Sports and Identity: The Stat Against the Body

Shitty human…shitty blog. I know that I was saying that I was going to be doing this every Monday and Friday, but it’s been sweltering and this greasy, sweaty body doesn’t like typing when large amounts of residue builds up under my palms on my laptop. I’m a day late, but here is what I started writing Friday night and finished today.

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According to White House Down, this isn’t called a blog anymore. I don’t know what it is, but the fantasy creation of some screenwriter has told me so and I take that as dogma. Well, let’s just put that to the side because I don’t want to talk about film stuff or how much I expect directors to have military coherence across films and across decades (I know…ridiculous expectations).

For the rest of the month I’m going to be discussing several different things in the wide world of sports, but I want to start out with a bit of a diatribe about identity. It is a topic that has consistently permeated almost everything that I have thought about in the past year or so and, while I hate my brain for consistently going there, I think there might be something to this that is particularly important for sports.

I have difficulty believing in any sort of identity that is empowering to the individual or allow for self-determination. It’s not that I think they don’t exist. I’m sure that people are finding ways to identify themselves and empower themselves everywhere, but I’m not sure that those ways of creating identity matter when they come up against the forces of identity formation by established powers. We have to realize going forward that there are significant power differentials in the creation and formation of identities and we cannot flatten these together. For the rest of this post, I will be using identity creation to signify the self-determined, individual move to establish an identity and identity formation refers to processes which aim to stabilize and authorize an identity for an individual. I use this argument often when I look to various new media applications (wide open field, I know, but I think it works most places). In the storing of cookies and the instantaneous analysis of that data when users access various websites, we are not in control of the identity that is created. Instead, the algorithms and hierarchization of data allow for identities to be created that are most helpful for the individual sites. Amazon might privilege your purchase or viewing of one book over the same actions taken with another. Google might move physical location above other identity markers in certain circumstances. These are actions that the world outside of these companies does not control. These are certainly operations that do not allow for identity creation, but call upon instantaneous, single-use identities to be formed in order for a greater rhetorical effect.

In the move from whatever ‘new media applications’ means to sports, I want to first focus on the professional athlete. This month of sports talk will be focusing largely on the professional athlete because I’m not good with fan culture. In addition to that, I have some issues with how I have been seeing identity used in my small readings of sports studies as of right now. Identity gets attached so quickly to an adjective, that it seems like the word has little or no meaning. National, cultural, and social are some of the adjectives attached more often as I’ve seen, with the idea of sport or a specific game being given certain influence over those things. I think this takes so much out of identity and it puts the individual sport or the idea of sports in a place of less power than the individual. While I will acknowledge that the individual first has the power over whether or not to watch sports or enjoy them, the social, national and cultural pressures creates a power struggle that this view of identity doesn’t account for. We aren’t starting with sport as a given, which might be more apt in a country that does not have as multitudinous of a sports scene, but with identity as the given, and as the individual having a full arsenal to take on cultural and social practices in order to determine their own identities.

I’m somewhat repeating an argument that Grant Jarvie makes in his overview of sports studies entitled Sport, Culture, and Society: An Introduction. It is here, in reference to the mix of the social and the political with rugby in South Africa, that he writes, “Identity within the above mentioned book, as in many others, has a prominence as an answer to many questions. Here it features not as an explicit theory but as a magical incantation as a password into the story of South African sport that is expected to illuminate explanations of such areas as identity behaviour and the ways in which sporting ceremonies in South Africa have helped to generate identities among white South Africans (Nauright, 1997:21)” (285). Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Nick, you know absolutely nothing about the role of sport, particularly rugby, in a post-apartheid South Africa other than the movie Invictus [Almost wrote Invincible, that other one where Matt Damon-twin Mark Whalberg plays football instead of rugby…I need to watch those two together].” 

Well, you are definitely correct. I cannot speak to the role of rugby within South Africa, but I really enjoy the phrase “not as an explicit theory but as a magical incantation” when we’re talking about identity. This is really what I’ve been trying to say for the past several hundred words and am now just getting to. Many of us who are talking about identity these days have little understanding of what that might mean. Based on my work in cultural studies, I can tell that we have an entire field in the humanities that hasn’t seemed to actually question what the word ‘identity’ is defined as since Stuart Hall and Judith Butler. I know they’re alive and probably still writing. I don’t care. We really need to update that.

Identity is a very powerful term or me that we seem to always muddle by adding in extra shitty adjectives that limit what it can be instead of going for what it might actually be in a certain situation. The first way that we need to start understanding identity is that it is not wholly inherent to the individual. They do not have the power to fully define it and, because of this lack of power, the individual has an identity that must travel and change within different contexts. In an interesting little article entitled “Sport as Symbolic Dialogue,” C.E. Ashworth writes about identity as sport and that the creation of identity must be seen as a game in which symbols are exchanged and represented in different ways according to different rule sets.

He writes, “Life is thus a game whether rules are agreed upon or not because cognition is unavoidably governed by rules – those rules which establish identity in a continual state of becoming and ambiguity – but it is not an idealised game because the mutuality of rules is not necessarily guaranteed so that outcomes can be mutual and not individual.” Well there are a lot of problems here, but I’m going to talk about a few (But seriously, is he calling for a normalized cognition, what a butt!). I think he takes an interesting exit off the highway of thought here, but where he turns right at the end of the ramp, we’re going to take a left and look at what could (should?) have been. He takes sport as a metaphor and I want to take it as an example. So let’s do that? Or not. You can totally stop reading whenever you want.

Maybe instead it should read, “Identities are formed when rules are agreed upon for the individual, causing  definitively unequal power levels between individual and game, in order for identities to be formed more efficiently for the sake of the sport.” Are you rolling your eyes yet?

I’m not trying to say that identity is always like this. Yes, we are always staring into the abyss of language in order to pull together an identity, but choice and difference in that situation can possibly be liberating. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it, but maybe you should. But when I started this sort of project I kept running into a conceptualization of identity that was AT BEST magical and at worst unable to overcome other areas of research. This is also a continued response to how we need to start viewing identity in the age of informatics and the further move to the individual being nothing more than an aggregate of stats. Yeah. This suggests that that’s all we are, but that’s why I’m looking at sports. I’m not going to have as good of an example if I were looking at off-the-grid communes, you know?

So, here’s the deal. When we look to the professional athlete, and to their identity (not their celebrity, which seems to be a big thing for sports studies), we see identities that are being set up and created through their particular sport. Sport is an arena where the body can be discounted and abstracted from even thought sports studies also seems t have a total fascination with that. When we look to stats, it is the individual athlete split up and rearranged in order to provide some sort of meaning. Baseball is obviously the best thing to look at here, since it has been taken over by stats and is mired in what someone will probably call the ‘sabermetric wars’ in years to come, if not already something that Billy Beane says in his sleep.

I want to leave baseball for a bit later. I have a few days left where I will talk about stats and baseball in particular will be of such great help to that. Maybe it’s time to think about hockey. The sport just embarked on their free agency period which started Friday (one of the reasons I wasn’t writing was because I was waiting for contracts to be announced…there weren’t enough announcements by the Bruins). The thing that is great about hockey is that I think we can still see an older way of looking at prospects. “Older” probably isn’t the best way, but we are dealing with a new (statistics-based) and old (body/skill-based) understanding of things right now. They haven’t totally embraced the stat, but often focus on the body. Hockey players will be described as having great hands, heavy shots, and a willingness to play in the ‘dirty areas.’ They will be understood more for their body than the baseball player is today.

But just when you think that you are focusing on the body, a sportscaster or article will drop in the stats. Goals scored, assists, plus/minus. They sneak in there. We must realize that how identity is represented is based both on the sport that is being talked about AND the form/medium/otherthing in which that representation is taking place. If I’m looking at TSN’s main hockey page at an article listing the top free agents, I am bound to see more statistics than in-depth statements about the way the player skates or shoots. Now, when a player is signed and the local beat writer puts out a blog post on the new guy, they’ll talk about those things. They have the space and the rhetorical exigency to do so that the list does not.

I know that these seem like silly distinctions, but these changes alter the way that we understand the world around us and vastly change the ways that we can talk about other people, particularly athletes. These identities are formed by actions in-game which are allowed to be created because of the rules of those games. This is a bit procedural, I know. Hmm…maybe it’s time that I write something about procedural identity. Have people done that? Who cares?

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I’m going to go ahead and stop there for now. I am probably going to talk about these issues again at some point through this month, but I don’t know when. As I said, identity bleeds through into everything that I talk about, so it’s bound to happen again. Maybe this stuff is boring, but whatever. I think it’s fun knowing that your existence is mediated in so many fucking ways that we don’t often think about.

SPORTS!

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