Sunday, February 24, 2013

Representation of women's sports in blogs needs improvement

Women's sports advocates might have hoped that the blogosphere would offer greater visibility and better coverage of women's sports than traditional media outlets do, but a recent study shatters this utopian ideal.

John Lisec, doctoral student at the University of Minnesota and Mary McDonald, professor of Sports Studies at Miami University (Ohio), published an article that compares the coverage of the WNBA in two blog networks: Deadspin and Women Talk Sports.

Considering the severe underrepresentation and sexualization of female athletes (see earlier posts on this topic), scholars have begun looking at the blogosphere to examine if content outside of the mainstream replicates ideas about gender and sports. Researchers from Penn State's Curley Center for Sports Journalism engaged in this scholarship as well. (See excerpts from a book chapter by Marie Hardin and Erin Whiteside, and excerpts from another chapter by Marie Hardin.)

Lisec and McDonald's article titled "Gender Inequality in the New Millenium: An Analysis of WNBA Representations in Sports Blogs," raises important issues about the ways in which women's sports are represented in the two blog networks. The authors found that Deadspin's coverage of the WNBA is limited and when existent, it disrespects female athletes' athletic abilities.

"Not only does the WNBA receive little coverage, but evidence of trivialization and mockery of the  blatantly suggests women athletes as inferior," the authors wrote (p. 161). Sexist comments and comments that reflect a fear of lesbian athletes were often unfiltered. As such, Deadspin's coverage is actually a backlash rather than progress.

Contributors from the other blog network, Women Talk Sports, were often much more critical both of the representation of female athletes and of the WNBA's marketing strategies that continue to position women in the context of their heterosexual relationships. Thus, these bloggers were found to challenge the ways in which female athletes appear in mainstream media, counter the idea that female athletes are inferior and contribute to the advocacy of women's sports.

Additionally to blog posts that further the women's sports agenda, Lisec and McDonald would like to see a closer interrogation on how issues of race and class intersect with gender and sexuality. The authors pointed out that athletes' race is often completely ignored. The authors are also worried that the proliferation of content results in an isolation of fans, who then go to the sites that they are familiar with rather than looking for alternative perspectives--such as Women Talk Sports--that disrupt gender norms.

It's not quite time yet to celebrate. Although critical views on power relations in sports are out there in the blogosphere, sexist and homophobic ideas that continue to undermine female athletes' accomplishments are also present.

Concerning also is the lack of analysis on racial relations, particularly when it comes to the coverage of the WNBA. As Lisec and McDonald write, "given that the WNBA’s playing force is primarily African American and silence about the articulation of racial, classed and gender politics within representations of the league serve to legitimate the power of whiteness" (p. 175).

Lisec and McDonald's insightful analysis reminds us that even though new media outlets offer opportunities to bring visibility to women's sports, that visibility might not manifest in ways that challenge dominant cultural ideas. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wake up, wake up: The reality of amateurism

The debate around amateurism in college athletics is not new, but a recently published article by Warren K. Zola, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at Boston College, offers some great insights that are worthy of attention.

Zola, just as others have done, points out the flaw in the NCAA's argument which maintains that college athletes are amateurs and should remain just that: unpaid.
"The argument is stale, the facts don't support reality, and the public is recognizing the absurdity of the NCAA's position," Zola asserted "They insatiably embrace commercialism in all facets of intercollegiate athletics except on a single issue -- athlete compensation."

The "NCAA empire," as Zola refers to the governing organization of intercollegiate athletics, has seen an "utter loss of perspective in implementing rules, policies and enforcement" in the last few decades.

The commercial endeavors deter institutions from focusing on the educational aspect and what should be the primary focus of student-athletes' experience: academic advancement.

Taylor Branch's article in the Atlantic, published in October of 2011, makes the case that college athletes, particularly football and basketball---and particularly minority---student-athletes, are exploited by the NCAA and their institutions. Branch called this a total moral and legal failure on the NCAA's part.

Zola takes upon Branch's critique and calls for a reform of intercollegiate athletics.

"The claim by the NCAA that they are protecting amateurism is but an illusion," Zola wrote. "It is time to wake up."

Perhaps the NCAA would set up a fund for student-athletes whose televised performances generate revenue for the schools or perhaps the NCAA could implement a compensation system. Or perhaps there is a different solution.

Either way, Zola's call for change should be noted. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Nine-year-old female football player becomes an inspiration

This year’s Super Bowl will probably not be remembered for the Sam Gordon’s appearance, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hopes that the 9-year-old girl will serve as an inspiration for many—including other young girls. 

Gordon became an internet sensation with a YouTube video her father posted that shows her outrunning the boys in a football game. Since November, when the video was posted, Gordon has been receiving a plethora of media attention, including a feature on Good Morning America’s “Play of the Day.” She also became the first female football player to appear Wheaties box.

Sam Gordon’s story is fascinating for a number of reasons.  For one, there is the Justin Bieber-ish resemblance: young talent, YouTube video leading to commercial success… Minus the perfume line, she’s got it all.

On a more serious note, the celebration of Sam Gordon is remarkable, but should be consumed with caution. Let’s go over the positives first. She is a girl playing in a sport that is notorious for excluding women. The coverage focuses on her athletic accomplishments. The media cite her stats (1,911 Rush yds, 35 TD, 65 tackles), highlight her pace and agility and even offer a commentary of her plays. In a perfect world, all female athletes would be covered the way Sam Gordon is. 

Her confidence also provides a positive example for young girls who strive to succeed on boys’ teams and/or in sports that do not provide equitable opportunities for girls. In fact, Abby Wambach from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, who invited Gordon to training and a game, considered meeting the young double-sport athlete an honor. 

Jane McManus, from espnW, quoted Wambach saying, "Sam is the bi-product of a powerful movement in women's sports. Her family provided her the opportunity to play whatever sport she loved and her story [is] one that I hope will influence many girls to follow their dreams in all sports. I was honored to treat her to a game as she inspires me to do more and be better. All I can say is, thank you Sam Gordon for your impact on all of us."

McManus also reported that Gordon preferred soccer over football and plans on playing football for only a couple more years. Her travels across the country will also presumably end with the Super Bowl attendance and, as McManus said, Gordon will return to her normal life.

Goodell invited Gordon to attend the Super Bowl as a spectator. Currently, that’s about the closest women can get to the field unless they are, of course, cheerleaders. Or unless the NFL has a referee lockout and a female ref just so happens to be available.  

Although Gordon receives kind questions about her future plans with football, I have yet to see an article that actually acknowledges the systemic exclusion of women from football by the leagues, schools and by courts. Title IX does not help much here either because of the contact sport provision—football does not “count.” Despite the occasional participation of girls and women on football teams on different levels, they remain in a token status.

Considering the alarming findings about injuries in football, particularly concussions—even in pee-wee—perhaps Gordon is also smart to plan on a soccer career. (On a concussion note, rising rates for girls in soccer has also received some attention.) But before we get carried away by Gordon’s potential to become a superstar athlete, let us remember that she is only 9 years old. 

Gordon's media exposure, however, is worthy of mention because provides an interesting glimpse into the U.S. sporting culture. On the one hand, the celebratory coverage communicates that girls and women in sport “can” do it. On the other hand, the she can do whatever she wants to rhetoric in a sport like football is close to an illusion. 

I am not sure if advocating for increased opportunities for women in football is be the best idea in light of the rising justified panic about head injuries. But when it comes to contact sports, girls and women are far from inclusion. So, if the strategy is to celebrate girls and women in football, the prevailing structural barriers need more attention. 

--- Dunja Antunovic