Thursday, January 26, 2012


I wish I’d had a camera when Rebecca met Joanne Boyle, the UVa Women’s Basketball Coach.  The coach stands over six feet tall and sports spiked heels and stunning designer clothing; for this game it was a floor length skit.  Rebecca’s reaction was complete open-mouthed shock and awe and silence. She has since spent a fair bit of time wearing high heels and proclaiming herself Basketball Coach. This reaction, of course, did not fit so well my fantasies of the guest coach experience showing her tall, athletic, and powerful women…

At the end of last semester a very tall woman in my music 101 class handed me a piece of paper which I tossed in my backpack and lost track of.  I read it a few weeks later and realized it was an invitation to be Basketball Coach for the Day. It seemed clear that every Division One basketball team needs a legally blind coach on the bench.  This seemed like it would be the closest to a ball sport I’ll ever come, and I’d never been to a basketball game. My hoop glory days were brief and consisted of, college Sunday morning feminist basketball which, after many months of patient coaching, yielded one successful (and uncontested) lay-up.   Let’s just say that one of the main reasons I run is that when I showed up for field hockey, Coach Noel took one look at me with a ball and a stick and sent me over to Coach Adkins and the cross country team.

My instructions were to show up for the afternoon shoot-around and evening game with a guest.  I had no clue what a shoot-around was but, because my actual date would be in school for said shoot-around.  Manuel was jealous that I picked Rebecca and not him as guest so I said Manuel could attend the pregame festivities. He loved it…  In typical UVa fashion the invite came with a dress code for the event; Cavalier clothing for the shoot-around and a suit for the game. I owned neither, but thanks to a few donations and after trying on suits from some very generous lawyer friends, I was appropriately outfitted. (And for the record I have plenty of fine-looking professional clothes but no business clothes!)  A shoot-around turns out to be a very easy practice and, not surprisingly, they do not let the shrimpy Guest Coach anywhere near the athletes.

Rebecca and I acquired fancy “all access badges” which gave us the run of John Paul Jones Arena for game day.  She especially loved hers and informed someone who asked her if she was a ball girl that “I’m not a ball girl; I’m a guest coach.” She also enjoyed visiting her father, brother and friends in the nose bleed seats and announcing, “oh I have to get back to my seat.” We had a visiting scholar in the music department who graciously spent much of the game discussing and reading the heinous transformer book with Eli.  Our passes got us into the locker room for the pre game ritual.  And I use the word ritual purposefully to describe the whole experience. I found myself thinking the whole night about an article I read in a grad school ethnomusicology class about the ritual of football game and about Bruno Nettl’s Ethnomusicologist from Mars who visits a music department and provides an ethnographic analysis.   Like all competitive sports, women’s basketball games at UVa are complex social dramas complete with rituals and performances.

 When the abovementioned goddess coach enters the locker room the players applaud. Then, at various intervals during her pre game talk, they clap rhythmically.  With a few more participant observations one could make a pretty solid argument about the ritual of clapping as both enacting the coach as an almost deity and as pushing the players into moving as a collective body. It ends with an inspirational quote and a group prayer circle, which somehow we ended up in—holding hands and looking solemn. They do, in fact, pray for victory, which perplexed Rebecca. “that was kind of weird Mommy, do you think God really has time for UVa basketball…”  The ritual, in other words, involves divine presence, and Geertz would no doubt read it as a religious experience.  I’m with Rebecca on this one…

The most striking thing about a Division One big sports school is that revenue-generating sports exist on a different planet from most of the rest of the University. For one thing, everyone wears orange.  “they are all wearing cavaliers” my five year old told me.   My daughter’s stunned reaction to a 6’3 coach pretty much matched mine to my first music 101 class at UVa back in 2007.  When a block of eight football players walked in, my TA, Matt, and I were stunned—Medussa turned into stone style.  I’d never seen people that big in real life—their legs were the size of my waist and they barely fit in the chairs.   The JPJ experience is utterly removed from Central Grounds where the university works hard to reconstruct a Jeffersonian academic village.   In contrast to UVA brochures and websites, JPJ has no columns, no green space, and no diverse groups of students sitting under trees. Instead it’s all bright lights, expensive hotdogs, and noise…  The current construction project not withstanding, Central Grounds is constructed to block out external noise.  JPJ resounds not just with talking but with cheering and the marching band.  The band tells the audience when to pay attention, when something good has happened, and when to avert their eyes.

I assume the coach for the day project is meant to help engender warm feelings from faculty for the athletes.  It’s no secret on grounds that the business of student athletes is a complicated one.  Players generate millions of dollars but get very little for themselves.  Coaches make more money then the rest of us will see in a life-time. 
Many (of course, not all) athletes from revenue generating sports come to UVa far less prepared than their classmates.  Some of our teams have at least a few players who do not meet the NCAA standards—this is very low.  As a football coach once told me when I asked point blank if football players were less academically skilled than the average UVa student. “Well, they want us to beat Miami, and you don’t beat Miami with nice kids…”  The athletes get tutors, they get study halls, they get their own dining room (complete with their own nutritionist), and they get help picking classes that will meet their needs. And often, despite all of this, their grades are below the mean.  Music 101 regularly gets groups from teams, so I track it.

But here’s the thing.  The basketball staff member who ushered me around my various duties as guest coach made it clear that these women spend SIX HOURS a day on their training.  That’s six hours of physical activity.  Football players in Music 101 regularly came to class with arms in slings looking like they’d come home from battle.  They often had.  The bottom line is that we set them up to fail.  If they come to UVa underprepared, and they have a physically demanding nearly full time job, they are set up for academic trouble. 

All of that not withstanding, I loved the game!  I’m a sucker for ritual.  I love the marching band, I love watching the way everyone cheers.  I don’t enjoy sports on TV, I can never find the damn ball. Football games are usually cold, and the field is big so no matter where I sit I can’t see what’s going on.  The basketball court is small and intimate by stadium standards, and if you get to sit on the bench you are right in the thick of it.  I was totally sucked into the drama and into the pleasure of not knowing what would happen.  The kids loved the game and got to back on Saturday with courtside front row tickets given to us by another friend.  On the one hand the evening brought home the contrast between JPJ and central grounds.  While the kids and Manuel were in cavalier finery eating popcorn and watching hoops I was on the so called music-balcony of the newly restored Garret Hall playing a Scottish lament on my viola for a dead wife that TJ may or may not have listened to.   I was pretty jealous of the kids!

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