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All Tomorrow’s Faceoffs

This discourse on the odd convergences of indie culture and sports is brought to you by Russell Westbrook’s blipster glasses.

Amare Stoudemire, Urkelite

At first glance, there should be little ideological kinship to be found between the wide-net alternative subculture generally labelled as “indie” and the glitzy gladiatorial medium of big-money professional team sports. The constistuencies, for one, are not only divergent but possibly diametrically opposed. Indie culture followers, at least in the most widely-circulated stereotype, tend to be the social outcasts and creative counter-culturists; their perspective of likes and dislikes is moulded not only by their own rejection of the mainstream but, ostensibly, the mainstream’s rejection of them. Sports devotees are, by their very nature, jocks, socially accepted and popular from at least high school on (if not longer) due to their relative athletic prowess. Since many sports fans played sports themselves in their youth (and will often offer stirring tales of their fleeting glories), they have not dedicated swaths of their youthful free time to becoming au courant with the latest fashionable trends in any given subculture, as indie kids have.

There are other gaps as well. Education and socioeconomic status are obvious ones, as well as the attendant political differences. Indie culture privileges DIY independence and anti-capitalism ethics; professional sports are a multi-billion-dollar business, its stars (rightly or wrongly) regularly held up as exemplars of North America’s unchecked, immoral greed (even though many of them rose from very humble origins on the merit of their own abilities, which indie counts as a gospel of righteousness). Indie culture is virtually synonymous with higher education and the upper end of the middle-class income scale, and as a result skews far more liberal than most of society at large. Big-time sports culture, meanwhile, is a highly conservative milieu, defined by the hyper-masculine power fantasies of TV and radio blowhards, whose ultra-conservative conceptions of right and wrong filter down to more of a working-class fanbase who accepts these views without the knee-jerk incredulity of the arts grad. One thing both subcultures have in common, though, is problematic racial coding. For all of its multicultural ambitions (and realities), the indie world is coded as a Caucasian sphere; hence the indispensible compendium of its obsessions, desires, and assumptions, Stuff White People Like.

Although sports has deeper cleavages in terms of race, the nature of the issues depends entirely on the sport at hand. The story of African-Americans integrating into major American team sports formerly dominated by whites like baseball and basketball has been told and retold, but both of those sports cultures have also strained to fully accept more recent influxes. For baseball, the quintessential sport of America’s romance about itself, the flood of players from Latin America into the majors mirrors a similar increase in the population share of Hispanics in the country as a whole (and the related xenophobic reaction from conservative quarters). If the MLB culture has weathered the sea-change better than the wider culture of, say, the border states, it still has experienced its growing pains.

Basketball, meanwhile, the major sport most dominated by African-Americans and therefore most closely associated with the vibrant culture of the perpetual American underclass, retains deep-seeded prejudices even among its multicultural fanbase. They will turn viciously on the game’s biggest star, LeBron James, over his power-move to Miami, reflecting a well-nurtured distrust of African-American success and influence (similar views colour the treatment of African-Americans in football, especially if they happen to be quarterbacks, the favoured symbolic position of white supremacy). But they will also circle the wagons, praising the “toughness” of the American-born while casting aspersion on prominent Europeans  in the NBA like Pao Gasol, labelling him “soft” (LeBron has gotten similar treatment as a corollary of his playoff disappointments).

Sean Avery, Countercultural Warrior

These dog-whistle terms are understood perfectly well by the pundits and fans who use them, even if they don’t realize it. The prejudiced dichotomy of “soft” and “tough” is especially pernicious in the NHL and hockey culture as a whole, a sport that is especially dominated by a conservative Caucasian worldview, exemplified in its home turf of Canada by the unapologetic right-wing blowhard Don Cherry. It’s no wonder that hockey has strained even more than other major sports in recent years to accept the end of closeted gay culture. Sure, the emotion of the Brendan Burke story has done wonders for LGBT acceptance in a sport culture that is often aggressively homophobic, but the recent fooforah over New York Rangers pest Sean Avery’s public support for same-sex marriage demonstrates that there’s a way to go yet.

But Sean Avery is an interesting focal point to circle us back to indie culture. A jetsetting hockey fashionista who has dated actresses (and then said awful things about them) and interned at Vogue, the divisive Avery has proven to be a difficult subject for the homogenizing machine of hockey culture. Expressing public support for same-sex marriage may indeed be the first wholly-acceptable thing Avery’s ever done, on or off the ice, but he’s long comported himself as a maverick, a brave warrior counter to the NHL culture in the most basic way. And he’s hardly alone, although his confreres tend not to share his nationality or skin colour: former Ottawa Senators goalie Ray Emery ruffled feathers by acting more like a NBA star than a “good old Canadian boy” and it largely cost him his NHL job in the sleepy capital; Montreal Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban displays his obvious talent with the exuberant arrogance of an NFL receiver, leading to a classic Freudian slip from one of his media critics; and Cherry has been the standard-bearer of a well-entrenched xenophobic movement against skilled European players, exemplified by the league’s exuberant Russian rock star, Alexander Ovechkin.

It’s no wonder that the alternative subculture in its many incarnations has balked at such rhetoric; Western countercultures pride themselves as bastians of liberal openness and cultural tolerance, and are deeply invested in unsettling the settled social order. This includes gender assumptions, especially masculine ones; a certain “softness” has been essential to male countercultural identity since the embrace of long hair in the hippie ’60s, to say nothing of David Bowie’s embrace of ambiguous sexuality in his ’70s heyday. The male-dominated world of major league sports is a testosterone zone by its very nature, while current indie culture favours the image of the sensitive, thoughtful man (preferably wearing women’s jeans).

But the gap between sports fandom and indie culture isn’t merely down to identity politics. The very measures of success in each sphere are wholly opposed. Sports, above all, is about winning. In the eyes of fans, teams are defined by how many championships or playoff games they win first and foremost, with season-end awards and statistical milestones as secondary markers of success. Profitability, the business world’s key positive standard of measure, only matters to Fortune magazine and the organization’s accountants. Some fans and certain observers (like the sadly-defunct Free Darko) value aesthetic merit, but that only goes so far in burnishing your sporting legacy, as Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns of the 2000s demonstrate. Winning – being the best, by the measure of any given league’s rules and championship formats – is everything. Indie culture, in its most idealized fantasies about itself, isn’t about winning. Quite the opposite, in fact: if you’re too successful, you’re a sell-out, or else you’re gaming the system. It’s all down to aesthetics, style, and integrity, however you choose to define those things.

Chris Berman, Hipster

The interesting thing about sports culture, opposed to hipster culture, is that those things are defined differently in different places. Unlike the local-chapter nature of the indie subculture, where a hipster in Williamsburg is fundamentally no different from one in Portland or Austin or Toronto, when you get right down to it, sports fans differ wildly from town to town. And being a fan of a certain team in a certain city can mark you in certain ways. In the local example, it seems pretty obvious to me that the Toronto Blue Jays are the hipster’s choice among GTA sports teams. My evidence is mostly anecdotal, but the profile fits. Like many a favoured indie rock band (Pavement, who put out their seminal albums when the Jay were winning World Series titles, comes especially to mind), their best years are behind them, indeed mostly situated in the formative years of current 20-somethings. So there’s a nostalgia factor, a conduit through which to relive and reanimate one’s childhood, which is always an incredibly powerful draw in the counterculture (and is oddly contrary to its progessive leanings). Furthermore, they’re eternal underdogs under the hegemonic rule of massive (and American) corporate enemies. These include not only AL East division rivals and perennial contenders like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but also local-market grandees the Toronto Maple Leafs (with their fans, the hoser hordes) and their MLSE-run cousins, the Raptors and Toronto FC. Furthemore, the Jays’ sparsely-attended games grant the illusion of exclusivity, and the possibility of statistical immersion grants separation from fairweather fans, feeding the insatiable beast of snobbery that lords over every subculture.

But then the same logic wouldn’t apply to, say, New York City or Boston or Chicago (I would identify the hipster teams in those cities as, respectively, the Mets, the Bruins, and the Blackhawks, though I could well be wrong). And for the most part, members of any non-sporting counterculture find the aggressive, conservative, corporate world of professional sports intimidating and off-putting. Hence the embrace of quasi-sports like pillow fighting or roller derby in indie culture (both have strong feminist associations, appealing to progessive women being a constant gaping blind spot of pro sports), or hippie-like activities like bocce or ultimate frisbee or biking. For a culture that thrives on self-identifying as being on the cutting edge, why bother with the proscribed inevitability of sports fandom’s community feel, when you can just invent your own sports? Can we be far from competitive yoga leagues? One is tempted to scoff, but the principles are sound where the counterculture is concerned.

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Categories: Culture, Sports

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