Predictions on media coverage about UConn Women’s Basketball winning streak

16 12 2010

UConn player Maya Moore

I have a couple predictions about how the media will talk about the UConn women’s basketball team as they (hopefully) tie and break UCLA’s record of the most wins in a row in college D-I basketball. Given the scarce coverage of this exciting and historic event which Christine Brennan wrote about in USA Today, it will be interesting to see if my predictions come true. Read Geno Auriemma’s comments about the streak here, including this quote, “The reason everybody is having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men’s record, and everybody is all up in arms about it.”

If UConn breaks the UCLA record…

Prediction 1: The lack of parity in women’s basketball will be highlighted. UConn’s domination will be attributed to a lack of talent among the other teams. I wasn’t around for the UCLA streak, but I’m guessing no one said Wooden’s teams amassed their streak due to a weak field of opponents. The sanctity of the UCLA streak will remain intact.

Prediction 2: The women’s game will be constantly compared to the men’s game, in which the men’s game will be constructed as a better, faster, more exciting form of basketball….”real basketball”

Prediction 3: Some will argue that UConn Coach Geno Auriemma is “so good” that he should go and coach men’s basketball, because he is wasting his talent coaching females

Prediction 4: The UConn players will be called ruthless, robotron competitors who play unapologetically to win…and this will be constructed as not feminine or unladylike. In fact, some will say the UConn women play like men.

Prediction 5: The lack of interest in UConn’s streak will be blamed on women. It will go something like, “if women themselves don’t support women’s sport, than who will?”  The flaw in this argument is that the success of and support for men’s professional sport is attributed to only males. The fact is, nearly 40% of all fans of professional men’s sports are women. Therefore the lack of interest and coverage of UConn should be equally attributed to males and females, maybe even more so to males because they hold over 90% of all sport media positions and thus make the decisions about what is covered and what isn’t.

Prediction 6: More emphasis will be placed on the fact the streak is a women’s basketball streak, rather than the longest winning streak of any team regardless of the sex of the athlete.

Prediction 7: Some will say women’s basketball is lucky to get any coverage, streak or no streak.

I may think of a few more in the next couple days. Do you have some predictions to add?

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Developing Physically Active Girls: A Pecha Kucha

13 12 2010

I’ve put together a Pecha Kucha video presentation on “Developing Physically Active Girls”.

If you are not familiar with Pecha Kucha, it is a 20 slides x 20 seconds (6:40 mn) presentation format in which the slides advance automatically while you talk. To learn more about Pecha Kucha, the Japanese term for the sound of conversation (“chit chat”)  click here.

The full report and executive summary of Developing Physically Active Girls: An Evidence-based Multidisciplinary Approach, which I co-authored, can be downloaded for free here. The video contains key points from this report.





Explaining the scarcity of female coaches: Homophobia still pervasive

9 12 2010

This week I read two separate stories about female collegiate coaches who are no longer coaching due to homophobia. Scholars have been writing about the effects of homophobia on women’s sports for decades, yet it persists.

The first story is about University of Minnesota Associate Women’s Golf Coach Katie Brenny. All the facts are not in yet, but allegedly Brenny was relieved of many of her coaching duties when the Director of Golf, John Harris, learned that Brenny was a lesbian. You can read about this story in the MN Daily, here and here. It was announced this week that Brenny plans on suing the University of Minnesota for  “a violation of several Minnesota statutes, which would include discrimination based upon creating a hostile work environment; discrimination, retaliation and harassment; and discrimination concerning sexual preference.” Note: 12/10/10 Star Tribune story on Brenny.

The second story involves Lisa Howe, Belmont University’s Head Women’s Soccer Coach, “who resigned last week after she told school officials that she and her same-sex partner were expecting a child.” Howe felt she should resign in the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” climate at Belmont rather than be fired “due to her poor choices.”  To read more about this story click here and here and Pat Griffin has also written a number of blogs about Howe.

There are many troubling issues about these two stories, but in light of my research on the scarcity of female coaches, I find them particularly interesting. Females coaches are in the minority at all levelsyouth, high school and college (if you want to see the statistics, click on these links). The barriers and factors which influence this phenomenon are complex, but in these cases, I think it is safe to say homophobia and a climate of intolerance are contributing factors as to why we now have 2 fewer female college coaches.

Austin Calhoun, a graduate student, and I completed research on how gay and lesbian coaches are erased from online sport media. When we heard of Howe and Brenny, we looked at their online coaching biographies and were not shocked to learn neither mentioned their same-sex partners.

While Brenny seemed to be released from her duties because she was gay, Howe quit because she couldn’t stay in the closet (and resumably didn’t want to) once she and her same-sex partner were going to have a baby.  Interestingly,  having children dramatically affects both heterosexual and homosexual female coaches, in some similar, but also in some very different ways.

For gay women, having a child makes it harder to stay in the closet, and once you have a child with someone you love, one presumably would prefer to openly and freely share that love and joy with the world–including one’s team and colleagues. However, gay coaches are then faced with a dilemma: Come out and risk their career, or stay in the closet and alienate and erase their newly expanded family. Young gay female coaches in the early stages of their careers and families, may have very different thoughts and values about being openly gay in the workplace than their older generational counterparts.  Therefore, it is likely that the attrition rate of young gay female coaches may increase as they want to live openly, but bump up against institutional and societal homophobia. This group of young women may also choose not to enter the coaching profession to begin with (stay tuned for cutting edge research on this topic and more from my graduate student Alyssa Norris).

For heterosexual women, having a child makes it harder to balance the work-mother roles unless a supportive male partner is willing to take on some of the domestic labor in the home (I realize that same-sex couples have to also balance domestic labor issues). For this group of women, having a child does not directly threaten your job. In fact, it is celebrated (as it should be!). Researchers have documented that despite gains made by women in the workplace, women are still responsible for a majority of the domestic labor in the home. For many women (gay and straight alike), balancing the coach-mother roles proves to be too stressful and often results in quitting the coaching profession.  What may compound this issue for females coaches with male partners is that a gender pay gap still exists where females make on average .77 cents for every dollar a male earns. Thus, if a heterosexual couple is deciding who is going to stay home (if that is even an option) or how to lessen the workload, it often makes better financial sense for the male to remain in his career/job.

Of note, when a male coach and his female partner have a child it rarely affects the male coach’s career trajectory or job security. One key take home: in order to have a successful coaching career, a female must have a supportive and equal partner. Another key take home is that gay female coaches likely face more barriers than their heterosexual counterparts which makes staying or getting into coaching challenging.

I have more thinking to do about this complex issue, but these two stories illustrate a few key contributing factors in the ongoing scarcity of female coaches. I realize my logic on this is not fully developed, and I would love to hear your constructive thoughts.

Addition 12/10/10: A NYT piece about a wife-husband co-head coaching duo for Mizzou Volleyball is an example of how heterosexual coaches can be visible and celebrated, whereas I doubt you would ever see a similar story on same-sex co-head coaches. This story is also an example of how if a mother-coach is going to succeed she needs a supportive and equal partner.

Addition 12/17/10: A NYT piece on Howe and the reaction of her athletes and the community.





“A Women’s Pro Sport That is Growing”

3 12 2010

A Bloomberg Business Week piece posted Nov. 24, 2010, outlined the Lingerie Football League (LFL)  is a women’s pro sport that is actually growing. I originally blogged about the LFL a while back.

If I had to write a quote that exemplifies all that is wrong with the LFL and why its popularity is troublesome to those of us who advocate, study, play, teach and research women’s sport, I couldn’t do it.   Wachter write,  “While playing in the NFL takes a rare combination of strength, speed, and coordination, in the Lingerie Football League, says its founder, Mitchell Mortaza, “You have to be athletic, confident, and beautiful. I would argue that beautiful is the most important and valued attribute of the LFL  and LFL players reflect what society has constructed as the beauty norm for women. I have no doubt some of the LFL players are great athletes who love to play football. It is unfortunate that to play a sport they love, it is necessary to do so in what is barely a uniform–a uniform which accentuates and sexualizes the female body. There are other options (see below). I doubt NFL players, 1) have contract stipulations that reads  “players must cope with the possibility of “accidental” nudity” or 2) gets fined $500 if he wears any “additional garments” underneath his uniform.


Portryal of LFL athlete on LFL website

I agree with my sport sociology colleagues Mike Messner and Mary Jo Kane who are quoted in the Bloomberg piece, that the LFL is not selling sport or promoting female athleticism, the LFL is selling sex.

Portrayal of WFA on WFA website

It is well documented that sex sells just about anything, and unfortunately when women’s sport is packaged as sex, it appears to do well. Mortanza states, “We’re 260 percent more profitable so far this season than at the same point last year.” The dangerous down side of the LFL’s success is that it reinforces what many already believe: To sell women’s sport and female athletes successfully sex and sexualizing the female body must be primary. However the distinction is the LFL is selling sex, NOT sport. The LFL claims to be a “women’s pro sport” but it is little more than athletic Playboy bunnies running around for the benefit of male consumption.

Conversely, the The Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL) is about the sport of football. Founded in 2000 by a group of women, IWFL currently has over 1600 women playing for 51 teams. The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), founded in 2009, grew to 32 teams in the first year earning the distinction of becoming the “fastest growing league in the history of the sport.

To see a number of additional, interesting and controversial comments made on this blog which is also posted at the Women Talk Sports Network, click here.





Mini vs. Mature Pros: Physical Activity Across the Lifespan

1 12 2010

Ironically two New York Times articles showed up in my inbox today from different colleagues (thanks ED & ALN) about physical activity on different ends of the age spectrum. I find this ying-yang juxtaposition interesting.

pic by Ann Johansson for The New York Times

One is an article by sports journalist and author Mark Hyman titled “Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers”. Hyman knows this topic well as he’s written a book called Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How it Harms our Kids, which I think is one of the best books about youth sport. I have many concerns about the products and programs Hyman details.

First, the target market is not the little ones, but their parents who will do anything to help their child get ahead, “keep up with the Joneses” and do right by their children.  I’d even go a step further and argue the target market is White, middle- to upper-class parents who are highly educated. Some call this demographic of parents “helicopter” parents. Someone told me recently that the youngest members of our society are now being called the Super Millennials and they will be more savvy, entitled, pampered and demanding than Millennials (also known as Gen Y, born between 1981-2000). One of the best books I’ve read about the Millennials is Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.” These sports training programs (Gymtrixx, Baby Goes Pro, athleticbaby, The Little Gym) for Super Millennials and their parents are a perfect example how sports can go wrong and why and how youth sports is becoming increasingly professionalized. I mean the little guys in Hyman’s story have on uniforms!

Kotelko picture by Patrik Giardino for The New York Times

The second article is by Bruce Grierson titled “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian” about Olga Kotelko. Kotelko is a 91 year old Masters Track & Field athlete who started competing at age 77 and in that time holds 23 world records and has won over 600 gold medals. She is considered one of the world’s greatest athletes. WOW! In the NYT piece if you scroll down a bit, there is a video of her talking about competing and some footage of her in action. Amazing! Tangentially, last spring The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport invited Mariah Burton Nelson to give a Distinguished Lecture on Are Women Aging Successfully? New Thinking and Research about Gender and Physical Activity. You can watch the full length video here.

The reason why I put these two articles together is important. As I stated earlier, youth sport is increasingly professionalized and children are being “trained” at higher levels like “mini pros” at younger and younger ages. While a longitudinal study on the effects of early training, sport specialization, and  year round training without rest periods on children and youth has yet to be done, based on data that does exist in pediatric sports medicine, child development, sports psychology and sports sociology I feel I can safely claim that “sports training” for babies is NOT a good idea.

Here are a few reasons why–early sports training can lead to a host of negative and detrimental psychosocial and physical outcomes like burnout, anxiety and eating disorders due to pressure to perform, lack of lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, chronic and overuse injuries, and drop out of sport altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of kids being active and encouraging free play with children that develops motor and life skills and love of physical activity, but I think there is a fine line between this approach and some of the companies/products Hyman writes about.

Grieger in his piece about Kotelko nails the important link when he writes, “While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets — say, older than age 70 — have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.”

Olga Kotelko wasn’t enrolled in “baby sports training” but despite a lack of exposure to this ‘opportunity’, she is a professional athlete. More importantly I’d argue, is that she is an exemplary cautionary tale for eager parents bent on early sport specialization. In the big picture of why parents want their children to participate in sport, what is more important: a) nurturing a lifelong ability and love to participate in physical activity, or b) creating a mini pro that might burn out or not be able to compete in college (let alone later in life) due to over use injuries?





Another Example of Constructing Gender

23 11 2010

As a scholar who examines gender in the context of sport I’m always interested in the ways the media arbitrarily construct gender–meaning the images we see in the media tell “us” what it means to be a girl or boy, and what is appropriately feminine and masculine.

I have a long disdain for the “pink-ifying” of girls and the non-stop Princess narrative which bombards girls from the youngest ages. I’ve followed the blog PinkStinks for awhile and love their content. PinkStinks is a campaign and social enterprise that challenges the ‘culture of pink’ which invades every area of girls’ lives. A friend and colleague recently sent me this picture which depicts the dichotomous nature of how gender is constructed in the media. Her rhetorical question to me was: Why does it have to be “versus’ and not ‘and’? Can’t a girl be both a princess AND and tomboy?

According to Star, Girl Princesses wear bling and like to be pampered, while it is unladylike to be violent, wear clothes associated with boys, and have an interest in dead things. My point here is: Who got to decide these behaviors are appropriate or not for girls? Is this really newsworthy? (I suppose you could argue Star really isn’t news)

What message does this send young girls? We need more Princess Free Zones (PFZ) that allow girls the freedom to express all parts of who they are and want to be without sanction from society, peers, and parents. I would also argue the behaviors for what is means to be a boy should be more inclusive and broadened. Here is a Anti-Princess Reading List.

I would argue sport has the potential to be a great PFZ, but only if coaches and parents allow free expressions of gender and resist using stereotyping language that reinforces outdated gender dichotomies.





Oh ESPN The Magazine…You Never Cease to Amaze Me.

19 11 2010

I’ve written previously about portrayals of female athletes  in sport media (here & here) and particularly on the pattern of female athletes on the covers of ESPN The Magazine. and Sports Illustrated.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me the new cover of ESPN The Magazine “the movie issue” as she thought I’d like to see it. On the cover appeared to be a Sharon Stone look alike from the famous interview scene in Basic Instinct. I thought it strange ESPN would have a movie issue, and didn’t really realize it was Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn until today! At the risk of asking for more criticism and being hung out to dry by those who will disagree when I write about Lindsey Vonn, I have to address (again) why this cover is just plain problematic. To see video of Vonn’s shoot and why she decided to do the piece, click here.

Reason 1: Females athletes are under represented in the media. Less than 5% of all sport media is dedicated to female athletes. A new report states that number is generous as coverage of females athletes on major networks has declined to an all time low of 1.6%!!!

Reason 2: When female athletes are given media coverage it is usually in ways that highlight their sexuality, rather than athletic competence. (latest ESPN cover as Exhibit A, B, C, D,…..). ESPN The Magazine is the worst culprit of this pattern. In five years (2004- March 2009) females athletes have appeared on 5 of 168 ESPN covers (3.6%…less than the average) and when they do….well see for yourself.

I joke in class with my students that whenever female athletes are on the cover of ESPN they are in white (except for Danica Patrick because she is usually always in black for some reason as part of the media’s construction of her as a badass, sexy vixen…even when she’s “refueling” and promoting Got Milk?). White in U.S. culture connotes purity, chastity, cleanliness, and innocence but when coupled with sexy images of female athletes it has a much different meaning I’m still trying to figure out. This pattern is not coincidental and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Reason 3: When female athletes are consistently portrayed like sexy vixens it become increasingly difficult for most everyone to take them seriously AS ATHLETES. This does little to promote women’s sports.

Reason 4: It sends the wrong message to girls and young women, and heck any female!, that it is more important what your body looks like and how it can be used and gazed upon as a sexual object, than what your body can do athletically. An entire body of literature provides many reasons why the continual sexualization of females is harmful to girls.

This ESPN cover and the countless other images are not proof of female enlightenment, it is as Susan J. Douglas argues in her book it is unfortunately an example of how far we have to go until females are free of sexist practices packaged as post feminist empowerment that undermines female achievement and serves to keep women a sexualized objects, rather than promote them as equal members of society.