by Alex Gilland

Buley Basketball CourtsSports are an integral part of everyday life for many people in our culture. For some of our Everyday Life in Middletown informants, watching sports is a routine form of escape within the everyday, a form of passive leisure. For others sports are active hobbies. Others testify to the overly competitive, potentially ugly side of sports.

And, looking beyond our informants, Muncie is a community where sports are tied to education and community activism, particularly the effort to uplift challenged neighborhoods and the young people who live there.

The many ways that sports signify for people in Muncie are suggested by a story shared by Informant 14. In the Everyday Life in Middletown questionnaire that dealt with work and community, she told the story of seeing a boy playing basketball alone in her neighborhood street. After posting a photo she took to Social Media, she received an outpouring of interesting comments, finding that the

photo represented something different to everyone. All that commented related somehow to that boy playing basketball in the street, or to the feeling that it evoked. In some instances it was memories, in others it was about the reputation of a neighborhood, about growing up Muncie, about renewal, maybe about hope and disappointment. It was the base of so many things to so many varied people- yet it was an everyday scene, on an everyday street, in a normal city. (Informant 14, Work and Community Questionnaire)

Darrick Lee coaches boys for a Muncie middle school-aged kids program referred to as ICE (Inner City Educational) Basketball. In the ICE league, students have to maintain good grades in order to be allowed to play. I asked Lee what he thought of Informant 14’s story.  He described how the ICE program harnesses young kids’ fantasies about basketball to the purpose of making them focus on school:

In our area that we’re in, everybody wants to be a basketball player. Everybody wants to be, you know, that next LeBron James or you know, Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, any of those guys. So with our kids knowing that the only way they can play basketball is to have those good grades, to show that they have great character, to show that they can be a great teammate…The word has gotten around that your grades are showing importance. (Darrick Lee, Phone Interview, March 29)

Youth sports can also mean the chance to get away from Muncie for a while, to see other places. For Informant 1 and her daughter, this means traveling and competing with a volleyball club. In her February 12 diary while flying to Salt Lake City, Informant 1 proudly says: “Hearing the conversations and laughter of all the young athletes around me gives me a sense of contentment. These girls are able to experience what some kids could only imagine, leaving their community.” (Informant 1, 2/12)

For some poor children in Muncie, using sports to “leave home” means something more modest—and more crucial—than a trip across the country. Jacqueline Hanoman, executive director of the Ross Community Center (one of the host sites of ICE basketball), said ICE basketball is for some kids a place where simple childhood play can find a space in their unfortunately all-too-adult lives.

Playing sports is a way of getting away from their home life. It’s a way of getting away from, and I’m going to be very honest here, getting away from Meth, getting away from physical abuse, getting away from emotional abuse or functional abuse, getting away from a very adult world that they live in. (Jacqueline Hanoman, Phone Interview, March 29)

If it is partly an escape, ICE basketball is also a support system, where kids can interact with adult role models. Girls ICE coach Angela Dildy described her interactions with her players this way: “All of our girls they’re amazing! They work well together, they have sportsmanship, they come in and tell us about their day before we start. What’s your number today? How are you feeling?” (Angela Dildy, Phone Interview, March 29)

For more affluent Muncie citizens, youth sports is part of the everyday scramble of chauffeuring children to activities, tending to their growing egos, and navigating the personal politics of a small community. In his February 24 diary entry while watching his daughter’s basketball game, informant 12 observes “S. doesn’t get to play for a single minute. That’s shitty of the coach. Yes, I get why he played the best players, but half the team didn’t get a single minute of play. What’s that tell them?” (Informant 12, 2/24) Jackie Hanoman of the Ross Center acknowledges that the competitiveness built into sports is potentially double-edged. “I think playing sports does build up teamwork and I think if well developed, you can really bring out someone’s potential,” she said. “I think it unites people, but personally I think it also divides people to a certain point when it gets extremely competitive.” (Jacqueline Hanoman, Phone Interview, March 29) In a phone interview conducted on March 29, Informant 5 grappled with the question of how sports might—or might not—transform communities.

I think we live in this society where there’s so much competition and I think that it can get ugly and I think it draws out the worst of us at times. And I think it can impact us because a lot of our kids are formed in sports they’re playing, like their worldview is formed in the sports they’re playing, and that’s not healthy. Personally I don’t think that sports is going to transform a community long-term, but it can be a major player doing that if you build it on the proper foundations. (Informant 5, Phone Interview, March 29)

Beyond such weighty matters lies our everyday consumption of sports via the media.  Watching basketball, or reading about it online, might seem to be classic examples of what theorist Henri Lefebvre calls “passive leisure.” (He distinguishes passive leisure from “cultivated leisure”—activities that involve creativity and self-development). But is all sports spectatorship passive? After a week of draining work, Informant 5 practices passive leisure by mindlessly watching a football game on Sunday afternoon. He’ll often fall asleep while he watches. On the other hand, becoming knowledgeable about the arcane details of the NCAA tournament is perhaps a somewhat cultivated pursuit. Informant 5 chose not to fill out a bracket this year because he didn’t feel sufficiently informed.

So usually, like, I follow Ball State, and I usually get into the tournament. And right after the brackets come out, I do some research. This year its just been too busy. It’s just been too crazy with this banquet that we have, you know Easter coming up, and having a child now. Like I said I can easily fill out a bracket but I totally would have been guessing and I’m just like what’s the point? So I didn’t even fill one out. (Informant 5, Phone Interview, March 29)

His comment suggests, perhaps, that being a sports fan isn’t entirely passive, that the work of becoming “expert” as a fan is a form of cultivation—and one that not everyone has time for, even if they would like to.

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