By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The headline, which Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke probably didn’t write himself, reads, “Gymnast Gabby Douglas resurrects the debate over how to act during the national anthem.” This straw man greases the wheels for a shameful column last week shaming a woman for the sin of not meeting Plaschke’s Puritan standards of manufactured patriotism.
At the medal ceremony Tuesday, Douglas didn’t place her hand over her heart as The Star-Spangled Banner played for the gold-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team. She wasn’t smiling like her teammates. This, to people who genuinely care about such triviality (imagine how sad such a life must be), might as well have been Douglas igniting a flag on the podium.
Plaschke’s column is so standard old-white-man-lectures-young-woman-of-color that it borders on parody. All the greatest hits are there: respectability politics, speculatory Black Lives Matter dog-whistling, juxtaposition with properly emotional white male athlete Michael Phelps, proclamation that Douglas isn’t being picked on in the piece, owing her country, among other checklist items. This is besides the absurdity of caring how anyone acts during a song played at a sporting event — and an immensely corrupt, terribly money-focused one at that.
In it, Plaschke legitimizes the sports behavior police of the Internet via mentioning them as valid side of constructive criticism. In turn, a column in the fourth-largest circulated newspaper in America fuels that vitriolic Internet to continue tagging Douglas in social media barbs through her exit from her Olympic career Sunday.
“I tried to stay off the Internet because there’s just so much negativity,” Douglas said Sunday as she spoke with media after finishing seventh in the women’s uneven bars final. “Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart (on the medal podium) or I look depressed … It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.”
Besides her perceived podium patriotism, Douglas was then also criticized for not celebrating her teammates’ performances hard enough later in the week and again had to deal with hair pointers after making her position on her hair very clear in 2012.
“I apologize if what may have … seemed to be me really mad in the stands (on Thursday). I wasn’t,” Douglas told USA Today after not clapping for teammate Aly Raisman meant that Douglas was also selling top secret info to Vladimir Putin. “I was supporting Aly (who had just lost out on the gold), and I always will support them and respect them and everything that they do. So I never want anyone to take it as I was jealous, or I wanted attention. Never.”
While a dinosaur in gymnastics years and a rarity in an Olympic sport populated mostly by teens, Douglas — despite this being her second Olympics — is just 20 years old. Perhaps that makes her a more convenient target for paternalistic lectures. Stand up straight, young lady. Smile more. Conform to the very long history of black hair politics. Be the subjective model of Americanism and debutante that I, the etiquette dictator, demand.
“I apologized if I offended anyone,” Douglas acquiesced. “I’ve always said it was an honor to represent the U.S. You always do this for your country, and then, like people say, for yourself and other people.
“When I heard some of the comments, I was finally like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s far from me and far from my personality at all. I’ve been through a lot. A lot. Sometimes I sit back and say, ‘Wait. What did I do to disrespect people? What have I done to disrespect the USA?”
Well, Gabby, in the USA we have certain rules for certain people. All that time in the gym working your tail off to make two Olympics and sacrificing most of your childhood for it must have caused you to miss that memo.
I can stand in a concession line waiting for two hot dogs, a pizza slice, a pretzel and ice cream with my cap on while the anthem plays, and I’m no less American nor am I an affront to all for which vestal Lady Liberty stands. The rules aren’t the same for you, the supposed embodiment of the lie we construct through sports that America is near perfect with a few flaws we’d rather not talk about. It’s that lie that suggests a medal count equals moral and ethical superiority, too.
You have to fight a battle on multiple fronts. As a female gymnast, you’re expected to maintain delicateness and grace and effervescence not reserved for other athletes. Your outfit and makeup and hair must be perfect yet uncontroversial as you vault and spin and tumble and sweat. Most of all, you gotta smile. Men hate a woman who doesn’t smile.
Media coverage should let you know, but we have different rules for female athletes. We have different rules for women who watch sports. Women are second-class in the production and consumption of sports entertainment.
But you’re also a black woman. That in and of itself bothers the USA, which for marketing purposes and bureaucratic decisions is a white USA. Besides the hair thing, anything that suggests individualism or strength beyond the physical is a threat. Maybe you missed the criticism Beyonce got at the Super Bowl while you were putting in a 12-hour work day. But not putting on a facade of beauty pageant bubbliness gets you called other terrible words.
Remember when it was suggested that you get a nose job by a staff member at your old gym? Or when a fellow gymnast called you “our slave”? (Oh, it was just a joke — smile, Gabby.) There was your disrespect to the USA. Just being.
Your former teammate McKayla Maroney’s medal ceremony demeanor in 2012 became a fun joke and an Internet meme that went all the way to the White House. Besides being the butt of playful jokes, she received no serious dressing down for her scowl at the 2012 Games in London. Maroney wasn’t a disgrace to her country, but Maroney is white. Her America is less offended by her that yours is by you, Gabby.
If you aren’t part of the privileged, you’re only perceived as much American as you conform to the comfort of the status quo. You were a darling until you weren’t.
“For me, when you go through a lot, and you have so many difficulties and people against you sometimes, it kind of just determines your character,” Douglas told reporters about the choice to compete in a second Olympics. “Are you going to stand, or are you going to crumble? In the face of everything, still stand. I have no regrets coming back for a second Olympics. It’s been an amazing experience.”
But even standing isn’t enough for so many who know exactly how an athlete should represent them from their couches and other idealistic bubbles.
“If this was happening to you, how well would you suck it up?” Douglas said in a 2012 Vanity Fair interview about issues she was having with her former training facility where the nose and slave comments occurred and being told by her mom to “suck it up.”
I’d be in favor of Douglas on the podium giving double middle fingers. Then again, I’m not a young black woman at the mercy of a cold, cruel factory of racialized and gendered decorum. It’s easy for me to dictate what to do from my couch.
She could have lashed out at the unfair and deeply problematic criticism she has received. Instead, Douglas has done her best to play the very American game, to be an American black female athlete.
That requires the sad American irony of apologizing to those critics and then stepping away to cry alone, which Douglas did after her 20-minute media session ended Sunday.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.