Sunday, November 11, 2012

How do female athletes want to be portrayed?

More than 350 scholars gathered from all over the world for the annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in New Orleans, which concluded on Saturday. The conference offered valuable research for those concerned about the relationship between sports media and society. Steve Bien-Aime, my colleague from the The John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, extensively documented some of these discussions on this blog (see earlier posts here).

One main area of interest at NASSS is gender in mediated sport. While much research has been done on representation of female athletes, scholars have recognized the need to examine perceptions of female athletes about the ways in which they are portrayed in the media. Researchers from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport took upon the task to explore how female athletes would prefer to be shown in the media. 

In the study titled "Exploring Elite Female Athletes' Interpretations of Sport Media Photographs: A Window into the Construction of Social Identity and 'Selling Sex' in Women's Sports,” Dr. Mary Jo Kane, Dr. Nicole LaVoi and Dr. Janet Fink (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) identified four ways in which female athletes typically appear in the media and asked female athletes to pick which representation they would prefer. The four representations were: 

     (1)    A woman in an action shot, participating in her sport (competency frame),
     (2)    A woman with some symbol of her sport (such as holding a ball in her hand), but outside of playing field (mixed message frame)
     (3)    A woman completely outside of her playing field with no indication of athletic participation (“sexy/classy lady” frame),
     (4)    A soft pornographic image of a nearly or completely naked woman

The researchers found through focus groups with Division I female athletes that most of them would prefer to be portrayed as the woman in the (1) frame – playing their sport. Some of them wanted to pick two representations as they identified with both the (1) frame and the (2) frame.

However, when the female athletes were asked which photo would bring most attention to their sport, one-third of them said that it would be the soft pornographic image. They picked this based upon the belief that hypersexualized images were more marketable to a male audience. 

Consistently with the Tucker Center’s previous research, Dr. Kane and her colleagues contested the “sex sells women’s sports” assumption, arguing that these hypersexualized, soft pornographic images are counter-productive as they do not foster respect for female athletes and women’s sports. 

According to the study presented at NASSS, female athletes prefer to see themselves portrayed in an athletically competent pose. Ultimately, Dr. Kane and her colleagues argued, only these types of portrayals will lead to change in cultural perceptions about women’s sports. 

For a summary of the “sex sells sex, not women’s sports” argument, see our earlier blog post. To see twitter updates from the conference, go to #NASSS12 @CurleyCenter. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Friday, November 09, 2012

Studies challenge ideas of sport fandom

Two recent studies presented Friday at the annual conference for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in New Orleans challenged the concept of sport fandom.

Antunovic presents during the "Sport and Gender" panel.
Bloggers on women’s sports blogs appear to view fandom differently than common perceptions of fan behavior, said Dunja Antunovic, a researcher with The John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. Bloggers on Women Talk Sports and BlogHer perceive sport often through a participatory perspective rather than an observatory lens, Antunovic said. In other words, instead of following teams many of the bloggers on these websites enjoy sport in terms of well-being and as a livelihood.

Antunovic and her research colleague Marie Hardin analyzed the bloggers’ profiles to gauge their views on sport and fandom. Many of the bloggers were not rabid fans of teams and did not focus on the more aggressive actions of fandom. They were more fans of the sports themselves and in terms of women’s sports, they worked on “bringing visibility” to them, Antunovic said.

Overall, the bloggers saw sport's purpose to be positive, inclusive and build relationships, she said.

But why do women need a separate space to discuss sports? Preliminary research by the University of Tennessee’s Traci Yates can perhaps help to answer this question.

Yates interviewed four women NFL fans to gauge their experiences as fans. A common theme among these women was the fact they had to verify their sports credentials, Yates said. Male sports fans often “tested” the women’s sports knowledge and acted as if they are the gatekeepers on determining genuine levels of fandom. One of Yates’ interview participants expressed embarrassment at this type of questioning and the overall challenge to her quality as a fan.

To that end, another one of Yates’ participants talked about how she had to change her language style to fit in when she watched sports among men. She never talked that way except in that sporting context among men, indicating that perhaps sports fandom is defined by aggressive men.

Both studies also more broadly discussed working to change the definition of fandom; that there should not be “fandom” and then a women’s style of fandom. Rather, the definition needs to encompass a wider segment of the population – one that likely includes the majority of male sports fans, who are people who like sports but are not the intense, face-painting, tribalistic individuals commonly portrayed as the typical sports fan.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Is the regulation of celebrations in sports part of a larger battle?

"Control of the body is a political issue."

San Jose State's Vernon Andrews made that statement during presentations on the "African-American Experience" Thursday at the annual conference for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in New Orleans.

Andrews’ statement was part of a broader discussion regarding his research on how black expression is regulated in sports.

Thursday he focused mainly on the discourse surrounding end-zone dances in football. Why are these dances considered undignified, uncouth or unbecoming of an athlete? Andrews argues that white elites dictate the rules for behavior in social spaces.

During his specific presentation, Andrews introduced statements from media members questioning the celebrations of expressive athletes, with some even criticizing the now famous Tiger Woods fist pump.

Andrews said that there should not be a blind following to the notion: This is the way it’s always been done. Rather, it should be asked: Who did it “that way” first, and why should everybody else adhere to that? Perhaps there is a cultural significance to the behaviors performed by the small percentage of athletes who are expressive, Andrews said.

He also said the power to make the rules for social spaces should not rest with the owners, but with the players and fans instead.

“It’s not the owners’ sport. … It’s all of our sport,” he said.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Analysis of Sports Illustrated yields interesting data on portrayals of women athletes

A new study indicates that representation of women athletes is improving, but there’s a caveat to that point.

The University of Buffalo’s Kiera Duckworth analyzed Sports Illustrated issues during Olympic years and found that the majority of articles portrayed women athletes as “strong, competent athletes.” Her research was presented Thursday at the annual conference for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in New Orleans.

This is a positive signal for women’s sports because it is imperative that women athletes are recognized for their athletic prowess and not being sexualized.

However in her analysis of advertisements in the same issues, Duckworth found that there were differences in representation based on race. White women were portrayed as “the girl next door”, black females were shown predominately in a sporting context and Asian women were sexualized.

Taken together, Duckworth’s research indicates that the focus needs to be placed not just on journalists, but on advertising companies who also create societal representations of women athletes.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Study examines sports journalism, sexual orientation in sport

Sport is often linked to heterosexual masculinity, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for those who do not fit in sport’s perceived mold, especially homosexual athletes. Much research has been done examining sport and sexual orientation in terms of athletes. Ted Kian of Oklahoma State University and the University of Alabama’s John Vincent decided to analyze sport and sexual orientation focusing on the content producers or more specifically sports journalists.

Presenting their preliminary findings Thursday at the annual conference for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in New Orleans, Kian and Vincent found that sports journalism appears to be an area lacking in people who are declared homosexuals.

Kian and Vincent interviewed seven veteran sports reporters, and all seven said they have never worked with other sports journalists whom they know are homosexual. This is not to say these reporters, who have more than 140 years of reporting experience among them, have not worked with homosexuals. They said they just have not worked with sports journalists whom they know are homosexual.

The findings of Kian and Vincent, though not definitive, raise interesting questions about the atmosphere in sports departments and the departments’ inclusiveness.

The journalists Kian and Vincent interviewed also said they believe society is ready for a major star in one the four dominant male team sports to identify as a homosexual. The reporters also said teammates’ acceptance of that individual could take some time.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Does the government need to protect NFL players?

Perhaps the U.S. government can play a role in protecting NFL players.

This idea was posited Thursday by York University’s Tracy Supruniuk during a session at the annual conference for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in New Orleans. The federal government regulates workplace safety through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The rate of injury among football players should potentially put the NFL in OSHA’s sights, Supruniuk said. He cited data that said the NFL players suffer injuries about 15 times more than the average worker.

The concern for players go beyond concussions, Supruniuk said.

“Head injuries are part of a larger problem in football,” he said. Injuries players suffer during their playing careers often have debilitating effects later in their lives, he said.

Whether OSHA has jurisdiction over the NFL is a murky issue, Supruniuk said. One of the questions is whether NFL players are employees or independent contractors, complicating who is responsible for player injuries, he said.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé