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Athletic Privilege —

July 1, 2013

I played a lot of sports growing up: soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, wrestling, and track and field. I loved playing sports and I harbored elaborate daydreams of smashing the winning homerun or sinking the buzzer-beater that got us into the championships. The only thing standing between me and athletic glory was the fact that I sucked at sports.

I sucked at sports damn near across the board. In baseball, you couldn’t pay me to stay in the batter’s box when the pitcher threw what was essentially a perfectly round rock at me over and over again. Coaches often put me in left field, where I sat and plucked grass as I made up songs. In basketball, I spent more time perfecting my “Hey, you fouled me!” somersault than scoring baskets. And in track, I hated to run, even as a child, which made races an intolerable ordeal.

The only sport that I poured my heart and soul into was high school wrestling. My passion for wrestling stemmed largely from the fact that as a freshman, I rode my oldest brother’s senior coattails as much as possible. He was into wrestling, so I was into wrestling.

I trained intensely, both in school and out. The only time I ever took up running was when I had ambitions of starting on the freshman team. With Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien in my Walkman, I ran the streets of Florissant, Missouri feeling like Matthew Modine in Vision Quest.

I never missed a practice, weekdays or weekends — not even over Christmas break. I pushed myself to my personal limits in the pursuit of athletic excellence.

Yet, despite all the hard work and dedication, I still got pinned over and over and over by the other guys on my team. The only person I could beat consistently was John Olejarczyk, a gangly, lanky goofball whose height was a natural disadvantage for him.

Over the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I went with my team (including Olejarczyk) to the Granby School of Wrestling in Wisconsin, where I learned the legendary Standing Granby. But still, my sophomore year, I sucked just as much as my freshman year. My junior year, I got my first speeding ticket (88 in a 55) on my way home from a Saturday practice and my parents made me quit the team to get my first job in order to pay the fine.

Secretly, I was relieved because after three years on the wrestling team I was still stuck sparring with Olejarczyk, and I had zero prospects of ever starting on the wrestling team that year or next.

In short: I sucked at wrestling, and pretty much every other sport I’ve tried, no matter how much effort I put into it.


Rudy’s strength was determination, not skill.

Americans love an underdog story. We love to hear about some random nobody who pours his heart into something (whether sports or school or whatever) and in the end, against all odds, the hard work pays off and all of their dreams coming true. In my mind, Rudy is the ultimate underdog-makes-good movie. It’s the true story of a Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger whose determination and hard work ultimately pay off when he achieves his dream of playing football at Notre Dame during the final game of his senior year.

Was Rudy allowed to play because he was a naturally gifted athlete? Nope. He was allowed to play because his courage and commitment to the team inspired Notre Dame’s starting team. That starting team was full of the athletically privileged, whose natural talents combined with hard work to get them on the gridiron. Rudy played that last game because he was an inspiration, not because he was great at football. But in the end, Rudy sacked the quarterback and was the first Notre Dame player carried off the field by his teammates.

The story is incredibly uplifting because we see Rudy’s teammates rally around the guy who has zero chance of playing in a real game based solely on talent. It’s only when his team, and his coach, recognize his determination despite his inadequate talent that they give him the chance to participate.

Clearly Rudy had no shortage of motivation or commitment, but he did lack athletic privilege.

Ever since Ragen wrote about her 5k, trolls have mocked her for writing the following:

I benefit from a tremendous amount of athletic privilege, and the athletic things that I do are typically things at which I am naturally talented and have put many, many hours of hard work so I’m used to being among the best.

Their criticism basically goes like this: “HAHA! ATHLETIC PRIVILEGE! WTF IS THAT?!?!”

Maybe it’s because all of these critics were the best athletes in their class and they have no idea what it’s like to work hard and remain mediocre, but it seemed pretty obvious to me what Ragen meant by “athletic privilege.”

Just to clarify, one classic definition of privilege is as follows:

Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.

Most often, privilege is a term used in social justice circles to explain how whites, men, Christians, the wealthy and so on, have an ingrained advantage from society that they (often) aren’t even aware of. The best analogy I’ve heard from several people is that if life were a video game, being born a white male is the easy setting.

Athletic privilege is merely the extension of that social justice concept. Athletic privilege acknowledges the obvious fact that some people are naturally more athletic than others. Some people are more coordinated, more agile, more “in tune” with their bodies. Some people start playing basketball at a young age and their skills progress exponentially, while others barely improve despite a great passion for the sport.  And, of course, there’s a whole spectrum in between.

Yes, if you train in a sport then you will improve your own personal skills, but those skills may still pale in comparison to someone who has put in the same amount of work as you. The same can be said of a cerebral “sport” like chess: some people have a form of intellectual privilege that gives them an enormous advantage.

Personally, I didn’t think this concept was all that controversial or hard to grasp, but it turns out that a lot of people seem to believe that if you work hard enough in any sport, you will inevitably improve your skills to a professional level. Those who don’t are dismissed as “clearly” having not tried hard enough.

Lacking athletic privilege isn’t a necessarily bad thing, except for one major problem: people who lack athletic privilege are often discouraged from participating in sports because they suck at it. The results are relatively devastating, whether being picked last for team sports to just being mocked. All of the negativity drives down a person’s self-esteem and interest in physical activity.

Critics claim that athletic privilege is a good thing because otherwise we praise all kids for simply participating, which encourages mediocrity in society. Rather, we’re told that competitive greatness is the ideal.

But I couldn’t disagree more. Someone once gave me advice on parenting that we shouldn’t praise our daughters for being smart; we should praise them for working hard. When you praise a child for being smart (something that is determined largely by genetics and improved by parental authorities), then you teach kids that being smart is the end all, be all. The fear is that these kids will accept their natural intelligence as a given and assume they can coast through life on their brains. Emphasizing effort, rather than intelligence, teaches ALL kids, regardless of baseline intelligence, that hard work produces better outcomes.

Likewise, we should be encouraging kids to play sports because they love them, not because they’ll be the team captain or MVP. Anyone who thinks the whole point of sports is to be the very best is aggressively clueless, IMHO. If individuals want to become the best in their sport, then great! More power to them. But those same sports should be welcoming of people at all skill levels so that the sheer joy of participation will encourage people to continue playing, even if they’re just sitting in left field.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. nof permalink
    July 1, 2013 12:55 pm

    You make great points.

    I was a swimmer in high school, and never managed to break a 30-second 50 free. 27 seconds was, IIRC, the varsity cutoff. My coach yelled at me to try harder, try harder, try harder…and I did, and still never broke that 30 seconds. I now also get extremely anxious and nauseous at the smell of chlorine, so thanks, coach! Over 3 seconds, you ruined one of my previously-favorite activities. I dislike the classic “abusive” coach; many athletes find them motivational, but how many people (like me!) get pushed out of sports because they find being yelled at and belittled an awful experience that makes them never want to enter the gym (or pool) again?

    Also a very good point on the not-praising for intelligence. I’ve found it odder and odder as I’ve grown up; everyone praises me for “working so hard” to get good grades and a good job, but…I never worked hard at all. I didn’t study. I did the bare minimum to complete my assignments and yet got straight A/Bs. I got good grades because I was a good test taker and apparently just really good at school without trying. I never worked hard; I was intellectually privileged so that I didn’t have to.

    Funnily enough, the only people I’ve seen complain about “kids today get a trophy for showing up!” are people who enjoy a lot of privilege or who have some special ability they need acknowledged.

    • July 2, 2013 10:00 am

      I didn’t work hard at all through school. I just came across a bunch of report cards from grade school and the pattern was unmistakable: I got poor grades for turning in homework and for my effort, but straight As for tests. And that’s pretty much how I approached school: doing the least amount of work possible, but gleaning just enough to pass the tests. Imagine how far I would have gone if I put forth the effort?


  2. Elizabeth permalink
    July 1, 2013 1:08 pm

    Excellent point about praising kids for being smart. This happened to my husband and, yes, he thought he could coast through life. This happened to my sister and I think it contributed to her mental illness. Praise kids for mastering what they can and for competency — it is a terrible thing to grow up and not feel competent at anything, even simple things.

    Athletic privilege is an interesting concept. I was not very good at team sports, but I was a good horseback rider, something that totally engrossed me and demanded engagement on every level, including spiritual and emotional. It takes a great deal of coordination to be a half-decent rider so apparently coordination was not my problem — I was just better at communicating with a live being than with a softball or basketball! I have crappy eyesight, and good eyesight seems to be important for team sports with an inanimate object.

    • July 2, 2013 9:57 am

      I think that falling in love with a sport is the ideal. Even if you aren’t good at it, your passion for that sport matters more than your success at that sport.


  3. July 1, 2013 3:40 pm

    Thanks, great piece. I will add that one of the reasons I think it’s so important to me to talk about athletic privilege is that, as a fat woman, being athletic means that sometimes people can see me as a “good fatty” because I enjoy athletics and made it my hobby. That can lead to better treatment than I would get if I had a put a similar number into, say, becoming a badass knitter. That’s absolutely not fair and, while it’s not something I can always control, it’s something I think it’s important to point out.


  4. July 1, 2013 4:03 pm

    Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    In high school I tried cross country and sucked at it. Instead of encouraging me to find something I was actually good at (in my younger days I was a pretty good sprinter) I was allowed to just fall by the wayside and took up Competitive Pot Smoking instead.

  5. Dizzyd permalink
    July 1, 2013 8:03 pm

    Good blog. It’s true that your best effort should be what’s applauded. Sadly, this is a society that demands perfection and worships those who excel thru natural ability. We claim we cheer for the underdog, but like diversity, the reality is often far removed from the ideal. The idea that passion should be at least as important – if not more – than perfect technique was a deciding factor to start pursuing therapeutic music (once I get the funds together). I am not a pro musician, but I love the idea of using music and a love of helping others to heal!

    • July 2, 2013 9:56 am

      Yup. The pursuit of perfection can ruin the fact that sports and music is mostly supposed to be for fun. But it becomes tainted by the competitive obsession.


  6. vesta44 permalink
    July 1, 2013 8:49 pm

    I was never good at sports when I was a kid, and not as an adult either. I was always one of the last to be picked for team sports, and our phys ed teacher was obsessed with winning. So if you didn’t win (and how the fuck can both teams win every time they play each other?), she was all over the losers to “do better, try harder, give it 150%, etc. I hated her, hated sports, and hated phys ed class (so much so that when it was the first class of the day my junior year, I was late to school every damned day, just so I wouldn’t have to dress for and attend class). I don’t know if things would have been different had I gotten encouragement for just trying my best, no matter how bad that “best” was, but I know yelling at me to do more, try harder, etc sure didn’t make me want to participate in anything. Which is why I always told my son to do his best and who cared if he was the ultimate athlete? And I tell my grandkids the same thing – do your best, have fun, and don’t worry about what other people think.

    • July 2, 2013 9:55 am

      This is the very definition of “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”


  7. BBDee permalink
    July 1, 2013 9:36 pm

    Yes, athletic privilege is REAL, I found that out at an early age because those who had natural athletic abilities made up the “in crowd” at my school, and since I couldn’t walk & chew gum at the same time, this left me forever on the outside looking in. But I think it’s great that you point out that intellectual privilege is real too, and some of those athletic types, I found out years later, secretly hated my guts because I coasted through the academics so effortlessly. But of the two privileges, athletic by FAR trumps intellectual. At least where and when I grew up, the former gets you into the “in crowd.” The latter may get you a little envy here and there, but you will still forever be seen as a geek.

    • July 2, 2013 9:54 am

      There’s definitely a hierarchy of respect for athleticism. That’s why academically challenged athletes can get free passes to make sure they can continue to participate in school sports.


  8. July 2, 2013 12:49 am

    Are you confusing privilege for TALENT, or ability. Sometimes you are simply not built to do something. I’m 6’4” and I can not dunk a ball. Am I unprivileged? No. I am simply unable to jump high enough. I can’t paint the Mona Lisa either, but do I blame it on privilege? No. Same with singing.

    Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you are unable to do something GREAT. Get over it and stop blaming others. You simply lack the ability or TALENT.

    If ambition and will was enough to succeed then ANYONE could do ANYTHING.

    • July 2, 2013 9:53 am

      Like other concepts of privilege, talent is the trait that gives on privilege. There’s a spectrum of talent out there from those who are naturally talented and don’t seem to have to put much effort into improving their skills to those who try and try and try and never seem to improve much at all. Most of us reside somewhere in the middle.

      Athletic privilege is the fact that people with natural talent or ability are praised and celebrated, while those who are terrible no matter how hard they try can be ostracized, insulted and dismissed. So, when someone runs a 5k for the first time and gets an average finish (compared to all runners, new or old), the trolls still attack her for not getting a better time.

      There’s nothing wrong with being naturally talented at something. It’s when people degrade another person’s efforts because they aren’t the best at whatever they’re attempting that athletic privilege becomes a problem. And there’s a WHOLE LOT of douchebags out there who act like the only way an athletic effort counts is if you’re the best in your sport, which is ridiculous. I want to encourage people to put forth the effort in athletics not because they’re the best, but because it’s something they enjoy, regardless of natural ability.


  9. elengendros permalink
    July 3, 2013 5:05 am

    I think that trolls will be trolling about everything and attacking everyone about everything.
    Attacking someone because he is bad at sports is mean and trollish, but at the same time telling someone that he is a good athlete, or a good player or whatever sport when he/she is very bad is ridiculous and condescending. I don’t owe prettiness or athleticism to anyone, and I don’t need anyone to tell me that i am a good athlete or a beautiful person.
    The athletic efforts counts for you, but you are not entitled to the praise or admiration of the rest of the world. The rest of the people don’t have to pat my head and tell me that I am the best when I am mediocre at best.

  10. Melissa permalink
    July 3, 2013 7:43 am

    “Personally, I didn’t think this concept was all that controversial or hard to grasp, but it turns out that a lot of people seem to believe that if you work hard enough in any sport, you will inevitably improve your skills to a professional level. Those who don’t are dismissed as “clearly” having not tried hard enough.”

    This happens in a lot of parts of life — education, career, sports, other activities that require talent or skill. If you don’t reach the top, it’s your fault for not trying hard enough. If you’re laid off, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. People just don’t want to admit that good things can happen without hard work, and, sometimes, even though you work your ass off, you just don’t reach the top.

    They don’t want to face that there are parts of our world that are completely out of our control. You hit it off with the admissions officer and get in your very competitive first-choice college. The job or promotion you worked your ass off to get goes to someone who grew up with the CEO. You’re born with two left feet and no natural rhythm, so competitive ballroom dancing is not in the cards. You get the green light and thus avoid a collision at that intersection two minutes later.

    I think it’s a holdover from our puritan/calvinist/catholic roots. Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen because you deserve them. Privilege is earned, they tell you, pay no attention to the reality in front of you. That’s to help keep the status quo in place, and the privileged in charge, without questioning.

    • BBDee permalink
      July 4, 2013 1:25 am

      Amen Sista! you’re preachin’ to the choir here!!

  11. BBDee permalink
    July 3, 2013 1:47 pm

    Yes, “athletic privilege” is very much a reality. I found this out as a kid in school, noting that the athletic kids were the “in crowd” and us klutzes were forever outsiders. Years later, I also figured out that “intellectual privilege’ is also real, but it took me longer to figure that out because I actually had that privilege. It wasn’t until a few years after graduation that I figured out one reason some of those in crowd/athletically privileged kids were so mean to me is that they hated my guts for getting thru the academic part of school so effortlessly.

    But given my choice of the two privileges, i’d take athletic over intellectual any day, because the former gets you all kinds of popularity and acclaim, and the latter gets you cruelty born of envy and eternal GEEK status.

    But it’s only now, with the beginnings of wisdom brought on by old age, that I’m learning that it’s just as wrong to judge those without my intellectual privilege as it was for them to judge me for my lack of intellectual privilege. One thing that has recently driven this lesson home to me was finally getting to date a really smart guy, which was #1 on my wish list of what I wanted in a man, only to find out that he was just a very smart DOUCHEBAG. From now on, give me a “dumb” guy with a kind heart any day!!!

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