Wednesday, March 24, 2010

UConn women vs. a top high school boys team: Who would win?

My former colleagues in Pittsburgh are at it again. The “question of the week” on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Varsity Blog is this: If the top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut women’s basketball team played the Mt. Lebanon High School boys’ team, which has been ranked in the top 10 nationally this season, who would win?

They had a similar debate in the mid-1990s. When the Penn State women’s team was ranked No. 1, the sports staffers debated whether the Lady Lions could beat the boys’ team at Shaler High School. Among the Shaler players was eventual NBA first-round draft pick Danny Fortson.

I always made the case for the women—superior teamwork, pinpoint passing, less ego involved, etc. Did I think they would win? Honestly, I didn’t know and I didn’t care.

But the question bothers me; it always has. I know such debates are part of sports, and it’s fun to compare teams from different eras, argue over which players are best. This debate, however, seems silly at best, sexist at worst. Check out the poster who noted that "men have no time of the month" and added, "that can lead to a real 'off' day."

Does anyone expect that a top-ranked welterweight boxer could beat a top-ranked heavyweight boxer? Even if that welterweight is Oscar de la Hoya? No. But fight fans don’t think that way. They rank the all-time greats “pound for pound,” virtually leveling the playing field.

Perhaps that explains the poll results as of Wednesday evening. Sports writer Mike White writes, “There are over 500 people who already have voted on this subject. It's shocking to me that 75 percent say the Connecticut women would win. Wow. Hard to believe. Maybe it's just me but when the other team is a lot bigger, stronger, quicker, faster and shoots just as well as the other team, who do you think will win?”

On the court? If the Mt. Lebanon boys are bigger, faster and well-coached, they'll probably win. But does that matter? Is that the way to determine who’s best? “Pound for pound,” I’ll take the UConn women any day.

-- Lori Shontz

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sports Information Divided Along Gender Lines

As the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments start this week, CBS and ESPN, respectively, will air a steady stream of segments on various coaches and teams. A sports information director (SID) for each team will help the media coordinate interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and those ubiquitous promo segments we will come to know through the course of these tournaments. On the men’s side, few of these SIDs will be women, part of a bigger trend in the sports information industry, according to a recent study by researchers at the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism appearing in the current issue of the Journal of Sports Media.

Sports information directors handle media relations for college athletic departments and are often assigned to work with specific teams. Using a survey of 775 sports information directors across the nation, the study showed that work assignments were sharply divided along gender lines. In particular, men composed 86 percent of all the SIDs in charge of working with football and 79 percent of all those assigned to men’s basketball. Conversely, the top seven sports most often assigned to women are women’s sports: women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, softball, women’s soccer, women’s tennis, women’s cross country and women’s outdoor track.

We applied Joan Acker’s theory of gendered organizations to sports information as an industry to suggest that the practices and norms of the organization reproduce socially constructed gender differences as a natural component of sports. Biologically, women are just as capable of working with football or men’s basketball, but the implicit idea that men are better able to handle these “tough” and high-profile sports, regulates the division of labor in this industry.

Furthermore, in the current sports media climate, sports like softball, women’s soccer and the like simply do not receive the exposure and visibility of a men’s basketball or football. If women are relegated to spaces where they work with “lower profile” sports, we naturalize the idea that women belong on the fringe of sports.

The survey showed that women are generally leaving the profession between six and 10 years of service, preserving sports information as a male-dominated industry. Those in hiring and decision-making capacities (mostly white men, according to the study) should interrogate sport assignments. A more equitable distribution of responsibility may foster a more optimistic career outlook for women, leading to longer job tenures and a more diverse profession in general.
--Erin Whiteside

Friday, March 12, 2010

Loved the action in Vancouver? Tune in again

This time, though, you'll have to do it completely online because it's likely that the 2010 Paralympics -- which will run for the next two weeks using Olympic venues -- will receive little-to-no coverage in the U.S.
I've posted before about the reasons we turn away, as a culture, from adapted sport.
That's too bad, because the stories are incredible and the competition is outstanding and entertaining. (If you've seen Murderball, you've gotten an idea of the intensity with which these athletes train and compete.)
To catch the action: See ParalympicSportTV. Another site for updated coverage is the BBC.
--Marie Hardin

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

UConn's record: Reason to worry about women's sports?

As any women's sports fan knows, the past 24 hours have been unusual for the amount of attention that has been paid to a group of female athletes outside the Olympics. The big news: UConn's 71st consecutive victory -- an NCAA record.
The news, unlike most events in women's sports, made at least a mention on many sports pages, Web sites and blogs.
It's also spurred a lot of hand-wringing about: a.) the state of women's basketball; and b.) the state of coverage of women's basketball.
The first concern -- that somehow, UConn's dominance is a sign that women's basketball is plagued by untalented, inferior players -- isn't surprising. But the fact that this storyline was prominent on a site (Deadspin) with little regard (putting it mildly) for women's sports ought to tell us that it should be scrutinized. As a women's sports advocate, I grimace when I see mainstream journalists contextualize the story in the same way.
I saw Christine Brennan raise the concern on News Hour (and follow up with a column). "I'm a little worried about women's basketball, when you have got this kind of dominance," she said.
Brennan, who's covered women's sports for decades, did add important context to her concern: This is a “time of the most balance in women's sports…. to think that you have got this kind of dominating team at this time in women's sports history, it's extraordinary,” she said.
Others in the mainstream press in well-read blogs, though, were less nuanced in their assessment -- and I had to wonder whether their concern was really with the welfare of women's sports. For instance, one wrote, “Auriemma's top-ranked juggernaut is making a mockery of the alleged depth of women's hoops.”
UConn isn't the first team (or the last) to experience a period of tremendous dominance in its sport. These periods are finite. There are great players sprinkled among many D1 teams in the field.
And: Sometimes this kind of record-making draws attention from people who otherwise might not have paid attention. In other words, it can attract fans.
The hand-wringing about coverage of women's sports is justified by the fact that paltry and demeaning coverage has always been the norm. UConn's short burst of fame -- although not accompanied by much "buzz" in coverage, as one writer pointed out -- has been unusual. But even this phenomenal accomplishment has been buried underneath stories dissecting every move by men's "bubble teams."
Judy Woodruff asked Brennan about the "ongoing struggle" of female athletes to gain media attention.
Brennan responded: "It just hasn't equated to great television ratings day in and day out for women's sports. Maybe it never will."
Brennan, Bob Costas and others have suggested that perhaps participation – not spectatorship -- will have to be the gauge by which the success of women’s sports is measured. I understand their assessment -- every step has been a struggle.
I’d like to think, though, we’ve cleared that bar -- or that we're very close. I would also argue that spectatorship drives participation – thus, we’ve got to keep advocating for better coverage of women’s sports, even when records aren’t being broken.
-- Marie Hardin
(Note: I edited this blog post after it was (rightly) pointed out to me that I had failed to contextualize Brennan’s comments on NewsHour. The focus of this post was on storylines around UConn that trouble me, not about Brennan's comments in particular. I've edited this post in an attempt to better reflect that intent.)