Thursday, August 30, 2012

Consider contributions Paralympians make to Olympic mission

For most Americans, the ongoing Paralympics is an afterthought – especially considering the scant media attention it receives here.  (To follow coverage, refer to this earlier blog post by my colleague Dunja Antunovic.)

Sports performed by those in wheelchairs or perhaps missing a limb are not broadcast on television or widely covered by the print media.
The Jerusalem Post had a great editorial extolling the virtues of the Paralympics. The article voiced a hope that more resources would be steered toward young people who are not able to play sports conventionally.

As mentioned in an earlier post, money for youth sports is becoming more and more difficult to find. Therefore I do not posit a guess on whether there will actually be any movement toward increasing access of sports to more young people.

What I will say is that the Paralympics fulfill the Olympic mission. It is easy to forget the mission when discussing doping scandals, huge sums of money paid for broadcast rights and wealthy professional athletes treating the Games as secondary to the professional careers. Consider the second principle of Olympism: The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The last few words “preservation of human dignity” are especially powerful. People such as Jesse Owens, John Carlos and Tommy Smith readily come to mind when thinking about those words.

However, we should not discount the contributions of all Paralympians – past and present – in that endeavor as well. The feats that will be performed in the coming days will show that Paralympians are truly authentic athletes.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

London 2012: Title IX Olympics?

The U.S. media started buzzing about the progress of women in the London 2012 Olympics even before the closing ceremonies. By now the media outlets seemed to have come to a consensus that these were truly the "Women's Olympics."

Considering that the U.S. women outnumbered U.S. men both in number of participants and number of gold medals, boxing was added for women, and for the first time all countries had a female athlete on the team, it is only fitting to acknowledge the historical significance of the strides towards gender equity.

For the success of the U.S athletes specifically, scholars and journalists -- Christine Brennan, among others -- have given full credit to Title IX. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded educational institutions. Since its implementation, women's participation in sports in the U.S. has tremendously increased, opening up opportunities for competition in high school and college alike. (See an annual report by Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter here.)

It is important to recognize that the law did not only have a legislative impact, but has also resulted in a cultural shift in regards to women's involvement in sports.

That said, it is also important to recognize that Title IX cannot be credited with the accomplishment of all female athletes. The success of Serena and Venus Williams, for instance, is hardly a direct result of Title IX. And their two gold medals are not the only exceptions to the "Title IX Team" narrative. Wendy Parker adds to this argument by suggesting that the emphasis on winning in the U.S. media coverage "runs counter to what the law is supposed to be about."

Whether Title IX was "supposed" to result in the international success of athletes (male or female) who have organized athletic opportunities throughout their school years, while -- not instead of -- receiving their education, is questionable. Perhaps, this is one of those that can be placed under the unintended (positive or negative?) consequences category.

However, what this celebratory coverage should not be doing is positioning Title IX, once again, within the "battle of the sexes" framework. Title IX is not a battle. Contrary to the myth, it is not a battle between men and women. It is also not a quota system which would require more women than men to compete. And, it most certainly is not a contest of who wins more medals at the Olympics.

Title IX is about equity. It is about protection against discrimination. Title IX is about education, let us not forget that. If it had even a slight impact on how female athletes are viewed in the U.S. society- - and I daresay it did -- which then resulted in a greater number of female athletes participating in and succeeding at the Olympics, then, yes, the American media should celebrate.

But let us also remember: there is no win-loss record in Title IX.

--Dunja Antunovic

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Social media in college recruiting

Upon browsing through the Women Talk Sports blog network, I found this post about social media and recruiting. The blogger cites a number of coaches who talk about the issue of TMI (too much information) on recruits' Facebook and Twitter accounts.

This is, to me, quite a fascinating topic as social media sites have become an issue only in the past few years and I am not sure if institutions and coaches -- let alone the NCAA -- quite know how to deal with them.

At my undergraduate institution, we had a strict Facebook policy and at other programs coaches (or other staff) often monitor their student-athletes' Facebook pages to make sure that they are not making complete fools out of themselves or their universities.

But recruits are a completely different category. They are not under direct supervision of the school (yet) and they might not have "friends" or "followers" who would tell them "hey, don't post that." I only spent two years recruiting and even after such a short time, I can certainly say that seeing inappropriate content on Facebook definitely made me question the value system of the recruit.

For some coaches quoted in the above mentioned blog post, social media "drama" was even a deal-breaker. I completely understand that. As a coach, you have to be certain before you commit to mentoring, educating, supervising and being overall responsible for a young athlete for four years.

However, I am concerned that kids are written off based on the goofy things they post when they are 16 years old. The recruiting process starts early (seems like it's starting earlier and earlier.). And I am not quite sure if the kid's high school "mediated" self-presentation is the best predictor of their future success in college.

How about the noble idea that people -- especially college-aged people -- change?

First year students, especially student-athletes, are exposed to an overwhelming number of trainings, orientations, meetings with coaches, meetings with administrators, hours with academic advisors to ensure that they understand the university policies and the responsibilities of being a student-athlete.

It is unfortunate that coaches (or whichever staff members) have to spend time browsing their student-athletes Facebook accounts. It's a complete waste of time that could be spent on other more important aspects of team development, but it is absolutely necessary. I believed that as a student-athlete and I believed it as a coach -- and my former players would tell you that I had no issue with telling them to get the inappropriate postings off of their walls.

But the passive-aggressive approach to recruiting whereby the coach follows the prospective student-athlete's social media sites and determines, as one coach in the blog post said, that they "don't need that kind of person in [their] school" without addressing the problem might not be the way to go.

Rather, coaches need to make sure that the recruit understands that the institution disapproves of the social media "mess" and that they would have to comply with the rules if they want to play for the team.

If kids know that, they might reconsider what they advertise on their "walls." And, perhaps, they will even warn their friends about it. At least, they will still have a chance.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paralympics: Where to follow?

If you thought that the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games marked the end of sports from London, think twice. The Paralympics are beginning in 10 days.

The media coverage probably won't be as ubiquitous as it was for a few weeks when you, literally, could not escape the Olympics action on NBC and on the web. And if you are one of those people who wanted to "find out" the results while enjoying the prime time coverage, you had to watch "spoiler alerts" every time you logged onto Facebook or Twitter.

That probably won't be the case with the Paralympics, but there will still be some opportunities to follow the competition in 21 sports including goalball, rowing, sitting volleyball or wheelchair basketball.

ABC, an Australian channel will be providing coverage and radio streaming on the web. BBC and Channel 4 have online coverage set up, but it seems that these services are not accessible in the United States. The websites are still helpful, though. Channel 4 also has a Twitter account @C4Paralympics.

While browsing for other media options, I found the official Paralympic YouTube channel the most helpful so far. The channel features videos from previous Paralympic Games, interviews, and "tutorials" on how the sports are played.

Since television coverage of the Paralympics in the U.S. is basically non-existent, sports fans will have to find other ways to follow. Thankfully, now social media can keep us updated during the day. (See an earlier post on our blog.)

The stories from London continue. Most recently, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)  announced that the 2012 games will welcome a record number of participants, including a record number of female athletes.

More to come. Competition starts on August 29th and lasts until September 9th. Stay in the loop.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Friday, August 17, 2012

NCAA college tennis recommendation rationale: Lack of television coverage

In most cases NCAA decisions get attention when they pertain to football or men’s basketball or a violation of some sort that leads to punishment. So a rule change about the structure of tennis championships and the length of matches might not qualify under the criteria for “newsworthiness.” 

Yet, USA Today did run an article about the issue and the tennis blog of New York Times revealed some of the responses from players and coaches. I would contend that it is a relevant topic for this blog as the rule change does have a lot to do with media, fandom and the role of intercollegiate sports in our society. 

The NCAA Division I Tennis Committee is proposing that, at the NCAA Championships, instead of a two-out-of-three set format, singles matches would be decided in a super tiebreaker instead of a third set (super tiebreaker means playing up to 10 points). Doubles would get reduced to a six-game set instead of the eight-game set.

The NCAA is also making recommendations in terms of the post-season NCAA Championships draw sizes and locations.

Just as a side note, super tiebreakers are currently played in college tennis when the match between the teams is already decided. If you ask coaches and players alike, they will tell you that a super tiebreaker is completely useless in terms of determining who the better player is. The third set is very much a mental and physical game and a super tiebreaker is a poor “copy” of the pressure and competitiveness.

The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) don't seem to think that this is one of NCAA’s most brilliant ideas. In their response, the two organizations wrote: “It is imperative to act immediately to try to persuade the NCAA Tennis Committee to keep two out of three sets in dual meet singles play, and also, if possible, to keep the 8 game pro set for doubles.” (See response here.)
The news also got some social media attention. A Facebook group in opposition to the recommendations has 6000 members and counting, and the conversation on Twitter includes comments such as “the ncaa really wants to ruin tennis,” and “this new NCAA rule for tennis is a joke.” You can find these under hashtags #savecollegetennis and #whatajoke.

First to clarify. These changes would only affect NCAA Championships dual match competition. Not the regular season matches, nor the individual tournaments. The online discourse seems to reflect some misunderstanding about this -- and frankly, at first sight, it is easy to omit the "dual match competition during the championship" specification in the report. (See full report here.)

The rationale that NCAA is giving for the rule change is the following: “by shortening the format and bringing greater excitement to the dual match, programs will be able to attract fan support and attention to tennis.” 

I'm confused. Are we still talking about the championships or is the NCAA talking about "programs" as in institutions, referring to attracting fans to home matches?

If we are talking about institutions and attracting fans to home matches, here is the issue.

At most (all?) Division I schools, tennis is not a revenue-generating sport. The schools that do get high attendance are doing well maintaining their fan base regardless of the format. As for the rest of the schools, I am not sure if the format change would necessarily attract more people. Yes, intercollegiate tennis matches are long. They can, indeed, last more than four hours.

But low fan attendance is less likely affected by the length of matches and more likely the result of facilities with uncomfortable or non-existing seating areas, lack of marketing, lack of transportation to the tennis facility, lack of knowledge about the existence of a tennis team on campus (I’m not kidding) or lack of t-shirt give-aways. Free food also works magic for college students.

If the NCAA wants tennis to get more overall attention and to “increase the popularity of dual matches,” then the on-campus marketing for the sport needs to get better. To do that, you need resources and staff. We'll leave that conversation for some other time.

If the decision, indeed, pertains only to the championships then the question about the role of media is of utmost importance.

Besides proposing shorter matches, the NCAA also made a recommendation regarding the Championship format -- namely, to reduce the number of teams who make it to the “final site.” I won’t get technical here, but one of the reasons behind this recommendation is that “the state of intercollegiate tennis is requiring a change to ensure a relevant future for the sport. Tennis is in a fragile state as the championships recently lost ESPN coverage, attendance is decreasing and the number of institutions able to host the final site is diminishing.”

Yes, it is indeed difficult for institutions to host that many teams and the championships are way too long, so this is a point that needs to be discussed.

But let me pause for a second on the “tennis is in a fragile state as the championships recently lost ESPN coverage.” Does this mean that changes need to happen so that tennis fits into the commercial sports media complex?

I think so, as the report also says:  "The shortened format may provide exposure opportunities through television coverage, live streaming and local media coverage. It is difficult and cost prohibitive for television to air a 4.5 hour college tennis match. In addition, it is very challenging for local media (television or print) to watch and cover an entire dual match. Therefore, the sport lacks local and national coverage, which will be improved with a format that consistently finishes within a three-hour time frame."

Another challenge about broadcasting college tennis is that you have 6 matches going on at the same time. So if we are going to talk about difficulties in coverage, that would be one to consider.

In the proposals the NCAA suggests that the “estimated budget impact” for both of these recommendations would be “none.” Perhaps for tennis not to be “in a fragile state,” the focus should be on how cut unnecessary costs rather than how to make the sport marketable to ESPN.

And while these decisions are collaboratively discussed among coaches, administrators, university leaders and the NCAA, who will ultimately decide about the future and the purpose of a (non-revenue) intercollegiate sport, I cannot help but conclude:

This recommendation is not about tennis, nor about participation opportunities, nor about student-athlete welfare and even less about higher education. This is about the sports media complex.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Why is the focus on Gabby Douglas' hair and not her Olympic accomplishments?

The ridiculous attention given to the hairdo of Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas knows no bounds.

The 16-year-old recently received a “makeover” in which her hair looks much more in line with European beauty standards, according to media reports.

Britain’s Daily Mail paraphrased a statement from Douglas’ newly hired stylist, saying in part that black women “go to great lengths to keep their dark hair under control.” Under control? I think that this needs further examination.

My former colleague Jason Whitlock wrote eloquently on the initial furor over Douglas’ hair and the “$9 billion-yearly obsession with straightening, lengthening, curling, coloring and Europeanizing our hair”.  

The control that the stylist referred to seems to be not a control of the physical hair, but one of the mind. Why shouldn’t European women be pushed to make their hair like that of blacks? That never seems to be asked.

Douglas, whose family’s financial issues have been media fodder for the past few weeks, is using a stylist who charges clients $950 at his salon, the Daily Mail reported. A young woman who was seemingly content with herself has now been pushed to acquire a costly service.

Instead of feting Douglas for her accomplishments, the focus remains on what’s on her head, not what’s in it. And what’s in her head is the drive to overcome adversity and be an Olympic champion.

Sadly, I fear the story young women will take from Gabby Douglas is looking “nice” (read European) will give you more media praise than your actual achievement.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Franklin and the NCAA: Amateur or pro?

Missy Franklin won four gold medals at the London Olympic Games, but she does not want the endorsements or the sponsorships, thank you very much.

At least, not yet. Franklin stated, according to a number of media outlets, that she wants to preserve her amateur status in order to be able to go to college.

Franklin said that the decision will be a tough one, but that she would love to experience college life. In an ESPN interview, she enthusiastically stated that she would particularly "love the team aspect" of intercollegiate competition.

Jane McManus from ESPNW pointed out that it's "four years of earning potential that she will be missing out on." A blogger on BleacherReport, on the other hand, commended Franklin on her decision.

Just to be clear, Franklin will be allowed to accept a certain amount for her accomplishments -- contrary to what the catchy ESPNW video title "Don't show Missy the money" suggests. How much exactly that is before she loses a year of eligibility, that will be the job of the famous NCAA Eligibility Center to figure out.

A number of reasons can be named for both why she should pursue a college swimming career, but also why she should not.

As a former Division I athlete, who loved her college career, I am happy to hear that Franklin wants to experience an individual sport in a team setting because the team aspect does add a different dimension to competition even if you are still alone in the pool (or on the court).

What I also find important to mention is that swimming is one of those sports in which college level competition is strong enough that college swimmers can, and do often, pursue professional careers after enrolling in school or even after graduation and they do that very successfully. This is not a trend for all sports. In tennis, for instance, you will hardly find a top professional/Olympic player who is a former college athlete.

So, we can certainly analyze and talk about Franlkin's decision. And, just as she said, there are many factors to consider.

But one thing is for sure: If she decides to go pro now, she will be giving up on NCAA swimming for good. (Note: Not college swimming altogether -- the NAIA could be an option later)

If she, on the other hand, decides to stay an amateur, she will not be giving up the hopes of another Olympic participation.

She also would not be giving up endorsements and sponsorship. She would merely be delaying them.

-- Dunja Antunovic

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fears about boxing should not be a gender issue

One and done. This is what columnist Linda Chavez believes needs to happen with women’s boxing.

Chavez wrote in the New York Post late last week, “Is there no evolutionary advantage in having half the population play a gentler, more nurturing role that tempers the aggressive tendencies of the other half of our species?”
I am not going to debate the essence of men and women in this post. There are far more knowledgeable scholars who have and will continue to speak on that topic.

This post is to talk about the sport of boxing.  As a former boxing editor, I enjoy the sport immensely. I take issue with the idea that women need more protection from violent sports than men. Chavez does say that perhaps the sport should be removed altogether, but the crux of her piece is that women should not be boxing.

There is no doubt that the sport has a physical, rough element. However watch a technician such as Floyd Mayweather Jr. (his out-of-the ring transgressions notwithstanding), and it is obvious why the sport is dubbed the “sweet science.”

His superior defense and movement is a joy to watch for purists. Chavez even pointed out in her column that the objective of boxing is to hit your opponent without getting hit.

The brutality that can come with boxing does turn a lot of men and women against the sport. The brain damage that can occur from competing in the ring is definitely a major concern. Chavez was right to mention it.

But Olympic boxing is far safer than professional boxing because of the protective head gear the fighters wear. Also, there is less risk of serious injury in a three-round fight than the long 12-round bouts that people envision when it comes to pro boxing.

But what sport is not too dangerous? There are concussion problems not just in the NFL, but in hockey, too. Should women be banned from that? Mixed martial arts is violent. Should women be banned from that?

Under Chavez’s violence paradigm, maybe something should be done to soccer, as well. Abby Wambach’s black eye shows that there is some brutality in that sport.

The major quarrel I have with the column is that it wants to make everybody the same. Not all men enjoy or want to participate in rough sports or even sports in general. And not all women fit the stereotypical mold of their gender, too.

-- Steve Bien-Aime

Thursday, August 09, 2012

High school football stadium costs $60 million

While many U.S. cities are defaulting on their debts or are the verge of bankruptcy, Allen High School in Texas is set to open its $60 million football stadium later this month.

No, that is not a typo. Sixty million dollars is the correct amount.

In the throes of the Great Recession, Allen voters overwhelmingly supported a $119 million bond initiative that included funding for the 18,000-seat stadium, a new auditorium, and a “transportation, maintenance and nutrition center”, reported.

The website reported that the district has almost 5,400 high school-age students and that the previous stadium really could not accommodate all the fans. (The article does a solid job of explaining the situation and easing the initial furor one might feel after hearing about a $60 million stadium.)

Though some soccer matches will be played there as well, I am left with one question: Will female athletes get much benefit from the new facility?

The issue here is not the money spent as officials believe the stadium will be a revenue generator. Rather the concern should be whether this project helped as many athletes – male and female – as it possibly could.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Judge's ruling on cheerleading raises key issues

Is cheerleading a sport?

According to a federal judge, the answer is no for Title IX purposes. Quinnipiac University tried to argue that it could swap its women’s volleyball team for a competitive cheerleading squad.

Mary Jo Kane, who is the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, smartly explained the situation to “How would people react if the school cut a men’s sport like baseball or lacrosse and used those funds for a male cheerleading squad?”

Quinnipiac tried to save tens of thousands of dollars by replacing women’s volleyball with cheerleading, reported. Interestingly, more people would be able to participate on a cheerleading squad than on a volleyball team.

Let’s examine this further. If Quinnipiac’s argument is that more people can participate in cheerleading for a lower cost, then every sport the university offers should be held to the same standard, i.e., are we having the most people play for the lowest price?

And many colleges should be thinking about overhauling their sports programs. An NCAA report said that only 22 athletic departments in 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools turned a profitin 2010.

If programs want to fix their athletic ledgers, changes must come from both male and female sports, equally.

I would be negligent if I did not speak in support of cheerleading, as well. The athletic merits of cheerleading go unquestioned. Watching some of the competitions on ESPN, it is clear that these young people are athletes.

With that in mind, I have to take an issue with this Kane comment to “No one wants to denigrate cheerleading, but should it be considered sport at the expense of legitimate women’s competitive team sports?”

I asked a friend who did cheerleading in high school about this and she took an issue with that statement, in particular the use of the word “legitimate.” She explained to me her team trained at five every morning, “just like swimmers do.” The workouts included weightlifting and mandatory gymnastics. Team members had to attend training camps in the summer, too.

She did tell me that while there are national and international competitions, there are inconsistencies in the evaluation of cheerleading programs – comments that support the judge’s ruling.

But I posit this: Gymnastics, boxing and figure skating routinely have scoring controversies.

This post is not taking a position on cheerleading’s merit as a sport. It is saying that a discussion needs to be had on deciding a definition for sports before we can say what is and more importantly what is not a sport.

-- Steve Bien-Aime

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Female NFL Ref Receives Online Attention

When Shannon Eastin steps on the field during the Green Bay Packers versus the San Diego Chargers game, she will become the first woman to ref an NFL game. 

A couple of weeks ago, the NFL hinted that the referee lockout could lead to opening opportunities for replacement referees. Eastin was among them. On Monday, The Los Angeles Times  reported that Eastin is officially going to be a part of the ref crew. The online conversation is worth examining. 

A number of news outlets insinuated that this could be an important moment in gender equity. For instance, The Huffington Post called it a “barrier-breaking opportunity,” CBS called it an “interesting opportunity,” SB Nation, a prominent sports blog network, reported that Eastin is “poised to break a long-time barrier.”

In the meantime, Julie Hayes, a Yahoo! Contributor thinks that this “making history” narrative is “a joke” and “just wrong” because the replacement referees, including Eastin, have not been trained properly to be ready for such a high caliber game. To this, a writer on Feministing, a feminist blog, said that regardless of whether Eastin is ready or not, this is “still progress.” 

Cindy Boren from The Washington Post is also worried about the replacement, not because of gender issues, but because of the lack of experience these refs have.

And then there is ESPN. 

In this short video, the ESPN anchor – with a female symbol graphic behind him -- recites Eastin’s accomplishments in judo and telling us that “this is meant as a warning to any of the Packers or Chargers who may feel empowered to question one of her calls on Thursday night; they might wanna think twice about that.” 

Because she is going to take them out?

On a positive note, Kevin Seifert, who reported the news for, wrote the following:
“This is an important moment, and Eastin's assignment will generate relevant discussion on a number of levels. Hopefully there were no barriers for qualified women to reach the top of the football officiating ladder, but if there were, you would hope that Eastin's accomplishment would negate them.”

So it seems that we are witnessing a productive conversation about what it means for the NFL and for U.S. professional sports to have a woman on the field in this capacity.

What we can really learn from, though, are the comments to these articles. ESPN is monitoring (and removing them) every hour, but there are still more than 2000 comments, and counting, to Seifert’s article. Bill Williamson’s article got a few too.

Here are some themes that I detected at first glance, with an example for each:

-          Women belong to the kitchen, not the football field
“This is totally unfair. How can she be expected to referee an NFL game and make sandwiches at the same time?” and “Weird... how is she going to ref from the kitchen?”

-          Women are emotional (and generally unfit to make important decisions)
“Come on. First time a coach yells in her ear she's balling. Why you're at it, get the chicks off the field when the game is on. Hasn't been one half way decent women in the NFL, outside of those lovely Cheerleaders.”

-          Women have no idea about football


JUST WAIT...” (Capital letters in original text)

-          This political corrected-ness is ridiculous!
“Now we just need a dude to play in the lingerie football league and then I know the world is collapsing before my eyes” and “This is dumb unless she is the most qualified perosn for the job... sets back women if they gave her the gig just bc she is a woman”

-          It’s ok for her to ref, ONLY IF she is good looking (some of the contributors actually posted links to her picture here to determine if she is, indeed, good-looking enough to be “worthy” of their gaze):
“one question is she hot? if so the nfl is moving in the right direction if not i dont care” and “As long as she is attractive I'm cool with it.”

-          Even if she is a decent ref, the players are rude and uncivilized, hence we should protect her from harm
“I think it is a bad idea. You have immature players, who get DUI's, etc. They will have no sympathy for her. She will get called names, and sexist things thrown at her way. Also, if she gets caught in a pileup, it will look really bad. I give Ms. Eastin major props for being able to make it this far, but she may want to stop before something bad happens to her.”

-          Whatever. Just do a good job!
“I dont care if a woman, a man, or a man/pretending to be a woman Refs the game...just get the calls right.”

-          Finally!
“I'm a male and I'm thrilled that there will be a female ref, we are slowly overcoming societies barriers.”

One comment that also caught my eye was this one: “Hell yeah, good to see title IX coming to fruition!” After an overwhelming number of articles, documentaries and statements that were issued in celebration of Title IX’s 40th anniversary over the summer, I am particularly sad to see that Title IX is still horribly misinterpreted as the law pertains to federally funded educational institutions and has no implications to professional football.

What we learn from this online discourse is that news media outlets seem to be offering a balanced account of NFL’s decisions. We can also find strong opinions on gender issues that Eastin’s situation raised. And, the same old sexist (and homophobic) arguments that we are used to seeing whenever women enter a male-dominated field are also present.

The moment when Eastin steps on the field might be historic and, perhaps, even promising. For the NFL to “allow” women to officiate a football game is the right thing to do as there can hardly be a good reason as to why a female ref would be less competent than a male ref.  

But, clearly, we need to keep engaging in conversations about women’s role in sports. The internet is a great place for that. However, the internet is also a place where – regardless of how hard ESPN tries to monitor comments –  sexism and homophobia survive.  

So, let’s keep talking. Let’s do so with a particular attention to fan cultures and the relationship between gender and sports consumption. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"Killer Instinct" at the Age of 8

In sports, you can never run out of manifestations of hegemonic masculinity. The article by Rick Reilly, an ESPN columnist, brings our attention to a recent example in pee wee football: a masterpiece, as a matter of fact.

Reilly reports about a coach in a pee wee football league who wrote in an e-mail to his 8 and 9 year-old players that he demanded “an aggressive or killer instinct” and a commitment at the summer session conditioning and practices as the team needed to “ramp it up.” 

The complete e-mail is worth reading and so is Reilly’s commentary on the situation. He places this instance in the larger cultural context of sports -- more specifically football -- pointing out that players at all levels (apparently now pee wee too) are pushed to exhaustion, injuries and health risks.

We see this mentality in pro sports; we see it on the college level. (If only I had a publication on my CV for every time I heard that I didn’t have the “killer instinct!”)

But when we see this ideology forced upon kids, where the emphasis should undoubtedly and unquestionably be on participation rather than performance, we really need to worry. How do kids interpret this system of values? Do they even understand what it means to “whole heartedly commit” to a team? 

More importantly, what happens if they don’t “get it?” I dare assume that there are punitive consequences to disobedience (whether this disobedience is intentional or unintentional, that hardly matters). And the punitive consequence will take a form of being yelled at by the coach, extra workouts (e.g.: push-ups) or being benched. 

All for something arbitrary. The kid didn’t pay attention. Or the kid laughed too much at practice. Or talked to a friend. Or found it more interesting to toss the ball in the air rather than to a teammate.

That’s if the kid stays. If the parent pulls the kid out of the activity, just as some of the parents did in this instance, then we can only hope that there will be another, different opportunity for the child to stay physically active and to experience the positive attributes of sports. At least some of these parents saved their children from months of potential abuse. 

Hardly is there a better time to think about “commitment” in sports than during the Olympics when we hear stories about athletes who go through training camps and leave home in a hope for a later professional success. Not uncommon at all.

About 10 or 15 years ago, kids similar to those who were asked to toughen up for tackle football were taught to desire winning, to “go for the Gold.” In the past week, we’ve been hearing about those few who made it, and then we even got disappointed when they finished 4th (see Christine Brennan’s article here). 

The question of when sports “should” become about performance rather than participation would, I’m certain, stir up a lively conversation among scholars, journalists, athletes, sports workers and fans alike. So would the question of is “killer instinct” even necessary in sports. 

But the time (if ever) is not and must not be when the kids are 8. If an instance such as the one illustrated by Reilly occurs, perhaps it’s not the kids who should quit the team, but the coach. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Olympians tossed for trying to lose are signs of a bigger issue

Throwing a match is considered one of the biggest taboos in sports. In fact that action is the opposite of sports, which is supposed to an honest and fair competition between entities.

Well tell that to the eight female badminton players who were tossed from Olympic competition Wednesday after the sport’s governing body deemed them to be trying to lose on purpose. The athletes came from China, South Korea and Indonesia. (The South Korean and Indonesian delegations are appealing the decision.)

But does the International Olympic Committee bear some responsibility for this turmoil? Quoting from the Associated Press article (via “Teams blamed the introduction of a round-robin stage rather than a straight knockout tournament as the main cause of the problem. In the round-robin format, losing one game can lead to an easier matchup in the next round.”

The report does also point out that the fans voiced their displeasure with the teams’ quality (or lack of) during the matches in question.

In the major American sports, there has been speculation for years that teams set to miss the playoffs lose games (or at least do not put forth maximum effort) to enhance their draft positions. (See this Sporting News article on the 2011-12 NBA season.)

Both the Sporting News and the Associated Press articles rightly point out that fans are the biggest losers in this scenario. Maybe more creativity needs to be placed to incentivize athletes/teams to play every match as hard as they can.

Altering the structure of tournaments to emphasize winning each match is a possibility (or changing the draft structure of U.S. pro sports to encourage struggling teams to win as many games as possible and not worry about their draft positioning). Adding a bigger financial incentive could be another way to go: Perhaps teams that go unbeaten in tournaments receive a sizable bonus.

The punishment handed down to the eight badminton players likely will send a message to others contemplating doing something similar, but will this solve the problem? Or will players try just hard enough to look like they are attempting to win and subsequently avoid punishment?

Ultimately it is better to be proactive, seek out potential problems and solve them before they even become issues.

-- Steve Bien-Aimé