Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Smears and Spinning at the Bleacher Report: how politics will trump sports, every time

The late Hunter S Thompson was a man of strong views and weak morals, and one of the things on which he had strong views was sports journalism. Sports journalists, he wrote, were 'a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize and sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover'.

Well...that seems a pretty good description of Thompson himself, at his worst (maybe not the 'fascist' part, per se, but you have to watch those hippy types...) and - again without the fascist part - it probably wouldn't make for an entirely bad description of this writer (I draw the line, however, at tarring my sportswriting colleagues at So So Gay with this brush). The occasional bout of sports journalism, or something very like it, is something I seem to have fallen into since I began branching out of poetry into writing for So So Gay. Partly this is because I feel we should be covering more women's sport, and I try to get it into the magazine whenever I can - and partly this is because I think covering a sports beat isn't really bad training for a writer. Thompson again: '...none of the people I wrote about seemed to give a hoot in Hell what kind of lunatic gibberish I wrote about them, just as long as it moved. They wanted Action, Color, Speed, Violence...' and it's no bad thing to practice giving a piece of writing those things. The artist and poet Alec Finlay once created a work that involved tranforming a celebrated soccer goal into Labanotation, a technique for notating moves more often used in dance than sport: the sports journalist has to perform a similar kind of alchemy in reverse, taking the dry, factual matter of scores and statistics and turning it into something that excites and interests the reader. There is a certain type of sports fan who is hot for numbers, but most prefer narrative, and the sports journalist's job is to give them that. 

That said...there's a reason Hunter S Thompson is remembered, and it has little to do with his sports journalism, at least in a conventional sense. Thompson's real beat, even when he was writing press releases for a pro-wrestling promoter, was always politics. Thompson's first great piece of journalism, 'The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved',  quickly veers away from examining the titular horse-race into examining the bizarre class make-up of the audience for said spectacle. Thompson's best known book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was an attempt to recreate the trick of this piece following a much-hyped motorcycle race, which veered away from its ostensible subject even more quickly. But Thompson's best piece of sports journalism doesn't seem to be sports journalism at all - because it's about politics. 

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is my favourite of Thompson's books because he brings all that 'action, color, speed, violence' to bear in describing the US Presidential election of that year, the one that brought Richard Nixon back into the White House. Thompson follows the campaign with the fever and the fervor of an addicted punter, considering the odds, weighing up the competitors, and giving a real sense of the visceral excitement of a Presidential race. It's almost as if you're reading about the birth of something which has became harder and harder to ignore in our own time: the sense that politics has just become an obscure, wonky branch of sports, more like a derby match than the working out of Big Ideas, where teams periodically don their colours and hoot, jeer and wail at the opposing side in quest for possession of a largely symbolic object: FA Cup or Oval Office - it's just the same old hunt for glory.

What lifts Campaign Trail over such simplistic analysis, and far above the later political journalism Thompson practised, in which he hammered the idea of politics-as-sports into the ground until it became a bad joke, is that Thompson is aware of the ways in which politics matters, and he gives voice to that, too. Memorably admitting that in the later stages of the election, he went with his heart, not his head, and threw his support behind the McGovern campaign, Thompson's final sentence, in which he walks 'several blocks down La Cienega Boulevard to the Loser's Club', seems, to me at least, to be an image of American defeatedness to rival the last sentence of The Great Gatsby (it helps, perhaps, to know - from earlier in the book - that the Loser's Club is a strip joint recommended to Thompson by Warren Beatty). 

Thompson was a sports journalist but he got politics on the Romantic level, too, which is why he's remembered when many of those who started out covering the sports beat at the same time as he did are long forgotten. Because ultimately politics is about more than sport, and if you've spent your life hunkered down in the Gorilla Position watching your own tiny corner of the media through curtains that make it seem like it's the whole world, politics will wrong-foot you every time you try to write about it. It will slip past you because it is too fast and Protean for you to get a grip on, and it will beat you down because it is bigger than you, chump, and that's just the way it is. You need a fast, vast mind to keep up with politics because you have to remind yourself that it is about more than Labanotation: and when you try to drag it down to your level, all you do is give it a chance to mount you and pound you down. 

This is why it's so cringeworthy to see the sports hacks at the Bleacher Report swallowing Tamikka Brents' claims to want to be an LGBT advocate; and just as cringeworthy to come across, in my continuing look at this story, the following piece by one Jonathan Snowden about Brents' opponent on September 13th, Fallon Fox. The former is a fine example of why Thompson said one of the keys to success as a sportswriter was 'a blind willingness to believe anything you're told by the coaches, flacks, hustlers and other "official spokesmen" for the team-owners who provide the free booze'; the latter is a dispiriting glimpse of why only ever seeing the world from ringside can warp your ability to perceive it. 

There's the dismissive headline. There's the emotive description of Fox's opponent in her second professional fight as 'poor Ericka Newsome' (if I were Newsome I'd sue for that on gender discrimination grounds: can you really see Snowden taking such a pitying tone in describing a losing male fighter?). There's the selective emboldening of quotations: did you notice that? I did. Quotes from Fox and people who support her are given in plain type, but quotes from transphobic scumbags like Joe Rogan and Ronda 'The reason AJ is not watching Expendables 3' Rousey are heavily indented in bold to make them super-readable. A nice touch that: cute as a shit-house rat.

And Snowden is cute about his transphobic editorialising, because he knows he has to walk a line that allows him to pretend to be all 'fair and balanced', so he drops in a little sermonising. Referring to the risible Rousey's description of Cris Cyborg as 'it', he piously opines that 'if change is coming, it's on a slow train'. He's careful to tell us in his final paragraphs, even as he sticks in the knife, that he is 'glad' Fox's tale 'is being told', and that he 'hopes for a happy ending' (that retching sound you can hear, cis readers, is my trans audience vomiting at the nauseating sight of such cis condescension). But there's something interesting about those final paragraphs, too, and it betrays Snowden - and the Bleacher Report's? - editorial intent. 

Snowden refers to Fox having 'delusions of grandeur shattered by Ashlee Evans-Smith'. Now, if you've heard my poem about Fox, you know my opinions about Evans-Smith: which are, essentially, that she has slightly less class than the metaphorical lavatory-dwelling rodent I introduced two paragraphs ago, so we'll say no more about her. No: what's interesting is the date that Snowden wrote his piece: April 22nd. 

That interested me, because I was pretty sure that that would have been after I wrote this piece about my anxiety, as a trans woman, about Fox's comeback fight. I seemed to recall that by the 22nd of April I had been heavily mired in the annual bout of bardic masochism that is NaPoWriMo, and I was certain I'd written that article about Fox/Basset before that particular Hell set in - and I was right. 

And yet - Snowden hadn't mentioned Basset once! Oh, yeah, his magazine tries to include the Basset result in a statistical table  - which itself is yet another example of brazen editorialising -  further up the article (I mean, really, Bleacher Report, your slip is seriously showing here) - but remember what I said about sports fans reading for narrative instead of just statistics? Any fan reading Snowden's column that way would assume that Fox's last fight was the Evans-Smith loss, which took place all the way at the end of last year - and not the win over Basset. It's almost as if Snowden was willing to play fast and loose with the facts to fit his narrative. 

Which, of course - he is. He's a sports hack. He's taking the descriptions of those dance steps and spinning them out into a song, and he probably figures - not unreasonably - that his readership skews heavily enough towards the transphobic side of things that it's the song they want to hear. The problem is that his song is a football chant, but Fox's is the ballad of Hurricane Carter

It's that sports/politics mismatch again, see - and the saddest thing about Snowden's last paragraph is that he's too mired in his own little world to see it. 'I don't want to hear about her again unless it's because of what she does, not who she is', he moans at the end of his rant - ignoring the fact that it's hard to separate the two, because however her actual fight career turns out, Fox's importance lies in her breaking new ground, making trans participation in sports more acceptable, and challenging the tired old cliches about 'unfair advantage' for trans athletes that are, as I've literally said time and time again at gigs, as outmoded as Cesare Lombroso's pompous, racist notion that there existed such a thing as a 'criminal physiognomy'. What Fox has achieved goes far beyond the question of how many fights she wins or loses, to the conversations she's spurred, to the causes she supports, and most importantly to the other trans people she inspires. The importance of Fallon Fox is that her presence in MMA alone is an example of trans people pushing back against the voices that would keep us out of our rightful place in society - and that presence is important whether she wins or loses. As I have - again - spat time and time again at gigs, what Fox is fighting for is the right to lose as much as win. The right to compete. To be considered. To be allowed to hold her space. 

A cynic might say that that's exactly why all the people who don't want Fox to have that space have switched tactics. Because before she lost that fight to Evans-Smith, the story these folks wanted to tell was that Fox was an unbeatable monster: but now, suddenly, the story has shifted to her 'not being ready for high-level MMA'. Suddenly it's shifted to her being 'out for publicity'; to Jonathan Snowden 'not wanting to hear about her' and proclaiming that he feels she should be treated 'just like everybody else' when, less than a year ago, Snowden, and the people whose quotes he puts in bold, were doing anything but that. 

A cynic might say that. Personally? I just think Snowden has spent more time in darkened rooms, inhaling the smell of sweat-sodden compression shorts, than is entirely healthy. It does a body good, every now and again, to turn off the sportscast, disable the in-play-betting app and get out into the wider world to take the air - even if that's only to take the long walk, down La Cienega, to the Loser's Club. 

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