Monday, March 31, 2008

What happens tomorrow?

One of my favorite feminist activist groups (it seems odd to think about having a favorite activist group and, of course, I don't really rank them) produced one of my favorite "slogans." The Guerrilla Girls have asked this question:

Q: If February is Black History Month and March is Women's History Month, what happens the rest of the year?
A: Discrimination.

This came to mind when reading an ESPN notice that went to the network's employees (and I assume at some later date, the world) celebrating Women's History Month. Its title was "DURING WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH, ESPN DEMONSTRATES ITS UNPRECEDENTED COMMITMENT TO WOMEN’S SPORTS" and noted that ESPN is "the leader in providing extensive coverage of women's sports content." First, it's not all that much of an accomplishment to provide an unprecedented commitment to women's sports when there hasn't been much--oh wait, any--commitment to women's sports in this country. It goes on to list all the hours of women's sports coverage it offers. Yet despite ESPN's commitment to coverage of women's sports, men still receive 90 percent of all sports media coverage (that includes print and television). If ESPN was so precedent-setting, don't you think more media outlets would have gotten on board in regards to covering women's sports? Don't you think maybe ESPN would have inspired a little competition? Would have shown the others out there that covering women's sports can be a good thing?
So here it is, the last day of Women's History Month. I forgot to survey my sport sociology class to ask them whether they had noticed this past month ESPN's unprecedented commitment. I would venture to say no. I haven't. Sure they cover the women's NCAA tournament but I don't think you can count that toward your women's history month efforts; it is March Madness after all.
Still I wouldn't want the people at ESPN to wake up tomorrow morning and say "Well another March has past, we can scale back our coverage of women's sports now."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Because marriage is like military service?

It is soooo obvious which women in the gym are brides-to-be. They are the ones logging many miles on the treadmill, counting hundreds of crunches on physio balls, and lifting teeny tiny weights in an effort to tone (but not build--god forbid--bulk) shoulders (for those going strapless), upper back (for those going backless), and pecs (for those going for the plunging necklines). And all the while sporting those very large diamonds that are so popular these days.
And while some of these women are doing it on their own many get help in various forms such as trainers, or the many, many websites out there dedicated to getting women to their desired shape for one day.
And now, according to today's Boston Globe, gyms are offering special packages for brides-to-be. Total Performance Sports in eastern Massachusetts has a Bridal Survival Fit Camp. The gym may call it "fit camp" but the article (including the photo caption which reads: "future brides and members of wedding parties endure grueling physical training to look their best"--emphasis added) refers to the program as a boot camp and the descriptions of it sound very boot camp-esque. A version of the program in NYC has participants actually dressed in fatigues.
It's just so ridiculous. The rhetoric makes me cringe.
The class is exhausting. The trainers, merciless. But all that matters is the goal.
"I'm wearing a strapless wedding dress," said Monkiewicz, an associate marketing manager at Kayem Foods Inc. in Chelsea. "I need nice collarbones and arms."

[Also thought it was interesting that one of the above mentioned merciless trainers started the sessions saying "you guys aren't going to like me much today." I'm sorry where are these guys he's talking to? ]
The article notes the boot camp fitness programs are quite popular right now. You see it on television on shows like The Biggest Loser and Celebrity Fit Camp but it's a little bit troubling that exercise has been tied unproblematically to the military especially given the perversion of the purpose as evidenced by the above bride's self-described motivation:
"Do you want to look good this summer?" roared Rago, the trainer.
It was just the motivation she needed. "South Beach, baby!" Monkiewicz responded. "I'm going to South Beach for my bachelorette party. I can't stop now."

[Note all the privilege. No mention of how much they cost but gym memberships are pricey these days as are the services of personal trainers and of course holding a destination bachelorette party...]
Boot camps--the real things--are not for looking to achieve svelte and gorgeous on your big day. I don't think the enemy really cares how buff you look in camouflage. Also, what does it say that we are invoking militaristic techniques--both physical and mental--as an allegedly effective approach to fitness and exercise?
I was going to end with something cynical about how we need classes to prepare people for the battles and conflicts that will come after "the big day"--you know, when the no-longer brides stop going to wedding fit camp and the effects this may have on their marriage. But I won't do that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What's over there...

...on the other side of gender?

I teach classes in women's studies and sports studies and I am always talking about race and gender (and class and sexuality and (dis)ability and a host of other identity markers) and thus I frequently hear sentiments such as this: "we shouldn't look at the color of a person; we should look at the person" and "we don't need feminism anymore; women are equal."

This editorial out of Colorado kind of combines these sentiments. The author, a mother of two youngish children says her kids don't see gender. I hate to break it to you--but unless you are visually impaired, you see gender--and race and a host of other things.
Here's an exercise I learned in grad school in a critical race theory class:
Close your eyes. [Just humor me and do it.] Now recall a person you met in the past couple of weeks. Someone who you met in passing, someone whose name you might not even be able to immediately recall. Now can you identify that person's gender and race? I bet you can. If you cannot there might have been an ambiguous presentation and if there was, you probably thought about that as you tried--however subconsciously--to place that person in a group. This isn't a judgment. It happens to everyone. We see these things. And what is more, we interpret these things.
So, I know that what the editorialist meant was not that her kids don't know the difference between a man and woman. They don't judge based on gender, she is saying.
Wouldn't that be nice. Her argument that her kids don't think it is unusual to have female coaches doesn't exactly support her point. Women in the 60s didn't think it was unusual to have female coaches either--that's because around 98 percent of coaches of female athletics were women. Today it's less then 50 percent at the intercollegiate level. I hope her kids find it unusual that women coach girls but don't coach boys even as male coaches can move easily between coaching boys and girls. I hope they find it unusual that no one questions this.
But I am doubtful given the author's own statement that her children are "blissfully oblivious to the idea that any "movement" [for gender equality] was required at all."
She does say that her daughters have started to notice certain inequities. So it seems like the period of blissful oblivion is nearing its end. I hope mom has "the talk" with her soon. The one about the 70s and activism and Title IX and all the people that set out--and continue to make it their mission--to impede equality.

Monday, March 24, 2008

What Larry Scott does not want to see

Richard Williams, father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, gave an interview on March 13 [ok ok I am a little behind but I have been on spring break and my comments are still relevant even if the story is old] in which he talks about racism in tennis.
He also talked about a few other things including his own prejudices and the careers of Tracy Austin and Chris Evert whom he referred to as "no good trasher[s]...who cannot hit the ball." This has caused some...ahem...discord. I don't agree with what he said. I think it's insulting to Austin (who I actually never saw play as I was just a wee one when she was on tour but I'm pretty sure she would hit the ball) and Evert.
And WTA CEO Larry Scott was right to publicly denounce Williams's comments on Evert and Austin, but he's fooling himself if thinks that the tour's "zero tolerance policy" on racism or his encouragement of Williams to go to him when he has "evidence of racist comments or acts in women's professional tennis" is in any way helpful or even indicative of racial tolerance in tennis.
It's not. The racism in tennis is there for anyone who wants to see it. But most people don't which is why "evidence" is so hard to come by. When we continue to believe that racism only exists in overt acts like segregation it is difficult to show the many ways in which racism pervades our thoughts and actions and speech.
But I see it so clearly in the case of the Williams sister. Richard Williams is right that America embraces* cute white girls who play tennis and doesn't give them crap about being #1 too long. And he's right that the media has treated his daughters differently because of their race. Before Imus sidekick Sid Rosenberg helped create the controversy over the Rutgers women's basketball team last year, he got reprimanded for suggesting Venus and Serena belong not in the fashion magazines but in National Geographic.
And there has been other media coverage of them that refers to them in animalistic terms.
How about we take all those accounts to Larry Scott and explain to him the history of racism in this country which included treating black people like animals and how the sports world thinks that comparing black athletes with animals is okay because, after all, their ancestors had to run through the jungles of Africa chasing and being chased by wild animals. Is this enough "evidence"? Does he care that while it may not be happening within his tour (after all this isn't coming from other players or coaches one might argue) that it's happening to players on his tour?
I am sure that racist remarks are made frequently on the WTA by players and members of their entourages. But how many people actually hear them or report them when they do hear them? How many would cite "free speech" and demand to be excused for their conduct? Scott's zero tolerance policy is useless. How about he use his position and do something proactive with it? He could threaten to ban members of the media who use racist terms to describe players. He could ban whole media outlets for racist speech and writing. Or maybe he could simply begin by acknowledging that yes, racism is a problem in professional tennis instead of hiding behind a policy.

*Evert, of course, had her time as the ice princess but that impression of her did not last that long and is certainly not what people remember about her these days.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ski jumping fight on TV

The female ski jumpers' fight for Olympic entry is getting national attention--American national attention that is--tonight. ABC News with Charles Gibson is airing a segment tonight on the ski jumpers. One of the teasers was "some [women] even jump better than men." Well, of course, some women will always be able to do some stuff better than some men. That's just everyday common sense--too bad that seems to go away when we talk about sports.
Hopefully I will be able to catch the segment tonight.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sports on the front page

This past fall and into the winter (aka baseball and football seasons to some folks) I was continually dismayed that The Boston Globe would put sports stories on the front page of the Sunday paper. I understand when they put the BIG stories there like World Series winners or Superbowl...well losers. But there seemed to be a sports story, one that took up a lot of inches, on the front page that should have been on the front page of the sports section. With all the "stuff" going on in the world I thought it was a poor editorial decision to highlight so prominently what was a relatively minor story.
So my prior discord made me stop and have to think about what I thought about UConn's Maya Moore's front page appearance this past Sunday. Of course this story started on the front page (way below the fold) and ended in the sports section. And it wasn't about a game or a season or a series, it was about one player which, in some way, suggests that the women's sports are anomalies and coverage of women's team sports, to be somewhat viable, must focus on a star player.
But, in the end, I was pretty pleased to see the Globe highlighting women's sports on its front page; and certainly Moore deserves the attention.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Another hall of fame travesty

Last year the Soccer Hall of Fame thought it was just the bestest for inducting an all-female class; the first ever all-female class.

How does that saying go...? One step forward...before the patriarchy just squashes you and makes you remember why you've bought into all that postmodern musing on the quaint notion of progress.

This year the Hall of Fame is inducting, fresh off his lengthy legal battle over sexual harassment, eventual settlement, and admittance (kind of) of inappropriate behavior...drum roll please...University of North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance.

National Soccer Hall of Fame, President Steve Baumann said:
"Anson Dorrance has set an unbelievable standard for American soccer coaches. His success at UNC is staggering and his World Championship with the U.S. women's national team has inspired coaches to higher levels of excellence."

Yes it was so excellent the way he got away with sexual innuendo, questioning of his players' personal lives, and kicking soccer balls at their backsides.

I am not so naive as to believe that Dorrance would not make it into the Hall of Fame some day. But that he was voted in right on the heels (no pun intended) of this settlement just gives me further evidence that Dorrance is sitting pretty in his office down in Chapel Hill and saying "Nah nahny poo-poo" to those of us who think what he did was not just inappropriate but illegal and that he got off with nary a scratch.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Where are the moms?

Last weekend the Bay Area Women's Sports Initiative, which was co-founded by Brandi Chastain, sponsored a Dads and Daughters Day where dads and their daughters (that's the obvious part) came to hear about women's athletics, participate in some fun physical activities, and check out a couple of women's intercollegiate basketball games.
It all sounded very "rah-rah, go women's sports!"
I mean, I get it. Using active and eager daughters to get men on board in the support of women's sports isn't exactly a dumb idea when we live in a society where men still dominate sports--and I don't mean as athletes, but as administrators, coaches, the people in power. There are a lot of fathers who will go to the mat for their daughters if they are denied opportunities. But how far does this support and potential activism go without a larger consciousness about systemic gender discrimination? Sure, most fathers would argue for better funding for their daughter's soccer team after seeing the perks that boys get or help in implementing a lacrosse program because a daughter wants to play a spring sport. But how many will support a daughter playing football? Or opting to continue playing Little League when there exists a recreational softball program? Or join the wresting team? Some do certainly but it requires a little more crossing of gender boundaries.
And of course there's the question of "where are the moms?" It's quite ironic that this promotion of girls in sports just reifies all our notions of gender: men are interested in sports; dads toss the ball; dads coach; moms drive the minivan and bring snacks. What kind of message is that sending to all these girls: sure play sports now but when you grow up and become moms sit back and let your husband deal with the sports.
I just recently read a bunch of student "sportographies" (biographies of their sporting experiences) and all of the women's papers mentioned their fathers and no one talked about their mothers. I asked one my students if her mother was involved beyond general support of her sporting life and she said that although her mother had played softball, like my student, she didn't "know that much about it." But her father, who did not play softball, was one of her coaches when she was younger.
Why do we have this belief that men in general, and fathers in particular in this scenario, have more knowledge about sport than women and mothers? Maybe mothers can share their experiences with discrimination or how to deal with playing with boys who don't want to share time and space with girls; or *gasp* just their love of sport. Chastain related the story of how she and her father went out and bought books on soccer because neither knew about the sport and so they learned together. Why can't mothers do this with their daughters and their sons?
The last line of the article on the event is just so disturbing. It's from a father who was asked by his 9-year old to attend the event: "it's special because there aren't many things dads and daughters can do together."
What an extremely limited view this guy has of what being a father is. I know from my own experience (and yes my dad and do a lot of sport-related activities--but not exclusively) and from those of friends of mine that fathers and daughters can and do bond over activities other than sports.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Billies are coming!

The Billies, the annual awards celebrating positive media portrayals of women in sport sponsored by the Women's Sports Foundation, will take place April 15 this year in LA. The WSF just announced the finalists in the three award categories.
In the Breakthrough & Innovation category, honoring images and portrayals that challenge the status quo of females as athletes, we have:
1. "Women's Soccer Team -- The Greatest Team You've Never Heard of"; Nike's advertising campaign from the 2007 World Cup. I was not a huge fan of this campaign. I thought it condescended to the many soccer fans who knew exactly who this team was because we don't show up for soccer every 4 years.
2. "Boom Boom Tap" Under Armour's first campaign for female team athletes. This was catchy and simple and it featured sports like field hockey that get very little attention.
3. "GKA" a television series on Fuel TV dedicated to women's participation in action sports. I don't get this channel and have never heard of this show but given the declining numbers of women in events like the X Games it's good some attention is being paid to female action sports athletes.
4. "Female Snowboarding" Quicksilver/Roxy's print ad campaign displaying female snowboarders performing tricks. Also one I did not see.

In the Entertainment category which judges entrants on "insightful portrayal of women in sports, impact, originality and overall quality of work."
1. "Chak! De India" A film I still haven't seen (will have to put in my Blockbuster queue if it's out on video yet) depicting a group of girls who forgot what it was like to play simply for the love of field hockey.
2. "Generation IX" A documentary exploring the influence of Title IX on women athletes from the 2005University of Washington's national champion volleyball team. I heard this was good but alas have not gotten my hands on it yet.
3. "Women in American Horse Racing" A documentary showing how women are shaping the horse racing industry. Never heard of it but it sounds intriguing and quite different from other docs on women's sports.

The Journalism category "honors insightful portrayals of women in sports, originality and overall quality of work that has been aired, broadcast or published in 2007.":
1. "Mamachas" from ESPN Deportes. The tale of the Peruvian women's national soccer champions, who play in traditional skirts and sandals made of tires.
2. "Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports" The story of Kathrine Switzer, who helped introduce women's marathon into the Olympic Games and was the attacked when she tried to run the Boston Marathon when women were not allowed into the race.
3. "Pregnant Pause" which aired on ESPN, looked at how college and universities respond to
student-athletes becoming pregnant. Not well was the answer, by the way. It was a good piece. And the issue remains pertinent as the NCAA continues to refine its policy on pregnant student-athletes.
4. Article Series, Chicago Tribune, Melissa Isaacson
5. Article Series, City Star, Mechelle Voepel

I'll have the winners for you next month!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Women-only hours at Harvard gym

Harvard University last month instituted women-only hours at one of their campus gyms. The hours are designed to accommodate female Muslim students at the university who find it easier to work out among women. The students asked the university for the women-only hours so they could dress in ways more appropriate to exercise (i.e. clothing that is not allowed in mixed-gender situations because of modesty requirements).
Needless to say, the policy has been controversial. Men have been crying about equal access (note that this is not the only gym on campus and this one is actually not very centrally located and there are only 6 hours a week when this policy is in effect) but it seems there is a decent amount of anti-Muslim sentiment behind some of the criticisms--by both men and women.
So we have issues of gender and religion and even the role of an educational institution.
The latter seems the easiest to address. A spokesperson for Harvard said is its responsibility of the school to provide access to a healthy lifestyle for all its students. And I agree. It is not as if schools do not make accommodations for religion on a regular basis. For example, when I worked at Cornell University there was a significant amount of planning that went into developing and maintaining a kosher dining station in a new dining facility. I have heard about schools assigning rooms and roommates to accommodate the practices of some students. Students of all religions are not penalized (theoretically at least, I have heard stories about professors not honoring the rules) for missing classes on religious holidays.
But the tougher issues are the ones about gender and religion. And they are ones that are not going away any time soon. I see more and more stories about Muslim women competing in sports around the world. (I do wonder though about the dress claims being made by the Harvard women. Muslim women are competing internationally in front of mixed-gender crowds and sports apparel companies are meeting their dress requirements--a la Nike's hijab worn by a Muslim runner a few years ago.)
But it's no secret that I dislike women-only spaces in gyms. This is compounded by the fact that I am no fan of religion either--any of them. The easy answer would be an unsympathetic one (and very much based on a white Western woman point of view): you choose to practice a religion that is oppressive to women. You are participating in your own oppression and women-only hours in a gym only perpetuates that. But, of course, there are many ways to practice Islam; Muslim women are not without agency. Also no one has been able to convince me that Islam is any more oppressive than most of the other religions out there. Plus, we all participate in our own oppression. Patriarchy isn't reserved for organized religion.
Frankly I have more respect for Muslim women who advocate for women-only spaces so they can maintain their religious practices and gain the advantages of exercise than all these women flocking to Curves where they most certainly are participating in their own oppression by buying into all the rhetoric about beauty standards that is perpetuated at such establishments.
Our attention gets called to stories such as these because it seems like these practices are so outside the norm and/or that sport is somehow religion-free. We rarely question the ubiquitous practice of prayer before games. And that's because it's Christian-based prayer. There are not a whole lot of complaints about invoking the Christian god in national anthem before almost every intercollegiate and professional sporting event. Even BYU's policy of not playing games on Sundays gets very little resistance in the world of intercollegiate athletics. Maybe we should be taking a closer look what and whose practices we are picking on and why.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"Protecting" female tennis players

The Women's Tennis Association instituted its new mandatory criminal background checks at the tournament in Dubai last week amid a lot of controversy and backlash. All members of a player's entourage must sign a document agreeing that the tour can do a background check on them. I don't feel as if I have a strong opinion on this practice but I am not pleased with the "protect the women" rhetoric that surrounds it. Scott has assured all concerned parties (some of whom were sitting outside the tournaments last week where the checks were being done in protest while their players brought them food and information) that they will not be looking into financial and tax information. The checks will look for criminal behavior like sexual offenses in an attempt to protect all these young girls.
Why do we think the greatest threat posed by these entourage members is sexual assault? Would a background check have picked up on Peter Graf's financial misdoings? You know the ones that put extreme pressure and attention on his very guarded daughter. Would a background check have picked up anything on some of the abusive fathers that have and do run around the tour? Was there a criminal record on Patty Schnyder's former "coach"--the guru who engaged in various brainwashing techniques? Or how about her current coach and husband Rainer Hoffman who has been convicted of fraud and embezzlement?
Yes, sexual assault on young female athletes is a problem in sports but there are other dangers out there. Other people who engage in criminal activities that also have serious effects on players.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Women, violence, and contact sports

Since I am all about ice hockey this week and because I just finished teaching about sport and violence in my sport sociology class I thought I would point your attention to this lovely spectacle:

This is a recent game between the University of Minnesota Mankato and University of North Dakota.

I showed it to my sport soc class the day after we had made a long list of violent events in sports 99 percent of which involved men. (The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident was the lone exception.) What was disturbing was that many were laughing while watching the video clip, commenting on the effectiveness of the actual fighting, and referring to them as girls and/or noting that it looked like little kids fighting. Because apparently we don't really want to talk about what it means when women get violent, unless we can paint them as pathological i.e. female serial killers. But we can't do that with female hockey players because then we might have to start talking about male athletes and the violence they commit; and we certainly don't muster much concern for male hockey players throwing punches.

They were right about something the other day, though. They surmised that perhaps violence does occur in women's sports but it doesn't get any coverage. I tried to find more information about the brawls after viewing the video. The only coverage was on each school's respective website which barely mentioned the fights or what provoked them. Two brawls in one game; 140 minutes of penalties; no context, very little coverage, next to no commentary.

It also seems like my students were not the only ones trying to diffuse the dissonance of women fighting using inappropriate humor. If you listen closely when watching the video you can hear playing in the background "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

[BTW, read about this story over on Women's Sports Blog which is very thorough in its coverage of all women's sports. It's the new addition to my list of favorite blogs. Check it out.]

UPDATE: Just came across another women's ice hockey incident this time out of Canada. A university player has been suspended for the whole season after, during the course of a brawl, punching a referee three times in the face.