So...we are back in the blogging business after a loooooong break. Many things to cover in the world of sport, politics, and pop culture, and a good place to start is the recent launch the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) network. The network takes full advantage of new media platforms and offers professional wrestling fans the opportunity to experience a vast array of matches (and some unfortunate original programming) from the recent and distant past. At 10 bucks a month, a price that includes all of the PPVs for the year (a 6-month contract required), it is an absolute steal for fans of one of the most enduring, and at times maligned, forms of popular culture in American history. As my friend and colleague Dr. Larry DeGaris (Sport Management Professor at the University of Indianapolis) and I have said, despite the scripted nature of wrestling, there are many things that mainstream sports could learn from the wrestling business. UFC fighters clearly attempt to borrow from classic wrestling promos, for example. We also argue that the cooperative nature of wrestling matches provides an interesting alternative to the hypercompetitiveness we see in "real" sports. Wrestling is much like ballroom dancing. It works best when one person takes the lead, the other follows, and both work together to produce a smooth, athletic final product. Ego is necessary, but too much of it will screw up the match. There is no "I" in bodyslam, you might say. At any rate, the WWE network, while ambitious, is at the very least an indication that the peculiar and provocative practice of pro wrestling will be around a bit longer, and I hope that people dive off the top rope into some of the incredible vintage matches available on the network. We can learn a lot about how our spectacle culture evolved by watching the history of pro wrestling. Somehow we went from cringing at the thought of a simple headbutt or elbow to expecting fire, thumbtacks, ladders, and even the now standard blaring entrance music. Simpler times were often simply parsimonious. Hit most people with an elbow, and no ridiculousness is needed. Larry would just call it logic.
There was a time when we though our Olympians were...natural, just like we thought our corn flakes were unprocessed, and...well hell we didn't even know what "genetically modified" corn was. Blood, sweat, tears, and "eat your Wheaties." I ate them growing up in the late 70's, although I did gobble up a @PopTarts411 once in a while! So watching the Olympic Trials for track and field this week, I saw 1976 Gold Medallist Bruce Jenner (now known more for his role in the Kardashian "reality" scum-spectacle) interviewed. His transformation mimics that of our elite athletes. His nose job, eye job, face lift, and all-around extreme martianesque makeover is symbolic of where the sport was in his era vs. what it has become. In both academic and public spaces we quibble, and sometimes vehemently argue, about how much testosterone women may possess for them to compete...as women. Of course, seldom is there mention of how little a man might have to qualify him for the women's division. The point is that, like Bruce Jenner's face, elite athletics has become tough to watch at times, but like the clearly brilliant audiences who remained glued to the latest Kardashian escapades, I still watch...if just for the presence of a wrinkle in time.
Hello my friends! After a long absence from the blog, we are back up and running again. I have a slew of entries coming your way this summer, all related to sport and popular culture, of course. I am sure the Olympics will come into play as well. Oh, and I've decided to enter the twitterverse as well, so be sure to check that out and "follow me" as the kids and hipsters say: @DrTedsportcult
Ok, back in a bit, and if you are new to this blog, feel free to explore the older posts! Cheers.
In August 2010, Linda McMahon won the Connecticut Republican Senate Primary. Linda McMahon is not just the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment and wife of WWE chairman Vince McMahon, but a former character in the tweaked narratives on WWE television as well. Perhaps most importantly, she was also in an executive position during a period in which many WWE performers were consuming massive amounts of steroids, growth hormone, and pain pills. Some of the wrestlers died of heart failure, like one-time world champion Eddie Guerrero, while others, like Guerrero's good friend Chris Benoit, killed his family and then himself as massive amounts of testosterone coursed through his bloodstream and enlarged heart. Benoit's brain was also determined to be severely damaged from years of hard chair shots and multiple concussions. On the bright side, lest we get too grim here, McMahon also presided over the development of the WWE's "wellness policy" after these and other fatalities. Check out her testimony at the congressional oversight hearings on steroids in pro wrestling for a laugh. Better late than never, certainly. That said, former WWE wrestlers continue to take advantage of the WWE's ongoing offer to pay for drug rehab for any former performers. Scott Hall, aka Razor Ramon, is the most recent person to take a trip on the WWE's bill. All of this intro material is to set up the question of whether any of it should have to do with Linda McMahon's senate bid. Of course it will, in our current smear culture of politics. But I am trying to look at her qualifications critically. Much like our gubernatorial candidate in California, Meg Whitman, McMahon helped lead a major publicly traded corporation through good times and bad, leaving it in a pretty good state. She spearheaded the "Smackdown your vote!" campaign to encourage voter registration, and perhaps most admirably, while she was at WWE the company made yearly trips to Iraq to perform for troops during the Christmas holidays. At first it was, perhaps, a PR stunt, but over the years, the attention waned, as did the ratings. The company still made the trip. This is a great case...it mixes pop culture, spectacle, the profane, business, gender, economics, steroids, and the US government. Whatever the outcome of the fall election, McMahon at least has some kind of legacy, as shown in the video below.
You can take one on the field, or receive one to the face. You can skin one, or bandage one. You can keep them up, or blow them out. You can operate on one, but you can't operate with only one. You can fully or partially replace one, and even bury a heart at a wounded one. You can have your reflexes tested by tapping on one of them, and your faith tested when you're on both of them. I'm talking about the knee, of course. Have you ever thought about the place of the knee in sport and popular culture? Ask someone what they think about when they hear the word "knee." Will they reflect upon a healthy knee? A knee that needs repair? The stability the knee provides? The efficiency with which the knee moves? The aches our knees provide as we age? The practice of kneeling in religion? The knee as a reference point in "proper" skirt length over the decades? The depth of trouble one can be in? A knee can be your best friend, and your worst enemy. We don't often think about our knees when everything is going well with them. It's only when something goes awry that we look down, sigh, and shake our heads as if to ask, "Come on, knee! What did I ever do to you?" The knee doesn't have as much cultural meaning as the head, let's say, or the foot...or even the finger. But whether straight or bent, the images of the knee in our minds remain...flexible.
The sport studies literature contains many references to "racially biased language." This basically means that the language of commentators, newscasters, etc. contains some sort of bias that relates directly to race. The most common example cited in textbooks is that white athletes in sports such as football and basketball have often been described as "hard working," while black players have been described as "naturally talented." We see less of this today, at least in basketball, according to some recent work. Track athletes have also been racialized in particular ways. East African distance runners, in particular, have been lauded for their supposed "effortlessness" and "fluidity" while white runners who are fortunate enough to get the better of their ostensibly inferior genetic makeup and/or socialization patterns have been described as "grinding" or "gutting" out personal bests. The research on race, population genetics, and sport performance is incredibly complex, and anyone who tries to tell you a definitive answer should be viewed with suspicion. All athletes and exercisers have experienced times when completing a task required little work, or when moving was a real chore. I deeply appreciate the beauty of effort in all its forms, from a child struggling to sit upright for the first time, to the aging athlete's attempt to build muscle, even as the mitochondria prepare to throw in the towel. Check out the two 800-meter world records below. These two runners are part of only a trio of runners to ever break 1:42 in the 800. One is from August, 2010, and the other is from back in 1981. Both are amazing to watch...their strides are strikingly different, and their efforts show in different ways and at different times...yet each makes my jaw drop.
I've blogged about sport-as-art previously, but since the 2010 Mr. Olympia competition is right around the corner, I thought I'd revisit the relationship between sport, art, and the body in motion. Think about the term "bodybuilder," and what comes to mind? Is it a perfectly symmetrical upper body with sweeping, yet proportional thighs? Is it a more freaky body, with enormous traps and legs that dwarf the manhood between them? Is it...our lame duck governator Arnold? Or is it merely a stage that only a chemist could love? All of these things come to mind for me, at one time or another. Recently, what comes to mind is the body as a work of organic art, or evolving art, or enhanced art, and of ironic art. In particular, I have been thinking about one of the top bodybuilders, Kai Greene, and how he represents something that is sometimes lost in our spectacle-laden (or driven?) culture. In fact, many sport studies scholars might say it is all BUT lost. Kai Greene is huge. He is around 5'8" and around 260+ pounds. But Kai Greene is an artist...in many ways. He sees the sport as art, and he himself is an artist in the traditional sense, a painter specifically. Some purists complain that Kai's posing routines (see one guest routine below) do not really accentuate his strong points, but rather obscure them in a whirlwind of fluid movements. Strike a pose, squeeze, and hold it...that is how it is generally done. Not headstands. Not moonwalking. Not miming. In a hypercorporatized sporting environment, I tend to root for the artist. The artist could give a damn about convention, and may even sacrifice economic gain for what he or she views as their own authentic creative endeavor, as poesis. Of course, the artist may profit, but its a gamble. We'll see how Kai Greene fairs on September 25th, but whether or not he improves upon his 4th place from last year, I will admire his attempt to centralize art, creativity, and perhaps even (more than a bit of) flamboyance in an event ripe with ironies and overflowing with jacked up bodies.