[Two Dollar Radio; 2024]

The first class I ever skipped was called Fundamentals of Running. Physical Education was a requirement at my community college, which sat in a town of six thousand people, on the edge of a sleepy wood laced with skinny dirt trails. The night before the first day of class, I lay in bed and daydreamed of those open trails. I saw myself bounding through clots of pine trees, wind in my hair, legs pumping graceful as a deer. My interest in running was as romantic as it was chemical. I craved the freedom of gliding through space, the discipline of practice, and the endorphins my English teacher, years earlier, had promised would flood my brain and body if I joined her church’s cross country team. The following evening, in our first class, a man in red dolphin shorts stood before the trailhead and said, “Call me coach.” He gave us the option to run our mandatory three miles alongside him as a pack or set off on our own. I chose to go alone. 

Within a half mile or so, my thighs began to itch. My chest burned. A sharp cramp ripped through my right abdomen, and snot dripped from my nose. Did deer get itchy legs, I wondered? I walked the remaining three miles in a haze. Until that afternoon, running had been my great glittering hope. Cross country felt like the only “sport” left for me to try after performing poorly at softball, soccer, basketball, and tennis. I was born with a spatial disorder that made it difficult for me to perceive the distance between my body and objects. I shuddered and ducked when balls neared my face. The social dynamics of team sports likewise terrified me. Competition didn’t suit me. I usually lost.

After that first afternoon, I never ran on those dirt trails again. Instead, I signed my name in the coach’s unattended blue notebook and walked off into the woods. On a mossy stump, I wrote poems in my diary. I talked with the trees and touched the slick backs of mushrooms. At the end of each class, I wrote three miles next to my name in the notebook. While I waited in the woods, I squinted at my classmates in the distance, swishing past in their nylon shorts. While they ran the loop like rats, I was fancy free on my stump. I was an explorer! They were merely bodies in motion. I wanted to believe my preferred way of killing time was superior. I didn’t yet know what I was missing. Personal Score, a new essay collection by First Nations author Ellen van Neerven (they/them), introduced me to a new way of thinking and dreaming about sports. Through forty-eight linked essays set in Australia, van Neerven deftly interrogates the implicit connections between sports, colonialism, gender, indigeneity, and environmental racism to reconsider what sports have been and what they could be.

I expected Personal Score, like most literature about sports, to blend on-the-field experience with critique. I imagined a mix of Dave Zirin’s probes into the politics of sports along with athlete exposés like Kara Goucher’s 2023 memoir The Longest Race, which details the gendered violence and abuse she experienced as an elite runner with Nike’s Oregon Project. Like these works, Personal Score offers readers an intimate exploration of how Western conceptions of sports often foster and reinforce toxic gender, class, and racial hierarchies. But van Neerven offers readers even more: lyricism, queer desire, and space for utopian imaginings to take root and bloom.

Personal Score’s range of topics dazzles. The joy of play sits comfortably on the page next to meditations on chronic pain and wildfire prevention. Van Neerven is skilled at drawing connections between diverse topics such as natural poisons and the racist legacy of nature writing. Early in the book, I was tempted to view the overarching structure as a tapestry, but as I read on, I realized the sentences were too alive. They were not limp strings woven into a beautiful whole, but rather, vibrating nerve fibers sending potent signals. In this way, Personal Score’s underlying structure reminded me of a mycorrhizal network, the underground webs of tiny fungal fibers that allow plants to communicate and share nutrients with each other. Like the vast nexus of mycelium under our feet, the different themes in Personal Score—sport, indigenous identity, and ecological preservation—twitch, breathe, and fire warnings.

Above all, Personal Sport is a place-based book, focused on the larger implications of playing and enjoying football in Australia as an Indigenous nonbinary person. In the opening essay, “Pregame,” van Neerven asks one of the book’s central questions: “What does it mean to play sport on First Nations land?” From the book’s opening pages, van Neerven renders the question “Does sports involve politics?” absurd. All sport in Australia is played on stolen, sovereign land. The land tells the story of Indigenous murder and displacement as well as ongoing cultural and ecological destruction. As van Neerven reminds us, many current sports fields were built on land originally cleared in the nineteenth century to create Aboriginal reserves. A tool of segregation, the reserves kept Aboriginal people separate from the white Australian population. The language of European sports culture is itself steeped in a violent lexicon of “war and blood sports: beat, flog, smash, attack, defend, destroy.”

In one of the book’s most moving essays, “Skills,” van Neerven reveals how sports are irrevocably tied to cultural and personal identity. They recall a pivotal moment of political awakening while watching the 2006 World Cup Men’s Final. The shock of seeing France’s Zinedine Zidane headbutt Italy’s Marco Materazzi lingered with them. In the wake of the headbutt, van Neerven wonders what Materazzi said to Zidane before the pivotal moment. Zidane was often described by his coaches as “raw and sensitive, prone to attack spectators who insulted his race or family.” His family are of Algerian heritage and lived in France, a country where racism is baked into every aspect of culture, as in the US. In the weeks after the game, van Neerven’s father became determined to teach them how to head a ball. The essay breaks into poems after two pages, each beginning with a different football technique they must learn: “This is how you head a ball” or “This is how you control the ball with your chest.” One crucial skill that they’re not taught in practice: how to play in a racist, homophobic world.

In a series of conversations, van Neerven and their friends detail the dystopian reality of sports where fewer than 20 percent trans and/or gender-diverse folks play in Australia. Van Neerven zooms in on the problem of sex-segregation in team sports, shining a light on its toxic effects on both players and fans. “If sport is ‘sex segregated’ heteronormative and explicitly trans-exclusionary,” they ask, ”What kind of world is created, violently policed, and upheld?” Yet, for van Neerven, critique is an “act of love.” Desire beats beneath the impulse to critically question. Love animates acts of resistance. Instead of discarding what we love, we can reimagine and remake our loves. Instead of upholding harmful gender binaries, sports can offer us the chance to reimagine how we play and live with others. Part of the thrill of being on the field, for a younger van Neerven, was the freedom of living in the moment, a moment where the world was reduced to a single play. Reading and writing offered them another form of escape from the racism and homophobia they experienced at school. “I put myself into fantasy worlds,” they tell us. Here, as elsewhere throughout Personal Score, van Neerven breaks down the false binary between art and sports. Both their writing and physical practices offer flashes of transcendence.

As van Neerven writes, “Sport can exist without contest and conquer.” Turning their gaze to First Nations games, many of which are non-scoring, van Neerven offers a window into non-competitive sporting traditions. Woggabalri, a kicking ball game originally played by the Wirajuri people, requires that players work collectively to keep the ball from hitting the ground using only their feet or knees. There are no teams. No winners or losers. In contrast to European and Western sports culture, “First Nations sporting traditions promote wellness and social bonds,” writes van Neerven. The language of these games is likewise devoid of militaristic associations: “chasing grass, seed heads, rolling stones.” By looking at First Nation sporting lineages and lexicons, van Neerven invites us to imagine the different roles sports may play in our lives and in the world beyond dominance and defeat. 

And van Neerven’s commitment to imagination is as refreshing as their humor. In the essay “Lesbian Mafia,” they hilariously skewer one of the most enduring stereotypes about women athletes. “After being told all my teenage years that women’s sports is rampant with queer women, I’m still trying to find them,” they write. In Australia, rates of gay and straight players in sports is similar to the general population. The same is true for many countries. The 2023 Women’s World Cup made headlines for being the “gayest” World Cup in history, with more than one in ten of the 700+ players, or 11.8 percent, identifying as queer or nonbinary. That means that the majority of players still identify as cis-het and/or straight. As Personal Score argues, the myth of a Lesbian Mafia is rooted in outdated gender norms that delimit the potential of sports more broadly and prevent many women from touching the joy of play. Fear of homophobic and gendered discrimination remains the number one reason for LGBTQ+ youth to opt out of sports, according to a 2020 study by The Trevor Project. 

Personal Score wants more from sports. In the essay “Protest in Sports (A Small Selection, 1957–2023),” van Neerven uses poetry to capture the seemingly ephemeral nature of protest, showing how such moments accrue through repetition, their impact rippling out and amplifying with time. The poem 1971, Turrbal and Yagera dhagun, Brisbane revisits the historic anti-apartheid protests that spread across Melbourne when a South African rugby team visited Australia for a match. “Sisters Aunty Lilla Watson and Aunty Maureen Watson / are two of many First Nations peoples that take to the streets,” writes van Neerven. “Premier Joh says / don’t mix politics with sport / catchphrase at the time. / For First Nations people this was never ever / a choice . . .” A few pages later, we’re in 2015, and we watch as “Deborah Cheetham does not sing the national anthem / Deborah does not sing tonight / at the MCG / cos she ain’t young and free / and we ain’t young and free.” Within the larger flow of the book, the poems interrupt the standard essay structure. These breaks offer the reader novel changes within the text, bursts of new sensory information that will please those of us accustomed to scrolling. Most importantly, the poems remind us that breaks—interruptions of standard operations—are possible. There is always time for something to be otherwise.

Van Neerven and their friends give readers glimpses of how sports could look in the future as well as a roadmap for how we might create that future. One immediate change centers language: normalizing pronoun usage for players. Others involve eliminating sex segregation in community and professional sports. Making sports inclusive fosters a world where identity is seen as fluid, ever-evolving through time. “My utopia isn’t a trans utopia,” says Zakari, one of interviewees who grew up in Malaysia. “My utopia is a utopia where everyone gets to find pleasure and joy in moving their body . . . which in itself is a trans utopia.” A world where all people can show up and play as themselves.

Personal Score’s great win is its injection of potential into the world of sports. By wanting more from the games they love, van Neerven pries open possibilities for what play can be. Through their incisive explorations of the different ways sports work in European and Indigenous contexts, van Neerven unsettles assumptions about the nature of sports and its meaning in our lives. At the bar this weekend, I won’t dare blurt, “ugh, sports!” if the TV is playing a Dodgers rerun. After reading Personal Score, I know that the things I don’t like about sports aren’t fixed.

As my home city prepares to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, I’ll keep Personal Score in mind as I ask on whose land the games are being played; who has been displaced to build the new SoFi stadium in Inglewood; how has the city’s history of racial redlining continued to influence city planning; how many homelessness encampments will be swept in the name of beautification? My questions speak to the dystopia of modern sports. They pile up like love notes to a less cruel future.  

Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can find her on instagram at @badmoodbaby

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