Sticking to Sports
It’s Game 6 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals of the National Hockey League, and the Washington Capitals are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has just made a miraculous recovery from a concussion—to some, a suspiciously quick one, considering Crosby’s concussion history—in about a week. And then, in only the first period of the game, Crosby gets twisted up with Capitals defenseman John Carlson and goalie Braden Holtby. The collision takes Crosby headfirst into the boards. He’s slow to get up. But he gets back on the bench; he isn’t pulled aside by the NHL’s concussion spotters for evaluation. The league’s Deputy Commissioner has an answer as to why.
“‘Ice’ has been found to be a predictor of concussions—‘boards’ has not been.”
The National Hockey League, for all its history of drawing European talent to North America, is rife with xenophobia on the part of English-speaking Americans and Canadians. The 2015-2016 season was the first time the percentage of Canadian players, never mind North American ones, fell below 50 percent. In that season, North Americans still constituted almost 75 percent of the NHL’s talent. This is a league in which the best-known commentator is notorious for disparaging Russian players en masse. And as a recent ESPN article revealed, the NHL’s North American players and management are just as much part of the problem as anyone else.
While Major League Baseball mandates that every team have full-time Spanish interpreters, some NHL teams forego interpreters to “force” players to learn English. Chicago Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane said they faked Russian accents when speaking English to their Russian teammate Artemi Panarin—an idea as unhelpful as it is offensive. On the other hand, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chára, who is Slovakian, speaks a total of seven languages in order to better accommodate new teammates.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. men’s national soccer team lost a FIFA World Cup qualifier, and, with it, lost their chance to compete at the tournament in Russia next year. Naturally, the loss spurred an outpouring of frustration from fans, prompting complaints about the quality of international play and headlines like “United States Misses World Cup for First Time Since 1986.”
That isn’t true. The U.S. will have a national team—the women’s team—at the FIFA World Cup, defending their title. In fact, this squad has won three World Cups and four Olympic Games. For comparison, the last time the men’s team medaled at either of those events was a World Cup bronze in 1930.
The iconic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs came to modern cinema a few weeks ago, with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s “Battle of the Sexes.” While King’s victory and Riggs’s chauvinism make it easy for the movie to brand itself as feminist, there’s one moment regarding this matter that sticks out. Riggs asks King if she’s a feminist, and she replies, “No, I’m a woman who happens to play tennis.” Strange how there’s a need to differentiate between the two.
While it’s unclear whether or not King actually said anything along those lines, that little sentence calls into question the extent to which we view athletes differently in light of their personal and political views. Sports culture is chock-full of homophobia and sexism, from the words athletes shout at each other on the field to the way the teams themselves are covered. Especially in today’s political climate, it’s therefore impossible to pretend your favorite athlete doesn’t have an opinion on anything you have an opinion on. Your favorite athlete attends Pride parades or has a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat in his locker. Your favorite athlete has domestic violence charges or rape accusations. But are you ignoring that? Are you separating the athlete and the individual?
This season, Monday Night Football said hello to a new face, as Beth Mowins recently became the first woman to call an NFL game on national television. I remember seeing the announcement and thinking, “It’s about time.” The rosy bubble, though, didn’t last long. It was only a matter of time before the criticism poured in: Mowins is shrill. Mowins has an “annoying voice.” Mowins just doesn’t belong on MNF.
The backlash to Mowins’s speech serves as a jarring reminder whenever I get carried away imagining my own voice booming through the stands. If you’re a woman on sports TV, it doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth, because there will inevitably be something you’re doing wrong: Your voice is too loud, your lipstick is too bright, your laugh is too shrill. Since women like Mowins have reached the big leagues—national television—you’d think the real struggle would be over. But it’s only the beginning—a wider audience means more opportunity for these hateful fans to speak up.