Ever since the ugly spectacle of the Bayi Sharks professional/military basketball team pounding away on the visiting Georgetown Hoyas at the "goodwill" match in Beijing, there has been much heavy-weather commentary about what this bodes for US-Chinese relations. "Heavy-weather" in the sense of people loading a lot of surplus "tensions of a rising superpower"/ "pent-up US-Chinese hatred"-style narrative on one really nasty event, which was preceded and followed by some perfectly normal basketball games for Georgetown and Duke on their China tour.
To my mind, the most interesting and plausible context-setting for the brawl comes today from the Washington Post's sports columnist Mike Wise. (Photo also via the Post.) He is no China hand but knows a lot about the culture of big-time sports and its international ramifications, and his description of the mix of ingredients sounds saner and more perceptive to me than other things I've read.
Naturally I like his headline -- "Georgetown's basketball brawl in China erupted from complex mix of history, hubris and culture" -- since I think versions of that headline can apply to many things going on in today's China. Wise says that some of the reasons had to do with China, and with this particular team. Part had to do with the Georgetown team, at this particular stage in its own history. And a lot of it had to do with images and practices from American sports culture being projected worldwide. Eg:
>>Here's a theory: Beyond nationalistic pride, a bevy of home-cooked calls that made for over-the-top bad officiating and two teams going at each other physically, the fight was very possibly the result of the perfect storm -- a caldron of history, hubris and the overseas marketing of win-or-die American sports culture.
And it's been percolating for years....<<
This leads to his intertwined histories of Chinese basketball, seen as needing to get "tougher" to compete internationally, and the Hoyas themselves, under similar pressure to show that they are not "softer" under the current Coach Thompson than under his dad. Leading to:
>>Lastly, if people were worried about our game being co-opted by other countries after Team USA's embarrassing Olympic losses in 2004, they need to worry about something more sinister now.
Our talent isn't being exported as much as our attitude.
We woof. We taunt. We don't just want to win; we need to dominate. And, yes, there is a racial component to this mentality. Even an old-head NBA player could tell you that.<<
There's more. Worth checking out. By the way, the cool of the current Coach Thompson and his team as they left the Olympic sports center under very hostile circumstances deserves respect and praise. In those few minutes they served their country and their university well.
UPDATE. An ethnically Chinese reader in the US writes:
>>My spouse told me an anecdote from his days as a Peking University student that illustrates the will-rather-die-than-lose-face attitude of the athletes from the PLA.
As a university student, he was required to participate in military training on an army base (sort of a compulsory ROTC). The first day he arrived, the friendly soldiers asked them to sign up for a volleyball game. But before the game, they asked the students to practice first. During "practice", they send 2 spies to watch the students, and discovered to their dismay that the students were really good at volleyball.
So next day, when the game was supposed to begin, they cancelled the volleyball game and insist on basketball instead, where the students were soundly beaten. (No surprise there: If you have the chance to drive by the PLA's Navy base near the Central district of Hong Kong, which used to be HMS Tamar, you will find that the sailors/soldiers are always playing basketball!)
See, no nationalism or racism is needed to start a basket-brawl in China! :)<<