Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Unanswered questions

Nearly 40 years after Title IX, we are so accustomed to stories about girls playing on boys’ teams or participating in boys’ leagues that usually these cases go by unnoticed. Once in a while, however, these stories appear on the web because a team or an athlete will refuse to “compete against a girl.”

Earlier this year, a 14-year-old boy forfeited a wrestling match because he found it inappropriate to wrestle against a girl in a tournament. Issues about a girls’ place in sports arise most frequently in the context of the “traditionally masculine” sports, as these are regarded as a dangerous place for girls .

Most recently, a coach of a junior varsity football team threatened to forfeit a game because the opposing team had a girl on the roster. Mina Johnson, who is the first girl to play for her school, the Southampton Academy, decided to sit out so her team can play.

Stories such as this one raise important questions about cultural values and attitudes toward girls and women in sports. These conversations have been going on for decades, fueled by instances such as this football controversy.

The curious dimension of these conversations is the attempt to be progressive by taking a “let her play” approach, yet systemic discrimination is often uncontested. Phrases such as “she was just one of the guys” normalize the male as the athlete and suggest that a girl needs to become a “guy” in order to gain athletic credibility. And this is supposed to be a compliment.

My concern, besides the language, is interpretation of what occurred after Johnson decided not to play.

The news articles that popped up when I Googled Mina Johnson had two themes in common: wearing pink appeared to be a symbol of activism and Southampton Academy's 60-0 win showed that the "good" will ultimately conquer the "evil."

Articles, such as the one found on the Bleacher Report site, point out that Johnson’s team wore pink armbands in support of breast cancer awareness month, and is certainly not the only one on the web which claims that pink also signified support for Johnson. It is unclear if the players actually interpreted it as such, but that hardly matters. The writers are putting two completely unrelated causes together additionally to failing to address a larger issue by reducing it to a mere color.

The articles in my web search also placed heavy emphasis on the score of the game that Johnson sat out. Johnson’s team won 60-0, which apparently proved the point that the other team was wrong to threaten to forfeit. I wonder what would have happened if Johnson's team had lost. What would have the the score "proven" then? Since Southampton Academy "demolished" the other team, as the San Francisco Chronicle blog post put it, the outcome of the game served as an indicator of justice.

So next time there is a case of discrimination, we should just wear pink and let out our frustrations out by beating “those people?”

There are so many questions to ask, yet an armband and domination appear to be satisfying our need for an answer while Johnson sits on the sidelines.

Is that really the best we can do?

-- Dunja Antunovic

Friday, October 07, 2011

Curley Center hosts Breen and O'Connell

The Curley Center hosted a talk between two giants in basketball journalism Wednesday, Oct. 5, as Jim O’Connell of the Associated Press and Mike Breen of ESPN/ABC spoke on campus with students and community members.

The event was hosted by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism and Malcolm Moran, director of the Center and Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society.

Moran set the tone for the evening early on when he screened clips from Breen’s NBA on ESPN commercials. Moran claimed that they showcased Breen’s acting talents, which lightened the mood and paved the way for the playful back-and-forth between Moran, Breen, and O’Connell that followed.

The talk, which drew mostly students, focused on tips and tactics for entering the sports journalism industry. But the casual conversation covered subjects as diverse as the Basketball Hall of Fame, good manners, the importance of handwritten notes, and the NBA lockout.

The most prevalent piece of advice – from both Breen and O’Connell – was to take advantage of every opportunity to make contacts in the business. So, after the final question was asked, about half of the 50 or so people in attendance patiently stood in line just to shake hands and exchange a few words with Breen or O’Connell. I guess they were paying attention.

-Brett Sherrick

Thursday, October 06, 2011

ESPN Body Issue: Progress or backlash?

Yesterday, ESPN released selected images online from the 2011 edition of The Body Issue, expected to appear in a magazine form this Friday.

I awaited the day with curiosity to see what ESPN will tell us this year about “bodies we want.” I’m not sure if these are supposed to be bodies we “want” to consume (i.e.: look at) or bodies we “want” to have - we’ll put that dilemma aside for now.

For the third year in a row, ESPN is offering its consumers nude pictures of athletes with a goal to “celebrate athletes in the condition that they are in,” as editor-in-chief, Chad Millman, said for USA Today.

The arguments regarding what The Body Issue actually does for sports, especially women’s sports, have been split between those who, indeed, find the magazine to empower female athletes by giving them visibility and showcasing the diversity of their bodies and those who view the magazine as yet another outlet for sexualization and objectification of female athletes.

Dr. Nicole LaVoi from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport eloquently outlined the two opposing points of view on this matter in her most recent blog post, which I shall not echo here, but certainly would encourage you to read.

After taking a first look at the pictures on ESPN’s website, I decided to be, at least temporarily, optimistic. At first glance, the pictures do just what they are supposed to: showcase the different shapes and forms of athletic bodies. These images could be interpreted as empowering and celebratory of the hard work put into developing these bodies.

If you read the statements by the athletes who posed for the Body Issue, you will find that they would agree with the above mentioned stance. In fact, it seems to be exactly why they chose to strip down: to show their success, to convey that they feel proud and comfortable in their bodies.

That, right there, might be liberation.

But a second glance begins to raise some concerns.

Among the selected photos on the website, women, more often than men, were in a passive position out of the context of sport, laying on the beach or a bench. Those pictures can hardly, even with an optimistic attitude, be interpreted as empowering.

Ah, I was going to be optimistic. Should have just closed the tab and called it a day after the first look.

Since the online edition is only a preview, a more detailed assessment of the new issue can only occur once the magazine is out and we see the context of these pictures. The problem sometimes isn’t that athletes appear naked in the photos; the problem is that the sexualized advertisements defeat any empowering potential of the photos.

We shall see very soon if ESPN made progress toward the noble intention of truly celebrating athletes’ bodies.

- Dunja Antunovic

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

NFLPA lawyer backs revenue sharing

The key to labor peace in sports resides with the owners, the NFL Players Association longtime general counsel said Tuesday evening.

A “lack of revenue sharing” likely is the reason there was a lockout in the NFL and why there’s currently one in place for NBA, Richard Berthelsen told about three dozen people at a Penn State Dickinson School of Law event in University Park, Pa., where he was the featured speaker.

He said every team should have relatively equal resources, estimating that there is a 2.5 to 1 ratio in revenue for the largest-market teams to smallest-market clubs in the NFL. By improving revenue sharing, the more cash-strapped teams can better compete and be on sounder financial footing.

This would be a better solution than cutting the salaries of the players he represents, Berthelsen said. The NFL owners likely have a different opinion.

The issue of antitrust laws was brought up by professor of law Steve Ross, who moderated the event. Berthelsen said these laws allowed for great gains to be made in terms of player rights and benefits. The discussion in this topic moved into union decertification, which the NFLPA did during its labor battle with the NFL this spring.

Doug Allen, another panelist and visiting professor in the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said a union doesn’t go away but becomes an advocacy organization when it decertifies. Berthelsen added that the move does allow for players to take more aggressive court action against the owners, but there are some risks to players, too.

Players lose union assistance with their grievances and may not have a seat at the table when it comes to pension meetings and about disability funds, Berthelsen said.

He also used this opportunity to attack the notion that the NFLPA isn’t maybe as aggressive in getting protections for its players compared to other unions.

“When you bargain, you prioritize,” he said.

Berthelsen said in systematically chipping away at a power structure in existence long before the NFLPA, there have been notable victories for players in terms of pensions, salaries and health insurance.

Allen, a former NFLPA deputy director as well, took issue with the perception that the union doesn’t do enough to get players guaranteed contracts. He said in most collective bargaining agreements for sports don’t provide for guaranteed contracts. Instead the guarantees are between the teams and the individual players.

--Steve Bien-Aime

Sunday, October 02, 2011

A look at The League of Fans' manifesto for youth sports

The League of Fans, a Ralph-Nader-funded group trying to reform sports culture, recently published part seven of a ten-part “Sports Manifesto,” a document meant to address a number of problems that the League of Fans sees with the win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs trends in the sports world.

The seventh report in the series focuses on youth sports and may be the most foundational to the League of Fans’ efforts as it covers an issue that undergirds the entire sports world.

In the report, Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for the League of Fans and author of the “Sports Manifesto,” focuses on a number of issues surrounding youth sports, including the role of adult egos, the children’s level of enjoyment, the economics of youth sports, and single-sport specialization.

In all cases, the central point is that the priorities that drive youth sports are skewed, from Reed’s perspective. In light of that, he begins his six-part plan to improve youth sports with the following: “Put the Phrase ‘The needs of the kids come first’ In Every Youth Sports Organization’s Mission Statement.”

Reed has some less obvious and more problematic claims and suggestions (i.e. “Children are always seeking a sense of unconditional love from their parents and when it comes to sports participation they seldom get it,” and “Eliminate the College Athletic Scholarship”).

But Reed and the League of Fans’ general mission with this section of their “Manifesto” is an admirable and important one: looking critically at the youth sports culture. This process is especially important at the youth sports level since youth sports feed into collegiate and professional sports, which are addressed in the League of Fans’ other sections of their “Manifesto.”

Reed has yet to address the role of sports media, in the first seven parts of this ten-part series, but like youth sports, sports media is a significant entity that permeates and affects all other areas of the sports culture. It’s hard to imagine an effective reformation of the sports world that doesn’t involve – at least in part – the industry that’s created the enormous amount of attention that the sports world enjoys.

-Brett Sherrick