I read two interesting Web features today that both illuminated our cultural shortsightedness about social issues and sports: Blaming individuals while turning a blind eye toward institutional beliefs and practices that underpin problems.
The first was an outstanding column by Dave Zirin answering Howard Bryant's shrill column about Sammy Sosa's steroid use. In his column, Bryant makes a bizarre charge that Sosa's positive steroids test calls for a "special kind of outrage." He is especially hard on Sosa, on players and on "Mr. and Mrs. Fan." He does not -- as Zirin points out -- take to task an institution (and its management) that has tacitly encouraged drug use for decades. Zirin, whose column will undoubtedly be read by less than a third of those who read Bryant's, raises important contextual questions that position the issue as one going far beyond the decisions of select individuals without cultural and institutional encouragement.
The second Web feature I read today was the discussion on WashingtonPost.com's "The League" about gays in the NFL. Not surprisingly, the column that brought the most response was one by a pastor who made overtly homophobic comments -- he was an easy target. Other columns by more progressive writers argued that NFL players were to blame because they hadn't come out or because individual players have "remained silent."
The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they ignore the very real function of men's football and other male-defined sports (such as baseball and basketball) in U.S. culture: defining (ideal) gender roles. As a culture, we expect the demonstration of masculinity in these sports (that's why "You play like a sissy/girl" is still an effective insult hurled by coaches). Ideal masculinity implies heterosexuality. Our cultural definitions of sport, gender (and, subsequently, sexuality) have -- as one columnist rightly argues -- made it easier for us to elect a black man to the presidency than to foster a culture where gay athletes can play high-level team sports without fear.