Sunday, November 29, 2009

LA Times sportswriter Mike Penner dies

It is with great sadness that I read about the death of LA Times sports writer Mike Penner who dies Friday at the age of 52. It is suspected Penner took his own life.
Penner had been a sport writer since the 80s, covering multiple sports and events, but gained national notoriety when he came out as transsexual in the spring of 2007. He changed his name to Christine Daniels and continued to cover sports for the Times as well as keep a blog about his transition. The very public transition was quite brave. But some time in late 2008 Penner went back to writing as Mike and rumors abounded that he was experiencing transition regret, though he never confirmed.
If it was indeed a suicide, it would seem that Penner never found a comfortable place along the gender spectrum and perhaps that is because too often it seems there is no continuum, but rather a binary. And thus the pressure to pick one or another and conform is huge, especially for those who have not had the privilege of being comfortably cisgendered all their lives.
It is not a time to preach about the evils of hegemonic gender and the gender binary, I realize. Mike Penner/Christine Daniels made a huge sacrifice by going public during transition. I hope that is what people remember.

Out and proud in the world of men's hockey

An ESPN columnist has a profile on Brendan Burke, a college student who stopped playing hockey in high school because he was gay and worried about people finding out his secret. His father, Brian (apologies, Patrick is Brendan's brother) Burke, is a bigwig NHL guy and former player himself. The column tells Brandon's history in the sport, his current position as a team manager at Miami Ohio, and his coming out to all the people in his life. Brandon would like a career in the NHL and plans on going to law school.

Good message overall but it was a little on the long side and unless one is Italo Calvino, one should not use the second person the way the columnist did. (In other words, he tried a little too hard.)

And PS all the "no one cared, everyone was really supportive" lines are tiresome, ring a little false, and are problematic in that they erase a lot of the subtle homophobia that continues in athletics. I mean I am glad he isn't being targeted, but this does not mean hockey is homphobia-free or even ready for a pro or semi-pro out player. I don't even think there is an out male DI player. If Burke is able to make inroads in NHL management like his father has, he would have a great opportunity to at least influence the climate--and that's always a good thing.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bring on the Olympics!: Luge

It's the day after American Thanksgiving and you know what that means...
Time to talk luge. (What? Did you think I was really going to go the mall on Black Friday?)
When I was in Canada a few weeks ago commercials for the Olympics were everywhere. Not so much here, but we should be getting excited at this point, especially if you are into luge.
Because according to this piece, American women's luge could be an up-and-coming spoiler for all those veteran European teams like Germany where school children allegedly have easy access to the country's luge tracks.
But to all my friends in their 30s who still harbor luge dreams, forget it. It's a youngsters' sport, at least here in the US. Apparently the average age of the US National Team is 21. Which makes sense; you have to have a certain teenage immortality attitude to shoot down a sloped ice track on your back, on a sled with sharp blades using only your feet to steer. More power to them! Hope they make a showing in Vancouver.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Yes, Alexandra Stevenson is still playing

...and yes it appears that her mother still has her on one of those leashes that we usually see (problematically) on toddlers in the mall.

A link posted by Diane at Women Who Serve, tells us about the strange mother-daughter relationship (more implied) and that ever-so-lovely sport parent behavior by Samantha Stevenson. Never a fan of Ms. Stevenson myself for her "eeks my daughter is going to be accosted by lesbians in the locker room" statements in the late 90s when it looked like Alexandra was going to be something something, it seems she hasn't really changed--it's just that her daughter's profile has thus Samantha Stevenson doesn't quite have the same platform. [She was right about racism on the tour, but she discredited herself by coupling that with her homophobia thus burying any possible real discussion of subtle and overt acts of racism in the WTA.]

It seems that even as Alexandra, ranked in the 200s now, perseveres at small tournaments, her mother perseveres in her various level of...what shall we call it? Gamespersonship? Gamesmothership? (No, that sounds like something from a sci-fi flick.) Gamesparentship? Come up with your own appropriate noun--if it's good, post it in the comments.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mother of judo succumbs to cancer

Not too long ago I wrote briefly about Rusty Kanokogi who was dubbed the "mother of judo" for her lifelong dedication to promoting the sport in the United States including getting girls and women involved. It was largely due to her efforts that women's judo made it to the Olympics. Rusty made news then when the YMCA awarded her a gold medal for her participation in a the state championship match she took part in in 1959. When the officials found out she was a girl, they took her medal away. The YMCA rectified that mistake this year.
Kanokogi was battling leukemia at that time, a disease she had been fighting for three years. She died of the disease this week.
She will be inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame this April.
Her accomplishments are many and some can be found in the above-linked article. She sounds like one of the unsung heroines of women's sports, the martial arts, and sport in general.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Well that was a new experience

I have had many moments of frustration playing USTA league tennis over the years, from head case partners who enjoy hitting opponents as an intimidation technique to snippy opponents who don't remember the score and so you have to go all the way back and replay the third set to dealing with stacked line-ups.
But today was a refreshing change--and not just because I won and not just because I won by one point! Though that did feel nice. But my doubles partner and I played against a very nice team. Not overly sweet nice where they try to talk to you all the time--'cause that's annoying too. But fair. They never questioned any call and there were some close ones. (We were playing fair too, though; but that's not the way it always happens.)
It was a really close match and no one lost it or got snippy or slammed a racket (not even me!). And we ended up having to play a tie break to decide the third and final set (we had ten minutes left). At 5-5 in the breaker (first to 7 by 2 wins it) they hit a ball long--just. They didn't question the call; they walked up to the net and said "well the clock says 2 and you're up by a point so you win." I had been walking back to the baseline getting ready to try not to choke and serve the match out. They could have easily made me serve it out. But they didn't.
No whispering or lamenting of kvetching afterwards.
I know this seems kind of like a silly post, but this kind of behavior is--in my experience--the exception more than the rule. And since I spend a lot of time on this blog complaining I thought it would nice to say something good about good sporting behavior.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Semenya back in the news; the debate continues

Thankfully it appears that South African runner Caster Semenya is not mired in depression or confusion over the recent questioning and testing of her gender and sex and biology.
Last weekend The Guardian ran a lengthy essay on what Semenya is up to these days: training. And included many photos of the athlete with her teammates and coaches. There was controversy over whether Semenya's conversations with the writer were on-the-record and if she knew that her talks with him would be included in the article. I have only glanced at the article myself so I cannot comment on its accuracy or fairness or sensitivity in covering all the attendant issues.
This week the IAAF ruled that Semenya could keep her medal and her prize money, but discussions are stil underway about whether she will be allowed to compete in the future. The IAAF has allegedly said they will not reveal the results of all the tests they conducted. (Not an especially reassuring statement given how information has been leaked throughout this investigation.)
As this news broke, Jill Geer, who does PR for USA Track and Field (that must be a stressful job!) wrote a blog post on USTAF's website about Caster Semenya. It was interesting. I was a little disturbed by the warning at the top of the post that read: Readers are advised that the following blog deals with issues of gender determination and sexual characteristics.
Not all that surprising that those in track and field and many outside of sport as well have such difficulty even comprehending these issues; they can't even talk about these things--even in a clinical way--without getting squeamish. Say it with me people: GEN-IT-AL-IA. See, that wasn't so hard. It's not as if some child was going to come across this blog post and get turned on by discussions of what kind of gentilia a South African runner has. And if it inspires questions by said child--good! And if you are the parent of said child and cannot answer these questions--email me!
But I digress, back to Geer's post. She displays a great deal of empathy for all involved, which is good. And she laments the way the whole situation was handled--also good. She clearly has an understanding of how gender norms are problematic. I was not too pleased that, right after she explained how she understood the limits of gender norms, she condemned Semenya's post-race bicep flex.
Geer cites my good friend Erin Buzuvis's paper delivered a couple of weeks ago at a conference on sport and law in Baltimore--but Geer doesn't agree with most of her points even as she lauds Buzuvis's attempt to present a "rational" argument about fairness in competition. Having read said paper myself and being one of those gender studies people Geer mentions briefly, I think that attempts at rationality are largely futile given that rationality itself is constructed through dominant ideas of gender, sex, power, science, etc. But I understand that people in governance and policy-making and law like to have rules.
And in the end my hope is that the situation with Semenya will alter not just the rules but our thinking on gender and sex.

h/t to NS for sending me Geer's blog

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The ponytail epiphany

I hesitated to write this post because I did not want to be part of the continuing media coverage of the BYU/UNM soccer game in which rough play all around and particularly that of defender Elizabeth Lambert has gotten a lot of negative and other suspect attention.
But this article, not a big one in the grand scheme of media coverage, set me off and lead to the above mentioned ponytail epiphany. It's not what was in it, as it was not adding anything particularly new; it was the title: "On the Lambert scandal."
Scandal? It's a scandal now? Christian politicians living in communal environments in DC and sleeping with mistresses on the side engender scandals. Hiding information about alleged threats of terrorism from elected officials and the general public is a scandal.
A collegiate soccer player engaged in on-field acts of violent behavior is not a scandal.
So once again I was forced to ask myself, "What the heck is up with this story?" Seriously, when I was sitting in a Canadian bar two weeks ago and saw the infamous montage, I thought it would make a good post and get a little bit of press and thus engage a healthy discussion of gender and sport. Oh, the naivete.
But I have decided, just 'cause I can, that this was all about the ponytail. Lambert gave a good interview to NYT writer Jere Longman the other day and basically said that a lot of the stuff she got caught doing, was stuff that was happening throughout the game. She takes full responsibility for the actions, but notes that it all looks a little bit worse strung together like it was.
But it was the ponytail pull that really set things off. It clearly evoked girl-on-girl fighting that either titillated or terrified. This is my explanation as to why this story has gotten more play to that other women's sport moment of bad behavior this fall: Serena Williams at the US Open. And let's not forget to interrogate the racial aspects of this. Lambert is being read as white though she herself has never identified her race. White girls are supposed to play nice. The racism engendered by Williams's behavior in September was obviously problematic. But I wonder how much the stereotypes of black women as animalistic, uppity, angry contributed the quick demise (comparatively) of the story--while unfortunately reifying stereotypes of black womanhood that many already held. The expectations of white womanhood have gone unexamined in the case of Elizabeth Lambert but they are certainly there to be interrogated.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What have you done for women's basketball lately?

NCAA basketball has begun. Now admittedly basketball is a sport that I have never truly embraced. It is probably the American sport I know least about. But I follow the women's collegiate game out of a sense of loyalty to female athletes. And, of course, I find it interesting from a sociological and cultural studies perspective.
So here it is the first week of play and I am trying to jump in and be supportive right from the start this year. (This also serves a more solipsistic end: I know a little more when I fill out my bracket in March!) So last night, knowing the Tennessee/Texas Tech game was on, I kindly asked the bartender to put it on the big screen tv. And other people at the bar appeared to be watching. I was ready to have to fend of complaining whiners, but I didn't have to. Of course they may have changed the channel when I left at halftime but I did what I could.
And this morning on my very early drive to the gym I caught the score of the UConn game on my local NPR affiliate. The men's game.
Umm...didn't the women play last night as well? Well indeed they did. They crushed Texas I found after some internet searching.
So I am spending a little time this morning jotting off a letter to my station to say that if they truly believe we live in UConn country (which I find debatable but...) they should give all the UConn scores.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not everyone is moving on

The IOC has stated that, in the wake of the Canadian appeal's court decision to uphold the lower court decision, it is pleased that it can now move on and focus on the forthcoming games.
Yes, it must be nice when a legal entity says it cannot hold you responsible for discrimination. The IOC sure knows how to spin things. I was a little surprised by this statement from the organization:
"As the lower court noted, the IOC has continued to demonstrate by its actions its support for women athletes and their participation in the Olympic Games."
Hmmm....I didn't read the lower court decision, but the message I got out of it from all the coverage was not that the IOC was a great supporter of women's sports, but that it was a great discriminator and the judge regretted that it was beyond her power to hold them accountable.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Final blow for female ski jumpers

The appeal, filed by a group of female ski jumpers attempting to get their sport into the Vancouver Games, was dismissed after two days of hearings in a Canadian court of appeals this week. The court agreed with the lower court ruling that it was the IOC that was at fault and the IOC can not be held to Canadian law. [I am not a legal scholar, and certainly not a Canadian legal scholar, but this decision would seem to set a bad precedent. They do have precedent in Canada right? I mean who knows what kind of outside entity can come in and shirk Canadian law.]

The lawsuit, according to VANOC, which seems a little resentful for being involved in this at all, cost the organization "six figures." First, if they were so resentful, they should have put more pressure on the IOC to do the right thing, to take responsibility, etc. But it seems the IOC gets to be immune to all these things. They must believe that because they are in Switzerland, they are neutral.
Second, how much exactly is six figures? Is this Canadian slang? Six figures could be $100,000 or $999,999. There's a big difference. Not that it matters. I don't have a lot of sympathy for VANOC anyway.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Lambert wrap-up

I have to say that I, despite my deeply entrenched cynicism, am surprised at just how viral this whole Elizabeth Lambert thing went. It's everywhere I turn. I feel--and this is just a feeling not backed up at all by evidence--that this situation has gotten more attention than Serena Williams's outburst at the Open. I could be wrong. I haven't sat down to chart the You Tube hits or count the articles, editorials, or blog posts but there just seems to be something about this story that makes it keep going and going and going.
I don't think I have anything else to say about it myself but here's some of what others have been saying:
  • From Christine Brennan, a column on how coaching factors into this situation. Coaching--or lack thereof--has been listed as one of the incredulities in this case. Brennan got the interview with Kit Vela, the UNM head coach who was questioned for her decision to keep Lambert on the field despite her actions. But Vela hadn't seen any of it, she told Brennan, until she saw the highlight reel that everyone else in American saw the night after the game. The arguably most egregious act--the ponytail pull--happened in the "run of play" Vela said and she missed. As did the referees we should note who certainly would have pointed it out. Vela insists that if she had seen it, Lambert would have been benched. Actually it seems both Vela and Lambert wished the ponytail pull had been noticed (it was well behind the play apparently) by refs who would have likely red-carded Lambert. I bet they do wish it! Probably would have at least tempered some of this fervent reaction.
  • NYT sportswriter Jere Longman published a column Wednesday on the incident and got a lot of really smart and important people to talk about it ;) Julie Foudy, Mary Jo Kane, Pat Griffin, and others commented on issues of gender, violence, physicality/contact, comparisons to men's sports, etc.
  • This columnist (reprinted in USA Today) provides a somewhat offensive level of sarcasm in his take on the whole thing. He actually incorporates the story of the high school soccer game in Rhode Island last weekend in which fighting on the field and in the stands commenced after a mid-field collision between two players. He also notes that "it's a proud day for Title IX." I am not pleased with all this invocation of Title IX in these discussions. I can think of a number of more appropriate organizations, moments, etc. to levy some blame on.
  • Steve Krakauer at the blog Mediaite takes MSNBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman (and her sports psychologist guest) to task for their sexist interpretation and comments on the situation. I found a problem with the sport psych guy calling this a "natural outgrowth" of the growth of women's sports. [italics mine] Snyderman also invoked Title IX as she suggested we needed to train girls to be just shy of the level of aggression men exhibit.
  • And of course you should check out the Women Talk Sports network. Many of the contributing blogs have something to say about this!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ski jumpers still fighting

In my ongoing effort to offer some support for the women (and men) who continue to fight for women's ski jumping in the Vancouver Olympics (less than 100 days away now) I direct you to this article from the Christian Science Monitor. It is quite thorough and lays out all the issues to date and going forward.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tennis players with jitters?

So I am forgoing a third post in three days about the Lambert-goes-viral situation to recount a recent moment of irk I had when reading Tennis magazine. It's been a while since I complained about Tennis so I was due.
Said complaint comes from the US Open round-up which highlighted the top 5 stories of the 2009 tournament. And no, this post is not going to be about Serena Williams--directly anyway.
Number 4 on the list is titled "The men can serve. The women? Not so much." Immediate grrr moment but I read on to discover that the theory behind this fact is that the women have more power due to improvements in equipment (like the men) and so they can achieve unprecedented pace (also like the men) but for some reason cannot generate the same amount of spin. No attempt at an explanation for this alleged fact. Also the new power racquets help the returner--again an effect experienced by both men and women. But apparently this switch makes has a greater psychological effect on the women because it "only makes the women more jittery when the time comes to serve out a match." Hmm...more jittery? How do we interpret that statement. I don't think any interpretation is gender neutral. More jittery than men? More jittery than they were previously which implies women are always the more jittery players.
Any way you read it, it's problematic. It paints women as head cases and while we have seen a lot of meltdowns, they are certainly not all coming from women.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lambert, Part II

I was going to add a postscript to "10 lesbians walk into a bar" (I have to say I am just dying to see how that phrase affects my hits) based on the recent Graham Hays (of ESPN online) column about Elizabeth Lambert's actions last weekend.
But I thought it was a good enough piece to stand alone as a post. (And possibly because I am feeling a little lazy this morning.) Hays is right on when he writes:
This is how it so often goes for women's sports....Roll tape, ignore the context and let the criticism and mocking commence.
And he is soooo right--unfortunately--that this conference playoff game will get far more attention from the likes of ESPN and other sports networks than the actual NCAA championship game.
And he is right that the outrage reflects the belief that women's sports remain an inferior and less physical version of men's sports. [Please don't take away my feminist blogger's license for all this agreeing with a mainstream source.]
But what was really interesting about this column was the comments of former Alabama player Emily Pitek who said she liked what she saw. Pitek actually incurred an ACL injury when she took (what she felt was) a late hit against UNM. Nevertheless she said: "I'm not going to lie; I loved it....Because, yeah, she was crazy and, probably, I just like physical play. Maybe it does lack official skill, but I think girls in female soccer … they need to hit each other. You need to really show that you're not some dainty little prisspot and just go hammer somebody." why, why would some female athletes worry about being dainty little prisspots? Geez, maybe because our culture sees them as such. Maybe because we have now nearly officially confirmed that women's sports only make the highlight reel when athletes behave badly. Behave out of character for what we expect of said prisspots. Behave not like women.
And all this really stymies our ability to look at the incidents themselves and reflect on what it means for sport and violence in our culture. (Not that I believe we can ever truly and effectively disaggregate issues of gender and race and class and sexuality--or that we should.) But whenever something like this happens we spend a lot of time having to critique the critics and the coverage while adding the proverbial asterik that reads "yes, we know this was wrong and bad and all that..."
So, yeah, all that.

Monday, November 09, 2009

10 lesbians walk into a bar...

...and naturally frivolity ensues. (You thought I was going to make a joke, right? Nope; just getting your attention.)
And then when we see the sports network covering women's soccer on the plasma televisions scattered around the bar, our heads snap up eagerly. Because we like women's soccer and we like it when sports shows cover it.
And then we see the coverage is of University of New Mexico player Elizabeth Lambert and the egregious fouls she committed in a recent game against BYU. And we sigh because this is, after all, a group of critical, feminist sport scholars at a conference on sport and sociology. But because we have been thinking and critiquing for days, and because the segment ends quickly, we go back to our fun and games.
Alas here I am back in the real world and these are things I think about.
Said conference was in Canada, but I imagine American media covered this story as well complete with the repeated shots of Lambert's actions in which she 1) elbowed a player in the back in retaliation for a shove she received, 2) pulled an opponent to the ground by her ponytail (makes one think about cutting her hair!), 3) exchanged midair blows with the same elbower, and 4) tripped a BYU player.
Lambert has been suspended indefinitely for her actions for which she said she is deeply apologetic and regretful.
Interestingly, Lambert received only one yellow card during the game.
So what's going on here?
Well many of the comments on the above-linked article talk about the women's game and sportsmanship. Someone wrote that it was the worst display of sportsmanship she/he had ever seen in the women's game. Well why are we talking about only the women's game? And does this mean we have different standards for men and women?
Her aggressive tactics were discussed and of course there is that ever-so problematic relationship between gender and aggression and what counts as permissible. And soccer experts and fans have all said that even in women's soccer there is a lot of physical contact. And if one thinks that female soccer players don't play dirty, think again. Yes, Lambert's actions were particularly egregious and seemingly out of proportion to the jabs and shoves she herself was receiving. But I am not liking how this whole incident is being framed.
For example there was this video of the events titled "Cat fighting gets ugly during BYU vs. New Mexico women's soccer match." I just hate the term cat fighting--especially when it is applied to women's sports.
I also remain irked by the term sportsmanship. Maybe Lambert did not behave in a sportsmanlike manner because she is not a man! OK probably not but I find it intriguing that the behavior she displayed and this sportsmanship discourse are being invoked in a gendered context without any kind of problematizing of the standards we hold female athletes to versus male athletes.
And finally, I wonder if Lambert was a victim of technology in this situation. It seems the referees did a lousy job keeping some of these behaviors from both BYU and UNM players at bay. But maybe they really missed the ponytail pull or other things. (She got the yellow card from the trip late in the game.) I don't know who pulled these clips first, but when they got out (i.e. on You Tube and sports shows), she got in trouble. (Again, not that she should not have.) She had the unfortunate (and somewhat ironic given the dearth of television coverage of women's sports) experience of playing in a televised game that put her actions under the various lenses of surveillance in the 21st century. And now she will pay the price. Though given that UNM lost the match which ended their season (it was playoff) one wonders what an indefinite suspension actually entails.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Subverting Title IX by remedying discrimination against women?

I so appreciate the growing number of voices in the blogosphere talking about sport and gender. It means that when I just cannot muster enough snark to address the latest issue, there are others who will.

So I have indeed read about the latest investigation by the US Civil Rights Commission into discrimination against female applicants to liberal arts colleges which are trying to prevent an even larger skewing of the proportion of female and male undergraduates. That some colleges are trying to increase their male students is not news. It has been known for a little while now. The Civil Rights Commission is investigating. But as some of my colleagues have pointed out, one of the strategies for male recruitment entails adding sports teams for men. But adding men's teams would likely result in adding women's teams in order to retain or achieve Title IX compliance. So now we have to talk about--as if we ever really stop!--whether Title IX should be altered. All in order to get more men into liberal arts colleges.

Inside Higher Ed has some more details on the investigation and the Title IX issues involved. It quotes both blogger Fat Louie from Women's Sports Blog and Erin Buzuvis from the Title IX Blog. So yea for blogs getting some press.

In her own post on the issue, Buzuvis points out all the problems with this plan of adding sports as a recruitment tool including the fact that it assumes that all men are interested in playing sports and/or that they are inherently more interested than women.

And here is the post from Women's Sports Blog to whom I am grateful for mustering the appropriate amount of cyncism this week so I don't have to.