November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 6, 2016
Before declaring himself eligible for the 2016 NFL Draft, Kelvin Taylor was the starting running back for two seasons at the University of Florida. During the second week of the 2015 season, Taylor scored a key touchdown in a close game against East Carolina. When Taylor entered the end zone, he tossed the ball away, looked toward the stands, and made a slashing motion across his throat with his thumb. The official in the end zone saw the gesture, threw his penalty flag, and assessed Taylor with an excessive celebration penalty. As a result of the call, East Carolina was awarded an additional fifteen yards on the ensuing kickoff, giving them a fighting chance to get back into the hard-fought game. Taylor’s coach, Jim McElwain, was upset for obvious reasons, but the manner in which he chose to express his anger was anything but reasonable. McElwain launched into a red-faced, spittle-laden tirade on a twenty-year-old athlete that would have made even the notoriously tempestuous Bob Knight uncomfortable. And yet the tirade drew two conflicting responses from much of the sports world: (1) outright disgust at the image of a white multimillionaire verbally abusing a young, black athlete for an on-field peccadillo and (2) admiration at the return of old-school coaching that simply will not tolerate such a careless and selfish infraction.
Several years earlier, there was another noteworthy touchdown and celebration, this time from the meme-worthy quarterbacking sensation Tim Tebow. Prior to Florida’s 2007 meeting with the Louisiana State University Tigers, an enterprising LSU student acquired Tim Tebow’s phone number and decided to broadcast it over several online message boards. Tebow’s phone was then overloaded with, to say the least, negative messages from the raucous Tiger fans. During the first half of the game, Tebow ran untouched for a touchdown to give Florida what they thought was a commanding lead (LSU would go on to win). Tebow then looked to the LSU student section, pantomimed dialing a cell phone, placed his hand to his ear, and mouthed the words “call me.” Tebow was not flagged for excessive celebration.
In the 2010 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos traded up to the 25th overall pick to select Tebow. He signed a rookie contract worth over 11 million dollars, with $8.25 million of that money guaranteed. Kelvin Taylor was drafted just a few months ago in the 2016 NFL draft. He was selected in the sixth round by the San Francisco 49ers with the 211th overall pick. His contract is worth $2.44 million but with only $100,000 of that money guaranteed.
In 1975 Michel Foucault gave what has now become a rather famous series of lectures at the Collège de France, provocatively entitled Abnormal. A key moment in the course of Foucault’s argument is a story about leprosy, plague, and power. He describes the leper’s plight in this way:
The leper’s exclusion was a social practice that included first of all a rigorous division, a distancing, a rule of no contact between one individual (or group of individuals) and another. Second, it involved casting these individuals out into a vague, external world beyond the town’s walls, beyond the limits of the community. As a result, two masses were constituted, each foreign to the other. And those cast out were cast out in the strict sense into outer darkness. Third, and finally, the exclusion of lepers implied the disqualification—which was perhaps not exactly moral, but in any case juridical and political—of individuals thus excluded and driven out.1
The goal of this exclusion was obviously a very practical one—to keep the disease from spreading—but Foucault also notes its deeply religious roots when he writes, “[These leper’s were] hieratic witnesses of evil, they accomplish their salvation in and by their very exclusion: in a strange reversibility that is the opposite of good works and prayer, they are saved by the hand that is not stretched out.”2 This ritualization sprung up around the practice of banishment for a slew of reasons, yet this exclusionary power only produced limited results. Although this power rid the city of a profound danger, it did nothing to combat the true root of the danger, that is, the disease itself. Hence, exclusive power was useful but had very little finesse, as it were. I like to think of it more as a sledgehammer—it made a bold statement, but if the city officials hoped for more than merely removing the infected masses from society, they needed to identify a more subtle form of power.
In contrast, when the plague struck a city, Foucault writes that a city’s primary strategy was not to round up all the victims and banish them from the city. This would have done nothing to stop the spread of the disease. What the city devised instead was a vast network of surveillance designed to prevent the spread of the plague through constant monitoring and individual intervention. A plague-ridden city imposed a series of quarantines that not only cut the city off from the outside world but also divided and subdivided it. Within the various zones, sometimes demarcated by a single street or city block, sentries were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the border and inspecting homes to locate new victims. Citizens, for their part, found their lives regimented and subdivided such that they had to appear at a certain window each day to confirm they were still alive. If they did not appear at their windows at the appointed time, this meant they were either dead or had fallen ill, which called for some means of direct intervention.
When we contrast this inclusive operation of power with the banishment of the lepers, a few key implications emerge. Foucault delineates these implications:
It is not a question of driving out individuals but rather of establishing and fixing them, of giving them their own place, of assigning places and of defining presences and subdivided presences. Not rejection but inclusion. . . . With the plague there is no longer a sort of grand ritual of purification, as with leprosy, but rather an attempt to maximize the health, life, longevity, and strength of individuals. Essentially, it is a question of producing a healthy population rather than of purifying those living in the community, as in the case of leprosy. Finally, you can see that there is no irrevocable labeling of one part of the population but rather constant examination of a field of regularity within which each individual is constantly assessed in order to determine whether he conforms to the rule, to the defined norm of health.3
This particular exercise of power worked to root out a contagion, an abnormality, not by banishing it from among the population itself but rather by including it within the population, by studying it and determining how to either excise it or heal it through intervention. Notice also, and this is extremely important, that the permanence of one’s status changed entirely under this new regime. Rather than becoming a leper and remaining a leper, an everyday citizen’s status now rested upon a knife’s edge. What I mean is something like this: when the primary mode of power is exclusionary, one could remain regular and ought to do so if the proper precautions were followed. Leprosy, after all, was a problem that could be avoided. Yet with the rise of the inclusive mode of power, the threat of abnormality took on a new hiddenness. Threats to the health of society were no longer easily spotted and expelled; they were now hiding in plain sight and had to be rooted out by a more complex and invasive form of investigation. The abnormals were no longer the madmen babbling outside the city gates or the leper colonies banished to the lowlands; rather, abnormals were now among us, as those infected with plague, and the power required to spot them had to be panoptical, a power that could see the truth of one’s very person.
Foucault’s juxtaposition of the city’s responses to leprosy and the plague suggests a profound shift from the medieval period to the nascent stages of modernity in the way that power was exercised upon individuals who were considered a threat. However, he is careful to identify the emergence of inclusive power as a “reactivation.” Foucault argues that its source was theological in that it was repurposed from pastoral institutions of confession that monasteries had been perfecting centuries earlier. If one replaces the problem of plague with that of sin, it becomes clear how precisely regimes of normalization took up the innovations of the monastics. A population is sequestered in a particular place. They are routinely monitored by those in authority. Rituals meant to stave off the spread of the contagion are implemented on a daily basis.
The ultimate goal of inclusion was finally to combat degeneracy within a population.4 For the monks this meant combating the spiritual degeneracy that so easily spreads among the children of Adam. Yet when this power became the preferred mode of power for regimes of normalization, the degeneracy meant to be stamped out was abnormality in whatever forms it might take. Indeed, this leads to a second key insight from Foucault, namely that normalizing power’s fight against degeneracy within a population leads to a new type of racism. Foucault calls this new form of racist thinking a “racism against the abnormal”:5
With this notion of degeneration and these analyses of heredity, you can see how psychiatry could plug into, or rather give rise to, a racism that was very different in this period from what could be called traditional, historical racism, from “ethnic racism.” The racism that psychiatry gave birth to is a racism against the abnormal, against individuals who, as carriers of a condition, stigmata, or any defect whatsoever, may more or less randomly transmit to their heirs the unpredictable consequences of their evil, or rather of the non-normal, that they carry within them. It is a racism, therefore, whose function is not so much the prejudice or defense of one group against another as the detection of all those within a group who may be the carriers of a danger to it. It is an internal racism that permits the screening of every individual within a given society.6
Perhaps the best way to proceed from here is to say that rather than cataloging a racism against, what we might call traditional racial prejudice, Foucault is trying to describe the ways in which rituals of confession were co-opted in order to perpetuate a racism for. Now, a racism for is no longer a racism primarily aimed at excluding one particular race from society so that the other race might thrive, though there are certainly elements of that. Rather, a racism for is a racism aimed at maintaining and perpetuating the health and strength of the race. LaDelle McWhorter, in her exceptional book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America, describes it this way, “Modern racism is about racial purification; it defines the abnormalities it identifies as racial impurities or as threats to racial purity. Modern racism is not really about nonwhites; modern racism is really all about white people.”7 So what racism against the abnormal sought to do was not to banish the racial lepers, as it were, but rather to maximize the health of the broader population by normalizing those abnormals among us. All of this, however, served the good of the whole; the problem was that this whole was not a true whole. As one might suspect, the whole was the true race worthy of preservation and health—the white race.
Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with sports, particularly with that rather curious rule within a singular sport? Moreover, what does any of this have to do with theology? In short, my answer is this: big-time college sports have become, or perhaps always were, regimes of normalization, but they choose as their primary mode of power this inclusive, panoptic technique, which is why most of the operations of this normalizing power are seen as laudable or are otherwise invisible. Indeed, the most important claim that I am making is not just that big-time college sports choose one technique of power over the other; rather, I mean to point out that the institutional minutiae, training regimens, and especially the penalties against those who forsake these things are mechanisms of power seeking a positive rather than negative effect. In other words, to continue with our particular example, the excessive celebration rule is not simply meant to prevent certain behaviors from occurring but is rather meant to produce a certain type of person, the normal or, in this case, the good sport.
Hence, to call the excessive celebration rule racist, seeing as it participates in the racism against the abnormal that I’ve been describing, is not to insinuate that the officials on the field harbor a particularly negative attitude toward athletes of color, although this might be the case in some instances. Rather, Foucault’s account of abnormality shows us that the rule is racist according to what it favors and according to the traits it seeks to instill in those who violate it. The excessive celebration rule, and many other facets of the game that are too vast to name here, participate in a racism for, meaning that the rule may permit excessive celebrations that are done in a manner that parallels the ideals behind the rule.
In the case of Tim Tebow, there was no flag for excessive celebration at LSU because he celebrated in what the officials, and with them the NCAA, perceive to be the right way to celebrate. It does not seem to be that much of a stretch to insist that Tim Tebow never got flagged for his celebrations because his celebrations were the sort that a white, Christian quarterback would choose. Those kinds of celebrations are acceptable and, in fact, laudable when seen in the light of the broader goals of college football.
We can also see now how these broader goals have no room for Kelvin Taylor’s actions. Taylor’s celebration is deemed abnormal and degenerate by the rule because it is precisely the sort of celebration that officials at the NCAA envision that a black thug might choose—an indicator of the violent tendencies already presumed to be inherent within Taylor’s population. The only way for this degeneracy to be combated is for its abnormality to be normed, that is, to submit to the technique of power that would seek to make such a body become docile. In short, the normalizing power operative in college athletics wants to make Kelvin Taylor act more like Tim Tebow, and this means calming down the “excessive” nature of Taylor’s celebrations.
It seems that all we have needed to reach this point is continental philosophy and our own careful reading of the institutional makeup of college athletics. So what is theology’s unique contribution to our understanding of big-time college athletics? I think the answer is fairly obvious—theology’s role is to answer some of our lingering questions from Foucault’s account of normalizing power. In fact, I imagine that theologians will find that answering the questions raised by Foucault can only be done adequately by taking up the unique timbre of the Christian tradition, answering from the specific claims of its theological horizon rather than trying to arrive at an answer that just so happens to be in line with Christian claims from an entirely “neutral” standpoint. By suggesting this, I don’t mean to imply that the Christian tradition has a singular voice with which to answer these questions; I do think, however, that this moment in the philosophical account of sports is where theology may step in and offer its contribution.
Sports force or, perhaps, invite Christian theology to further articulate the difference between the power of ritual and the particular power of the sacraments. I’ve already pointed out the importance of the rise of the inclusive technique of power and its co-opting of the confessional practices of monastic communities. In short, this calls theology to give a full account of the perversions normalizing power wrought on a series of rituals meant for the transformative encounter of the individual with God. The claim theologians seem bound to is that, at the end of the day, there must have been some good that the monastic communities were hoping to accomplish through the techniques of confession and absolution. Moreover, it follows that this good must have been fundamentally distorted when uprooted from its seedbed within the Christian tradition and applied to the hunt for abnormality. An adequate theological accounting of big-time college sports, given our philosophical foundations, might just begin with reclaiming the theological riches of sacramental rites that have been plundered by normalizing regimes.
The more challenging task, however, may be to reinvigorate the theological imagination so that new possibilities of governance come to light. In short, it seems that part of the reason normalizing power and its problematic racism against the abnormal has such staying power is that we cannot imagine a world without it. There seems to be no other framework within which we might operate for the common good. A criminally brief but necessary gloss of the life of Jesus might be to say that the Christ stands outside of such mechanisms of power not simply as a critique against their damaging effects but also as an invitation into a kingdom that does not rely upon them as its primary mode of control. If the way we participate in and engage with sport ought to accord with kingdom principles at every level—and this seems to me a foundational facet of any Christian accounting of how to engage with the world properly—then Christians must seek new patterns of relationship among the citizens of that kingdom.
Perhaps the most profound truth we can name at the outset of this search is that the Triune God assures us that knowing the full truth of the other is always a chimera. True love for the other is desire displaced and reborn, a desire to know as we are known that lives in the tension caused by the unknowability of the truth of the other. In much the same way as the Christian tradition has rejected claims that purport to know the full truth of any person of the Trinity, so must the Christian theologian make a similar claim about the truth of persons whom panoptic regimes seek to normalize. The other is just as fundamentally shrouded in darkness as those relations within God into which we seek to be incorporated, and to assert that the truth of this other may be known is to commit idolatry, to make a golden calf out of one whose truth simply cannot be confined to such a graven image. The truth that normalizing power seeks, therefore, has no place for this excess of the other, and it certainly possesses no means by which such excess might be celebrated. Attempting a theological accounting of big-time college sports, then, exposes the fact that the truth of Kelvin Taylor and Tim Tebow is fundamentally unknown to us, and rules that purport to reveal their truth while also imposing a new, more normal truth are fundamentally idolatrous.
Jason M. Smith
Jason M. Smith is a doctoral student in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. His research engages the odd and often problematic intersections of theology, sport, ritual, and culture. He still enjoys attending football games at his alma mater, the University of Georgia.