Diran Adebayo
Eye on the Stars: Twitter and the Sporting Hero
('Index on Censorship') May, 2013
Athletes have always been expected to set a good example. But today, does the immediacy of social media mean their right to free expression is under threat? Diran Adebayo considers the rules of the game.

THE LONDON OLYMPIC GAMES were dubbed the first Twitterlympics, a nod to the numer- ous athletes who were now using social media to share their experiences and comment on one of the world’s most-loved sporting extravaganzas – and to the various deals the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had struck with Facebook and YouTube, among other big businesses. It goes without saying that social media has dramatically changed the style, reach of, and audience for public expression, and the unintended consequences of this brave new world are nowhere more appar- ent than in the audience- and responsibility-rich domain of the sporting ‘role model’.
  The explosion of social media has laid bare the dangers that were always lurking
 
It was in the small hours one night in the summer of 1984 that I first heard mention of what was to become a mighty concept: the role model. It was the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 and my family was grouped around the TV to watch Carl Lewis win the last of his record-equalling four gold medals. After- wards, a BBC journalist interviewed Lewis beside the track and said, ‘Carl, you’ve done, won, everything now. What’s next?’ ‘Oh now,’ said Lewis, ‘I’m going to be a role model.’ What? I frowned inquiringly at my elders. I had not heard this phrase before and the way he said it sounded like it was a proper new job that he was moving on to. As I’ve said previously when writing about sport and the job of being a role model, I had this vision of him wheeling Pirelli tyres down catwalks (‘roll model’) and thought it bizarre that he would want to move from this to that.
  It turned out, as the concept began playing an ever bigger part in the national and international ‘conversation’ from the 1990s onwards, I was only half wrong. It wasn’t an orthodox job, but it was a ‘job’ in the sense that one of its primary func- tions was the making of money. Nor was it a job in the usual sense of a position that one voluntar- ily applies for and can leave should one choose – this was something that was thrust upon every figure, usually public, who was deemed to have some influence on others, especially the young; sportspeople, musicians, and so on. And the role models, the sport stars especially, usually accepted this position because of the extra money-making potential it afforded them through corporate endorsements and sponsorship.
  And thus was born the 24-7 sportsman ‘brand’. Where once people did their day job in ways that might result in the happy by-product of inspiring and exciting followers of their activity, now this informal quality, or consequence, was professional- ised, monetised. There was a new insistence that if you had achieved some level of standing in a high- profile profession you had also somehow signed up to a 24-hour contract of promoting a version of goodness to the world.


What’s the future of the sports role model? One of a series of photographs commissioned by the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, 2010
 
This is not the place, unfortunately, to give this over-egged neologism the full pants-down thrashing it deserves. The tensions and pretensions in the ways ‘role model’ has been propagated have been clear for some time: the way it is ostensibly about higher values when usually it is actually about celebrity and profiteering; the fact that these role models have no ethical or intellectual mandate, yet we grant them a privilege and responsibility we formerly accorded Solomon; its frequent racial condescension – somefolks apparently need models more than others – and Protestant banality (‘work hard’ is the routine message of the role model, telling you nothing of the importance of luck in success, or of the potential impact of societal connections or status).
  But sceptical voices have been drowned out by the constellation of strong forces – the media, poli- cymakers, the beneficiaries themselves – wedded to the idea. Some of us have perhaps been too timid in attacking a concept that seems, for many, to have an obvious kernel of truth and social utility to it. However, the explosion of social media in recent years has laid absolutely bare the dangers that were always lurking in the creature of the role model. It seems to me we are now at a critical juncture. Unless more of us really step up and raise our voices, this thing will mow down many of our cherished, legitimate freedoms.
  But at last year’s Twitterlympics, it was easy to bear witness to a clash of corporations, spats erupting immediately over, essentially, money; ath- letes bristled at the fact that new IOC rules banned them from mentioning their own individual spon- sors in any tweets they made during the duration of the Games (unless their sponsors were the same as the IOC’s), while one journalist, the Independ- ent’s Guy Adams, found his Twitter account sum- marily cancelled after he was critical of NBC’s Olympics coverage. Twitter had signed a Games partnership deal with Comcast Corp, the parent company of NBC. Twitter stated that Adams’s account was suspended because the journalist had posted the corporate email address of NBC’s Olympics president, Gary Zenkel, in contravention of Twitter’s regulations. Still, their response to this everyday occurrence was strikingly heavy-handed.
  If social media had been around during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, one wonders what the fate would have been of the famous black-gloved, arm-raised protests
  All of these stories were swiftly trumped by the news that two athletes had been kicked out of the Games for posting unpleasant racially- inflected comments on Twitter. First, Swiss foot- baller Michel Morganella, irked after his team lost to South Korea, tweeted that Koreans ‘can go burn’ and are ‘a bunch of mongoloids’. Then Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou, who had already distinguished herself by re-tweeting posts and YouTube videos of Golden Dawn, Greece’s far-right anti-immigration party, excelled herself with this joke, as her country faced a mosquito outbreak: ‘With so many Africans in Greece,’ she tweeted, ‘the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!’ In expelling her, the Greek Olympic Committee said that her tweet was ‘contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement’.
  The final athletic casualty of the Games was not an Olympian but a rugby player. The contract of Northampton Saints hooker Brett Sharman, South African born and raised, was terminated directly after he posted this tweet, just before Somalia-born UK runner Mo Farah won his second Olympic gold in the 5000 metre: ‘Good luck Mohammed running for Paki … I mean Great Britain …’ The official reason given by the club for his dismissal was that he had a long-standing knee injury.
  Sympathy for these three will be limited in many circles, but add to these the tale of a fourth sportsman, American NFL Pittsburgh Steelers star Rashard Mendenhall, who was stripped of his sponsorship by sportswear company Cham- pion after tweeting, when Osama bin Laden was killed by the US military, ‘What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side …’ The repudiation of his view, quickly posted on the Steelers website by its president, Art Rooney II, laid bare the real issue at stake: ‘The entire Steelers’ organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.’
  What unites these cases, beyond the important fact that all were expressing personal, legal opin- ions in what used to be understood as their ‘off- duty’ free time, is that all had un-family-friendly views. For ‘rolemodeldom’, you see, is essentially a quietist, conservative, status-quo-minded doctrine. It has, it seems, four tenets: don’t smoke, don’t do drugs (apart from widely sanctioned ones like alcohol or valium), don’t sleep with anyone other than your ever-loving wife/husband and do sup- port your military.
  The tyranny of social media
 
Even where racial or patriotic slurs are absent, sympathy for sportspeople caught up in these dra- mas is scanter than you might hope, to judge from the comments posted on media websites or sent by trolls to players’ accounts. There is a tyrannical tendency, a kind of crowd control that has become apparent in social media whereby commonplace opinions are quickly endorsed with a barrage of ‘likes’ while those that deviate from the bulky middle of the curve are equally seized upon and shouted at. This is particularly noticeable in the mass-market, mass-follower world of sports.
  Bound up with that lurks this idea that the athletes signed up to family friendliness by virtue of their trade. But did they do anything like that, really? If one has signed a contract with a particu- lar endorser or sponsor – many of which will have included some type of ‘moral’ clause indicating that the athlete is a ‘representative’ of their brand – then maybe. You supped and the devil will have his price. But those who do not have these extra deals, and even for high-profile individuals, when it comes to parts of their lives that do not involve these sponsor relationships, surely they are entitled to the same space that most ordinary employees have enjoyed until very recently. They did not ask to be represent- atives. They had no higher calling, necessarily. They are mainly people, like most of us, who wanted to do a job they enjoyed. It is others who are doing the insisting. They come for one, they come for all. New ‘role model’ contractual clauses for footballers are being mooted on the continent, making the contest- able explicitly mandatory and further encroaching on the employer–employee relationship.
  In the USA, the 24-7 ‘brand’ now seems to be giving way to the three-score-year-and-ten sports- man. The universities of Kentucky and Louisville are among increasing numbers of American col- leges, public as well as private, requiring that their sports players hand over access to their personal social media accounts to their coaches and other authorities. What they say affects ‘the brand’ of the university, as they are the public faces of it, explained Kentucky Athletics spokesman DeWayne Peevy. It’s not clear just when 18-year-olds con- tracted to ‘represent’ the university and forego their First Amendment rights.
  There has always been a level of expectation of virtue placed on sportsmen. It’s there way back in baseball’s famous ‘Say it isn’t so, Shoeless Joe’ story, in which a distraught urchin is supposed to have accosted Chicago White Sox outfielder Joe Jackson outside court when his team was accused of fixing the World Series in 1920. As that piece of apocrypha indicates, the role model concept is usually justified by pointing to sportspeople’s great influence on the young. Whether the relationship between child fan and his sporting or musical inspirers is anything like the one of blanket idola- try and vulnerability we are led to believe is, of course, moot too. Certainly this child, like many, welcomed more complex, potentially ‘divisive’ information from such figures – but today, the wider public would never give youth the credit to allow them the same sort of complex information. If social media had been around during the Mexico Olympics of 1968, one wonders what the fate would have been of the famous black-gloved, arm-raised protests of the sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman. Smith and Carlos were both students at San José State Col- lege, where they came under the influence of radical sociologist and Black Panther Harry Edwards. Their salute stemmed from a wider civil rights agenda more troublesome than Dr Martin Luther King’s, in that it had no problem with ‘armed resistance’. At the same time, Edwards’s agenda did bear some similarities to King’s in that it embraced both international as well as domestic issues, not least southern Africa and their call for the removal of then International Olympic Committee Presi- dent Avery Brundage for his reluctance to evict apartheid South Africa from the Olympic move- ment. Today, Smith’s and Carlos’s Twitter accounts might be shut down pre-Olympics because of their ideas, which would have been seen to be incom- patible with the brand of the university – or their comments would be vetted into innocuousness by their coach. Once at the Games, the athletes would probably face swift and ultimate action for their criticism of the IOC and the fact that they were clearly potential troublemakers. Their stand, which now lives forever in history, might never have got off the ground.
  It is social media’s misfortune to have been launched at both a time of great sentimentality around children and a wider moralism, a ‘new health’. It has great potential, for social media is a baby itself, but we mustn’t coddle it; we must allow it to work as it will, to help us discover what’s on peo- ple’s minds and in their hearts. The truth, and wider dissemination of our truths, is always the most useful thing any medium can do.
An Interview with Tom Wolfe
(‘Cherwell’, The Oxford University newspaper) 1987
An Interview with ‘Cheek by Jowl’ theatre company
(‘Debate’ , The Oxford Union magazine) 1988

 

The Hip-Hop Years, Channel 4
('Black Film Bulletin') 2000
There has been a relative spate of television documentaries on black subject matter this last little while. The Skip Gates-presented travelogues ‘Into Africa’, the Trevor Phillips-produced series on the slave trade, and unheralded late-night numbers on Channel 4. All the high-profile shows have been marred, to a greater or lesser degree, by a blatant orientation to the white gaze, the white viewer, and ‘The Hip Hop Years’, so unfortunately, was no exception. As you might expect, these series have played very well to a certain powerful liberal constituency, as did their comedic counterpart Goodness Gracious Me. No doubt they achieved better than usual ratings for these types of things, so clearly some commissioners somewhere know what they’re paid for. But for those of us seemingly too few to figure in such pragmatic calculations, Channel 4’s ‘definitive’ threeparter on hip-hop culture was another bitter pill to swallow.

Such a shame because it all began so promisingly. I was mainly impressed by the opening hour-long chunk of Narrator/ Director/ Producer David Upshal’s series, spending, as it did, a serious amountof time detailing the youth culture that spread from the block parties and street dances of New York’s South Bronx in the seventies. Some great rare footage of original B-boys and girls was juxtaposed against present-day interviews with these same pre-industry local heroes. One or two telling instancesof skulduggery, too, in the transistion from pastime to business, notably when neighbourhood MC Casanova Fly spoke of how one of his raps was bitten whole for the tune that became ‘Rappers Delight’, hip-hop’s first chart hit. He looked pretty much how you’d expect someone to look who’d never earnt what was rightfully his….
IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, edited by Courttia Newland and Kadija Sesay
('The Times') 2000
Your reaction to this collection will depend, I think, on which notion of writing you hold dearer: a ‘high’ view of writing as a discipline that demands a certain rigorous combination of intellectual and literary skills to be found only amongst a few, or an attitude to writing that sees it as something more akin to a community resource, a tool to be used by the many, whose value lies as much in its documentary and therapeutic worth as it does in the intrinsic quality of the work in question. If your bent is towards the former, then I fear this collection may disappoint….

As a record , and as an addition to the ahem, national conversation, it works quite well. There is little from the regions, but many of the commonly struck notes of black chat – the struggle to find a comfort zone amid mixed cultural identities, the sense of being second-class citizens – are heard here, as well as less widely known aspects of the black familiar: how black bouncers are often employed on a keep blacks-out basis and, in Linda Bellos’ excellent essay on Age, the sad consequences that spring from the absence of grandparents, ‘wise elders’, in most black lives here. While pieces such as Kechi Nwajiaku’s, who notes how ‘black’ is a term that has little currency outside of white parts of the world, and who rejects the ‘black-British’ label for herself because of its working-class connotations – will bring some awareness of nuance to those who mainly see monolith.

Unfortunately, these matters are sometimes in the hands of correspondents not fully equipped to illuminate them. Much of the work feels slight and stronger editorial steers at the top of the fairly arbitrary-seming sections would have given the whole greater weight….
The Atlantic Sound, by Caryl Phillips
(The TImes') 2000
In ‘the Atlantic Sound’ Caryl Phillips revisits many of the concerns that have bubbled through his fiction: the lives of people whose fates have been largely shaped by the 500 year-old relationship between West Africa and the West. As a travelogue, this book is also something of a companion volume to his fine exploration of modern European identities, ‘The European Tribe’.

Here he travels to towns that all figured prominently in the old slave triangle – England-Africa-the Americas – to gain a sense of how their contemporary realities play against their historical freight. In particular, he’s interested in the mind-set of the black diasporans he meets. What constitutes home for these ones, like himself, whose most defining characteristic has been displacement?

The book is topped and tailed by visits to Liverpool and South Carolina, but the heart of it is the trip Phillips makes to Ghana to attend ‘Panafest’, a biennial government-sponsored jamboree that seeks to exploit the growing fashion for cultural tourism amongst diasporans. The author casts a largely sardonic eye over the event’s organisational laxity, and the inability of these ‘homeward bound’ Americans and Caribbeans to be as African as they would so clearly like to be…

Well, yes. Phillips’ critique of the quixotic nature of such projects is a popular counter against the Afrocentric thinking that remains such a strong current in black western communites today. But clearly the fact that such yearnings do remain, and are being acted on, is a testament to the disaffection that many diasporans still feel in their western homes, even when it’s the only home they’ve ever known. Their prescriptions may be flawed, or unrealistic, but the passions they spring from are real and they demand, I think, a passionate, not just an intellectual, engagement. This book is billed as a ‘personal quest’ but I wanted to know more about this Caribbean-born and England-bred author’s own deep feelings to ‘home’ and how they were affected, or not, by his journey….
The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif

(The Guardian’)
1999

Ahdaf Soueif has gained a strong reputation from previous novels for the delicacy with which she traces lines between East and West. In books such as ‘In The Eye Of The Sun’ she has placed her characters against post-colonial landscapes to illuminate both. ‘The Map of Love’ covers some familiar terrain, but here she meets with only limited success.

The novel traces the unfolding of two cross-cultural romances, a century apart, involving the Baroudis, a powerful, high-born Egyptian family…

Soueif’s intent is to show how the “feel and smell of the past wraps itself” around present-day lives, and so Amal goes through the trunk, discovers their blood link, and the correspondences between Isabel’s and Anna’s encounters with the Orient grow; current Egyptian issues, of national recovery, the difficulties facing the ‘fellah’ peasant class, and Arab-Jewish relations, are also foreshadowed in the concerns of a century ago; while such issues continue to take their toll on individual lives and aspirations, the only fruits that endure, the novel suggests, are those of love.

Unfortunately the amplification that Soueif is seeking through these counterpoints is rarely achieved and this is largely because her concerns are not sufficently worked through the fates of her characters, particularly the present-day ones…

African Literature
(The Times) 2005

What are your memories of ‘Africa ‘O5’, this – if you didn’t notice yet – yearlong series of events, political and cultural, aimed at focussing a nation’s attention on that continent? For me, the highlights have been under-the-radar-moments, mainly about comradeship; bumping into some old friend at a concert or a talk, and setting your childhoods or the old country to rights over a drink after. Just spending good time amongst folk for whom Africa is more than a once-in-a-decade thing.

As for the high-profile, public side, my two abiding memories are both, unfortunately, sad ones. The first is watching Bob Geldof’s trawl through the present-day Congo for a BBC TV series and seeing him – surprise surprise – deploy Joseph Conrad’s century-old ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the main frame for his musings. The second is of hearing about Penguin’s failure to include its novelist Chinua Achebe, author of the celebrated novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, in its 70th-anniversary marking series of ‘Pocket Penguins, a series designed, apparently, to showcase ‘the breadth, diversity and quality’ of its list. “Both Baldwin and Achebe, who I concede some people might feel were left out, in fact sell very little in this country. We were looking at our foremost writers,” explained Penguin’s Marketing director Joanna Prior. Strictly speaking, the Penguin story isn’t an ‘Africa ‘O5 moment’, but it’s linked with it in my head, not least because Achebe wrote his novel partly in response to Conrad, Geldof’s Congolese-writer-of-choice.

The Golden Age of African literature is generally held to date from around the time of the 1958 publication of ‘things Fall Apart’ to the early seventies, when luminaries such as Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka bestrode the international stage. Why is is that since then – and even then if Penguin is to be believed – books by black Africans have made so little impression on the western imagination? During a period when Indian and Indian diasporic literature, for example, has continued to make a strong showing.

For sure, there are any number of factors involved – and I don’t not claiming to be an expert in this matter, but, from my interested-observer, in-between-standpoint as a Briton of African descent, a couple of reasons stand out.

The first concerns the production qualities and general ‘vibe’ of many African books. Not surprisingly, given the wioder economic malaise of the continent, many africa-published books are poorly produced. The text is often small and crammed onto pages with narrow margins, the covers generic – not the most alluring prospect for your impatient western agent/ publisher hunting for goodies at an international book fair. Added to this is a conservative lean and an overregard for formality in many African cultures which can have a deadening effect on the prose, and saddle the books with an old-fashioned feel to western eyes. When you add to this Africa’s long-standing position as a place that is only really worthy of the west’s worthy attention – ‘These poor, afflicted people!’ as Queen Victoria was fond of saying – you have a low-selling cocktail. Worthiness will get you charity donations but it doesn’t (unless you hit the schools set text jackpot) shift a lot of books.

White African writers, or whites writing Africa-set stories, do not seem to suffer from any such ‘worthy’ suspicions. From a white perspective, it’s boom time in Africa. Nobel Laureates Nadime Gordimer and JM Coetzee, Peter Godwin, Breyten Breytenbach, Alexandra Fuller with her Zimbabwean farm angst and of course, Alexander McCall Smith with his Ladies Detective Agency series.

Now it may be that these writers are the only talents around, but I think that history commands us to be a touch more sceptical than that. Black Africa’s literary highpoint came at a time when the continent was going through decolonisation, and many of its lauded books were about the effects of that colonial period on African minds and cultures. The west was interested not least because they were in the story. Africa has moved on, but this western desire to be in the story is catered to by the interest in white tales of Africa. Historically, the Africa- billed – and indeed, more widely black-billed -cultural produce that makes a splash is rarely primarily about the place and its peoples, but more about whiteness: white fears or expectations, missions; a suitable backdrop to deal with white masculinity, perhaps, or heroism (Rider Haggard, Hemingway etc). The racial thinking that has existed in Europe at least since the Enlightenment days of Hume and Kant, that Africans are lower, have less interesting stuff in them, casts a long shadow.

There are fully human, 3-D, exciting stories to be found in Africa. These are countries with their own intellectual hubs with a new young, globalised, generation of people who are in touch with more than we think they are. Writers such as Cameroon’s Calixthe Beyala, for example, tell gritty urban tales of a kind we more often associate with a London or a New York, and the new, smart literary journal ‘Kwani’ is already being hailed as Africa’s ‘Granta’. More relevantly, perhaps, from a UK perspective, at a time when Africans are soon to replace Caribbeans as the largest black presence in Britain, there are a growing number of stories from British Africans that take a reckonning with their dual heritage. We hope you enjoy tasting some of these new flavours in Cheltenham.

Books of the Year
('The Observer') 2004
Paul D. Miller – aka DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid – is an underground treasure. An African-American cultural theorist-cum-musician, his Rhythm Science (Mediaworks) is a sharp, sweetly designed little number, a manifesto for his way of looking at the world. Tracing connections between Duchamp, Debussy, the Wu Tang Clan and the everyday creativity he saw growing up in Washington DC, he shows how art and idealism can activate each other in this era of sampling and ‘multiplex consciousness’. In its range of reference and its fruitful speculations, it reminds me of our own Kodwo Eshun’s groundbreaking More Brilliant Than the Sun (Quartet) of a few years back.”
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