Episode 61: Klete Keller, Sport Media, and The Whiteness Problem in Swimming with Christienna Fryar and Matt Hodler
In this episode of The End of Sport Johanna is joined by Drs. Christienna D. Fryar and Matt Hodler to break down the white supremacist terrorist actions of swimmer Klete Keller in the January 6th attack against the US Capitol building and the white sport media’s apologist portrayal of him. Dr. Fryar is a Lecturer in Black British History at Goldsmiths, University of London where she teaches about British colonial history, Black history, and much more, alongside researching the histories of disaster and sport. Dr. Hodler –a repeat guest on the show! - is an Assistant Professor of Sports Media & Communications at the University of Rhode Island. His research interests include racialized nationalism, gender, and international sport structures, mediated representations of sport, internet memes, and swimming. Both of them are fellow swimmers with Johanna.
The impetus for this episode emerged not only due to Klete Keller’s horrendous actions, but also due to the sport media and swimming community’s largely apologist portrayals of Keller and his actions. Our discussion brings a much-needed critique on Keller that has been mostly absent from the media pieces about him (outside of The Nation’s analysis of Keller within the IOC’s history of racism).
Drs. Fryar and Hodler first help Johanna situate Keller’s actions within the sport of swimming, arguing against the popular and comforting idea that his behavior is a deviation from the swimming community’s values posited by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Swimming World in particular. Their discussion articulates why modern swimming has a whiteness problem that historically and currently is centered on the white community, making Keller’s actions a product of US swimming, and explicitly not an aberration of it nor of Trump’s followers. Importantly, Dr. Fryar explains how – like point that Dr. Kevin Dawson made in our episode with him and that other scholars have shown – white Euro-Americans have consistently made bodies of water a site of intense trauma and pain for Black swimmers, which has led directly to horrendous drowning statistics. Our ensuing discussing shows how US swimming’s white supremacy is a real public health concern that Keller contributed to through his white terrorism.
We then turn to analyzing the media’s white apologist portrayals of Keller, such as why their focus on his mental health issues, homelessness, and his white teammates and coaches’ sympathetic responses is a white tactic not actually aimed at highlighting mental health issues; rather, it is an intentional attempt to individualize Keller’s actions rather than tackle the core issue of his racism, terrorism, and where it fits within the swimming community. This is clear when we compare how Keller, Ryan Lochte, and Michael Phelps have been treated for their crimes with white gloves compared to Tamir Rice and the countless other Black boys and men who have been murdered by the police for far less and even non-criminal behaviors. Dr. Fryar points to the issue that sports journalists are not trained to analyze racism, classism, and other issues as evidenced by her students’ research about how the Hillsborough incident was covered by the sports media.
We end the conversation by dissecting the appallingly inadequate – but perhaps not surprising – statements made by USA Swimming and to a lesser extent Team USA. We question the ‘values’ that USA Swimming supposedly stands for, and what their silence regarding Keller’s white supremacy means for the sport and Black swimmers. Dr. Hodler mentions the Swimmers for Change episode with Lia Neal, Cullen Jones, and Anthony Ervin as being one of the first comprehensive spotlights on the racist discrimination that swimmers of color face in the sport.
This conversation is very much a continuation of our Swimming Week series of episodes from September 2020. Check them out if you would like to hear more about the sport’s discriminatory foundation, such as its white supremacy with Dr. Kevin Dawson here and Dr. Hodler here!
More on Dr. Fryar (including her forthcoming book!), can be found here. You can find her on Twitter too! Check out the 2 pieces she mentioned in the episode, about the economic barriers that she and countless others faced in trying to join a club swim team for The Toast, and also for Media Diversified about why we need to address the racist stereotype that Black people cannot swim in light of Simone Manual’s gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Research Assistance for The End of Sport provided by Abigail Bomba.