BY INMA ZANOGUERA | This essay was awarded the 2nd-Place in the adult category of the Awesome Sports Writing Contest.
Though I grew up in a small island in Spain—as a woman and as an athlete—I moved to the U.S. at the age of 17 to play basketball at the University of Toledo, Ohio. Four years later, I decided to go back to Europe and give professional ball a shot. It was short lived. After half a season, burned out in both mind and body, I decided to retire, put an end to basketball as a profession and focus on other things that mattered to me.
Feelings of burnout have this effect—they cloud the better memories and make you forget the joy, the simple pleasure of playing a sport you love. After my last game in Italy, I did not play, watch, or even think deeply about basketball for the greater part of the following two years. This was not a result of resentment, but a natural, self-preserving reflex. During those months, my mind, having been populated by nothing but The Game for 15 years, offered a new and ample space for me to start building a rejuvenated, ball-less life and self. I discovered, among other things, that indeed I had a fancy for certain things, and disliked others. For example, I was drawn to books, to literature, and to traveling without an aim in mind. I was, most of all, enchanted by this very rare concept the indulgence of which I could only fantasize about as an elite athlete: the subtle art of idleness.
It was during those idle months between my recently defunct basketball career and the still ambiguous beginning of my next endeavor that I started really ruminating on questions of race. Why, as a brown girl growing up in a predominantly white, small town in Spain, it never appeared to me a good idea to ponder on racial issues, I do not know. How, after four years in the United States, I managed to always remain at the margins of conversations about race, I really cannot tell. Of course, in retrospect, I can gather that perhaps all it was was me trying to survive, employing a self-enclosed protection system to keep me from realities I knew would be painful to face.
Now, however, I can say I have become sort of the antithesis of that. It stands to logic and reason that a prolonged silence from a naturally frank person be followed by a period of candid, heartfelt outspokenness, which itself will probably yield if not a silent, at least a less accentuated loudness. For now, though, I am still testing the projecting capacities of my lungs. And don’t mind if I do.
As a basketball player, I was always under the soft but inescapable paws of some “greater institution.” As a freshman, I quickly learned that neither I, nor my actions, nor my tweets, represented me as individual but instead reflected my athletic program as a whole. Whether this is true or not, whether this is the right or wrong approach, is up for debate. But for me but for me this was the unquestionable order of things, and in a sense I miss it: I miss the blissful days when basketball sheltered us from having to face whatever went on outside our peaceful, apolitical bubble. It did not matter if I was black, white, purple or polka-dotted—on the court, everyone abided by the same rules. So refreshing! It did not matter if I felt inclined one way or the other on a particular social issue that affected me, my loved ones, or my community—I was not a political subject, I was an athlete, residing in this buffer-zone-athlete-land, safeguarding myself and my institution from any political opinion that could possibly stain my/our reputation.
As I said, don’t mind if I do: athletes do not represent themselves, and themselves alone—they reflect themselves and their institution, and their families, and their communities, and any other thing they want. And, if they so choose, they may take one step further from representation into advocacy for any of their alleged groups of belonging. It appears this makes some folks uncomfortable.
Isn’t an athlete meant to embody leadership, initiative, and agency? Not just in sports, but in their lives as fathers and daughters and, yes, citizens with a voice? In truth, nobody, no coach or teammate in the entire fifteen years I spent “representing institutions,” asked me explicitly to remain silent on social issues. The choice to do so was deliberately mine, and I told myself that it worked for me. But it didn’t. In order to maintain my basketball persona, I shed many of the fundamental layers that comprise me as a whole person. I compartmentalized myself, and willingly tossed all the pieces that did not perfectly fit into the unproblematic, rule-abiding athlete archetype. That which did not aid me or my team in winning games, did not, in my mind, serve a worthwhile purpose.
In fact, it is only now, three years into my life as a retired athlete, that I have been able to attend basketball games and find some kind of enjoyment in the sport again, even if just from the stands. I am pleased to see young players working hard and having fun. I am even more pleased to witness the uncanny ways of my brain, ceaselessly seeking to identify characteristics of my younger self in these athletes who are now wearing the shoes I once filled. With the difference that now, equipped as I am with all these political and rhetorical tools that more often than not funnel my thoughts into the particular social dynamics of any situation, my mind wanders from sneaker brands to game analytics to random political issues like, say, the American national anthem.
Not random at all, of course—Colin Kaepernick, by refusing to stand for the national anthem in 2016, stroke a match that caught real mainstream fire. Sports and protest have a long and tumultuous history in the United States, but I had never understood it. Why wouldn’t ball players just, play? I was of that opinion, then.
This Is Why: Because they aren’t just players, born and raised to entertain a generation of sports fans—they are real people, with a history, with a duty (whether they choose to fulfill it or not). And, if they belong to a marginalized group, their history may just be filled with examples of others before them who stood up for their rights, as is Colin Kaepernick’s, being an African American. Who are we, as a generation, to consider the job finished? Kaepernick, and hundreds of athletes after him, made the choice to honor the historical struggle that granted him the freedom to play football and kneel in the first place. I never did such a thing, but recently I witnessed a young high school girl that showed me what looked like the courage I never had.
This happened during a girls’ basketball game at Southview High School. I have attended a few of them this year, one of my Toledo friends plays for them, and her family invites me to join them from time to time. The first time I went, during the before-the-game anthem, I found myself in a very strange situation. I must have been lost in thought, because I was late to realizing the anthem was on. Once I did, though, I had the surprising lack-of-reflex to stand up with the crowd. I found the present scenario—me the only person not on their feet—an unexpected but welcomed invitation to ask myself: Do I want to stand up? Colin Kaepernick came to mind. Before this game, as a player and as a spectator, I had never not stood up for the anthem. As I was trying to formulate a sincere answer, my inner dialogue informed me that I was already the only seated person in the arena, that everyone else was standing and the tune continued to play. If someone had glanced at me—I thought—they probably assumed I was one of those people making an attempt at a political message. The thought of standing then, late as I was to the party, just seemed ridiculous. And, hell, I did want to send a message! But, as a non-American woman of color, I just wasn’t sure what message I was sending. No matter, though, I remained still.
Simultaneously, though, for the entire minute or so I did not stop debating whether I should, after all, stand up: I'm not even American; What am I even protesting? I found about a hundred arguments for rising from my seat (even if half the song had already passed), and zero for staying on my butt. Still, something in the act of standing up for this anthem felt like a betrayal to some nebulous duties I had spent the last few years crafting for myself. The tune went on and I kept debating, enveloped in my inner dialogue, sweating, a little embarrassed, even a little scared. But then it was over, and everyone sat back down, and everything went back to normal as the whistle signaled the start of the game.
A few weeks later, I attended a second game at the same high school. Again, the anthem took me by surprise as everyone rose. I'd forgotten the whole anthem-deal from two weeks ago, and again the song commenced a new inner conflict of interests for me. There I am seating, sweating, unconvinced, but unable to stand. Next to me were my friend’s mom and dad, standing normally, hands faithfully placed on their chests, not heeding my decision at all. Realizing their indifference doubled my doubts. Until it happened. As I gazed about myself during the first lines of the anthem, sitting so uncomfortably it was easier to presume I had a physical condition rather than a statement to make, I saw the girl, the only black girl on the cheerleading team, taking a knee, right there in the middle of the court. And across from her was a black man with long dreads sitting next to a toddler also with dreads, also in his seat. This man looked so convinced of himself. I thought, there sure is no sign of doubt in his face. He also had an air of dismissal, as though he was so done with this and all anthems on the planet. And it felt so great, so good to be in their bold, solid presence. Who was I to be scared, who was I to even consider standing up because of that fear, while bearing witness to this girl’s act of honor? There I had in front of me something that felt so grand and important. Aware as I was that the protest’s aim had no affiliation with my personal empowerment, this girl’s stance filled me with a bravery and bravado I embraced as solely mine as I sat on that seat.
Was she sweating, and feeling uncomfortable, like I was? Probably, I thought, but maybe more scared than I because unlike me, who attends a different school, all these other people who are not kneeling and not seating, form part of her daily life, and she would have to encounter them tomorrow, and the day after that. Yes, she must be scared, I thought. But neither she nor the man exuded anything but righteousness, their bodies petrified like statues and with the same conviction that they belonged exactly where, and how, they were If they notice me, I thought, they will likely think I am African American just like them. And though I am not, some thing, some strange force akin to affiliation…. I thought, also: if they see me they'll probably think I'm a Black American, which I am not, but I don't care, I am not standing. And then the doubts came in again: I am not even American… What am I even protesting? But yet, some thing, some strange force akin to affiliation with the kneeling girl kept me sealed to that bleacher, and through her unfaltering presence, through her irrevocably honorable kneeling position, I felt empowered, acknowledged, and most of all, I felt hopeful. I have always believed in the Power of Sports. And now, I do even more so.
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