March is a great time to be a sports fan. Spring training for baseball is in full swing, and this year, we had the added bonus of the World Baseball Classic face-off between the United States and Japan in the championship game, with superstars and MLB teammates Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout facing off in the last at bat. The NCAA basketball tournament is also down to the Final Four without a single No. 1 seed remaining. I personally have been enjoying the success of my two alma maters, Cornell and Ohio State in wrestling (third- and fourth-place teams, respectively, and two national champions for Cornell), hockey (OSU Women national runner-up, and Cornell and OSU Men into the Elite Eight of the Frozen Four), and women’s basketball (OSU Women into the Elite Eight and playing for a spot in the Final Four).
And yet, this spring has also had some very troubling times in sports. On Boston sports radio, one of the producers and show participants, Chris Curtis, highlighted both his racism and sexism by referring to a female Asian American sports reporter as his favorite “nip.” He then offered a half-hearted nonapology as served a one-week suspension. Curtis’ radio station also sought to defend his remarks.
At the NCAA wrestling championships, three-time national champion Aaron Brooks in his post-match interview offered the usual and expected praise to God, but then continued to refer to Muhammad as a false prophet.
As the National Hockey League has sought to promote that “Hockey Is for Everyone” by sponsoring LGBTQ Pride nights where players wear special jerseys during warm-ups, several players have refused to participate due to their religious beliefs, and at least one team canceled its participation due to concerns for the safety of its Russian players if they were to participate. This is despite the fact many other Russian players had already participated in previous games.
The “Hockey Is for Everyone” campaign exists only because of a problem that pervades many facets of sport: that it is white-male dominated and remains stuck in the locker room mentality that existed back when I was in high school.
The sports of hockey and wrestling, in particular, remain majority-white sports. Ironically, Aaron Brooks, and his Penn State teammate, Carter Starocci, are the two African Americans amongst the 10 national champions this year. Their presence at the top of the sport is promising from the perspective of racial and ethnic diversity in the sport, but also highlights that there are limits to what racial diversity will bring to sports.
It is likely no coincidence that the sports of wrestling and hockey are also two sports where there is a high degree of physicality and macho attitude. While the same could be said for the NFL, the NFL has a much wider appeal and must be more welcoming to fans who might be female or who identify LGBTQ.
Hockey and wrestling remain more niche sports. It is also no coincidence that at the NCAA wrestling tournament, prominent among the attendees was former President Donald Trump, who was welcomed heartily by the majority of the spectators and athletes. Whether it is a Trump campaign rally, a hockey game or wrestling meet, or sports or political talk radio, a growing commonality is hypermasculinity, overt exhibitions of Christian faith and the belief that they are the protectors of these values.
Title IX and affirmative action are what many of these athletes see as eroding their place in the campus hierarchy. In the either-or battles on campus, wrestling has often been on the chopping block for sports that fail to generate revenue relative to the cost of maintaining the sport and promoting gender equity as a predominantly male sport. The blame is, of course, Title IX, not the lack of a broad audience for the sport.
A decision must be made, whether to continue to double down on inflaming the passions of the core base of rabid fans or turn around and embrace the potential in a more diverse base.
There is a lot to be mad about this March tournament season, but is it an extreme madness for the sport and the perceived victimization dwindling extreme fan base, or is it the rest of us finally getting mad at the exclusionary attitudes, and truly pushing for greater openness and inclusion because some of us do love the sport, or love the political party.
David Inoue is based in JACL’s Washington, D.C., office.