Tag Archives: Olympics

Today Let’s Honor Mills, Not Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, the annual celebration or tribute to Christopher Columbus the “discoverer” of America. Generally Columbus Day is a time of year filled with articles rethinking Columbus’ legacy.  Popular this year is a comic by the website The Oatmeal that discusses Columbus as the first of many conquerors that enacted a terrible genocide against Native American people and the father of the transatlantic slave trade. The comic strip explains all the factual errors that we’ve been taught about Columbus’ exceptionality and offers an alternative hero to honor. The illustrator instead suggests that we celebrate the life of Bartolome de la Casas, who he argues was a similar person to Columbus who underwent a transformation and became a humanitarian working for equality among African slaves and Native Americans. While I don’t know enough about de le Casas to fully comment on this discussion, I have my own alternative hero to celebrate this year.

On October 14th, 1964 Billy Mills won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Mills became the first (and only) American to ever win that event. Prior to the race, he was mostly unknown to the international track and field community, and domestically he was remembered for his lackluster collegiate career at the University of Kansas. It is not hyperbolic at all to say that Mills shocked the world with his victory.

For many fans of sport, the Mills victory ends there. Yet, if you talk to Mills, he’ll tell you that 1964 was really the starting point. Billy Mills is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where he was orphaned at the age of 12. Then he was sent to the Haskell Institute (a Native American Boarding school) for high school. His family remained close with his one of his older and younger brothers also attending the school. But the boarding school experience, as many scholars have noted, was brutal for many Native Americans as they were stripped of many of their cultural, linguistic, and familial ties. Boarding schools were progressive era institutions and the legacy of centuries of colonial rule. By the 1950s things had changed a little, but living in a white-mans world still remained tough. Mills coped with the aid of a sport and the guidance of his coach Tony Coffin.

Mills excelled at cross country and track during his high school days at Haskell. During his career he broke the state records of two Olympians (Glenn Cunningham in the indoor mile, and Wes Santee for the 2 mile cross country run). After he graduated, Mills decided to stay in Lawrence, Kansas and compete for Bill Easton at the University of Kansas. Easton was one of the leading track coaches of the era and KU one of the top schools. They’d won the 1952 NCAA Cross Country Championship and placed well at the indoor and outdoor meets throughout the decade. Mills time at KU was tough. He had an up-and-down career and often clashed with his coach. Although he won a Big 8 championship and was named an All-American, he career was a disappointment to many as he failed to live up to their expectations.

In January of 1962, Mills graduated from KU and entered the U.S. Marine Corps. He entered the Marines partly because of the Native American tradition of military service, but also under the advisement of former Olympian and KU Alum, Wes Santee. Santee explained that military service allowed former athletes to remain amateurs and offered support that allowed them to train for the Olympics. During the Cold War, having military officers compete in the Olympics was a point of pride for the country and gave bragging rights to each of the service branches.

The military helped position Mills towards success. He was diagnosed as hypoglycemic and developed a better diet to manage his blood sugar and energy levels while running. Likewise, he was introduced to new training methods. In the marines, Mills began running longer distances and benefited from the experience of his training partner, Alex Breckenridge.

By the 1964 Olympics, Mills was a different athlete. He was the only American to qualify in two different track events, the 10,000m and the marathon. Although he was largely unknown, his time coming into the race was the eight fastest in the world that year. Mills hung with the leaders during the race and stayed in contention well into the final lap. Then he started to make his move. It was a three-man race. He was shoved as the entered the final turn, but soon recovered. With fifty meters to go he finally made his move. He lifted his knees and lengthened his stride, sprinting his hardest. Quickly approaching Ron Clarke, he moved out to lane four and flew by. As the world shifted its gaze, NBC announcer Dick Bank screamed, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” A couple of strides later he overtook Muhamed Gammoudi for first and kept going. Three strides in the lead Mills broke the tape. He had done the impossible.

Now forty-nine years later, Mills is continuing to do the impossible and change the world. He founded Running Strong for Native American Youth in 1986, and since then has raised over $650 million to build wells, youth centers, and improve the conditions of Native Americans. He’s also traveled to over 300 countries telling his story and advocating for the global indigenous issues and self-determination in deciding how to use their economic and natural resources.

Today is Billy Mills Day on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, not Columbus Day. I think it should be Billy Mills Day for us all. Obviously, the story of Billy Mills is important to me and most Native Americans, but I think it should be important to all of us. His life is an example of the power of sport to enact and fuel change. His story is inspiring and uplifting, but it also exposes real structural and racial issues in our society. Billy Mills is an American hero worth celebrating and honoring, much more so than Christopher Columbus.

Sports News Round Up #2

I had plans to keep these pieces short, but after finishing writing I think they probably could have been individual posts. Either way, here’s my take on some recent sports news that I’m following.

Big Ten Says No to FCS

Members of the Big Ten athletic conference has to decided to no longer schedule football games against teams in the Football Championship subdivision (FCS, formerly D-IA). The news is obviously driven by self interest, as the league wants it’s teams to increase their strength of schedule to give them a better shot at competing for national championships in the BCS (and future playoff system). Lots of people are commending the league on the decision and hoping that others follow suit. The argument here is for strength of schedule, quality football games every week. No more cupcakes and blowouts in the first three weeks of the season. For fans of competitive football it makes sense and will make the sport more exciting.

At first sight, I like the decision too. But I’m curious what happens to the schools being left out? Most games against FCS school are ‘guarantee’ games where the hosting school (almost always the larger, major conference school) pays the opponents a certain amount of money to come play. These payments are usually in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars. For smaller FCS schools, that’s a lot of money that often makes up a significant amount of their athletic department budget. With decreased budgets those schools must trim the fat. This could be by eliminating sports, cutting back on support staff, etc. They could also ask for more support from students and colleges (after all, very few athletic departments are self-sustaining).

While I am in favor of reigning the in spending (and I think it might help trim budgets of the larger FBS programs), I’m also worried about the increasing disparity between athletic departments. The FCS division only exists for football, but this decision could have ripple effects that impact other sports, particularly women’s sports, but also men’s basketball. Division 1 Men’s basketball competes against everyone. While there are still power conferences, smaller schools (some who don’t even have football programs) frequently make deep tournament runs. Butler University is just one example.

As a football fan I definitely like the Big Ten’s decision, but this is a story I’m going to keep following because it has the potential to have far reaching consequences and impacts on the economic of college sports if other conference follow suit. This decision, teamed with the conference realignment, have the power to dramatically reshape the climate of college athletics over the next couple of decades. It amounts to a chilling effect by the ‘power conferences’ in regards to control and access of money generated from media contracts for football. It’ll also be interesting to see how it affects basketball, women’s sports, etc.

Olympics Drop Wrestling

Beginning in 2020, wrestling will no longer be an Olympic sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced. It came as a shock to many. The decision affects both men’s and women’s wrestling. Although wrestling isn’t necessarily the most popular sport, it is one of the five original Olympic sports. Yet, popularity proved to be the deciding factor, according to the IOC.

The decision is interesting on a variety of fronts. Obviously the sports tradition and connection with the Olympic Games makes it curious. So does the rationale of popularity. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, wrestling it the fifth most practiced sport in American high schools. The article claims that participation by boys and girls is at a historic high, with a dozen of NCAA Division II and III schools recently adding teams. To be sure, a board member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame wrote the article and it focuses entirely on the United States. I’m unsure if the sport shares the same international clout.

An article in the Times of India notes that female participation, struggles with doping scandals, and it’s failure to adjust to the television age have affected the sport and likely contributed to the IOC’s decision. At the same time, the article described wrestling in India as having “an exalted status” and suggested India might be one of the most affected countries by the decision.

The international ramifications will be interesting to follow, but I’m most interested on the impact of wrestling in the United States. Unlike other sports, the Olympics Games are the pinnacle for wrestlers. While it is true the sport has recently been growing (my alma mater and several of its conference peers have added teams in the last 5 years at the NAIA level), there is still the stigma of Title IX. Since 1972 over 250 college wrestling programs have been cut. Cutting has been the primary response rather than creating women’s programs. The NCAA, NAIA, and NCJAA do not currently sanction women’s wrestling. According to the Women’s College Wrestling Association (who does sanction the sport), there are only 22 varsity programs in the United States. Likewise, only three states offer championships in the sport at the high school level. Yet, a 2007 New York Times article reported 5,000 girls participate in the sport annually, a fivefold increase from a decade earlier. Women’s wrestling was introduced to the Olympics in 2004, and while not all of these participants have Olympic dreams, it’s likely a contributing factor for a few. I’m curious to see what affect the cut has on both men’s and women’s programs. Without international Olympic competition, will schools invest less in wrestling programs? How will this affect the momentum of the women’s wrestling movement (both in the U.S. and abroad)?

I should note that dropping sports from the Olympics is not all that uncommon. Baseball and softball were dropped in 2005 (there were contested in 2008 but not 2012 and they seem to be doing fine in the U.S. without IOC sanctioning. Baseball and softball, however, are on much firmer ground in the college and high school sports landscape. Wrestling had been under attack for many years following Title IX, and the movement to add women’s programs is still quite young. I think in some cases the panic here is warranted with wrestling fans. As I stated above, the Olympics are one of wrestling’s only major international events. The next move is to petition for reinstatement in time for the 2020 game and work on strengthening the sports base and popularity, both in the U.S. and worldwide.

One issue I wanted to talk about here but ran out of time/room is the notion of sanctioning power. Much of what I’ve talked here revolves around the power to legitimatize a sport. Sports historian Allen Guttmann outlined seven characteristics of modern sports: 1) secularism 2) equality of opportunity to compete and in the conditions of competition 3) specialization of roles 4) rationalization 5) bureaucratic organization 6) quantification 7) the quest for records. Wrestling generally fits all of these criteria. The IOC is also a part of this distinction since it is a sports bureaucracy. The IOC, however, rationalized its decision based on popularity. Guttmann deals with popularity separately. It is not essential for spectators to be present for a sport to be considered modern, he explains. I would challenge Guttmann and say that in today’s world, spectators and popularity are increasingly more important and that they do characterize “modern” sports because spectators and popularity are required to generate revenue, which is required by most sports for equipment, referees, etc.

Without being too cynical here, money makes the world go round and it’s especially important in the world of sports. Wrestling, for example, requires expensive mats, special shoes, headgear, kneepads, uniforms, warm ups, clocks, scales, gymnasiums, as well as, coaches, referees, medical trainers, etc. While most of this is start up costs, there’s also ongoing expenses.  As the Time of India noted, wrestling has been slow to ‘modernize’ in terms of adapting to television. This is bad for the sport, in the Olympics eyes, because television is a large part of how the IOC makes money. Likewise, corporate sponsorships are often tied to television exposure, whether via commercial advertisements aired during specific events or signs posted in and around the competition area.

The Olympic also aim to make money. While it’s somewhat unusual for the host city to make much, the IOC and various national Olympic committees (which are generally non-profits) do make money. Being popular is an important part of making money. An article in yesterday’s New York Times sums up the decision fairly concisely: “A shift in priority has occurred in an era of outsize television contracts as Olympic officials seek to add more telegenic sports and more widely visible stars in hopes of maintaining a sense of relevance, modernity and youthfulness in the Winter and the Summer Games.”  The irony in this approach is that wrestling does appear to be growing, particularly with women. Much of that growth has come because of its Olympic status and the increased emphasis and funding and associated with it.

Smithsonian Hosts Native American Mascot Symposium

The National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium about Native American mascots on February 7th in Washington, D.C. As one might expect, the hometown Washington Redskins were one of the most criticized teams at the event. The event had moderate media coverage in sports world. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, was one of the more vocal writers. He seems to have made it his mission to convince the Washington Redskins to change their mascot this off-season. Zirin is not alone is in insistence for a change. In his article, entitled “Redskins: The Clock Is Now Ticking on Changing the Name,” implies a real need for change based on the popularity of black quarterback Robert Griffin III and the team’s recent success. He suggests that limelight thrust on them by the just completed season are big reasons for the change. While I admire his tenacity and agree that the name should be changed, his argument ignores the larger struggle.

The Native American mascot issue has been an ongoing battle for several decades. Washington has been in playoffs several times during this fight. And RGIII, for all his popularity, isn’t going to dramatically alter the fight. This, of course, does not mean we should give up hope. Zirin is hopeful that RGIII himself might join the clause, but I have my doubts about that too. I do, however, think the continued pressure will help and I applaud Zirin for keeping the fight alive.

ESPN.com had a similar opinion piece about the mascot. Like Zirin, the author explained the appalling racial history of the teams founder and former owner George Preston Marshall. He was staunch segregationist and was the last owner in the NFL to integrate his team. As the story goes, Marshall was forced to integrate by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to appease TV executives and President John F. Kenedy because they were in violation of federal law since their stadium was built on federal land.

The team’s current owner, Dan Snyder, has no connections to Marshall but remains committed to the team name. Although the team declined an invitation to talk about their choice to use the mascot at the Smithsonian event, their spokespeople told various media outlets that they believe the mascot serves as a tribute to Native American warriors and is “derived from the Native American tradition for warriors to daub their bodies with red clay before battle.” This deviates from other explanations the team has given in the past, such as the mascot is used to honor former coach and Carlisle player William “Lone Star” Dietz (his claims to a Native American heritage became controversial and remain unverified. Dietz’ biographer argues that prejudice against Native Americans was so prevalent at that time that it makes little since for me to make it up since claiming Native American ancestry would have made Dietz’s life harder, not easier). He coached the team with moderate success in 1933 and 1934 while they were in Boston.

If we assume Dietz was, in fact, Native America, he is a figure worthy of honor. He was one of a few former Carlisle players that went on to a distinguished coaching careers Perhaps most famous for leading Washington State to the 1916 Rose Bowl, Dietz coached a handful of other college teams in addition to serving as a one of Pop Warner’s assistant coaches at Carlisle, Stanford, and Temple. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Interesting, he is not a member of Washington’s “Ring of Honor.” Of course, Dietz ended his time coaching the Boston Braves with a .500 record. Perhaps this is why Washington has changed its story about the mascot name, or maybe it’s why they chose to honor in him in such a derogatory way?

There is no honor in the term Redskin. None. Mascots are inherently representations. They’re built off of stereotypes. They encompass expectations of a certain behaviors and characteristics, whether physical or mental. People name their teams after bulldogs because they are tenacious, they’re bold and stubborn, they’re strong, they have really strong jaws that grip and tear their opponents easily. Although today bulldogs are kept mostly as pets, one hundred to one-hundred-and-fifty years ago they were central parts of urban bachelor and tavern culture. Native American mascots, on the other hand, build off of a long history of conflict between them and conquering and colonizing American settlers, soldiers, and missionaries. They represent complex ideas about what it means to be Native American, and what being Native American means to society. Some pretend to be proud and praising of qualities such as bravery, leadership, and nobility (e.g. the Braves and Chiefs). Others focus on less desirable qualities. Before they changed their mascot, the Texas Tech Red Raiders symbolized Native Americans raiding white settlements that were infringing on Native lands. Looking at the history of the words and their uses implicates both sets of mascots. The terms Brave and Chief, despite their modern justifications, are not innocent. Indeed, they were both once considered racial slurs.

There is a lively collection of scholarship dealing with Native American in sports and mascots. Scholars have explored the issue for a variety of angles and published their findings in numerous articles and books. I explored a lot of the controversy while writing my master’s on Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills. My argument picks up during the progressive era and connects reform efforts, boarding schools, Wild West Shows, and famous athletes as central components of contested representations of Indianness that informed and, at times, reified the expectations of broader society. To be sure, like most social-cultural constructions, mascots are an extremely messy issue.

This messiness, however, is what’s often lost on the message board commenter. Commenters are rarely the target audience of scholars. Few, if any, would spend the time to sit down and read Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy, one of the best introductions and overviews of the issue, for example. Yet, it’s hard to truly convey just how offense Native American mascots without some of the big picture discussion. The best that most newspaper columnist can do is offer the parallel racial slurs used against African Americans, but even this doesn’t always resonate.

Because of this problem in conveying the messiness and the history these representations and term, I’m glad the Smithsonian held its event. The more we talk about these issues and the more pressure we put on teams, the more likely we are to build a cohesive base that can enact change. And change is happening.

In the last couple of years there have been some real wins in the fight against Native American mascots and sports imagery. In June, after decades of fighting, 68% of North Dakota voters decided to retire the University of North Dakota’s “Fighting Sioux” mascot in a primary election. This had long been one of the most contentious fights, one that saw a donor threaten to withdraw a $100 million donation if the mascot was changed. The same donor required the school to engrave the old mascot throughout athletic projects he funded to make it more difficult to change. At the same time, however, the Big Sky conference threatened to ban the University of North Dakota from its conference if they did not change their name. At the high school level, the states of Oregon and Wisconsin banned the use of Native American mascots in their schools in the past couple of years as well.

These successes indicate that change is possible, but requires relentless pressure and hard work. The Redskins are an important target. They’re not only one of the most offensive professional sports mascots, but they’re also out of the reach of politics and judicial review. All of the recent victories have come from state agencies and votes. Changing Washington’s team name will illustrate a real cultural shift and capstone decades of work. I hope Zirin is right. I hope the clock it ticking on the name change.

Lolo Jones, Billy Mills, and Human-Interest Journalism

With the Olympics drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about their connection to human-interest journalism and the role it plays in the lives of the profiled athletes. Historian Charles Ponce de Leon suggests that human-interest and celebrity journalism plays two roles. First, features pieces and profiles work to reinforce and model certain character traits and values championed by the middle class. These pieces offer instruction and inspiration for future success promoting certain behaviors, such as hard work, determination, and self-discipline. At the same time, human-interest pieces also provide an inside portrait of celebrity lives that show their complexities and realities. Reporting on scandals, failures, and flaws of the famous keeps them relatable and real.

During the Olympics most of these pieces fall into the first category. The 2012 London Olympics had its share of inspiring and uplifting stories. Athletes like Gabby Douglas, Missy FranklinDavid Rudisha, and Kirani James became champions and introduced themselves to the world. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt continued their narrative of dominance boosting their legacies as all-time greats. Oscar Pistorius and Manteo Mitchell also endeared themselves with inspiring tales of perseverance. There was, however, one story about Lolo Jones that fit more into the second category.

Human-interest pieces are powerful and any one of these stories is worthy of close analysis. The critical New York Times story about Lolo Jones, however, helps us expose the ambiguous and problematic nature of celebrity journalism. Despite their pandering, writers are often “eager to appear responsible and connect their work to the serious business that engaged other journalists — and made the press look good to civic leader and big advertisers” (272). The Times piece is undoubtedly an example of this.

But the Times pieces is also more than that. As Ponce de Leon reminds us, “while the press offered celebrities a vehicle for realizing their ambition, the ride was not free, and it sometimes involved detours that made the life of celebrities more difficult” (105). Many have derided the Times piece as overly critical and even harsh — sentiments that I tend to agree with — but the article also exposes some real truths. The writer is critical of Jones’ self-promotion and marketing despite her limited success, especially given the limited spotlight give to her sport. Yet, a closer look at both the nature of human-interest journalism and the careers of successful Olympics examples reveals that this is quite normal and has become the industry standard.

In my scholarship I argue that sports provide a middle ground for the negotiation of complex power dynamics and representation. While my research focuses on Native American athletes, the same is true for women and other minorities. Athletes will often participate in self-deprecating behavior that capitalizes on their ‘difference’ and ‘appeal’ whether is be cultural, racial, or sexual. I’ve argued that by over-emphasizing these traits and playing them up, athletes often benefit and are elevated to new heights (both economically and publicly) that allows them to alter and challenge previous representations and advocate for change. To be sure, there is a delicate balance because power is unequal and the press often serves as a gatekeeper.

Jones falls into this middle ground and some argue that harsh criticism goes with the territory. They point out that there are scores of athletes who have not posed semi-nude nor proclaimed their virginity. These athletes, they submit, have gone on to be just as, if not more, successful than Jones, because they were not subject to the media’s gaze. While these are all valid points, they ignore the complexities and realities of Olympics sports and dismiss the larger work Jones is trying to do. Likewise, they judge her by a flawed double standard(s).

Like it or not, journalists are a part of the marketing system of athletes. This is particularly true for Olympians. This excellent study illustrates the limited income of track and field athletes:

Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.) and approximately 20% of our athletes in top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.

Jones is the American record holder for the indoor 60m hurdles and won three NCAA and two World Championships in the event (note: the 60m hurdles is not an outdoor event contested at the Olympics. The 100m hurdles, which she ran at the Olympics,  is not her primary event.). This success has likely propelled her into the higher income levels, but so has the media attention. It has made her a valuable spokesperson for companies.

This post is not intended to be a line-by-line defense of Lolo Jones. My larger point is that income is important to Jones, and other Olympic athletes, and human-interest journalism is an essential element of creating opportunities to earn that income. Once that income is earned, it is up to the athletes if and how they use it. While advocacy has become common, it is not always the chosen path (for a variety of reasons that I wont get into here). Threats and challenges to an athlete’s image, warranted or not, threaten their livelihood. Unlike professional athletes in major sports, the window for Olympic athletes to establish themselves and harness their own economic power is remarkably small.

Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion, is a good example of this. He only competed in one Olympics. Prior to the Games he was largely unknown. His memorable race launched him into the media spotlight. In the days and months following his achievement, Mills story captivated and inspired the country. He understood the fleeting nature of his fame and the opportunity it presented. Explaining his approach to creating Running Brave, a film about his life, Mills said:

I couldn’t allow myself to be taken advantage of economically. So I also pursued it as a business venture. The way I would benefit would not be in profits from the movie, but in ways I could market myself the rest of my life.

It is apparent from the New York Times article on Lolo Jones, journalists and fans alike are still not comfortable with these economic realities. Within USATF and the IAAF, the governing bodies of track and field, debates have been raging about the role of corporate sponsorship. Unlike cyclists and NASCAR drivers whose apparel are checkered with logos and sponsors, track and field athletes are expressly prohibited from sponsorship on their uniforms. USATF and the Olympics continue an antiquated obsession with amateurism that reeks of late-nineteenth century Victorianism. While amateurism has mostly evaporated from the Olympics, nostalgia remains. Amateurism embodies the alleged purity and nobility of pursuing sports for their own sake. In reality, it is a classist and greedy system that benefits governing bodies and meet organizers over athletes and inhibits the development of talented athletes.

Amateurism is implicit in most of the Olympic human-interest pieces. Athletes, we are told, sacrifice to pursue their dreams and love of sport. That they often come from impoverished background and struggle to maintain an adequate standard of living is a part of their charm and makes their success all the sweeter. They justify the mega endorsement deals that athletes sign as the reward for their years of toil. Unless, like Jones, they fail to achieve, then they are sell-outs and opportunists.

Mills found balance in his life. He managed his identity and transformed himself into a national brand. While he continues to rely on human-interest pieces to remind new generations of his story and extend his resonance, it is done on his terms. Or is it? Because Mills uses his wealth and fame for what the media decrees as “good” — raising money for Native American causes and inspiring youth — in a non-threatening way, perhaps they are willing complicit in helping him. It’s difficult to truly ever know, but that’s the nature of the sporting middle ground, and hegemony.