What Sports Have Taught Me

A reflection on five years of covering sports, power, and "level playing fields."

The first time I wrote about sports, I was terrified. 

If 16-year-old me — who reflexively, defensively believed that not liking sports was a sign of superior intellect, or something — knew 24-year-old me would be taking a red-eye bus to Virginia Beach to cover a Seahawks player’s charity basketball game (shout out Kam Chancellor), there is no chance she would have believed it. 

I had grown up being bad at anything athletic to the point that gym class resulted in minor injuries even though I’d be doing the bare minimum. I remember watching the 2006 Super Bowl (you remember, the Zebras won) utterly befuddled. If talking to musicians — which I’d just started doing professionally at Billboard — was easy because we spoke the same language, talking to athletes, I was just waiting for them to call my bluff.

Five years later, somehow, no one has. Staring down my 30th birthday, it’s strange to think about how dramatically my perspective has changed — how much I’ve learned, mostly through sports, which (surprise) are rich and complicated. The field is a writer’s dream, full of evocative case studies and on-the-nose (sometimes too on-the-nose) metaphors. The reason sports references litter so many different kinds of conversations is because they’re everywhere, played and watched by every kind of person you can imagine. And there are always, at a minimum, the most easily understood stakes: winning and losing. 

I think, when I was a teenager, the winning and losing was the only part I saw — specifically that anyone who played sports was a winner, and by comparison I was a loser with insufficient talent and discipline (cue Beck). That’s why it was so nerve-wracking to even try, the furthest out of my comfort zone I could go. But it went fine — maybe even well, if you consider that I got a quote from Marshawn Lynch. That day I learned that if you’re sincere and curious, most of the people you’d want to talk to will answer your questions. 

I saw the dawn of an era-defining Michael Jordan meme. I learned that music and sports are both entertainment, and more similar than they are different. I learned what some stats meant, and then I learned that you can basically find a stat to support any argument if you try hard enough. 

I learned that I was sexist, and racist, and just wrong in ways I might have never otherwise had to confront. I’d taken for granted, for a long time, the (wrong) assumption that women were just inherently worse than men at sports. After all I didn’t know anything about sports, so who was I to say otherwise? I learned about the history of Black athletes, and how in so many ways it mirrors the history of Black musicians — how Black work and talent has been perpetually exploited, even as it’s shaped American culture. 

I learned that all billionaires — and by extension all sports team owners — are bad. I learned that athlete unions are a crucial, high-visibility example of labor organizing, and that you shouldn’t watch sports without understanding that athletes are workers — more like most fans than they might think. I fell in love with football, and simultaneously learned how deeply entrenched that violent, brutal sport is in almost everything that’s wrong with America. 

I learned that college sports and the Olympics are even more exploitative and corrupt than the (very exploitative and corrupt) major American professional sports leagues, and that it’s hard for me to wholly reject them because they remain the most accessible and respected venues for women athletes to compete — I also, as it happened, learned firsthand the thrill of watching a team beat the buzzer to win an NCAA title.

womens pro football ravens

I learned that keeping girls and women out of sports was an organized, decades-long effort, and that many, mostly forgotten women and girls played them anyway; that that effort helped reinforce both cisgender norms and a constructed gender binary. I learned that women athletes, even without trying to, challenge just about every notion of conventional, contemporary femininity, and that it goes so much deeper than however that transgressiveness might be superficially wrapped up under a tidy mantle of “girl power” or even “female empowerment.” 

This might all seem sort of negative, or at least overwhelming. It’s true that I spend a lot of time lamenting the state of sports, and specifically, I’ve spent plenty of time lamenting them in this column. But, counterintuitively, that’s because my time in the sports world has given me hope. 

Sports are traditionally considered inspiring because they show us how great individual people can be — how far they can push themselves, how well they can overcome the odds. What I’ve learned so much from, though, is how sports are a battleground for all the fights so many of us are trying to win as a society. 

All we need is to translate that exceptionalism, that idea of being the best there ever was, from sports’ stars to its (and societies’) systems — no small task. What I’m working towards now — and hopefully for the next half decade — is making a reality out of the myth that sports were, hypothetically, built around in the first place: a level playing field.

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