UT’s Ben Carrington Brings Social Discourse to SXSports

by Leah Nyfeler on March 26, 2015 in Lifestyle, Sports, Living Texas, Austin,

There were thousands of panels, seminars and events to attend at SXSW this year. Most of the SXSports panels I’ve attended (part of the Interactive segment) addressed national and international concepts, movements and issues in sports.

It’s hard to find an Austin-specific slant amidst all that information. Except sometimes, going big can make you think local. Or personal.

Ben Carrington01rDo the Olympics Have a Future?

On SXSW Interactive Day 3, University of Texas at Austin Sociology Department professor and noted author Ben H. Carrington made a bold move by hosting a panel, “Sports Mega-Events: Do They Have a Future?” In a venue devoted to all things sports, Carrington tossed out a radical topic: Maybe it’s time to get rid of the Olympics, World Cup and other international big-money events.

His question–do these sporting extravaganzas reflect the behavior that moral people want to encourage in the world?

In his well-crafted opening remarks, Carrington first apologized for the lack of women on his panel and followed with provocative comments made especially striking by their combination with photos of international protest and strife from past mega-events.

Each of the participating panelists (Jules Boykoff @JulesBoykoff, Piara Powar @PiaraPowar, and Dave Zirin @EdgeofSports) brought unique perspectives. Boykoff, author of Activism and the Olympics, is also a former US Men’s National Team soccer player. Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), lives near the London Olympic village. Zirin—who ought to be a comic—is a nationally recognized sports writer and radio host. Carrington gave each panelist uninterrupted speaking time before tossing out a few carefully curated questions for discussion.

I’ve never been to a SXSW panel that shook my accepted beliefs quite so much. Sure, last year’s “Paid to Play: The Future of College Athletics” with NFL linebacker and former Longhorn Emmanuel Acho and TCU’s Athletic Director Chris Del Conte was wonderfully debated (Acho, pro payment; Conte, con; sports writer Andy Sparks, the middle ground), but “Mega-Events” touched on core values far beyond fair wages for student athletes.

Pros and Cons of Sports Mega-Events

The panel shattered some common beliefs by pulling facts and figures from recent World Cup and Olympic data. Instead of games lifting repression elsewhere, democratic host countries have adopted ever more repressive tactics to provide protection and create venues. Rather than encouraging freedoms, protestors have been suppressed and people displaced worldwide. Touted economic benefits simply don’t occur, with cities going into unrecoverable debt and building “white elephant” venues that crumble through disuse.

It was all pretty sobering. Stunned at the tide of negatives, I had one thought: “But I LIKE watching World Cup/Olympic games.”

As if reading my mind, Carrington asked the panel what a world without these big events might look like. Boykoff posited creative social programs to use past Olympic venues for affordable housing. Powar saw more accountability, perhaps from corporate sponsors. But where would I get my viewing fix?

It was Zirin who brought an answer. No, he didn’t want to live in a world where it was impossible to see the best athletes compete. His suggestions? “Smash the cartels” (big governing entities, such as FIFA and the IOC) to create separate bodies, one to promote the sport and another to actually govern. Focus on stable bases—like the Super Bowl committee—to reuse existing facilities (he suggested returning to South Africa, Tokyo and Greece for future Olympics).

Do Morals Trump International Sporting Events?

I witnessed a focus on diversity here at Austin’s 2015 SXSW, from the LGBT person who questioned UFC champion Ronda Rousey to tweets demanding more female panelists. If these issues are important here in my immediate surroundings, do I want to shine a spotlight on governments whose policies criminalize free expression? Can I really support exploiting Bangladeshi and Nepalese workers to create beautiful sporting arenas? Do I want Boston to take on citywide debt, negatively impacting many of its citizens, so I can watch some games?

Prof. Carrington has certainly guaranteed that I’ll never look at these events the same way again.

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler

Feature Image Photo Credit: sxsw.com