We Americans love records, and we love people who break them. Recently, race car driver Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a pole position in car-racing history. But judging from the hyperbolic media coverage, starting with the incessant drone of the phrase "first woman pole-sitter" and culminating in cheesecake shots of her tossing her hair as she removed her helmet, you would have thought she just broke the sound barrier, or at least landed her car on the moon. If only the news were that big.
Danica Patrick is unquestionably a top racer, and getting the number one pole spot in the Daytona 500 is an enormous honor and no small feat for any racer. So why does it matter that she's the first woman to do so? Must everything we do in America be qualified by which box we check on our census?
When we speak of "firsts," shouldn't we reserve those historic designations for breaking seemingly unassailable, unimaginable barriers? The first female 4-star general (Ann Dunwoody), the first black president (Barack Obama), the first female network sports announcer (Phyllis George) -- these are barriers that were accepted, until very recently, as completely insurmountable until that first minority game-changer broke through the ceiling.
Danica Patrick also broke an historic barrier, but not when she received the number one pole position. She made history when she became the first, and so far only, woman to win an IndyCar race, in 2008. That was an unquestionable game-changer, and that's when the news counted, because she didn't just break a ceiling, she broke an entire societal assumption.
When the media uses every "first" as an excuse to breathlessly declare old barriers broken, they end up diluting the very accomplishment they hope to highlight. Like the parents who record every moment of their baby's first action, the media doesn't know where to stop, and so runs the risk of turning a memorable success into yet another item on a yawn-inducing laundry list for the rest of us.
The proof of this acquiescence to the mundane is in almost every daily news report. Here's the most recent sampling: Crain's New York Business, "Bonnie Hammer becomes the third woman to lead a key division of NBCUniversal"; Yahoo! Sports, "Darryl Wallace becomes the fourth African-American Nascar driver"; Politico, "Paul Ryan is the second Catholic nominated to national office"; And my personal favorite, from CNN and many others, "Richard Blanco was chosen to be the nation's fifth inaugural poet." And along with that dubious numeric distinction comes the announcement that he's also the first immigrant, first Hispanic and first gay man to read a poem at an inauguration.
Seriously? With only five poetry-readers among the 57 public inaugurations in our history, it's not too hard to be the first anything. Maya Angelou, first inaugural poet to wear a dress; Robert Frost, the first octogenarian; James Dickey, first Aquarius. Where does the madness end?
Records matter, and as the producer of a radio show hosted by a record-breaking NFL icon, I'm well aware of their importance and the respect that records deserve and generate. But it's precisely because of this awareness that I also know the dangers of cheapening a record to being about a superficial category, rather than the record broken.
When an athlete holds a record, the pride comes from the accomplishment. It doesn't matter if he's the blondest quarterback or the shortest golfer. He earns and deserves respect for his superior abilities, prowess and dedication, which can only come from within.
In our supposed post-racial, post-feminist, post-religious, politically-correct America, one would think we've also gotten beyond defining people according to their census box, rather than the merit of their accomplishment. I salute and admire the men and women I reference here because they've done something I couldn't, and they've done it well, not despite the box they were born into, but because of who they are underneath. Their gender, race or religion shouldn't matter. What should matter is that they achieved distinction and personal pride in their success. Even if I am the very first to say so.
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