Tuesday, December 22, 2009

People Who Use Walkers Need Not Apply

In Denver, taking shots at the Oakland Raiders is as much a pastime as hitting the slopes during the winter. So it came as no surprise that prior to Sunday’s Oakland-Denver game, the Denver Post ran a piece detailing the recent declining success of the Raiders under the leadership of owner Al Davis. And Davis, writes author Jim Armstrong, has lost “it”:

He doesn't look the part these days, but Davis was the driving force behind what once was one of the most successful franchises in sports. No, really, we're not making this up. An 80-year-old man confined to a walker once ran circles around the competition.

Of course, Davis is not a player and doesn’t actually need to “run in circles” to effectively do his job. And it’s not clear how using a walker keeps Davis from success in the front office.
Armstrong’s comments – and a related front-page picture showing Davis using his walker – are part of a bigger cultural narrative that suggests sports are not a place for people with disabilities. It’s especially prevalent in the United States, where images of athletes with disabilities are rarely published or broadcast. The end result is a constant stream of images that define the ideal athletic body: a powerful, heterosexual, able-bodied male. The text and images in the Davis story help normalize this idea, and further suggest that whether it’s on the field or in the front office, sports are reserved for the able-bodied.
--Erin Whiteside

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Women in the Tiger affair: 'Usual suspects'?

Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, in a column today, points out the stark differences in the way Tiger Woods and the women who have been involved in the story of his affair have been considered in coverage.
She writes: "While Woods is being portrayed as complicated and troubled, the women are merely types... The golfer has been called a dog, a liar and worse. But he still gets the benefit of being perceived as an individual."
Givhan suggests that the way the women in the Woods' story have been characterized -- as simply "waitress" or "model" (it doesn't take much modeling experience for women, including his wife, to get this label) -- has been done with a "kind of wink and a nod."
It's as though mere mention of these types of jobs -- commonly associated with women -- are enough to indicate a low moral fiber. As Givhan writes, "For the women connected to Woods, their fairly mundane 9-to-5 gigs serve as a smoking gun of bad behavior."
Evidence of Givhan's observation -- the way these women have become objects in the hand-wringing about Woods ("What do we do about Tiger?") is evident in the celebrity press and the mainstream sports press.
An example of an especially troubling storyline is the suggestion that the women with whom Tiger has been involved "set women back" as a group. Would anyone argue that Woods represents all athletes, much less all men? It's a ridiculous assertion and a lazy, ill-informed broad brush with which to approach this story.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

What The Blind Side is blind to

The film The Blind Side is the most recent sports-themed movie to hit the box office. The film tells the “true” story of Michael Oher, an overweight, black teenager with a tragic background who is taken in by a white, middle-class family, the Touhys, and makes it out of the projects and into the NFL.

The Blind Side’s reviews were mostly favorable. Rotten Tomatoes, a reputable movie review compilation site, included reviews that called the film , “incessantly positive because it's about good deeds and its ripple effects” and “potentially culturally offensive and overly schmaltzy, The Blind Side instead threads an almost impossible needle, pulling off a surprisingly moving and inspirational story of compassion, self-discovery and hope.”

Oher’s story as depicted by the film certainly is a touching one. However, aspects of the film are problematic, as critics have pointed out. Christopher Chambers, a guest columnist for the ColorLines blog, called the film “an obvious appeal to white guilt” and asserts that the Blind Side is simply the latest “feel good” film in which “white characters become immersed in and changed by loving blackfolk.”

Melissa Anderson, columnist for the Dallas Observer, makes a similar argument writing that the movie, “peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of blacks who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.”

These critiques can be taken even a step further. Movies like The Blind Side make an argument, although subtly, that existing institutions meant to help people in Oher’s situation are failures. They promote the idea that private acts of “good” are the only successful means to pull people by their bootstraps and out of poverty. The Blind Side includes scenes of the neighborhood where Oher comes from, a ghetto filled with drug dealers and the threat of violence, a mother who is a crackhead. Oher also has flashbacks of being taken from his mother by (assumedly) social services. A move that, at least according to the film, brought him nothing more than continued misfortune.

So who does save Oher? Well, a rich, white family with charitable hearts, a private (mostly-white) Christian school that gives Oher a chance, a university that gives him a scholarship, and finally the National Football League. Now that’s something whites, especially those who denounce public welfare and social services, can feel good about.

--Erin Ash

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Sports Jobs" and Social Relations

Versus Network will premier a new show tonight named “Sports Jobs.” The host is veteran NFL linebacker, Junior Seau, and the concept is a sporting take on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe.”

Dirty Jobs has gained tremendous popularity, and a good bit of that is certainly attributable to the program’s grime, guts, and goop (I’ll admit, I had a little Dirty Jobs addiction for a while). However, shows like this also serve an important, even progressive function: they shine light on the labor that makes contemporary society “work,” and they provide a glimpse of social relations often hidden behind market exchanges. As the intro to dirty jobs explains:

"My name is Mike Rowe, and this is my job: I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty—hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. Now... get ready, to get dirty."

I think Rowe has done a terrific job humanizing those individuals he works with on Dirty Jobs. He’s treated people with respect in jobs that few of us would jump at the opportunity to take up. In it’s own way, the show provides a place where everyday work can be appreciated and reflected upon.

Sports Jobs, however, will need to navigate an interesting tension between glamour and labor. “UFC cornerman” will put Seau in the best seat in the house and will literally make him part of the action. The job may lend itself more to “cool” than “confronting,” and—unlike many of the occupations on Dirty Jobs—it may be something many viewers would like to do. “Stadium construction” and “arena floor crew” may be just as interesting, but they also provide a great opportunity to connect our experiences as fans and spectators to the often hidden, working-class commitments that make those experiences possible.

In short, Versus has an opportunity and a responsibility. I’m excited to see a side of sports we rarely get to see “up close;” however, I’ll be equally excited if the show facilitates reflection on the social dynamics that make spectator sport possible.

--T.C. Corrigan

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Blogs to Tiger: We will decide how to cover you, not the other way around

The recent Tiger Woods car crash created a media firestorm—and not just in traditional sports journalism outlets. Celebrity and sports blogs were on the story, as well, and the differences in coverage illustrated the changing sports media landscape.
While traditional media outlets continued to report the “official” statement released by Woods’ web site along with an interview given by the local police, gossip and sports blogs like tmz.com, gawker.com and deadspin.com used a litany of unnamed sources to tell a much more sordid story from the beginning, something Woods is clearly not happy about. After all, the golfer is known for taking great lengths to protect his privacy – and his pristine, non-controversial image.
Traditional sports media outlets have a lot to lose in covering an unflattering story about Tiger Woods – they need access to him in order to be successful, and risking that access has a high cost. Given some of the commentary from sports journalists advocating Woods’ personal life be off limits, it’s safe to say they are aware of those costs. But blogs like tmz.com or deadspin.com don’t need such access, and that separation gives them a freedom that other outlets do not enjoy. Journalism purists may not like the very flimsy attitude such blogs take toward ethics and journalistic standards, but one thing is for sure: these new media outlets are changing the way sports stars are covered – not to mention the dynamics and unspoken rules in the sports media industry.
--Erin Whiteside