What I “Won” From Playing Sports

8 12 2010

My first tennis trophy

As part of the National Women’s Law Center’s Blog to Rally for Girls’ Sports Day, I was asked to answer the question, “What did you win by playing sports?”

I would not be writing this blog if it weren’t for sports. I have “won” in nearly every way possible because of sports, I have:

1) a career in the study of sport/physical activity (referred to in academia as Kinesiology), which started with coaching women’s tennis at the NCAA D-III level.

2) a healthy body in which I can still be physically active (knock on wood!).

3) lifelong friends, amazing students and athletes, and influential mentors.

4) developed psychological, physical, social, and emotional skills which have helped me successfully navigate life (so far!).

5) expanded my personal and professional identity in ways that (on most days) I can be proud.

My most memorable tennis trophy

6) cultivated my voice in hopes of making a difference in the lives of others in and through sport.

There is not one part of my life that has not been shaped by sports.

I am in a unique group of women sandwiched between the generation older than me (grateful women who were the first to benefit from the passage of Title IX and knew of the days where opportunities to play sports were to be relished and enjoyed) and the generations younger than me (which includes some entitled girls who have taken those opportunities for granted and never knew how bad it used to be).

In my current role as Associate Director for the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, I am keenly aware of the many positive outcomes of Title IX. Yet, this landmark federal legislation remains fragile and under attack.

Many argue that “we no longer need Title IX” due to the tremendous gains for girls and women in sport (and other) contexts. This simply is not true. In the briefing paper produced by the NWLC it states,

Since Title IX was enacted in 1972, girls have made great strides in athletics.1 But
even today, the law’s work is not done. Girls make up half of all high school students
nationwide but only 41 percent of all high school athletes, which means that schools
provide girls with 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play sports as compared to boys…even for those opportunities the schools do provide, girls’ teams often do not receive equal benefits and services. For example, female athletes are frequently assigned to inferior facilities and disadvantageous times to play. Although national data on the treatment of girls’ sports are not available at the high school level (unlike for colleges, which are required by federal law to report gender equity in athletics data every year), the available data and reports demonstrate the pervasiveness of discrimination against girls in high school sports programs
.

While I have won in so many ways playing sports (trophies included), I now have a responsibility to ensure that girls and women into the future will continue to win.


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A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece

8 09 2010

In a past post I critiqued the NYT Magazine “Women Who Hit Hard” piece on female professional tennis players, and argued the expose was “soft core porn that had nothing to do with tennis”. While it is a strong statement, I stand by it, even when others disagree with me including Laura Pappano of Fairgamenews.com and a blogger on After Ellen. As always I welcome dialogue about this topic, and present here a critical perspective.

Some more specific reasons based on sport media scholarship to back up my claim are below which further expand why I think this piece is particularly problematic.

Image of Kim Clijsters in NYT Magazine p 30-31, August 29, 2010

1. In sport media, scholars have used the term “ambivalence” (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988) to describe how female athletes are routinely marginalized in the media. Ambivalence is manifest when two statements, or a picture and the text, are contradictory and conflicting. One seems positive and flattering, and the other has subtle or overt negative, sexualizing or belittling tones.  The NYT piece is classic ambivalence. The article is quite positive and includes discussion of the depth of the women’s field, the increased global audience and prize money, and how much stronger and more fit female players are today. However, the accompanying slide show and particularly the video are what make the packaged piece ambivalent.

Sam Stosur

The 2 biggest pictures, both two-page  color spreads (dare I say centerfolds?), are the most sexualizing. First, the picture of Kim Clijsters (included here) in gold dust has nothing to do with tennis. You can’t tell she is even a tennis player from looking at the picture. Second, the picture of Sam Stosur (also included here) has her playing in a nude tube top, a piece of equipment she would NEVER play a match in.

In fact last night watching the US Open, Clijsters played Stosur in the fourth round in a great match.  So last night when I was watching the match, I thought to myself “Who is Stosur? I’ve never heard of her or seen her.” So I looked her up and found out she is an accomplished Aussie player. Is wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog and looked at the pics again that I put 2 and 2 together…the woman featured in this picture and the woman I watched last night were the same person! My point is, if we want to increase recognition of female athletes, this is NOT the way to do it. Emerging research indicates that sex does not sell women’s sport (I’ve written about this numerous times in the blog but to read one click here, or click on the “sexualization” blog tag)

The videos are also ambivalent. Yes they feature strong female athletes hitting the ball, which many think is really cool, but the slow motion, ballerina music, and the elongated shot time on the buttocks, crotch, and chest areas make it contradictory and sexualizing. Not to mention the make-up, hair down, and wearing of uniforms that most of the WTA players would dare not play.

2. Sport media scholars, study patterns of portrayals of female athletes, namely if the athlete is in uniform, on the court, and in action. The slides and videos do portray all three…kind of (I’ll expand on this point below).

3. Females athletes get so little coverage from sport and regular media, that when they are covered and it is in sexualized ways, it undermines their athletic achievements. In fact, in a recent report “Gender in Televised Sports” by two well-known sport media scholars, Professors Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky, based on the data they illustrate that network sport coverage of female athletes is at an all time low–only 1.6% which was a decline from 6.3% in 2004!

Therefore, based on the data we rarely see females athletes, and when we do it often resembles soft core porn (or “muscle porn” as one person on the After Ellen blog dubbed it). Even though we disagree on this one, I agree with Laura Pappano’s statement below when she argues in her blog “ We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.”  Unfortunately because we see athletic female bodies in primarily sexualized ways, it will be hard to tease out bodies, fitness levels, and athleticism without objectifying those same bodies. The  NYT Magazine pieces only perpetuate the problem by again linking the female athleticism to sexualized bodies. What we have to get away from is the thinking pattern that female athletes and women’s sport is only interesting and marketable when their bodies are highlighted and sold. Highlight their athletic bodies in a natural setting–on the court (the real court, not a blacked out studio setting), in action (hitting real tennis balls not rolled in glitter), and in uniform (a real uniform in which certain body parts would not fly out or be exposed upon moving or hitting a real tennis ball).

To illustrate my point, imagine a similar NYT expose on ATP male professional players such as Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Federer with their shirts off, chests oiled with gold glitter stuck to their muscles, glammed up, hair spiked, wearing super tight and short tennis shorts, lips slightly parted, hitting balls rolled in chalk or glitter to the same music. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

I invite further dialogue and counter arguments to this blog. What do you think?





What Do Fans of Women’s Sport Want to See?

25 01 2010

Leading up to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver the US Women’s National Hockey Team has been training here in Blaine, MN and going on tour to play exhibition games to prepare. I had the opportunity to support the team and watch two games over the winter break. While at the game I saw the program (Thanks to The Good Dr.!) and immediately felt my blood pressure rising. This program, which was being sold at both the games I attended, looks nothing like the team’s online media guide. The program starts out appropriately as you can see with the Team Roster picture. As you flip through the program, you see pictures of the team in “street clothes” and get a synopsis about “The Player” and “The Person” in the “Get To Know ‘Em” centerfold section (scroll down to see pictures of program pages). Why is this problematic?

For decades sport media researchers have demonstrated that female athletes (compared to their male counterparts) are much more likely to be pictured out of uniform, off the ice/court, and in poses that depict femininity and/or sexiness. Where are the pictures of the team IN THEIR UNIFORMS and IN ACTION? These women are some of the best female hockey players in the world!

Marketing the athlete-person duality of female athletes has become the default strategy for a majority of sport marketers in the last five years. Where did this strategy come from? Who decided this was the status quo? Is it based on research pertaining to what is effective in marketing female athletes and women’s sport? Is this what fans of women’s sport want to  see? I want to to see the evidence! Some of the evidence that I and colleagues have collected indicates that fans of women’s sports and female athletes attend because of the athleticism, not because the athletes are cute “girls next door” or look good in a sundress.

So here is my question: Are the “Get To Know ‘Em” pictures, what fans want to see or have fans been sold these images so they do not know any different?

My logic: If marketers continually pitch the athlete-person duality, this is what fans see and expect, and it becomes the norm, so fans think they like this approach. But what if consumers only saw images of female athletes IN ACTION, IN UNIFORM, DOING WHAT THEY DO BEST? Would that become the expected and the norm? I really want to know when and who decided that to successfully market elite female athletes that a “personal”/ human interest component has to be included. It is also not coincidental that a good portion of the “Team Tidbits” in the bottom picture below reinforce very feminine, traditional roles for women.

NOTE: In the Qwest Tour program, in which these 3 images were taken from,  I counted only 4 action shots in the entire 37 pages program.

RELATED NOTE: Do fans really want to see pictures of tennis player Venus Williams’ flesh-colored underwear? I would argue they do not, but when the media covers and makes it “newsworthy” then fans and general sport consumers are told this is important and begin to pay attention. I am wagering that more people know about V. Williams’ underwear than how she is playing in the Australian Open. Newsflash: female tennis players have been wearing “flesh colored” underwear for years. However, when the “flesh” color matches that of an African American skin tone it becomes international news.

US Women's National Hockey Team Roster page

US Women's National Hockey Team "Get to Know 'Em"

US National Women's Hockey Team Tidbits





A Tribute to a One-of-a Kind Servant-Coach

13 12 2009

Me with Steve "Wilk" Wilkinson

Last night I attended a tribute to my mentor, friend and tennis coach, Steve Wilkinson. I’ve written about Wilk in previous blogs recounting his accomplishments and 3 Crown Philosophy. I was honored to be able to say a few words about Wilk on behalf of the Gustavus women’s tennis program. I’m sharing those words with you in this blog. There are not many opportunities in life to be in a room with so many people who are such an important part of your life. I was surrounded by many of my tennis mentors and closest friends–friends I made through sport.  As I sat there and listened to the words and song of others, I felt truly blessed and even more committed to pursuing my life’s work–making a difference in the lives of others, especially girls and women, through sport.

A Tribute to Steve “Wilk” Wilkinson

December 12, 2009, Nicole M. LaVoi

Good evening. I was invited to say a few words on behalf of the women’s tennis team, an opportunity for which I am grateful, humbled and honored. In preparation for tonight I solicited stories and thoughts from my teammates about how Wilk influenced their lives, so I’ll be speaking from their perspectives, as well as my own.

In reminiscing and in reading their comments, perhaps it is not astonishing the similarities between the lessons we have learned from Wilk, both on and off the court, and how we have integrated those teachings into our adult lives. I would guess much of what I say tonight will resonate with many of you.

Although Wilk was not by title my official coach or the coach of the women’s team—many of us saw him as our coach. He was responsible for my recruiting class in the interim between Dave Pettengill and Scott Novak.  Some might argue that Wilk played a large part in crafting the only national championship team of the women’s program—as the senior leadership of that team were all recruited by Wilk. I clearly remember the day during my senior year, I was intent on attending St. Ben’s, when Wilk called and invited me down to visit Gustavus just to “check it out.” Truth be told, I agreed because I could get out of a day of school!  Little did I know that call would shape the trajectory of the rest of my life.

It has been a very rewarding experience to think about Wilk’s influence on my own life and to discuss it with teammates. We are not given many moments, nor do we make the time, to reflect in meaningful ways on the people and events we hold so dear. I know that I would not be the person I am today, nor be striving to make a difference in the lives of children, their families and communities through sport, if it weren’t for Wilk.

Wilk has the ability to see the best and the full potential in all people. I would like to think that someday I might become the woman that Wilk saw within the immature, win at all cost, feisty competitive 18 year old whom he was patiently trying to teach how to volley on a cold April day in St. Cloud over 20 years ago. One of my most vivid memories of  Wilk was a 10 second exchange my freshman year. We were loading into the tennis van for an away match, and I was carrying a pillow with a pillow case that said “Love means nothing to a tennis player.”

For me it represented annihilating an opponent 6-0, 6-0, something at that time I took great pleasure in. Wilk saw it had that disappointed look on his face…you all know that look…and said, “I wish you wouldn’t ever use that again or bring it on tennis trips”. Of course at the time, it made me want to bring it all the more. That exchange always bothered me but it wasn’t until years later that I finally got it…love means everything to not only a tennis player, but human beings. I’m sure many of us, much later have finally “got” the lessons Wilk was so patiently trying to teach us in our youth.

Wilk is grace personified. Mary Sutherland Ryerse shared that a former pastor defined grace as “undeserved kindness”… which Wilk has consistently shown and modeled for us all. My teammates all offered examples of Wilk consistently going out of his way to help, teach, offer support or listen…win or lose, whether you were sportsmanly or not, were in the starting line up or not, got an “A” or failed a class, or if you got the job or not.

Linnea Carlson shared a story I think is an exemplar: She writes, “Our senior year we had finally beat Kenyon in the Midwest Regional final, 5-4, which was expected.  When Kendall Larson and I ran into Wilk at the bubble the next day and told him the news, he got a huge grin on his face and hugged us both…twice.  When I retold this story to a member of the men’s team, the player said, “If you had lost, he would have hugged you three times.”

Certainly our days with Gustavus Tennis were filled with goodness, great memories, gratitude, giving of self, giving full effort, goals with a focus on what can be controlled, and gifts of friendship and community….and of course, much grace.  I know in my own life a day does not go by without the Serenity Prayer—which I learned from Wilk. Whatever situation I’m in, the Serenity Prayer always applies. I joke with my students that all you need to know about the entire field of sport psychology can be summarized by the Serenity Prayer.

Wilk, you taught me that having a positive attitude and seeing the glass as always half full is not only a choice, but a skill that can be learned. Your unwavering commitment to doing the right thing for the right reason and keeping a positive outlook, even in the most difficult of circumstances, has shaped our character in a world that rewards achievement at the expense of others, short cuts, and instant gratification. I suppose this is why when Wilk asks you to do something, and we all end of saying “yes”…it is because we know it’s the right thing to do!

John Gardner, an American activist, reformer, educator and leader…a man much like Wilk, said “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are” and Wilk you are certainly one of those people. You have taught us that is it us alone who can put the unique ingredients of our lives together in a way that leads to dignity, integrity and meaning…and more importantly if we accomplish this feat, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

Wilk, your impact surely echoes, and spreads exponentially in immeasurable ways. To give a visual (like this rock engraved with the word Serenity which I keep in my office next to my computer) I would describe you as a rock, our rock… cast into a calm lake and your impact as the concentric circles that emanate from your core and reverberate infinitely outward to places unknown.  It is my wish, and the wish of many of us from the women’s team, that for you this celebration gives you at least a glimpse of what you have meant, and will continue to mean to so many, myself included. Thank you.





A Pattern Has Emerged

8 10 2009

I’m not a big fan of ESPN The Magazine, as I’ve written about their cover photos and coverage of women’s sport in a previous blog….or should I say LACK of coverage that focuses on athleticism, rather than being feminine and sexy.

Serena ESPN mag_Oct 2009

Their latest series of 6 covers for the October 19, 2009  “The Body Issue” has Serena Williams posing naked (thanks for the head’s up EH). It seems to me a recent pattern has emerged.

Here is the pattern:

1) A Black female athlete performs well and dominates opponents,

2) During the course of competition she acts outside prescribed gender norms (i.e., looks like a man, yells and argues with a referee),

3) Subsequently she is grilled and sanctioned by the public and the media,

4) Therefore she has to recover by performing versions of the female athlete apologetic by literally apologizing like S. Williams, and/or highlighting heterosexy femininity on the cover of  magazines. I’m talking about first, Caster Semenya and now Serena Williams (see picture here).

Underlying sport media portrayals of highly talented Black female athletes are racism and sexism. I suppose my blog title should really read…A Pattern Has REemerged.

NOTE: If you want to see the making of The Body Issue and gain insight to the ‘issue’ (and see a whole lot naked) click here.





Who Knew Tampons Could Be So Funny?

30 09 2009

About a month ago I was watching TV and saw a strange commercial for Always, a feminine pad hygiene product, with the tag line “Have a happy period” with a woman dressed in white pulling a pristine pad out of a box, like as in a magic trick. I couldn’t find that ad but did find a French counterpart in which…well just watch it.

happy period
The themes in the Always ad campaign connote freshness, cleanliness, and relaxation. All words that women think of while menstruating (not).According to a New York Times piece women who use pads versus tampons have a different attitude about their periods. Which leads me to….

Yesterday I was alerted by @mhueter to a TV ad for Tampax in which Serena Williams takes on Mother Nature in a tennis match. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if it was hysterically funny and clever or super sexist. After watching it a few times, I’m going with the former. I love this ad! I love it because it uses humor to connect with women, rather than try to sell the idea of sanitary freshness regarding the process of menstruation (a rather mythical idea).

The Tampax ad uses strength, athleticism, physical activity, trash talking, and female athletes to promote a very different message to girls and women, than do the Always ads. The Always ad closely mirrors outdated gender stereotypes which were packaged and sold to women in the 1950’s, while the Tampax ad is a contemporary re-brand that females can do anything…and are not slowed down or marginalized by menstruation. I’m sure others out there find the video offensive, or as one colleague said “insipid”, but I’m sticking with funny. Sometimes one must put her critical lens aside and lighten up. Excuse me while I go watch it again. Game, Set and Match to Tampax 6-0, 6-0.





Social Media & Sport Apologies

14 09 2009

Discussion in the Tucker Center this morning was very lively around the topic of Serena Williams’ U.S. Open semifinal outburst, fine, and subsequent apology via her blog and Twitter account (also see picture here).

serena apology

I have a few other thoughts on Williams’ ill-timed and ill-fated outburst.
1. From a sport psychology perspective one cannot control the calls made by the umpire or referee, regardless of if a “bad” call occurs on match point or the first point of the match. Let it go. An athlete can only control his/her reaction to the call. This particular reaction showed a lack of mental toughness. In her blog Williams wrote, “We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.” I’m sure it will also make her an even better competitor than she already is.

2. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media? Even though Serena lost control of her emotions on the court, she took control of her “brand” off the court by quickly posting apologies using social media tools. It left us wondering if these tools existed when John McEnroe was in the heyday of his outbursts (which were much more frequent, prolonged and arguably egregious), would he of used social media to apologize? (NOTE: In a Google search for “John McEnroe apologizes” I found one result for apologizing for bad behavior, and one story of an apology for bad play.)

3. Then it got me thinking how race and gender intersect with the outburst issue. Do we expect female athletes to apologize more frequently than we do male athletes? We certainly expect female athletes to act “ladylike”, refrain from grunting loudly, not throw tantrums or have outbursts. How much of the criticism leveled against Serena Williams has to do with the fact she is African American? Would the public react similarly if the outburst came from a White female tennis player–for example Maria Sharapova? After perusing one of my favorite blogs–After Atalanta–it seems I am not the only one who noticed or is thinking about these issues. What do you think?