Observations from the 2010 Women’s Final Four

5 04 2010

As I’m watching the Men’s Final Four Final on TV, I have a few observations to share from my recent return from the Women’s Final Four in San Antonio. Both are related to Baylor’s Brittney Griner.

Play Like a Girl T-Shirt from SOOZN Design and Print

First, it was my week of meeting enterprising women that own their own companies. I was sitting on the Riverwalk before the semi-final games and fans of all the teams (Baylor, Stanford, UConn, OK) were filing by. There were even some lost Tennessee fans for some reason. Anyway, a couple women walked by with a great T-shirt that said “Play Like a Girl”. I had to get a picture of it, so I ran after them (see pic). The t-shirt is by SOOZN Design & Print. The shirt plays off of Griner’s ability to dunk. I asked the co-owner Susan Loftus (pictured on left with friend Jacky Howell) why make this shirt? She answered they were disgusted with the lack of t-shirts that pictured female athletes in action, that looked authentic and represented an accurate portrayal of athleticism. I thought to myself “Wow”…we need more women like this making sportswear. They were gracious enough to let me take their picture. This is a perfect example of many things: 1. women ARE sports fans, 2. many fans desperately want to see real representations of female athletes, and 3. female business owners can help create change by making products the giant sportswear makers don’t want to make, didn’t think to make, or don’t care enough to make.

The second occurrence happened while I was at the airport gate and overheard a conversation between two high school girls. These two were returning home after playing in the WBCA High School All-America Game. where one of them had met and talked to Brittney Griner. She talked for a good 20 minutes about her conversation with Griner in which she over and over again iterated how “nice” Griner was. She couldn’t believe Griner would care enough to talk to them for that long. It sounded like Griner genuinely took the time to answer her questions, and spend time with she and her teammates. It was obvious what an impression Griner made on this young woman, and I’m guessing on countless others. The girls asked Griner how she dealt with all the media attention and being accused of looking like, sounding like, and playing like a boy. Griner told them something to the affect of… “I can’t control what other people say. I just focus on myself and my basketball”. This also made quite an impression–What a great take away message! I do think Griner will help change and grow women’s basketball just as UConn has set the bar for what the future of women’s basketball will look like. Both are redefining what “Play Like a Girl” means and looks like…unapologetic athleticism.

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Does Sex Sell Women’s Sport?

13 05 2009

I’ve been wanting to write a blog about this topic for awhile and a recent interview given by my colleague and the Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport Professor Mary Jo Kane on the Edge of Sports Radio with Dave Zirin provided me with a perfect opportunity!

In the interview with Zirin she discusses research, conducted with Heather Maxwell (Ph.D.), in which their findings refute the idea that sex sells women’s sports. Kane also discusses how the notion of “sex sells” is related to depictions of motherhood and female athletes—like the magazine covers of Sheryl Swoopes and Candace Parker pictured here, homophobia and Pat Griffin’s idea of The Glass Closet, and her thoughts on the Women’s Final Four sport media coverage. (Note: Motherhood and elite female athletes is a popular blog topic lately..see Maria Hardin’s blog and the Pretty Tough blog)Swoopes and Parker_pregnant

I also think Kane’s interview helps us think through why some female athletes feel it is important to “have it all” (i.e., be sexy, feminine, AND athletic)…which I’ve touched upon in a previous blog about social media.

The interview is less than 5 minutes and well worth your while to hear one of the leading experts on sport media, Title IX, gender, and women’s sports talk critically and share cutting edge research. In the end, as Zirin says, “Sex sells sex“. Sex does NOT sell women’s sports.





What Makes an Effective Coach?….It’s NOT Gender!

9 04 2009

Ok, ok so there were two male head coaches vying for the NCAA-I Women’s Basketball Championship in 2009—the first time since 1988. Kudos to Geno Auriemma and Jeff Walz, obviously they are effective coaches. Why was this media worthy? The media’s coverage and the public interest in this phenomenon seemed disproportionate and rooted in three major beliefs (and probably more, so please weigh in!). First, is it that we are shocked that is has been SO long—over 20 years!—since males have coached two teams to the national championship in the most visible, well attended and popular sports in women’s collegiate athletics (even though men are the majority of coaches in this sport and level)? Or second…is it that we are surprised that at least one female coach has trained her team into the championship for the past 21 of 28 years (click here to see the breakdown)? Did you know that in the history of the NCAA-I Women’s Basketball Tournament that 75% of the winning teams were coached by female head coaches? Or third, are we celebrating the fact that despite the dearth of female collegiate coaches and the host of social, personal and structural barriers they face, females have managed to thrive in women’s basketball? Or… is it a mix of all three? Whichever way you lean, the bigger questions are—why are people surprised, and why is this newsworthy? I think the disproportionate attention reveals some deep seeded beliefs about male and female coaches and their abilities.

One writer on the NCAA.com blog quickly made the link between two male coaches in the final and why female athletes prefer male coaches. That is a BIG leap and is problematic on many levels as fellow Women Talk Sports blogger Megan Hueter points out. I am also reminded of the Women’s Sport Foundation position paper that refutes myths and commonly held assumptions about the female athlete “preference” for male coaches. I won’t recap all the main points which discuss in short, the effects of rarely seeing females in positions of power in all contexts, the belief that male coaches are more competent, and homophobia. I encourage you to read it.

In the end, after UConn and Auriemma cut down the nets, I am certain of a few things. I’m certain that the reason why all the women’s basketball teams in the last 28 years have ended up playing for a national championship is that they had EFFECTIVE coaches—which has nothing to do with the gender of the coach. I’m also certain the players on those teams were talented. I hope, sooner rather than later, that we can move away from talking about the gender of the coach and turn our primary attention to the characteristics that make a coach effective.





Size Matters: Big Girls on the Court

7 04 2009

The Women’s NCAA Final Four basketball games aired Sunday night, April 5. I enjoyed the games, but was distracted by the constant focus on the weight and weight loss of the athletes. Based on water cooler talk and Twitters, many others noticed this trend and were also bothered. Two of the most notable discussions pertained to Oklahoma player Ashley Paris and Stanford’s Jayne Appel—both of whom had “dedicated” themselves in the off season and lost “over 20 pounds”. I lost track of how many times their weight loss was discussed. I know the weight loss of “The Dancing Bear”(aka Draymond Green) a player on the Michigan State men’s team, was also a topic of discussion in the coverage of the men’s tournament…but not nearly to the degree of the female players (Note: when men are “fat” they are often feminized…i.e. “dancing” bear…not “fierce, vicious bear”…but that is a topic for another blog). Why does lopsided gendered commentary about weight matter?

In the case of Appel and A. Paris, sport fans were told the weight loss was motivated by the desire of the athletes to optimize performance and commentators were very quick to attribute improved performance to weight loss. This may be true, however the repeated focus of sport commentary on the weight loss of female athletes also raises concerns and questions.

A constant focus on weight loss may send the message to young girls that in order to be a good athlete, you need to be thin. Thin, lean, disciplined bodies are the feminine norm, while strong, powerful, big female bodies often fall under scrutiny. Young girls who love and play certain sports where big, tall, strong bodies are requisite—like basketball—might be scrutinized (internally and by others). Therefore it is not surprising is that both A.Paris and Appel are “big girls” that play under the basket—positions where you need size and strength. I did not hear any discussion about the weight or fitness of any of the perimeter players. Mixed messages about body size and athletic performance may deter some girls from pursuing sports where strength and size matter, while making “fat” athletic (as some sport scholars call f/athletes) girls feel inadequate or self-loathing.

Decades of research documents sport media coverage more often than not highlights the physical attractiveness of female athletes while downplaying athletic competence. This pattern has consequences. The American Psychological Association states that the high value placed on physical attractiveness can result in girls experiencing reduced cognitive functioning, low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, diminished sexual health, and internalization of stereotypes. Similarly, the National Eating Disorders Association states, “Media messages screaming “thin is in” may not directly cause eating disorders, but they help to create the context within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body. To the extent that media messages like advertising and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful and what is ‘good,’ the media’s power over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong.”

Public commentary about the weight of female athletes by coaches (i.e., in practice, public weigh-ins) or sport media on national television is not productive and might be detrimental to girls—let alone the target(s) of the commentary.

Commentary on weight loss also reinforces the idea that if an individual is overweight (which has a “know it when we see it” quality), she is morally corrupt and irresponsible. F/athletes often create resentment and hostility from onlookers who often assume, are taught, and learn that being “fat” or “big” is bad. These themes played out in the constant comparison between the twin sisters Ashley and Courtney Paris. Ashley Paris was described as a hard working, disciplined player who decided to get herself into shape and rededicate herself to becoming the best she could be. In fact, multiple times the commentators said Ashley would go in the first round of the WNBA draft due to her new found fitness level. Conversely, her twin sister Courtney Paris (known most recently for her promise to pay back her scholarship if Oklahoma did not win the national championship) needed to “lean up” and was implicitly constructed as the less dedicated (i.e., lazy), fat, unfit sister—despite the fact she is a unanimous first round pick. There were many times where talk of Ashley Paris’ improved footwork and her newly fit body was combined with talk of “only if” her sister could also “get fit” and improve her game for the next level. While this may be true, Courtney Paris ALREADY IS a good player! In fact she is the first player—regardless of sex, division, or governing body—to score 2,500 points and record 2,000 rebounds in a career, and the ONLY four-time All-American in women’s basketball. Some might ask, “How did Courtney Paris achieve this elite level of sporting success DESPITE her ‘level of fitness’?” or “How can a fat body be a healthy and athletic body?” C. Paris as a high-performing large female body, challenges assumptions and raises many questions.

Many of my colleagues have written about these issues in depth, I am merely borrowing from their critiques (see the special issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2008 dedicated to the social construction of “fatness” in athletic bodies).

With both Stanford and Oklahoma out of the tournament, hopefully we won’t hear anymore female “f/athlete” commentary in the championship game. It is distracting to say the least.

Because sport can be a powerful tool in negating the effects of an over-emphasis on the physical appearance of females, media portrayals and sport commentary of sportswomen become an important tool for teaching young girls to focus on—and honor—what their bodies (regardless of size) can do versus what they can look like. For the Championship game the sole focus should be on the athletic abilities of these great female athletes—who come in all shapes and sizes.





UConn’s Auriemma Refutes Race Logic in Women’s Basketball

5 04 2009

I’m about to watch the Women’s Final Four and I’m looking forward to it.  During the last couple weeks I’ve watched a lot of basketball—like many of you. When I watch I can’t help myself but watch with a critical eye.  Examining sport with a critical eye is the focus on this blog. I will try to use that critical lens to challenge the common sense ways we think about sport, to raise questions about deeply held assumptions, note inequalities as well as significant similarities and differences, and to point out connections between our love of sport, and the larger social world in which we live, work and play.

When I watch sports I listen to the commentators and the coverage for patterns of gender, class and race logic language that perpetuate inequalities. (I don’t believe sport commentators purposely try to reproduce these patterns, but the effect is the same nonetheless). Tonight the match-up between Stanford and UConn will provide a perfect breeding ground for race logic to flourish—but I hope I’m wrong.

Race logic is the idea that athletic success for White athletes is attributed to intelligence and hard work, while athletic achievements for Black athletes is attributed to toughness, speed, power and athleticism.  Race logic is a way of thinking and web of beliefs that people use to give meaning to the world and make sense of their observations and experiences. As colleague and sport sociologist Jay Coakley writes, “There is no evidence showing that skin color is related to physical traits that are essential for athletic excellence across sports or in any particular sport.” Today, UConn Basketball Head Coach Geno Auriemma stated in an interview race logic does indeed exist in the women’s basketball and that it is “bull” and “unfair”.

In the Final Four in St. Louis, the “smart” and mostly White Stanford team matches up with an “athletic”, predominately Black UConn team. Listen for examples of race logic and comment on them here. The problems with race logic are many, but to name a few: 1) race logic is form of racism, and 2) it is based on stereotypical overgeneralizations, and 3) the athleticism, speed, talent and toughness of Stanford and the intelligence of UConn gets erased. An NCAA Division I athlete has to possess both athletic talent and intelligence to succeed at the highest level of collegiate sport. Geno got it right…race logic is crap. Good luck to all four teams tonight that are filled with young women who are highly talented basketball players AND who are also intelligent.

If you want to examine your knowledge about race and sport, take the White Men Can’t Jump and Other Assumptions About Race & Sport quiz.