Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Did Greece miss potential teachable moment at Olympics?

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was booted off her country's Olympic team after making a racist comment on Twitter, according to various media reports.

The articles reported that Papachristou said on Twitter: “With so many Africans in Greece … at least the West Nile mosquitos will eat homemade food!!!” Though Papachristou later apologized, it is understandable why Greek Olympic leaders removed her from the team.

This decision is not just a golden opportunity lost for Papachristou, but for the fight against racism as well. The Olympics is a venue where athletes of various races, religions, sexual orientations, etc. come together in the spirit of competition at the highest level.

I venture to think that Papachristou interacting with African athletes would be the best chance for her to learn why her words were hurtful and inappropriate. Actually spending time with the people she insulted and learning who they really are is the best antidote to the venom of racism.

And if she changes her views (though to be fair she did say in her apology that she "could never believe in discrimination between human beings and races"), then it is a great story to champion in the fight against bigotry.

This is not to say that Papachristou should not have been sanctioned. But is kicking her off the team creating the best outcome? Perhaps having her perform a public service announcement educating people about the wrongs of racism would have been better. Ills that plague society cannot be swept under the proverbial rug. Rather they must be confronted head on and honestly.

An Olympian telling kids that she made a mistake about making a racist act and telling young people that is it not right to judge people on the color of their skin can be pretty powerful. It can be especially effective if she were to also describe the multitude of athletes she met at the Olympics and how they helped her grow as a person.

I just don’t think society gained too much keeping Papachristou at home. Can we honestly say that she will not harbor any racist thoughts because of this punishment? It is much more likely that if she has any bigoted sentiments she will now just keep them to herself.
-- Steve Bien-Aime

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A step in the right direction for gender equity in youth sports

Score one for advocates of gender equity in athletics.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed into law a measure forcing all school districts in the state to file reports on athletic programs, including how much money is spent on each sport and who is participating. Georgia, Kentucky and New Mexico are the only other states that have this requirement, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

By making its findings public, Pennsylvania citizens can actively monitor whether girls and boys are receiving their fair share of resources in the athletic domain. In the Inquirer article, there was talk about this law adding another cost to school districts that are hurting financially.

While this could be true, there is no excuse for one set of athletes to receive the finest equipment or play in top venues while another set is given substandard treatment.

That said the financial fears are real. An excellent article written by my former classmate Jeff Frantz describes this well. “This coming fight for a chance to participate won’t be about boys vs. girls, but rich vs. poor, foul shots vs. full-day kindergarten.”

Some school districts may eliminate sports or for those that may keep athletics, students might have to pay extra fees to play. Undoubtedly the latter will disproportionately hurt lower-income students, who often are racial minorities.

The battle of equity in sports must encompass keeping athletics viable in schools and available to young people regardless of wealth.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sports and politics collide

Is sports outside the realm of politics?

Cleary not in the United States. Politico recently reported that the Arizona Cardinals franchise donated $5,000 to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s super political action committee or super PAC.

The article mentions that the NFL has a traditional PAC and that executives from various sports teams have previously donated to candidates.

Fans become fired up over whether a coach should be fired or various player personnel moves. Often the general manager or another executive explains to the fans (often through the media) the rationale behind those decisions. In its report Politico said team officials could be reached for a response.

If sports teams actively engage in politics do they owe their fans an explanation here as well?

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Why aren't more women watching women's sports?

Research from the Curley Center for Sports Journalism has recently generated international coverage, giving legs to a study that first appeared in the academic journal Communication, Culture and Critique.  

The study began with a simple question: Why, despite exponential growth in sports participation among girls and women, have we not seen a similar rise in women’s sports viewership? In addressing the question, we conducted group interviews with 19 women in which we discussed how they situate sports consumption and fanship into their lives.

Importantly, the goal of our research was not to apply our results to a wider population of women, but to develop a more nuanced understanding of fanship from a cultural feminist point of view. From this perspective, we were concerned with thinking about the social construction of gender, and how gender roles are normalized through everyday practices, including the act of watching sports in the home.

In drawing from the conversations, we suggest that fanship is something more than simply developing an affinity for a certain team, but rather a complex concept mediated by one’s gender roles.  For example, most of the women expressed a preference for the Olympics (an especially timely finding and one that sparked the initial popular interest in the piece). Indeed, analysts are saying that the female audience watching the Olympics will be larger than ever. Our research helps explain why this is; we note that the way the Olympics are presented – in short, easy-to-digest packages – are especially easy to appreciate for individuals who do not have the luxury of sitting down in front of the television for three uninterrupted hours. Rather, for those who are responsible for childcare and other domestic labor duties (generally women, according to existing wide-scale sociological research), the routine of sitting down only to get back up quickly to tend to something in the house is all too familiar. Thus, the ability to turn on the TV for 15 minutes, see a nice, tidy package of, say, track and field, is especially conducive for people with a hectic and full schedule in the home.

Our research also helped nuance the concept of fanship in another way; many of our participants said that they enjoyed watching sports in part because it gave them an opportunity to spend time with their families, including the men in their lives. In addition, while sports fanship may be fun, it was not entirely leisurely for the women we interviewed. Primary domestic caregivers are often charged with the job of making sure everyone’s leisure time is enjoyable. Thus, for women, sitting and watching sports on TV was work, as well as leisure.

This nuanced understanding of fanship helps provide an explanation to our initial question – why don’t women who played sports watch women’s sports? The ability to sit down and watch sports requires the existence of leisure time, something individuals who are responsible for the lion’s share of domestic labor simply do not enjoy when they are at home. Thus, as we conclude:

The challenge to building a women’s sports fan base is also mediated by the form of domestic life. As the women in this study showed, watching sports was not a leisure activity, but rather associated with emotion labor. On the latter part of this two-pronged challenge, media producers and women’s sports advocates interested in building audiences in the short-term need to acknowledge and address the structural impediments facing women with the potential for interest in watching women play. For instance, airing professional women’s sports on weekends is a barrier for many women who perform traditional gender roles associated with childcare.

Admittedly the notion of fanship as mediated by gender roles is an abstract concept, which presents a challenge to reporters working to summarize the study in a short article. In covering the piece, some outlets interpreted our study as suggesting that all women watch sports to be with their husbands, which makes women look simplistic. This interpretation drew considerable criticism from feminist and women-centric blogs. (And rightly so; anyone who would make such a claim with a sample of 19 should be criticized.) Applying any research “finding” to a wider population is only appropriate when the study draws from a random sample that is sufficiently representative of that wider population– which we did not do. But our goal was not to describe a social trend at a meta-level but to interpret it, something for which qualitative research provides an especially useful toolkit. The interviews provided a level of depth that quantitative research in the form of surveys or experiments, for example, lack the ability to do.  In sum, we hope the project informs women’s sports advocates and also adds to the growing understanding of how patriarchy persists through everyday practices.

--Erin Whiteside

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Anticipating the Olympics? Look beyond -- to the 2012 Paralympics

I know that a great deal of excitement is building as the Olympic Games in London draw near. And I'll certainly be watching. But for me and a growing number of sports fans around the world, another set of games just two weeks after the closing ceremonies will also have my attention: The Paralympics.

I recently talked to disability sport activist (he advocates for equality of access for all people in sport, as a matter of fact) Eli Wolff for a book chapter I'm writing on disabled athletes and media coverage.

Wolff points to evidence that the visibility for high-performing disabled athletes is growing in popular culture. For instance, the ESPY awards Wednesday night (July 11) on ESPN will, as they have in recent years, recognize top male and female athletes in adapted (disability/Paralympic sports).

And, occasionally, a disabled athletes breaks into the big-time media spotlight. That has been the case with Oscar Pistorius, the "blade runner" from South Africa who, running on prosthetics, has earned a spot on the Olympic team, competing with able-bodied runners.

Of course, there is room for a great deal more media attention to athletes with a disability. In the U.S., viewers see far less coverage of the Paralympics than in other countries around the globe. It's safe to say that many Americans don't even know about the event.

Wolff sometimes gets frustrated with the slow pace at which society is moving to recognize, accept and celebrate the diversity of sporting accomplishment. "Sometimes I wish the progress was faster," he says. Wolff says that disabled-sports advocates could coalesce more and find a common voice with which to get out their message.

Now, even without the mainstream media, advocates and fans can get the word out. Wolff believes social media -- including blogs like this one -- have the potential to raise awareness and support for accomplished athletes who otherwise do not get much media attention. Social media “can get good stories out there and get people to mobilize,” Wolff said. “That’s part of the opportunity for disability sport – in telling good stories.”  The Paralympics, not long from now, will certainly provide them the opportunity to do it. And Wolff will be there -- laptop computer at the ready -- to share the stories of great athletes competing in a top-tier, international sporting event.

For more from Wolff,, find him -- where else? - on Twitter (@eliwolff10) and Facebook.

-- Marie Hardin

Friday, July 06, 2012

Equal pay in tennis called into question

Tennis is one of the (few) sports where the prize money for men and women is equal at major tournaments – as of 2007, even at Wimbledon.

Yet, five years later, it is precisely during the grass-court Grand Slam that equal pay comes into question.  Gilles Simon, a French player who recently joined the ATP Players Council, was the one who vocalized his concerns. Simon told the Associated Press, that he has “the feeling that men's tennis is actually more interesting than women's tennis.''

That men should be paid more than women is a recurring one. Usually it is supported by the argument that men’s matches are longer: men play a best of five, while women play a best of three sets at Grand Slams. Simon, however, clarified that he was approaching the issue from a business and entertainment aspect, arguing that tickets to men’s matches are more expensive, therefore men deserve more money.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), naturally, responded strongly. So did the women on the tour. In an interview, Maria Sharapova pointed out that her matches appear to be more popular than Simon’s. Serena Williams, then, jumped to support Sharapova’s observation, saying that “she is way hotter than he is.”

Obviously Williams took a more light-hearted approach to rebut Simon's comments, but the fact that she felt the need to speak out shows the importance of the issue.

Simon’s views should hardly shock us as they are neither new, nor uncommon. Deborah Cowan, from the Women’s Views on News site, called them “recycled.”

After spending 15 years of playing tennis competitively, I dare call them redundant. And, at this point, somewhat irrelevant.  The International Tennis Federation (ITF) confirmed equal pay at Wimbledon (most certainly not because of Williams’ opinion regarding Simon’s lack of hotness) and there is no indication it is planning to change that. 

As Roger Federer pointed out, the issue is an “endless debate,” but it is, nevertheless, important to mention as it brings some assumptions about sports in our society to the forefront. 

I was glad to hear that women from the tour spoke up and firmly stood for equal pay.

Besides Sharapova and Williams, Samantha Stosur commented as well. She doesn’t think a length of a match necessarily guarantees better quality and said that some men’s matches are “pretty boring.” Others, including Marion Bartoli and Ana Ivanovic, stated that they work just as hard as men do. The female players who spoke up unanimously fought back.

Quite obviously, women’s tennis players will not say that they deserve to be paid less. Most of the men on the tour remain diplomatic or silent about the issue, which is, again, somewhat predictable, even though according to Simon all 128 players in the men’s draw share his sentiments. From those 128, so far we only heard two -- Andy Murray and Andy Roddick -- who backed Simon.
Former Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic also spoke up supporting Simon. The consistent theme in the responses, including in this article from Yahoo! Sports, is that this is not about gender, it's about business and entertainment.
And then, there is John McEnroe.
The tennis legend, who brought tears to his former mixed-doubles partner's eyes, said "There should be no argument when they are at the same event at the same time, that there should be equal pay." McEnroe also credited Billie Jean King for her efforts towards equity in sports. 

The equal pay debate can, indeed, be endless. As a Bleacher Report blogger says, perhaps, people might just need to "get over" the current state of things that prize money is equal for men and women.

But it seems that we are not quite over it yet. Simon brought it up shortly after he was appointed to the players' council. Though few of his colleagues have come out to support him, clearly the sentiment that women's tennis is less valuable than men's tennis is out there, even if unspoken.

Simon also cannot be dismissed on the count that he is "only" the 13th ranked player in the world and nobody really cares about him. He is, now, in a position of relative power where his job is to represent the players. Hence, his comments and, consequently the responses, need to be discussed.

And we most certainly cannot buy into the argument that this conversation is merely about "business." It is about the very values that drive the organization of sports in our society. It is as much about labor as it is about gendered bodies and relations – many of which sports advocates and athletes alike are consistently challenging.
Equal pay in tennis might not be under threat. But Simon’s statements remind us that, ideologically, we might be far from gender equity. And this means that we need to put a little more effort into talking about it.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Confessions of a professional journalist

Journalists do not normally confess their sins; they usually get others to do so. This is why veteran sports journalist Jeff Meade’s column in the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News listing some of his journalistic transgressions provides much to consider – courtesy of
From fudging quotes to asking out an interview subject, the column’s headline “Journalism Students: Don’t Do This” was apropos. The paper’s editor, who was on vacation when the column was written, was not pleased.
This blog post is meant not to castigate or praise Meade. Rather, let us start a dialogue here. First, do we operate under the assumption that journalists never take shortcuts? We have seen what happens when “news” is rushed on the air without verification. Or columns are written well in advance of an event.

Just because some transgressions -- and their negative consequences -- are publicized does not mean many more are not committed. (Before continuing, I would like to say that the hundreds of journalists I have worked with and have competed against take pride in their work and hold their ethical responsibility in the highest regard as most journalists do). Therefore, I posit two questions:

1.) Should news agencies devote some of their precious scarce resources to checking up on their reporters? The public trust should be the most sacred thing to journalists. News organizations have a duty to make sure that the information they give the public is honest and can withstand scrutiny.
2.) Would news agencies be better off if their staffs regularly described some of their ethical lapses? (This would most likely have to be done anonymously.) I personally do not know journalists who make up quotes or break journalistic rules, but often the ethical failings that do occur in the industry have at least some roots in the structures of newsrooms. Problems can be fixed only when they are brought to light. If by making a few adjustments editors can lower the temptation to commit ethical breaches, this can only make journalism better.

Despite the fact newsrooms are shrinking and the pressure of being first on various media platforms grows daily, journalists cannot forget that the news industry is ultimately about benefiting the public. Any ways that can improve the business should be explored.
-- Steve Bien-Aimé