​The Athlete and the Individual

“I’m a woman who happens to play tennis.”

Sticking to Sports

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?

Separating the art from the artist has long been a debate amongst critics. It’s much harder to do with sports, because unlike with a sculpture or a novel, being a sports fan means following your favorite athlete all the time. But even when watching an athlete do amazing things with their body, we aren’t thinking about the mind behind the actions—at least, not in a way that goes beyond their athletic prowess.

I don’t think that’s fair to them. It dehumanizes them, turns them into cardboard instead of people. It might be easy to fake when we just watch them on TV, but that’s not the case any longer. We follow athletes live-tweeting their favorite TV shows. We watch them taking trips to the zoo on Snapchat and going out for dinner on Instagram. And we’re always trying to get to know them off the field. That’s why every sports team makes its players do Q&As; and meet and greets and all access videos. So how can we follow so many aspects of their lives and simply refuse to take their politics—or their actions and mistakes off the field—into account?

Athletes, just like artists, are shaped by where they come from and how they think. Their causes are defined by the causes of their communities. When they raise money for hurricane relief, it speaks to their character as athletes and human beings. As sports fans we are very fond of discussing “character,” as if that’s something we can glean from the two hours a week we see of someone huffing and puffing their way around a field. And yet we’re selective with what factors into our understanding of an athlete’s character. Their philanthropy, not their protests. Their charity, not their choices. If Colin Kaepernick’s political beliefs will follow him forever and change the way we see him, why won’t Tom Brady’s?

If the thought of a truly all-inclusive definition of “character” makes us uncomfortable, we need to stop throwing the word around. If you don’t want to think about an athlete’s offensive comments in tandem with their game, then don’t try to convince those around you that said athlete is a “good person.” If you don’t want to think about how an athlete votes or interacts with their community, in a consistent pattern of behavior, don’t try to bill them as an upstanding citizen—just celebrate their athleticism and nothing else.

But if we as fans want to speak to the natures of our favorite athletes, it’s time we stopped cherry-picking. We can’t ask for a tell-all and then put our hands over our ears.

Stuti R. Telidevara ’20 is a Crimson Blog editor in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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