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Bonvicini, Seattle Honor Kay Yow: How Can We Preserve the Humanity of a Legend?

During her halftime speech at Seattle University about breast cancer prevention yesterday, cancer survivor and KIRO news anchor Michelle Millman briefly mentioned that this Pink Zone game took on additional meaning because coach Joan Bonvicini, a friend of Kay Yow, was present on the sidelines.

"I’ve known her since I first started coaching and she was a great, great coach – an Olympic coach, she coached one of my players on the Olympic team," said Bonvicini of her friend after the Redhawks’ 52-42 win over the University of South Dakota. "But as great a coach as she was, she was a better person."

After opening with how special it was to speak at this particular Pink Zone event, Millman briefly described her own struggle with cancer, cracked a joke about taking her hat off, and then informed the crowd that she would have her final chemotherapy session on Monday to a round of applause. A few moments later, she transitioned from her personal story to talking specifically about what college students to do to raise awareness and prevent breast cancer, saying she wasn’t there to talk about her individual experience.

Sitting feet from where Millman stood, I was struck by her transition from the personal significance of the event to the advocacy of the Kay Yow Foundation and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Of course, it was understandable – she had a time limit, had a message to deliver, and probably wanted to leave people with something to act upon. Nevertheless, I found the transition – and the fact that the radio announcer sitting next to me began his halftime rundown during her speech – somewhat jarring.

On the one hand, she opened by explaining the personal significance of the moment by acknowledging Bonvicini’s friendship and giving the audience an account of her own struggle with breast cancer. On the other hand, she quickly moved to rather impersonal advocacy for a cause that was obviously related to her experience and that of Yow, but somewhat detached. It’s not that she did anything "wrong", but as someone not as familiar with Yow or Millman, I found the personal stories more compelling, if not more refreshing, than the advocacy.

Perhaps that sounds obvious – everyone loves a good story and the fact is that Kay Yow has a great one, whether you are interested in basketball, cancer research, or human life.

"She had this battle with breast cancer and actually the first time she was diagnosed was like a year before the Olympics," said Bonvicini. "And it came back, went into remission, and it came back again in 2000, and then like 2008 again. But she was public about everything so she inspired – obviously coaches – so many people with her message."

But what I found interesting about Millman’s speech is this tension between honoring the life of Yow and honoring the cause she represents through advocacy.

Having never watched Yow’s teams play, seen her in person, or spoken to her, my opinion of her has been shaped almost entirely by the well-crafted narrative about what she stands for and imagery designed to promote awareness of breast cancer. She – and more specifically, her story – has become at various times and places a cause, a commodity, an icon, or a theme for an event.

And it’s a phenomenon I always find problematic.

Something gets lost in the retelling of retold stories that seems to stand in stark contrast to what I understand to be the dynamic personality of Yow. The problem is underneath the message, the legend, and the cause is a person that continued to stay strong even when life dealt her every reason to give in. There seems to be something stifling about the way we elevate people to iconic status, reducing the complexity of human life to a single cause.

Mechelle Voepel articulated the predicament well in a recent article about how women’s sports Billie Jean King deals with her status as a living icon.

Billie Jean King fights for women's rights - ESPN
Being a tennis champion who changed not just her sport but the course of women's athletics might be enough for one lifetime for most people. It's just not enough for King, who hasn't opted to be a static torchbearer. That works great for monuments, like the Statue of Liberty, but not so well for human beings. So she needs to be approachable and down-to-earth and open to a different spin on issues she has pondered for decades. She needs to keep moving. If she's to be regarded as a living legend, she'd prefer you focus on the "living" part of that.

Although Yow is no longer with us, Voepel’s point resonates – static images "work great for monuments…but not so well for human beings."

It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with honoring a person’s memory by using their story for the sake of a cause – it’s a cause she not only cared about, but personally struggled with. Of course, constructed narratives and metaphorical reifications are helpful because they help us grasp, express and act upon the ideals of any given cause – rarely do we find a great cause without great imagery.

The problem with raising a human being to "icon" status and casting them as an epic character that represents a singular cause is that it almost denies them their humanity, even in death. Unfortunately, as time passes and the people retelling the stories get further and further away from the person who "catalyzed" the cause, we have a bad habit of detaching the narrative from the person’s live to such an extent that we lose the meaning the person constructed in the process of living. 

In taking whatever we want from them we deny ourselves the opportunity to reflect on their contribution to humanity and our society. So the question I have a little more than a year after Yow’s passing is how do we both honor her by advancing cancer research and maintain some element of humanity in how we talk about her?

And why does this matter at all?

Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin believed that one of the most dangerous forms of violence is to lie about another human being because it fundamentally denies them the possibility of representing themselves truthfully. Similarly, casting people as "epic" characters – inaccessible, inflexible, pre-defined, and static – denies people their humanity because it fundamentally denies people their uniqueness. Epics are familiar narratives that is already completely finished and reinforces notions of past that we want to believe rather than allowing the lives of the past to live for themselves. But perhaps most pertinent to narratives about legends, is a line from Bakhtin’s essay, "Epic and novel":

In its style, tone, and manner of expression, epic discourse is infinitely far removed from discourse of a contemporary about a contemporary addressed to contemporaries…the represented world of the heroes stands on an utterly different and inaccessible time-and-value plane, separated by epic distance. The space between them is filled with national tradition.

In smothering humanity in a morass of tradition, the humanity of heroes is lost – they simply tell us exactly what we want to hear. In Bakhtin’s terms, novel stories are "determined by experience, knowledge and practice" full of "openendednes, indecision, and indeterminacy", allowing characters to be interpreted within their own context relative to their relationships and actions.

Instead of filling in the blanks with tradition and cultural tropes, novel stories allow us to relate to people as humans instead of monuments, to borrow from Voepel. Stories should allow us to "meet" people in all of their humanity instead of "making reference to them" and explaining them away as characters that fit neatly into our predefined notions of the world. Novel stories should not just be about what the person represents, but more authentic accounts that "evoke the various events, moods, [and] impasses" that a person experiences. Although it is certainly easier to simply rely upon epic stories that reinforce tradition, novel stories of humanity actually allow us to reflect upon how we live life.

In particular, human existence exists within dialogue and interaction, not in static symbols. In the words of Brazilian activist educator Paulo Freire, "To exist humanly is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection."

Breast cancer happened to Kay Yow but hopefully we don’t ever get to a point where that representation becomes the totality of who she was – to define her as a "cancer patient" is to deny her a large part of her humanity. So in preserving Yow’s life and preventing her from becoming a static monument, perhaps the question we should wonder about words, work, and reflective action carried out by Yow.

Of course, as Millman said, that’s what makes it so special to have a contemporary on hand to talk about Yow.

In about two minutes, Bonvicini mentioned that Yow was bigger than her coaching accolades about four times.

"For me, just to say I was a friend is great," said Bonvicini. "As great a coach as she was, she was a better person."

When asked specifically what sets Yow apart as a person, Bonvicini mentioned something that may be obvious by the way people have rallied around her memory, but is worth noting nonetheless.

"I’ll tell ya, in coaching it’s a very competitive business, but I have never heard one person honestly say one bad thing about her," said Bonvicini. "She’s someone that is really missed, but to have her name in this event I think is a tribute to her but moreso the respect she had around the country."

Perhaps part of the "new naming" exhibited by Yow is that she somehow rose above the petty competitiveness that some of women’s basketball’s biggest names have been trapped in over the last few years. In account after account we see that she was a person who genuinely cared about people in a competitive business that is increasingly concerned with players as cogs in a winning machine.

Marissa Kastanek Relishes Lasting Link to Kay Yow -- NCAABB FanHouse
What she came to find in Yow was a coach who had marquee credentials, yet was plain-spoken and down-to-earth. "She just acted like a regular person who was just trying to help girls play basketball and had a goal to get to and win a national championship," Kastanek said. "That, to me, was amazing. She didn't treat anybody any different and she didn't expect to be treated differently. She was a woman who had a goal. I saw that and I was very attracted to it."

The way she legitimately cared about people and the development of the game is what even distant colleagues recognized as what made Yow special.

"It’s nice to play these games, there’s a bigger purpose behind them," said South Dakota head coach Ryun Williams after the game who never competed against Yow but did hear her speak at a convention. "You just read stuff about her and everybody liked Kay Yow. She was good for the game, she was good for kids, and when you really look at the big picture, that’s what it’s about. Yeah, it’s wins and losses and we get fired because we don’t win enough. But really the bottom line is a good experience for our kids and coaching them hard and making sure they perform well and that’s what Kay did."
It may sound clichéd and cheesy to talk about a "bigger purpose" behind Pink Zone games, whether it be for a good cause or not. For some observers, the talk of a bigger purpose in women’s basketball is tiresome, subordinating the accomplishments of female athletes in a sport to some heavy, arduous movement against centuries of negative social forces.

However, Bonvicini described Yow’s message as "staying strong and fighting."

By all accounts, Yow's fighting extended beyond just fighting cancer – her 34 years in women’s basketball was also fundamentally about advancing women's basketball. To deny that Yow is part of a larger historical narrative of a sport growing despite considerable obstacles is to fundamentally deny Yow her humanity. The human element of Yow, as espoused by her contemporary Bonvicini, calls upon us to recognize that there is something bigger at stake in women’s basketball.

If nothing else, even this little shred of Yow’s story gained from Bonvicini speaks to the power of women’s basketball as a forum to showcase the feats of women both on and off the court and bring attention to issues specifically affecting women that are so often ignored. Returning to Voepel’s article about King, what initially caught my eye was the subtitle of the article: Tennis legend: Until women are brought out of poverty, humanity can't move forward. In King’s words, standing up for causes as athletes is not just an opportunity, but something of a responsibility, especially for those with legend status.

Billie Jean King fights for women's rights - ESPN
"We've got to do good work through sports, because kids look up to sports people. Even if they don't know who you are, they kind of get it if the adults get excited."

Maybe that's what King can provide as much as any sports legend could ever hope to: a sense of excitement. About charitable endeavors. About the opportunities to help. And about the need to keep doing something athletic, no matter what it is.

To deny that women’s sports are important for reasons beyond the field of play is to deny the very fact that people like Yow and King have spent their lives fighting for the advancement of women’s sports. To not acknowledge their work now is an act of presentism that seems to deny them part of their humanity even as we honor them. Sports have the potential to capture our attention and draw attention to things that cheap talk simply doesn’t.

Feminism on the Field | Women Talk Sports | The first online blog network for women's sports
Part of the power of sports, in my opinion, is that it allows women, especially young women, to see their bodies as functional, rather than purely decorative. It is this important shift in self-perception that makes sports for women so personally impactful. So, when is a soccer team more than a soccer team? When it’s a women’s soccer team. Then it is a symbol of equality and a tool for empowerment.

So as we continue to honor Yow as a fighter – both an advocate for women’s sports and breast cancer research – hopefully we will preserve her context. She is significant for what she did and how she interacted with people, not just as the figurehead of a cause.

Transition Points:

  • "The other thing is very coincidentally she worked with Jim Valvano at NC State – he died from cancer," said Bonvicini. "So for both of them – like the Jimmy V Foundation, now this is Kay Yow’s foundation – it’s unusual. In fact, I knew Jim very well too."
  • Bonvicini also mentioned that Yow was "very much a Christian woman and put God before anything else." While I will not equate Yow and Martin Luther King, it does evoke King's notion of "bearing the cross" relative to Yow's life. Majestic Scorn and Risk
    Of course, that’s impossible when we have whittled King’s entire life down to one or two soundbytes, commodified them, and annually celebrated a watered down memory for so long that it’s hard to even discern what his life was about. A day of service or quietly engaging in service throughout the year without taking a public stand is in direct opposition to what King stood for. It’s comfortable – as comfortable as watching the game on the day off granted to us in memory of King – and we should not confuse that with honoring King’s life.

    The title of Garrow’s book about King is Bearing the Cross, a biblical reference and described as participation in the struggle in his writings (p 148): "I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to," King wrote, "but as I said to you yesterday, this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people." The struggle is difficult, but "I am asking God hourly to give me the power of endurance."

    If we set aside whatever qualms we have about organized religion, the point here is that King was more than speeches and sloganeering – it requires people to stand up and publicly assume a heavy and burdensome responsibility for enacting change. The civil rights movement was indeed a struggle that forced many people to make sacrifices that we have not just forgotten but ignored. So while people often wonder where our great leaders have gone, perhaps a better question to ask is where are the people willing to stand up and assume responsibility for moving us forward? It’s not at all that they don’t exist – I work with and know many of those people. It’s that far too often, we look for others to "bear the cross" while we continue to live our lives of comfort.