Literature, science fiction

Sport, Religio-Politics, and Science Fiction

Enticing you to read his most recent book, Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction by Derek J. Thiess, gave him a unique challenge. How does he get the buy-in of, primarily, academics on a project about sport—a subject that is largely viewed, especially in the humanities, as having little to do with the serious, intellectual work of higher education? He begins with something very here and very now.

Former University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker has just won the Republican primary nomination to run for the U.S. Senate. Having secured the endorsement of former president Trump, partly for validating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, Walker’s victory in the primary has thrust his erratic behaviour and non-sensical stances on political issues into the media spotlight. For example, when asked about gun control after the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Walker responded, “What I like to do is see it and everything and stuff.” The frenzy in mainstream and social media—including academic corners of each—has been substantial, but there is one topic that keeps re-emerging enough to remind everyone of Walker’s former athletic experience. As one sports website cited it in a recent headline: “This is CTE on display.” While I certainly do not intend to defend Walker’s antics, in my recent Liverpool UP book I did write that CTE is “a wish fulfilled, a bias confirmed, for all who equate sport and violence” (85). Indeed, the tweet quoted in that headline is hardly the first to blame Walker’s behaviour on CTE, or anything negative that happens around any other athlete for that matter. So, I wrote an unpopular thing: that the outrage over CTE was only the most recent in a long history of, and wider cultural contempt for, sport and athletes as embodied Others posing a monstrous threat to the enlightened and political realm of the mind.

But let me back up, five years to be precise. My wife was then the sport psychologist for the Georgia Bulldogs and had brought me—then a non-tenure track lecturer at a smaller university nearby—along to yet another function, this one focused on mental health. But this one was fascinating me as I listened to former Georgia running back and current MMA fighter, Herschel Walker, outline the effects that Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) had on his life. Today, I can’t help but think about how until my wife stopped working for the Department, she—and student athlete mental health in general—were treated with the patriarchal disdain that one would expect from the kind of big Southern U.S. university where football coaches are known to baptize players on the field. In fact, UGA football in general were more inclined to send their players to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Chaplin they kept around to minister to the athlete soul than to the clinical psychologist they kept on staff. But what’s the point of this long anecdote? First, the general public’s easy assumption that Walker suffers CTE when his behaviour is likely related to his DID has everything to do with the fact that CTE is perceived as a physical disorder rather than a purely psychological one, the result of monstrous embodied action, and cultural forces such as academia and religion have long aligned against such embodiment.

Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction is now available in paperback

But that is the larger issue at play that Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction would take from this example, as it reads monstrosity as a historical and rhetorical tool of religo-political Othering. Of course, we don’t actively remember anymore that Greek and Roman rhetoricians accused athletes and their “overdeveloped” bodies of a lack of civic engagement, or that early Church apologists railed against the games’ sinful spectacle of the flesh. But the rhetorical memory lingers in the way we discuss sports in general, and the manner in which academia (sociology in particular) bemoans its physical “barbarity.” However, it is perhaps reflected best in the pages of fiction, and in particular in the extrapolative genre of science fiction. Perhaps right now, you’re thinking of the many and popular dystopian futures that feature precisely the violent image of sport we’ve come to expect, from blockbusters such as The Hunger Games to cult classics such as Deathrace 2000 and Rollerball (all based on science fiction stories and novels). And it is important to acknowledge, as the book does, that these dark visions of sport have long existed in the pages of science fiction. But there are other visions of sport, other dreams, and science fiction tells these stories as well.

In Alec Effinger’s “Breakaway,” for example, we may hear the stories of the hockey player feared for his violence, but who lives to break away, to skate alone on the forbidding ice of distant planets. Or the tale of Aubry Knight, Steven Barnes’s futuristic prizefighter who does become violent outside the ring, but precisely because he is denied access to his sport and the kinetic knowledge of his familial past. And there are many more. From early feminist utopias like Burdekin’s The End of this Day’s Business to the virtual cyber warriors of Stableford’s Mind-Riders, so many of them use the extrapolative alternate worlds of science fiction to reflect our own back at us. And this is a reflection of the visceral humanity of the athlete, an embodied reality that we would prefer to forget, a monstrosity excluded from our consciousness but brought back from the margins by the speculative text.

But the repression of embodiment, too, is human. It’s the reason we write and speak about sports as derisively as we do—the butt of jokes or grumbling around the copy machine about the overpaid coach or the academically struggling athlete. It’s the reason so many convince themselves that Herschel Walker is not just a human dealing with a human disorder, but the monstrous product of sport’s brutality. And…it’s the reason this book exists.

You can now purchase Sport and Monstrosity in Science Fiction by Derek Thiess via the Liverpool University Press website for just £22.99.


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