[TW: This article makes mention of responses to sexual assault and transphobia.]
I stuck around for Thanksgiving Break, and hence, had lots and lots of time to do… nothing. Part of that nothing was scrolling through my phone like a 21st-century neanderthal. Part of that nothing was binge-watching Season Two of Jason Bateman’s “Ozark” (quite solid, if you’re looking for binge-worthy TV). Part of that nothing was doing the semi-deep dive on former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf that I’ve always intended to do. And part of that nothing was watching some of my favorite movies for the umpteenth time. One of those movies—”Mean Girls”—struck a particularly profound chord this time around. Highbrow films bring about highbrow ideas, apparently.
My last column was titled “Butler trade intersects with hypocrisy of VC activism.” Central to the thesis of this wannabe-polemical piece were a couple of questions. If you didn’t get a chance to read it yet (you still can!), the central qualm I pose with Vassar “activism” is that it exists in constant tension with the fact that Vassar is premised on the idea that every one of its students will be a hustling meritocrat. That’s the condition of membership. We are bound to our pursuit of boundless personal gain, and personal gain in a viciously unequal society is built atop the backs of the exploited.
In the conclusion of the column, I asked, “At what point will we hustling meritocrats totally alter our consciousness and stop with the game of personal gain?” The answer, recent Vassar history tells us, is never. If you want evidence, go make a LinkedIn account and look at the sorts of jobs that most of our peers are working. Ask yourself about the social function of those jobs. Have fun.
Perhaps most useful in our discussions moving forward are two quotations: one from the anthropologist Mary Douglas (as presented by the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman) and the other from Janis Ian (more on her later).
Douglas claims, “Unless we know why people need luxuries [that is, goods in excess of survival needs] and how they use them we are nowhere near taking the problems of inequality seriously” (Zygmunt Bauman, “Consuming Life,” 2013). Going to a school like Vassar is, for many, the pursuit of luxury. So why do we want it?
Janis Ian, in a somewhat similar vein, insists, “There are two kinds of evil people in this world. People who do evil stuff, and people who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it” (“Mean Girls,” 2004).
In the responses I got to last week’s article, there seemed to be confusion—or at least blinding discomfort—with its most existentially challenging elements. Perhaps existentially challenging is merely what I was going for, and I failed to get there. Regardless, in considering one of the artfully-crafted films that I watched over break, I think there’s a map to better elucidating these phenomena before connecting them back to sports (Of course! Welcome to the sports section!).
I’m about to get very serious. It’s “Mean Girls” time.
Let’s pretend that a generic Vassar student is Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan). Let’s pretend that their newfound, conflicted social consciousness is Janis Ian (played by Lizzy Caplan, and quoted above). Let’s pretend that corporate America is the Plastics (led by the truly legendary Regina George). Got it? Got it.
Janis justifies Cady’s break into the world of the Plastics on the grounds that Cady’s newfound critical consciousness will exempt her from the poison pill that the “others” in the Plastics take (see: Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith).
However, Cady cannot resist the many attractions of the Plastics. She gets caught up in, and ultimately defined by, their metrics of success. She is infatuated with their world of popularity, sexual legitimacy and resource-rich, attention-heavy extracurricular activities. Her conflicted social consciousness falls by the wayside (Bye, Janis!). Cady is one of the Plastics. Cady is Regina George; the Vassar student is the manifestation of evil lurking over the system we are so (rightly) ready to criticize.
I repeat: just go click around on LinkedIn. If your Janis Ian-like social consciousness is at all intact, LinkedIn looks an awful lot like Regina George’s “Burn Book,” except people are writing their own insults.
What I didn’t discuss last week, that I want to discuss this week, is what an alternative to deleterious complicity looks like. How would “Mean Girls” change if Cady Heron did not get co-opted by the oppressive powers that be? What would it look like to overcome the appeal of consumerist/capitalist minutiae? As promised, here is the sports section. Took me long enough, huh?
In the first 19 games of the 1995–96 NBA season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—then 26 years old—averaged 22 points and 8 assists per game. During that stretch, Abdul-Rauf became one of three players in NBA history to score 30 points while recording 20 assists in a single game (he did it against Charles Barkley’s playoff-bound Suns). Later in the season, Abdul-Rauf dropped 32 points on the 72-win Bulls team now often referred to by fans as the greatest team ever. Overall, he averaged 19 points and seven assists in 57 games. He was electric. And just over two years later, he was out of the league. He did not suffer a catastrophic injury. He did not get in any sort of legal trouble. What he did was refuse to stand for the national anthem.
In a 2016 interview with The Undefeated, Abdul-Rauf explained his decision to not stand for the national anthem: “You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran.” Abdul-Rauf saw the flag, and the anthem, as a symbol of racism and oppression.
As The Undefeated details effectively:
“The players union supported Abdul-Rauf, and he quickly reached a compromise with the league that allowed him to stand and pray with his head down during the anthem. But at the end of the season, the Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf…His playing time dropped. He lost his starting spot. After his contract expired in 1998, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t get so much as a tryout with any NBA team. He was just 29 years old” (The Undefeated, “Still No Anthem, Still No Regrets for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” 09.01.2016).
Abdul-Rauf’s story has resurfaced as the Colin Kaepernick saga wages on (I wrote about Kaepernick’s current position in an article titled “Kaepernick’s Nike deal demands skepticism”). Abdul-Rauf was better at his sport than Kaepernick is at his. But whether it’s Nathan Peterman or Pooh Richardson (Peterman is a lot worse than Pooh, FWIW), the two player-activists were/are objectively much better than their replacement-level contemporaries.
Even in the supposedly meritocratic world of professional sports—where talent supposedly trumps everything else—there are certain paradigm-undermining actions that cross the line and are grounds for removal from the site of competition. We know the line is not graphic domestic violence (hello, Tyreek Hill). We know the line is not sexual assault (what’s up, Ben Roethlisberger). We know the line is not death threats directed toward a gay man (Dwight Howard and his crew have become the locus of jokes, not controversy). And we know the line is not murder (howdy, Ray Lewis). Abdul-Rauf and Kaepernick, though? Those guys crossed the line. They challenged the status quo. They tried subverting the dominant, dogmatic, American paradigm.
The consequences for Abdul-Rauf, at least up to this point in the Kaepernick saga, proved harsher. He cost himself millions of dollars and didn’t have Nike to save his purse. He faced death threats. The house into which he planned on moving was set on fire. He was expelled from the league into which he spent his entire life trying to get.
But he retained a backbone.
Comfortably ensconced in retirement, Abdul-Rauf had a few thoughts on his career-defining, previously overlooked decision: “It’s priceless to know that I can go to sleep knowing that I stood to my principles… Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame” (The Undefeated, “Still No Anthem, Still No Regrets for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” 09.01.2016).
Cady Heron could never.