"The Johnson-Jeffries fight began troubling the notion that sports are apolitical."
"So do today’s African-American athletes—or any pro athletes, for that matter—have a responsibilty to use their celebrity as a political platform? Or has the game changed completely?"
I’m particularly interested in these questions and both how we as scholars/academics can intervene in pointing out the politics of sport but also how certain athletic contexts (and which athletic contexts) have facilitated these discussions. Some of the things I’m thinking of are the soccer blogosphere which is far more politically conscious and culturally critical than say the baseball blogosphere and also a writer like Dave Zirin whose virtual raison d’etre is highlighting political activity in sports. The question is also raised then not only of how outsiders demonstrate the politics of sport but how fans (and broadcasters and journalists) defend the position that sports are apolitical.
And then of course there is the matter of Ken Burns himself. I don’t know this documentary but he has a very specific way of adressing culture/sport and politics in such a way that they remain historic and disconnected from the present.
Thanks so much for this interesting post on "fake sports." You’ve introduced me to a whole world of YouTube videos I knew nothing about!
Your post reminded me of commercials featuring professional athletes completing great feats. I’m thinking of the McDonald’s Super Bowl ad from 1993, which has Larry Bird and Michael Jordan challenging each other for a Big Mac (across the scoreboard, over the building, and nothing but net). Or only slightly more realistically, LeBron James sinking full court shot after full court shot in a Powerade commercial.
These aren’t extreme sports, by any means, but I’m curious about what happens when sports trick videos become advertisements. Watching the Bird-Jordan or James commercials, I’m fairly certain that few people believe these were unedited, single-take productions. How, if at all, does the conversation change when Dude Perfect’s clip becomes a GMC ad? What role does their status as "regular guys" have on how their feat is perceived, either on YouTube or on television?
Your excellent post caused me to reflect on how much has changed with regards to the celebrity and politics of African-American athletes. Johnson, a self-identified "New Negro," publicily rebuked the assimilationist stance of Booker T. Washington—and this is only a little more than a decade after the "separate but equal" decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson. Such bravery and bold use of the pulpit of sports celebrity also brings to mind Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the army in 1967, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968, and the candor of stars like Dock Ellis and Wilt Chamberlain.
Cut to Michael Jordan—whom Henry Louis Gates, Jr. dubbed "the greatest coroporate pitchman of our time"— expressing his apolitical views thusly: "Republicans buy sneakers, too." We subsequently find ourselves in a situation where protecting one’s endorsement deals and public image trumps any sort of political consciousness.
And when African-American athletes (even non-superstars), speak up, they are asked to temper their tone. When Oklahoma City Thunder center Etan Thomas spoke at an anti-war protest in 2005 (he was then playing for the Washington Wizards), he received a letter from NBA Commissioner David Stern telling him to tread lightly. Stern says the letter was never sent, Thomas says it was.
So do today’s African-American athletes—or any pro athletes, for that matter—have a responsibilty to use their celebrity as a political platform? Or has the game changed completely?
As you note in the post, the Johnson-Jeffries fight is an asbolutely pivotal moment in the history of sport that demonstrates, perhaps more so than any event since, the intimate relationship between sport and cultural politics.
Your post made me think in particular about how Jack Johnson’s image has been deployed—and commodified—throughout the 20th and 21st century and the ends its uses serve. For instance, it is common knowledge that Muhammad Ali often cited Johnson’s influence on him. Also there is the popular 1970 film The Great White Hope and Miles Davis’ fantastic A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970). But I wonder more specifically about how he crops up more casually in the world of sport and sports media. For instance, NHL goaltender Ray Emery—one of the few non-white players in the league—would wear a helmet with Johnson’s image painted on it. I wonder how other athletes, or figures related to the sports world, have put Johnson to use. I wonder what these references/uses suggest about the persistence of Johnson’s image 100 years after his most famous bout.
Along slightly different lines, I wonder about the use of the oft-repeated phrase "the fight of the century" in the history of boxing. Has the use of this phrase shifted over time? Are there implicit rhetorical rules within the world of boxing and sports media for when this phrase can be deployed? Has professional boxing’s diminished popularity affected how promoters now use the phrase? Has it been taken up in certain ways by the world of mixed martial arts?
I agree with Roopika. Age and Twilight fandom may need more inquiry—I saw three middle-aged women camping out to see "Eclipse"—at 4 p.m. (for a midnight show). That’s serious commitment (especially considering they were the only people in line).
The fact that female fans tend to be viewed first by gender continues to be an important topic—though the appeal of this sort of romantic narrative also deserves some interrogation. Thanks for the post.
Natalie, really interesting look at the gendering of fandom. I’m curious about the age issue as well. You mention the idea of "silly girls" but the number of perimenopausal women who fawn all over Twilight is another interesting subset, one that fits well with the idea of Victorian era gendered words. In a way, they too are framed as silly girls. I think your note gets at this but wanted to tease it out a bit.
I can’t help but wonder if the emphasis on Riley as opposed to (the shamelessly recast) Victoria is also a part of Summit’s attempt to drive males into cinemas. The trailers on television have emphasized the battle between the wolves and the vampires far more than the romantic triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob.
Of course, incorporating Riley and Bree also just means more interest in the film, and more interest in the books, which I think is why the real payoff may ultimately be for Little, Brown and Company in selling more copies of The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner than for Summit.
He has got it wrong from a different material perspective as well. By his logic, CBS is guilty 17 times: if images are descriptions, and the clip lasted 9/16ths of a second, that is 17 images, so 17 descriptions. At $550,000 per description, it should be $9.35 Million. How is that for pure logic!