Monday, September 3, 2012

The Gabby Backlash

Tackling racism and abortion in the same week on this site? I hope that this doesn't bite me in the ass.

The Olympics are over and it will be a little while until we have competitive gymnastics news to report. Thankfully (?), our Olympians are still making headlines and sparking discussion. Most notably of all-Olympic champion Gabby Douglas.

As everyone knows, Douglas and her mother were interviewed by Oprah. During this interview she mentioned that teammates (not the coaching staff) had at times bullied her and occasionally made remarks that were racially insensitive.

Predictably (or unpredictably depending on how close you follow race relations in the U.S. and the ongoing tensions between Douglas and her old gym Excalibur), there was an immediate and nasty backlash to these remarks.

The response to her comments have been disturbing, to say the least. Rather than at least consider the charges, Excalibur coaches, parents, and gymnasts dismissed them out of hand and attacked Gabby for having made such statements to begin with. Every attempt has been made to discredit what she said from accusing her of lying outright to saying she misinterpreted to using the "kids will be kids" excuse for bad behavior. But my favorite has been the claim that because the gym has trained other high level African American athletes and those girls girls haven't experienced or reported any racist remarks (this is what they've said and just as I am willing to take Gabby at her word, I am willing to believe that they didn't have a bad time) then Gabby couldn't possibly have experienced this.

Something similar came up with the furor over Girls not representing all young women in the continental U.S. Though I didn't care for the show, I felt that the criticism being lobbed at Lena Dunham was particularly unfair. It's deeply misogynistic to expect one show to represent all of modern women as though we're a monolithic mass. Similarly, it's quite unacceptable to take one African American's experience and extrapolate from it and then assert that because X has nothing but wonderful things to report so Y must be dishonest or misinterpreting things or is overly sensitive. Newsflash--it's possible, nay, likely for two different African American women to have different experiences in the same gym. The assumption of sameness--that one member of a group can stand in for all of them--itself smacks a little bit of racism.

I'm not denying that the African American women who spoke out in defense of Excalibur did not have wonderful experiences at the gym, but for them to use their experiences to invalidate someone else's is unfair. Some of these girls overlapped for just a year or so with Gabby so they were not witness to what she claims happened.

Nor were the outraged coaches. Again, I'm willing to believe that neither coach had any knowledge of the incidents. After all, most children make it a habit not to bully directly in front of authority figures lest they get in trouble. But the coaches' reaction to Gabby's revelation is troubling to say the least. They've gone after relentlessly for her comments, saying that if she doesn't cite names and dates then it didn't happen. But here's my question--wouldn't it have been worse for her to cite names? Would the gym have preferred that Gabby actually named one of the kids who made racist comments on national TV? Wouldn't she then have been accused of using her media platform to beat up on an unknown 16 or 17-year-old?

Also, as investigative journalist Spanny Tampson, pointed out and thoroughly documented, the bad blood between Douglas and Excalibur pre-dates the racist bullying remarks.  It dates back to an article in the Virginia Pilot, which immediately followed Douglas' unofficial "win" at the American Cup. (You should really check out Spanny's in-depth analysis of the whole affair. She's divided it into three terrific blog posts--herehere, and here.) In this article, the Excalibur coaches demand recognition for the role they played in Douglas' gymnastics development. One gym mom described the fact that Chow will be photographed near Gabby on the floor as "sickening." They also laid bare Douglas' family circumstances--from her parents' divorce to her mother's medical problems and disability payments and owing of money.

(According to the Citizens United decision, money=speech. So following that absurd logic, if Douglas' mom owes money then she can't talk. And I supposed since I'm thousands of dollars in debt to my student loan creditors I can't speak out on the issue of student loan reform.)

This is really indefensible. I can understand that they were hurt when Douglas left (though gym switches at this level are hardly uncommon). And I can definitely understand how hard it must be to watch an athlete you trained find success and fame elsewhere. But to air a child's family history  to the press? To betray whatever trust existed between themselves and their former pupil? It's truly wrong. I know that unlike with a doctor or shrink, where there is a legal expectation of confidentiality, none exists with a coach or teacher. But still, most people who work with kids would not go to the press with information about a former pupil. Douglas' family circumstances were hers and hers alone to disclose. Given this history, it's not difficult to understand why Douglas wasn't falling all over herself to show her gratitude to her former coaches.

Ultimately what we have here is a bunch of grown ups--coaches, former gymnasts, gym moms, and even some bloggers--ganging up on a teenage girl for saying what she thought and felt. And judging by how the grown ups at the gym have behaved in the aftermath, they've given Douglas more, not less, credence.

[UPDATE: My Jezebel story on the situation is now up. You can read it here.]


Shmendrick said...

Surely if they did owe Excalibur the sort of money Excalibur says they do Excalibur would've started legal proceedings? What shocked me is the reaction of people to this claim. It's not surprising that Gabby was bullied, it does happen but instead of using it as a chance to discuss racism in the sport people have started mud-slinging and taking sides and it really doesn't benefit the sport in any way.

Dvora Meyers said...

Agreed. If they had any sort legal credibility, I imagine they would've sued the family for money. But they haven't. It seems that their only weapon against the family is mud slinging. Unfortunately for them, outside of the gymternet, the general public opinion is more on Gabby's side.

As for claims of racism--in my article for Jezebel, I didn't feel like I had the cultural credibility as a white Jewish woman to speak as frankly as I would've liked so I did my best to bring the reader to the point where they could draw their own conclusions. But this whole "gratitude" thing is a racist trope. The idea that black people have to be SO much more grateful than the rest of us for any sort of kindness rendered.

Carrie said...

One of my gymnastics gigs being in an office management position, I believe it when they claim she owes them money. We had our share of kids whose invoices would pile up. Problem is, you ARE dealing with kids, and most gyms are basically mom-and-pop businesses. So when we should have said, "you can't come back till you pay your bill," the owner didn't have the heart to do it. Then when the kid leaves the gym, there you are, no money, no gymnast, and mom-and-pop style bookkeeping (i.e., owner overwriting manager's system of checks and balances) which leaves you in a pretty pissed off state. Does that justify making it all public in a super tacky sour grapes kinda way? No.

Meanwhile, Gabby's just a teenager and certainly has no idea of who's paid what. She seems like a sweet, genuine, hard-working kid. But I do get a crazy-gym-parent vibe from her mom. I hated how in the Oprah interview when she brought up the hair issue, I wanted Mom to be like, "Everybody can shut up about my baby's hair, it's beautiful the way it is!" But instead she was all, "Don't worry, don't worry, we've hired a stylist!!" Ick.

Dvora Meyers said...

I don't think money owed is the issue here. Nor is whether Natalie Hawkins is a "gym mom." This mess began, at least in the press, when a pair of coaches, hurt over losing their star chose to reveal personal aspects of her life to the media. And for what purpose? So everyone would know that they had a hand in coaching her? I can't recall another instance when coaches were obsessed with getting credit for a former star. I understand wanting the credit, but actually seeking it in the way that they have is highly unethical.

After that opening salvo, can you blame Douglas and family for not speaking positively in the press about Excalibur? These were coaches who, rather than praise her in the article, dragged her down in order to boost themselves up. What teacher does that?

Also, I think the stuff about money is way overblown. If they do owe all that money and there is legal proof and documentation, they would've moved on the legal, not media, front.

Carrie said...

I know, I realize I'm sort of missing the issue here. I guess I'm responding more to the comments regarding the money issue than the post itself. Anyway, I guess my point, if I could ever find myself at one, is that gymnastics in general is a pretty unsophisticated business. Most folks aren't looking to get rich here, so credit DOES mean a lot. So a teeny tiny bit of my heart wants to believe that someone made one statement out of frustration (because before any statements came out of Excalibur, all throughout the Olympics fluff, I did think "Ouch!" each time Gabby said she left for "better" coaching) and it snowballed, because they're not use to having media pay attention to anything they say or do. Or maybe they're just all a bunch of douchebags, and that's totally possible too.

Dvora Meyers said...

I would read the original Virginia Pilot article. It wasn't one random statement. It was a whole article of attack. Money is one thing--they can sue for it or Gabby's family can pay or whatever.

And if they wanted credit then they should've merely congratulated her. Then their names would've been up alongside hers, no mudslinging necessary.

Carrie said...

Ok yeah, just read that article. To me, it sort of reflects the whole social media over-share world we live in. Someone should have been there to tell them, "OK, you need to STOP TALKING. NOW."

And that they're taking statements from another gym-mom (because she's an expert of course!) is seriously crazy and sort of confirms all stereotypes of that sort. Now those ladies, I have dealt with, and I bet Stageberg's a real gem.

Dvora Meyers said...

You should also check out Spanny's post that goes through the whole thing chronologically from articles, FB posts, etc. From it, you can see that Stageburg is pretty tight with one of the coaches.

Either way, it's truly unconscionable that they aired her parents "dirty" laundry in the press. She was their student and a kid.