Toxic Narratives

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.

MHSAA 1991 Det SW crop1

MHSAA

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
Oooooooh, Ahhhhhhhhh
We goin’ to the Palace
Oooooooh, Ahhhhhhhhh

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.

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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.

Brittany Greeson/The New York Times

Brittany Greeson/The New York Times

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.

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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.”

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4 Comments

  1. Lawrence Revard

    Let me first applaud your story itself. I like reading your work. It’s hugely relieving to read a story with such penetrating insight tied to a personal memory and your commitment to sports.

    Then let me chastise a problematic contradiction. If “sports are intricately and inextricably woven into the very fabric of the culture,” then the success of a team is woven into the culture in some way, and a relatively accurate narrative about the relationship between the team and the community may be spun. This assumption underlies your work, and it belies your resistance to telling the happy narrative–it informs your rebellion from the happy narrative. From people inside the city, I’ve heard that the happy narrative for the New Orleans Saints is welcomed by some of the people in New Orleans and was not comparable to the lies on occasion told about teams in order to assure the political and social status quo. The uniformity of that story may not be the big lie you suggest it was, whatever the national media’s chanting.

    Telling the story means finding the right thread, putting your hands on it, finding the links that must be there. I agree with you that we must sometimes resist the big fat lie, but your humility has become the all-too-common trope of the majority scholar bowing before the story of minority oppression… In the ever-so-slightly sloppy use of the word “privilege” (“private law”) to describe the myopia of a majority status, you reveal a habitual and no doubt majoritarian liking of sweeping statements. To illustrate: I have reason to believe that the recent departure of the Rams from St Louis is of consequence to the minority community, and I can personally watch the cost of it on a small scale, and I can tell you what sectors of the city suffered as the narrative of the Rams fell from “the greatest show on turf” to “these losers should capitalize on their former relationship to LA and leave.” I didn’t want St Louis to put itself in debt to the team by building a huge new stadium because I knew that the rewards to the majority population were different from those to the minority. And I knew these things intimately. But I can’t tell the story properly without finding and putting the voices in your ears. Here I’d have to bow–but not to the sad story of exclusion and oppression, even if that is a real part of what goes on, and even if that was the result of the Rams’ departure… (I realize that I’m hijacking the Flint narrative and putting it in St Louis, but I’m doing so in order to stick with what I know, not to shift the conversation there. St Louis does have a comparable story of oppression, and I suspect that the real reason the Rams left had more to do with Ferguson than anyone can yet explain…)

    Here’s where an intimate journalism might pay off. If you’re going to report what the people say, you maybe need to go back and find those people again, not just work with your memory of them. More historian and folklorist might help here, less theorist and professor…

    But now back to praise: Thank you for the story. Without it, you’d never even get this kind of reaction out of me, and so I have to bow before your talent and knowledge of sports and culture–infinitely superior to mine.

    • Excellent points, Lawrence. [Especially about the sloppy use of “privilege,” which I wanted to find a proper word but one never came.] I don’t think I suggest or imply that these narratives aren’t valued or valuable to the communities themselves. My point is more to think about how those who don’t live in those communities experience or consume these narratives more critically. I think ‘intimate journalism’ may be very helpful, and I think the contexts of folklore and history might indeed help those who don’t live in communities beset by tragedy more thoroughly. But the humility is important, I think. It might sound like bowing before a minority experience. But it’s worth considering the power dynamics at work here and who gets to construct these narratives and who has to live the experience (which might not be so coherently narrativized). I certainly don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t stop writing or telling these stories, but I do think it’s important to consider not just what’s being told but how it’s being told and by whom. Especially since many in Flint are cognizant of how their story is being told for polilitcal gain and being spun into a narrative that benefits others: http://www.freep.com/story/news/politics/2016/03/06/flint-residents-lose-faith-politicians-feel-exploited/81362916/
      Obviously political narratives are different than sports narratives, I think it’s really important to acknowledge the disparity in power and in storytelling. I think you’re right that going back and revisiting rather than relying on memory may help tell a more complicated story. Thanks again, Lawrence, for the insightful and valuable critique–it’s helpful in considering how to approach and how to tell good journalistic stories.

    • Matt Nicholas

      Just wanted to follow up (again), Lawrence because I think your critique is really valuable and important and it’s led to consider a more fundamental question that I legitimately have no answer to:
      How do we tell the stories of others’ grief? I wonder how much context professorial/theoretical/folkloric/historical (h/t John Berger) interferes with the voices speaking. Perhaps narrative isn’t the best way to tell these stories at all? I don’t know.

      • Lawrence Revard

        I’m generally of the opinion that if you ask people what they want to say, they’ll tell you, and if they don’t want to say something, they’ll tell you off, and if they really don’t like you, they’ll lie to you in an elaborate manner that will ultimately teach you a lesson.

        Mostly, I think of these matters in the way Adrian Louis and James Welch taught me to. Welch had a brilliant touch with narration, and I trust what he had to say. He is a long time gone now, but I do recommend _Winter in the Blood_, his first novel, and the fine historical reflections of _Killing Custer_. (The novel does touch upon some matters relevant to sports culture. _Killing Custer_ touches on communal grief and its transformation in American majority narration.) Adrian Louis’s _Ceremonies of the Damned_ explained grief in comical terms I still wish I could capture.

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