Tuesday, May 18, 2004

surrogate warriors

The recent condemnation of Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett for referring to his team's rivalry with the Denver Nuggets as a "war" provides the perfect opportunity to revisit the true role of sports teams, especially professional ones, in our supposedly post-tribal society.

Garnett's in trouble because he talked big about having all sorts of guns that he was planning to bring to bear the next time the Wolves played the Nuggets. He was speaking figuratively, not literally; of course he had no intention of bringing firearms on the court, or starting what we think of as a real war. In other words, he talked all the usual trash professional athletes--and many of their supporters--talk. But he did it at a bad time, a time when the country is getting pretty sensitive about the word "war", a time when the word is starting once again to mean kids coming home in body bags without a good explanation given by the people who sent them out. Garnett tried to make it right immediately. He invoked friends who are serving, he's been hit with a fine, he called himself a young loudmouth who is still man enough to admit that he was wrong, that he'd done "something inappropriate."

It's worth noting that he didn't rise to the bait when another player called him "gay" for dishing out a strike to the general crotch vicinity. Worth noting because I get the impression that this young MVP really is trying to play honorably.

So really the problem is not that Garnett talked about going to war with the Nuggets. The problem lays completely in his timing, and the fact that he is now seen as not taking the real war seriously enough.Would that our elected and anointed officials would take the real war seriously and not waste so much time and blood on image control, but I digress.

What puzzles me is what I see as the hypocrisy behind chastising Garnett for articulating the underlying idea of pro sports. Anthropologists have squeezed a lot of ink cows dry pointing out that sporting events are ritualized battles; I would go a step further and suggest that teams like the Timberwolves and the Nuggets and the 49ers and the Tigers and so on illustrate the fact that we still develop, maintain, and defend geographically delineated tribes. Hence my use of the phrase "supposedly post-tribal." We say that we're beyond tribes (well, other than Burners, Jews, and gay folk, three groups off the top of my head that embrace the word), but we're not, not at all.

We still form and participate within tribes based on where we live, and we still support warriors that go forth and represent our tribes in battle. Sure, they're battles where nobody dies, and there's big talk of sportsmanship, but just look at the language. Just open the paper and read how games are described. Battles for dominance, supported by people with a connection, conscious or not, to their home.

Have you ever moved from one town to another, and found yourself conflicted about supporting your new home team? I still root in an abstracted way for the Pistons and the Timberwolves and the Tigers and the Twins, having lived in Detroit and then the Twin Cities long enough to form some tribal identity. Certainly not because any of those teams have been consistent winners or have some other admirable quality other than representing wherever was home for me at one time. The point is that they are the warriors stepping forward to defend my tribe's standing. They are the ones going down to the river to reaffirm that my tribe has the right to graze this hillside or till that field. That my tribe is real and worth defending.

There is of course a big difference between a "battle" and a "war", a distinction that I'm not going to get too far into right now, and one that many of friends could speak to more clearly than I can. But I will point out that battles have not always historically meant anybody died at all: think of the Native American warriors riding out and counting coup and riding home. Sometimes you won a battle just by touching more of them than they did of you, and everyone went home unbloodied. Everyone understood who had won, at least until the next skirmish, and the battles served as a release valve for the pressures that build up when people live together in groups near other people in groups.

In much the same way sports serve us now, yes?

In an interesting and completely unrelated side note, Garnett was once on the receiving end of a strange twist of justice in South Carolina, where according to Earl Ofari Hutchinson the anti-lynching law has quietly been co-opted to mean something entirely different than it used to. Now it seems that "lynching" means any situation where two or more people assault another, regardless of the race of any of the participants, the relative severity of the attacks, or the resulting physical damage.

Bizarrely, it's a law that is now used to convict quite a few African-American folks, including kids scuffling at school. As a teenager Garnett was in a contretemps where a white kid ended up with a broken ankle. Not the image that comes to my mind of a lynching.