Athletic Privilege —
I played a lot of sports growing up: soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, wrestling, and track and field. I loved playing sports and I harbored elaborate daydreams of smashing the winning homerun or sinking the buzzer-beater that got us into the championships. The only thing standing between me and athletic glory was the fact that I sucked at sports.
I sucked at sports damn near across the board. In baseball, you couldn’t pay me to stay in the batter’s box when the pitcher threw what was essentially a perfectly round rock at me over and over again. Coaches often put me in left field, where I sat and plucked grass as I made up songs. In basketball, I spent more time perfecting my “Hey, you fouled me!” somersault than scoring baskets. And in track, I hated to run, even as a child, which made races an intolerable ordeal.
The only sport that I poured my heart and soul into was high school wrestling. My passion for wrestling stemmed largely from the fact that as a freshman, I rode my oldest brother’s senior coattails as much as possible. He was into wrestling, so I was into wrestling.
I trained intensely, both in school and out. The only time I ever took up running was when I had ambitions of starting on the freshman team. With Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien in my Walkman, I ran the streets of Florissant, Missouri feeling like Matthew Modine in Vision Quest.
I never missed a practice, weekdays or weekends — not even over Christmas break. I pushed myself to my personal limits in the pursuit of athletic excellence.
Yet, despite all the hard work and dedication, I still got pinned over and over and over by the other guys on my team. The only person I could beat consistently was John Olejarczyk, a gangly, lanky goofball whose height was a natural disadvantage for him.
Over the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I went with my team (including Olejarczyk) to the Granby School of Wrestling in Wisconsin, where I learned the legendary Standing Granby. But still, my sophomore year, I sucked just as much as my freshman year. My junior year, I got my first speeding ticket (88 in a 55) on my way home from a Saturday practice and my parents made me quit the team to get my first job in order to pay the fine.
Secretly, I was relieved because after three years on the wrestling team I was still stuck sparring with Olejarczyk, and I had zero prospects of ever starting on the wrestling team that year or next.
In short: I sucked at wrestling, and pretty much every other sport I’ve tried, no matter how much effort I put into it.
Americans love an underdog story. We love to hear about some random nobody who pours his heart into something (whether sports or school or whatever) and in the end, against all odds, the hard work pays off and all of their dreams coming true. In my mind, Rudy is the ultimate underdog-makes-good movie. It’s the true story of a Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger whose determination and hard work ultimately pay off when he achieves his dream of playing football at Notre Dame during the final game of his senior year.
Was Rudy allowed to play because he was a naturally gifted athlete? Nope. He was allowed to play because his courage and commitment to the team inspired Notre Dame’s starting team. That starting team was full of the athletically privileged, whose natural talents combined with hard work to get them on the gridiron. Rudy played that last game because he was an inspiration, not because he was great at football. But in the end, Rudy sacked the quarterback and was the first Notre Dame player carried off the field by his teammates.
The story is incredibly uplifting because we see Rudy’s teammates rally around the guy who has zero chance of playing in a real game based solely on talent. It’s only when his team, and his coach, recognize his determination despite his inadequate talent that they give him the chance to participate.
Clearly Rudy had no shortage of motivation or commitment, but he did lack athletic privilege.
Ever since Ragen wrote about her 5k, trolls have mocked her for writing the following:
I benefit from a tremendous amount of athletic privilege, and the athletic things that I do are typically things at which I am naturally talented and have put many, many hours of hard work so I’m used to being among the best.
Their criticism basically goes like this: “HAHA! ATHLETIC PRIVILEGE! WTF IS THAT?!?!”
Maybe it’s because all of these critics were the best athletes in their class and they have no idea what it’s like to work hard and remain mediocre, but it seemed pretty obvious to me what Ragen meant by “athletic privilege.”
Just to clarify, one classic definition of privilege is as follows:
Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.
Most often, privilege is a term used in social justice circles to explain how whites, men, Christians, the wealthy and so on, have an ingrained advantage from society that they (often) aren’t even aware of. The best analogy I’ve heard from several people is that if life were a video game, being born a white male is the easy setting.
Athletic privilege is merely the extension of that social justice concept. Athletic privilege acknowledges the obvious fact that some people are naturally more athletic than others. Some people are more coordinated, more agile, more “in tune” with their bodies. Some people start playing basketball at a young age and their skills progress exponentially, while others barely improve despite a great passion for the sport. And, of course, there’s a whole spectrum in between.
Yes, if you train in a sport then you will improve your own personal skills, but those skills may still pale in comparison to someone who has put in the same amount of work as you. The same can be said of a cerebral “sport” like chess: some people have a form of intellectual privilege that gives them an enormous advantage.
Personally, I didn’t think this concept was all that controversial or hard to grasp, but it turns out that a lot of people seem to believe that if you work hard enough in any sport, you will inevitably improve your skills to a professional level. Those who don’t are dismissed as “clearly” having not tried hard enough.
Lacking athletic privilege isn’t a necessarily bad thing, except for one major problem: people who lack athletic privilege are often discouraged from participating in sports because they suck at it. The results are relatively devastating, whether being picked last for team sports to just being mocked. All of the negativity drives down a person’s self-esteem and interest in physical activity.
Critics claim that athletic privilege is a good thing because otherwise we praise all kids for simply participating, which encourages mediocrity in society. Rather, we’re told that competitive greatness is the ideal.
But I couldn’t disagree more. Someone once gave me advice on parenting that we shouldn’t praise our daughters for being smart; we should praise them for working hard. When you praise a child for being smart (something that is determined largely by genetics and improved by parental authorities), then you teach kids that being smart is the end all, be all. The fear is that these kids will accept their natural intelligence as a given and assume they can coast through life on their brains. Emphasizing effort, rather than intelligence, teaches ALL kids, regardless of baseline intelligence, that hard work produces better outcomes.
Likewise, we should be encouraging kids to play sports because they love them, not because they’ll be the team captain or MVP. Anyone who thinks the whole point of sports is to be the very best is aggressively clueless, IMHO. If individuals want to become the best in their sport, then great! More power to them. But those same sports should be welcoming of people at all skill levels so that the sheer joy of participation will encourage people to continue playing, even if they’re just sitting in left field.