Friday, February 20, 2009

Athletes, bodies, women's bodies

This might be semi-coherent -- it's late and I'm intoxicated.

For obvious reasons, the bodies of famous athletes are public in ways that no one else's are. If Olympic coverage was any indication, we apparently care what Michael Phelps eats for breakfast. When our favorite football player strains his groin, we watch the news hour to hour hoping to see some signs of progress, becoming medical experts and talking about ligaments and tendons and muscles and rehab regimens. The recent Alex Rodriguez media-gasm was an unhappy reminder of how much we allegedly care about exactly what it is that athletes put into their bodies, also -- and given that the whole affair was instigated by the illegal release of supposedly private information, it was a reminder of how entitled we feel we are to complete information about athletes' bodies. 
This is only notable because as a culture we've put bodies under the umbrella of privacy. We have rules like HIPAA and Doctor-Patient confidentiality, we have laws against peeping toms, we have these expectations of our rights. Seemingly, only athletes have forsaken these rights, since their bodies are so instrumental to what makes them public figures, I guess. When Darrell Arthur's draft position fell last year amid rumors of an "undisclosed" kidney ailment, it was his kidney that was the story, and not the problematic leak of his personal medical information. 

All of this is some background in order to finally address some of the issues raised after the announcement of Candace Parker's pregnancy, which I linked to at the tumblr site a month ago (sidenote: the father of the child will be Parker's husband Shelden Williams, who just got traded to Minnesota and will hopefully help to shore up the frontline in Al Jefferson's absence). The official reaction from the Sparks and the WNBA has been positive, but I've recently run across some fan opinions lamenting Parker's decision, and that had me a little uncomfortable.

As noted above, as a sports fan, I should have been used to the public-ness of Parker's body, since she is an athlete. But there was something more to it. Even women in the United States who aren't athletes theoretically have some experience with having their bodies made public -- the ongoing Roe v. Wade "debate" has turned not only the female body, conceptually, but also the bodies of individual females into a canvas for public debates about morality and religion as well as a potential outlet for state power. For all the talk of the government not entering into one's home, women live with the threat of the government jumping right inside them. 

I guess what I'm trying to get at, is that this sense that we have any right to debate Parker's decision to have a child seems to fit right in to a culture where we put A-Rod's drug habits up for public discussion. That's why the first analogy that popped into my head was that of Shaquille O'Neal, in 2002, choosing to delay a surgery, saying "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time." Fans felt betrayed by this decision that O'Neal was making about his own body, and it made perfect sense. 

But that analogy doesn't capture the discomfort I feel in hearing about Parker's pregnancy. It's like being an athlete has only helped to amplify the fact that, as a woman, her body was fair game for public debate to begin with.

I realize I'm oversimplifying. I also realize that the only reasonable response as a fan, is to congratulate the mother-to-be and move on, ignoring the haters.

The thing is, at this point, we can not really discuss the WNBA as a whole without having a discussion about sexism. I'm not starting that discussion here, I'm just acknowledging the fact. So a better analogy might be to race in the NBA in the Iverson era (post-Jordan, pre-Lebron) -- a time in the NBA when we couldn't honestly talk about the league generally without at least acknowledging race in our nation of cowards. So instead of comparing the current story to the Shaq story, here is, I believe, a better analogy: imagine if, in the summer of 2002, right after his MVP year, Allen Iverson had converted to Islam. And further, that the next year Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, happened to occur during the regular season, and Iverson missed 5 games in order to participate in the pilgrimage.

I can already hear the sports-talk radio phones burning up with complaints and soliloquies. The comparisons to Sandy Koufax would have been impossible or shot down as irrelevant, because really the outrage would be not so much about practicing religious freedom (in the face of one's responsibilities to a secular whole), but about the fact that Iverson was touching all of America's most exposed nerves. Some fans might be legimately concerned about the 76ers fortunes without Iverson, but that next level of outrage is one about race, and not about basketball.

So back to Parker. Yes, she's an athlete, and yes, fans of the Sparks (including me!) might be watching when and how her temporary absence will affect the Sparks' upcoming season, not to mention the WNBA as a whole. She's also a woman, making a personal, private choice with her body in a country that continues to fear women controlling their own bodies. It makes me wish that sports fans could step back, this once, and just be better. 

That we could have been better in understanding the Darnellia Russell situation, also. 

And this is all not to mention, of course, that she (and Williams) is a decent human being who is excited to start a family. 

Not that they're reading this, but Candace and Shelden: congratulations. 

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