An Excerpt from the Keynote Address for the NCAA National Convention
By Tom McBride and Ron Nief, co-authors of The Mindset Lists of American History (Wiley, 2011)
What have today’s young people—those between eighteen and twenty-nine—grown up with in terms of American athletics? What has been “normal” for them? What is their “sports mindset”?
There are two ways to answer this question: by offering some items off our famed, patented Lists, and by offering some analysis of a main difference between this sports generation and previous ones.
Let’s start with some List items: they supply an immediate (and comic) insight into what has always been “normal”—in terms of athletics—for the current generation of young people:
Sports bras have made underwear a fashion statement that no longer needs to be covered up.
Students today no longer need the weight room–they can get a workout playing a video game.
There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.
Billy Graham is as familiar to them as Otto Graham was to their parents.
The Green Bay Packers have always celebrated with the Lambeau Leap.
Being crowned the biggest loser is no longer offensive
Barbells are not just a piece of athletic equipment but are decorative body piercing jewelry
Cheerleading has always been a controversial sport
Arnold Palmer has always been a drink
O.J. Simpson is a felon
George Foreman is a grill salesman
They’ve always wanted to be just like Kobe
LBJ has always been LeBron James
But there’s something more as well: Today’s young people simply expect that American athletics are not going to be free from larger political, economic, and social concerns. The fact that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke Babe Ruth’s record in a single season cannot be separated from the issue of doping, and doping can’t be pulled apart from the larger question of drugs, both legal and otherwise, in our society. When Muhammad Ali tied boxing to protesting the Vietnam War, and said he disliked Sonny Liston a lot more than he disliked the Viet Cong, this was shocking. Now, however, the link between athletics and politics is more or less usual. Even Title IX, which has revolutionized collegiate athletics, is viewed by many conservatives as government overreach and, in the words of one conservative columnist, “a train wreck.”
Yet if the relationship between athletics and controversial issues is not unusual, sometimes the details are. Who would have thought that a Ravens linebacker and a Vikings punter would have come out for legalizing gay marriage? Still, even though that was unexpected, the overall genre of tying athletics to politics is not. This is “normal” for today’s young people.
They have grown up with a Seton Hall basketball player and Chicago Bulls three-point specialist being ostracized because they opposed Desert Storm. They have grown up with Martina Navratilova’s insisting that the American public would not have gathered in support of a prominent female athlete if she had gotten AIDS, as did Magic Johnson, from living a promiscuous life. They have grown up contrasting the very brand-conscious Michael Jordon, who declined to take a stand against sweatshop cruelties in the making of shoes because “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the Denver Nuggets, who refused to stand for the national anthem because it offended his Muslim beliefs and got his Mississippi house burned down for his trouble.
Many of them remember that the women’s soccer team boycotted the 1996 Olympics in order to secure equal treatment in terms of such things as facilities. They are aware that the Williams Sisters had to walk through the dangerous streets of Harlem in order to practice a sport in which they excelled, but also a sport associated with country clubs. They remember Don Imus’ comment about the Rutgers women basketball team and the push back from the coach, Vivian Stringer—and how Imus was chased, briefly, from the air for making comments deemed racist and sexist. Some of them know that Steve Nash and Joakim Noah of the NBA protested the war in Iraq.
Some of them remember Pat Tillman, a great NFL safety, who was killed in Afghanistan and honored as an All-American hero of sacrifice. They may also recall that Tillman was killed by friendly fire—a fact covered up even from his family—and that he himself was personally opposed to the war in Iraq, if not in Afghanistan. They will not always forget that the first time poor people saw the inside of the New Orleans Superdome was in the desperate wake of Hurricane Katrina.
None of this means that today’s young people are of only one political persuasion. Like all of us, they draw different conclusions. But the melding of the business and political pages with the sports pages is normal for them. It does not surprise them.
In a sense this is not so good, for maybe sports should be a refuge from political disputes. Great athletes speak with their bodies far more eloquently than most of us do with our tongues. Sometimes we might even prefer that they not talk—just play. But perhaps such innocence, however comforting, needs to be opposed and complicated. Whether or not that is true, it is being complicated. And in another sense, as we have always insisted, the more things change, the more they don’t.
After all, athletics in the United States have never really been separate from the great issues of race and gender, as when differing people had differing ideas about the advisability of women riding bicycles or African Americans winning boxing matches. It’s just that such non-separation is out in the open now. It’s out of the closet. It’s what’s “always,” as we Mindset List types like to say, been true.