The Personal Politics of Sports

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Original Air Date: 
November 07, 2020

What do you do when the headlines are freaking you out and the news is making you tense? A lot of people find sports takes their mind off things. It’s like this one worry-free, politics-free zone. Until it isn’t.

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There's never been a year in sports quite like 2020. Sportswriter Kurt Streeter spoke to "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" executive producer Steve Paulson about how a pandemic and a presidential election have turned the entire world of sports upside-down.

Length: 
14:56
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Starting in 2013, former Seattle Seahawks star running back Marshwan Lynch refused to speak in post-game press conferences, a public form of resistance against exploitation and racial bias in the sports industry. Writer David Shields has just released a documentary him.

Length: 
11:29
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Melissa Joulwan — A.K.A. "Melicious" — didn't know what to expect when she joined a roller derby team. What she found was camaraderie, a new athleticism and personal empowerment.

Length: 
12:01
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Audio

On Native American reservations, high school basketball is huge. They have developed a fast-paced style of play called “rez ball.” New York Times reporter Michael Powell spent a season covering the team from Chinle High School in the Navajo Nation.

Length: 
12:24
Show Details 📻
Airdates
November 07, 2020
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Transcripts are typically available for new episodes within 48 hours of their original airdate. Click timestamps within the transcript for an interactive player on Rev.com. Contact us at listen@ttbook.org to request any unavailable transcript.

Speaker 1 (00:00):

Support for WPR comes from Tyrol Basin Ski And Snowboard Area, about 20 miles west of Madison. Opening for the season soon, with skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and more season passes at Tyrolbasin.com.

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. What do you do when the headlines are freaking you out, and the news is making you tense? A lot of people find sports takes their mind off things. It's like this one worry-free, politics-free zone, right up until it isn't.

Kurt Streeter (00:34):

One of the beauties of the pandemic, one of the things that my son and I grabbed onto early on, was the ritual of us going out running.

Anne Strainchamps (00:56):

This is Kurt Streeter, a sports writer and a dad.

Kurt Streeter (01:02):

Just about every night, we'd go for a mile or two, maybe a three mile jog. My son's a little nine year old, just getting used to running, and he just loves it, and a bizarre time really, to bond during this terrible time, starting in March. Right around that time, I heard of the terrible shooting of Ahmaud Arbery down in Georgia.

female (01:31):

White males out.

male (01:31):

Mostly white neighborhood.

Kurt Streeter (01:33):

Killing of a Black jogger by a pair of white men.

female (01:37):

It kind of sounds like an animal.

male (01:42):

Nope.

Kurt Streeter (01:43):

My son didn't know about it, I kept that news from him and my wife and I kept it from him, but it hit me. It hit me really hard. I wrote an essay then, about the first jog that my son Ashe and I had, right after that killing. We happen to live in Seattle, which is a very white city, one of the whitest cities in America, and I'm probably the only Black homeowner I think, for a couple of square miles. It's a pretty liberal neighborhood right now, but it does have a tangled past. I know about its past, because I grew up in Seattle, and this was one of the neighborhoods where I would always be very wary of going when I was a young man. This is a neighborhood where I had to be ready to fight, and that was because of race.

Kurt Streeter (02:39):

So, there's a neighborhood near us that's a fair amount more exclusive than the one that we live in. But, that neighborhood is my son's favorite neighborhood to jog in. It's really scenic, it's beautiful, it's very quiet. It also makes me a little bit jumpy I think, because I know about its exclusionary practices from the past. So, the essay that I wrote was really started out with my son and I beginning our run, and him saying that he wanted to go on the route, and me just turning to him and saying, "Son, not today. We're not going to go there today."

Kurt Streeter (03:20):

I couldn't bear it mentally and emotionally that day, to go through that neighborhood. There was just too much going on in my head and too many emotions. So, we continued on in the route through our neighborhood. Even then I have to worry still, and I constantly am worrying and checking myself. Are people seeing me as a Prowler?

female (03:54):

She did call me an N word.

female (03:57):

African American man threatening my life.

Kurt Streeter (04:00):

I happen to really like looking at houses, because I liked design. But if I do that, what somebody's going to think? Are they going to think that I'm casing their place, and are they going to call the police?

male (04:11):

You've been running?

male (04:11):

Yeah.

female (04:13):

[inaudible 00:04:13] into a patrol car.

Kurt Streeter (04:22):

All these little things go through your head, and I've had a couple of instances where I've stopped to say a word or two to people on the street, and then I've seen their shock at seeing me. I'm six foot, two pretty big broad shouldered, athletic, African-American man in this neighborhood. That can be a surprise to people, and sometimes you see a little bit of recoiling. So, I had to dance around. I just really didn't want to have him seeing that killing. I've covered gang killings in South LA, East Baltimore. But, seeing that shooting, seeing Ahmaud Arbery and what happened to him, it just brought me in absolute tears, and it just laid me low.

Anne Strainchamps (05:16):

Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column for the New York Times. It's hard to remember. All that happened in March. Given all that we've gone through, all we're still going through, it seems like a decade ago. Sports, politics and race have converged at other iconic moments in history. When Jesse Owens competed in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, when Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in the major leagues, when Mohammad Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War, all of which has made Steve Paulson wonder.

Steve Paulson (05:52):

When historians write about this year in sports, what do you think they will write about?

Kurt Streeter (05:57):

I think that they'll write about a period when there was a new reckoning, where athletes finally found their footing and found their power, and began speaking out really in ways, I think, that have never occurred, the way that the NBA being involved, the NFL.

Steve Paulson (06:13):

Let's walk through some of that. So the NBA, during the playoffs, there's weird playoff time in the bubble in Disney world, in Orlando, all the NBA teams there and the Milwaukee Bucks, my home team, boycotted a playoff game in response to the protests and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Was that a big deal? Was that historic?

Kurt Streeter (06:36):

I absolutely believe it was. You have a team, the Milwaukee Bucks, taking a stand like they did. Then, the cascading effects where the entire league then decides, "Hey, we're not going to play. We are more than entertainers. We're human beings. We are connected to our communities. We're simply not going to take it anymore." Then, the NBA stops playing for awhile. It was unclear whether they were even going to come back. But, they showed their power there in a way that had never been done, for an entire league to stop playing unprecedented.

Steve Paulson (07:11):

What I found striking about this, the league supported them. If this happened in football and the NFL, not at all sure that the NFL would have supported players going on strike.

Kurt Streeter (07:21):

Yeah. The NBA and the NFL are just totally different beasts in the way that ownership and particularly the commissioner's office deals with players and teams. The NBA has become much more of a partnership between players and the league. Particularly the commissioner, Adam silver of the NBA, seems to just have a very enlightened touch. So, there's a great deal of trust there. He gets it. He gets that this is a league that's 70% black. He has to understand and have empathy for the players.

Steve Paulson (07:53):

So, why is football so different?

Kurt Streeter (07:57):

In all sports, the NFL is the kingpin. It's the biggest, baddest sport, and it's the most popular sport in America still. There's just so much stereotyped imagery around football and machismo, and really, I've got to say, white America, the white quarterback, the cowboy literally. America's team is the Cowboys, and the players are much more have to toe the line. The Colin Kaepernick situation and Black Lives Matter was handled. They completely shut that down.

Steve Paulson (08:27):

Colin Kaepernick, he's essentially been blacklisted in the NFL. He'll probably never play again, because no team wants to take the risk of signing him again. I'm not sure that would happen in any other sport.

Kurt Streeter (08:39):

Exactly. You see, what you saw this year was the NFL then conveniently after George Floyd, getting on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon for a while, and yet, conveniently Colin Kaepernick always excluded. They don't even mention him. They don't even bring his name up. He's still able to play, most likely better than many of the quarterbacks in the NFL, and he's absolutely sidelined. He's just been banned from the league. The league would rather that he not exist, and they're just trying to erase him. But as far as Colin Kaepernick, the activist, they're actually making him more powerful, I think, in doing that. There's a power in that silence.

Steve Paulson (09:16):

Yeah. But as you say, at least in the NBA and some other sports, Black athletes do have more power now, more power than probably they've ever had in history. I guess something has changed, right? Why is it different now than it was even a few years?

Kurt Streeter (09:33):

Well, you have some really dynamic leaders. First of all, you've got LeBron James and you've got people like Chris Paul in the NBA. You've just got a whole generation of really astute star players who really get this. They're also wealthy beyond anything that their predecessors could have imagined. So, they can speak up and not worry about their careers being cut short. They've made plenty of money. They just feel more empowered.

Steve Paulson (10:00):

Now, the other big thing of course, that's had a huge impact on sports, has been the lockdown. All the sports, professional, amateur, youth sports, shut down for months and of course they've come back, most of them have at least. I guess I'm wondering if we learned anything about sports during that time. You are not only a sports columnist, you're a sports fan. Did you miss sports? Did it feel like actually we were missing something important during that time?

Kurt Streeter (10:28):

I think when anything is taken away from you like it was, and then you realize how much you took it for granted, the beauty and the joy that we get from sports, how much we want it, how much we crave it. But at the same time, I think like a lot of people, there's also a part of me, a big part of me that feels guilty for this, and feels like, "Man, maybe we shouldn't be doing this. We're in the middle of this terrible period right now."

Steve Paulson (10:53):

I'm wondering if actually what mattered more, the bigger loss, I'm wondering if that was at the level of youth sports, all of those kids who really needed this outlet. Sports was one organized activity that really worked. All that was shut down for a long time.

Kurt Streeter (11:10):

I've written about this a couple of times recently in Minneapolis. North Minneapolis High school and their coach, Charles Adams, who is also a police officer, he's an African-American police officer, and North Minneapolis is really struggling with an uptick in violence, and a sense among the kids of, "Where do I go? What do I do? Everything's shut down. School is shut down, community centers, what do I do?" So, coach Adams response is, "We have to have football. We have got to have this place where these kids can be seen, can be heard, can be watched over, can feel a sense of community, at least for a couple of hours a day." This has become a way for them really honestly to be safe.

Kurt Streeter (11:55):

I'm one, I live extremely cautiously through this, and I really believe that I'm skeptical about whether we should be playing sports right now, just because of the ability to spread the virus. We're taking an awful risk. But then again, we're used to that in a way. If you've been paying attention, let's say you're a football fan, and you've been aware in the last several years of brain trauma issues and football, this is an extra layer, and this just speaks to the complication sometimes, all the time really, in watching sports these days, there's always something that makes it a little bit complicated that you have to grapple with, a little bit of a love-hate thing.

Steve Paulson (12:33):

Yeah. Now Kurt, you've mentioned that you were an athlete yourself. You were quite a serious tennis player earlier, a nationally ranked captain of the UC Berkeley tennis team. In fact, from what I read, the first Black captain in a predominantly white sport.

Kurt Streeter (12:47):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Paulson (12:48):

I read that one of the reasons you took up tennis was because you admired one of the great pioneers in tennis history, Arthur Ashe, one of the very few Black players on the circuit in his time. What was it about Arthur Ashe that you found so inspiring?

Kurt Streeter (13:03):

Well, I think I got captured by Arthur Ashe, and my love for Arthur Ashe when I was 9, 10 years old in 1975 when he won Wimbledon, and beat Jimmy Connors in 4 sets. I remember watching the match, and I can just clear as day remember him coming out in his USA jacket, and his just cool afro, and his cool demeanor and just thinking, "Wow, I want to be like that guy," and I never let go. One of the great moments of my life was when I was 16, 17 years old, and I'm sitting in my room one night, and I get a knock on the door from my mom. I find out that Arthur Ashe was calling me, of all things-

Steve Paulson (13:50):

Wow.

Kurt Streeter (13:51):

... All those years later. Arthur Ashe, like he did for many, many young African-American national ranked level tennis players, he reached down, and that night he was calling me to tell me that he was helping to fund me to be able to go down to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which was a famous tennis factory for junior players. It was just the craziest thing and the luckiest thing in the world, that my idol is literally just calling me one night, again, I'm hardly the only one, hardly the only one. He did that a lot and with really no fanfare.

Steve Paulson (14:34):

You said that your son is named Ashe, right?

Kurt Streeter (14:37):

Yeah, little Ashe. So, I hope Arthur is proud from above. Again, it's mostly just the humanitarian aspect, and then just the way he walked through world, is something that I just deeply admire and hope that I could tap into a bit, and hope that I can pass on to my son.

Kurt Streeter (14:59):

(singing)

Anne Strainchamps (15:06):

Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column for the New York Times. We'll hear more from Steve later this hour. Now, an extraordinary documentary about the NFL champion, who used silence as a weapon against the sports media complex.

male (15:29):

We will listen in live here on NFL Network with Beast Mode.

Beast Mode (15:33):

When do my time start? Oh, it's started? Well, then let me start. Hey, I'm just here so I don't get fined. So, you all could sit here and ask me all the questions you all want to. I'm going to answer with the same answer. So, you all can shoot if you all please. I'm here so I won't get fined.

Anne Strainchamps (15:57):

That's the Seattle Seahawks, former star running back Marshawn Lynch, nicknamed Beast Mode, and that is not the way the NFL wanted him to behave in press conferences.

Beast Mode (16:08):

I'm just here so I won't get fined.

Anne Strainchamps (16:09):

Lynch began stonewalling the press in 2013. The league had a fit, behind him, tens of thousands of dollars. But, Lynch wouldn't give in. His silence became a very public form of resistance.

Beast Mode (16:23):

You'd better make more with your time, you only got three more minutes.

Anne Strainchamps (16:26):

Writer David Shields has just released a stylistically fearless documentary, made of 700 video clips, with no narration, called Marshawn Lynch, A History.

male (16:36):

You're still here because what?

Beast Mode (16:37):

So I won't get fined.

Anne Strainchamps (16:40):

Charleston Monroe-Kane wanted to know why.

David Shields (16:43):

The reason I made the movie, the reason that I fell in love with him as a subject was that, in this world of professional athletes, in which the huge majority of athletes play by the rules, and either are spinning themselves as brand, or are giving these upbeat answers, or these painfully cliched answers, Marshawn had the performance or chops, the cultural awareness, the bravado, the swag, or the nerve, the wit, to somehow go Bartleby on all these people. You remember that famous Melville novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, in which Bartleby always says, "I would prefer not to."

Charles Monroe-Kane (17:30):

Right, right.

David Shields (17:30):

Marshawn, he stiffed arm the American media for several years and simply said, "I dare you to make me answer your unbelievably banalizing, colonizing, and dehumanizing questions." In so doing I think, flipped the script on American culture, in ways that I would argue still resonate.

Charles Monroe-Kane (17:58):

David, I want to back up a second. I think we're getting really far ahead. I want to back up for a second and talk about the NFL. NFL is a very big and powerful thing, right? Early in Lynch's career, he was arrested. He was arrested twice for hit and run, and arrested for guns.

David Shields (18:14):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:14):

These are very serious things. The NFL totally tolerated it, and they just got their PR machine going, and away it went. But it's funny, when Marshawn Lynch started ignoring the press, and giving these repeated answers, then the NFL came down hard. I found it really hard to believe when watching your film, that they cared more about him speaking to the press than they did a gun charge.

David Shields (18:36):

It's a really great point. It's a really great irony and paradox. That gets spun through, what's the phrase that the NFL always likes to use? "Protect the shield," everything to build brand.

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:47):

Yeah, protect the shield, right.

David Shields (18:49):

The NFL is very complicated. On the one hand, it's selling violence and it's selling itself as a galaxy of people who commit violence on the field, and we're going to wink and turn away. It's extraordinary the number of things that players do, and then are brought back into the league. What isn't part of American messaging is to say, "I would prefer not to." To say, "I am not going to speak in the master's voice."

Charles Monroe-Kane (19:23):

But David, why did they care? I'm trying to get at the NFL side of this for a second. Why did they care if Marshawn does this or not? Why not market him as a freakout free spirit and have the guy never speak? I don't get why they care that much. They were fining him $100,000 for not doing these press conferences. Who cares?

David Shields (19:44):

Who is to say that Marshawn Lynch's silence is implicitly political and radical? Hey, looks like the NFL thinks it is, because otherwise, why does it spook them out? Because, part of what the NFL is selling it seems to me, is that it's part of corporate speak. It's part of business speak. It's part of the American corporate industrial sports media complex. If someone says, "I'm not playing that game. I have enough talent, enough power that I'm going to cash your checks, I'm going to play football because I really love it and I'm colossally good at it," he wants to hold onto his actual soul. We're all trapped in the matrix of American capitalism. He's actually trying to be true to himself, and he's doing a better job of it than most of us, where he was able to cash checks, and not totally sell his own extraordinary soul.

Charles Monroe-Kane (20:51):

It's funny. I was thinking about basketball and the championship that just happened, and I'm just thinking about LeBron. These athletes who play the game, they know the drill, right?

David Shields (20:59):

Right.

Charles Monroe-Kane (21:00):

So it's like, "Hey LeBron, how does it feel to be one game away from the championship?" And LeBron answers, "It's one game at a time. I don't see game seven as any different of any game. We just need to execute and stick to the game plan." I can't imagine being asked the stupid questions over and over and over again. Why do you think it happens that way? Why are these sports journalists, who one would assume are well-educated and thoughtful, why they're asking the same stupid questions all the time? Because they're ridiculous.

David Shields (21:26):

I've been thinking about that question for the longest time. How did that convention develop? Marshawn even asked the question toward the end of the film. He says, "I'm bored by these questions. I've been hearing these questions for 20 years." He started playing serious football by age, say 14, and he's now 33 or 34. He's been hearing the same damn questions for 20 years. As Marshawn says, there's only so many questions you could ask a player about a football game. It's not as they say, rocket science. It's not that complicated. So, I think part of it is to pretend that the game is immeasurably complex, and give it a kind of pseudo-science.

Charles Monroe-Kane (22:10):

This is more important than it is.

David Shields (22:13):

Yeah. But, I think a big part is, it's to take this extraordinary spectacle, which to me is processing huge amounts of American history, the idea of a majority white audience looking at Black bodies in positions of violence and contortion. If you look at the NFL Combine, and these Black athletes in almost no clothing, being timed and measure by white coaches, it's a very uncomfortable echo of slavery. It's just a very weird spectacle.

David Shields (22:55):

I think the NFL in particular, which is overwhelmingly black, overwhelmingly owned by white owners, overwhelmingly covered by white media, processed by American media companies, a majority white audience, I do think what is happening is that, there's an amazing cultural residue coming through the NFL, having to do with Black Lives Matters, and racial violence, and slavery, and segregation, and terror, and rage, and hatred, and bodies, and money. I think there's something that happens, especially in the NFL, in which the issues are so alive. What's going on is so exciting and confusing and troublemaking, that there's this crucial business move it seems to me, that happens is, let's banalize it. Let's totally domesticate it, and let's just turn it into, it's no more radical what we are watching, or no stranger than if we were selling nachos.

Charles Monroe-Kane (24:07):

David, there's a powerful moment for me in the film, but I think it was before the Super Bowl, where I'm sure his press junkets were incredibly. They were everywhere, left and right, he had to do all this stuff, maybe he was nervous, all this going on. There's this one press conference where he sits down in the chair, and he says to them, I think they had five minutes or six minutes he has to do the press.

David Shields (24:25):

This is amazing, yeah.

Charles Monroe-Kane (24:26):

He sits down and he says, "I'll just be looking at you all the way that you all be looking at me." He puts on sunglasses, leans back and stares at them for six minutes. He just stood there. I'm like, "Wow, this guy has got guts." I think people were scared. I think people were upset.

David Shields (24:43):

Exactly.

Charles Monroe-Kane (24:44):

Somebody had to yell from the background. One of the journalists was a woman who said, "Oh, this is all about you, Marshawn, huh?" Like that. He was like, he wasn't taking the bait. What do you do with a moment like that in culture, as to where he basically says, "I'm just be looking at you all the way you all look at me."

David Shields (24:58):

It's brilliant. It's an amazing moment. He is wearing, I believe at that time, a medallion of a map of Africa, in case you're missing the cultural point. He also is running, wearing sunglasses so that he is blocking, I would argue, the white media gaze and sending that gaze straight back at the journalist. Marshawn is taking that gaze, and sending it right back at the gazer, and implicitly to me flipping the power switch and saying, "Who has the power now? I'm not an object of your gaze. You now are the object of my gaze." It makes people very uncomfortable. How do you participate in this culture, American culture as a Black man without selling your soul? He figured out a pretty narrow path through it.

male (26:04):

[inaudible 00:26:04] a question, but I was hoping that you could give-

Beast Mode (26:08):

All right, look, I don't know what story you all are trying to get out of me. I don't know what image you are trying to portray on me. All of my requirements are fulfilled. So now, for this next three minutes, I'll just be looking at you all the way that you all are looking at me. Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (26:27):

Marshawn Lynch has retired from pro football a couple of times, but he could still be back. He's 34 years old and a free agent. Charles Monroe-Kane was talking with David Shields about his new documentary. It's called Marshawn Lynch, A History. Coming up, the sport famous for giving women a direct path to personal power, Roller Derby. You're listening to To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Remember this?

Anne Strainchamps (27:08):

(singing)

male (27:14):

In the world of roller games, there's room at the top for only one, and there's only one Kansas City Bomber. She's the toughest thing on wheels.

male (27:35):

There you go K.C. Go, go, K.C. Go. K.C. Carr up in front. The bomber has done it again. Ladies, ladies, let's be ladies here.

female (27:35):

Hey, listen big brother. You're a big, fat, tub. You can't scare anybody [inaudible 00:27:38].

male (27:40):

This is the world of roller games, where the only thing more dangerous than the competition, is some of the players.

Anne Strainchamps (27:49):

Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch, was made in 1972. Coincidentally, that was the exact same year Title IX was enacted, giving girls equal access to athletics. Roller Derby is in the midst of a renaissance right now. There are leagues on every continent. Tens of thousands of women are finding empowerment in an aggressive high contact sport, with in your face, feminist Moxie, among them Melissa Joulwan. Her memoir Roller Girl begins with her first practice.

Melissa Joulwan (28:21):

Honestly, it was pretty terrible. All of the girls were there who had skated in the bout, and the energy in the rink on the day after a bout is really interesting because, it's like warriors who've come back from battle and they're jaded and tired, but they're also really proud and victorious. So, they were all in there post-bout glow and recovery period, and I walk in like a little puppy like, "Hi everybody, I'm here. I'm ready to skate. This is so great. You guys are so cool." They looked at me like I was out of my mind.

Anne Strainchamps (28:53):

Roller Derby is a pretty fierce sport. There are a lot of fights, the girls skate really fast and really hard, people get hurt. Did it scare you?

Melissa Joulwan (29:03):

I think I was more scared of the emotional part than the physical part. I was more worried about fitting in and having people think that I was cool, because I really wanted to be like them. I never really thought about the physical part. It's funny, I brag quite a bit in the book about never having an injury, because I worked out off the track too. Then, as soon as I turned in my manuscript to my publisher, I tore my rotator cuff at a practice, and added myself to the list of girls who were injured playing Roller Derby. So yeah, pride goeth before the fall, right?

Anne Strainchamps (29:36):

So, when you say you really wanted to be like them, what does that mean? Because, the roller girl look or the roller girl culture is this strange mix that's kind of mean girls in mini skirts, the sexy female bruiser. Was that what you wanted to be?

Melissa Joulwan (29:52):

Yeah. I think it was the confidence that really attracted me because, all of the girls, no matter what size, or shape, or age, or the persona they took on, each of them was very confident in the persona they'd chosen for themselves, and I really wanted to feel that way too. Every one of them thinks, thought, believes that they are the sexiest, strongest, fastest, most awesome, and I really wanted to think that about myself. Being around them made me think, "Well, if I create that persona, eventually I'll be that girl."

Anne Strainchamps (30:27):

What's with the stage names the girls have? Raquel Welch, Malice in Wonderland, Cherry Chainsaw. Why do they have these stage names?

Melissa Joulwan (30:37):

Well, I think partially it started just for fun. When Roller Derby started, I don't think most of the girls who were skating really anticipated it was going to become a legitimate sport. So, it was just another fun aspect of dressing up. For some of the leagues, after the Texas Roller Girls started, when it spread, in some of the more conservative parts of the country, girls felt more comfortable taking on a persona and a made up name, because then they could really clearly separate their day jobs and their regular lives from their Roller Derby lives. So, they were able to hide inside of their skater names so they could be normal at work, and have this other persona outside of work. For me, it was really liberating to create a persona, and take on a new name because, Melicious can do a lot of things that Melissa Joulwan really can do.

Anne Strainchamps (31:26):

Like what?

Melissa Joulwan (31:27):

Melicious is much braver. It's bled over into my real life. If you talk to my husband, he'll tell you. There's no shy, retiring parts of anymore. But in the beginning, I really took a lot of strength from saying to myself, "Okay, I'm just going to pretend to be Melicious. She wouldn't be afraid to pick up the telephone, she wouldn't be afraid to wear the push-up bra," whatever it is from silly to important. It really helped to think about how a character that I wanted to be would behave in a situation, and then adopt that behavior.

Anne Strainchamps (31:59):

Let's talk some about the athletics behind Roller Derby, because it is a real sport with real rules, penalties, positions, even. Is it a hard sport?

Melissa Joulwan (32:10):

It's pretty to demanding. Number one, of course you have to be able to skate well enough that you're not thinking about skating at all. I think that we all aspired to be like hockey skaters. If you watch ice hockey teams, they're amazing. Forward, backward, able to turn in both directions, crossovers, the whole thing. They're not thinking about their feet. So, the first thing we had to do is really work on our skating skills. Then, once you've got that conquered, you have to think about how to use your body as a battering ram. So, then we're pulling in some stuff from football, with body blocks, and how to fall and roll and get up quickly.

Melissa Joulwan (32:47):

Then, there's the strategy involved in the sport. When you first start watching the game, it's hard to see that there's strategy involved, but there is some strategy in how you help the jammer get through the pack, and when the jammer should speed up and attempt to score, and when to pull back based on where the other jammer is.

Anne Strainchamps (33:05):

Okay, wait, wait. What's the jammer?

Melissa Joulwan (33:08):

Getting ahead of the game, huh?

Anne Strainchamps (33:09):

Who's the jammer?

Melissa Joulwan (33:11):

Okay. So, there are three positions, jammer, blocker, and pivot. The jammer is the person who's responsible for scoring points for the team. They're generally sprint skaters. They can be tiny, but we've also seen really successful large jammers, because they can barrel their way through the pack. The blockers do what their name implies. They get in the way of the opposing team's jammer, and they also assist their jammer through the pack, making holes to help them get through, so they can score points. Then the pivot, is a specialized blocker, who skates at the front of the pack. The Pivot's job is to control the speed of the pack. So, if their jammer's coming, they want to slow down a little bit so that their jammer can get through to score. Meanwhile, the other pivot is trying to speed up the pack so that the competition can't score.

Anne Strainchamps (34:01):

Does it ever bother you that the whole girls fighting thing is like a male fantasy on wheels?

Melissa Joulwan (34:12):

I think that one of the really appealing aspects of Roller Derby is that, it allows us to take those male fantasy perceptions and flip them around a little bit. We always referred to skaters as the girls. I can remember talking to some people about that and them saying, "Why do you call yourselves girls? That seems so demeaning." I was like, "Well, we're calling ourselves girls. We're taking ownership of that." You can call it third wave of feminism, or you can just call it having fun. I don't think any of us take that part of it too seriously. We're happy to have the fans come. If some of them are coming because they want to see a sport, and some of them are coming because they want to see girls in fish nets, that's awesome. We're wearing the fish nets. We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it looked really hot.

Anne Strainchamps (35:14):

Melissa Joulwan, author of Roller Girl, Totally True Tales From The Track. Kind of makes you want to sign up, doesn't she? Speaking of sports and empowerment, let's talk about Rezball, high school basketball on Native American reservations. There's something a little different about it. Extra magic, unusual defense.

male (35:49):

This is our second game of this week.

Steve Paulson (35:53):

You tell us one story of when this Navajo team played the neighboring Apache team.

male (35:57):

Red call comes in 15:1, they're ranked number five in the state.

Steve Paulson (36:03):

It's comical.

male (36:05):

It should be a great match up tonight.

Steve Paulson (36:10):

The medicine men from both groups are trying to cast spells on the other team.

Michael Powell (36:14):

Oh yeah, no. They came up before the game and normally of course, everybody would shake hands. If you carry a bad spell, traditionally for both Navajo and Apache, you would carry it in the palm of your hand. So, none of them will shake hands with each other. They're literally touching their elbows or their forearms to each other. I talked with Raul Mendoza, the coach that I was with, but also with the Apache coach afterwards, they said, they're both convinced the other team has the serious mojo.

male (36:52):

[inaudible 00:36:52].

Michael Powell (36:58):

You will see medicine men standing up in the top of the bleachers, and they're just talking to themselves. What they're doing is they're saying prayers or whatever they're saying.

male (37:20):

[inaudible 00:37:20].

Anne Strainchamps (37:22):

Inside the world of Rezball, next. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We're talking about the personal politics of sports. How the personal, individual experience of playing a game or competing athletically, intersects with larger social and political structures. Fundamentally, sports is about power and not just on the field. New York Times, reporter Michael Powell, saw that firsthand when he spent a season covering high school basketball at Chinle High School in the Navajo Nation, in Arizona. The story he tells in his book Canyon Dreams, is about basketball, and a lot more, as Steve Paulson discovered.

Steve Paulson (38:13):

So, Rez basketball, basketball on the reservation is a really big deal, right?

Michael Powell (38:18):

It's a really big deal. As one of the coaches said, he said the five biggest sports on the reservation are basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball rodeo, or the reverse.

Steve Paulson (38:31):

So, this is a particular style of ball?

Michael Powell (38:34):

Yes. It's Rez ball, which is this incredibly fast paced run, run, run, pass, pass, pass, cut, cut, cut. Played well, it's beautiful.

Steve Paulson (38:46):

Where does that style come from?

Michael Powell (38:48):

It really comes out of I think their history and their culture. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, for generations, used to come and force families to give up their kids that would go to faraway boarding schools, where the idea as they said, was to basically burn the Indian out of them. They would wash out their mouths if they spoke Navajo and all this kind of thing. They started playing basketball at these places, and what's wonderful is that, they made it their own. How so? Number one, running, distance running goes deep into all the tribes of the Southwest, the Hopis, the Pueblo tribes, the Apache and the Navajo.

Michael Powell (39:27):

The other is, they've a very communal culture. So basketball, the idea of 5 or 10 kids melding together, very much fits in with their culture. It's interesting, when they really get going they'll often bring in players in groups. It's almost like hockey, a whole separate slot of guys coming in.

Steve Paulson (39:49):

So, you'd have like five guys subbing out, and then five new guys-

Michael Powell (39:52):

Yes.

Steve Paulson (39:52):

And they just run at full speed.

Michael Powell (39:54):

Yes, yes. Run, run, run. Now, played badly, it can be chaotic. Like all sports, done well, it's a thing of beauty, and done not so well, it's not so much a thing of beauty.

Steve Paulson (40:06):

Well, and I would think especially, if they're playing teams off the Rez, the white kids who are sometimes quite big, maybe they can run circles around them.

Michael Powell (40:14):

That's a great point because, it's very interesting to watch them play teams off the rez, particularly Anglo teams, white teams. Almost invariably in fact, I think with this team, they played their best games against those sorts of teams, because there was of a concentration, frankly a matter of pride. So, these big teams would come in very often, front line, 6'6, 6'7. The tallest kid on the Navajo team was 6'3. After that, there was one kid who was 6'0. Everybody else was under 6'0.

Steve Paulson (40:48):

So, why is basketball such a big deal on the reservation?

Michael Powell (40:53):

Well, at this point it's generational. Families will come in, great grandparents, grandparents, parents, cousins, aunties, and uncles. It's not unusual to see from any one of the players families, 15, 18 people come to a game. They'll sit there through the ninth grade games, ninth grade girls and boys, JV boys and girls, varsity boys and girls. So, they'll be there for six hours, a lot of these families.

Steve Paulson (41:20):

So, this is the big social event?

Michael Powell (41:21):

This is the event. They'll have 5,000 people. Chinle is a town of 3,500, they'll have 5,000 at big games.

Steve Paulson (41:31):

So, they come in from the-

Michael Powell (41:33):

From all over the place. Guys will hitchhike in really from the out back. All of those generations have played hoop, and to dominate at the high school level is like the Everest for Navajo, because particularly with the boys, they don't go on. They're not big enough to play big D1 schools. They just can't do that. So, the most of them, this is it. A few will play community college ball.

Steve Paulson (42:02):

You got to know the coach of this team, this 70 year old guy, who had spent decades coaching, not so much at this school, but all kinds of different schools, mostly on different parts of various reservations. Tell me about him.

Michael Powell (42:15):

Raul Mendoza was a terrific character, and kind of my, in a sense, my guide. Because, he's Tohono O'odom Indian. I may have butchered the pronunciation, but it's a tribe, quite poor tribe that spans the border, Mexico and Arizona. Came north, taught himself English, got an education. He's coached essentially on the Navajo or the Apache, and the Apache are their genetic cousins, same Athabaskan people. He's coached on those reservations his entire life. He's married to a Navajo, but he's never of Navajo, and people know that. At the same time, he is a Native American, and he understands all of their cultural yearnings, the fears. Do you leave the reservation? If you leave, can you ever come back? Can you make your way in the Anglo world, if you want to get an education? So he spends a lot of time on head work essentially, with these teenage boys.

Steve Paulson (43:22):

I'm assuming this is a lot more than just plotting out the X's and O's of basketball games. He's a counselor, he's guiding these young men into figuring out what to do with their lives.

Michael Powell (43:32):

That is precisely how he conceives of his thing. As he says, he's about turning around in 20 years, and hopefully seeing most of these boys living productive, healthy lives. That's not such an easy thing, if you're coming from the reservation in Northern Arizona.

Steve Paulson (43:54):

Life is hard there for most of these kids, right?

Michael Powell (43:57):

Yes, it's very hard. It's an enormous place. It's the size of West Virginia. There's not much there. Let's assume that you're one of those kids five years later, and you've gotten yourself a college education, and you come back. You could work as a school teacher, there's jobs at the hospital, and then there's a few other jobs. That's it? The unemployment runs 40% approximately. They deal with all the problems that confront, not just Native Americans. Certainly, we're hearing a lot about rural America and the terrible problems confronting whites in rural America, but they confront those same problems, but alcohol is their great carnivore, their great pursuer. That's a big problem.

Michael Powell (44:51):

So, if a kid comes back, let's say he's got a degree, and he comes back, and that first year welcomed by all your hundreds of relatives, and everybody's really happy to see you. Then you look up a couple of months later and it's like, "Well, now what do I do?"

Steve Paulson (45:06):

Yeah. I would think for you, as this Anglo reporter coming into the Navajo nation, writing the story, it must've been hard. Was there any part of the story that was especially hard for you to understand? I don't know, maybe traditional Navajo beliefs.

Michael Powell (45:23):

Yes. Certainly, the traditional Navajo beliefs fascinated me, and it's a completely different cosmology.

Steve Paulson (45:32):

You tell these stories that are just remarkable. Stories of apparitions, and shape-shifting, and animals turning into people. These weren't just once in a lifetime kind of stories. It sounds like this stuff happened fairly often.

Michael Powell (45:47):

No, no. There was a profound belief in the immaterial there. I heard it from virtually everyone there. I first started to notice it when, before games, big games, the boys would all roll up, either bee pollen or different herbs into their socks. Every family would do a protection way prayer usually before the season, sometimes there would be prayers before big games. You could say, "Well okay, in the NBA, you see guys pointing to the heavens or crossing themselves." This is different. This is a real sense that tonight there could be medicine men in the stands putting a hex on me, doing things that are going to make it difficult for me to play well.

Steve Paulson (46:36):

Does any of this seem to work?

Michael Powell (46:38):

They're convinced it does. There was one incident in particular. This was not while I was there, it was a couple of years earlier, they'd played, I think it was on Hopi. All of them, including the coach, Raul Mendoza, said that they felt like they were playing underwater the whole game. Everything was moving in slow motion. This was a very big game, like in a haze. All described the same thing. The next day, somebody that he knew, that Raul Mendoza knew said, "Well yeah, you've got to realize that the medicine men for the Hopi, had put Kachinas, their magical dolls, at all four corners of the arena, and had done ceremonies before, that were designed to leave you befogged." Who am I to say? You start to hear these stories.

Michael Powell (47:36):

Mendoza, who interestingly enough was an Assemblies of God evangelical, he's a serious Christian, but he had a tail coming back. It was when he was coaching on Apache, and some of the families were angry that their kids weren't playing. One of the families that was angry, the mother was a very powerful witch. He'd been warned that she was going to put spells on him. One night, he's driving back through the White Mountains to his home, and his daughter is falling behind in a car, he's in his pickup truck, and an enormous alabaster, white owl, just enormous, dives right at his window in his telling. He flinches, and at the last second, it zooms up into the air. Doesn't hit the window, goes up over his car.

Michael Powell (48:31):

Now, the daughter picks up the story. She's about 100 yards behind him, it's middle of winter, there's snow on the ground. It comes down, lands on the asphalt right behind his truck, and turns into a white alabaster person, and runs off into the woods. Raul and his daughter, they don't drink a lick. They are not tellers of tall tales. They said this happened, just it flat out happened.

Steve Paulson (49:06):

So, what do you do with those stories? You were in this culture for months, living there, listening to all of this. How do you process them?

Michael Powell (49:16):

I think there's, to the extent that I can figure these things out, I do believe that there was a notion of a collective unconscious. I heard too many of these stories from people in a matter of fact way. Because it also wasn't to make you scared, it's just like, "This is life." So, I guess I take them seriously. That's a different thing than saying I know what to make of them, because I don't. But, I think the immaterial, the membrane between the material and the immaterial is so thin as at times almost not to exist. Who's to say that they aren't open for that reason, the things that lie in our dim past of our peoples?

Steve Paulson (50:04):

Yeah. It's a great story. Thank you.

Michael Powell (50:08):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (50:10):

Michael Powell is a New York Times reporter and the author of Canyon Dreams. He talked with Steve Paulson.

male (50:15):

The doomsday defense.

male (50:17):

(singing)

Anne Strainchamps (50:17):

Whether you play sports or watch sports, or just know someone who does, I hope we've helped you think about sports as more than a game, but as an arena for the same social issues we take to the polls, or to the streets, race, gender equality, freedom. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is a production of Wisconsin Public Radio. Our team includes Angela Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening and be well.

Anne Strainchamps (50:59):

(singing)

male (51:02):

Now, the designs that move by doomsday defense. [crosstalk 00:51:03].

female (51:03):

PRX.

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Last modified: 
November 16, 2020