Sports and the uncivil society

September 22, 2009

The reactions to Serena Williams' outburst at the U.S. Open and Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame speech say more about the media's prejudices than they do about "civility."

THIS WEEK, the grand media theme from USA Today to ESPN has been that "we have lost a sense of civility in U.S. society." The examples have ranged from Serena Williams' expletive-infused outburst at the U.S. Open and Michael Jordan's brutal basketball Hall of Fame speech to Rep. Joe Wilson bleating "You lie!" and the tea bagger "Up with Racism" parade that plagued my hometown of Washington, D.C.

The idea that we are all just a bunch of uncivil goons sounds like common sense, especially when you toss in the worst of reality television and anything done by Kanye West. But this conventional wisdom is not only wrong-headed, it's downright dangerous.

At the risk of sounding uncivil, the much hyped moments of Serena, Kanye and Michael Jordan have zero in common with the confederate carnival of hate brewing on the edges of the far right. The efforts of the media to conflate "Black people behaving badly" alongside "tea baggers on the march" should be soundly rejected.

I was on ESPN discussing this very subject alongside Juan Williams of Fox News, who was bemoaning the "lack of civility" our culture (it's worth noting that working for Fox and voicing this complaint is like working for Oscar Mayer and preaching that meat is murder). Juan said the incivility is connected to the presence of "reality television and people behaving badly."

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Somehow, I don't think Rep. Joe Wilson's been at home viewing The Real World or Flava of Love. Instead, he's reading the political moment and understands that the power in the Republican Party is not invested in civility, but the heat on the street.

I felt the heat this past weekend, and it was a blast furnace. Yes, there was nowhere close to the 43 kajillion people tweeted by Michelle Malkin and friends. But even to see 50,000 people with signs like "We come unarmed THIS time" and "The tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of tyrants" was chilling.

I saw one placard that read, "I'm not a racist, I'm a patriot," standing right next to someone in black face, and I saw groups of them mock and shout down a group of immigrant rights activists. To witness those signs alongside ugly caricatures of Obama with a bone through his nose was to see an open declaration of the attempted hate crimes to come.

JUST BECAUSE the Obama administration, due to political calculus or cowardice, refuses to call this out as racist and dangerous doesn't mean we should remain silent. But for the media, it is downright irresponsible to try to weave this lunacy into the same fabric as a tennis player misbehaving on the court.

Yes, Serena Williams cursed out and threatened a line judge in the U.S. Open semi-finals. Yes, it was inexcusable. But before we reach for the smelling salts (a profane woman! In tennis no less!), let's remember that she is hardly the first athlete to lose their head in the adrenaline-addled world of professional, organized play.

Long before reality television, when the Kardashian sisters weren't even a gleam in someone's bloodshot eye, Ty Cobb went into the stands to beat up a disabled fan. In 1965, Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal beat catcher John Roseboro with a bat right at home plate. And as long as there has been hockey, there's been blood on the ice. Violence has always been a part of what thrills and disgusts us about sports. If anything, the Serena case reveals a gender double standard more than any "absence of civility."

As for Michael Jordan, Rick Reilly of reflected almost the whole of the sports media on the subject when he wrote:

Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame talk was the Exxon Valdez of speeches. It was, by turns, rude, vindictive and flammable. Nobody was spared, including his high school coach, his high school teammate, his college coach, two of his pro coaches, his college roommate, his pro owner, his pro general manager, the man who was presenting him that evening, even his kids!...

Jordan had decided that this was the perfect night to list all the ways everybody sitting in front of him had pissed him off over the past 30 years. It was the only one-man roast in Hall of Fame history. Only very little of it was funny.

I can't believe I'm writing this, but for the first time in my life, I feel sorry for Jordan. The historic critique of His Airness is that he is more a brand than a man. I have been critical of this guy since he first laced up sweatshop hightops. Now on the Hall of Fame stage, he actually removed the veil, and showed us his true self. The sports media has recoiled in horror at discovering that Jordan is exactly who we thought he was: competitive to the point of emotional sclerosis.

He's not the first ex-jock to find himself at a loss once the cheering has stopped. But that's a far cry from showing up armed to town meetings. It blows up the importance of Jordan and Serena and tamps down the violence being brewed on the right. By saying it's all the same stew of incivility, we are just giving political cover to an inflamed minority that needs to be peacefully confronted and not coddled.

First published at the Huffington Post.

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