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How to be a feminist sports fan?

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

My mornings begin with ESPN. There have been a handful of mornings when I don’t tune in — and those mornings have led to days that have ended poorly. My habitual and somewhat religious commitment to ESPN mornings isn’t so much definitive — it just kind of is.

Increasingly frequently while watching, I’m plagued with a rather disturbing thought. I do my best to squash it and am quickly swept up by the top plays of the day. I’ll do almost anything to avoid the question, because it’s terrifying: is it ethical to watch sports? Is it feminist to watch sports?

I don’t want to ask because I don’t want to deal with the answers. I am a sports fan, so what am I supposed to do with myself and my deep love for ball if watching sports is a moral misstep?

I’ve been avoiding this question for most of my life, and writing about the transformative power of sports since I learned to type. Sports can be transformative for society at large. They tend to do better around issues of race than gender. And there’s work to do around homophobia as well — but it’s work that is slowly, slowly happening.

But are sports in and of themselves a societal good? In other words — are they worth having?

Freud would probably say watching sports is necessary to give everyday non-athletes the opportunity to channel their aggression into something that doesn’t cause them or those they love any harm (not the case for the athlete/gladiators we watch, alas). Sports allow us to live in cities and yell at TV screens instead of starting fights in the street, or so that line of thinking goes.

Then there’s the matter of representation. There’s the increased blood flow to my heart when my dad’s eyes well up when he talks about being a teenager and seeing the first ever all black starting five at Texas Western. Sports matter a lot to me as a black woman. The role models of mine that looked like me on TV were WNBA players. Sheryl Swoops quite literally taught me to play the boys on the playground like they were punks (and I scored 11 points in 3 minutes of playing time — just saying).

The meaning of the black body society is intimately tied to sports. It used to be said that you couldn’t have a black point guard, because black guys weren’t smart enough. Now that’s kind of a ludicrous idea (though I’m still waiting for football to catch on to black intelligence, smh). Still, it’s meaningful that announcers talk about Steph Curry and Maya Moore in terms of their high basketball IQs. It seems we’ve found a place in which we’re comfortable with black folks being the smartest at something.

Still though, I’ve read Forty Million Dollar Slaves, which you should read too, that follows mostly low-income, mostly black athletes from youth sports through college. Colleges make billions off of the labor of mostly black football and basketball players. Yet players get paid nothing and there have been many reported cases of players going without food because they simply can’t afford to buy it. Those that make it to the pros make a lot of money — though not as much as owners. They also just might be paraded around like a pet at a party. Geno Auriemma, one of the “best” coaches in women’s college basketball, also seems to kind of hate women, or at the very least not think women capable of competing against men ever.

Far too often, athletes get a pass for violence against women. This isn’t an addendum — this is a whole sports culture problem that needs radical change. Sports could become a major site for disrupting rape culture and a general culture wherein violence against women is deemed acceptable. Real talk though: Jameis Winston, accused rapist, still went number 1 in the NFL draft, still had the police intentionally ignoring evidence — and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. While many Americans were telling Baltimore to embrace non-violence this weekend, they were also paying to see a violent abuser fight a homophobe. So, yeah — there’s work to do (including a whole separate post on sports and violence).

So what exactly is the feminist, anti-racist, sports loving fan to do?

Well, my answer would be to use sports to fight the power. But how exactly?

I’m going to take a little journey and bring y’all with me over the next four weeks as we do #allfeministeverything on physics, basketball, and a few other things. I’ll be theoretical and practical — even if it’s just, at the end of the day, about finding a way to be a feminist sports fan.

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Adrienne is a sports writer, educational justice activist. She does not now nor ever have time for Kobe Bryant. Read more of her sports writing here

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