I have spent the majority of my life as a Philadelphian. I have also spent this time actively not giving a crap about Philadelphia sports. I am no Phool for the Phillies (sorry, I had to get in at least one stupid Philadelphia alliteration). If you were to talk to me about the 76ers, I’d attempt to make a savvy reference to Iverson’s latest game. I wasn’t entirely convinced that the Fliers and Eagles existed until—around sophomore year of high school—I encountered Starter Jackets with those logos.
The year I started teaching in Philly, I was following the 2008 Presidential election—reading up on the stats, watching the debates in bars—but was studiously ignoring the brouhaha around the Phillies being in the World Series. One of my students—her South Philly accent bending through the membrane of her gum—simply couldn’t believe that I wasn’t watching the games. “But,” she said, her voice registering the high pitch (pun completely intended) of her shock, “aren’t you married?” At first, it seemed like a non-sequitur; I couldn’t understand what my marital status could possibly have to do with baseball. It finally dawned on me: she literally could not conceive that there could be a single male within a three hundred mile radius of Billy Penn’s hat who wasn’t being ecstatically transported by the Phillies’ good fortune. She thought that, at the very least, I could get some Philadelphia cred by osmosis—by just bringing in the wing platter while my husband and his buddies watched the game.
I wondered what would happen to my Philadelphia cred were I to note that my husband could possibly be the one human on earth who cares less about sports than I do. The only thing I could imagine him cheering about while eating wings with his buddies is really exciting new developments in 3-D printing. And, come to think of it, none of his buddies would be cheering along.
In 2008—when Obama was running and I had hope, when the Phillies were winning and the entire rest of the city had hope—I was new to teaching high school. I longed to cover complex topics like ideology and bias; however, since it was the first time I was teaching high school, I had no idea how. Besides, I was a little disappointed that my students seemed to be squandering all of their analytical energies on the intricacies of some stupid sport, when they could have been discussing how the City on a Hill ideology had infected Sarah Palin’s rhetoric. When I remembered my own time in high school, I thought of gnashing existential debates, of worldviews that clashed epically, like the smashings of tectonic plates. As for sports, well… I failed Phys Ed one quarter (who knew you had to show up and get changed… and stay?). As punishment, my parents forced me to go to school baseball games, and write reports about them for my PE teacher. As what I imagined to be punishment for my PE teacher (which I’m now sure he just found hilarious), I included lots of stupid, pointless figurative language, such as “like the inarguable rainbow of the soul’s very being, the ball arced insolubly over the implacable fence.”
For most of my life, I’ve thrived on a particular binary ideology—a groundless bias that has been recently undermined. I believed that people who were interested in sports were being sort of duped—that sports were useless and, honestly, a little base (pun wasn’t intended there, but I guess I’ll let it stand). On the other side of the binary were the things that I was invested in—which, of course, were noble and important. These passions of mine were: interrogating the human experience through literature, instilling critical thinking skills in kids, and—perhaps most importantly—creating equity in society through fair access to education (just a modest little goal, that last one). And so I set myself, as staunchly as a point-guard (is that someone who does defense? is that basketball or soccer?), against those who might want to take down public education.
This year, though, I learned to see sports in a completely different way. (That’s the great thing about being a teacher: you’re always learning… and I’m not referring to bullshit Professional Development courses when I say “always learning.”) I’m glad I learned the first lesson, but, with all my heart, I wish I—and, more importantly, my kids—didn’t have to learn the second.
First, as I was doing my planning for the 2012-2013 school year, and thinking about a short unit in Cultural Studies, I had an amazing revelation. When my students yawp and clamor about sports, they oftentimes aren’t abrogating critical thinking—they’re practicing critical thinking. So, as part of this introductory unit, I decided to have students read a selection of critical articles on sports, in the hopes that I could harness students’ innate interest as an entree to a discussion about the ideological underpinnings of fandom. While—like all new lessons—it had its strengths and weaknesses, I noticed that my students did begin to understand issues of ideology in their observations. One girl emphatically described how LeBron James is anathema to her, but ended her rant by reflecting “I don’t really know why I hate him… I just do.” Another student said something along the lines of “Yeah, every time people are getting all upset (she might’ve said “hype”) about sports, I always kind of think—those people are getting paid, no matter what. They don’t care about you, so why do you care about them?”
The second shift in my sports paradigm occurred in the spring of 2013, when the School Reform Commission passed the Doomsday Budget. For me, it sort of felt like the opposite of the hopeful fall that Philadelphians had experienced in 2008—those crazy days when we walked past each other and let our heads tick up, ever so slightly, in a Yup, we did it kind of way. I can’t claim to know exactly what ideology-factories whirred and churned in order to produce the SRC’s vote. I care about that toxic cycle of production, but I care more about how the product affected my students.
The kids who were the most aghast, the kids who spoke the most directly about the budget’s effects, were the kids who played sports. Basketball, football, soccer, field hockey, baseball. The kids who play these sports don’t see them as an ideological scam or a facile pastime. They see their sports as the reason to make it to 3:00. They see their running as the thing that tramples mediocre grades, and bullying, and absent parents. They see their games as the only time their name—screamed—feels like a blessing and not a curse. They said things like:
“Miss, I will drop out of school.”
“If there aren’t any sports, I might as well be home-schooled.”
“You will see me losing my mind next year. I will literally loose my mind. Expect me to be crazy.”
“That’s the only thing that could possibly make colleges notice me.”
And: “I will drop out of school.” I included that last one twice—not by accident, but because that’s the one I heard the most.
So it was that I—the long-time reviler of all things uniformed and sweaty and chanting en mass—finally put my bias about sports aside. I realized that—at least in the context of high-school sports—when it comes to equity and justice, there’s little enmity between sports and my own ideological goals. I only regret that—now that there aren’t any sports to hate, or sports to support—I seem to have learned this lesson too late.