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May 04, 2014 8:04 AM Columnist: sports is “the most progressive force in America.” Aside from the rapiness and economic exploitation, he’s got a point!

By Kathleen Geier

I want what Timothy Egan is smoking. Clearly, he’s been bogarting the good stuff.

Egan recently wrote a column for the New York Times that, ludicrously enough, argues that professional sports is “the most progressive force in America.” His argument focuses on the Donald Sterling scandal and on the racial progress that has been made within professional sports. Yesterday the column was among the top ten most emailed items on the Times’ site.

The Nation’s Dave Zirin responded to Egan with a piece that accuses him of “whitewashing” sports history. Zirin makes a number of very good points:

Egan could certainly have also mentioned women like Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona and “Racey” Lacey O’Neil and their efforts to advance women’s rights and Title IX, as well as everyone from Tom Waddell to Martina Navratilova to Kye Allums to Jason Collins for using sports as a way to break open the closet and provide visibility to the very existence of LGBT athletes.
It’s understandable why someone could look at all of this history, as Tim Egan did, and conclude that sports as an institution is a mighty motor of progressive or even radical change in our society. It is also miles from the truth: a whitewash of history—highly reliant on white savior mythology—that benefits those in power in sports who routinely break their own arms patting themselves on the back, while operating a profoundly backward-looking enterprise.
[Snip]
The true story of sports, progressive politics and radical change is the story of people who are normally marginalized in US society, given a platform and a microphone and at great cost and sacrifice to themselves using that microphone to educate the dominant society about their position in the world.

All that is true enough. But like Egan, Zirin has himself made a number of convenient omissions. What about the undeniable fact that rape culture is deeply entwined with sports culture, and that at every level, sports culture enables and supports athletes and coaches who commit sexual assault and domestic violence? From high school and college football in Steubenville, Ohio and at Penn State to professional football, basketball, boxing, baseball, and hockey, this is horrendous problem that the sports world is doing nothing to address. Neither Egan nor Zirin even thought it worthy of a mention.

In addition to the rapiness, there are numerous other features of sports culture in America that can hardly be described as “progressive.” Has Egan ever read his colleague Joe Nocera’s many excellent pieces on the corruption of the NCAA and its gross economic exploitation of college athletes? And speaking of economic exploitation, what about the wage theft and humiliating working conditions experienced by the NFL cheerleaders? There’s also the terrible problem of traumatic brain injuries suffered by boxers, football players, and other professional athletes who engage in contact sports. For decades, the NFL covered up the devastating consequences of this grave health risk. Clearly, NFL didn’t exactly model progressive values like transparency in that case.

There are also many questions about the grossly disproportionate amount of economic resources we as a society pour into sports, whether it’s taxpayer-subsidized sports stadiums or colleges that pour millions into sports facilities and lavish scholarships on athletes. Troubling, too, are questions about what happens to the many young men who aspire to careers in professional sports but don’t make it. No one asks what happens to them. Our sports-obsessed culture encourages them to pour all their energies into high school athletics when a more realistic path to success would be academics or learning a trade.

I could go on, and on, and on, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that only if you define “progressive” as meaning “racially progressive,” and even then only if you define “racially progressive” in the narrowest sense possible, could you even conceive of making a silly argument like Egan’s.

I will say a few more things about the Sterling scandal. The fact that he was disciplined with appropriate severity was made possible by two things. One is the fact that the sports league his team is a part of, the NBA, is overwhelmingly African-American. The other is that the players were able to act collectively to oppose Sterling because they belong to a powerful institution, known as a labor union, which enabled them to do so. Take away either of things — no union to pose a credible threat? a virtually all-white players’ league such the hockey league? — and it may well have ended very differently.

Finally, before we all start patting ourselves on the back about the happy ending to l’affaire Sterling, we need to ask ourselves the disturbing question of why it took so long to mete out some semblance of justice to this loathesome, unrepentant racist. Not only does the man have a long history of racist statements; in 2009, he paid “the largest [settlement] ever obtained by the Justice Department for such a housing discrimination case.”

The question of why we pay more attention to racist statements than to racist acts is one that Jay Smooth asks in this excellent video.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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