Sports and class go way back. Sports writers often talk about teams, coaches, and players in terms borrowed from the language of class. That was evident last week as the NCAA basketball tournament drew to a close. As many commentators noted, the final match between Michigan State University and North Carolina was more than simply a game, especially for MSU whose team was described as having blue collar, rust belt values and carrying the hopes and dreams of a deindustrialized region.
Popular culture often relies on misrepresentations that reinforce negative stereotypes of the working class. In his documentary Class Dismissed, Pepi Leistyna outlines how television especially stereotypes the working class as both unintelligent and lazy and often reactionary in their political beliefs. The working class is only valorized during sporting events. Both teams and individuals are lauded for their commitment to hard work, attention to detail and task, and their toughness. While television sitcoms often lampoon the working class, in sports working-class people – especially men — are often heroes.
A similar pattern applies to communities. As we’ve found in studying representations of Youngstown, deindustrialized communities are often described as survivors. They are seen as tough, proud places where hard work and commitment to others are valued. In case of the NCAA championship game, the commentary and references to the working class and to Michigan as part of the “rustbelt” assigned extra significance to the tournament. MSU’s success, some suggested, provided hope for workers in the region who had been displaced by disinvestment and deindustrialization. The tournament also offered psychological relief from the pain and anxiety of unemployment, as well as an economic boost to a struggling city.
Talking about the team and the tournament in these ways falls into the category of what I call “bootstrap journalism” – reporting that emphasizes the ways that people and communities are “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” It focuses on survival and hope, but that often, unfortunately, excludes serious analysis of the causes and effects of the economic problems associated with deindustrialization and unemployment. In other words, it ignores the real experiences of people in the region.
I’m not suggesting that sports writers shouldn’t use working-class imagery to talk about sports, or that the excitement of seeing an area team make it to the finals isn’t real. Indeed, sports success matters. A successful team can give a struggling community a new identity, both locally and nationally. As British sociologist James Rhodes has recently argued in a study of how boxer Kelly Pavlik has become a new symbol of Youngstown, winning athletes can help create positive images for their hometowns.
And I’m all for the idea that winning something, whether it’s a boxing match or a new factory contract, helps people feel hopeful, and hope counts. Hope can give people the energy to work through difficulties. We see that in the success of Barack Obama’s campaign. Hope is audacious. And powerful.
But it isn’t enough. It can’t address the underlying economic realities that have given Michigan among the highest unemployment rates in the country. It can’t in itself provide jobs or clean up abandoned properties or reduce crime. It will take more than a positive attitude to do that.
So, yes, we should respect and appreciate the strong values of working-class culture and the way economically-displaced people and deindustrialized communities keep on struggling to survive. And we should also analyze the causes, effects, and most important solutions to the problems they face. That means we have to look beyond stereotypes. We have to stop blaming either workers or their communities for causing what is in fact a global economic change. We must also develop more realistic expectations for what it means and what it takes for people and communities to recover from economic hardship. Recovery often isn’t simply a matter of positive attitudes and hard work. Our bootstraps are broken. America’s working class needs serious attention, better policies, and real change.