Sports, race, & identity

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Serena and Venus at Wimbledon
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

One of the ways we create unique personal identities is through the free-time activities we choose. These days those activities are likely to involve lots of screen time. In response, parents may be looking for activities to get their children moving – and outside. One likely direction are sports, either individual or team. What sports children choose is likely influenced by their parents, by friends, and by what’s available nearby. One of the other factors is the current popularity of any given sport. Interest in soccer (football) always goes up when the World Cup rolls around. Of particular importance are major sports figures, particularly if they offer some personal connection. They can function as a “reference group”, a group we aspire to join. A story on NPR this week looked at the inspiration that Venus and Serena Williams have given young African-Americans to take up tennis and asked why it is that Tiger Woods has not had the same effect in golf. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that tennis, like golf, was seen as a sport for the leisure class, i.e. in the US, predominantly for whites. Of course, it takes more resources to play golf than it does tennis. But it is also likely just the image that golf projects, not a likely imagined future for most young African-Americans. There have been efforts to interest urban youth in golf, notably through the First Tee program, which has had success in some cities.

Of course, professional basketball remains the imagined future for a good number of talented young African-Americans. The NBA has over 70% Black players. As Michael Dyson pointed out in his book on “Reflecting Black”, basketball has become much more than a sport for many urban communities, “it also became a way of ritualizing racial achievement against social barriers to cultural performance.” (pp. 66-67). It used to be that baseball offered similar opportunities for Blacks – and it still does for Dominicans, who continue to flock to the US to play in the major leagues. But in last year’s World Series, there was not a single African-American on the winning team (the San Francisco Giants). There were also no Blacks on the team the Giants beat to get to the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals. Comedian and baseball fan Chris Rock commented: “How could you ever be in St. Louis and see no black people? And get this. Their crowds were more than 90 percent white — like the Ferguson police department!” In fact, he has a whole routine on the whiteness of baseball:

Cry now for Argentina?

germany-v-argentina-2014-fifa-20140713-222236-556The evening news in Germany on the Tuesday (Tagesthemen) after Germany won the World Cup showed the welcoming celebration in Berlin (naturally at the Brandenburg Gate) for the victorious German national soccer team (not called die Mannschaft, as the US media dubbed the team, but rather the Nationalelf – the national eleven). There followed a piece showing some German soccer fans – they were in the process of taking down the German flags displayed in windows. In contrast to the US, the display of flags in Germany, as well as other symbols of patriotism, are relegated almost exclusively to use in contexts related to sporting events. Waving a flag in other contexts signals support for extreme right wing political parties. The national pride the Germans experienced has little to do with feelings US citizens might have in terms of the superiority of the US over other countries. It’s more a feeling of community, and perhaps happiness over something positive that brings all Germans together. More an excuse to party than anything else and to let loose, not always an easy thing for Germans.

I was reminded today of that newscast due to news from the country that Germany defeated in the World Cup final, Argentina. The despair that Argentinians felt at the loss was likely as strong, if not stronger than the joy on the part of the Germans. And now another blow to Argentinian pride, having to default on a loan to a small group of bondholders, who refused to go along with the “haircut” agreement made in 2001 to receive partial payback. The default signals serious economic problems ahead for the country, which already has an inflation rate of 40% and has lost 25% of the value of its currency against the US dollar this year. Social unrest may follow. Once again, the contrast with Germany is stark, as the Germany economy continues full steam ahead. If in fact Argentina does default on the loan and the economy worsens, it will be interesting to see if the Argentine government once again brings up the issue of sovereignty over the Malvinas islands, as the Falklands are known in Argentina, another source of hurt national pride.

Non-freedom fries

Chip Butty – not at the Olympics!

Big bucks win over cultural preferences. There’s a ruckus in England over food at the 2012 Olympics, specifically the well-beloved Chips (French Fries). Seems that McDonald’s as an official sponsor has exclusive rights to sell fries at the Olympics. Only approved exception is fish and chips, no luck if you feel like sausage and chips, egg and chips, lasagna and chips, steak and chips or even the famous chip sandwich (Chip Butty, popular in York). Part of the problem is that the skinny McD’s fries are not the style the Brits like – they prefer fat and greasy.

Reminds me of the uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when originally only Budweiser (an official sponsor) was allowed to be served at the games being played in Germany, quite a slap in the face to German beer drinkers. There is actually an excellent Budweiser beer, however it’s not the Anheuser-Busch brew but rather the original Budweiser from Budvar, in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for beer drinkers, the relationship between the FIFA, which puts on the World Cup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev recently was extended to 2022. It remains to be seen, however, if beer will even be served at the 2014 championship in Brazil, since beer at soccer stadiums there has been banned since 2003 (too much alcohol-fueled violence). Same ban applies in Russia, the sponsor for 2018.

Side note:  There will be a new world’s largest McDonald’s for the London Olympics, taking over from the McDonald’s in Pushkin Square,  Moscow.  I visited that McD’s a couple of years ago – quite an operation there.  I went to have an American breakfast – which I have to say I enjoyed immensely, as a break from Russian food.  I have to admit as well that I have also visited the second busiest McD’s world-wide – at the Karlstor in Munich.  I enjoyed the chance to have a beer with my “Royale with Cheese”.

Who’s Italian?

The Italians may have lost in the recent European Soccer  Championships, but they did much better than anyone expected.  The most celebrated (and controversial) player for the Italian National Team was Mario Balotelli.  He’s the one who scored 2 goals to propel Italy to victory over heavily favored Germany. Balotelli was born in Sicily but speaks Italian with a broad northern accent. The big surprise, however,  is this:  he is black, born of  Ghanaian immigrants, but raised by an Italian adoptive family .  A story today on NPR talks about how the prominence of Balotelli is changing what it means to be Italian.  As with black players on other European teams, Balotelli has seen a lot of fan abuse and prejudice.  But the victory over Germany may change some opinions.

The photo above, with his mother, may contribute as well to a changed view:  “As the triumphant striker approached the stands, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the pitch — the 6-foot-2-inch black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia.  The sight of his mother’s hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second-class. And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to say, ‘I’m black, I’m Italian and I am here to stay'” (NPR).  Interestingly, something similar has happened in Germany with the Turkish-German soccer star Mesut Özil.  Are these echoes of Jackie Robinson in American baseball history?