It’s my obsession in this writing space: the gap between the spectacular play of images and the material reality of those images. It’s actually too easy. We’ve really lost that connection, or, at the very least, we’ve decided that that connection can be set aside without explanation. Sports is an exemplary site, but one shaded by gender issues. Witness Mechelle Voepel’s write up of Chamique Holdsclaw’s sudden retirement.
If you don’t follow women’s basketball, Holdsclaw was the best in the world in college, the next big thing, or perhaps the first big thing to come in the then new WNBA. There was a lot to carry here. A new league. The legitimacy of women’s basketball beyond a niche sport in college circles. She was the real deal, pushing a whole new level of athleticism. So, when she didn’t develop and dominate as expected – culminating in a previous retirement, now this one – there was all the disappointment. And a lot of the criticism one expects for male athletes, though never the vehemence and cruelty of, say, the Ricky Williams case.
What can one say when Holdsclaw decides to retire, this time as the season is getting under way? After all, such retirements bring out the worst in commentators and fans. Such retirements also reveal how much the economy of fan-athlete rehearses ownership fantasies. We come to think we own the body and mind of the athlete, so much so that, in the case of Lebron James, so-called “progressives” imagine themselves owning his conscience. We don’t, of course, but we easily slip into that ownership language precisely because the spectacular character of sports – the sense of sporting events as a play of images (compelling ones, yes) and not the undertaking of real human lives – gives conscience a breather. We forget the complexity or lack thereof of the material person we call “this athlete” and purchase them. Own them. Make demands on how they live their lives. Strange, really.
I give credit to Voepel for paying attention to Holdsclaw’s very real, very sad recent history. Family members dying and getting sick, and this on top of (or perhaps as the cause of) suffering from depression. Voepel walks a precarious line between this very real material woman and the spectacular character of her as an athlete. A very precarious line, for the sympathy is real and relatable (depression, family deaths – we can relate to that, most of us), attuned to her materiality as a person, whereas the claim that she should perform for us as an athlete cannot but betray that materiality. After all, it is her choice. Maybe it is actually bad for her to play basketball? Not our choice.
Voepel is sensitive to this precarious line:
Perhaps she had to play to find out her heart wasn’t into it. It’s unfortunate, though, that Holdsclaw did not give a reason for leaving. Some will say it’s a private matter and she doesn’t owe anyone a public explanation. However, when you’re one of the best players in the history of your sport, and you walk away while still in your prime years, obviously you leave a lot of questions.
If depression is still the problem, Holdsclaw needs to realize there is absolutely no shame in that, no reason not to acknowledge it. It’s an enemy that even the strongest people have a very difficult time beating. If that’s not it, why leave this open to speculation?
This shift in analysis is so interesting and so crucial. I appreciate Voepel making the human person central. At the same time, there is a comfort with calling for a confession, asking for Holdsclaw’s most intimate struggles to be made public. Yes, we are a confessional culture. Foucault has given us a long series of meditations on just how that came to be and its consequences for the exercise of power. When Voepel shifts from “it’s a private matter” to “you leave a lot of questions,” one is justified in asking what kind of thing is being called into the public sphere. A person? Or an image? How well do we know the difference?
I’ll conclude by noting that Voepel refers to Holdsclaw as ‘Mique in a few spots. They might be friends. I don’t know. I do know that that was Holdsclaw’s nickname. Nicknames are familiar. Familiarity makes us feel intimate. Intimacy gives us a sense of rights, but it also means that you love that intimate other. Would loving “‘Mique” mean pressing, publicly, for more revelations about her inner life? Or would it mean, on her behalf, using writing to break her materiality, her life, her privacy through the play of images we call “watching” an athlete? And thereby giving her the space to just be. I think the answer is obvious.
Thanks for at least walking the precarious line, Mechelle Voepel. I appreciate it. Still, could you be a little bit more careful – even loving – next time?