Sunday, July 09, 2023

Let's talk about periods--or not

In the lead up to Wimbledon, I read several pieces and saw even more headlines about the change in the all-white clothing rule to allow players in the women's draw to wear darker shorts/tennis underwear. (Does anyone wear those anymore? Wishing I had kept some of mine now.)

There were no bones made about the fact that this change was to ease players' anxiety about playing while on their periods. 

Point1: This change was subject to a vote because it is considered a rule change to the dress code. A vote. In 2023 that helps ease the anxiety of menstruating players. 

Point 1a: This is not a new issue. Most of the stories mention that some soccer teams are eliminating white shorts from their kits as well this summer. This discussion has also emerged in regard to long-distance athletes (cyclists, runners, triathletes) who are not as bound by dress codes/team uniforms but affected by the nature of their sports which often do not allow for a bathroom break to change a tampon or pad or empty a menstrual cup. So in those sports we have seen bloodied outfits. A few years ago (it was probably longer because everything seems to be a few years ago to me) a menstruating woman ran a marathon while on her period and was not at all ashamed by it and wanted to use the moment to bring attention to athletes who menstruate. (Google it for more details.) 

Point 1b: The fact there seems to be some concerted attention to athletes who have their periods while competing in this the year 2023 is a little demoralizing (even as the changes I have mentioned are loudly applauded). It demonstrates how little input women have in sports as athletes and administrators. 

Point 2: The print media was all over this story. I assume some radio outlets were as well. No one has said anything about the rule change on air. I have only been watching ESPN's coverage but I cannot imagine Tennis Channel is much different (and my only understanding of how the BBC operates is based on controversies over the monarchy and Great British Baking Show). The silence kind of surprised me given how commentators usually do not hold back when commenting on women's outfits. It is not as if the black and dark green shorts are not obvious. EDITED TO ADD: Martina Navratilova covered Sabalenka's 4th round match and said that the players are now allowed to wear "colored undershorts" and that it was nice to add a little color to the courts "legally." She DID NOT say WHY the change was made. The implication of her awkward phrasing is that the All-England Club wanted more color on the courts. 

But of course television/streaming media is far more conservative than print media, as I often reminded my sport management students when I taught in those departments. They basically are still not talking about periods. Chrissy Evert generally cannot hold herself back from talking about what things were like in her day and how she responded to X and Y. But Chrissy has been radio silent (or ESPN silent) about periods and dress codes. Not very surprising; she does seem to stay quiet when it comes to women's issues. (Go back and look at how she responded when asked to join Billie Jean King's women's tour in the 70s. She will now, of course, talk a lot about equity in women's tennis when the issue has been rendered nearly uncontroversial.) 

This is not about Chris Evert though. It is about when and where and how people in sports (media people, athletes, managers, coaches, etc.) can and do--do not--talk about women's bodies. We seem fine talking about women losing their periods but not about them getting them. 

The athletes at Wimbledon have been open with the media (the ones who ask) about the role their periods play when the are playing. But I really would have loved to see all of them playing in red shorts this year. 

P.S. I just read that the shorts are not allowed to "show" beneath the skirt/dress. I assume this means be longer than. But Nike's eyelet-ish dress has a scalloped (of sorts) hem that rises a couple of inches on the side seams. Aryna Sabalenka is wearing this dress and has dark shorts that are visible. No one has said anything. To be clear--this is good. I am just curious about which aspects of the dress code get enforced...and against whom...

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Katey Chronicles: Part I

 I have many thoughts on the news that the Harvard women's ice hockey team was a space of abuse, intimidation, humiliation, bullying, and general badness. I am having trouble organizing them and figuring out where to begin. There is so very much to say. My organizational strategy is to create multiple posts. This first one is about my interest in this particular case and a little bit on Katey Stone, the Harvard head coach who unapologetically created this toxic culture and women as ice hockey coaches more generally. 

There is a lot to say about every revelation of dysfunctional and destructive team cultures. They exist far more widely than most people likely believe--at all levels of sports, and they are all multi-faceted (i.e., emotional and physical abuse, racism, other forms of discrimination and violence). This one for me, though, was especially provoking because I did my master's thesis on coaches in DI women's ice hockey in the early 2000s. I interviewed players from the two east coast conferences (ECAC and Hockey East) which, at that time, were where the powerhouse teams were. The focus of my project was the question of player preferences in the gender of their coaches. (And every time I see a story like this I re-regret not pursuing publishing some piece of that project.) 

At the time of my project Stone, a still young/new coach, was building a powerhouse team at Harvard. She was feeding the American and Canadian national teams some of their key players. She was coaching Patty Kazmaier winners.

She was (and remains) a preeminent female coach in women's hockey. She was one of very few women coaches in women's ice hockey, one of the facts that inspired my inquiry. She is still the woman with the highest number of wins in women's intercollegiate ice hockey at #4 on the list. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are all men. This was another entry point into my project: why all the men in a sport that, in its intercollegiate form, came of age alongside Title IX but was relatively small, with the best teams, and their feeder institutions (several of which Stone coached at) located almost exclusively on the east coast? 

Stone grew up in Connecticut and attended the fairly exclusive Taft School, where both her parents worked. Her father was the Athletics Director. She was immersed in sports throughout her life and went to University of New Hampshire where she played both ice hockey and lacrosse. She played for UNH's first women's hockey coach, Russ McCurdy and graduated in 1989, several years before UNH hired its first female women's head coach Karen Kay, whom Stone would end up coaching against in the early part of her career, before Kay's contract was not renewed after the 2001-02 season. This was the other entry point into my project. After Kay's contract was not renewed UNH hired Brian McCloskey, the men's assistant coach at the time, despite having two finalists for the job who were women with extensive experience coaching women's hockey including national team experience. McCloskey had a very good record during his tenure which came to a controversial end (more on that in a subsequent post). 

What does all this mean? Ice hockey--whether the men's or women's game--is very male-dominated at the highest levels. I realize this #notarevelation. This is typical of many (most?) sports. In a future post, I will talk about coaching culture and norms, which I think are (maybe?) finally starting to shift. But it is clear that Stone was raised and played in an environment where norms of masculinity as they manifested in coaching were prevalent and seemingly not questioned. When I did my research, it was clear that regardless of gender, coaches were engaging in what I thought was appalling behavior. 

McCurdy was before my time as an undergraduate at UNH, but I was there when Kay was head coach, and I knew several of the players. She was not well-loved. She was seen as playing favorites which included having more personal relationships (I am not suggesting sexual ones here) with some players. She ignored players who were injured. This is in addition to the very accepted practice of screaming at players and yelling disparaging remarks; criticism greatly outweighed praise. 

This is not excusable behavior. But it was not unusual. In my research just a few years after Kay had been released, no one claimed to like their head coach. They had differing opinions on how effective they were as coaches and their policies. But the players I spoke with saw--and accepted--that head coaches were distant and strict and that assistant coaches were the ones who were there for more personal things like talking about being homesick, romantic and friend relationships, or troubles with school. Head coaches stopped paying attention or nurturing players when they were injured, communicating only through athletic trainers. head coaches got angry and screamed and pulled jerseys and threw trash cans in locker rooms out of frustration. 

At the end of my research, none of the women I interviewed expressed a preference for a woman coach, some did not care, and others preferred men as coaches. The reasons given for the latter were: that was what they had always known; they felt men had more experience because their history in the sport was longer (this also extended to referees for one participants who said she preferred male referees because they were better and more accurate). Some believed we would see more women as head coaches in the following generation because there were just more women playing at elite programs who would have what they deemed to be the necessary history and experience. 

In addition to these reasons, I discussed two other possibilities in my paper for the preference for men as head coaches of women's hockey. One, it gave the still nascent sport (it only been added to the Olympics in 1998) credibility. Two, and relatedly, it meant avoiding the lesbian stigma. Hockey was a "masculine" sport with no opportunity (because of the uniforms) to add hair bows or visible make-up to connote heterosexuality. And indeed some of the women coaches were/are gay. Shannon Miller, who was also coaching at this time out west and for Team Canada, was fired (technically her contract was not renewed in 2015) for being gay and won a lawsuit because of it. 

The lesbian stigma certainly exists in other sports and there has been research on how it has affected hiring and firing practices. I argue that it also affects how players view coaches and who they want coaching them AND how women coaches comport themselves and try to fit in with masculine coaching norms. This is the topic of my next post. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The character of coaches: Shane Beamer's outburst

 Most semesters I start off my ethics course with an article about the connection between sports and character building. It inspires debate, requires an assessment of data, and sets the tone for the course in which I am asking my students to check their preconceptions in order to effectively engage in a process of moral reasoning. 

We discuss definitions of character and how those definitions are often shifted or ignored when considering actions and decisions that happen in the context of sports. While many students will start to see that sports are not automatic character builders, that mere participation does not make someone a better person, they will take exception to the idea that unethical things done "in the heat of battle" does not make one unethical or speak badly of sport itself. In other words, the drive to win sometimes makes people do unethical things, but that's kind of just the nature of sports. 

But doesn't an ethical person, by virtue of being ethical, do the right thing regardless of "the moment"? I ask.  

Later in the semester we read a piece about virtue ethics and coaching in which the authors demonstrate the moral imperative coaches have to behave ethically and teach ethical behavior that, in fact, this is their primary responsibility--above winning and even above skill building. The majority of my students have experienced bad coaching. We fill the board with their examples. But few have ever questioned why so many of them have had bad coaching experiences. 

If we truly want sports to build character, we must acknowledge that coaches are crucial components in modelling character. This rarely gets discussed though. And it is never a requirement for consideration when we talk about "good coaches." I still hear people call Joe Paterno a great coach. 

Last weekend, University of South Carolina football coach, Shane Beamer, yelled at women athletes who were brought onto the field to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX. He wanted them off so the game--which was at a critical juncture--could proceed. He claims he was not aware that the ceremony was happening (yet also goes on to explain how much of a women's sports fan he is and that he has sport-playing daughters so...there was a celebration of the law that likely led to his daughters' ability to play sports yet he was unaware. #thingsthatmakeyougohmmmm)

He apologized but in the same breath noted how he was so focused on this fourth down conversion and that other team was gaining an advantage and...and..."heat of the moment." Perhaps he thinks this focus and attention makes him a good coach. I think it makes him a bad coach. Because good character should be displayed in the most difficult moments. In the grand scheme of things, a 4th down conversion in a game you are losing--even in the SEC--is not an especially difficult moment. He did not model good character for his players. He modelled what has become very common in our sport culture: making a mistake in which a minoritized person or persons is a victim and apologizing with an asterisk (heat of the moment, in this case). He also, in the process, threw the officials under the bus saying that they told him to line his players up. Blaming the officials is also not good character. 

Sports do not magically make one a better person and research shows that actually the longer one stays in sports and the higher the level achieved, the less likely one is to have/display good character. Sadly, there are examples galore to use but no real movement to hold people--like coaches--responsible. 

Monday, August 29, 2022

Unreconciled racism: The BYU incident

 Last weekend, BYU fans directed racial slurs against several Black women on the Duke volleyball team. It seems that Rachel Richardson experienced the brunt of it including a threat from a white man in which she was told to "watch her back" on her way to the bus. She is the athlete who has spoken up about the violence. 

BYU responded late and poorly, but this was an all-around failure by all coaches and officials. 

It has been pointed out that BYU's response reflects their ignorance. Others have thrown up their hands in a "it's BYU--what do you expect?" kind of way. 

ALL institutions should already be doing this work. That Heather Olmstead, BYU coach, said that after talking to Richardson (and others) that she now "understand(s) areas where we can do better" is offensive. Stop asking Black people to educate you about racism. AND ALSO how do you not understand that yelling racial slurs is a problem? This is not an area to be worked on--this is an area that should be fully understood; there should be a plan in place for if this happens and more importantly a culture in which this behavior is not acceptable should already exist. 

This work should have been done already! This is basic stuff. Athletic departments and colleges/universities that are not having conversations about race, that do not have action plans in place are failing. 

This is not revelatory. 

The question/issue that remains for me is whether an institution such as BYU that has clearly not engaged at all with its racist, imperialist, and colonist past AND ongoing practices can actually do this work authentically. One of the Mormon church's crucial practices is missionary work. Missionary work is a form of imperialism. They recruit non-white people into their religion without having addressed the church's own history. How can BYU legitimately engage in anti-racist work? 

Arguably, the majority of higher ed institutions have not approached their own racism honestly, and many institutions fail to appropriately address and sanction racist fans (hey UIowa my alma mater, I am looking at you!) For some reason, BYU's actions and inactions seem more egregious, more hypocritical as they preach a morality that they cannot adhere to given their historical and current practices. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

That umbrella makes you a hypocrite

 Mariah Burton Nelson and Donna Lopiano, long-time women's sports advocates, have found "a fair and inclusive solution" to the "problem" of trans athletes--specifically trans women (because trans men are apparently inherently disadvantaged despite all that testosterone, the very substance that a mere blink of an eye ago everyone said meant everything in terms of advantage). 

They (presumably with their more visible/vocal and polarizing colleagues Nancy Hogshead-Makar and Martina Navratilova) have created the Women's Sports Umbrella. The umbrella, they claim, allows for anyone identifying as female to have a "team" experience. But if an athlete was assigned male at birth and transitioned after the age of 12, that person cannot compete alongside women. Well unless it is an individual sport in which case fine but the scores/times do not get included with the "real women's" scores, they get put into the trans category. (But rugby and other contact team sports--forget it; they will hurt someone with their dense dense bones.) The authors do not use the term real women of course; but all their rhetoric about how trans women are category-defying makes the implication easy to pick up. 

I am going to break down pieces of their Forbes column (linked above) in a moment, but first some context. It is clear that Burton Nelson and Lopiano are playing good cop to Makar and Navratilova's fascist cop. They use terms like inclusion and advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion training for coaches, teammates and administrators (which should already be happening). They call trans athletes brave and say they should not be sidelined for being who they are. 

But they are all still cops; they are all arguing for surveillance; they are all damaging the very entity they claim to protect and serve: women's sports. Because as much as they think that they are being all post-modern by recognizing that gender is not a binary, they themselves cannot actually get out of that binary and the traditional way of thinking that has reified western gender categories. This was cemented when they wrote: "our nonbinary solution is called the Women's Sports Umbrella." 

To be fair, the binary they actually invoke is the inclusion/exclusion one. But their "third" non-binary option is inspired they say because trans women do not fit the category of woman--"biologically speaking." This is the height of cis white women privilege. They are deciding that trans women are other; that they are a third category. They are taking a huge range of trans experiences and putting it into a "third" category. 

They keep invoking biology and categorization based on biology without acknowledging that humans create these categories and definitions. For example, some people in the past (and still) think they women who love women (which Burton Nelson does according to her website which states that she has a wife) are not actually real women because real women have a biologically based desire for men. The norm is heterosexuality. The whole lesbian panic in sports is based on the idea that these women are more like men and it includes a biological component: some people believed that lesbians were biologically advantaged. And it is not just about sexuality. Many people today still believe that Black people have biological advantages. Though no one says aloud anymore that Black women should compete in their own separate categories, that based-on-science belief is not in the distant past, nor has its effects disappeared. (A cursory look at the coverage of Serena Williams attests to this.) But certainly we all know that is not true anymore, one might retort. Do we? Who gets picked out for being suspiciously masculine? Whose sexuality and gender get questioned? 

There is a lot in this piece. I could point out the lack of nuance in the thinking and the violence that this perpetuates, but I want to end on the concept of fairness which is over and again uncritically invoked here and in other pieces about trans athletes. 

SPORTS ARE NOT FAIR. This discourse has done so much damage to so many marginalized people in ways I cannot begin to enumerate. It is again being used as a weapon against marginalized people. Even if these women have decided that fairness is based on bone density and lung capacity and testosterone, they have not ideologically committed to that. Because if they had, they would be advocating to abolish gender categories and create sports categories on the basis of those factors. But that's not the umbrella they have opened. Why? Because advantage--even if we look only at biological advantage and not economic and sociopolitical and cultural--is complicated and not reduceable to neat categorization. They refuse to acknowledge this messiness because it might mean having to ditch the umbrella and reconceptualize sports. 

person in green coat in rain and wind holding tightly to inverted umbrella

Thursday, June 30, 2022

What "Save Women's Sports" has wrought

There are so many anti-trans bills passed by and pending in state legislatures here in the United States that I cannot even begin to address them all except to say this has been a concerted movement targeting trans youth for several years now and it is horrifying.

The bill in Utah is my focus today. All the bills are horrible and saddening and enraging, but this all that and more. This one demonstrates the consequences of the anti-trans "save women's sports" movement.

The bill, which originated in 2021, bans children from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. It was passed in March 2022, the governor vetoed it, the legislature overrode the governor's veto. 

Governor Cox, a Republican, expressed some compassion when explaining his veto of the bill. He cited that fact that Utah had four transgender children playing school-sponsored sports at the time. (I would argue that the number does not matter, but will save that post for another day.)

“Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day,” Gov. Cox wrote in the letter. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly. For that reason, as much as any other, I have taken this action in the hope that we can continue to work together and find a better way.”

Like in other states that have passed anti-trans laws, Utah is facing a legal challenge from the families of trans children. This lawsuit is in its early stages.

Despite this challenge and fears that Utah will be passed over for events like the Olympics or the 2023 NBA All-Star Game (come on, NBA--use your power for good here) the legislature has moved forward with its assault on the dignity, rights, and health of children. The bill created the Utah School Activity Eligibility Commission whose members are appointed by the legislature. These members get to determine who is eligible to play girls' sports in the state by establishing a baseline range of physical characteristics that include height, weight, wingspan, flexibility, among others and by meeting with students whose eligibility is in question.  

Students who want to play girls' sports but whose birth certificates (for whatever reason) have them designated as male must submit documentation to this group (i.e. out themselves, i.e, endanger themselves) and meet with this group in a CLOSED session. What kind of traumatic events will occur behind those closed doors? [I am watching Under the Banner of Heaven on Hulu right now so my feelings about Utah are not very positive right now anyway.]

This is so very flawed and misogynistic and racist. Who is going to be targeted? Most definitely girls who are racial minorities and any girl who does not appear feminine enough. This is Caster Semenya all over again. Who is too strong, too tall, too wide? 

The commission will establish gendered baselines for all activities. So now what happens to the cisgender boy who is "too short" for volleyball or the cisgender girl who is "too tall" for field hockey? What happens to children with disabilities? What happens to children who weigh more than the baseline? 

The philosophy behind interscholastic sports is participation for the purpose of health, and emotional and social growth. They should not be promoting ableism, fat phobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. 

This is what the save women's sports movement has wrought. In arguing that we need all these (scientifically unsupported) regulations to make sports "safe" for cisgender, white, middle-class women, they have endangered so many people across ages, races, and socioeconomic classes. They have increased the surveillance of all women. They have increased gender- and race-based violence. All of the efforts to make sports more inclusive by combatting all the -isms I listed above are being erased by these so-called women's sport advocates. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

NCAA Inclusion Forum Talks Around Trans Inclusion

 [this is cross-posted. Original post is at Title IX Blog.]

 I virtually attended last week's NCAA annual Inclusion Forum which was celebrating Title IX but also included issues of BIPOC inclusion and athlete mental health (among others).

There was a panel on Thursday afternoon headlined by former Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar about trans athletes. 

When the conference was announced, I was curious about how the organization would approach--or even if they would--trans athletes given the recent seemingly abrupt change in their policy (January 2022--curiously amidst the growing visibility of Penn swimmer Lia Thomas). They moved from a not ideal but not totally horrible policy in which hormone levels (specifically testosterone) governed participation, to a we-are-cowards-kowtowing-to-the-misnamed-fear-mongering-save-women's-sports folks policy in which trans athletes are treated as cheaters constantly having to submit to surveillance. Additionally, the NCAA policy is basically a non-policy because they have decided to follow the "Olympic model" in which each college sport will follow the rules of its governing body. 

They have washed their hands of responsibility to throw the anti-trans activists off their backs, and they have sacrificed trans athletes in the process as well as compromising their own philosophy about the goal of college sports and inclusion and participation. To be fair, the organization has never truly adhered to that philosophy. [I will save a more thorough interrogation of the policy for another post.]  

The description of the panel in the agenda (available in the first link above) was as follows:

Session 1 | Beyond the Headlines: Understanding the Trans & Non Binary Student-Athlete Experience Media headlines and state laws have contributed to increased discussion about transgender and nonbinary athletes. Rarely are the perspectives of these athletes shared or included in these discussions. This session provides an opportunity to hear directly from a former trans student-athlete about their experience in college sports and to discuss with administrators how campuses can support all student-athletes around this subject. 

Schuyler told his story, the panel (there were two others who work in college athletics) answered some pre-set questions posed by the moderator, and we in the audience were allowed to submit questions in the Q&A window. Several of us asked questions about policy--the NCAA's and other organizations' policies. NONE of them were picked. 

In the chat, as things were winding down and it was clear these questions would go unasked, I commented on this fact. Schuyler saw my comment, in which I mentioned that these policies are a form of violence (because he had talked about violent threats against him on social media and anti-trans violence in general). He responded that the panel was not about policy but about showing the humanity of trans people by sharing the story of a trans person. 

Humanity is great; I wish the NCAA had more of it in fact. But framing this panel as one about humanity and then refusing to discuss policies that are the opposite of humane; that in fact are othering, is disingenuous. I am not directly blaming Schuyler Bailar. I am sure the directive was issued from on high. In fact, when I went to the panel description as it was presented on the meeting platform (different from the posted agenda), I found this addition: Please note, this session is not intended to discuss or go into detail around the NCAA's transgender student-athlete participation policy.

The humanity discourse was a cover. It allowed the NCAA to show a success story in Schuyler Bailar. It threw attention off of their own inhumane governance. It is a cover for the violence they are doing. It focused on one person, which has been a huge problem in ALL the discussions of trans athletes. They are focusing on individuals and not the larger philosophy(ies) and ethics of sport and human dignity. This approach has made lightning rods out of people such as Lia Thomas. It literally endangers lives by perpetuating the idea that trans people are not fully human; that they should be subjected to constant testing and monitoring and scrutiny. It was offensive that they approached the issue this way at a conference about inclusion.