Glamour Shots, Basketball, and a Few Things I Wish I’d Said

Super Fans and Sociology Professors: Liu, Schlichtman, & Lum @ WCC tourney in Vegas

What a unique day –I spent my morning contemplating presentable “jewel tone” wardrobe options for my 11am photo shoot. Yes, you read that correctly photo shoot.Next week, the USD College of Arts and Science (click here –>) website will go live with a feature article and video about my support of the USD Women’s Basketball team, and the relationships and friendships I’ve developed with the student athletes and their families over the past 4 years. Although I’ve yet to read the article, I know that the word “super fan” will probably come up. The interviewer did ask if I painted my face for games, after all. (The answer is no, in case you were wondering). Given the popularity of basketball in the Sociology Department and my colleague, Dr. Judy Liu’s 25 year love affair with Torero Basketball –I think it’s important to note, I have a hard time owning the “super fan” identity –but I digress.

My glamour shot photo shoot involved taking pictures with Sam Child, Dominque Conners, Emily Hatch, and Morgan Woodrow –four phenomenal basketball players with majors housed in the College of Arts and Sciences. During the session, I learned a bit about their personalities through the glitter laden eye-shadow, the “blinged out earrings” (as Chris called it), the meticulously done blue nail polish (that managed to get chipped during weight lifting) –and their ability to be relaxed in front of the camera (something I struggled with). As a sociologist (aka professional people watcher) I’m compelled to look beyond the aesthetic. In the half hour I spent with them before practice started (and they became the ‘blurry blue background’ the photographer wanted to capture) I witnessed the depth and breadth of sisterhood that you can’t see when you’re watching from the stands. The teasing, the laughter, finishing each others sentences, the way they seamlessly interweave discussions about life, school, graduation, Justin Bieber fever (a team affliction/addiction I’m still baffled by) with guesses about the drills Coach Fisher will call for, is simply amazing to watch unfold. In fact, I’m not quite sure they realize how in sync they all are with each other. Equally amazing was how quickly they snapped into work mode —hips wrapped, ankle braces tightened, practice jerseys and game faces on –and away they went. Coach’s whistle blew and bodies were immediately thrown into motion with 120% of their energy focused on the drill at hand. I found myself fascinated not only by the speed and intensity, but the ways that the players were simultaneously students and teachers. For example, when one of the coaches explained to freshman center, Kam Knutson the appropriate way to play “Torero defense,” I watched senior, Nya Mason correct Kam’s posture and hand position so that it complied with coach’s instructions. I think the artistic director in charge of the photo shoot said it best, “It’s so easy to be distracted by the amount of energy these young women show –and this is only practice.”

During both interviews for the piece, I was asked, “Why do you love watching the women’s basketball team? What do you think we can learn from them?” I know I was clear about my admiration for their work ethic, on and off the court. In fact, I talked about Coach Fisher’s “Blue Blood” philosophy of working hard and putting the time and effort in to succeed (take a look at the shirts they wear in the photographs), but what I forgot to say is this. While some watch sports for the action, the scoring, and the “show time” moments, the true art of the game is in understanding the life lessons the students and their families live out in relationship to the game. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

1) Loyalty. This is not simply about allegiances –but a true commitment to improving those around you through respect, tough love, and mutuality. At their best, I’ve watched these women push each other to excel. Sliding by, giving less than their all –even if unmotivated is not allowed. Doing this during a game, gets you benched. Doing this in school gets you academically disqualified. I’ve watched the best of these students push each other and remind one another to put in the time, and do the work.

2) Vision. Freshman students (all students, not just athletes) often arrive at college thinking they know everything. They assume if they simply do the assignments they get their degree. I tell students and student athletes that the University and the coach didn’t recruit you to come here because of who you were in high school –that’s only 10% of it. We (faculty, staff, coaches, etc) recruit them because of who they can become if they work hard while here. For athletes, this can be difficult. They were probably the best in their sport at their high school –but they forget that they join a team where every individual was the best too. The real question is do they have the vision to put in the work to become better than who they were yesterday. Without fail, I’ve watched Coach Fisher’s players at the end of four years profess what so many of us want to hear, “that the worst thing to witness is unrealized potential.”

3) Faith. I don’t mean this in the religious sense. I define faith as hope in the unseen. Put simply, I admire the fact that these women have faith in the idea that hard work pays off. You may not know the results, and may hate the process, but at the end of it all there are always lessons learned.

4) Love. Love of the game, love of family, love of each other. Good or bad, happy or sad, I witness a connection that’s hard to describe. The love and community we see among the players extends beyond them to their families. Circumstances (aka holiday basketball schedules) usually mean that the women are away from their families during Thanksgiving and have an abbreviated Christmas break. Holidays that traditionally translate into extended time with family for the rest of us add up to sacrifice for the team and families. Instead, parents of the players become an extended family in their own right. The families, often spend Thanksgiving or part of the New Year together with the team and coaches. As a whole, I know that these families, along with their daughters, have been there through it all for each other –births, deaths, illnesses, marriages, retirements, accomplishments, promotions, and accolades. If all communities were as invested in each other as these families are, the world would be a better place.

In the end, I guess my only answer to why I love Torero women’s basketball is this,

“What’s not to love?”


Stopping the Train: Lessons in Cultural Relativism…..

In my Introduction to Sociology classes, one of the concepts that I teach during the first three weeks of class is Cultural Relativism. This is the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. In other words, when we interact with individuals from different backgrounds, visit another country, view another religion that we should do so without judgment and assumption that one culture is superior to the other.

I am two days into my trip to Portugal and I’ve quickly come to the realization that communication is going to be much more difficult here than it was in Italy. English holds little to no currency here, and the limited Spanish I know from immigration activists and hanging out with my bilingual college and grad school friends isn’t going to cut it. Portuguese is a whole other ballgame. I’ve taken to writing down the exact location that I need to get to, in hopes that I won’t get lost or end up somewhere I’m not supposed to be. I’m sure that this is exactly why my mom was nervous about me traveling by myself on portions of this trip.

After spending a day and a half in the beautiful city of Oporto, Portugal (home of Port wine), I get on an express train to Coimbra (pronounced Queen-Bruh), Portugal. The trip is approximately an hour long. The day starts with me almost missing the train –I should have taken this as an omen to just wait and take the next one. After a mad-dash through the Oporto train station I manage to board my train 3 minutes before it pulls out. Relieved, I stashed my bags and sat down. I ask the conductor who punched the ticket what time we’d arrive He tells me, as I look at my watch (which was 7 minutes behind but I didn’t realize it) and I settle in for the ride. The train makes a few stops at other small towns and then keeps going. I’m sitting reading my Kindle, listening to my IPOD, and just relaxing. The train stops, and I look at my watch –and say –oh there’s still another 10 minutes before my stop. I then look out the window and see “Coimbra” –I turn and ask somebody next to me what stop this is and they tell me “Coimbra” At this point, I’m FREAKING OUT! (Let me note, that had I set my watch right, or simply been watching the sign that said, “next stop is…” this would not have been an issue) I jump up and grab my multiple bags (yes, like so many of you, I totally over-packed) and ran to the nearest door, WHICH DIDN’T OPEN! I then turned around and tried to run back to the other door, only to run into all the people who had just boarded the train. Of course, I’m helplessly trying to explain in English that I’m trying to get off the train and I needed them to move. They, on the other hand, are glaring at me wondering what the hell I was doing. Needless to say, I ended up having to hurdle two different sets of luggage, with my luggage, I get to the door, just as they close the doors and start pulling out of the station.

For a second, I sat there in disbelief, not sure what to do. I then thought –ok –no worries, this will be just like when I’m taking the train up to LA –I just missed a stop and backtrack –instead of stopping in Santa Ana, I’ll get off in Irvine, just a ten minute detour. I find the conductor and ask, where’s the next stop –I just missed the stop for Coimbra. He stares at me incredulously and asks why I missed it. I explained –and then he says, well the next stop is Lisboa (Lisbon) –in an hour and 45 minutes! My first reaction was to say to him, “Are you kidding me??” He then said wait, and walked over to pick up the on-train phone. 5 minutes later he comes back, and I ask, “Can you stop the train for me?”

Let’s pause here for a moment, –Did I really think they’d stop an express train, in Portugal, for me? Talk about embodying a ridiculous sense of entitlement. I can tell you that in that moment, I really did expect them to stop the damn train so I could get off. Never-mind the fact that I would have been out in the MIDDLE OF NO-WHERE with nothing but grapevines surrounding me.

So clearly –they didn’t stop the train. I ended up going all the way to Lisbon. Had lunch, and then hopped a train right back to Coimbra, where poor Kiva Herman had been waiting for me. The only small consolation was that her game had been moved to Sunday, so I didn’t miss my chance to watch her play pro-basketball.

The lesson in cultural relativity –as I will tell my Intro students in years to come, is in examining this moment on the train. It’s in wondering how my American cultural roots brought on such a clear moment of entitlement and privilege. Clearly, I’ve been lucky enough to think that with English, I can get by, wherever I travel. The other part however is in examining my uncensored reactions in the moment. While we all experience these moments, I think the real question is, can we be reflexive enough to understand our own culpability, and acknowledge our investment into a sense of cultural superiority. It seems that the train we need to stop –starts inside each of us.

Miscellaneous thoughts on Diversity, Inclusion, and Academia

I’m sitting in an airplane flying over the Mediterranean Sea on my way to another short, but sweet adventure in Portugal. Left in my wake are 10 spectacular days in Italy –Rome and Florence specifically

For those of you who don’t know, my trip to Rome was sponsored by an anonymous donation to the University of San Diego Center for Catholic Thought and Culture. The donor wanted to provide USD faculty an annual opportunity to travel abroad and learn about Catholicity as it relates to different geographic contexts and social issues Last year’s group traveled to the Dominican Republic and focused on issues related to environmental sustainability. This year’s theme focused on diversity, inclusion, and interculturation. While I have other blog entries written, I wanted to share some questions and ideas that are running through my mind right now.

When I first applied to the program, I did so with a healthy sense of skepticism, after all, work related to diversity and inclusion are embattled, contentious, and at times superficial. This isn’t an indictment of my university specifically, but it is a statement of fact as it relates to the very real work that occurs in higher education. If we simply open up the newspaper or turn on the news we find attacks on diversity related curriculum at every level of education, and legislative initiatives that make what I teach and research at worst illegal and at best “irrelevant.” Unfortunately, there are many who are either too afraid, or too lazy to engage in the work necessary to talk meaningfully about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability in substantive ways. They’re afraid of facing head on the constructive criticism, or develop a strategy and vision for change. They fixate on numbers, and forget that real change isn’t just about numbers but how people treat one another everyday. Realistically, they are afraid to spend time reflecting on identifying privilege in their own lives and committing themselves towards a more sophisticated form of personal growth. In truth, many of these things are difficult for us to do in our daily lives, let alone in the context of our roles within a bureaucracy.

As a sociologist with interdisciplinary training in American/Ethnic Studies, I often take for granted that while “difference” (broadly defined) is a normative part of the research and teaching that we do, this is not true in other areas. During our immersion trip, I found myself both fascinated and appalled by the idea that privilege, power, race and gender have made very little entre into theological and religious studies. My surprise is not because of any familiarity I have with that field, but rather, the simple fact that the people I know best within my university actively address these issues. When I read chapters, or discussed ideas with them, I never realized that the work they do was met with such skepticism (and at times vitriol), or that there was even an argument within their field that diversity matters. I know—this isn’t a very scientific way of coming to any conclusions about a field of study that examines thousands of years of history, ideology, morals, values and ethics, but it’s real.

In all seriousness though, if religion is the opiate of the masses, the cornerstone for how hundreds of millions of people structure their moral and ethical approach to the world, isn’t it just a little scary that diversity is such a ‘new’ issue in a discipline that’s so old? Just a thought and reminder. There is work that’s left to do.