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Exploring the radical possibilities of recreational sports

Exploring the radical possibilities of recreational sport

Annelies Cooper, Gita Madan, Craig Fortier, and Robyn Letson are all involved, in one way or another, in grassroots activism and organizing. They all also play softball in a league that seeks to bring the values of movements fighting for justice and liberation to the world of recreational sports. Scott Neigh interviews them about the barriers and problems faced by many people in mainstream recreational sports cultures, about why grassroots movements should pay more attention to sports, and about the radical vision of the Field of Dreamers Cooperative Softball Association.

For a lot of people, spaces organized around sports often feel hostile, toxic, and unwelcoming – people may love the game, they may enjoy the activity involved, but all too often the culture permeating and surrounding sports accentuates some of the worst features of our social world and pushes people away. The details vary a lot with the specific sport, level of play, and location, but even in recreational contexts this often includes toxic masculinity, hypercompetitiveness, hostility towards queer and trans people, and in some instances fairly open racism. The cost of fees and equipment can be a significant barrier as well.

Given that context, people engaged in grassroots political work aimed in one way or another at collective liberation have a range of relationships to recreational sports. Some play, some don't. Some of those who don't are just not interested, while others stay away because of the hostility and exclusion already mentioned. And some are openly disdainful towards the entire enterprise. This disdain is often a response to the hostility and exclusion that people have experienced, but it also sometimes connects to the puritanical streak that exists in many movement contexts in North America that is not specifically about sports but that carries a certain suspicion of fun and leisure and pleasure. Whatever individual relationships exist to sports, there is almost never thoughtful, politically minded, collective engagement with sports as a possible terrain for living our lives and organizing our communities otherwise and with a range of possible connections to broader struggles.

Back in 2007, or thereabouts, a number of people connected with the Toronto chapter of the migrant justice group No One Is Illegal decided to start a softball team, as a way to bring likeminded people together outside of the grind of meetings and rallies but also separate from the more common alternative of bars and pubs. The team itself, called the Uncertainty, brought together both people who were part of radical grassroots political networks and people who were not, and they played in one of the mainstream corporate co-ed recreational leagues in Toronto. This sparked the beginnings of an ongoing collective conversation about the politics of recreational sports, and it was the start of a team that, with a continually evolving roster, played together for a decade.

In 2017, a group of players on the Uncertainty decided that among the network of current players, former players, and supporters that they had accumulated over those years, they had enough people to go from being a team in a mainstream league to starting their own league. Today, the four-team Field of Dreamers Cooperative Softball Association is close to completing its second successful season.

The Field of Dreamers league has made very deliberate decisions to function differently than most mainstream recreational leagues. They've structured their fees on a sliding scale to emphasize accessibility. From their ongoing work to recognize that they are playing softball on stolen Indigenous land, to their radical re-thinking of how to deal with questions of gender in a co-ed league, to a host of other deliberate and mindful changes in rules and practices, they are focused on creating an equitable playing environment, on helping players build their skills in the sport, and – most importantly, according to today's guests – on creating a culture of care within and across the league's teams.

Beyond creating a great space to enjoy softball, Field of Dreamers is also, integrally, a radical political project. It is a way for people who are otherwise occupied by the stresses of activism, organizing, and just surviving in an expensive city like Toronto to find nourishment, relaxation, and fun. It is a space for those who participate to experiment outside of the intensity of activism and organizing with ways of working together that reflect values of justice and liberation, and with creating cultures of care that our movements so desperately need but so often lack. And its a way to intervene politically in the realm of sport, which is so often just abandoned by radicals today.

Annelies Cooper is a PhD student and a teaching assistant at York University, and an organizer in Indigenous sovereignty and settler solidarity, sexual assault advocacy, and labour struggles. Gita Madan is a high school teacher with the Toronto District School Board and an organizer working on challenging the school-to-prison pipeline. Craig Fortier is an assistant professor in Social Development Studies at Rennison University College at University of Waterloo, as well as a migrant justice and Indigenous solidarity organizer. And Robyn Letson is a mental health worker, is active in LGBTQ communities in Toronto, and connects to other grassroots movements via editing and writing work.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of the Field of Dreamers Cooperative Softball Association.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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