Sunday, September 25, 2011

Physical Activity and Cultural Deformation...

Humans do pretty strange things.  Many of them center around balls.   Many of them do not.  But regardless - or perhaps another instance of strange - is I'm still thinking about Nathan's post here as well as NellLou's pointing to this bit here on "Yoga and Exclusion."

Here in America, it has become "football season."  Football is the biggest cult in the United States. It is an absurd sport, in that there is a degree of artifice that is byzantine at a level present in no other sport, to my knowledge.   It is also absurd in that there is, to me, a most limited degree of body types for which this sport can really be effectively played, and they mostly center on attributes of brute force, with the exceptions of the quarterback and the guy they bring out to kick field goals, although the former must have the minimum brawn to be able to survive being tackled by a couple or three thousand pounds of beef-fed humans.
I am just 5'6" - about the height of Dustin Hoffman, about 1 inch shorter than Bruce Lee was.  I know, for my demographic, I'm not in the mode; I'm at the tails, and I have survived these 5+ decades of my life knowing that I was never cut out to play for the NFL.   Of course, I knew that in high school, and could not then for the life of me understand why some of my  classmates could not understand that their their lives were going to go all downhill after being tagged as "varsity."  There's tragedy throughout  high school, we all know.  I'm not sure it gets better for those whose high point of their life ended at homecoming and are now bouncers. I hope it does.

And yet, despite the tragedy, despite the ill-fitting nature of football to the rest of Americans' lives,  the American media sells football non-stop as an ideal for sport in order to piggy-back the sale of all kinds of crap to Americans...and they buy it!  It is sold so much that politicians feel they must connect themselves to it,  (see here, here, and here).

Football is sold to Americans as something that transcends class and ethnicity, but that's absurd, and everyone knows it, and yet still the pretense is observed and rarely questioned.  Basketball does a better job at transcending ethnicity, which is why it's wildly popular in China.  What we call "soccer" does a better job at transcending class and ethnicity, which may be why you're more likely to read about a riot following a non-US "football" game than a US football game.

 Why am I writing about this, when it all seems so obvious? 

To  a certain extent I would submit that most sports have some weird kind of cultural deformation, and when you think about it, it's kind of quaint to think that a "liberal" endeavor like yoga might be immune.  There's no reason it should be, other than that, hey, it's "liberal" and therefore we should see more faces and gender than we might from the U.S. Polo Association!

As I wrote earlier on this, the martial arts world has some weird representations in our culture. But there are martial arts and there are martial arts, to be sure. Boxing has been for so long in America a "last chance" for the poor, but has recently had some emergence as a yuppie/health club fad. If one is a great practitioner of kendo, and one wants a great sword, there's a money issue.  But in all of this, and I suspect this is a class issue too, the less well-off do not have as many resources to find a great teacher.

All of that said, I wasn't well aware when I was younger that there were ways of doing martial arts physical practices that are not only well suited to my body type, but actually give me an advantage over larger opponents.  Though I was not really bullied at all in high school after October of freshman year, it has simply never occurred to me the degree to which folks with even my body type are marginalized, to which people who are not small compared to football players are thought of as "less athletic" and all that (despite the fact that folks shorter than I have played for the NBA).
And this brings me to my final point: Football is inherently conservative. That's why there must exist a massive media machine to continue to sell it and sell its cultural relevance, at least the pro-variety.  And full disclosure: I have enjoyed playing in quite a few games of touch football in my life.  I stopped getting picked last when the more physically appropriate kids figured out I was blazingly fast compared to them.  But I stand by my points about how US football appears in US culture.

Martial arts can be revolutionary. One of the interesting aspects of the recent movie "Grandmaster Yip Man" and its sequel is the fact that Yip Man's martial art disseminates across classes in effect as a societal gesture of national survival.  That is, kung fu, "功夫" - the cultivation of a man (sorry that's what it means ladies, but please accept it as inclusive for my purposes) - is the cultivation of the nation.  The intermingling of class issues with personal development have been a staple of these movies for decades (see "The Karate Kid," e.g.)  but the idea of 功夫 as something building cultural and social solidarity is something relatively new to cinema, even though at least that part of Yip Man's life was true. 

American football pretends to be a broad positive cultural endeavor, but it is but a pretense.  The only things I can think of to compare "Yip Man"  are films like "Rudy," but to be honest, it was "The Longest Yard" that came to my mind first.

I think the apotheosis of bad American culture can be summed up in this thought: Vince Lombardi's "motivational speech" "What It Takes to be Number One" - is thought of  as motivational!  And people sell framed versions of it! I quote:

Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.
There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don't ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win.
Every time a football player goes to ply his trade he's got to play from the ground up—from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their head. That's O.K. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second.
Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization—an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win—to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don't think it is.
It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That's why they are there—to compete. To know the rules and objectives when they get in the game. The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules—but to win.
And in truth, I've never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn't appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.
I don't say these things because I believe in the "brute" nature of man or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man's finest hour—his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear—is that moment when he has to work his heart out in a good cause and he's exhausted on the field of battle—victorious.

This is why America loses wars, folks: they think like Vince Lombardi, but their fellow-world game players are thinking like Sun Tzu.

And  finally, as for yoga, it has its place, but in terms of liberal social sins, this is hardly a noticeable blip on the scale of things.  And I hope all beings get to enjoy physical activity...


NellaLou said...

I've never thought about football in those terms before...and I used to have season tickets for a few years,with my husband for the CFL. He stopped going after a while, so I'd go with girlfriends and we'd ogle the men between plays. But we also knew all the rules and protested vigorously when a flag on the play was seriously in error. Once the tickets ran out they were not renewed. It was an interesting exercise in spectator sports which I'd not really been into at all before that. I really don't like hockey and baseball.

Now I've come to appreciate cricket. The appeal is in the pace (slow) of the play, the strategy and the aspect of sportsmanship that accompanies it. Although it was a British aristocratic pursuit for a very long time, now it's appeal from India to Zimbabwe to the West Indies is as strong as in England and Australia. It has become democratized. I see school kids, with hand whittled bats and home-made balls setting up sticks in fields to make a cricket pitch and playing. The measurements are paced out by foot. It is similar to soccer in that way. However one would not see a headbutt to one's opponent in cricket.

And there are positions for all kinds of skill levels and body types. The fastest runners or best pitchers or strongest are not necessarily the best players in many positions.

When the world cup matches are on people will close up their shops and stop everything they are doing to go and watch it.

The atmosphere is very different than the elite sporting contests in the West. If a guy hits six 6 pointers in a row members of the other team will come up and congratulate him and everybody, regardless of which team they are cheering for will go wild. It's not a do or die thing. There won't be booing or throwing nasty stuff on the field.

Sport is an interesting reflection of societies. I too have done martial arts and have found it so much more helpful than for only physical development. I'm glad you're enjoying it so much.

Mumon said...


You've raised a few good points. Seeing pro-football in person is a quite different experience than watching it on TV; the way in which the team is choreographed comes through that doesn't ever come through on TV, no matter how big the screen. And when a "wrong" thing happens, it can be much more apparent, simply because you can see, from a many vantage points in the stadium, that the "flow" of the game is interrupted in an unusual way.

I've had quite a few folks from South Asia work with and for me, and I know what you're saying: they're wild about cricket.

And finally, re: martial arts, you're right. I have played and enjoy playing tennis (really aristocratic, I admit), and of course singles tennis teaches you a lot about the state of your own mind, but martial arts seems to do this better and in a more intimate way.

Barbara O'Brien said...

I don't know about where you are, but yoga classes in these parts are bleeping expensive. I've looked into taking classes from time to time over the years and always decide I can't afford them.

I guess I'm not privileged.

Mumon said...

They're all over the place where I live (Vancouver WA, north of Portland OR); they can be had for $30/month in some venues, I understand.

That is beyond the reach of many, to be sure.

The standard rate for Tae Kwon Do "for kids" is about $80/month.

Oddly enough, my Wing Chun is markedly cheaper than Tae Kwon Do on a per-hour basis.

Mumon said...

And one other thing: the teacher encourages even "almost" beginners to try and teach those who know even less...there's a lot of 1:1 teaching here.

J said...
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