One of the banes of growing up in a small private school while playing sports with boys from bigger public schools was tryouts’ day, where, usually, the only people I knew by name were my parents. This past year has been kind of like that. Lots of newness. I moved, I started a new job, I got married. With all of the change, I resorted a lot to the narratives I learned growing up, and all year long, I felt like a rookie at tryouts.
In a recent interview, one of the newest members of my hometown Portland Trail Blazers, Mason Plumlee, reveals how rookies are treated in the NBA, and it reflects what rookies face in all professions.
Plumlee had to run plays on an airport tarmac for forgetting a boom box. He had to serve food to all the players after ordering crab cakes for himself first, demonstrating how veterans shame rookies who fail to respect a veteran’s dominance.
What’s most disturbing though is what Plumlee admits toward the end of the interview, recognizing that there were some events he can’t share about on national TV. This suggests that hazing is not merely a series of events – it is a culture, and it is a culture that has “to keep things in the locker room.” Hiddenness protects us from being exposed and vulnerable, and by shutting out and hiding the vulnerable, it maintains veteran power – patriarchal power.
I was never involved in hazing, but I certainly experienced peer initiation into patriarchy. Youth sports is where I learned to call teammates fa***** even though I had no idea what the word meant. It’s where I learned how to respond to success with stoicism or aggressive celebration, and it’s where I learned how to talk about women and people of color in degrading terms.
Thankfully for me, I grew up in a church that loved me for the body and soul I had, not for what I could or should be. People who loved me for me taught me to overcome the lies of patriarchy, but it wasn’t easy and I am still working. As I celebrate seven months of marriage and finish up my first year of working in a church, I realize that I haven’t been hazed this past year. Instead, I have been deeply loved, nurtured, encouraged, challenged. People have seen me make mistakes. People have been hurt by my mistakes. And those same people have embraced me and believed in me enough to remain supportive every time I fall. These are the people who free me from patriarchy, who let me be a rookie, who befriend me when I don’t know anyone at baseball tryouts.
Yet as good as my acceptance feels, I recognize that many do not receive the same. Those who are not male, for instance, or white.
Where I am nurtured, where my mistakes become a teaching moment, women and people of color are punished. And yet, marginalized people are not merely punished for mistakes – they are also punished when they are excellent. While Donald Sterling, former owner of the Clippers, watched some of the best players in the NBA – he derided them, complaining about their blackness. When black St. Louis Rams players walked out with their hands up, in solidarity with “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” the St. Louis police department chided them. We have high expectations for how black athletes should behave, and when they speak out, we don’t want to hear it.
Not everyone reading this will understand the sports situations and individuals I am writing about. But we all encounter the larger culture our sports world reflects – a culture that cares so much about winning and so little for losers. At some point, we all feel like rookies in a highly competitive and hostile world. The answer is in community.
In each of our vulnerabilities, in our inability to meet societal standards, we need a community where we can make mistakes, where we are loved for who we are – for our skin color, for our gender, for our sexuality. We need community that makes way for us all to best use our gifts. Because inside each of us, there’s a child, heading to tryouts, who just wants to make some new friends and to play.