Shredding Sociology Part Two: Dr. Kyle Kusz Speaks
Some ski old school, some new school. It’s time to shred post-secondary. In part two of our sociological look into skiing, we introduce Dr. Kyle Kusz, who is is the most important person in action sports that you’ve never heard of. And you haven’t heard of him because he doesn’t ski.
Kyle’s a New Yorker who’s made a career out of studying pop culture and the media’s influence on sport. When he’s not at his teaching position at the University of Rhode Island, he’s composing texts on the sociology of sport, such as his 2007 release, Revolt of the White Athlete: Race, Media, and the Emergence of the Extreme Athletes in America.
Dr. Kusz can seem overly critical about the state of action sports, which he admittedly doesn’t participate in. However, having an outsider’s perspective can help highlight the absurdities of the activity our lives revolve around. In skiing, like in any relationship, you need to look at the problem areas of your love before you commit your life to it. Lets hear what the good doctor has to say.
Doglotion: Please briefly give a description on your academic background.
Kyle: I study how American popular culture, and specifically sport media culture, plays a key role in constructing the social imagination of the public. That is, I examine closely the particular ideas about race, class, gender that are circulated and given enough importance to be considered the ‘common sense’ way of interpreting a social issue in any given moment in history, including the present. Many folks don’t take the content of popular culture seriously, especially as a subject worthy of rigorous academic study, but when one thinks twice about it, I think it becomes readily apparent that the mainstream media culture is the place where many people develop their understandings of the world, themselves, and others different from them.
Part of this sort of study of media culture importantly recognizes that the media doesn’t just transparently reveal social reality to us, but rather it constructs certain social events as newsworthy and important while ignoring others, or defining them as less important or inconsequential. This process of constructing and framing media content in particular ways over others takes shape through the system in which media production occurs and it is informed every step of the way by dynamics of social power.
Studying media messages also means considering the uneven way in which some voices and perspectives are more regularly given space in media culture and their ideas are more constantly repeated. Usually these perspectives and ideas are ones that more readily serve the interests of dominant groups in society at a particular moment in time. Meanwhile, other viewpoints or ideas about the world rarely get heard in the mainstream media or are filtered or framed in certain ways because they are deemed to be too ‘radical,’ ‘controversial,’ less important, or outside what gets defined as ‘the common sense view’ of that time period. And sometimes, it is the case that some ideas or perspectives that are labeled as ‘radical,’ ‘edgy,’ or ‘countercultural’ in the mainstream, but these ideas are still given plenty of space in media culture because in some way they can serve the ideological or economic interests of the powers that be.
I think this last point is particularly important to think about for those trying to make sense of the rapid way in which extreme/action sports were embraced by mainstream media across many capitalist Westernized nations. We’re living in a time where corporations love to brand themselves and their products through notions of otherness (through codes of rebellion, counterculture, and whatever ‘edgy’ means in the next minute) as a means of marking themselves as youthful and socially progressive, and as somehow different than the idea of corporations as grey-flannel suited institutions imagined as cold, uncaring, elitist, and involved in (re)-production of social inequalities (sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.). Employing extreme and action sports in a corporation’s advertisements has been a way that numerous corporations have marketed themselves as young, progressive institutions selling ideas of youth, hope, social progress, and limitless possibilities through their products and brands whether or not their corporate actions and policies follow accordingly.
In terms of what I study specifically, I’ve spent my career (the past 15 years) trying to illuminate, diagnose, and explain the different ways in which white men are being portrayed in sport-related films, television shows, and other media narratives.
My work is part of a broader conversation among scholars and cultural and media critics who are trying to document and make sense of some of the new ways in which Hollywood and the sports-media complex are telling stories about white men, and how these cultural representations of white masculinity are shaped by broader social and historical conditions like the institutionalization of multiculturalism in the 1990s and the more recent move toward the racial logic of colorblindness over the past decade or so. Generally speaking, these folks attempt to assess the extent to which the models of white masculinity produced in contemporary media contribute to the reproduction or maintenance of the status quo (and maintenance of contemporary social inequalities of race, class, gender, etc.), or are part of broader cultural impulses and/or social movements interested in resisting and/or transforming the status quo to foster social justice.
These new strategies for representing white men in the media are generally interpreted by scholars as the complex products of: 1) changing gender relations and expectations in the postfeminist era; 2) the more prominent visibility of LGBT issues and perspectives in mainstream culture, and perhaps most importantly; 3) the way in which globalization and a new emphasis on profits in the name of efficiency have made work more unstable and precarious for many more Americans; 4) bubbling sentiments of anger and resentment (often misdirected at women, people of color, immigrants, and gays and lesbians) from white men of various class positions and ages over the perception that white masculinity is in crisis. This social conditions seem to be particularly unsettling for a number of white American men who were raised to expect that they would easily enjoy a comfortable middle class standard of living one day and where their cultural authority would rarely be in question.
Coupled with the aforementioned new visibility of race, gender, and LGBT issues in the American mainstream, many cultural critics and scholars have been trying to make sense of the rise of various trends in which white men are cast as disadvantaged, victimized, unprivileged, etc. For example, some folks have studied images of ‘angry white men’ in American media culture from the 1990s to the present (think Falling Down, Fight Club, House MD, Anger Management [the film and television show), white men claiming status as social victims, white male anti-heroes in American television over the past decade (Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.), the fetishization of working class white masculinity through cable shows like American Chopper, the Duck Dynasty crew, Deadliest Catch, etc., and the celebration of the white male everyman (like firemen, police, and first responders) as the heroic, masculine embodiment of the ideal American citizen following 9/11.
Doglotion: How does this relate to the sport of skiing?
Kyle: Well, truth be told, I don’t have a lot of experience with skiing, whether we’re talking about participating in it as a formal sport or a recreational activity. I’ve been to two ski resorts in my entire life of 42 years. Both times my downhill travels weren’t pretty. Also, I haven’t really spent any time examining skiing as a cultural practice or media representations of skiing.
But, you’re no doubt interested in interviewing me because about 10 years ago now I tried to make sense of the rapid rise to popularity of what were then called ‘extreme sports.’ Back then, I wrote a couple of articles for academic audiences that attempted to make sense of how and why this sporting trend was taking place in late 1990s America.
“..white men were lauded for taking risks, getting their swagger back, for finding a way to deal with their underlying anger, and for becoming men again .. through their participation in extreme sports.”
At the time, I noticed a number of cover stories written about extreme sports on magazines like Time and the US News and World Report that featured white men as the sole participants in these activities. It isn’t everyday that these magazines put sports on their covers, so I thought I’d try to make sense of how extreme sports were being described in these cover stories. Weirdly, yet interestingly, these articles asserted that the men participating in these activities were cut from the same clothe as the founding fathers of the US and a host of putative risk-taking American (white) men. Iconic American men—both living and mythical—like William James, the Marlboro man, John Wayne were no doubt referenced in the article and connected with extreme sport participants—who were represented as white and male in the article—because they could be used to promote a set of qualities that could be said to define the quintessential American man. In the article, these white men were lauded for taking risks, getting their swagger back, for finding a way to deal with their underlying anger, and for becoming men again (as opposed to sensitive guys) through their participation in extreme sports. As a cultural critic of sports media culture, I found these connections between the supposedly typical extreme sport participant and these icons of American white masculinity to be interesting. They seemed to generate a mythology of white masculinity that corresponded with other themes and ways of representing white men that cultural critics and scholars of mainstream film and television shows were writing about at the time. So, the main reason I became interested in extreme sports was because I wanted to make sense of the racial and gender politics of the narrative that was being written about extreme sports in mainstream media sites.
Doglotion: Skiing and snowboarding are sports that millions of people do recreationally. Some make it a lifestyle. They pay high rent for small ski town homes and work low-paying evening jobs so they can ski with their friends one hundred days per year. Incomes are low but the sport and it’s community makes morale high. Is sacrifice (such as this financial one) important in turning a sport into a passion?
Kyle: Sure, sacrifice is important in turning sport into a passion. Sacrifices are necessary to be successful in life regardless of the endeavor.
But, what is more interesting for me as someone who studies sports and social inequalities is the recognition that how we define ‘sacrifice’ isn’t the same for all people and is strongly influenced by one’s the social and economic positions as well as one’s cultural identities. Let me explain. Sacrificing one or two meals a day so that your children can eat because one is poor or even working poor (by which I mean working a service job where full-time might be defined as 28 hours a week) seems to be a very different type and magnitude of sacrifice than the ‘sacrifice’ of working a low-paying job for a couple of years while one chooses to prioritize skiing over work.
I imagine a significant portion of those who choose to live this skiing-centered lifestyle while in their twenties or for a couple of years, whatever the length of time might be, have private safety nets provided by family or friends whose socio-economic connections will enable the ‘sacrificing skier’ to rather easily transition into a job or career that will enable a comfortable middle to upper middle class lifestyle. Whereas the poor or working poor parent above won’t be able to benefit from family wealth, connection, or social networks despite the sacrifice s/he makes. For me, this is the sort of important sociological insight that can be formed by studying sports sociologically. I know this may not be a popular line of thought for some, but in order to be honest and accurate in reporting about the social aspects of sport and society requires one to bear witness to, in this case, how not all ‘sacrifices’ are equal.
Prince Charles is a dedicated ski bum. Watch him ski two back-to-back runs on a T-bar.
“Sorry babe, no friends on a powder day.”
Doglotion: How important is community in sport?
Kyle: Every human needs a community of some sort in order to thrive as a person. The same is true in sport. Every sport creates some sort or degree or community around it. Of course, the type of community that gets created around any sport depends on its characteristics: individual or team, competitive or recreational, coed or same-sex, youth, high school, college, or professional level. But, the communities created around sports are often also stratified by social class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality. Access to the resources (money, time, transportation, areas to play, etc.) needed to participate in a sport are also crucial to the kind of experience one has in sport, even if two different people are playing the same sport. For example, one’s experience on a travel soccer team that can play teams across the country will be remarkably different than one’s experience playing on a soccer team that never leaves a small town. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but the kind of community that gets created for each team—i.e. who is part of the community, the sorts of cultural experiences members bring to the community, etc. will likely be quite different based on these differences.
Doglotion: In ski movies you always see someone being dropped off by helicopter on top of an Alaskan peak. For all but an elite group, this is impossible. Heli skiing costs around a thousand dollars per day, and that doesn’t even include getting to the mountains. Are ski movies like this an opportunity for the working class to escape, much like watching another sort of fantasy movie, or are they what (the French sociologist and philosopher) Pierre Bourdieu would refer to as symbolic violence towards anyone without financial means?
Kyle: I must admit, first of all, that I’ve never seen such a ski movie like the one you’ve described.
But, to give a broad answer to your question, I imagine such a film could be both a source of inspirational escape for a working class person who never experienced being on a mountain before, and yet also a site of symbolic violence that could tease or taunt a working class viewer if s/he believes s/he will never be able to experience that sort of skiing. It would depend on the kinds of meanings that an individual working class viewer would give to the film when they watched it. Their interpretation would likely vary from one viewing to another. It would also be a product of their social class experiences, that is, it could vary depending on their amount and level interaction with people of differing social classes among a host of other factors.
I think the same could be said about a film like Rocky also. Some working class viewers might find inspiration in the film in Rocky’s character, while others might resent Rocky Balboa for being one of the lucky ones to make it out of a poor economic situation that they feel is virtually impossible for anyone to escape, or resent the fact that Hollywood regularly produces such ‘rags to riches’ stories that give the impression that escaping poverty is rather easily done by anyone who is willing to just work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. For anyone, regardless of the social class position they were born into, their personal success is always a complex product not only of how hard they work and whether or not they make good choices in life, but the sorts of opportunities and resources that are made available to them (and which they didn’t not earn!) as a result of their social class position.
Doglotion: Skiing is the whitest sport in the world. Ski towns are primarily located in white countries and cater to white clientele. There is also a group of African-Americans in the States known as the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), who vacation to Aspen and sometimes Whistler. Can increased diversity like this eventually change the perception of skiing, or does the distribution of wealth have to be the changing factor?
Kyle: First of all, I think its best not to think of the answer in an either/or sort of scenario.
The fact that skiing is a sport that was historically (and is still) practiced overwhelmingly by people with white skin—or in more academic terms: the way in which skiing functions as a de facto racially segregated/racially exclusive sporting activity—is itself a complex social phenomenon that would need to take into consideration many social factors. In particular, one would have to think about of the ways in which race and economic position have been combined in American social history, at least, so that skiing developed this pretty racially segregated, white exclusive culture.
I should take a step back here to say that I have never read any social or cultural histories of skiing, so I don’t have any specialized knowledge of the cultural history of skiing and can’t comment on your question with any sort of specific expertise.
“..action sports have been constructed to reflect many of the dominant logics and values of neoliberal capitalism”
Generally speaking, much social scientific research shows that people of color can be invited to historically white dominant social spaces (think: skiing or higher education), and/or costs can be reduced to make a social activity more affordable, but if the norms and belief systems that organize that that culture don’t change so that white ways of being and knowing are no longer considered ‘normal’ or the ‘by default’ way in which an organization thinks about itself, then race and racial inequalities will not be openly discussed and it is likely that few people of color would not be interested in participating in that white dominant culture even though they may have been ‘invited’ or they can afford to participate it. If whiteness remains the unspoken norm within a culture—and race can’t be discussed openly as something that shapes people’s experiences differentially—then it is likely that a significant number of people of color would feel marginalized, or not fully accepted, and perhaps even inferior to the white members who set the cultural norm. This experience of marginalization for people of color in a culture where whiteness is the unspoken norm could be a product of implicit racial bias and/or unsubstantiated fears of racial ‘others’ borne of racial stereotypes combined with a lack of substantive experiences with other racial and ethnic groups due to the residential racial segregation that organizes many (but certainly not all) places in the United States.
So, if a ski resort is serious about wanting to be more inclusive of people of color, then my advice would be: first, they would be well served to adjust the exorbitant costs of participation at the resort (should they exist), but, perhaps more importantly, they should also make substantive efforts to disrupt the way that skiing can be constructed as a white-only or white dominant space through conscious efforts to change the values and norms of the everyday culture of skiing. This does not mean trying to find the next ‘Tiger Woods of skiing’ and then proclaiming skiing to be a racially inclusive space, but rather to be willing to make a significant investment in time, education, and resources to make their resort more racially inclusive at all levels: participants, instructors, administration, ownership, etc. and be willing to bear witness to the exclusive racial history of skiing discuss the racial history and present in skiing and American society openly.
Of course, in this moment where a significant strain of ‘diversity fatigue’ exists amongst a sizable portion of white Americans, these sorts of cultural changes made by a ski resort might turn off a number of white patrons, particularly those with socially conservative or reactionary leanings. And here is where it is impossible to detach racial factors from economic ones on the question of how to increase diversity in skiing. White exclusivity, whether it is imagined as an innocent product of colorblindness, or superficially masked through carefully calculated public relations representations of a newfound diversity in skiing, may still be an assumed condition of the profitability of a ski resort. In other words, the profitability of a ski resort might be predicated on its racial exclusivity or its minimization of the inclusion of racial others in order for wealthy white people to feel comfortable in that space and choose to spend their money at particular resorts or mountains.
But in defense of the ski industry—and as I’m sure they might quickly cite if asked to explain the racial homogeneity of their clientele—there are many extraneous factors beyond the control of the ski industry itself that may likely play a role in limiting the number of people of color who might feel comfortable participating in skiing. For example, consider how ski resorts are often situated in rural areas where white people are often the numerical majority. These areas may be more likely to harbor and be governed by white people who hold more socially conservative ideas about race. If such circumstances were to exist in a given area, then ski resorts might have a really difficult time trying to increase the participation of people of color at their resort if they perceive the area surrounding the resort to be hostile to them.
Apparently, Kevin Nealon hasn’t read any Kusz.
Doglotion: Professional skiing isn’t acting, but it can be a portrayal of something a little different than what is true. What looks like an amazing day of skiing may actually be a day of doing one turn for the camera, then waiting twenty minutes for the sun to come out again. There is also a certain image that comes with the lifestyle marketing (including social media) of an athlete. Is there danger in the blurring of the lines between someone’s personal life and their professional personality?
Kyle: Part of developing a critical media literacy involves recognizing that there is much more to any image we see in the media than meets the eye, upon first glance.
Any image we see on television or film is what we call a socially constructed one. That is, the image has been framed a certain way by the camera person or filmmaker, often to convey particular social meanings about a sport, athlete, or some other aspect of society or culture. Even further, the media stories that make it on air on a network or cable television program or that get mass produced and distributed in theaters or via Netflix also have to make it through another level of filtering and selection by directors, producers, and executives working behind the scenes, all of whom are making decisions about what stories will make it on air. Usually these decisions are governed by a calculus that is most often explicitly explained through references to the need to sell advertising and churning out content that does not offend the sensibilities of the largest audience. But, it must be noted that decisions about advertising and audience preferences are implicitly oriented by class, gender, and racial dynamics that too often go unspoken and unrecognized. So, when living in a media-saturated culture like ours, each of us should always assume that what we see on television—even in the case of reality TV shows—is far from reality!
In terms of the question of whether there is a danger in blurring the lines between one’s personal life and their professional personality, I think you would be better served to ask a psychologist.
As a cultural critic observing contemporary American culture, I would say that there can be some really persuasive economic reasons to blur such a line between personal life and professional identity (consider the Kardashian sisters or any of the other reality television stars whose wealth is predicated on blurring this line between the personal and professional).
I would speculate that blurring such a line would compel many of us to play to the cameras in ways that would likely (and no doubt detrimentally) lead us to objectify others who are important to us as well as ourselves. This might be true especially if we felt an obligation to conform ourselves to the image of ourselves being created for us in the show or media program by producers, writers, advertisers, etc. As a cautionary tale, one might think here about Lance Armstong’s story here. After years of being constructed through newspaper and magazine stories, advertisements, and television programs as a larger than life superhero after winning seven-straight Tours de France, it seems he began to convince himself that these idealized media images reflected his actual self despite his knowing that he was habitually breaking the rules in the sport of cycling, lying to the world about it, and wreaking havoc on the lives of those who knew the truth and dared (or tried) to tell the world.
Doglotion: Why is it important that females are now a part of extreme/action sports? Who needs to come next?
Kyle: I believe it is important that women are included in extreme/action sports because I live in a society that proclaims itself to be a democratic meritocracy where everyone has the inalienable right to pursue whatever endeavor they would like to do in life (so long as it doesn’t do harm to others without their consent). So, if we believe in these principles of a democratic meritocracy, then all of us should be all in on wanting women to have full opportunities to participate at all levels in extreme/action sports or any other endeavor in which they choose to participate.
Unicorn Picnic celebrates gender diversity.
Doglotion: If you play in the NBA or NHL, you sign a contract and get paid by a team. In professional skiing, much like other extreme/action sports, you sign with sponsors and are accountable for your self-promotion to get exposure for their product. Is there a benefit this self-proprietorship versus being part of a team? What are extreme sports a metaphor for?
Kyle: I think the two above questions can be taken together…First of all, I imagine there are both benefits and drawbacks in being an athlete who is paid by a team versus an athlete who is a self-proprietor.
But what I find interesting about your question about the compensation of action sport participants—and this speaks to how extreme sports can function as a metaphor—is that one of the often overlooked or unremarked reasons that action sports have become so popular in the past two decades is that action sports have been constructed to reflect many of the dominant logics and values of neoliberal capitalism—a radical notion of individualism (that overlooks the fact that all individuals rely on society and government for social services and resources of some kind), entrepreneurialism, and a do-it-yourself ethos and model for success. Yet, ironically, extreme/action participants interested in becoming successful professionally (whether that means competitively or commercially, or both) have to develop an often overlooked dependency on corporations (for sponsorship, which can be fickle) to become successful extreme/action sport professional.
Sport sociologists have long known that the sports that are popular in a society are ones that must reflect and promote the values and ideas central to the economic system of that society (even if the actual economic structure of the formalized sport isn’t fully built upon capitalist values and ideas—consider the wealth redistribution strategies or player drafts of sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLS which one might rightly call ‘socialist’ in philosophy rather than capitalist).
So, to me, if one wants to explain why extreme/action sports have, at least since 1995, been able to garner an amount of television and media coverage disproportionate to the actual number of people participating in these activities, one of the key factors one would have to recognize is the way in which extreme/action sports were able to promote the logics and values of neoliberal capitalism through the stories of athletic heroism and heroic entrepreneurialism that are frequently told of extreme/action sports pioneers whether one is talking about Tony Hawk (see his biography that includes “CEO” in the title), Jake Burton, or Mat Hoffman.
Doglotion: Many action sports, such as skiing, mountain biking or kite surfing, are incredibly expensive to get into. However, you can buy a used skateboard for fifty bucks and ride it for free. Greater still is parkour. Is there hope in extreme/action sports being attainable for any nation at any income level?
Kyle: As you show in your question, the ability of people to participate in any given activity that gets defined as an extreme/action sport is dependent upon the cost of the sport, the infrastructure that a society or community dedicates to the activity, and the economic and political stability of that society relative to the infrastructure needed to play the activity, etc. Another significant factor in the accessibility of an action sport for participants regardless of the cost of the sport is the character of the culture that participants create in a given local context. Is the local culture of that activity one that is homogenous or heterogeneous relative to race, class, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation, etc.? In what ways, is it inclusive and exclusive? Sport sociologists also know that sometimes people whose income positions them as working class or working poor may not participate in certain sporting activities, even if they can afford the cost of participation fees and equipment, simply because they may feel marginalized by the social norms and value system created by the participants in the local context where they seek to participate.
We miss him already. JP showing the world you don’t need a ski pass or a heli-trip to Alaska to get your ski fix, just scrounge up some bus-change. This segment was filmed sans crew. Just him and Dave Mossop trying not get kicked out of someone’s yard.
Doglotion: Freeride culture fashion has resembled street culture for decades, even though most ski kids grow up in the suburbs. Clothing is often oversized, with faces covered. When big air competitors come across the finish line, they often make hand signals you would otherwise see in rap videos. Does the lack of other ethnicities allow white people to get away with acting like we’re not? How can action sports be improved?
Kyle: I’ll leave the question of how to improve the practice of action sports for those who participate in the activities. As an outsider, I don’t think I should weigh in on that discussion.
But, as an outsider who studies how white people learn and think about racial history, racial inequalities, racism and white privilege, and one who is also interested in the long history of white people’s appropriation of styles originated by black people often as a form of resistance to racial inequalities and social systems that disproportionately distribute resources and opportunities to those defined as white relative to those defined as people of color at a given time in history, I do wish that more action sport participants who make such appropriations would try to think critically about why they’re attracted to ‘black style’ and how they use it to give particular meanings to themselves as white people, whether its to appear as ‘cool,’ to try to appear as what they might call ‘anti-establishment,’ or if it is an individualistic attempt to resist the overwhelming whiteness of many cultures of skiing.
For those with at least a rudimentary understanding of American racial history, this practice of white appropriation of black style is one that historically has been used to generate personal wealth for whites. This is true both for the white performer doing some form of blackface, whether literal or metaphoric, as well as the white industry executives whose corporation enabled the mass production of the white actor’s performance of black style. It should be noted that the personal wealth and career of the white performer appropriating black style comes at the expense of black performers who didn’t get paid as handsomely nor did s/he enjoy the cultural attention, for the original acts from which the white person appropriated.
This racial practice surely isn’t unique to skiing, snowboarding, and skateboarding. In fact, it can be seen a lot in recent historical times in white teens consumption of hip-hop, whites consumption of basketball styles from African-American players, the popularity of Eminem, and even Miley Cyrus’ attempts to appear sexy through twerking at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in order to shed her Disney image of teenage female innocence and make herself more marketable as a coming of age actress/singer.
So, if I had one thing to say, I guess it would be that I wish that more action sports participants would think deeply about how and why they are inclined to appropriate black style and to consider how it looks to people of color that some action sports seem to welcome black styles but not actual black people participating in their activity.
Relatedly, I wish they might consider why they may only appropriate such styles in in spaces and at times where whites are the overwhelming majority racially speaking. Researchers and critics have long argued that the fact that white people only or mainly appropriate black styles of dress, communication, and bodily performance when actual black people aren’t around suggests that these white people have at least some awareness that there is something inappropriate about this cultural practice. Action sport participants who appropriate black style might also ask themselves: what does it mean if they embrace black styles, but profess to be racially colorblind, may be tired of hearing about diversity and multiculturalism in school and society, and may deny or minimize the continued existence of systemic racism in contemporary American society? Is such a person helping make racial progress in the US or hurting such a process?
Not just another white guy skiing in baggy clothes. This video supports all of Kusz’s claims in just 2:27 and still has time left over for adultery.
Doglotion: I feel a defining piece of an action sport is risk. There’s opportunity for harm, but also a chance to do something never done before. You can change the sport’s direction and create history. Do you think this is rooted in humankind’s history of exploring and conquering?
Kyle: Again, for me, the emphasis on risk that is central in media narratives about extreme/action sports is important not because participants in action sports are connected somehow to a supposed innate drive in humankind to explore and conquer, but because we are living at a time of significant social and economic change, especially as new computer technologies and economic logics within our financial systems (i.e. deregulation of markets) have created an economic terrain where economic risk taking is highly valued because it is the modus operandi through which the 1% are expanding their fortunes in our contemporary economic system. Additionally, this emphasis on risk taking in economic matters simultaneously makes the rest of the population, who is without the same private economic resources to take risks and protect them from the harm of taking a risk that doesn’t pay off, a bit more economically vulnerable should they buy into this ethos of taking economic risks.
Additionally, I think we might also explain the way that risk taking is emphasized and even fetishized in media narratives about extreme/action sports as a result of the way in which media producers and advertisers can be package these activities so they appeal to a market of white men who buy into the notions of the feminization of contemporary American (and other Western) society/ies.
Also, I think one has to be careful in portraying action sport participants as representatives of ‘humankind’ and connecting them with a history of ‘exploring and conquering.’ The rhetoric you use in your question draws from and rests upon a history of colonialism that still shapes many of the social inequalities that exist in our contemporary world today. Of course, this history of colonialism was deeply racialized, classed, and gendered and included the dehumanization of poor people and people of color in order to rationalize the exploitation and outright theft of their valued resources. Additionally, colonialism included genocide and assimilation that sought to erase cultural histories and exterminate those being colonized.
So, for me, your question proves quite revealing of the subtle and unintentional ways in which particular class-related and white ways of knowing the world can tacitly shaping your—and I think most people’s understandings or starting points for—understanding extreme/action sports.
And this use of colonial rhetoric as a starting point is one of the subtle ways in which people of color may feel alienated from extreme/action sports even when whites aren’t trying to be racially malicious, exclusive, or demeaning. Surely it is the case that for some people of color whose relatives, perhaps two or three generations back, were on the less fortunate end of what you call: ‘humankind’s history of exploring and conquering’ might not want to associate with a sport culture that doesn’t quite fully recognize how the past was just made present, at least rhetorically, through the casual use of colonial rhetoric about exploring and conquering others.
Of course, the fact that many extreme/action sport participants are white and come from at least a middle class standing—at least this is the case here in the US—also makes the use of this colonial/colonizing rhetoric a bit problematic because it reveals a symmetry of logics between a past regime of racial power and a current cultural practice—action sports–where, at first glance, colonialism might not seem to be an influence at all on these sports and our understanding of them and their participants. For socio-cultural scholars, it is this sort of ‘evidence’—especially the innocent framing of a question—that reveals the deep and even non-conscious and unintended ways in which these histories of inequality from the past still have relevance as they inform and shape the present.
Doglotion: Is there a glass ceiling for male athletes, as there is for female athletes?
Kyle: Emphatically, no!
To imagine the possibility of a glass ceiling for male athletes in sports, for me, is to not to truly and objectively take account of the many layered ways in which the long history of sports (and even our sporting present) reveal that sports have been built as patriarchal formations that value men and things defined as masculine over women and things defined as feminine.
Now, cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity can and do set some boundaries around how men and women can behave in certain spaces and times, and these boundaries can be different for men and women, but, these boundaries aren’t the same as the historical limits that have been placed on women’s sporting participation whether we’re talking about on the playing field, in the workout facility, or in the offices of the athletic department or executive suites of revenue generating sports and physical activities.
The metaphor of the glass ceiling signifies the existence of invisible forces and conditions that prevent women from getting opportunities to succeed in the centers, and at the apex, of hierarchies of power in a society. Within most sporting contexts, even, or perhaps especially, in many extreme/action sports (so far as I can tell as an outside observer of some media narratives about action sports), men are more often the ones who are dictating how extreme/action sports take shape, who participates, and who gets compensated (and who gets more generously compensated) whether these men work in the action sport industry, media complex, or sporting venues.
Doglotion: Since Jonny Moseley (US Freestyle Team mogul skier) did a 360 mute grab in the 98 Olympics to win gold, action sport has hit the main-stream. That Olympics also showcased snowboarding and more recently we’ve seen ski and snowboard halfpipe. How can an alternative sport be alternative if in the largest sporting event in the world? Which way will this exposure direct it?
Kyle: I can’t predict the future of action sports, except really broadly so as to say: when action sports are deemed no longer suitable to generate profits for transnational corporations and/or are considered inadequate in effectively conveying the preferred ideological meanings of the powerful social groups that control the means for media and capital production in a given historical moment, they will no longer hold a prominent spot in any national or global context.
But, in terms of whether or not action sports are ‘alternative’ if they are included in the Olympics, I think it is safe to say that the notion of extreme sports as an alternative died long before the Olympics decided to include freestyle and snowboarding as an effort to bring younger viewers into their aging audiences. Perhaps its death occurred at the very start of the extreme craze when ESPN created the ‘Extreme Games’ in 1995. In many ways all that has been called ‘alternative’ since the 1980s-90s can no longer be imagined as truly alternative, whether it is music or sports.
But, I think if you look at the recent history of the mainstream use of ‘alternative’ to brand and market products, it was always used in conjunction with white cultural productions that attempted to mark themselves as different than the way mainstream whiteness was defined at that time in history.
The ‘alternative’ tag was attached to extreme sports in a number of ways: to define it as supposedly different in its values and norms from the big 3 sports in the US: football, basketball, and baseball; as a means of casting these largely white dominant activities as somehow different from mainstream whiteness; and as a means of creating a new and hopefully lucrative new niche for sport at a time when the somewhat congruent logics of niche marketing and multiculturalism emerged and created a need to develop new markets defined by cultural difference for white, middle class consumers with disposable income.
I always think it is important to contextualize the rise of extreme/alternative sports in the 1990s, in the multicultural era. By multicultural era, I mean a time when the goals of social justice advanced by the social movements associated with ‘the 60s,’ were converted in the American mainstream into an idealistic impulse to celebrate cultural difference which included generating racially and culturally diverse images of the nation and world, especially in primary institutions of society (government, schools, sports, corporations, etc.). The multicultural era also enabled a new awareness (among whites in particular) of whiteness had long enjoyed the material rewards of being considered the normal (and thus, privileged) way of being and knowing the world in the US. As this new awareness of white privilege took hold in American society, many whites began to seek out ways of constructing themselves as something other than a privileged white person. One way to do this was to become attracted to things defined as ‘alternative,’ whether it was music, sport, or by other means—as a way of attempting to deny or disavow one’s relation to the privileges automatically bestowed to those defined as white.
It’s hard to predict the future of skiing, so don’t forget the past. Bill Heath, before his days of big-budget National Geographic and Warren Miller Movies, filmed his buddies shredding their backyard and made one of the most soulful skier films ever.
Doglotion: What do you say to people who think you’re wrong?
Usually those who ‘think I’m wrong’ are white people who are heavily invested in a set of norms, values, and ideologies that are more socially and racially conservative in character and believe (often in ways of which they may not even be fully conscious of) that white ways of knowing and being in the world should be the unspoken basis for American social and cultural life. These folks are generally more anxious about the ways in which multiculturalism has shifted cultural norms around race (and gender and sexuality for that matter!) so that whiteness doesn’t quite hold as secure a place in defining what’s normal in American culture as it once did, especially in the era following World War II until the 1970s. Although, it is worth noting, that several cultural analysts have argued that there’s been a resurgence of efforts to re-secure the unspoken normality of whiteness in American culture since 9/11/2001.
In 2007, I wrote a book titled, Revolt of the White Athlete. Along with getting mixed reviews from academics, it received a bit of dubious attention from white nationalists and white supremacists. This attention came after a tenured professor, who I later learned was notorious for unapologetically espousing white supremacist beliefs drawn from race theories that were debunked decades ago, negatively criticized my book and me on his website. Apparently, this professor and his racist brethren were deceived by the title of the book and excitedly sought it out and read it thinking they would find a text making the case that white athletes are victims of reverse racism in sports. When they instead found arguments that were quite to the contrary, they quite interestingly (and a bit scarily) disparaged and attempted to intimidate me by labeling me a race traitor and posting some of my personal information on some white nationalist/supremacist websites. The experience made me realize the proverbial ‘power of the pen’ in a way that I don’t think anyone can fully realize until they have gone through this sort of situation.
In terms of how some participants in extreme/action sports have responded to my analyses, some folks who participate in BMX riding have told me, and wrote on websites, that my interpretations of the culture of BMX riding are incorrect. At first, it was difficult to read such responses from insiders.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that most insiders of extreme/action sports who contest my interpretations of their activities don’t realize that my work really examines media representations about their sports and not the lived cultures of the extreme/action sports to which they belong. Part of the blame for this misunderstanding falls on my shoulders because in some of my early writings I didn’t always make it clear that I was writing about media representations of extreme sports.
But in think some of the disagreement toward my analyses also comes from the fact that the predominantly white folks who participate in many action sports might not be used to reading a cultural critique organized around race and gender generally, and especially not one focused squarely on their sporting culture. To be fair, I think it could also be said that regardless of the culture, most white people don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about how race and gender invisibly structure and shape their everyday lives, so most are pretty surprised when a cultural analyst points out how cultures to which they belong are racialized and gendered, especially those analyses that focus on social power and privilege, like mine.
Additionally, my experiences teaching classes where I discuss white racial privilege and the continued racial inequalities in the contemporary US have shown me that far too many of the young white people I meet today are reluctant to take a sober and critical look at how racial power operates in post-civil rights America. On more than a few occasions white students in my classes have vociferously objected to some of the ideas drawn from critical race theory and critical whiteness studies that I’ve introduced to them in class. Based on our conversations, I have come to understand that their racial attitudes are a product of their having been raised to believe in the ideology of racial colorblindness (this is the idea that one should aim to be blind to the social influence of race in social life and that doing so will somehow make racism and racial inequalities magically disappear). Generally speaking many of my white students also naively believe, or perhaps it is that they want to believe, that racism was alleviated during the civil rights era (sometimes this belief is a product of their love for sport films like Remember the Titans and The Blind Side). Even further, more than a few of my white students have asserted some sort of version of the idea that whites are the new victims of racism or that whites will soon be the racial minority in the US. Some have even said they’ve been taught by parents and teachers that it is best that they not even speak about race in public because they risk being labeled racist if they do so.
It is these recurrent experiences I have in my classroom with white students that makes me acutely aware that more work needs to be done to make clear to white people that racism and racial inequalities are still huge problems for many people of color in the US, but especially African-Americans and Arab-Americans in particular, in our contemporary times.
Doglotion: Finally, why are action sports great?
Kyle: Are they? Great for whom?
If you would like to learn more about Kyle’s thoughts on the sociology of action sports, either enroll in his class at the University of Rhode Island, or check out his book here: http://www.amazon.com/Kyle-Kusz/e/B001JSADM2