Thursday, November 26, 2009

Caster Semenya, the gender binary, and a case for the ‘sport continuum’

If you’re only vaguely familiar with the troubling case of sex-testing in sport and the Caster Semenya case, a new article in The New Yorker by Ariel Levy may offer the most incisive, comprehensive look at the case and the issues around it. Levy masterfully underscores the issues of racism and the power of the gender binary that underpin the tragic events around an 18-year-old South African runner.
In a Q-&-A about the article on the New Yorker Web site, Levy drives home her point about the myth of the gender binary -- and the ways this case has clearly upset it. She writes, “I think what has really got people worked up in the Semenya case is gender, not fairness. I think the idea that ultimately the boundary between male and female is porous is deeply destabilizing … our whole world is organized around gender.”
In the article, Levy addresses the problem – made abundantly clear by the Semenya case -- that the gender binary (defining male and female as rigidly defined, oppositional categories) presents for organizing sports. It has worked masterfully at reinforcing a hierarchy that has positioned women as the athletic underclass. But it’s not truthful, realistic or fair.
This is a case that has been made by sports sociologists for decades. Perhaps the most thought-provoking alternative to understand women and men in relationship to sports has been suggested by Mary Jo Kane, who in 1995 wrote about what she called the “sport continuum” – where we allow fluidity in our understanding of women and men and we also understand that men and women individual may outperform one another and possess varying degrees of strength and speed.
Accepting sport and gender on a continuum would force us to re-organize sport – a Herculean task, as Levy points out in her well-written piece. But as the Semenya case demonstrates: the gender binary as an organizer for sports simply doesn’t work – and the results are unfair and even devastating for the most vulnerable. -- Marie Hardin

Monday, November 23, 2009

Re-framing Title IX

Women’s sports blogs have been abuzz recently with the news that an Alabama softball coach has filed a Title IX complaint against Mobile County schools. In the complaint, coach Tyler Murray alleges that girls sports are denied access and facilities given to the boys football team and also questions the extra summer pay given to football coaches. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the news coverage of this complaint, given the opportunity it provides sports journalists to address the unquestioned cultural superiority of football.

We have argued that in Title IX news coverage, most mainstream news outlets agree with the law’s underlying basic premise: everyone deserves equality and justice. In fact, in our analysis of Title IX op-eds written by national newspapers over a recent three year period, not one opposed the law.

Good news, right?

But even while supporting the idea of Title IX, the op-ed authors in our analysis often described sports as a space naturally owned and defined by men. As one stated, it is time for boys to “share, not surrender, their field.” Narratives within arguments touting the law’s righteousness also saw women as naturally less interested in sports, allowing the writers to develop an argument that essentially positioned Title IX as right and just but not really needed. Why should we dedicate equal resources (and take away from men who naturally deserve them) if there isn’t equal interest and aptitude among women?

In order for opinions on Title IX to change in a way that benefits women’s sports along with “minor” men’s sports, advocates must go beyond simply arguing for gender equality. Suggesting only that women and men deserve equal money does not challenge fundamentally patriarchal ideology that undermines the logic of Title IX. Rather, we must speak about Title IX and sports in ways that disrupt troubling taken-for-granted notions of sports, like the unquestioned supremacy of football in our culture or the idea that boys and men are naturally suited for sports.

Supporting equality is still critically important, but only part of the necessary rhetorical equation. And unless new frames enter the debate, Title IX will continue to be viewed as something that is good in theory but illogical in practice.

-Erin Whiteside

Monday, November 16, 2009

College football promotes military values

When Maryland’s star receiver Torrey Smith caught a pass in the second quarter of the Terps’ game vs. Virginia Tech Saturday, fans saw the familiar No. 82 streak past his defender for a 21-yard gain.
Above that No. 82, though, was not “SMITH,” but the word “COURAGE.”
Maryland’s players were wearing special military-style uniforms as part of a promotion for the Wounded Warriors project, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans transition to civilian life. The uniforms, also worn by South Carolina’s players in a separate game, featured camouflage sleeves and various military ideals printed on the back, such as “DUTY,” “COMMITMENT” and “COUNTRY.”
In some ways, the promotion was similar to the WBCA Pink Zone campaign, which raises awareness about breast cancer with the help of various college women’s basketball teams who wear pink uniforms and shoes on a designated “Think Pink” day.
What’s different is that the pink uniforms and shoes relate directly to the organization. The uniforms worn by the football players, however, promoted military ideals and gave no hint to fans or media members about the actual Wounded Warriors project. In fact, the Wounded Warriors project has its own set of core ideals, such as “FUN,” “INTEGRITY” and “INNOVATION,” but those words were not on the jerseys.
The Wounded Warrior project is not about blind commitment to country, but about helping soldiers re-adjust to life after perilous combat experiences. As scholar Michael Butterworth argues, such promotions are seemingly “innocent” displays, but position the United States’ military as good and just, while at the same time silencing critique of American military policies. In the case here, media accounts were more about uplifting stories from the battlefield and less about the problems soldiers face in returning from war, such as high rates of suicide or post-traumatic stress syndrome. As the Associated Press wrote:

[The Terps' Matt] Grooms spent six months in Kuwait outfitting and fixing transport trucks in Iraq. He was nearly killed by a virus and was rattled by an American missile that exploded too close to camp. Still, he said it was “the best four years I’ve had.”

No one will argue with the value of the Wounded Warrior project. And considering various reports about the struggles soldiers face in readjusting to civilian life, it’s clearly a badly needed program in need of visibility and support. Too bad the promotion forgot to focus on the soldiers who need that support.
-Erin Whiteside

Friday, November 13, 2009

Media execs, Aresco and Bergofin talk at Penn State this week

This was a tremendous week to be a Penn State student if you’re interested in the sports media industry. On Wednesday, Penn State’s Center for Sports Business and Research hosted a talk and Q&A by Versus Network Senior VP, Bill Bergofin. And today the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism hosted a “conversation” and Q&A with Executive VP of Programming for CBS Sports, Michael Aresco. Here’s a quick run-down of the two talks.

Aresco began his lecture by outlining facets of his job, including negotiations, dealing with the press, and the pressure of production and programming decisions. He then jumped into a particularly well-informed philosophical discussion concerning the relationship between sports and society. Drawing on a variety of thinkers, he pointed out that sports provide a “framework for fairness” and “have a fundamental linkage with morality”—they’re “contributors to society’s values, both good and bad.”

This provided a nice launching point for a discussion of the state of college sports. Pulling from work by Paul Gallico, Aresco noted that “big time” college sports didn’t have to develop the way they did. He said that the level college games are elevated to is not inherently bad, but that issues like the facilities arms race and the struggles to keep the student in student-athlete aren’t going away; “If you continue to deny it then you’re going to have issues,” said Aresco. “You need to deal with it.”

Aresco then provided some perspective on the state of broadcast rights, the demand for sports content, and the impact of new media on the sports media landscape. Broadcast networks, he pointed out, don’t have the benefit of cable’s dual revenue sources in subscription and advertising. For the broadcast networks, this has made revenue from new media offerings an imperative area of focus. He provided the network’s shift from subscription to ad-based March Madness On Demand as a great example of the business models that are being worked out in the online environment.

Aresco complimented the questions articulated by the audience during the Q&A session. On the topic of a college football playoff, he discussed the various economic factors that would have to be considered—most importantly the impact of a playoff system on college football’s season-long interest. On the role of the media in shaping the norms and values of sports, Aresco said that CBS is “very conscious of our role as custodians of the games we produce, especially at the college level.” He closed by commenting on the decision of CBS Sports to distribute SEC football on the national level (rather than regionally), noting the interest in regions outside the South and the network’s savings on rights purchases and production.

On Wednesday, Bill Bergofin of Versus discussed the marketing strategies surrounding the 2006 rebranding of Comcast’s Outdoor Life Network as Versus, as well as the differentiation Versus has tried to create between its offerings and ESPN. The senior VP focused on the network’s attempts—successful, judging from Versus’ growth—to tap into cultural and economic currents pertinent to its target demographic. When the economy and the management class were booming and competitive in 2006, Versus was positioning itself and its content as hyper-competitive and testosterone-driven (not a stretch when you’re pushing bull-riding, NHL hockey and cage fighting). With the financial crisis, Bergofin indicated a need to maintain their image, but to recognize the search for meaning and personal fulfillment in uncertain times. A series of entertaining promotional spots for the Network reflected these differing perspectives.

Bergofin was critical of ESPN's treatment of sports. Drawing from blog posts, he suggested that sports fans are tired of ESPN's emphasis on negative stories (Versus doesn't have news and information offerings, so it's not confronted with the same struggles over news and entertainment at ESPN). Further, he described ESPN as the "McDonalds or Walmart of sports", pointing to their massive expansion in channels and offerings. Ultimately, for Bergofin, the hope is to provide the depth of sports at Versus' to match ESPN’s breadth.

Again, this Q&A session was well-informed, and Bergofin even offered some speculation on the impact a potential Comcast/NBC deal might have on Versus. He said that the NBC Sports connection would bring tremendous assets to Versus, but that the slow process of major media mergers means that noticeable changes at the network wouldn’t be apparent for close to two years.

On new media, Bergofin indicated that he hoped Versus could take a different direction than the news and information style familiar on most major sports media sites, perhaps toward more original programming. Depth of experience, again, rather than breadth.

--T.C. Corrigan

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reebok to women: Get the body that men want

In a new series of provocative ads, Reebok tells women in no uncertain terms what other apparel companies often only suggest under the guise of empowerment: that exercising in the company’s new shoe will make them more sexually desirable to men. One features only a shot of a woman’s breasts “talking” about the woman’s now toned backside -- which came courtesy of the shoes. The slogan: “Make your boobs jealous.” Another features a woman talking about the shoes, only to have the camera leave her face when she bends over to lace them up and pan down to her backside, akin to a pair of roving male eyes. Focusing only on a woman’s breasts, or positioning the camera to resemble wandering eyes are what media scholars call the camera’s “male gaze,” a concept that suggests patriarchal power relationships are reproduced through mediated images. In Reebok’s ads, women are reduced to a series of body parts and rewarded for appealing to the camera’s eye. The (male) camera tells women that exercising will make them objects of male desire. When women began playing organized sports in the early 1900s, critics said sports made women too manly; today Reebok tells women that exercise will make them more desirable. The message may be slightly different, but the end goal of appealing to men is the same. These new Reebok ads, then, are nothing new at all. Rather, they are part of a centuries-old narrative that polices women’s bodies to the benefit and pleasure of men, while denying women a space to find their own motivation for engaging in sports and other forms of exercise.
-Erin Whiteside

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Images that "sell" to young female athletes

Researchers at Bowling Green State University, the University of Memphis and the University of Iowa presented results of a study during the annual NASSS conference today suggesting that adolescent girls involved in sports are generally attracted to images of sportswomen that are athletically oriented -- not those that emphasize traditional femininity. The study, led by Vikki Krane(BGSU) and Sally Ross (Memphis), has implications for the marketing of women's collegiate sports toward the girls these programs may someday try to recruit: active, sports-focused images may be the most effective in attracting girls to sports events and athletic participation. The marketing materials (posters, programs, guides) often used for women's collegiate programs now often downplay these types of images in favor of more traditionally "feminine" photos of athletes.

Net Neutrality and Online Sports Media

With the FCC entering a public comment period on the subject of Network Neutrality, I’ve been thinking, “What would a repeal of Network Neutrality mean for online sports media?” If you’re not familiar with the concept of Net Neutrality take just two minutes to watch this video from SavetheInternet.com (it’s actually kind of entertaining).

So, let’s imagine--without the principle of Net Neutrality--how a telecom company might make bandwidth decisions concerning specific content. Take the Internet provider Comcast and their ownership of Versus.com. Were the guiding principle of Network Neutrality to be removed, Comcast could restrict the bandwidth for consumers accessing sites that are competitors of Versus. Consumers using FOXSports.com, for instance, might have their bandwidth reduced to a level that would make its multi-media offerings incommensurate with Comcast-owned sites.

However, the telecom industry is oligopolistic, meaning that consumers are limited in their choice of services to just a few large corporations. The telecom companies know better than to engage in cutthroat (i.e. genuine) competition. Restricting consumer access to a competitor’s Web site would only result in the same being done to their own. Instead, as an oligopoly, they’d prefer to squabble for market share and erect huge barriers to entry. By doing so they can actually secure near-monopoly-level profits while keeping up the fa├žade of competition (think: Oil, Health Insurance).

Unfortunately for the sports media consumer (not to mention consumers of other cultural content), such arrangements often result in a lack of diverse content. Mainstream media outlets and major sports leagues would be able to leverage their large audiences and associations with telecom companies to make sure that the online experience for their digital offerings remains far superior to niche or marginal sports media outlets and organizations, including those of women’s and Olympic sports. A further possibility is that access to these niche sites could be walled off and restricted to subscription access. It’s one thing for a niche sports site to choose to direct its readership toward subscription-based content. It’s quite another thing if the telecom companies control the subscription system, access, and resulting revenue.

Sports and sports media are more democratic (small d) because of the Internet and the principle of Net Neutrality. The FCC should act in the public interest to promote competition, diversity and localism by standing behind Net Neutrality. This is an important protection for sports fans, sports media outlets, and sports organizations... not to mention businesses, organizations, consumers and citizens.

To get more involved in this issue, check out SavetheInternet, this informative update on the subject by Daily Kos, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, this FCC Blog where you can weight in on the matter...

--T.C. Corrigan

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Flagging the NFL's homophobic culture

Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson recently made news when he used a homophobic slur in reference to his coach in several posts to his twitter account. The NFL is hardly considered “gay friendly,” and Johnson’s tweets are indicative of an ongoing homophobic culture in the league. To the NFL and Chiefs’ credit, Johnson was suspended for one game. However, as the Kansas City Star’s Randy Covitz writes, the reprimand is vague and notes only that Johnson was suspended for conduct “detrimental to the team,” leaving it unclear whether he was suspended for the slur or criticism of the coach. The NFL and the Chiefs had the opportunity to bring the problem of homophobia in the NFL to the forefront of public dialogue, but chose not to; their obscure language denied a voice to a persistent and troubling problem within the league. When team and league officials fail to acknowledge even the most overt gay-bashing, the persistent and dangerous homophobic culture remains unchecked . No one thing will change the hostile climate, but until a voice is given to the problem, we wonder if it’s reasonable to expect current gay players to come out of the closet.
-Erin Whiteside

Monday, November 02, 2009

Media coverage of Serena Williams' outburst emphasizes gender norms

Serena Williams, in her outburst at the U.S. Open, stepped outside the box of what is considered acceptable behavior for female athletes, according to the most recent report from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. We analyzed articles from both traditional and new media sources to answer questions about the way Williams was portrayed in coverage of her outburst. The most interesting findings concerned comparisons between Williams and other male and female athletes. We found that although Williams was more often compared to male athletes, comparisons between her and other female athletes were more likely to be negative. Further, in articles that did compare Williams negatively to other female athletes, Kim Clijsters' (her opponent in the match who went on to win the Open) motherhood was more likely to be mentioned. One Yahoo! Sports article went as far as to call Clijsters the Open's "silver lining" after the "stain" left by Williams' outburst.

This finding is, sadly, unsurprising. Gender norms are valued in our society, and while we might be able to stomach a male behaving “violently” during a sports match, females, even female athletes, are “supposed” to be -- above all -- women. Society needed a Kim Clijsters, a mother and wife who exemplifies our ideals of femininity, to put us at ease after the Williams outburst.

This is not to argue that Williams’ behavior was acceptable or undeserving of punishment. Any athlete who threatens an official should be rebuked. However, if it had been a male athlete, perhaps an opponent of Roger Federer (who recently become a dad), would the media be mentioning Federer’s fatherhood in negative commentary about the male offender?

Posted by Erin Ash