All of the conversation, anxiety, and support around Simone Biles saying “no” to playing a game this week has me thinking about our societal relationship to sports again. It’s something I think about a lot because of my experience with the price of playing games.
When I was young, I repeatedly injured my knees and my ankles playing games. I loved playing rugby and indoor soccer, despite having ankles that I often rolled and sprained, both on the field and then sometimes when I was just walking down the road because they were so unstable from previous injuries. I remember that frustration to the point of tears when I would collapse on the side of the road because I had stepped on a rock, and my stupid, abused ankles couldn’t support my weight at that sudden unexpected angle. It happened a lot actually; but I still practiced and played. I didn’t want to let the team down. I was still pushing myself, and it felt like resilience. It felt like dedication. It felt like the path to heroism, which is defined not in relation to effort, but to constraint. It got to the point where before many of my rugby games, I would use up practically a whole roll of tape mummifying my ankles to make them immobile so that I could play on my perpetual injuries. I was far from the best player on the team, but I had internalized some sense that worrying about me and my body would make me lesser–less righteous or something. I sometimes wonder how much of it relates to internalizing the virtues of Christian asceticism from my religious upbringing. Self-neglect is such a central theme in Christianity (among other religions). Focus on something greater than yourself, even and especially at your own expense… it is deeply embedded in how we define heroism and virtue in American culture.
I obsessively played indoor soccer, even as the ligaments in my knees stretched out, to the point where frequently my leg would get locked up as I stepped into a car. The pain of having the ligament get caught on the bone is pretty significant, and every time it happens, I have to manually pull my leg to straighten it out enough that the ligament snaps back into place. To this day, my feet and my knees bother me, even when I’m just sitting in bed. Occasionally, my knee will lock up again just from the force of gravity, despite the fact that I’ve basically given up on ever playing those games regularly again. I now play soccer maybe once per year, if the opportunity arises and I’m feeling up for it… and if I play these days I hold back an awful lot, terrified about what might happen if I push myself too hard. I’m 34 years old.
I remember the day I realized I had to quit soccer. I was 21, and at my first duty station in the Air Force. I found this amazing indoor soccer arena with pickup games during lunchtimes where a local Spanish-speaking crew would meet up and play for an hour. I was so excited about playing again after taking a break from soccer when I started preparing to join the Air Force, because I was afraid my injuries were going to cause issues during basic training. The lead-in to the first time I went there was pretty extreme because I was an introvert in a new place, so I remember it as hours and days of anxiety, driving to and from work with my gear in my car, leading up to the moment where I actually showed up with my gear on. I lasted all of 10 minutes on the field before my knee locked up and I had to limp back outside. I cried in my car as the realization washed over me that choosing to play soccer might pose a significant threat to my employment in the Air Force. We have to do a fitness test annually, and I have to take care of myself in order to be capable of the running portion. There was no logic that allowed me to choose to risk my career for a game. It was a moment where I had to face the fact that this game meant a lot to me personally but it was time to just stop because the cost of injury was now too high.
I honestly feel silly talking about crying about a game, but I did. I broke down. I started to process what had led me to this point–the values of our culture that had not only allowed but urged me to damage myself throughout high-school. I don’t blame my coach, teachers, or parents. I don’t think it was their fault. I think it was our fault. I think we think about sports all wrong, and we’re not listening enough to the stories of those we aren’t currently putting on a pedestal. Just look at how quickly people seem ready to pull Simone Biles off of that platform now that she’s not performing for them any longer. I think the narrative about the value of sports isn’t being driven by the vast numbers of people who are forced to sit for the rest of their lives with lasting impacts of injuries or concussions or stress or abusive coaches. It’s one of those things again where marginal damage is simply not factored into the narrative because it doesn’t really fit. The power of this cultural fixation with sports seems too strong, and you can see that when people start talking about protecting football players from concussions. So many spectators are so quick to push back on efforts to make the game safer. What are we even doing? How are we ok with this?
I coached my son’s soccer team once. One of the parents got in my face and screamed at me when I pulled his kid from the field for being too aggressive. The idea that I would police our own team like that when the ref hadn’t called a foul just didn’t make sense to him. I didn’t really engage. I said “Not on my team” and welcomed him to go home, and that was the first and only time I ever coached a kids soccer team. I couldn’t stomach the attitudes–the competitiveness, even on a rec league for like 8-year-olds–the toxicity of parents towards children and children towards one-another in the context of a game.
I know that I also had positive experiences and lots of growth from playing rugby and soccer, but that whole experience is now colored with some lasting damage. I basically don’t watch sports movies because they make me feel sad and sick. The idea of perseverance and resilience becomes so all-encompassing that we forget that this whole time what we were watching was actually just a game, and this whole time people have been dropping off, disappearing from the spotlight and forgotten, left to tend to their physical and invisible injuries behind the curtain or out in the real world for the rest of their lives while we focus our attention on the next performer whose level of achievement might be framed as either the product of support or abuse simply depending on which lens we choose to look at it through. It is, in many ways, simply entertainment for the spectators, and that comes at a price for the performers, and we don’t talk enough about that price… and the stories we tell actually often only make the problem worse.
I don’t actually enjoy watching the Olympics that much, because it feels like the symbolic winning out over the actual–abstracted narratives that hide the human cost. It feels like the cost to Simone Biles of simply focusing for a moment on whether she is ok is so unfairly high…
To me, it often feels gladiatorial and performative and exploitative.
I’m sure that there are plenty of cases where it’s not… and perhaps I’m just bitter. But congratulations to Simone Biles for doing what was probably the bravest thing in this case and hopefully normalizing some self-advocacy for others who might feel trapped in a performative role for a consequential audience, where there is unbelievable pressure to subjugate the self beneath a system that might happily just use you up and discard you when you’re no longer physically or mentally capable of serving its purposes.