Monday, April 29, 2013

Out There, For All the World to Know

Yes, it’s a big deal.

A few hours into the news cycle of Jason Collins’announcement that he is gay, perhaps the most perplexing comments of all seemed to be that this is not news.

I know, I know, reading online comments only brings horror and exasperation, but I was more or less just curious what direction they were taking in the sports world. And I was more or less surprised not to be appalled.

Of course there’s the snark that comes when a journeyman player most have never heard of comes out. Things like “Jason Collins is a gay NBA player? I didn’t know he was still in the NBA.” The jokes seem to be mostly about who Jason Collins is (or isn’t) as a ballplayer than anything else that I’ve seen.

And that’s a good thing.

There are also the comments about this not being so Earth-shattering if it had been a superstar, but Jason Collins himself summed it up by saying someone had to be first and it might as well be him.  Of course it would have been an even bigger deal if it were Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, or a superstar in the NFL or Major League Baseball.

And that’s true, but it doesn’t take away the impact of it all.

It’s those who wonder why this is a story at all that make me scratch my head the most. The online commenters have been joined by sports talk radio hosts on that non-topic topic as well. It might not be a big story to you, but guess what? This isn’t about you.

To say this isn’t a big deal, that his sexuality being known is not important, is to assume that Jason Collins is going to be warmly accepted with open arms by every person who hears the news. The same way gay kids are so warmly accepted by everyone they encounter in childhood and beyond. The way some gay employees don’t want to come out at work because they don’t know how they will be received. The way many gay people don’t want to come out to their own families for fear of being disowned or condemned as a sinner.

To say Jason Collins’ announcement isn’t news is a slap in the face to everyone who has been on the receiving end of pain and prejudice throughout their lives. To simply say it’s the media latching on to a good story sells the media short, too. In its most noble form, what the media has always been is a way for people to tell their story. Every newspaper in America fields calls every day from people who feel they have been wronged and want the paper to help. Jason Collins had a story to tell, and found a respectable outlet in Sports Illustrated to convey it where it would have the most impact.

Jason Collins can be told his inside game sucks, or that he never really amounted to much in the NBA.

Just don’t tell him or anyone else that what he did by coming out is insignificant. One day it might be insignificant when a U.S. male pro athlete comes out as being gay. And if that day ever occurs, he'll be able to give a big thanks to Jason Collins.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sometimes, the Game-Changer Is an Actual Game

Jackie Robinson changed everything when he broke baseball's color line.

It might have been a fair point the guy raised when he wondered about my profession if he himself hadn’t been so utterly lacking in perspective.

It was years ago, when someone asked me what I did for a living and I replied that I was a sportswriter.

“That must be tough,” he said. And before I could answer he continued, “I mean every day you go somewhere and someone wins and someone loses and you tell the same story over and over. It must be tough to stay interested.”

I was dumbfounded because this comment came from a singer-songwriter (admittedly one I never did like) who, conceivably, made a living by singing the same songs over and over.

Such is the life of the sportswriter, putting up with many people’s perceived notions of sports. You’ve heard them all: a waste of time, opiate for the masses, rich men’s game, etc. etc.

Here’s one few bother to mention: Effective tool for social change.

As “42,” the biopic of Jackie Robinson, heads to theaters this weekend, it’s chance again to celebrate the bravery of the man who broke baseball’s color line. Many other upheavals in racial relations followed in the years to come, but it’s hard to imagine any of them happening if change hadn’t first come to baseball.

Yes, sports are fun and games sometimes but they have also been a key factor in civil rights and gender equality in this country. No doubt sports writers in 1947 and beyond realized they were watching much more than baseball; they had to know they were watching history.

And it was a sports writer who had started to beat the drum of equality in baseball a decade before. A man named Lester Rodney is sadly a footnote to history, most likely because he worked at a Communist
Lester Rodney (Ray Rodney photo)
newspaper. But in his columns for the Daily Worker that began in 1936, Rodney championed Negro Leagues ballplayers, took on the powers that be in Major League Baseball by calling for integration and very early on took note of a talented young man named Jackie Robinson before any newspaper written for white folks ever did.

“You go back and you read the great newspapers in the ’30s, you’ll find no editorials saying, ‘What’s going on here? This is America, land of the free and people with the wrong pigmentation of skin can’t play baseball?’ Nothing like that,” Rodney told writer Dave Zirin in 2004, five years before Rodney died at age 98. “No challenges to the league, to the commissioner, to league presidents, no interviewing the managers, no talking about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson who were obviously of superstar caliber.”

A victory off the court, too. (AP)
A similar change came 26 years later when Billie Jean King’s victory meant everything to the women’s movement. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around that now, that a made-for-TV athletic event of a women’s
tennis player at the peak of her career defeating a 50-something former pro men’s player would do in some way for women what Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans. After that people paid attention to women and girls as athletes and the stage was set for implementing Title IX and much that came after.

I have a friend, a feminist who often writes on women’s issues. About 20 years ago, when I was covering women’s athletics, she admitted she knew nothing about sports and didn’t know what Title IX was.

“I’ll teach you,” I said, “because calling yourself a feminist and knowing nothing about sports is like calling yourself a Civil War scholar and knowing nothing about Abraham Lincoln.”

I was in a polyester uniform when sports for girls and women began to change in the 1970s, and courtside as they transformed in the 1980s and 1990s, as were many of my friends. Indeed I enjoyed covering women’s basketball because I had played it and enjoyed the sport, but there was something greater at work. I wasn’t just sitting courtside at basketball games; I had a close-up seat to history.

For many sportswriters who covered this stuff, that was a motivation to do it and to do it well, male or female writers. It wasn’t just the fun and games of it all – though it really was a fun way to make a living – but there was a greater good to it all sometimes. I understand why other women my age might have wanted to cover the NBA or NFL, but I did not. It was too exciting to be part of something that was growing, changing and creating opportunities where once none had been. I’m a history geek and I knew I was seeing it live.

I’m not saying sports writers deserve the credit for the social change that transpired under their watch. The bravery was all on the part of the participants, and I can only wonder what it would have been like for a Jackie Robinson or Billie Jean King in our toxic anonymous media-saturated culture. I wonder if they would have survived with their lives, Robinson in particular.

Now we're at a point where baseball worries about not having enough African-American ballplayers and girls walk around tall and proud in their letter jackets and sweatpants; that says everything about how sports has made a difference in who we are as a nation.

Anyone who thinks differently is just singing the wrong tune.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Everyone's a Critic, But There Was Only One Ebert

Roger Ebert was famous for a thumb's up or a thumb's down, but it was in reading what he wrote that movie-goers could learn about the films they love or hate. (Reuters photo)

If I really wanted to push a Brush With Greatness, I can truthfully say that I was once replaced by Roger Ebert.

Not that he noticed. Or even knew where he was ending up. Or that his life was made any the richer for now being on the pages of the Des Moines Register.

Such are the weird twists and turns my life has taken over the years: When I left Iowa, I had been a film critic for the Register, and have written about movies off and on for the past 15 years. When I left that job, I was replaced with wire-service copy until the paper brought on another reviewer, then stopped having staff-produced reviews altogether.

As many papers opted for the same route, Ebert’s reviews became all the more important to people, certainly those in the Midwest. We’re not Hollywood flash or East Coast superiority; we’re regular folks who are smarter than people think and do not suffer fools.

That’s why Roger was our guy. He was a Midwestern guy who wrote about movies but also looked like a guy you might see down the block with a garden hose in hand. If you couldn’t have someone local writing about this stuff, this guy still seemed to know who you were and what you wanted out of your movies. It was only after papers began cutting back on their local reviewers and the Internet took over the world that some people finally got a chance to read Ebert instead of just watching him on TV. And for all his TV fame, in print is where he truly shined.

In some ways, he made it look easy, which had to have been a blessing and a curse. It was great that he wrote for the average movie-goer as much as the academic, but his facility at that no doubt led to a sense that everyone could do it.

And trust me, it isn’t easy. In any kind of opinion writing you risk offending people. In reviewing movies, something so basic to everyone, you risk offending things that people hold near and dear. If you don’t like something they love, it’s sometimes as if you have wounded them as a human being.

I once had a voicemail message left for me from a guy who was ticked off at me for my review of “Detroit Rock City,” a road/buddy movie about guys going to a KISS concert. I didn’t give it a very good review and this guy, a huge KISS fan, was livid. I won’t go into details about what he thought someone should do to me.

And the thing is, the reason I didn’t like it was because KISS is awesome and deserved a better film than that. I wasn’t reviewing KISS, I was reviewing a film about KISS, yet this guy couldn’t see the difference.

I also gave either a one- or no-star review to an alleged film called “Three Strikes.” It was written and directed by rapper DJ Pooh and co-starred the guy who played Huggy Bear on “Starsky and Hutch,” among others. My contempt for the film sparked an email from a guy called “Snoop” wondering why I hated black people so much and wanted them to fail.

“Sorry, Snoop,” I responded. “I hate a lot of movies that don’t have any black people in them at all.”

It wasn’t all bad. An older gentleman once called me wanting to pick a fight over my positive review about “Magnolia,” a film he and his wife hated so much they left the theater. (Ebert later put it on his list of  "Great Movies.")

“Yeah, I can understand that,” I replied. There was silence on the end of the phone because he did not expect me to agree with him. I told him why I liked the movie (because it is so honest and raw with its family relationships instead of content to give us a fake happily ever after). We ended up having a wonderful conversation about that film and movies in general.

That’s why it’s sort of unfortunate that Roger Ebert (and Gene Siskel) became so known for the thumbs up or thumbs down. Liking or hating something is more nuanced than that, and no doubt those guys knew that. That’s why reading Ebert was such a joy. You knew just why he did or didn’t like a film. It wasn’t necessarily because it reminded him of some Swedish film he’d seen at Cannes in the 1970s, it might have been because it reminded him of something joyful from his childhood.

For me, this all happened in the Internet’s infancy and before the advent of social media. Both no doubt made it easy for people to get in touch with Ebert and agree and disagree, not to mention post their opinions on, their own blog or various other sites and platforms. And he ran with it, using all those platforms for himself as well.

These days, everyone’s a critic. And in some ways -- the good ways -- we have Roger Ebert to thank for that.