This article made the Rounds O’ Outrage on tumblr yesterday, in which sports writer Jody DiPerna said she refused to cover roller derby because it has as much to do with sports as the WWE Grand Slam championship:
The point is that I usually write about people like Sidney Crosby, Darrelle Revis and Maya Moore while roller derby has more in common with, say, Captain Lou Albano, the Iron Shiek and the Lady Gaga. It is performance and costume and atmospherics with athletic ability mixed in. Entertainment first, athletics second.
DiPerna wrote that over a year ago, so who knows if she’s changed her stance on this, but the essay came to my attention at a time when I was considering the odd state of sports culture in our country.
This line of thinking started when I read maybe the ten-thousandth internet comment, in which someone said they didn’t think female athletes should make more money or get more respect because they can never compete with men. Maybe what pushed me over the edge was a commenter in a recent Slate article, who suggested that the reason why women sprinters did not make as much as their male counterparts is because they are not as exciting to watch.
Let’s parse this, shall we? The men’s 100m world record is 9.58 seconds and is held by Usain Bolt. The women’s 100m world record is 10.49 seconds and is held by Flo Jo. We are taking about less than a second difference here. We are talking about people who can sprint faster than 99.9% of human beings who have ever walked on the face of this planet, and yet because of that 0.91 second, women’s sprinting is boring to watch.
Obviously, dude is speaking from a place of deeply ingrained sexism, so hardwired into his brain that not even a smashed world record would convince him women’s sprinting was worth his attention because what’s important is not the athletics of it but the fact that it involves, ew, girls.
But what struck me beyond that was this idea that, for a sport to be exciting, it has to be bigger, faster, better than before. It’s not enough for an athlete to just win their particular competition; they have to set records, they have to be the best ever, they have to set a new threshold for those who come after.
That’s not a sports culture, yo. That’s a culture of spectacle.
Guy Debord wrote about the Society of the Spectacle back in 1967, and I think his general points hold true – that we have become a society of watchers rather than doers, and that consequently we become so drugged by the “watching” that we need bigger, more spectacular things to keep our attention and our interest. (Yes, I did just reference Debord in this blog post. My French Situationist critical theory brings all the boys to the yard.)
Our sports culture is not one that is necessarily an appreciation of athletics as much as it is a love of spectacle. We like shit big, and we like it flashy. We want pageantry – and if you don’t think this is the case, then I suggest you’ve never been to a college football game before – and we want excitement and drama and all that. Sure, a lot of people are like, “Dude, check out the amazing ball-handling skills of that power forward,” but overall, as a culture, we want the spectacle. We crave it.
So what does this have to do with DiPerna and her post? Everything. DiPerna draws a false dichotomy between entertainment and athleticism, as if the two aren’t inextricably bound in our culture. She says she doesn’t cover roller derby because it’s entertainment, not sport. Well, where do we draw the line?
By every objective measure I can think of, roller derby is a sport. It involves physical activity. There is strategy. Teams compete against each other. There is a consistent method by which the matches are scored. The outcome is not decided before the match.
So the players have funny names. So they wear fishnets. So girls with tattoos and Bettie Page bangs like playing it. So what. It’s still a sport. It just happens to be a very entertaining one that’s played almost exclusively by young women.
Do we dismiss professional basketball because dudes who dunk with flash? Do we suddenly write off professional football because Chad Ochocinco is…well, because Chad Ochocinco is? I don’t think so.
I respect DiPerna for taking what might have seemed like an unpopular opinion when she wrote the article, but I wish she would have thought this through a little more. Instead, it ended up seeming a bit like she found roller derby and the enthusiasm of its adherents annoying, and that rather than owning her annoyance, she had to construct a defense that didn’t make her seem like she was just hating for the sake of hating.