September 27th, 2011

FREE EVERYONE: Bomani, Race, Blogging

If you haven’t already, go read Bomani Jones’s post (piece?) on the construction of the American sports fan, and how it affects the media industry, new or otherwise. There’s a lot to digest there, and in my post-baby morass, I doubt I’m going to be able to give it the consideration it deserves.

Full disclosure: This post itself is reconstituted bits and pieces of emails I’ve written since waking up, some of them to Bomani himself.

I don’t think AJ was doing anything other than, characteristically, calling it like he sees it. Saying that new media is dominated by white men isn’t the same as saying it should be that way. Bomani’s point—that the audience for sports is assumed white and male, and this affects what kind of content, and personality, is encouraged, or sees a place for itself, in that field—does a lot to explain why this is the case. However, to take it a step further, it’s as much about how we construct sports as how we construct their audience.

Bomani posts Freeway/Beanie Sigel/Jay-Z’s “What We Do” to suggest that there might be two sides to the monolithic “Philly fans on Vick”. Vick, like Iverson or any of number of other dudes we could rattle off here, has met with a very different reception from different groups, and those groups very often split along lines of race. It’s a difference in perspective. And that’s not just about disagreeing on, say, what counts as showy play, but the underlying beliefs, and associations, that inform these views on sports. Notice, he didn’t use a photo, a name, or an anecdote. He put up the video for a 2002 rap anthem about the mundane realities of drug dealing. Not every black dude in Philly is Freeway or Beanie Sigel, but then again, very few working class Italians are Rocky. Culture, the flipside of perspective, is big like that.

If sports really were only ever about sports, then some the white male assumptions would only matter so much, and some sort of universal truth would prevail. This isn’t hell or relativism I’m trying to push here. It’s a pretty simple argument: By posting a music video to show a different side of Philly, Bomani reminds us that non-white-male fans don’t just represent different ideas about sports. When they do so—and they don’t always—it’s because they also represent a different sense of the world. They don’t just contradict (or complement) the narrowly-constructed WIP listener, they demand he be viewed in a new light.

Sports bloggers, like the journalists who came before them, write about sports. When they stray, it’s generally toward certain spheres of pop culture. This humanizing, if largely impersonal, touch marks their writing as belonging to “the fan”—the humanizing, if largely impersonal, “I” that resides in “we”. This was Bill Simmons’s crucial breakthrough, a new kind of authority that is at once homespun and even more hegemonic. What has always bothered me about this approach is that it doesn’t really allow for a larger sense of culture, or context. It acknowledges the outside world, albeit one that is white and male. But using superficial references creates a closed system. This technique is less, rather than more, permeable; it reinforces that perspective while further excluding others.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Bomani’s work, and not just because he’s as smart and funny a guy as you’ll find in sports media. There’s a lot going on in what he does that immediately addresses this problem. As a matter of style, he brings in themes and idea that seemingly lie outside of sports not to prove a point, but because he doesn’t see sports as existing in a vacuum. You can decide if that’s “a black thing”; certainly, it’s a more wide-open, omnivorous approach than we’re used to seeing in sports media, new, old, or the other. At the same time, Bomani brings in this “extra” material out of a sense of responsibility. It would be intellectually dishonest to do otherwise. Not to mention, cross-cultural literacy is pretty key to understanding not only athletes, but other fans.

Sports may be where we all come together, but you could say the same thing about the UN. If nothing else, it’s a reminder to always consider perspective in sports. It doesn’t mean agreeing to disagree. On the contrary, it involves pushing the conversation even further.

The disappointing coda is that this kind of work makes many people uneasy, or just plain annoys them. They want sports, right down the middle. It also lends itself to being seen as a personal brand, which while it affords someone like Bomani certain freedoms, also fails to establish channels of entry for up-and-comers, and probably ends up denying Bomani himself certain opportunities. Maybe this looks like racism from the right angle; I’ve also engaged in an ungodly number of generalizations myself, despite trying very hard to avoid doing so. I could probably be brought up for similar charges. However, it’s unreasonable to assume that Bomani’s desire to provide context and make room for his particular perspective is a personal quirk. It seems to me like a perfectly rational response not only to sports media, but to sports.

In fact, we’re all doing it, all the time, whether or not we want to admit it. It’s just a lot easier for some of us to get away with it.