Thursday, December 24, 2009

Taking on the Dumb Jock Stereotype (Again)

At Critical Mass, the blog for the National Book Critics Circle's Board of Directors, Deirdra McAfee has a post with which I take issue. I responded in the comments with the following:

I want to take issue with the following assertion in this post:

“A culture that idolizes physical skill (sports of all kinds) and has no use for intellectual skill (the smart or knowledgeable stigmatized as nerds), that places physical passion above all possible other passions, except perhaps that for winning, is not one that believes books are important.”

This is just plain silly. It is possible, just possible, that millions of Americans can value both sports and books. Folks like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and George Plimpton and John Updike and Doris Kearns Goodwin (the list could go on for pages) all managed to value (and write about) sports and yet still somehow also to care about books. The creation of false dichotomies and strawpersons in a post that would seem to celebrate the intellectual life is ironic, because it shows poor analytical skills and sloppy argumentation, the opposite of what intellectuals are supposed to value.

There are lots of problems with our culture with regard to books. But a passion for sports has nothing to do with it. Blaming jocks is commonplace amongst too many intellectuals, which does not make it any less dumb.

I want to augment this a little bit here. When I was in grad school there were lots of social divisions. One of the more pernicious ones came between jocks (which included former athletes but also simply fans of sports) and non-jocks. And of course the non-jocks possessed that air of superiority that McAfee reveals in her post. Which was somewhat problematic since almost universally the jocks were also the better graduate students in our program. But the very stereotype allowed the non-jocks to feel superior despite the fact thet their superiority was unearned and undeserved. There is something bizarre about certain circles in intellectual life that allows being anti-athlete to be not only acceptable, but to be heralded.

When I wrote that the list of intellectuals who demonstrably care about sports could go on for pages, I was not kidding. Stephen Jay Gould and Gay Talese. David Halberstam and George Will. Michael Lewis and David Foster Wallace. Stewart O'Nan and Frederick Exley. Not to mention those academics who write about sports -- Chuck Korr and Charlie Alexander and James Carroll and Amy Bass and dozens of others spring to mind. And the ranks of those who are predominantly sportswriters yet who write well enough to transcend the stereotypes of that genre warrants more than scorn -- Bill Simmons and Sally Jenkins and Bob Ryan and Bud Collins and John Feinstein and Dick Schaap and Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and Rick Telander and John Ed Bradley and myriad others. (Unless I am misreading McAfee's website and Amazon and Worldcat, she has not ever actually published a book, unlike all of these people, with their crazy sports affinities.)

The idea that sports is the enemy of books or the intellectual life is a muddleheaded argument put forward by people who have decided they are the enemy of sports and who have elevated their prejudice to the realm of virtue. But it's not virtue. It's ignorance. And it is not to be lauded. It is to be scorned.

As a perhaps relevant aside, or at least for the sake of full disclosure, I am a member of the National Book Critics Circle. I also have written a couple of scholarly journal articles on sports, have written at least a dozen reviews of books on sports, am working on a project that may become a book on sports, and have published a book on a sports-related topic. I was one of the jocks in my graduate program, and in some circles of detractors was seen as the jock ringleader. I also care deeply for books, for book culture, and for American intellectual life. False dichotomies and strawmen are dumb. They are also deeply intellectually dishonest and indeed are anti-intellectual.

1 comment:

Clare said...


Nice response to McAfee.

The entire article, and her argument, seemed strangely dated to my ears. As if I had picked up a New Yorker from 10 years ago. Also, fairly ironic that she writes that "cynicism" is "the easiest pose of youth", while so conspicuously exhibiting that vantage point herself.