In 1991, a fifteen-year old me travelled with my cousin and my uncle, a freshman basketball coach, to the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) basketball semifinals and finals downstate, which is what those of us in the Upper Peninsula call the part of the state shaped like a mitten, the land masses joined by the Mackinac Bridge.
This was kind of a big deal. Rarely has so much high school basketball talent existed in one state at one time. Chris Webber was one of the most highly recruited and highly touted high school basketball players of all time and may end up enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Many of the others playing that weekend—Jalen Rose, Howard Eisley, Voshon Lenard—went on to productive NBA careers. But even more than the individual talent, the teams playing that weekend were powerhouses in Michigan high school basketball: Detroit Northern, Detroit Southwestern, Detroit Pershing, Flint Northwestern, Flint Southwestern, Benton Harbor.1
Yet even with all that talent on the court, I don’t recall a single game or play or player. I vaguely recall Webber spraining his ankle in the finals and continuing to play, but even that may or may not have happened.
What I remember are the primarily African American crowds. The Upper Peninsula has a black population under 2%, and I attended a high school that had one black student, who was also the town’s only black resident, so this was my first encounter with a large population of African Americans.
And as a freshman in a high school, I was familiar with the pep rally and crowd participation, which mostly consisted of white males chanting loudly and aggressively, prompted by white cheerleaders. I found such aggression off-putting at the time, even as I felt obliged to participate, and my view on high school pep rallies would change from mild aversion to complete horror later in life after viewing The Triumph of the Will.
Yet, what I saw from the crowds in the Breslin Center (the semifinals were played at the stadium on Michigan State’s campus) wasn’t aggressive or crypto-fascistic at all. As Detroit Southwestern and Detroit Northern were on the verge of victory in their respective semifinal games, which set up their meeting in the finals at the Palace of Auburn Hills outside of Detroit (Detroit Southwestern would go on to defeat Detroit Northern for the state crown the next day), the thousands of fans who’d accompanied their respective teams sang and clapped:
We goin’ to the Palace
We goin’ to the Palace
After the game, the students, parents, and townspeople took to the concourse level and made a few victory laps around the stadium, still singing with a jubilance that resonates in my mind more than two decades after the fact. This, too, was coordinated celebration, but it wasn’t aggressive male chanting, and I was struck by how the entire community participated, not just the students.
As uplifting as this communal celebration appeared even to an outsider, I also felt invisible in ways I’d never experienced before; as the largely black crowds made their way around the stadium, it was impossible not to notice how little regard they had for the white spectators, including myself, observing from the margins. I became aware of being excluded from a celebration that I found enthralling and appealing. And I’d like to say that I had some epiphany about the considerable difference in power dynamics between my exclusion from these black communities and the kind of exclusion they experienced because of their race, but I didn’t. I’d like to say how much this experience shaped me in terms of realizing my privilege, but that was still years away.
Only later would I come to find out how much Detroit and Flint were suffering: these were communities in the midst of a severe and catastrophic economic downturn that had already wreaked considerable havoc (Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, which famously documented Flint’s economic crisis, was released in 1989, two years prior) and that doesn’t seem to have an endpoint.
Many of those high schools don’t exist any more. Detroit Northern closed in 2006, Detroit Southwestern in 2012, Detroit City in 2012, Detroit Kettering in 2012, Flint Central in 2009, Flint Northern in 2014. And these are just the high schools. The elementary and junior high schools that have closed in both Detroit and Flint are too voluminous to list here. (By my count, Flint once had 26 elementary schools; now it has nine).
It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around the idea that a school could cease to exist, could permanently shutter its doors, as if all the students in the area suddenly vanish. I realize that a complex calculus goes into closing down a school and that the students in the district get bussed to a different high school, but closing an entire school is still unsettling. Doing so is the final act in declaring a neighborhood hopeless: this district can no longer support or inspire ideas.
Now, as if the decades of job and population decline, school closings, union busting, and political and economic corruption weren’t enough, Flint’s drinking water has been poisoned. There are so many government officials, both elected and appointed, who contributed to this heinous reality that it’s difficult to fashion a cohesive subject on whom or which to place blame, which is maddening both ethically and grammatically. So many people tasked with civic responsibility contributed to this dangerous incompetence and negligence that to follow this story provokes a confused mixture of despair, pity, and anger. If you’re interested to read about how this happened, go here and/or here.
A few voices in the local and national media have helped show how the tragedy in Flint makes evident how structural, economic racism leads to environmental racism. Sadly, though, the poisoning of Flint becomes understood as yet another chapter within the larger story of Flint’s and Michigan’s economic collapse that’s now in its fourth decade. In hindsight, then, it becomes tempting for me to see those early 1990s basketball teams and the enthusiasm for them as expressions of communities in turmoil, able to escape their lives for a short time to celebrate their teams.
It’s important to resist such narratives.
When the Detroit Tigers made the World Series in 2006 (after almost 20 years of utter incompetence), the narrative was that the city may have fallen on hard times but that these Tigers had provided Detroiters with a ray of hope, something to “help them forget about their troubles.” This has become such a prevalent narrative, especially during national television broadcasts, that it springs to life any time a Detroit team enjoys some measure of success: sports help these economically downtrodden people escape their lives for a while.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen in Detroit. As Michael Serazio insightfully points out in his study of the post-Katrina redemption narratives that surrounded the 2009-2010 New Orleans Saints Super Bowl-winning season, “a largely uniform media narrative emerged—one which relentlessly employed a winning team as the trope for a metaphorical recovery and a means of the collective simultaneously coping with and escaping from traumatic memory.”² Viewing sports teams as a means of redemption or escape is a national and international pastime (for a global example, recall the stories of national healing that surrounded post-apartheid South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup victory).
Flint may not have any real professional sports teams,³ but similar narratives involving the redemptive power of sports have begun to surface. Local sports heroes returning home. Nearby college teams showing up to donate their time. My point of contention isn’t with these and the many other charitable efforts going on in Flint; they are needed and admirable. Instead, I want to question how these efforts get covered by the media—a predominantly white and male sports media—and the pre-formed narrative that they fit into. The sports-as-a-means-of-temporarily-forgetting-about-trauma story is a seductive one; it’s also a dangerous one when we stop and consider just whom these narratives ultimately serve.
Sports very well may offer a bit of psychological comfort for the residents of Flint to forget about the government that abandoned and criminally neglected them. But in telling such stories, writers construct narratives that exist to palliate not the people who suffer but the rest of us. As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us, the very act of writing about poverty and trauma (or in my case, writing about those who write about poverty and trauma) is itself a luxury–and a problematic one at that.4 That is, these narratives serve to relieve and assure a largely white audience, made up of those who don’t have to suffer the short- and long-term consequences of a poisoned water supply. Those of us who don’t live in Flint want to believe that the people will eventually be okay so we can go on with our lives, and the sports-as-an-escape narrative allows us to do exactly that.
Yet by employing and being seduced by such narratives, we are allowed to think of sports as a separate sphere, as an escape from troubling social and political realities. We become invited to look away from the harsh reality and focus on the distraction. But sports aren’t separate from culture, an escape valve from depressing economic conditions. For better or worse, sports are intricately and inextricably woven into the very fabric of the culture, and if many of us outside these communities believe that sports offer a way to forget about trauma that says more about us as creatures in need of comfort and palliation than it does about sports and its redemptive powers of distraction.
The songs that echoed around the Breslin Center that afternoon were celebrations of these communities and of their basketball teams. But to attach a redemptive narrative to the performance of a sports team, no matter how exuberant that community’s celebration may be, enables the status quo while allowing us to delude ourselves that it’s changing. The people of Flint may understandably want to forget about their troubles for a while, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should.
1 Detroit Country Day, the high school Webber attended, is a private day school in the affluent suburb of Beverley Hills, MI.
² Serazio, Michael “When the Sportswriters Go Marching In: Sports Journalism, Collective Trauma, and Memory Metaphors.” Critical Studies in Media Communications. 27:2, 155-73.
³ It does have a fictional professional basketball team, the Flint Tropics of the ABA. In Semi-Pro, Will Farrell’s character Jackie Moon, the Tropics owner/GM/player, quixotically tries to lead the Tropics to the promised land of the NBA. The plan fails. Moon trades the Tropics’ best player to the San Antonio Spurs, and gets rewarded for his efforts by being named Assistant to the NBA Commissioner. The major characters pursue their interests elsewhere and the Tropics are disbanded. The movie isn’t very funny, and yet the joke somehow ends up being on Flint.
4 The whole essay is great, but this sentence especially so: “I realized that there was something wrong with an arrangement whereby a relatively affluent person such as I had become could afford to write about minimum wage jobs, squirrels as an urban food source or the penalties for sleeping in parks, while the people who were actually experiencing these sorts of things, or were in danger of experiencing them, could not.”