I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between art and sport, and the frequent divide between the areas. I think there is more overlap than is given credit - down to the color combinations of the uniforms or the phenomenons of celebrity-athlete and celebrity-artist. ESPN’s choice to refer to artistic filmmaking really does force a discussion of the relationship between the two fields, as you point out.
I think that art has also always been used to document sport and highlight its developments and achievements (i’m thinking of the documenting of the Greek warriors). By illuminating the connections between this project and sports relationship with art, I think you are recognizing the most recent instance of this intersection.
As you both mention, I think the discussion of the people behind the scenes is a particularly interesting one and I hope it continues.
Zinman’s compelling post and the thought-extending replies bring to mind some aspects of Roland Barthes’s essay, “The World of Wrestling.” Barthes’s description of wrestling, which he says “is not a sport, it is a spectacle,” identifies the same sort of tension between reality and illusion, and the relationship between the athlete and the audience portrayed by the video clip of Dude Perfect. The impossible dream, on display for us here as a spectacle and in the other given examples, is a classic American myth. The dream is achieved by an individual supported by a group who displays classic American traits, including bravery, ingenuity, physical prowess and, just like the Puritans, are chosen and backed by God to do what they need to do. In all the instances cited in the post and the replies, men are achieving the impossible dream, and many of them, as in the case of the (fittingly) named Dude Perfect, are white.* Most of the audience, presumably, is male and white, too.
Interestingly, in the impossible dream myth there always seems to be an object – sneakers, a ball, a skateboard, an airplane – present, which is under the power of the individual or group. Like a totem, this object has several functions: it gives the whole spectacle a sense of tangibility for the spectator; it is a symbol that connects the wider community to the dream’s achiever (wear Larry Bird’s brand of sneakers and achieve your own impossible dream); and it is an extension of the dreamer’s magic, adding to the spectacle’s illusion and attraction for the spectator.
The totem is one place where the impossible dream parts ways with Barthes’s wrestling match. For Barthes, the spectacle of the wrestling match “is above all meant to portray … a purely moral concept: that of justice.” But in these cases, what moral concept is demonstrated by the totem or the achievement of the impossible dream? So you jump over a building with a great pair of sneakers or drop a ball into a basket from a flying plane. What you’re left with are the sneakers, the ball, the personal satisfaction of having done it, and the adulation of the audience: a material object and an ego trip. And the audience already has moved on to the next spectacle.
And here we find ourselves with one of America’s most serious problems: a national self-centeredness. There’s no playing out of some moral theme for the common good. When downhill skier Lindsey Vonn won the gold medal in Vancouver, she made it quite clear during an interview that she won the medal for herself, not for her country. Although her trip down the mountain was real, with NBC’s help it nonetheless shimmered with the elements of spectacle – otherwise, how else would the audience’s interest be captured? Backed by a strong support group, Vonn demonstrated breathtaking courage and physical skill to achieve her impossible dream for herself. I think Vonn, white and not male (I don’t know her religious persuasion, if any), is a good example here because it shows that the impossible dream does not have to be just a male thing – but it seems to be predominately white.
*In contrast, Olympic gold medalist Cathy Rigby, you may remember, endorsed StayFree maxi pads. She demonstrated that female cleanliness could be maintained despite a woman’s athleticism.
I think your right on w/r/t to how the network is positioning this series. It is so interesting how ESPN leans so heavily on cinematic signifiers to signal this shift from news and coverage to "art": the use of the word "films," the sound of the projector, the image of the celluloid strip in the interstitial bits—even though the majority of these docs are not shot on film, and rely quite heavily on video from the last three decades of sports broadcasting.
That said, having spent the better part of the last year watching sports films, I have to say that many of the entries are quite remarkable: Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams) Allen Iverson doc is one of the best films about racism in America (not just sports) I’ve ever seen. Brett Morgen’s (The Kid Stays in the Picture) June 17, 1994, about OJ Simpson’s Bronco ride, is wonderfully impressionistic, and Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars is a devasting look at the issue of sport and nation. These are films by high-caliber movie makers that would probably not be otherwise made or distributed.
What is more, ESPN Bill Simmons, who came up with the concept for the series, has been interviewing all of the directors on podcasts. While this is surely a form of promotion for the works, it nevertheless provides a fascinating look at the directors’ making-of processes, as well as a welcome bit of transparency to the whole enterprise.
I might go so far as to say that, for many, Strasburg represents not only a white savior for D.C., but for baseball as a whole. And when you consider how closely baseball is linked in the national consciousness with America, the ramifications become even broader. The increased prominence of Japanese, Korean, and Central American players in the league has surely helped MLB’s global marketing, but may also read to backwards-minded fans as encroachment on "America’s game." I might be pushing a bit too hard to view Strasburg’s big-league ascension (sorry, but the associations are too easy and too fun to pass up) as a microcosm of white American’s racial anxiety, expressed by Tea Party-ers and their ilk as the need to "take back" the country, but you guys are definitely onto something here.
I also think it’s worth considering how StrasburgMania is also the product of the 24-hour sports news cycle, and how the the internet, and especially the conflation of news with social media, ends up producing a very different kind of flow from television. Online "flow" is active rather than passive, manic rather than steady, and fractured rather than monolithic. The need to find information—and to be the first to find it—feeds our fan culture’s stock-ticker mentality.
As you point out, the media hype surrounding Strassburg and leading up to his debut has been remarkable—I already feel as if he’s been in the league for several years. And the point you make about the racial dimensions of these debuts is well-taken. I was certainly taken aback to see ESPN’s countdown to Strassburg’s first MLB start last month and even to read that some folks were considering voting him onto this year’s All Star team even though he was not brought up until two months into the league.
You bring up an interesting point about how Strassburg is often represented outside of a social-historical-cultural context and how this abstraction from the political—broadly defines—effectively recuperates him into a white male hegemony. I have only followed the story in a superficial way, getting most of my information from mainstream sports outlets and a couple of blogs I frequent. But there does seem to be a sense, as you discuss earlier in your post, that Strassburg does not seem to be connected to a narrative. The same went for Mark Prior—the last very highly anticipated white pitcher to debut—when he entered the league in 2001. I get the sense that Strassburg exists as a decontextualized 100-mph fastball. His whiteness seems to aid this abstraction from cultural politics while making him an even more economically potent for the "mass" audience. The montage of abstracted strikeouts seems to reinforce this notion.
It will certainly be interesting to see how he, MLB, and the Nationals work to cultivate his image. Also, given the ballpark’s place as part of southeast D.C.’s revitalization/gentrification, it would be fascinating to see how he is being publicized specifically within the D.C. area and the racial/gender/class implications of those representations. Is he being cast as a kind of (white) savior for D.C.? This status becomes particularly interesting given a few interviews with Washington Nationals players before his debut. Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan said that teammates dubbed Strasburg "Jesus" during spring training because "that’s the first thing you say when you see him pitch." While I initially paid little attention to this comment, it has become far more interesting after reading you post.
I’ve watched these clips on television and (I think) ESPN.com wondering about the very questions you bring up. It seems that these types of ads are becoming remarkably common lately. Like Roopika, I was reminded of the Jordan-Bird McDonald’s commercial and the Lebron James Powerade spot. Also, a couple of years ago, Nike created the viral video of Kobe Bryant jumping over a speeding Aston Martin on a Los Angeles rooftop. I recall that in this instance as well as in Lebron’s Powerade commercial, the sports blogosphere was afire with debates as to whether or not the feats were real (even though jumping over a speeding car would surely be a violation of some part of Kobe’s contract). In these debates the question of films/video’s epistemological potential took center stage. It also should be noted that these instances are a bit different from the commercials you mention because they deal with sports super stars. Wrapped up in the debates surrounding the veracity of the commercials were assumptions about Lebron and Kobe’s apparent “superhuman-ness”—a trope that seems to mark many commercials that feature sports stars in action. It is fascinating to me to think about the hazy line that separates the ads we would not consider to be real (Jordan and Bird hitting shots that bounce off of several buildings) with those that might be real (Lebron hitting full court shots) and how the assumptions we have about the particular player(s) involved shape those doubts and beliefs. I wonder if the curiosity surrounding visual media has also worked to cast doubt upon certain actual feats and what strategies the people who create these texts employ to assert their veracity—whether in the texts or in the supplementary materials that accompany them in marketing and public relations. As far as Dude Perfect’s performance, the aspect of the GMC commercial that seems to produce the greatest “reality effect,” if you will—at least when I watch it—is the eruption of screams, hi-fives, and chest bumps that occur after they sink the shot. It seems to suggest that even though they’ve created a treasure map-looking diagram for how the shot will go down, that they didn’t really expect it to happen and, as you nicely point out, are witnessing something akin to a miracle. And thanks so much for researching this group, which is totally fascinating. As someone who lives in a college town I often witness the antics of groups similar to Dude Perfect (though they tend to involve binge drinking). The group, particularly given their Christian platform, reminds me of a combination of the folks from MTV’s Jackass and the Power Team, the group of muscle-bound and mulleted men in great spandex outfits who would do things like break bricks over their head and then draw connections between these seemingly “miraculous” feats and their Christian beliefs. I also think that Dude Perfect’s upper-middle-class college guy aesthetic, within the context of this truck commercial, is significant. I wonder if GMC is attempting to market its larger trucks to this demographic, which, as I understand it, would be a considerable shift in age from most truck commercials. It seems the company is borrowing from some of the adventure-themed conventions that mark so many SUV commercials.
"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?