Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Questioning the progress narrative

Columnist Marcia Smith, who writes for the OC Register, may get this week's Debbie Downer award for her piece on the regression of women's sports. She bemoans the lack of attention (unless it's bad a la Marion Jones) female athletes are getting, the relative obscurity they are competing in--including American Paula Creamer, second on the LPGA money list, the lack of women's professional teams, and their overall "niche status."

It may not be very positive, but Smith is not entirely wrong. I have spent much of February reading about the hundreds of celebrations of women and girls in sports. Last year there was considerable coverage of the 35th anniversary of Title IX. Celebrating is good. Some of the events geared towards getting girls active and interested early are great. But Smith is right when she references the glass ceiling in women's sports. That Candace Parker, who in in her last season at Tennessee, will get less press, less television coverage when she goes pro next year is astonishing and sad.

That the WUSA could not, despite the enormous attention women's soccer received post World Cup victory, remain viable is depressing. And that most of us soccer fans are holding our breath and crossing our fingers and plan on travelling however far we need to to support the new league shows just how precarious women's sports are.

A problem Smith does not touch on centers on just what we want women's sports to look like and what purpose(s) they should serve. Why do we hold events on National Girls and Women in Sports Day whose aim is to get girls involved? Frequently cited reasons are health and self-confidence. And the latter is tied to statistics (which are open to interpretation in my mind) about lower rates of teen pregnancy and susceptibility to abuse and other negatives. So what we seem to be getting at is that we want to remedy the effects of patriarchy. Because we believe, or really want to believe, that sports challenge the system that has so deftly constructed and reified gender roles. But all this bottom-up work does not seem to be making it all the way to the top. Because it's okay--great even, for girls to be active. We want girls to be playing sports--for now. But do we really want them to succeed, as women, at the very highest ranks? The lack of opportunities for elite female athletes post college seems to suggest that no, this is still a male domain and if women participate in it they will become masculine. And this isn't just a fear of lesbianism--it's a fear of power and who has it and who--in this allegedly zero-sum game of life--is going to keep it.

Smith asks a few "where is the next (fill in name of famous female athlete)?" questions including "where is the next Mia Hamm?" The next Mia Hamm is Abby Wambach. She's a prolific scorer. She's intense. She's tough. But she's big and unapologetically aggressive and her sexuality is constantly being questioned by fans. And so she's not Mia Hamm who earned numerous endorsements for being a model female athlete; who benefited from her open heterosexuality; who retired for all the right reasons: to start a family with a superstar baseball player; who let it be known by wearing his name on her jersey in her last game that sports had not made her deviate from the norm. It's all related. The better you are, the more threatening you are. Candace Parker can be a great college player but too much attention on her as a professional, or on any of the other WNBA superstars is dangerous. What if people actually start to like the WNBA--maybe even as much as the NBA. You mean we're going to have to start paying them similarly? Covering them equally? Let them have an influence?

Well now I'm just depressed. Someone send me some good news about women's sports so I can get out of this funk.

No comments: