Sunday, June 8, 2014

Belmont Stakes and the Art of Dismissing Dissidence

I have recently been re-reading those works that have particularly influenced my approach to the topic of religious ethics, getting a bit of reading done before my daughter wakes up has become quite routine (especially on days like today when she sleeps past 7:00!).  This morning, I am reading Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society as commentary from ESPN’s Sportscenter provides background ambience.  During this particular episode, I hear a bit of what Lincoln refers to as myth-making, imbuing history with a particular amount of authority in order to classify present actors through recourse to past actions.  In a discussion of yesterday’s Belmont Stakes, this historicizing took on a moralizing and nationalistic tinge.
After discussing the failure of California Chrome to successfully capture a “triple crown” (by winning The Belmont Stakes after also winning The Kentucky Derby and The Preakness), the anchors introduced a clip of California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn lambasting his competition, saying that

" 'That's the coward's way out,' he said. 'It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races. It's all or nothing.' " ( link )  

Essentially, Coburn was complaining about the fact that his horse had run in two very competitive (and exhausting) races while many in The Preakness had not and were therefore less exhausted, or fresher.  According to Yahoo! Sports, he continued, saying of the other teams of trainers, owners, and riders (and horses?):

"'They're a bunch of goddamn cheaters,' Coburn told Yahoo Sports. 'If your horse doesn't even have the points to run in the Kentucky Derby, he shouldn't be able to run in the Triple Crown. They're goddamn cheaters.' " ( link )

Here we can see a bit of moralizing as well as some sloganeering – on the one hand, Coburn is accusing his competitors of not putting up a fair fight, of crossing the line between ethical, fair, and just competition and cheating.  On the other, as the other owners did not break any official rule, Coburn first designates the action as unjust and then proposes a change in the official rulebook (forward looking sloganeering). Here there is an appeal to both moral authority (fair competition) and officially recognized authority (a proposed change in the rulebook for what constitutes eligibility to compete in the Triple Crown races).  On SportsCenter, Coburn’s accusation was met with an appeal to a different set of moral codes, namely manners (the latter appeal was echoed in the aforementioned Yahoo Sports article which declared Coburn “Part Ass in Defeat”).  His words were likewise met with an appeal to history, particularly one which has produced elites and, therefore, justifies the present state of the rulebook.

            I did not catch the names of the anchors as I was reading while they were talking, but they introduced the video mentioned above as an example of Coburn being a “sore loser” by not offering congratulations to the winning team (the team represented by the horse “Tonalist”) but rather calling them cowards.  This paints Coburn as the unethical one who is refusing to play by the gentlemanly code of conduct expected in such post-race interviews.  The anchors looked disappointed and annoyed with Coburn and proceeded to quote the Yahoo Sports sound bit before declaring something along the lines of “winning the Triple Crown is supposed to be difficult, you are supposed to go up against fresh sets of legs each race, that’s why there have only been 11 Triple Crown winners in history.”  In addition to painting Coburn as ungentlemanly and refusing to obey a certain conception of civility and manners, the fact that “this is the way it has always been” sidesteps Coburn’s moral claim on the rules in order to reinforce the status quo.  One doesn’t have to read much theory to recognize this as a fairly typical response to challenges to institutionalized conceptions of justice and fairness.  What adds to the historical dimension of this dismissal, though, is the act of further distinguishing Coburn from the elites of the sport produced by the rulebook that he is challenging.  As he is not a Triple Crown winner, he is not in the same class as those who have won and his reasoning, therefore, carries less weight.   Appealing to an elite class as irrefutable evidence that the system works renders ungentlemanly challenges to the status quo as illegitimate and more easily dismissed.  All of this is starting to sound like a very familiar trope.

As always, thanks for reading.