Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Women's game: Not 'as good' as it was?

A story in the South Bend Tribune today reports that ND women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw, speaking at the annual NACDA meeting, lamented the state of women's college basketball -- ethically speaking -- today. "It's not quite as good as it used to be. I think the pressure to win is affecting people," she said, and later added, "People aren't exactly following the rules" but those who know about it aren't "willing to step forward."
It seems that a logical follow-up question for her is "What specific rules violations to you know about?" She added that there haven't been any "major infractions" in the women's college game of late, but she is convinced an ethics committee is needed.

Monday, June 29, 2009

'Small stories' and Title IX

As fans of women's sports know, the 37th anniversary of Title IX came and went last week with recognition from the White House, Women's Sports Foundation and women's sports advocates but with little mainstream media coverage.
Of course, the passing of the milestone for the law without wider celebration is disappointing -- but not surprising. Title IX still remains controversial, and myths about the law's impact on boys' and men's sports prevail -- especially among young people. Focus groups with teenagers and college students about Title IX, conducted by the Center for Sports Journalism, revealed that these young people shared their suspicion about the law through narratives in which boys and men were victims. Stories about opportunities stripped from male athletes -- whether based on "reality" or admittedly fabricated by participants -- were used to understand the law.
It was surprising to hear these narratives even from young women who have clearly benefited from the law. But these stories, which are simple tales that conform to gender norms, are powerful tools to tear down support for the law.
The answer? We propose that sports feminists everywhere make a concerted effort to inject individual narratives of equality and access for girls and women into the Title IX debate. An example of these is found in the WSF video about Title IX -- but we also need them at lower levels, among middle-school and high school athletes, for instance. These "small stories" of equality and empowerment can -- over time -- change public discourse.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blaming individuals, ignoring cultures

I read two interesting Web features today that both illuminated our cultural shortsightedness about social issues and sports: Blaming individuals while turning a blind eye toward institutional beliefs and practices that underpin problems.
The first was an outstanding column by Dave Zirin answering Howard Bryant's shrill column about Sammy Sosa's steroid use. In his column, Bryant makes a bizarre charge that Sosa's positive steroids test calls for a "special kind of outrage." He is especially hard on Sosa, on players and on "Mr. and Mrs. Fan." He does not -- as Zirin points out -- take to task an institution (and its management) that has tacitly encouraged drug use for decades. Zirin, whose column will undoubtedly be read by less than a third of those who read Bryant's, raises important contextual questions that position the issue as one going far beyond the decisions of select individuals without cultural and institutional encouragement.
The second Web feature I read today was the discussion on WashingtonPost.com's "The League" about gays in the NFL. Not surprisingly, the column that brought the most response was one by a pastor who made overtly homophobic comments -- he was an easy target. Other columns by more progressive writers argued that NFL players were to blame because they hadn't come out or because individual players have "remained silent."
The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they ignore the very real function of men's football and other male-defined sports (such as baseball and basketball) in U.S. culture: defining (ideal) gender roles. As a culture, we expect the demonstration of masculinity in these sports (that's why "You play like a sissy/girl" is still an effective insult hurled by coaches). Ideal masculinity implies heterosexuality. Our cultural definitions of sport, gender (and, subsequently, sexuality) have -- as one columnist rightly argues -- made it easier for us to elect a black man to the presidency than to foster a culture where gay athletes can play high-level team sports without fear.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Game stories by computer program

Students at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism may have just invented another nail for the coffin for sports beat writers. Students there are perfecting "machine generated sports stories" (MGSS), a tool that produces computer-generated sports stories using play-by-play data, box scores and other information. According to the release, the tool "can't replace the sports writer who watches a game, gets quotes from players and does analysis." Many sportswriters in legacy media, however, have been replaced -- so they're moving to independent media online. A post on NewspaperShift (PBS) discusses initiatives by some former newspaper journalists to start their own Web cooperatives, bringing together journalists in different cities to offer full coverage of teams and leagues on a single site. The trick, of course, will be in whether such a model can draw enough advertising dollars.