Saturday, April 26, 2008

New Rule: You Gotta Have Balls, So Poker Is Not a Sport

By John L. Jackson, Jr.
courtesy of

With protests raging in the streets of Tibet and world-class athletes pulling out of the games (from fear of Beijing's dangerous air pollution), I know there are many controversial topics that the International Olympic Committee needs to confront as it prepares for the summer games in Beijing.

However, since that worldwide spectacle is just around the corner, I choose now as the perfect time to submit a modest proposal: that we take "sports" out of the Olympics.

Hold the invective.

I should probably admit that my interest in this little idea first hit me while I was watching television a couple of years ago: Saturday afternoon. I was lounging in the living room, channel surfing, when I came across a double-dose of poker—on ESPN and ESPN2. The unbridled fun of monthly poker parties helped to get me through graduate school. That is definitely the case. But parlor games are hardly sports, and poker doesn't belong on ESPN. Period.

In trying to make my case to skeptical friends, I soon realized that I had even bigger fish to fry. For one thing, there were other events—like golf, bowling, and billiards—that I also felt compelled to disqualify. Those activities seem to fall below the threshold for what I would think of as the defining physical nature of real sports. They take skill, no doubt. They are incredibly fun to play (at times, even to watch), but something about them doesn't seem quite sportsy enough -- at least not to me.

With that in mind, I decided to offer up my own definition. Needless to say it has been somewhat controversial.

There are three things that make games or competitions bona fide sports—at least in my book. First, there has to be a ball-like object involved. This might sound arbitrary, but it is vital. No ball, no sport.

Of course, when I say ball, I'm not just talking about the bouncy kinds. Frisbees and pucks count, too. The point is simply that there needs to be an external object that organizes everyone's attention.

Second, there must be a sense of physical urgency when that ball-like thing is in play: running, jumping, kicking, throwing--something. A true "sport" should not permit, say, walking to the next green. Or driving, no less. Again, the activity might take a ton of practice and even stamina, but so does a long calculus exam.

Third, in a sport, your opponent has to be able to directly thwart you—by catching a ball, intercepting a pass, blocking a kick, anything. There might be clocks involved, but you can't just be finishing something quicker than a competitor. That is a race, but it isn't a sport.

Put these three features together, and you have a sport worthy of ESPN broadcast. Leave out two, or even one, and you have a contest, a game of skill, maybe even an athletic competition, but you don't reach the level of sporting event. Now, I know what you're thinking. Given this definition, look at all the sports that get disqualified. Poker meets rule # 3, maybe even rule #1 (if we are willing to over-generously count playing cards as ball-like objects), but sitting at a table with chips and a cigar lacks the kind of physicality that a true sport demands.

Bowling, billiards and golf each satisfies two but not all three of the rules. So, they would be out, too.

Of course, those sports wouldn't be alone. Track and field events are the most egregious (and troubling, for some) non-sports by my definition. How could these most cherished of athletic events be disqualified, even if they usually break rules #1 and #3? What kind of definition of sport is worth having at all if it doesn't see, say, the 100-yard dash as a quintessential sport?

Running on a track is an athletic competition, and it calls for the most elite and challenging of physical skill and training. No question about that. But it is the building block of sport, not the thing itself. You use that skill in actual sports—to tackle a runner, to round some bases, to catch up to a ball, etc.

Now, I can picture a ton of former college track stars all poised to hurl epithets my way, but let me be clear. The distinction isn't meant to disparage track and field events. If anything, I want to offer up this new definition as a way to give things like track and field pride of place come Olympic time. There should be a higher scrutiny given to sports seeking entry to the Olympic Games, especially sports that people tend to watch anyway.

In the United States, that would mean things like basketball. Track and swimming aren't necessarily at the center of American culture for the 3¾ years between games. So, why should they have to compete with basketball or soccer for top billing during their moment of glory? That just seems unfair.

Of course, this isn't a fool-proof plan. We would still have to make exceptions here and there. For example, synchronized swimming would be allowed to stay in the Olympic mix, which means that we should devise some special rule to ban it. And water polo technically satisfies all three of the above criteria, but it should probably be grandfathered into its Olympic slot anyway.

Ultimately, the IOC can tweak these kinds of issues on a case by case basis, and they can also use the above rules to determine what, if any, new sports get added to the Olympic roster. (Of course, to many naysayers, curling shouldn't be allowed into the games under any auspices.)

If you had time to kill and wanted a fun game to play with friends (instead of just poker), you could try to think of all kind of ways to turn non-sports into sports (given the abovementioned criteria).

Force golfers to run from hole to hole as their competitors shoot balls at their heads. Now that's a sport. Give a sprinter a ball (maybe just that same old baton) and let other runners try to tackle her before she reaches the finish line. A clear sport. Throw in skates, and you get a cross between hockey and roller derby. In any case, it is something that should take a backseat to the kinds of athletic contests that the Olympics has always privileged. Let the games begin. And let's leave the sports on the sidelines.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

Review of Contested Water in The Washington Post...

The Deep End
America's racial history can be read in the chlorinated waters of its pools.

Reviewed by John L. Jackson Jr.

A Social History of Swimming Pools in America
By Jeff Wiltse
Univ. of North Carolina. 276 pp. $29.95

Most of us use swimming pools to get away from the toils and tensions of life. Purposeful breast strokes in a local YMCA clear our heads and strengthen our bodies. During the summer, people don skimpy bathing suits and bask in the sun's rays, floating and splashing around in these chlorine-filled symbols of leisure and carefree recreation. But there's also a politics to sitting poolside. In Contested Waters, historian Jeff Wiltse argues that the nation's contentious history of racism, class conflict and gender inequality can be captured by chronicling the rise and fall of municipal pools in northern American cities. And he makes a compelling case.

Contested Waters begins in the 19th century, when poor immigrants (many living in homes without running water) bathed naked in local rivers and lakes. The first public pools were a calculated response to this exhibitionism. Policymakers -- believing, as most people did, that dirt caused diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis -- aimed to promote cleanliness and good health in America's teeming cities while catering to the sensibilities of middle-class urbanites not interested in glimpsing nude bodies in public.

Wiltse emphasizes that the earliest public pools were racially mixed places. Blacks and whites swam together with few clashes and little popular disapproval. Instead, other social lines were stringently policed, specifically the ones drawn around gender and class. Men and women swam on separate days of the week, and a tiered fee structure meant that the wealthiest swimmers didn't have to share their pool time with the raucous, uncontrollable masses.

But pools couldn't stave off diseases the way previous public planners had imagined, so later pools were designed less to promote public health than to discipline rowdy public bathers, teaching them Victorian values of self-control and moral uplift by forbidding the rambunctious activities (screaming, running, fighting) that had previously characterized public swimming. When it became increasingly clear that the rowdy male swimmers weren't internalizing the lessons (and wouldn't abide by the newly posted rules), public pools mutated yet again into a form of recreation that more civilized families could enjoy together. This new mandate encouraged public funding of massive indoor and outdoor facilities replete with shipped-in sand and vast swaths of land for people-watching and picnicking. According to Wiltse, it also spelled the beginning of the end for multiracial swimming in public pools.

Once men and women (as parents and children) started swimming together, African American swimmers (now saddled with the accusations of bio-pathology and disease-carrying earlier attributed to all poor urbanites) were perceived as a threat. A predilection of black men for raping white women was assumed by some of the most enlightened and celebrated urban thinkers, including Nobel Peace Prize-winning settlement house activist Jane Addams. Most opponents of miscegenation considered pools even more dangerous than schools, Wiltse argues, because they provided a kind of close and intimate contact that classrooms hardly allowed.

Wiltse claims that it was America's mid-20th century defeat of legalized segregation that rang the death knell for public pools in major American cities. Though whites had once swum alongside African Americans without comment or concern, they were no longer willing to do so. Several cities even tried to avoid race riots by reverting to gender-segregated pools, but it didn't work. Whites continued their retreat to private clubs and residential pools safely tucked away behind picket fences. Once they stopped frequenting urban public pools, it became much harder to justify spending tax dollars on maintenance. In such a context, Wiltse argues, everyone ended up losing: the suburban middle-class that had cordoned itself off from supposedly unsavory aspects of urban life and the urban poor that had been relegated to barb-wired and dilapidated mini-pools -- when there's enough money for any pool at all.

As this extremely readable narrative makes clear, empty and discarded public swimming pools exemplify the decay and decimation of post-Civil Rights urban America and the squandering of communal possibilities. In the end, Wiltse persuasively shows that there are some very serious consequences to how Americans play together -- and to when and why they decide that they won't.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Racism? You Make the Call!

With my book hitting bookstores last week, I have started to get stories from readers about their own experiences shimmying through the subtler minefields of contemporary American racial politics, especially during everyday social interactions. Since I’ve been receiving these first-person accounts, I’ve decided to start a new feature on the blog—Racism? You Make the Call!

I’ll relay people’s tales (mine included) about negotiating these subtler forms of potential racism in contemporary America and allow other readers to weigh-in (if they'd like) on how they’d interpret the experiences depicted. The question is always the same, a version of what the Lebron James cover evokes: Are blacks being too sensitive, or are whites not being sensitive enough?

I’m two miles through my usual three-mile treadmill jog at a posh gym in downtown Philadelphia when I spot one of the gym’s ‘fitness experts’, a red-headed twenty-something woman, handing clean towels out to every single runner on every single occupied treadmill in the entire aerobics area—everyone, that is, except for me. At the time, I happened to be the only Black runner in the bunch (even though the club has a racially diverse clientele), but I still didn’t automatically jump to thoughts of racism. At first, I was just confused. Did she somehow not see me when she walked right by—two feet from my machine? The more I thought about it, the more I got suspicious. I only spent a nanosecond at annoyed before finally getting downright angry, taking it all out on the treadmill and on my aching body, just about sprinting my final quarter mile.

As I ran, I desperately tried to come up with alternative explanations for the slight. Maybe she heard that Black folks were particularly fond of sweat and so didn’t want to be culturally insensitive by pressuring me into dryness. Or she could have imagined that I’d take it as some kind of racial insult: “What, you trying to say that I stink because I’m black?” Or did she think that I might read her helpfulness as flirtation and try to pick her up? So, she doesn’t date black guys, hunh?

But none of that really made sense to me. Clearly, I couldn’t really call it old-fashioned racism, and it wasn’t. I mean, they did let me purchase my gazillion dollar membership to the club in the first place. I could use any machine I wanted any time I wanted. The redhead and I sipped water from gym-supplied cone-shaped paper cups at the very same water fountain. That is the stuff of traditional racism. So, to make sense of what I thought had just happened, I started to think more creatively about things, very creatively: maybe she assumed that the whiteness of the towel would freak me out—that I’d think she was giving me some kind of subtle KKK reference. White towels…white sheets?

Or, instead of feeling like she didn’t want to give a black person a towel, maybe she was just intimidated. Afraid. She could have smilingly handed me one of those towels, only to have me scream obscenities at her for interrupting my running rhythm, part of the national imperative to fear black men and their penchant for violence.

When I exited the club that day, about 45 minutes later, the towel oversight was still bothering me. I looked all over the gym for that redhead before I left, just to let her know that in the future whenever I’m running on a treadmill on her watch, it was truly okay for her to give me a towel, especially if she’s readily dispensing them to everybody else in the joint.

Waiting for the elevator to the parking garage, I’m still trying to make sense of things, and maybe my puzzled look translates into an unapproachable snarl, because the three other gym patrons who happen to be departing when I do, all white, choose to take a different elevator from the one I get on, even though both elevators arrive at the same time and one of the guys, a blonde thirty-something man who didn’t seem to know the other two at all, is much closer to the elevator I chose than to the one he decided to enter.

So my entire empty elevator ride down, I’m trying to figure out why they all piled themselves into a single elevator when at least one of them could have had a much less cramped ride with me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Ten Commandments of Public Intellectualism...

...a self-critique--not just signifyin'.

1. You shall have no other Gods before CNN or FOX or MSNBC or NBC or NPR or even C-SPAN.

2. You shall make of yourself a graven image of unending authority, ubiquitous and always well-groomed.

3. You shall not take the name of your television/radio host in vain.

4. Remember the publication date of your new book, to keep its pre-sale buzz going.

5. Honor your publisher and your publicist that your book’s sales numbers may be in the hundreds of thousands.

6. You shall not murder, unless you can get off and raise book sales to boot.

7. You shall not libel anyone, at least not anyone with substantial enough resources to really make you pay for it.

8. You shall not plagiarize without subsequently procuring a lucrative book deal explaining how and why it happened that first time.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your editor, chalking grammatical mistakes up to their irresponsibility only makes you look less professional.

10. You shall not covet your colleague's fame; you shall not covet your colleague’s six-figure book advance, nor his positive press reviews, nor her skyrocketing book sales, nor his Hollywood agent, nor her HBO-backed website, nor anything that is your colleague’s.