Over the course of quarantine, I’ve dealt with the increasing burden of my body. My bones do this weird thing when they wilt in the joint. They whimper and twitch with just about any old work that I do. Mostly when I’m exerting myself: always during Basketball. I think it might be the reason I hate sports. I still participate in the religion. It just means I’ve faked more sports conversations than I think women have faked orgasm, and I’m not ashamed of it.
As a Black man, I’ve always felt the pressure to conform to my body in ways that I do not at all reflect or endorse. Sports has always been this leviathan I endure. As a teen, I felt bad for being bad at it. I felt like I was failing my Blackness and my people every time the ball slipped mid-dribble, every time my joints locked on their own, stiffened in the joints. The last time I endured a game, it was fresh after Bible Study. I made myself laugh at myself between the airballs and whiffed free throw despite how I could hear my shoulder blades groan beneath the skin.
Before coming to terms with chronic illness, I just thought I was uncoordinated and exhausted. My body always just did what it wanted. I’d try to run, and my joints would lock or wobble within the sockets. I lived in a household full of football rituals, but I wasn’t ever put into a position to really care about it. Instead, I moved inward towards thinking and books like a lame I am dedicated to being. I preferred cartoons and anime. I racked up late fee charges at the local library. My only fascination with being physical was the hard fascination with a fight, self-defense: practical uses of the body. Not that I’m much of a fighter: I’m just saying. I’m not a comedian, but I can tell a few jokes. Besides, a lot of men who play at being physical make a huge show of how large they are, but the muscles are all vanity: just like sports.
But it’s funny how things you don’t want to really be a part of haunt you wherever you go. My family moved from Philadelphia, PA, to Columbus, OH — two of the most football fascinated cities in the country. We went from a city of Midnight Green, Silver, and White to one of Scarlet and Grey. In 2020, after the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, the fan celebration was given every name except for riot. They smashed windows, swung from traffic lamps, and threw frenzied bacchanals in bodegas. Columbus alone routinely trashes its streets every March Madness, and I still never found the half-a-fuck to tune in even once a week. According to CBS, this year’s Super Bowl averaged 5.7 million viewers streaming the game, 68 percent more than last year.
In High School, our teachers would promise as much as 10% extra credit to our final credit, curved upward if we could guess as many as five teams progressing throughout our bracket, and every single time, I lost in the first round. I might’ve passed Sophomore Year Geometry if I could guess that the Buckeyes weren’t as reliable for a first-round pick as I hoped (A statement I still don’t understand). Last Winter, I walked into a New Jersey CVS with a Flyers cap on. It was purely for fashion — I like to look nice, and that’s between me and my God — and yet, I still gave the most plastic smile when my cashier asks me if I notice how terrible we’ve been this season.
I conjured a response that tends to keep the conversation going until I can pivot the whole talk to how some cereals are an anytime meal. I suck my teeth a lot and nod, keeping her eye contact as she scans my Seasalt candles and mutter half-heartedly, “Damn, I been saying that.”
She asks me what I think their problem is, you know, on the ice.
“They just need better defense,” I say. I hope it dies there. But she sucks her teeth and says maybe one of the whitest names I’ve ever ran into and how he’s underperformed. To which, I recount my favorite line — tried and tested my entire Senior year in undergrad. “That’s not how you get rings.”
No one really cares about your take. No one really wants to talk about sports. They just want to show you what they know. It’s one of those weird formalities of American culture, like when you ask “How are you?” and you mnemonically just mutter, “Good!” and you’re a bad person if you say anything other than that.
I was a server long enough to know that these formalities are like social currency. You trade them for graces. I think, though, it’s more applicable when Black people are in the transaction. Too often are we used to trading and trafficking exchanges for bits of survival. Our bodies become enhanced in these conversations, probably because there’s a bit of lust involved with how people see sports and see Black people — men especially — involved in them. That scene in Get Out when Jeremy Armitage (Caleb Landry Jones) makes those wild racist comments about Chris’s (Academy Award-Winner Daniel Kaluuya) body. What he wants from Chris is very fetishizing in a way I don’t think White men actively admit. It’s a gaze. It’s for the same reason roman and greek gladiators doubled as sex workers for the dominus’ pleasure. Even if it isn’t about interest in men sexually, it’s about the voyeurism of that kind of power and shape. Porn has an entire genre that popularized the idea of White men in the body or identity of a strong Black man; cuckold as a category is never the same as when a Black man is driving the scene as when a White man is. And you’re incentivized for feeding into it because as much as every racist is stereotyped for trying to keep Black men away from their daughters, they tend to tune into any Sports program that has a predominantly Black line-up.
Even in Ohio, as I write, the ABC 6’s social media coverage of Ma’Khia Bryant’s murder conjures hundreds of laughing emoji reactions and hundreds of comments against Black lives by profile pictures of predominantly Black sports teams. It’s morbid, but honestly, it isn’t shocking.
With a wide build and even a modicum of height, I’ve been compared to damn near every athlete known to man. During a one-year stint working at a Friendly’s in Southern New Jersey, most of my tips were cultivated from old white people taking as many liberties guessing what sport I’m playing at. Most of them incorrectly guessed the quarterback, and I found I could double those profits by just smiling and going, “How did you know?” and jeer through their conversation on stats I’m not even sure is accurate. I don’t ask the question in the back of my mind: Did you wanna talk about a book, maybe? Or the fact you just harassed my hostess about if she was wearing her hair “weaved” or not? Did you want to discuss the menu? Anything other than how fast I can probably dribble or how much pain I can take on the field?
I’m not my body, as divine as it is. But even if I was, why are you making me limit my exploration of it to just sports? I wonder if they know I danced for a few years. We can talk about that. We never do.
I’ll probably never get into sports. It’s never been something that has amazed me to the presence of needing it. I still don’t get why my friends in High School have eternally broken their bodies outside of the understanding that at the end of that, damage and pain is a small promise of a spotlight and safety for their families. And even they admit that perhaps there should be guardrails against how much they involve their children in a culture of broken bodies for the laughing and jeering of drunken White men five seconds from a rant on how Black men in Sports should just shut up and dribble and not beg — plead — to have their sons and daughters spared.
However, I don’t have many options other than to play along. In the conversation on Sports, I’m not the only one playing a role. I’m not exactly different from the men who do inevitably shut up and dribble. They’re doing what they got to do to get by. We all seem to be.