- Jeff MacGregor
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That empty buzzing noise you've been hearing these past few days? That ringing in your ears like the turning of a dull cranial drill? That insistent locust hum of distant wings and grinding jaws?
That would be the He-Man Brain Trust and Testosterone Council of Your American Sports Pages© chewing over the question of equal rights for women in the case of Ines Sainz vs. Western civilization. "Welcome to the NFL," those heroic locusts say. "Please reset your watches to 1896."
Isn't it enough we've given them the vote? Good Lord, man, she was wearing slacks!
She was asking for it!
Exhausting, wasn't it? So some very brief thoughts this week on progress and stasis and metaphor, on men and women and children, on rights and wrongs and on rights and lefts, and then right back to sleep for us all.
To answer in part the standing question of this column -- What Are Sports For? -- one of the only important purposes served by organized sports is the opportunity they grant us for the working-out of cultural crises or social questions by debate and argumentation. These debates arise pretty regularly and might be based in fact or in metaphor, but they give each of us the chance to safely talk through some serious issues.
We do so by having relatively harmless conversations about sports and the people and events surrounding sports. This week, for example, we've been talking about the Nature of Responsibility by talking about Urban Meyer, we've been arguing over the Uses and Abuses of Language and Physical Force by arguing over Floyd Mayweather, we've been picking at the Moral Imperatives of Medical Ethics and Human Performance Enhancement by picking at Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens, and we've been debating the Role(s) and Treatment and Perceptions of Women in the 21st Century by debating the case of Ines Sainz and the New York Jets.
There's great comfort to be taken in the synthetic realities of sports, and your favorite sports blog has always been a postgraduate course in the humanities, whether it admits to it or not.
Sports give us a way to come at our most frightening or baffling or incendiary social issues sideways. And as silly as some of these fights might seem, they perform the same function in the same way as the dustups we have about movies and music and TV and books. Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City were no more or less important to the cause of civil rights in this country than the abolitionist orthodoxies of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or any Hollywood fanzine swooning over whether Sidney Poitier was going to kiss Katharine Houghton in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
Our distractions and recreations have always contributed to our metaphorical and practical sorting out of ourselves. Knuckleheaded as they are, these arguments can often move us all an inch or two forward. Such is the torturous pace of human progress that Pete Rose is now our national primer on forgiveness and Tiger Woods is our parable of personal destruction, and Roger Goodell is Solomon and Cubs fans are Job, and redemption comes to us with 17 or 18 names every day, depending on who's improved his ERA or his OBP or her free throw percentage. Conservatives relearn the values of Progressivism when yelling for their team to go for it late in the game on fourth-and-4.
Life in miniature.
Ines Sainz showed up in the Jets' sandbox last week to remind us all that the polarity for women in or around big-time football is limited to Hooters or Holy Mother with almost nothing in between. All of which institutional condescension and prejudice was articulated when cartoon characters great and small both on the air and off spoke the following words in one order or another: "If you come into the NFL dressed the way that she is dressed, you are just asking for it."
Thus does the whispered truth pipe up at last, and we witness the death of the "gentleman."
The fact is that once she has the credential on, it doesn't matter what she's wearing. All arguments to the contrary are sexist noise or cowardly rationalization or, worse still, some expression of the Stockholm Syndrome.
For that credential to protect any of us, it has to protect all of us.
What most saddens me about these recent discussions, these national "debates," is the idea that we're constantly reinventing the wheel so we can drive out to the country to rediscover fire. Haven't we already solved this stuff? Haven't we put this behind us? Didn't we all go through the "equal treatment for women" thing in 1970 and 1920 and 1890 and 1850?
Turns out that like the pox or the plague or the other diseases of antiquity, ignorance and prejudice and chauvinism can't be eradicated, only treated.
By tuning our culture to constantly accommodate the slowest, greediest kids in class -- i.e., the leagues and the networks and the corporations and the men and women who run them -- we imprison ourselves in the present and creep only painstakingly into a straitened future.
Still, here I am at a corporate dotcom arguing about the importance of sports as a way of arguing about the importance of sports. So, not impossible. And although arguing over sports and the meaning of sports won't always provide answers, arguing about sports should help us at least ask better questions.
We end today with Florida football coach and wetlands exemplar Urban Meyer, who was quoted last week between retirements as saying he was "real upset" by the steady pace at which his scholar-athletes were being arrested. This is likely true, as far as it goes -- which is no farther than the distance traveled by a sound bite. But we all know that until the won-lost column is affected by the felony conviction rate, the coach's upset will remain almost entirely rhetorical. Nothing will be done to change a flawed institutional culture, nor will much be written about that culture by the imbecile sporting media.
But when that inevitable moment comes at last, please let me be the first to say that Meyer was asking for it.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.
Sports debates about Ines Sainz's attire, Urban Meyer's team and Floyd Mayweather's behavior are teaching moments for serious issues.