Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I’ve always hated the Ryder Cup. Golf is not a team sport, and instead about the individual pleasure and challenge of doing one’s best. Although fun to play with friends, it’s just as well played alone. As a high schooler back in the 1970s, I remember an enormous delight at playing Berkeley’s Tilden Park course in the last golden light. You felt as if you had the big green forested expanse – and the very world itself--- all to yourself in a gorgeous, magical solitude. It was like being in a somewhat more open, California-lit version of Tolkien’s Lothlorien, or at least until the cold Bay Area fog came streaming over the hill in its enveloping grayness.

The Ryder Cup turns golf into low order theater of patriotic flag-waving and team sport nationalism. All the grandiose, media-driven hyperbole would make you think it mattered to our planet's future whether the Americans or Europeans brought home the cup.

Recall the 1993 Ryder Cup at Brookline. The United States was down to the Europeans on the eve of the final day of play. So Ben Crenshaw called in an old friend to deliver an inspirational pep talk: then-Texas governor George W. Bush. Bush talked to Tiger Woods and the others about the Alamo (an event, by the way, that doesn't look so noble when see from Mexico’s angle insofar as it was part of the seizure by the United States of what had one been Mexican land before the Mexican-American War of 1848). One can only imagine the soupy, testosterone-driven, win-one-for-the-Gipper, corporate-inspirational-speaker atmosphere and cliches from Bush at the closed-door meeting.

Think of it: the Ryder Cup and.... the Alamo. It’s as if there were some connection between a battle where hundreds died and contrived, television-driven golf match with the Americans garbed in those astonishingly tacky red-white-and-blue shirts designed by Julie Crenshaw, Ben’s wife. And yet everyone seemed to buy into this absurd macho cryptonationalist bravado, among them the beery fans yelling insults at the Europeans and chanting “Go USA” urging their team forward. When Justin Leonard sank his long winning putt, the U.S. team and wives made their infamous mad rush across the green, delirious with joy. You’d have thought that cancer had been cured or peace in the Middle East achieved.

The very strange idea that winning a golf tournament – or any sports championship – somehow possesses some greater, cosmic significance has become widespread these days. How, remind me, will our country be made better should our Ryder Cup team triumph? Will poverty lessen? War and torture end? The sky rain freedom and justice? This is another golf tournament, and golf remains, after all, just a game no matter that some of us find it good exercise and a mesmerizing treat to play.

But what about “pride”? That's a word heard a lot around the Ryder Cup. And what an empty, debased five-letter word it has so often become; it tends more than anything these days to be a meaningless, depoliticizing substitute for any kind of critical thinking – a buzzword in the era of now-president George W. Bush for uninformed rallying around the flag and the cause of America First no matter how ignorant and awful the things done in our country’s name.

Needless to say, it's wise to beware when people begin waving flags and talking about patriotism anywhere in the world. For all its more relatively benign forms, nationalism is more often than not a kind of anesthesia and alibi – anesthesia, in discouraging independent thought; alibi, in an excuse for horror committed in the name of the nation. Is it wrong to torture prisoners or hold them in secret detention centers without trial? To oppose measures against global-warming? Or to beef up corporate welfare and slash programs for the poor? No, let’s pledge allegiance to the flag, revel in our self-annointed rightehousness, and dismiss those who raise questions as weak and un-American. It's been a winning formula for George W. Bush, at least until recently

The hype around the Ryder Cup might be excused as in the grand tradition of sports excess and clichés. After all, sports announcers and the networks have always had to persuade us that whatever game they happened to be broadcasting was of momentous import. Otherwise, we might not tune in, or maybe, horrors, go out and play ourselves instead of sitting on the couch staring at the boob tube. My favorite announcers managed an epic solemnity leavened with the joke and smart ironic aside as if in winking awareness that the game is just a game after all. Lon Simmons, the Hall of Fame announcer of the S.F. Giants, was a great master of this.

The problem with the Ryder Cup is that the flag-waving and the rest is not innocent or devoid of its own creepy political import. As terrific a game as it is, golf has the poorest record of equality, opportunity, and inclusion of any major American sport. It wasn’t until 1961 – a full fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier – that the P.G.A. tour drop its “Caucasians-only” clause. And that only happened under heavy pressure from activists both black and white including former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis as well as Robinson himself (Louis called then-PGA commissioner Horton Smith an “American Hitler” in the New York Times).

To be sure, much has changed and it would be a simplistic political correctness to label golf today as a “racist” enterprise. But the sport today is fraught with an array of complex tensions and cleavages around race, gender and sexuality, the environment, and the gap between rich and poor. A recent article of mine in the South Atlantic Quarterly about Pinehurst explores some of these questions in more detail. For reasons I have also written about elsewhere, the PGA tour has become less as opposed to more integrated over time. Tiger Woods is the only African-American golfer on either the PGA or LPGA tour – and he himself describes himself as “Cablinasian”: part-white, part-black, part-Native American, and par-Asian. Like sports itself, golf mirrors society in its conflicts, passions, and divisions. It’s only sports announcers, the corporate PGA hierarchy, and the players themselves that would have us believe that there are not an array of fraught, interesting social issues surrounding golf. They avoid any exploration or, usually, even mention of these topics as if it they were some deadly new strain of the flu. Their loud silence measures the corporatized sports culture of the Michael Jordan “Republican-Buy-Tennis-Shoes-Too” era where stating controversial views is assumed to be commercial suicide.

I recall the 2004 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The matter of race and money had been raised in the New York Times and by groups like the Cedar Grove Institute and UNC Center for Civil Rights in connection with the tournament, and especially the state of poor African American neighborhoods in the shadow of wealthy Pinehurst. The only mention in the coverage itself was an aw-shucks feature from Jimmy Roberts about a legendary old black Pinehurst caddy, Willie McCrae . You’d never have known from the story that blacks and Jews were banned from buying property in Pinehurst until the 1960s; that the Ku Klux Klan still operated in the area as late as the 1980s; or that the Pinehurst resort still looks like an old plantation many nights with its black maids and shoeshine boys and well-heeled white guests.

Bob Costas gave Roberts a small opening once the story had aired. “Did [Jim Crow] ever affect him,” he asked. “No, it never came up,” Roberts replied. And so was shut down any commentary about race, golf and discrimination, and the social history of Pinehurst for the duration of the dozens of hours of tournament coverage.

Journalist Bruce Selcraig commendably broke the virtual taboo about golf and politics in an article posted just before this Belfry Ryder Cup. He focused on the Bush-loving, America-first, evangelical Christian Republican politics so dominant in American professional golf and very much reflected in the Ryder Cup team. A recent Sports Illustrated survey gave a rare peek at the general political sensibilities of U.S. pro players. Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq; ninety-one percent backed the controversial nomination of conservative justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. A piece in the same magazine two years before suggested that the David Duval and Billy Andrade were the only Democrats among the 125 tour players.

A wealth of other anecdotal evidence suggests that most other PGA tour players endorse the regulation conservative Republican package: anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty, pro-corporate welfare, and on down the line. Fred Couples has said he never voted in the Clinton years. Several Republican Ryder Cup members threatened to boycott a 1993 White House visit in protest of new taxes on the rich. “I don’t know many liberals,” tour player John Cook once told journalist Selcraig. CBS announcer Jim Nantz is a Bush friend -- and a mainstay of Masters broadcasts that have studiously shut out any real exploration of the charged questions about race, gender, and the tournament's history.

U.S. team captain Tom Lehman may well be the nice man that many have made him out to be. And being dumb or even reactionary in your politics doesn’t make you a bad person. Yet Lehman -- and at least he is up front about it – has not hidden his very conservative politics. At the Texas Open some years back, Lehman described Clinton as “ a draft-dodging, baby killer.” In a recent book called The Way of the Eagle, Lehman says “God has definitely used golf in a great way over the last several years.” The sport, he adds, has become a “huge platform for golfers.” Lehman did not hesitate to use that platform at the Ryder Cup, at least in small ways. One photograph shows him with a black rubber bracelet stamped “W.W.J.D.” I can't say I'm religious, but I doubt that Jesus would be effectively authorizing torture of prisoners, or other policies of the president that PGA player so embrace in their combination of know-nothing patriotism and Republicans-Mean-Tax-Cuts-For-The-Rich pocketbook politics.

True enough, Lehman's places him in the company of a long line of athlete-activists who've sought to use their celebrity to larger ends. One thinks of a courageous, inspring, boundary-breaking lineage that includes Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Evonne Goolagong, John Carlos, Tom Waddell, Tommie Smith, Arthur Ashe, Cathy Freeman, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova. Lehman and other visible evangelical Christian Republican once and former athletes are in this same tradition of outspoken sports stars -- except that they are on the wrong side of history, social compassion, and anything like a workable vision for a better world. They stand for the struggle of, well, the wealthy, the intolerant, the white, the privileged, and the mainstream to ensure that no real inroads are made towards just and inclusive society.

Whatever happened to the figure of the leftist athlete (and here's to you, Carlos Delgado, a solitary sports progressive)? The only left-leaning celebrities you find nowadays are Hollywood or rock stars. It's not suprising in a way that sports would tend to generate conservatism. Sports, at least in their commonest 21st century American form, celebrate values of competition and individual achievement, numbers and number-crunching, and spoils-to-the winners that mesh with the 21st century capitalist status quo.

“I was 21 before I knew Manual Labor wasn’t a Mexican,” Lee Trevino once wonderfully quipped. But few players come from working-class backgrounds in these post-Tiger days of the mass-produced, swing-engineered, golf-from-the-cradle young professionals.

And, in fact, one reason for the politics of PGA tour players is surely the sheltered, country club backgrounds of so many of them. Nor, I suspect, are The Communist Manifesto and or many readings about feminism and global poverty on the reading list at the Ledbetter Academy high school. It would perhaps be wrong in any event to expect golfers to be deep thinkers given the regimented, all-consuming training demands of the game. The next Thoreau, de Beauvoir, or Fanon is not likely to be an American pro golfer.

It did strike me that there was a bit less enthusiasm than normal in the American media for the standardl patriotic story lines in this Ryder Cup. The ever-clear evidence of the lies, mismanagement, and cruelty in Bush's war on terror have made for a somewhat more chastened America, or at least so one would like to imagine. The story line of Darren Clarke returning after his wife's death from cancer -- and his solidarity with Tiger in the community of the recently bereaved -- was genuine and moving; and it was also very convenient. It allowed the center of gravity of the coverage to shift away some from the usual and yet now somewhat inconvenient nationalist story lines to play up the themes of sympathy and identification with Clarke and the Europeans. The mainstream media coverage turned down the bass line of golf patriotism a bit and adjusted up the knob of universal, internationalist human drama.

I have couch potato tendencies, I'll admit. And I watch PGA tournaments now and then, especially the majors, in spite of the taunts of non-golfing family and friends who believe watching golf on tv is the lowest, least understandable, and most boring of human pastimes. Aside from the politics, I like watching people so skilled at what they do, and, like everyone else, Tiger's charismatic genius. But I still just can’t stomach the Ryder Cup, and its all-too-successful attempt to hitch up golf to the bandwagon of cheesy team sport nationalism.

I’d love myself to see announcers and golf commentators at least now and then talk more about the fascinating, deeper social questions around golf. How many times can you say, “It looks like it’s a hole right” or “He’s got pitching wedge”? There’d still be plenty of time to talk about strategy and the game and it would make the sport more interesting to explore as opposed to suppress tough debates around them.

It won’t happen anytime soon.

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Blogger Kayleigh said...

In case you don't get my email, hopefully you receive this post. Have fun!

Hi Professor Starn,

My name is Kayleigh O'Keefe and I am a junior in ICS/Spanish major who was fortunate enough to take your CulAnth 94 class during my sophomore year. In that class we read an excerpt from "How Soccer Explains the World," which I am
using as a source for final paper on soccer during the dictatorship in Brazil.

For my senior ICS thesis, I want to investigate the broad theme of soccer, Latin America, and diplomacy. I am an avid sports fan and participant, and I have
focused on LA during my time at Duke. After speaking with my ICS adviser, Marcy Litle, I thought you might be the perfect person to serve as my adviser for my
senior thesis.

And so, I ask, would you like to serve as my senior thesis adviser for next year? Your knowledge and appreciation for Latin America, sports, and society would certainly be an asset in my thesis-writing process. I realize that you
are on leave at this time, but would love to hear back from you as soon as possible as I will be turning in a proposal next week.

I really appreciation your consideration, and can't stress enough how much I would like you to serve in this mentor capacity as I complete my studies here at Duke. Anything I can do to persuade you (interview, supply a paper,
transcript, etc.), just let me know!

Hope you are enjoying your research!

Best of luck,

3:01 PM  

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