The World of Sports: A Discussion of Race in Memory of Jackie Robinson

April 15th marks a momentous occasion in history. 67 years ago on this day the great legend Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball by making his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This day celebrates not only all that Robinson has achieved, but also elicits a reflection on the progression of sports and the status of race and sports today.

Contrary to what one might believe, if you look at the statistics, the prevalence of African-American baseball players in the MLB has actually decreased the last years. Compared to 1981 when black players made up 18.7% of all players in the MLB, the black population in baseball has shrunk to only 7.8% of players today. In this sense, we have moved backwards in bridging the disparity of minority athletes within sports.

In an effort to raise the color disparity in sports, there has been “…much-needed institutionally mandated policies to increase the presence of African Americans among the top football league’s head coaches” (Markovits 264). However, with this said, there are many implications for changing the policies to mandate the entrance of colored athletic managers, players, and coaches into the sports arena. In a world that has proven to be dominated by the white upper class, to what extent do these policy changes provide opportunities for those who otherwise would not have been in these positions. However, on the other hand, how will these changes sacrifice the integrity of the sport by creating a diversity checklist that each team must follow in order to raise the percentage of colored players.

Bob Nightengale from USA TODAY reports: “Commissioner Bud Selig is sickened by the diminishing numbers, and just as he promised Aaron, his dear friend, he has vowed to do something about it, commissioning an 18-member task force.” Several key questions come to mind after reading this statement. What does Commissioner Selig mean by ‘do something’? What are the ethical implications of this? Will this 18-member task force create a particular quota allotted for black baseball players? And again, how will this affect the integrity of the sport?

Even though statistics show that the integration of colored athletes in sports has actually decreased, author Markovits’ states in “Gaming the World – How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture” that “though racial discrimination in American sports has certainly not disappeared – a quick glance at the paucity of black team owners, front-office leadership, coaches, as well as managers will corroborate this point – the environment for racism has become socially taboo” (264). This illustrates the type of racism that exists today. Especially in the United States racism often takes a more subtle and camouflaged form that is not so overt. However, the fact that this issue is even on the table illustrates the disparity that exists among players in baseball and sports in general.

On the other hand, although racism still exists, some colored athletes have taken on an important role. “Black athletes, as well as some coaches, have become widely respected heroes of these hegemonic sports and via them in American society as a whole” (264) Athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali have served the nation as sport’s heroes whom have overcome extreme hardships and triumphed in their respective sports. Athletes today, especially athletes of color, look to these athletes as a source of inspiration and perseverance.

Furthermore, these sport heroes have had an influence not only in the sports realm, but also in the political realm. According to Markovits, sports have “helped expand the social acceptance of blacks and thus constituted the precursors to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and eventually Barack Obama” (264). Hopefully the further expansion of this issue into the various worlds outside of sports will spark a change within the sports world and heighten the prominence of colored athletes but also maintain the integrity of the sport.

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There Will Be No Richard Shermans in Figure Skating

          The world of figure skating has drawn to our attention the current controversy regarding a female athlete’s unsportsmanlike comments and unladylike conduct. Bringing to center stage the 22 year-old women’s US national champion Ashley Wagner, reports are being fired left and right claiming that her “unfiltered comments and facial expressions are bad for the sport” (Palleschi). This comment leaves me to question whether these types of comments would be made if the skater was male or if we were talking about a different sport entirely, like football or hockey. 

          The history of figure skating has always preserved a particular essence of elegance, grace, and prestige, which skaters are expected to embody and uphold on the ice and through their skating. As former figure skater and writer Amanda Palleschi points out in her article in the Atlantic, this is greatly due to the “sport’s close kinesthetic relationship with ballet.” Like with ballet, there is this paradox that skaters must be strong, athletic, and push their bodies to the brink, yet perform with effortless ease and poise. 

          Skaters must throw themselves through the air and spin on cold hard ice while relying on only a quarter-inch thick blade and trusting that their pick will support their weight as they land. However, they must do all of this without discernible acknowledgement of exerted force. 

          Gender roles have been explored within the realm of figure skating, especially given that it is predominantly a female-centered sport, which is rare these days. With this said, when women in the sport threaten the sense of ‘skater-as-princess’ ideal, fingers start pointing at the culprit. Within the women’s skating community, Ashley Wagner is not one of America’s sweethearts, as compared to her counterpart Gracie Gold. 

          Following her upset at the Sochi Olympics, Ashley Wagner verbalized her frustration with the new scoring system, the anonymous status of the judges, and consequently the unaccountability of the judge’s scores. Her comments regarding results from previous women’s competition, her “meme-worth faces” and her unwarranted mutters have brought into question whether she has what it takes to be a successful figure skater. 

          As Palleschi points out, “in women’s figure skating there is no room for loudly emotive Richard Shermans or even lovable bad boys like Bode Miller. If you want to be beloved as a female skater on the international stage, you must behave more like Peyton Manning.”

          Historically, if one were to compare the statistics of male coaches in relation to female coaches, the prevalence of male coaches greatly outweighs the number of female coaches. This is just one example of the gender gap within sports where women take on rolls of subordination and men are in positions of leadership and power (11). 

          As I mentioned earlier, there is a certain vision for what makes a perfect figure skater which many skater strive to uphold. In Messner’s Taking the Field, historian Susan Cahn describes the quintessential female athlete as one who has “fused appropriate female athleticism with a middle-class concept of womanhood characterized by refinement, dignity, and self-control” (139).

           Figure skaters are often times considered the beauty queens of the ice. Essentially, they subject themselves to a panel of judges who score and rank them according to technical and artistic merit. However, the artistic merit is comprised predominantly on aesthetic appeal. This score is heavily influenced by what a skater wears, how she behaves on and off the ice, and how she presents herself as a woman figure skater. This is one of the reasons Wagner expressed her frustration with the current judging system. In the past, we have seen this system make or break a skater based simply on physical attractiveness. 

          One of the greatest known scandals in the history of figure skating existed between America’s sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan and ugly duckling Tonya Harding. Harding faced constant ridicule by skating fans and the media for her lack of class, tasteless outfits, and candid attitude while Kerrigan received praise by those who watched her skate as she captured viewers with her Vera Wang dress and her delicately pinned back hair. 

          Along with the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup one wears, a skater’s sexual appeal is inherent in the sport of figure skating and has prevailed among most women’s sports. In the media, it is common for women athletes to be portrayed in a sexually appealing manner, photographed wearing minimal or no clothing at all. The media, according to Messner, is “much more likely to pull women athletes to the center of cultural discourse when they are athletes who can be appreciated and exploited for their sexual appeal. Others, they are relegated to the margins of the cultural radar screen” (103). This statement perfectly exemplifies the controversial ‘princess-and-the-pauper’ relationship between Kerrigan and Harding. 

          So, how much of a skater’s fame, success, and positive media attention is based on the luck of the draw and what genes you get? Time and time again history has proved that women athletes are crammed into a mold that the society of sports has created for them and if they do not fit that mold, their career suffers in one way or another. At only 22 years of age Wagner is already being condemned by the figure skating world and with all the negative attention she is receiving it leaves you to wonder what is in store for her future career as a figure skater. 

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The Commodification of the Olympic Games and Its Athletes

The conclusion of the Sochi Olympic games sparks the beginning of the discussions, the critiques, the playbacks, and for lack of a better word, the gossip revolving the results of the Games. Who medaled, who didn’t medal, who got injured, which teams played fair, who actually deserved their medals, the list goes on and on. With these discussions underway, a familiar name has recurrently been brought up, and that name is Viktor Ahn.

You may have heard of him as the man without a home, the traitor who abandoned his nation to skate for the Russians, or possibly as the skater who proved his birth country wrong by winning the gold for his new country. Here is his story.

Born in South Korea as Ahn Hyan-Soo, but now known as Russia’s Viktor Ahn, made the tough decision of switching citizenships just two years before the Sochi Games in order to be able to compete after coming back from a knee injury. The South Korean-turned-Russian speed skating superstar became the first athlete to win Olympic medals for different nations and became the most adorned short-track speed skater with a total of six gold medals.

Ahn competed in the 2006 Turin Games and took home three gold medals and one bronze medal. Although due to his injury, he was sidelined and could not qualify for the following 2010 Vancouver Games. However, after returning from his injury, Ahn was confronted with a harsh reality: his team would not accept him back on the team. South Korea is a breeding mine for short-track speed skaters, meaning there are always younger up-and-coming skaters willing and able to take the spots of the veterans. One could say Ahn felt cast aside by his country.

Determined to skate in the upcoming Sochi Games and prove to his home country that he was not dispensable, Ahn searched for refuge elsewhere. He knew his talent would not go unnoticed by other nations eager to get their hands on another medal. And sure enough, both Russia and the United States offered him an opportunity to train at their facilities and represent their respective countries in the Sochi Games. Given that this decision involved switching citizenships and allegiances, one might question how he decided which country he would soon call his new home. The answer? Money.

According to The New York Times, he was offered a hefty compensation for his guaranteed training with Russia and in the words of his recruiter, Jang Kwon-ok, the process of switching citizenship was “very, very easy,” compared to that of the United States. Somehow, to the dismay of South Korea, Ahn was able to slip under the radar and gain Russian citizenship, thus denying his home country three gold medals in the men’s short track.

Ahn’s story presents two interesting points to examine: have the Olympics strayed away from its roots as a nation-based team competition and become an increasingly individualistic sport based on solitary gain and success? Furthermore, has the commodification of sports corrupted athletes’ sense of self and turned them into items on a shelf that are available for trade or purchase?

The sports industry, with its illustrious power and ability to capture an entire society, has become corrupted by its own commodification (Giulianotti 39).  Advertisements are incessantly inserted into every match, both live and on television, games are fixed, bribes are taken, teams are exploited, and in this case, players’ loyalties are auctioned off to the highest bidder (Giulianotti 40). This industry has greatly become dominated by money and power and the true nature of sport and athletic mastery is simply not enough.

The Neo-Marxists view sport as an “ ideological tool to distract the masses from bourgeois control” (bourgeois representing the ruling capitalist class.) Under this system, athletes are simply “advertising ‘sandwich-boards’ for major corporations,” controlled by the markets in power (Giulianotti 32). Viktor Ahn was evaluated for his worth and bided on accordingly. In the end, Russia had the means to take home the item of the day: the greatest short track speed skater in the world. But who knows. If the US had presented Ahn with a larger paycheck, maybe it would have been team USA walking away with three more gold medals around its neck.

Money, efficiency, and opportunity were the driving forces behind Ahn’s decision to switch allegiances from his motherland to Mother Russia. How long will it be until athletes compete not in honor of their country, but in honor of the corporation that owns them? This may seem far-fetched, but if you think about it, we are practically there now.

The conclusion of the Sochi Olympic games sparks the beginning of the discussions, the critiques, the playbacks, and for lack of a better word, the gossip revolving the results of the Games. Who medaled, who didn’t medal, who got injured, which teams played fair, who actually deserved their medals, the list goes on and on. With these discussions underway, a familiar name has recurrently been brought up, and that name is Viktor Ahn.

You may have heard of him as the man without a home, the traitor who abandoned his nation to skate for the Russians, or possibly as the skater who proved his birth country wrong by winning the gold for his new country. Here is his story.

Born in South Korea as Ahn Hyan-Soo, but now known as Russia’s Viktor Ahn, made the tough decision of switching citizenships just two years before the Sochi Games in order to be able to compete after coming back from a knee injury. The South Korean-turned-Russian speed skating superstar became the first athlete to win Olympic medals for different nations and became the most adorned short-track speed skater with a total of six gold medals.

Ahn competed in the 2006 Turin Games and took home three gold medals and one bronze medal. Although due to his injury, he was sidelined and could not qualify for the following 2010 Vancouver Games. However, after returning from his injury, Ahn was confronted with a harsh reality: his team would not accept him back on the team. South Korea is a breeding mine for short-track speed skaters, meaning there are always younger up-and-coming skaters willing and able to take the spots of the veterans. One could say Ahn felt cast aside by his country.

Determined to skate in the upcoming Sochi Games and prove to his home country that he was not dispensable, Ahn searched for refuge elsewhere. He knew his talent would not go unnoticed by other nations eager to get their hands on another medal. And sure enough, both Russia and the United States offered him an opportunity to train at their facilities and represent their respective countries in the Sochi Games. Given that this decision involved switching citizenships and allegiances, one might question how he decided which country he would soon call his new home. The answer? Money.

According to the New York Times, he was offered a hefty compensation for his guaranteed training with Russia and in the words of his recruiter, Jang Kwon-ok, the process of switching citizenship was “very, very easy,” compared to that of the United States. Somehow, to the dismay of South Korea, Ahn was able to slip under the radar and gain Russian citizenship, thus denying his home country three gold medals in the men’s short track.

Ahn’s story presents two interesting points to examine: have the Olympics strayed away from its roots as a nation-based team competition and become an increasingly individualistic sport based on solitary gain and success? Furthermore, has the commodification of sports corrupted athletes’ sense of self and turned them into items on a shelf that are available for trade or purchase?

The sports industry, with its illustrious power and ability to capture an entire society, has become corrupted by its own commodification (Giulianotti 39).  Advertisements are incessantly inserted into every match, both live and on television, games are fixed, bribes are taken, teams are exploited, and in this case, players’ loyalties are auctioned off to the highest bidder (Giulianotti 40). This industry has greatly become dominated by money and power and the true nature of sport and athletic mastery is simply not enough.

The Neo-Marxists view sport as an “ ideological tool to distract the masses from bourgeois control” (bourgeois representing the ruling capitalist class.) Under this system, athletes are simply “advertising ‘sandwich-boards’ for major corporations,” controlled by the markets in power (Giulianotti 32). Viktor Ahn was evaluated for his worth and bided on accordingly. In the end, Russia had the means to take home the item of the day: the greatest short track speed skater in the world. But who knows. If the US had presented Ahn with a larger paycheck, maybe it would have been team USA walking away with three more gold medals around its neck.

Money, efficiency, and opportunity were the driving forces behind Ahn’s decision to switch allegiances from his motherland to Mother Russia. How long will it be until athletes compete not in honor of their country, but in honor of the corporation that owns them? This may seem far-fetched, but if you think about it, we are practically there now.

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