine line, and one that I feel deserves some discussion.

The NCAA—the governing body of university sports in the United States—warned the state of North Carolina about HB2, which The Charlotte Observer says is “North Carolina’s newest law [that] solidifies [the] state’s role in defining discrimination”. One of the main points of the law is that “Transgender people who have not taken surgical and legal steps to change the gender noted on their birth certificates have no legal right under state law to use public restrooms of the gender with which they identify. Cities and counties no longer can establish a different standard”. Taken at face value, this is not very discriminatory; if one has not “taken surgical and legal steps” to change their gender, they cannot enter the bathroom of their choice. This keeps people from arbitrarily claiming that they can enter whichever bathroom they would like. Obviously the solution to the bathroom conundrum in the United States is complicated, but it is important that we realize that not everything is inherently discriminatory; somethings are merely the best attempt we can make to appease all facets of society, both “progressive” and “conservative” instead of one or the other. While, according to the Charlotte Observer “the national headquarters of the ACLU describes North Carolina’s HB2 as the ‘most extreme anti-LGBT measure in the country’”, they also use language that presents the situation as a zero-sum game, where those on one side of the debate are diametrically opposed to those on the other. CNN supports this kind of rhetoric, claiming that proponents of HB2 are subscribing to 3 myths:

 

1) Sexual predators will take advantage of public accommodations laws and policies covering transgender people to attack women and children in bathrooms; 2) Being transgender is not a valid condition. Transgender people are mentally ill and should not be afforded the same legal protections or healthcare guarantees as gay and lesbian Americans; 3) Children are too young to know if they are transgender, and supporting a child who identifies as transgender is child abuse.

 

Personally, I do not believe that any of these myths are true. However, I also recognize that some people might not be ok with the idea of people of another gender being in their bathrooms. As much as we need to respect transgender rights, we must also respect the rights of those who have differing opinions which might not be based on bigotry. If the United States is to be a free country, then people are allowed to have their opinions on an issue; they cannot be forced into accepting things they are not comfortable with accepting. Some states (as the map below shows) agree with allowing transgender people into the bathroom of their choice, while others do not. Isn’t the essence of democracy allowing people a choice? Notably, the sports world is seems to not agree with these basic democratic principles, which is worrisome.

 

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/07/health/transgender-bathroom-law-facts-myths/index.html

 

On 23 March 2017 the NCAA, the governing body for Collegiate athletics in the United States, “issued a straightforward warning to the state of North Carolina on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the controversial House Bill 2: Revise or repeal the law in the coming weeks, or don’t host any NCAA events between now and 2022” . In 2017 the NCAA moved games from Greensboro, North Carolina to Greenville, South Carolina because of the North Carolina law, while the National Basketball Association (NBA) moved the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte, North Carolina to New Orleans, Louisiana. This prompted the “North Carolina Sports Association [to send a letter] to the state’s House of Representatives and General Assembly in February warning that the economic impact of the bill could reach $250 million as the state continues to miss out on major sporting events”. In the face of this social (and economic) pressure the North Carolina Legislature decided to repeal the bill; but the power of sports wasn’t lost on some lawmakers: State Representative Carl Ford said “”If we could have props in here, I would take a basketball covered in money and roll it down the middle aisle there, because that’s what this is about, money and basketball”.

 

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Amidst the Controversy, Only Fans Lose…Regardless Of Their Gender. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2017/03/14/north-carolina-ncaa-tournament-games-hb2

 

Of course few people were happy with the decision on either side of the debate, while the HB2 issue is—according to CNN—“estimated to have cost the state millions of dollars through the loss of jobs, businesses and consumer spending, though by one measure, the losses only amount to about 0.1% of the state’s total GDP”. Here we see the results of polarizing rhetoric. Essentially North Carolina was blackmailed into repealing a law in order to not lose money. To an impartial observer, this seems dangerously fascistic. While champions of LGBT rights may celebrate this decision because it benefits them today, but what about the perils of allowing democracy to be subverted by financial concerns? What keeps members of the LGBT community from being discriminated against down the road if we allow the financial concerns to subvert the democratic process? And what about the state income that was lost when the NCAA and NBA decided to boycott North Carolina? Were people—transgender and cisgender—not both affected when jobs were taken away? Economic hardship—especially to the tune of 3.76 Billion USD lost—does not discriminate based on gender or anything else.

It is interesting that the sports world was quick to bully North Carolina lawmakers on this issue while—in the face of other social issues—the sports world has not been nearly as quick to respond. Recently, a passenger was forcibly deplaned from a United Airlines flight because it was overbooked. While the event has caused much controversy, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, gave conflicting responses while refusing to step down. At first Mr. Munoz seemed to argue that the customer was in the wrong for being (justifiably) upset, before backtracking and offering a half-hearted apology.

Notably, no one from the sports world has responded to this heinous act of corporate violence with a threat of boycott (despite the fact that most sports teams in the U.S. use air travel to cover the great distances of the United States). Even (state) media in the United States, the Washington Post, discouraged any potential boycott in an 11 April, 2017 article entitled “Want to boycott United? Good luck with that”. Here the author, Christopher Ingraham, notes that “thanks in part to a rash of airline mergers and consolidations in recent years, major airports are increasingly becoming one- or two-carrier affairs. Today, United commands over 50 percent of the market share in some places where it served fewer than five percent of air travelers ten years ago”. Essentially, because of the slow monopolization of air-travel by corporations like United Airlines, the author believes that normal citizens have little ability to resist the disgusting behavior of United Airlines.

What are we to take away from these two issues? Is it that corporations—due to their financial might—can do whatever they want to paying customers because individuals cannot respond? And is it that state governments cannot respond to voters’ concerns because they will be bullied by business interests? In both cases the corporate side, the one with the money, is effectively over-riding public opinion.

Or is it that people in the United States only take a stand when it is a small group—in the North Carolina case transgender people—are affected? Is a general affront on humanity—like the United Airlines debacle—not enough to make people take a stand? Apparently, it isn’t. As days have gone by, the issue has become racialized: New Republic writer Clio Chang’s piece “Why it Matters That the United Dragging Victim Is Asian” is a notable example of this discourse; and it contains the statement: “…for Asian-Americans who watched this video, the victim’s race is an important part of this story. To treat it as an inconsequential factor seems, at best, an oversight—at worst, it’s an erasure”. I would argue the opposite. To racialize the issue makes it an “Asian” problem when it is not an Asian problem. It is a human problem. Everyone in the world faces an unequal fight against corporate greed and extreme capitalism; to racialize the issue only serves to divide rather than unite.

 

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Somehow, a Human Issue Becomes a Racial Issue. Image Courtesy Of: https://fortunedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/asian-american-protest-police-brutality-united-airlines.jpg?w=720

 

Needless to say, both of the aforementioned trends, where corporate interests over-ride voter concerns and where human issues become racialized issues, are worrisome trends that people—regardless of their sex, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, or any other sociological variable you can think of—need to think about.

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Football and Geopolitics: The Media Impetus for the U.S. Strike on Syria, What It Might Mean for The World, and Why Media Literacy is Important

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AUTHOR’S UPDATE  (7.20.2017): A few more news stories have come out recently regarding this topic which are worth sharing. The first is a piece from The Nation which, while pointing out the inconsistencies surrounding the alleged chemical attacks in Syria, serves as an anti-Trump piece arguing that the current U.S. President deliberately fabricated the intelligence reports regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The second is an article from Mother Jones. This piece is still anti-Trump, but it adds the important point that the Obama administration was also accused by journalist Seymour Hersh of fabricating chemical weapons stories in Syria (in fact, The New Yorker apparently declined to publish an article accusing Mr. Obama of fabricating chemical attacks in Syria). The point of this second “Author’s Note” is not, of course, to celebrate or denigrate either Mr. Trump or Mr. Obama. Rather, the point is to show why media literacy is still important. It is beyond politics since we should not question mainstream media in order to celebrate political figures we like or trash political figures we dislike; rather we should consistently question mainstream media narratives–especially if they don’t add up–regardless of our political persuasions. Otherwise we risk fueling the dangerous kinds of fragmentation we have seen recently in society.
Author’s Note: This Was First Posted on 7 April 2017 But The Text Was Not Visible. I am Re-posting, with some new stories and analysis included. The main point here is to take a post-modern approach in the tradition of French Sociologist Michel Foucault; we must be cognizant of the fact that there is no one single “Truth” with a capital “T”; in order to make sense of mainstream media we must strengthen our media literacy.  

 

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The Bleak State Of Syrian Pitches During the Civil War. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

 

On 22 March the BBC came out with an eye-opening look at football in Syria during the ongoing six-year civil war. The article opens with the claim that “since the uprising began in 2011, there has been little positivity spoken in connection with the country, but then there is the remarkable story of Syria’s national football team. The relationship that exists between this national team and its people depicts the power of sport on a personal, cultural and political level”. Given this excerpt, one would be forgiven for believing that the BBC was publishing a humanistic piece. The reality—as is the case with most modern news media—is something less than humanist; after all the media (given its relationship to capital) is not wholly independent. Unfortunately, the authors Richard Conway and David Lockwood cannot resist bringing the political—in this case from a biased perspective—into their piece:

 

A month before the victory against China, Syria drew against former World Cup semi-finalists South Korea. These results mean gradually, the footballing world is starting to pay attention to Syria for sporting reasons. But this is not entirely a good news story.

There is no ignoring the control that president Bashar Assad’s regime tries to exert over its citizens and, once again, sport is no different. The relative success of the team is both a passing panacea and a propaganda opportunity, the former for the people and the latter for the president. To present a thriving football culture to the world fits in entirely with the agenda of normalisation, of having quelled the rebellion, of stabilisation and control. However, as we discovered, the reality is far from that.

 

The emphasis here is less on the football team and more on the ills of the Assad government, which sends a political message in the guise of a humanist piece of sports journalism. While the journalists claim that “the rapid return of football to these areas shows the government’s desire to use the game to display life as returning to normal and of the war as being won. What could be more normal than going to a football match? But like the normality, this ‘growth’ of the game is an illusion;”, it seems that both fans and footballers might have a different opinion.

The authors cite one un-named fan as saying “It is very important to keep hope and to stay optimistic. Live our life in normal way, in sport, in everything. The kids need to live a normal life, what’s happening is not their fault, they need to watch sport, go to their schools, go to public parks, they have to”. The “hope” that this fan speaks of is certainly essential, and increased violence in the country will not serve him/her —or the children—in the long term. Footballer Mohammad al-Khalaf says “we are angry because the families are separated by the war. All the Syrians’ families are separated, that’s why we have so much anger. But what shall we do?

We have to accept our destiny and adapt to it. We didn’t want this to happen but it wasn’t in our hands, they are trying to destroy the people. We hope that it will end and in God’s will we will be able to return to our country as soon as possible”. Again, the footballer’s description of the situation can be read in many ways; it is a lament for the destruction of his country without taking a particular stance on the issues. His next statement that is quoted is more nationalist: “sport has nothing to do with politics. We have to move forward and sport has a message and we should relay this message. If the Syrian team plays with any other country, for sure and from the bottom of my heart I will back it and support it”. The focus here is not on a particular government or political group, rather it is about the Syrian nation, the Syrian people—perhaps not even the state at all! The article even notes that assistant coach Tarek Jabban said he coaches for the love of his country, despite making just $100 (£80) a month. The team’s star defender, Omar al Midani, might put it best when he says “The football was much better before the war. We were happy, the only thing we cared about was football and school. Now the only thing we care about is to have our country back like it used to be”. This statement—more than that of any other person cited in the BBC piece, shows that there are at least some Syrian footballers who recognize the importance of the state; whether they are nationalist or not is immaterial, what matters is that they have a respect for the state independent of its leader—insofar as it provides law and order. The fact that Mr. Assad has managed to stay in power throughout this bloody six-year civil war implies some sort of support, thus these sentiments should not be surprising.

The article cites Brigadier General Mowaffak Joumaa who (unsurprisingly, given his role as a soldier) gives the nationalist explanation that “the Syrian government is defending our people and [is] keep[ing] Syria united, this country in land and people”, yet the authors of the article conspicuously eschew any statements remotely sympathetic to the regime (as an impartial media outlet would be expected to do). Instead, they write that Syrian President Bashar al Assad:

 

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Sports Is Used In Syria To Support Mr. Assad’s Regime In Its Darkest Days. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

has led a war against opposition forces within his country for more than six years […and] that there’s nothing funny about him [al Assad] to those trapped within the country’s borders or living under his authoritarian rule. Many here will not talk of him openly. Most will not even dare speak his name when asked about their feelings towards him. The reach and menace of the regime runs deep in the Syrian psyche. What started as peaceful demonstrations, all part of a popular uprising across the region in 2011 known as the Arab Spring, quickly degenerated into a vicious and bloody war.

 

Again, the BBC’s piece is perpetuating the image of Assad as a killer and “menace” so as to (perhaps indirectly) influence Western policy (or readers’ support of the latter) vis-à-vis Syria, while also downplaying the fact that there are fans and players who just want things back to where they were. Unfortunately, because of a refusal to even acknowledge an alternative “truth”, the BBC’s work can be viewed as a form of intellectual imperialism. It is one characterized by media narratives and tropes that are repeated enough to become pseudo-facts.

Unfortunately, intellectual imperialism—even in the world of sports journalism—has its consequences. Less than two weeks after this piece was published with the passage “The Syrian government also stands accused of war crimes against its own people for numerous egregious breaches of human rights such as using banned chemical weapons and bombing water supplies” [my emphasis], the Syrian regime was reported to have used chemical weapons on its own people during an attack on Idlib province on Tuesday 4 April 2017. On Thursday 6 April 2017, doctors in Turkey confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in an attack that killed at least 72 people. Despite the reports, the fact remains that the Syrian state could stand to gain nothing from conducting such an attack at this stage; much of the world had grown to see that Assad was far less of a menace than ISIS/ISIL/DAESH and even the footballers and fans cited by the BBC had expressed their desires for a return to normalcy.

Without resorting to conspiracy theories, it is still important to keep an open mind and the words of one “expert” are useful to explain why this “attack” is so suspect. The Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce rightly points out that “there’s a mystery at the heart of an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria this week: Syria’s government, suspected of carrying out the attack, was supposed to have gotten rid of all its chemical weapons in 2014”. Indeed, this is true (it even appears as a link beneath the Guardian’s story reporting this week’s attack). The “expert” cited by the LA Times is Markus Binder, a chemical weapons expert at the University of Maryland. According to the Times, he “still had basic questions about the attack that need to be confirmed, including exactly what chemicals were used and whether the Syrian government carried out the attack”. The LA Times points out that “the use of chemicals makes [no] immediate sense, given that the government has been using explosives that often kill civilians.” Mr Binder adds “Why now? It puzzles.’”. This alone should make any impartial observer pause for thought.

Now, given the United State’s attack on a Syrian airbase on 6-7 April 2017 in response to the purported use of chemical weapons (which Syria denies), we must think even harder: What is the motivation for this kind of aggression? There are three likely scenarios that come most immediately to mind:

  • The Megalomaniacal Theory; Mr. Trump Attacked Syria to further his own political agenda: This theory has three inter-related components:
    1. By attacking Russia’s ally Syria in such a conspicuous manner, Mr. Trump may have thought that he could put an end to the speculations that the Kremlin paved his way to the White House.
    2. This attack also serves to differentiate Mr. Trump from his predecessor—former president Barack Obama—during the first 100 days. By definitively acting on the alleged use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad, Mr. Trump can show his ability to follow through when a “red line” is crossed (something Mr. Obama did not do). Similarly, if Syria did indeed use chemical weapons, it would show the failure of Mr. Obama in the realm of negotiation since he “agreed to a Russian deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program” in the first place.
    3. Trump may have believed that the use of force would restore credibility for the United States in the international realm, which feeds into a third theory.
  • The America First Theory: Since Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” platform, he may have seen this as a simple way to assert American military strength at the outset of his presidency in order to send a message to other geopolitical rivals like Iran and North Korea. The fact that Mr. Trump’s administration has been keen to point out that “no people were targeted” and that Russia was notified before the attack (even the sections of the base where Russians were present were not targeted by the strike) shows that the administration saw the airbase as a fairly safe target, PR wise, for a “one-off” strike. The Trump Administration may see this kind of a one-off strike as allowing them to negotiate for a settlement from a “position of strength”; threats are much more credible after force has been used. This approach would also signal a perceived return of the United States to global prominence.

 

Likely, the explanation for the United States’ first open use of force in Syria is a combination of elements from these three theories. The fact that the two candidates who fought a bitter presidential campaign should agree on the issue of using force in Syria is eye-opening, as is the coincidental nature of timing. While former presidential candidate and current Florida senator Marco Rubio thinks the timing of Mr. Assad’s attacks is coincidental since it came in the wake of tacit American support for the Assad regime; I would go the other way (while wondering about Mr. Rubio’s thought process) and point out that the timing is coincidental since it comes at a time when Mr. Assad is re-gaining (at least some) lost legitimacy while Mr. Trump is losing legitimacy (judging by polls that had put him at 46 % approval rating). It was a perfect storm that may have forced the American President into a corner, acting on any information he had—whether real or fake.

The reality is that if the state has an agenda, too often the media supports that agenda. While we should all be cognizant of conspiratorial stories (like those claiming that the Daily Mail deleted a story in January 2013 about a false-flag attack in Syria involving chemical weapons) we also need to recognize (in the Foucauldian tradition) that there is no one, single, “Truth”; there is nothing to say that mainstream media is telling “the Truth” all the time. As a country that fought a civil war–and emerged from it better off (and without major meddling of foreign powers)–the United States should be the first to recognize that there is little “Truth” (with a capital “T”) when it comes to civil war. There are embedded messages in every news story we read. That even a humanist story about a nation’s football team can carry political undertones—in this case directed against the Assad regime in Syria—is worrisome, regardless of Mr. Assad’s record (he is not a saint after all; politics is a dark game and political leaders rarely are saints).

 

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No One Can Be a Saint When a Country Is This Divided. Readers Should Imagine What They Would Think If Their Own Country Was as Divided as Syria Is Now. Would They Be Happy With Foreign Intervention? Would They Support The Government? Would They Support the Rebels? Empathy is Important in Moments Like This, Since It Allows For a Humanist Approach to the Issues at Hand. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/syria_football_on_the_frontline

 

It means that—when used hand in hand with the policies of the state—the media can act as a shepherd of the masses; the media can condition public opinion before any action is taken by the state so as to mitigate the possible negative reactions to the state. Time will tell what the fallout of Mr. Trump’s actions will be in Syria and the wider Middle East; in the mean time the best we can do is be cognizant of the biases inherent in every kind of news story we read—whether about sport or politics—so as to increase our media literacy. Honing these skills will allow us to avoid being drawn in by “fake news”, while also allowing us to take a more critical view of mainstream media.

Sports Stars and Extreme Capitalism from Necati Ateş to Stephan Curry: The Continued Atomization of Extreme Capitalist Society

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Necati Ateş in Action For Galatasaray. Image Courtesy Of: https://alchetron.com/Necati-Ates-145199-W

 

The other day a friend sent me a picture of himself with Turkish football star Necati Ateş. In and of itself, this small “event” is not very significant; a friend had a random interaction with a famous footballer in a restaurant—itself a democratic space since everyone has to eat. Yet, for me, it was indicative of the fact that extremely wealthy celebrities, like footballers, do not have to be distant from the very people that support them: the average fan. I was moved especially by Mr. Ateş’s smile; he seemed genuinely happy to be in a photo with my friends. For me a simple picture—while maybe not telling one thousand words—did show that 1) celebrities can be accessible and 2) that celebrities can also be normal people. That this kind of interaction took place in Turkey is not insignificant.

 

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Some Beautiful People in a Beautiful Picture. Mr. Ateş is Pictured Third From the Left (In the Middle, So To Speak). Image Courtesy of E.C.

 

The extreme capitalism of the United States is based upon a belief in the supremacy of the individual; in advanced industrial capitalist societies the individual is effectively subordinate to the system. As an American-born kid growing up in Turkey I was often asked if I saw famous people on a daily basis. Of course I didn’t, I lived in Providence, Rhode Island (a beautiful city yet hardly a destination for A-List celebrities). And even if I lived in New York City or Los Angeles, celebrities—in the United States—often frequent such exclusive places that a normal, middle class citizen would be unlikely to even interact with such people. The country is simply too big (and too stratified) to be conducive to such interactions. But in Turkey it is different—the country is smaller, and people are—generally—more ready to interact with their community than people in the United States. And that is one reason that Turkey is such a warm and inviting country.

Mr. Ateş seems to show, in this small interaction, that there can be a place for humanist interaction in societies that are negotiating the relationship between capitalism and “extreme” capitalism. In the United States, it is difficult to get the autograph—let alone a picture—of a star athlete. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that often-times athletes (and celebrities) come to believe (due to encouragement from the culture industry) that they are somehow “above” normal society—Beyonce’s self-beatification during the Grammys is a good example of this process.

 

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The Beatification of Beyonce; Celebrities as Above the People. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/beyonce-grammy-goddess_us_58a203d0e4b0ab2d2b17d4ce

 

Similarly, some athletes completely disregard the people that support them. NBA star Steph Curry’s comments regarding Donald Trump are an example of this process. After the CEO of the sportswear company Under Armour called President Donald Trump “An Asset to this country [the USA]”, Steph Curry (who is himself sponsored by Under Armour), said “I agree with that description if you remove the ‘et’”. While I would not go so far as conservative commentators who called for Under Armour to “rip up” their agreement with Mr. Curry, I would say that Mr. Curry’s comments are ill-informed; he evidently did not realize that many normal people—including parts of the middle classes in the United States—indeed voted for Mr. Trump precisely because they felt forgotten by mainstream America’s celebrity culture. It is a process that has characterized the neo-liberal era in the United States; even in 2000 a University of Wisconsin sociologist noted how ignoring middle-America was problematic. Evidently, no one listened.

 

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Steph Curry In Action for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Image Courtesy Of: http://clutchpoints.com/steph-curry-deflects-question-about-kevin-durants-comments-about-his-defense/

 

A society divided between rich and poor cannot sustain itself and, sadly, celebrities are perpetuating this divide in the United States currently. While I agree that sports stars should speak their mind (since they are a large part of the public sphere), they should do so in an informed way. By succumbing to blind ideology, they send the wrong message to their fans. Mr. Curry would have been better off taking Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s path, who attempted to bridge the gap in American society rather than widen it further. In so doing, Mr. Johnson showed that he is more in tune with his society than Mr. Curry and—coming from a celebrity—this is something to be commended. Money, and the search for it, need not distance us from our own humanity. Unfortunately, extreme capitalism in the United States tends to glorify the celebrity. I appreciate Mr. Ateş’s actions for showing a side of Turkey that current news stories tend to miss: it is a beautiful country with extremely kind people, struggling to stand up to the ravaging forces of extreme neoliberal capitalism. If only more American celebrities could recognize the dangers of their own disconnectedness from wider society.

A Marginal Sociologist’s Take On America IV: Politics As Sport? Stark Divisions Hinder the Ability to Address Real Societal Problems

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Just a Little Humor: Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/2/27/1492361/-A-Thought-About-Politics-as-Sport

As the rumblings regarding Donald Trump’s election victory continue, I am still shocked to see how base the level of discourse is; it is much more reminiscent of an argument about sports than one about politics. It is one driven by emotion and not fact, knee jerk reactions rather than contemplation or serious thought. Aides for Mr. Trump and erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton engaged in an unprecedented shouting match at Harvard University and when “chosen” people (such as campaign aides) are unable to engage in civilized debate it is no wonder that debate amongst us connection-less “mere mortals” (the masses) is of equally low quality.

For me, the fact that “race” was the main point of contention between the aides was the most interesting part of the exchange:

Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri condemned [Trump campaign chief executive Stephen] Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart, a news site popular with the alt-right, a small movement known for espousing racist views.

‘If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,’ she said. ‘I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.’

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, fumed: “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?”

‘You did, Kellyanne. You did’ interjected Palmieri, who choked up at various points of the session.

‘Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters?’ Conway asked. ‘How about, it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn’t have an economic message?’

 

We must try to look past the language of state media (the Washington Post). Ms. Palmieri is depicted as having “choked up”. Of course, in a country where cry-ins were organized post-election, this kind of emotional response is accepted—dare I say expected—from Ms. Clinton’s supporters (and Mr. Trump’s detractors). On the other hand, looking at this from a feminist perspective, I would say that this is a glaring example of portraying women, like Ms. Palmieri, as weak and emotional (typical stereotypes of women in American society). State media’s decision to add the “choking up” detail, which is utterly meaningless in the context of the story, is troublesome since it is offensive to women.

Then again, some segments of America might be thinking “state media would never insult feminists or women,” right? Because state media’s opponent, Mr. Trump, is the misogynist and sexist, right? Perhaps…but this misses an important point. Just because someone says they aren’t racist or sexist or anything else, it doesn’t mean that they are—actually—what they claim to be.

In a conversation with fellow sociology graduate students earlier this week I pointed out how minority groups are continually disadvantaged by ostensibly “progressive” forces. I argued that it is a form of social control, designed to divide people so as to prevent opposition to the dominant narrative. After all, the ghettoization of African-Americans in American cities is most glaring in the major urban centers of “progressive” and liberal states, just look at Chicago, Boston, or New York. Erica Lehrer’s study Jewish Poland Revisited explains how many American Jews are taught that all Polish people are anti-Semitic, creating an unhealthy “Us versus Them” narrative. This is sustained because many American Jews never have meaningful interactions with Poles during their visits. It is the same in the United States; northern “progressives” have never actually interacted with African-Americans because they have been ghettoized (and demonized). In my own education, a private high school in New England, I was basically taught that all Southerners are racist bigots. In reality, having lived in the deep south, I have learned that there is far more interaction between Whites and African-Americans—most of which is overwhelmingly positive—in the south then there even could be in the liberal and progressive north.

In our discussion, a student told me that sociologists do research to benefit society and create equality. I asked the student what “benefiting society” even means? From my perspective, I have seen sociology often further divide people—such as the working class—by emphasizing arbitrary dividing lines. A chapter in a book I’m currently reading for my research about sports and politics says “whereas class has virtually disappeared from much of the sociological writing on sport, there is no shortage of references to gender, sexuality, ‘race’, ethnicity, national identity, disability, and so on” (Alan Bairner in Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sports, Ben Carrington and Ian Mcdonald, eds.: 207). I don’t think that the sociology of sport is alone among fields of sociological inquiry in experiencing a phenomenon where class is continually ignored in favor of smaller, compartmentalized, differences. I also have no doubt that many of these divisions cross-cut class, and that emphasis on these differences only serves to further fragment society.

We live in a society where many academics have been co-opted by the culture industry; they agree with the dominant media narrative. Of course, this is dangerous for democratic society. The “educated” must think independently and speak up when there is exploitation and not just pay it lip service. A friend in my department told me that some research results that portray minority groups in negative lights are being suppressed in academia, since it could have “detrimental consequences”. Does this mean that academics are purposefully censoring themselves in the name of “racial equality”? I would say it does, and that is very problematic. To me, that is inherently racist, belying the “progressive” ideals of so many U.S. academics.

Race, Sports, and Politics in the United States: The Case of College Football

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As my “About Me” page states, I attended the University of Texas for my Master’s degree. As is the case with many of those who attended UT, I too was indoctrinated (!) into following the Texas Longhorns (American) football team—Hook ‘em Horns. Since my days at UT, I have continually followed my team’s fortunes. These days they aren’t doing so well and could be headed for a third-straight losing season, something unheard of in Austin, which has led to rumors that the coach, Charlie Strong, could be fired. Since this is a football blog and not an (American) football blog I will not go into specificities about sport; rather I will focus on politics.

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As the Article States, Charlie Strong Is Undoubtedly a Good Man. Unfortunately, The Bottom Line Is What Matters in (Extreme) Capitalist Sports–and Societies. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/want-texas-keep-charlie-strong/

 

Mr. Strong is an African-American, and for an (American) football coach that is a rare quality. But it is also a quality that can lead to a lot of—perhaps—undue controversy. The Houston Chronicle, on 20 November 2016, came out with a story claiming that the low number of African-American coaches in college football is due to racism. This is an interesting assessment of the situation, but the president of Texas A&M University said, in reference to the lack of minority coaches, “I don’t think anyone would deny that it looks like a significant under-representation”. The Houston Chronicle’s story says that 11.7 percent of the Football Bowl Subdivision (the highest tier of college football in the United States) schools have African-American coaches. According to another story, however, this figure is close to U.S. Census data that says 13.3 percent of the American population is African-American. The 11.7 percent of African-American coaches, then, means that the number of African-American coaches is actually nearly proportionate to the number of African-Americans in U.S. Society. So…where is the problem?

Unfortunately, the problem is historical since the heinous history of institutionalized racism in American society looms behind many aspects of American culture, sports included. What’s worse is that it creates an inequality that fails to address the true problems, and a troublesome double standard emerges. When, in late October 2016, a fan at a college football game in Wisconsin depicted current president Barack Obama in a noose state media (the Washington Post) called it a “racist incident”. On the other hand, following Donald Trump’s election victory, when protestors in Los Angeles burned President-elect Donald Trump’s head in effigy and a Houston haunted house showed Mr. Trump hanging from a noose and when, in New York, Mr. Trump was hung in effigy outside his residence there was no similar outcry. Even when, in the New York incident, American flags were burned there was no outcry—state media didn’t even report it! To a neutral observer this is very odd and it begs the troubling question: Is it because Mr. Obama is African-American but Mr. Trump is white?

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Uproar In Madison, WI. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/10/29/fan-in-trump-mask-holds-noose-around-fan-in-obama-mask-at-wisconsin-game/

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But None In New York. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2016/11/hillary-supporters-hang-trump-effigy-outside-his-nyc-home/

 

Given the uproar at a simple college football game in the small town of Madison, Wisconsin—where fans of the University of Wisconsin heaped shame upon the (admittedly) poor taste of the fans who disparaged the current President of the United States—it is interesting (not to mention shocking) that the burning of the American flag on 5th Avenue, the heart of “America”, was not similarly condemned.

It is the product of a society that has been—continually—unable to come to terms with its racist past which creates a worrisome double standard not only in society, but sport as well. Sage Steele, an anchor for America’s largest sports network ESPN, sent a good message to America when she said:

As a self-proclaimed, proud bi-racial woman — my father is black and my mother is white — the word “diversity” is fascinating. These days, I call it “the D word”. Why? Because everyone likes to say it. At work, at home, at the podium, at colleges and universities. Diversity. EMBRACE DIVERSITY! Fortunately, millions of Americans of all races, religions and cultures do just that. But, how many of us actually mean it? Specifically, how many people of color actually mean it? Or is it simply a socially acceptable, politically correct term that just sounds good, and feels good to say, or to demand? Unfortunately for way too many African-Americans and people of color, I believe it’s the latter. I’ve actually believed this for years and have spoken publicly about it a few times recently, contemplating when the best time would be to fully “go there”. In light of recent events around the country and personally, I feel the time is now.

[…]

 You don’t get a hall-pass just because you’re a minority. Racism is racism, no matter what color your skin is.

 […]

Believe it or not, we can disagree and still be civil. Respectful. Kind. Accepting of our differences. Isn’t that what DIVERSITY is all about? EMBRACE DIVERSITY…but mean it. All the time, not just when it’s convenient for you. I pray that we can all begin to have more open-minded, non-judgmental, healthy conversations to ensure that diversity applies to ALL Americans, all of the time.

I could not have said it better myself, and it is remarkable that we miss out on how counterproductive this refusal to embrace diversity really can be. The reason for the dearth of African-American coaches in college football is just one small example of the issue. As the article states:

Given the history of major institutions hiring black coaches, the problem is not a resistance to hiring, but rather that a black coach is extremely difficult to fire because groups such as TIDES and people such as Ty Willingham might call you a racist.

The only color that college boosters and alumni care about is green, the color of money that flows into the school as the result of a winning program with sustained success over a long period of time. Schools such as Texas and Texas A&M have given the “power” to black coaches they believe will deliver that kind of success.

If the media and former head coaches-turned-activists wouldn’t launch inquisitions and hurl accusations of racism, more would do it [coach college football teams].

As is the case with industrial football, money is all that matters to those in charge of sports teams; all they want is success on the field so as to line their pockets. Understandably, that means having the power to hire people who can bring success. Unfortunately, the flip side of that means having the power to fire people who don’t bring success and teams will become more reluctant to hire African-American coaches if firing them leads to controversy. To cloud such issues with race only serves to miss the point entirely, and it unfortunately supports a dangerous and divisive double standard in society that helps neither whites nor African-Americans. Rather than fomenting race-related controversies where none exist American society would be better served focusing on how to alleviate the poverty and violence in African-American communities, the kind depicted in ScHoolboy Q’s poignant video for the song John Muir. Just a bit of perspective from a marginal sociologist with a multi-cultural background.