Monday, November 20, 2017

November 20-26, 2017: Collegial Thanksgivings

[I don’t need to tell you all how long this last year has been. But there have been plenty of inspirations among the horrors, and many have come from badass and impressive women. So for this special Thanksgiving week post, I wanted to highlight five such women alongside whom I’m fortunate enough to work. I’d love to see the people and things for which you’re thankful in comments! Thanks!]
1)      Aruna Krishnamurthy: I’ve called Aruna an English Studies colleague and friend since I came to Fitchburg State in 2005, but over the past sixth months she’s taken on an incredibly challenging and vitally important new role, as the President of the FSU Chapter of our faculty union (the Massachusetts State College Association). We’re currently working without a contract (in the state known as “work to rule”), making our situation even more precarious than is that of any public and higher ed employees across the nation in 2017. That situation continues to play out, but I can’t imagine a more dedicated representative and activist, impassioned and eloquent spokesperson, and inspiring leader than Aruna has already been in her role as Chapter President. I’m very thankful she’s stepped up for this key role at this crucial time.
2)      Katharine Covino-Poutasse: Katy’s a newer FSU English Studies colleague and friend, and one whom I’ve already found inspiring in many ways over our two and a half years working together. But it’s been since I moved offices and ended up Katy’s next-door neighbor that I’ve gotten the chance to see, again and again, one of her most impressive qualities: her exemplary mentorship of any and all students with whom she has the chance to work (ie, not just advisees or English Secondary Education students, but also each and every student she teaches). Katy’s about as busy as she could be with teaching and scholarship and professional organizations and family and much else, yet her office and perspective are a clear and potent resource for any student who has the good fortune to encounter them. I can’t imagine an office neighbor who more fully challenges me than Katy does to be a better mentor and campus community member, and I’m very thankful for that daily challenge and inspiration.
3)      Lisa Gim: I’m not sure if I ever wrote about it in this space, but a few years back I ran for department chair, losing a close election to my colleague and friend Lisa. And man alive am I glad I did, as Lisa has been a wonderful and wonderfully effective chair throughout her time in the role (which fortunately has another year and a half to go). It’s been an incredibly challenging time for English Studies and FSU, and this fall more and more challenges have been added to the mix, including the aforementioned labor situation, a heavy push toward online education, an entirely new FSU administration, and much more. There’s no one way that any department, nor any institution, can navigate such challenges successfully—but having leaders who can help guide us in thoughtful yet impassioned ways, responding to our voices and needs (and those of our students) but offering a shaping vision, is key if we’re going to find and sustain such success. Lisa’s been precisely such a leader as chair, and I’m thankful both for all that work and for the model she’s provided for how to perform this difficult role at its best.
4)      Diane Lucas: If Lisa’s one half of that FSU English Studies leadership team, however, Diane, our department administrator, is her vital other half. One of the largely unspoken but entirely understood realities of higher education is that departments succeed and fail largely as a result of whether they’re fortunate enough to have administrators who can combine knowledge and experience with dedication, kindness, and an ability to kick ass and take names when the occasion arises. I’ve had the good fortune to know such adminstrators at many institutions, but I’ve never met anyone who fits the bill better than Diane. Our department is big enough that it really needs two administrators, and for many years we had a great second one as well, Jean Varchol. But since Jean retired a couple years back, Diane’s been shouldering that dual load solo, which is far from ideal but makes the amazing job she’s done and continues to do that much more impressive and inspiring. To say that I’m thankful for Diane is to understate the case quite significantly.
5)      Cecelia Cancellaro: I’ll end this giving of thanks on a more personal (while still professional) note. Over the last year I’ve begun to work with Cecelia, a wonderful literary agent and founder of Word Literary Services. Our work together is very much in progress, and I hope to have great news to report on that front in the new year (if not before). But whatever the results for my next project and career, I can already say that Cecelia is a model for this complex role, both in what she has added to my writing and thoughts, and in her colleagiality and support at every stage of the process. I’m very thankful to have connected with her and to be working alongside her as I move into the next stages of my public scholarly goals.
Happy Thanksgiving Next series starts Monday the 27th,
PS. Thanks you’d share? I’m thankful for you all too!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

November 18-19, 2017: Curry, LeBron, and Sports in the Age of Trump

[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to this weekend post on Trump and sports!]
On two NBA superstars and the evolving intersection of sports and politics.
As the NFL national anthem protests and their various responses have continued to unfold throughout this fall, one of the critiques I’ve seen raised most frequently is that these athletes are unnecessarily bringing politics into the sports world. On the one hand, as I hope pretty much all of the posts under my Sports tag here at the blog make clear (as do all of the great posts at the Sport in American History blog), that critique misses the ways that sports have always been connected to—indeed, interconnected with—politics, society, culture, and everything else in our nation and world. In that sense, Kaepernick and his peers have simply forced us to examine those interconnections, a process that clearly frustrates and angers many of our fellow Americans. Yet at the same time, while such ties between sports and politics have thus always been part of our culture, there seems to me to be no question that the overt and prominent interconnections between these realms have become more frequent and more pronounced in this evolving age of Trump. And the recent cases of two of—perhaps the two—biggest basketball superstars in the world exemplify this striking and complex trend.
Steph Curry’s purposeful engagement with Trump and the political realm is on the surface by far the more surprising of these two situations. As he has over the last few seasons become one of the NBA’s most prominent and popular stars—and the leader of a team that has dominated the league like few others over that period—Curry has done so in the mold of a young Magic Johnson: charismatic and charming, seemingly just as popular with opposing fanbases as with his own, an irresistible ambassador (along with his just-as-likable young family) for the league and sport. So for a player in that mold to take the step of expressing uncertainty about whether he would attend a White House ceremony celebrating his team’s championship—to, that is, not just intervene in a political conversation, but express a direct criticism of a political leader, risking alienating some portion of his fanbase among other potential effects—was a striking moment, even before Trump did his usual thing and escalated the situation on Twitter. While of course I agree with Curry’s perspective and stand, it’s also important just to note the significance of the moment itself, as a reflection of this new era in American sports and society.
One of the figures who responded most directly to Trump’s Twitter attack on Curry was LeBron James, whose Tweet in response to Trump remains one of the more incendiary (and popular) social media messages (in any context) offered by an athlete to date. On the one hand, LeBron’s response seems less surprising than Curry’s words, both because of LeBron’s history of activism and because he’s already such a polarizing (and frequently hated-upon) figure that he had a good deal less to lose in that sense that did Curry. Yet if we take a step back and compare LeBron to the basketball great with whom he is most often linked (including by himself), Michael Jordan, I would still argue that this moment is a striking and significant one. Jordan was far from likable, and indeed happy to be hated as much as loved; but he also steadfastly recused himself from the political realm, both for brand/endorsement reasons and (it seemed) because of how laser-focused he was on athletic success and dominance. LeBron has often seemed just as laser-focused throughout his hugely successful career to date, and of course has garnered quite a few endorsements of his own along the way. So for him to take on Trump so directly likewise reflects this new world of sports and society in which we find ourselves.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this complex topic, or other athletes you’d highlight?

Friday, November 17, 2017

November 17, 2017: AthleteStudying: Women’s Soccer Stories

[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to a weekend post on Trump and sports!]
Two individual and one collective way to AmericanStudy our recent crop of soccer superstars.
1)      Megan Rapinoe: For complicated reasons related to narratives and images of masculinity and femininity, among many other things too extended and nuanced to delve into in a sentence or two, women’s sports have consistently featured openly gay athletes and connections to the LGBTQ community in a way that men’s sports have only recently (and still hesitantly) begun to. In relation to that longstanding and ongoing trend, the 2012 coming out of US Women’s Soccer star forward Megan Rapinoe was an important but representative event, one in a series of such pivotal LGBT women’s sports moments. But this past September, Rapinoe became part of the news for a different and more singular reason: she knelt during the national anthem before a match for her team the Seattle Reign, connecting to and honoring (as she did even more fully in her postgame comments) Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protest. In many ways Rapinoe’s personal sexuality and her political solidarity with Kaepernick seem radically distinct, but I would argue the case differently: that, as Rapinoe herself noted in her comments, the two are connected through experiences of oppression and resistance, and through the complicated but crucial intersections of identity and sports.
2)      Hope Solo: Solo is one of Rapinoe’s teammates on the Seattle Reign, as well as perhaps the most talented goalkeeper in women’s soccer history (she’s certainly in the conversation). But on the personal and identity side, Solo’s story is far darker and less inspiring than Rapinoe’s. There are, for example, her multiple arrests and ongoing charges for domestic violence, complicated family situations and dynamics that I won’t pretend to have all figured out but that certainly seem to have involved aggressive and hostile behavior from Solo toward numerous figures (not limited to those family members). And along those latter lines, there are Solo’s controversial and troubling comments after a 2016 Olympic match against Sweden, comments that led to a six-month suspension from the US Women’s National Team. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that the problems of either aggression in general or (especially) domestic violence in particular are parallel (much less identical) in women’s sports to what they are in men’s—but at the same time, Solo’s cases and story make clear that such problems are a significant part of the sports world on every level, and working to understand and address them for women as well as men can only help us engage with these social and political issues more fully as a result.
3)      The Pay Gap: As important and inspiring as individual activisms like Rapinoe’s can be, I’m even more inspired by collective action, and this past March the US Women’s National Team took precisely such collective action in response to a substantial gap in what US Soccer pays its male and female athletes. Such gendered pay gaps have been part of our sports debates for many years, dating back at least to similar (and eventually effective) protests raised by women’s tennis players over the prizes awarded by tournaments such as Wimbledon. But the US WNT players moved the needle on the debate significantly, not only by making it a more collective action (rather than those prior, more individual protests) but also and especially by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for redress. Too often, we dismiss sports as purely entertainment or distraction—while in reality (as I hope all of my Sports posts here have illustrated) sports can not only mirror and extend, but even influence and change, broader conversations and issues in our society and culture. As we continue to debate the gendered wage gap in 2017 America, the USWNT have once again proven that vital role for sports.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other athletes or related histories you’d highlight?