The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Identity sports’ have been exercised in defense of stars more than what they signify

“At least a large chunk of these people [voicing support for Serena Williams] aren’t regular tennis fans,” philosophy professor Erin Tarver said. “For some of them, Serena’s role on the court seems to matter less than what she represents off it.”
“At least a large chunk of these people [voicing support for Serena Williams] aren’t regular tennis fans,” philosophy professor Erin Tarver said. “For some of them, Serena’s role on the court seems to matter less than what she represents off it.” (John Locher/Associated Press)
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In the wake of arresting testimony Thursday from Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and a Stanford research psychologist, Christine Blasey Ford, who detailed through trembles a moment in her adolescence when she was sexually assaulted by another teen she said was Kavanaugh, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams asked a former prosecutor on his “11th Hour” show for her hypothesis on how it would play out.

In her answer, Joyce Vance made me think about how we attach ourselves to sport, particularly in these highly charged political times. There are Ohio State football fans with unwavering support for their coach despite his coverup of domestic violence by one of his former employees. There are those who circled wagons around Serena Williams after her churlish reaction, again, to overly officious umpiring at the U.S. Open.

“I think that there may be folks who listened to her today [Thursday],” Vance said of Ford, “who found her to be credible, but who decided it was so important to put a conservative justice on the Supreme Court, that even knowing that she’s speaking the truth, they’ll vote for him.”

And so the all-male, all-white Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee did so Friday. For in Kavanaugh, they well may have seen some representation of themselves, the somehow disaffected class of besieged privileged white men in this country. Not unlike how Buckeyes fans see in Urban Meyer a kind of validation of their unimpeachable power as one of the nation’s largest university alumni. Or feminists and those of us who are proponents of Black Lives Matter’s concerns see Williams as an exemplar of what we protest.

As Erin Tarver, a philosophy professor at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity,” tweeted last summer: “The resolute refusal of many conservatives to consider that Trump could be wrong, coupled with their completely outlandish defenses of his behavior, reminds me of sports fans’ hero worship, which is ultimately less about the person as such than what they are taken to represent.”

It is often argued that the games we love to watch exist as a reflection of who we are. But that is an underestimation. Our sports, and those who star in them, become expressions of who we are, and how we live.

“In the case of Serena,” Tarver told me recently, “there’s clearly strong identification with her in the mode of hero worship for a particular subset of the population, insofar as she is taken to be one of them, and for her experiences on the court to symbolically represent larger struggles with sexism and racism that these people have experienced as well.

“It’s probably worth noting that at least a large chunk of these people aren’t regular tennis fans. For some of them, Serena’s role on the court seems to matter less than what she represents off it.”

The penetrative, 39-year-old black Temple professor Marc Lamont Hill mused on Twitter, after prefacing he wasn’t a tennis fan, whether the irascible John McEnroe was ever the recipient of Williams’s punishment. And Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper, a co-founder of the brilliant black women blog Crunk Feminist, tweeted that the penalties Williams sustained had to do with “the sexism & racism of the umps . . . hurting the game.” She didn’t note that another black woman, Naomi Osaka, won the championship against Williams.

But that is who and what Serena Williams, as well as her elder sister Venus, symbolizes. She represents women’s struggle for equitable treatment, and for black people the same. And in the past few months, since the birth of her first child through what she revealed was a harrowing delivery, Williams became a champion for new mothers wrestling to regain their careers, as well as those afflicted by postpartum depression but mostly suffering out of view.

Of course, the stakes between identity to sports and to politics are different, and the personal investment of hero worship and protection between different sports are not the same.

“In the case of [Urban] Meyer . . . fan identification on the field is resulting in enormously negative consequences off it,” Tarver said, citing the case of a woman abused by an assistant that went unchecked by the head coach for years. “Basically, the primary issue in that case is sports fandom growing out of control, such that all interests are subordinated to it, with the predictable result that vulnerable people are harmed, and that this is acceptable or rationalized away as long as ‘we’ win. We see a similar behavior pattern with Trump fans.”

“With Serena fans, the pattern is reversed, because the identification is not primarily about sports but about identity,” she continued. “And the consequences are, it would seem, largely limited to acceptance or defense of in-game behavior.” In one sense, this is not a new observation. What came to the fore in the Kavanaugh hearings that we’ve come to know as identity politics have long been a part of sports as well. As British anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy, who has written extensively in Europe about sport and nationalism, noted in one thesis: “Sports . . . help to define moral and political community. They are vehicles of identity.”

We witnessed as much here when antiwar demonstrators in the late 1960s and early ’70s saw themselves in Muhammad Ali regardless of whether they were boxing fans. Integrationists championed Jackie Robinson in the ’40s and ’50s not because he was a fabulous baseball player. Hank Greenberg was embraced by Jewish Americans in the ’30s and ’40s more because he stood to shatter anti-Semitic stereotypes more than baseballs.

The difference nowadays is that identity sports have become exercised in defense of our sports’ standouts more than advocating for what they signify. All of which has made for strange bedfellows from political corners and sports under the blanket of fanaticism.

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.