The passion of Brave New Voices
CHICAGO -- For 12 years, there has been a tournament that is more intense, more sincere, more remarkable, more brutal, more honest, more powerful, more moving, more salient, more life-altering, more life-discovering, more life-saving than any other in America. Maybe the world. The reason no one has recognized it for what it is and what it does: It has nothing to do with sports.
Those who have found the strength and courage to recite are the ones who put bravery on display. The 12th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival proved to be the battleground no sport can match. Throughout the NCAA-style tournament, 50 teams of poets dug deeper into their personal mental fitness than probably Lance, Tiger or Michael ever have had to.
The places the competitors came from are all different, and not just geographically. There was a semiautobiographical feeling in every word and verse, with each poet telling parts of his or her life story in stanzas of less than five minutes. The memorization of thought, phrasing, verbal agility and precision is equal to a gymnast's preparation for the Olympics. Some are too young to go through the things their words say they've experienced or witnessed. Too young to have to tell the world the troubles their eyes have seen and minds have thought.
Yet they faced their peers in battle. This was their World Cup.
When sports is at its best, it is about finding one's self. When sports is at its best, it is about the competition, not the outcome of the competition. When sports is at its best, it has nothing to do with winning.
As someone who has covered sports for the past 20 years, I've never witnessed or experienced a scene like this -- more than 200 young adults displaying sincere love for one another before they go on stage with the unintention of being better than anyone and everyone who shares that stage. A blood sport in which no one bleeds. A war in which no one dies. A battle in which there is no fight.
That's what Brave New Voices has become. It's a competition in which in the end there is victory, but no victor; where the figurative overrides the literal. Because emotional attachment is something that is impossible to judge, the scores teams get for presentation and performances exist only so something tangible can be attached to what they've done.
After 12 years, poets have become jaded by scores. They don't care. They enter this battle to be heard -- to be felt -- not judged.
As one poet from the Jacksonville, Fla., team said about the bastardization of culture and significant insignificance of judges, HBO (which documents the competition) and what winning a freakin' contest has had on the lives of all the poets there: "This is what happens when scores speak louder than words."
Who wins when a judge has to determine whose poem is more significant: the kid from Hawaii who's seen so many body bags that he calls them "zipped-up hoodies," or the three girls from New Jersey who recite in vivid verbal detail the effect of terminal cancer?
Or when a poet from Miami asks four questions inside a poem as if he were a weapon: "Can you see me? You mistake me for a wallet or in the hands of a Pakistani kid. Can you hear me? Gave birth to ambulances. Make Baghdad sound like the Fourth of July. Can you feel me? Pushed to the back of your head. Can you stop me? These are not the confessions of a weapon. This is a plea to put me down."
This year, Hawaii did. Again. A repeat. But no one gave a damn. Including the team from Hawaii.
Sports is not supposed to be this deep. Which is probably why poetry, even in the form of slams, is not considered a sport. But competition is this deep. Yet the voices of the brave still stand and honor each opponent after every performance, every presentation, every poem in ways that remind their peers that the opportunity for them to express themselves is always greater than the feat of winning or the feeling of victory.
They hug. They cry. They share. They know.
When sports is at its best, it is about finding one's freedom. When sports is at its best, it is about the process, not the end result. When sports is at its best, it is has nothing to do with someone besting someone else.
Is the true definition of sport competition? Or is sport defined by winning?
Or -- as exemplified by the poets at this year's Brave New Voices -- when done correctly, can sport be something else altogether?
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.