The gender debate in sports

March 3, 2015

mia hamm

All-time great Mia Hamm


One thing is clear after reading the takeaways/questions from the Bridgeman reading: Guys, do not become athletic directors. The problem, dear Brutuses, lies with you.

Here are a few of the pull quotes from the men’s side of the sports aisle:

“Until women’s sports create a substantial fan base, I can’t see there being any changes in professional women’s sports.”

If the likes of ESPN are providing LESS coverage of women’s sports (1.9%, according to our textbooks, and dropping), how can “women’s sports create a substantial fan base?” If it’s all about the money, and it appears to be, what chance do women’s athletics have?

It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. If women’s coaches continue to dwindle in number, if salaries continue to be lopsided along gender (and racial) lines, if the number of women’s pro sports role models continues to number, oh, about five, asking women “to grow their fan base” before making any significant changes is impossible and even unjust.

Isn’t it incumbent on society, including the media that reflect it, to expand opportunity? To expand that fan base, or at least to give it a fair chance at growing? Isn’t there a greater good in play here? I think so.

“I don’t think that not showing women’s sports is unfair; it is more of a demographic choice from media companies.”

As an economic argument, maybe. But purely economic arguments were used to justify slavery, as well, which might be provocative to say, but not unreasonable. We have to get past the money and the marketing, and we can if we see this as much more than “who wants to watch what on ESPN.” Even in fiscal terms, consider: Women’s events such as the World Cup do spectacularly well; figure skating, as we read in Feder, is by far the most popular Winter Olympics sport; and, for the big surprise, women’s events out-sold men’s during the Atlanta Olympics, and by a comfortable margin.

There is demand out there.

Think about what is televised, what does get its own network, the miniscule numbers these networks garner on the cable dial, and then consider what a legitimate commitment to covering and broadcasting women’s sports might look like and generate in terms of share and ad dollars. Some of these channels are in the low single digits, advertising little more than themselves.

“I don’t think women are treated unfairly in sports.” Again, consider:

  • the money spent on the men’s side
  • the opportunities for male coaches, assistant coaches, SIDs, ADs, reporters — ALL JOBS in sports
  • the pay on the men’s side v. pay on the women’s
  • the illusory “equality” demanded by Title IX, producing a sort of equality, but not meaningful equality
  • the DECLINE in coverage of women’s sports by the likes of ESPN, broadcast
  • and little things, like skorts v. shorts and The (Ladies) Professional Golf Assn.

Does this not strike you as patently unfair, even unethical or immoral.

“I understand the fact that women want to be equal to men.”

I’m not sure that you do. My daughters don’t want to be the same as men, equal in any sort of apples-to-apples comparison; they love their feminity. What they want is to be treated equally, given the same kinds of opportunities and the same numbers of opportunities, to be accorded the same default respect as men. Equality isn’t sameness, in other words. Think of what’s implicit in this statement: That women aren’t somehow equal to men. Of course they are. Women ARE equal to men; they want, I think, to be treated as such.

Men’s sports are on “a completely different level of competition.”

The competitiveness is the same. The quality and skill “levels” are the same. Different, of course, but not inferior in any way.

“Women will always be in the shadows of men’s sports.”

If men continue to control access, you might be right. So let’s clear out some of the men and make room for women of vision. This begins to sound a lot like civil rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had the imaginative power to see a better America. He had the vision, the intelligence and the courage to imagine meaningful equality as promised by this nation’s founding documents and “fathers.” Where is that vision, intelligence and courage with regards to women’s athletics? It’s not in the bolded statement above.

Don’t my daughters deserve to have the same quality and kind of hopes and dreams of, say, an 8-year-old Derek Jeter or 8-year-old LeBron, or an 8-year-old Brandon, Trevor, Cole or Kevin, for that matter? Of course they do.

So who will re-make our athletic world such that those girls with dreams can see them fulfilled in lives flourishing in a world of women’s sports? No one with views like, “Women will always be in the shadows of men.”

“We have come a long way . . . but not close to where most women would like it to be.”

And what about the men? Don’t you care? Isn’t this a men’s issue, too? “All that is required for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” So, men, put down the remote or game console, get out of your recliners and and at least attack your ignorance. As a start.

Men’s sports are simply “more entertaining than women’s sports,” “just what people want to watch.”

Again, if it’s simply the money, only an economic TV broadcast issue, you might be right. But by now can’t we see that this is about the dignity of women in a supposedly free, democratic society? But I also disagree with the premise. More entertaining? Have you ever been to a DIV I women’s soccer match between Top 10 teams? I’ll take that over Hawks-Rockets ANY DAY OF THE WEEK. I’ve watched an awful lot of truly dreadful men’s competition over the years. But there is NOTHING genetic or in any other category that precludes women’s athletics being as entertaining if not more entertaining than anything on the men’s side.

I like Clara’s statement that men’s and women’s sports at the college level are sometimes “equal,” usually for Title IX reasons, but not equal enough to make a meaningful difference, or for it to count or matter. This is the “meaningful equality” Bridgeman described. This is what we should be talking about, beyond or besides Title IX, which is how to achieve meaningful equality for women and people of color.

Ashley pointed out that what women aren’t arguing for here is sameness — same locker rooms, same uniforms, same rules for sports — but, as Clara articulated, for equal value and respect. Keep the sports separate by gender, in other words, but value each equally in every way.

And Madison had some good questions for us, but she rode out of class (horse reference) with her sheet, so I’ll mention those later.


Who you gonna call?

February 6, 2015
Bama football

From Alabama’s media guide

When there’s something wrong, in the neighborhood — who you gonna call? (Bobby Brown, theme song to Ghostbusters).

We’ve been discussing the problematic relationship between ESPN and Division I college football, a co-dependence that enriches a few — and does so mightily — but puts at risk the premise that student-athletes are students at all. The New York Times called college football at this level “professionalized sports empires” — great for about 40 big schools and a handful of mid-tier programs, but a losing proposition for about 300 Div I programs who lose out.

Today we noted that only 23 Div I programs are profitable, meaning 317 are not. Is this right or good? Is it sustainable? Is it worth the ills, evils, temptations and confabulations to continue arguing that these athletes are “students first”? When they put as many as 60 hours into their sport per week?

Ashley asked the logical question: Who should fix this? Who do we turn to for a solution? Abbie asked why college presidents do nothing about this dangerously symbiotic relationship, one that threatens to turn college football (and sometimes basketball) into the tail that wags the dog of higher education. The University of Alabama begins looking like a football program that happens to offer academic degrees in most of the major disciplines. Same for any of the elite football program schools.

Tackle Ashely’s question and one more regarding “the charade of college sports”: Should schools offer varsity athletes academic credit for their sport? Perhaps even a football “major”? Your reading to help you think through this comes from the article, “Football Major, Basketball Minor?” appearing in last Sunday’s New York Times. Provide your thoughts in a comment to this post, and do so by Wednesday’s class time of 10am.


Signs of the apocalypse

December 29, 2014

What does it mean for us as a society, as a culture and as a people when we pay a college football coach $8 million a year? I’m writing this the day we learn that Jim Harbaugh will leave the San Francisco 49ers (a team name premised on a gold rush) to coach his alma mater, the University of Michigan after agreeing to a 6-year contract worth $48 million. Watching the ESPN “coverage” the hegemonic reaction this morning, the ratified reaction is, “Good for him!” Sure, but what about college athletics? Colleges? The rest of us? It would take me more than 80 years to earn what Harbaugh will make for a single season, which will be punctuated by approximately a dozen football Saturdays. And an awful lot of state legislators believe we college professors make too much.

It just doesn’t make any sort of rational sense except by the cold, hard calculations of college football as big business. The University of Texas football program turned a profit in 2012 of $70 million. That’s profit. And most of it comes from television, or entertainment. It’s no accident that the first letter in ESPN’s acronymic name stands for Entertainment. Sports is second. When will we recognize that big-time college football has little if anything to do with education, with college, with teaching and learning? When we recognize that Division I football is essentially and in almost every way a professional enterprise? When will we unhitch this steamrolling, money-making academic charade from higher education? I couldn’t help but wonder what $48 million might buy Michigan’s academic departments, majors and institutes, which is to say a lot. Or what that money could do if applied to addressing public health (such as Ebola, cancer and how to fix our healthcare system), racial injustice in law enforcement (i.e., situations like Ferguson), or the growing economic divide in America (take a look at this short video: It will blow your mind).

Is this how Rome looked just before the collapse of the Roman Empire? With 115,000 or so filing into Ann Arbor’s colosseum to watch its Wolverine gladiators on Saturdays, it will look a lot like Rome circa 400 A.D. (And I’m not picking on Michigan; we could be talking about Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee, Baton Rouge or a hundred other football cathedrals, a hundred other football CEOs like Harbaugh and Saban.) This isn’t about any one college; this is about us, and about what’s really important.

Well, gotta go. The Autozone Liberty Bowl just came on . . .


Choice of 3 photo safaris

October 20, 2014

For Visual Rhetoric (COM 270): We will divide and conquer, a third of the room doing one of the following photo safaris.

Group A will write about a photo of their choosing, but they will write about everything except what is in the photo. Comment on the paper, the depth (or perceived depth), the ink or the pixels. What is before you, or between you and that which the photo is seeking to represent? Look at what the photo is made of, in other words, at the medium of the medium.

Group B will observe and write about what James Elkins calls “punctum,” or anything in the photo other than what you are supposed to see. For example, for the photo accompanying this post, everything but the elderly man who is the primary subject of the photo. Describe everything else. This safari is about “little journeys,” private readings, a visual amusement ride.

streetGroup C will discuss how they use photography. Susan Sontag suggests that you determine what a photo means by looking at how it is being used. It means how it is used. So how do you “use” photography? Why? Why do you use photography? Consume images? Dig deep here and look at what these uses might say about you. For example, think about the expression: “It didn’t happen unless it’s on Facebook,” which refers to images, photos. Think of how many times you and your friends did something or went somewhere expressly for the photos, for the images. What does this say about us?


Describing your memory palace and how it works

October 14, 2014

For Visual Rhetoric (COM 270): You were asked to watch Josh Foer’s TED talk on memory and the ancient practice of creating, imagining memory palaces. The one I created to remember where you all are from uses Curt Hersey, a bunch of black polecats, hundreds of Abraham Lincoln heads (with stovepipe hats, of course), Larry Marvin, an army base, and a clown car, among other things. Describe yours here, and what you used it to remember. How well did it work for you, and to what purpose? An exam? Impressing friends at a party? What?


Religion, culture & “connective tissue”

October 10, 2014

For students of COM 270: Visual Rhetoric:

I would call today’s Visual Rhetoric class discussion the best we’ve had this semester, and by quite a margin. We unpacked Bill Maher’s statements on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. We talked about the dangers of conflating religion, culture, cultural practice and norms, and even pure politics. We talked about who gets to decide who is a “moderate,” who is “in the club” (and therefore who is definitely, even dangerously “out” of the club). We discussed the impulse to blame the “Other,” the “out” group: Sarah mentioned Malala Yousfazi’s experience (she just won a Nobel). And I promised you a link to Maher’s own Real Time “debate” with Ben Affleck (warning: language). We looked at Nick’s Booker video, listened to a slave auction, and recognized that to be “Other”ed is to be blamed for things we have nothing to do with, have no control over.

As I told you in class, we’ll hold off on the advertising safari, so don’t worry about that just yet.

I advised everyone to read chapters 3 and 4 of Apkon. I assigned you each to construct a memory palace based on Josh Feuer’s description of the ancient memory skill linked off our webpage, and to be read to share it.

I pointed you to the take-home midterm, which is due in ONE WEEK.

If you haven’t posted your “Other” experience to this blog (but not this blog post), do so before you leave campus for Fall Break. Which reminds me: Have an awesome break!!!


Yik Yak and the First Amendment

October 4, 2014

What should academic freedom look like in 2014?

Private and public campuses both are wrestling with this question, and on a number of fronts. A former UVa English professor is asking this in his lawsuit against the University of Illinois, for rescinding an offer to hire him after becoming displeased with that professor’s anti-Israel over the summer. Are his tweets protected expression under the First Amendment. Of course. But he hasn’t been censored. The legal question is whether by rescinding the offer to hire, has Illinois unconstitutionally punished him for his expression, or violated state or federal employment law in withdrawing the offer over his expression.

Twitter lives in a fascinating middle space between mass communication (public) and interpersonal communication (private, or at least not pubic), and the law hasn’t yet figured out quite what to do with this new hybrid form. To this point, I just heard today of Yik Yak, a new social media platform that works like Snapchat, only with text and for anonymous expression. Lawyers no doubt are licking their chops, and college administrators likely are adding this to their many reasons not to get good sleep at night worrying about risk, liability and Title IX.

So the question, posed by one of my JoMC 711 Writing for Digital Media students: Where is (or should be) the balance between creating a civil, rape culture-free environment for all students and any sort of absolute freedom of speech?”

To cite Yik Yak again, certainly the mixture of college students and anonymity is NOT the way to achieve this balance, though under the First Amendment, I believe clearly there is some cover of protection for truly anonymous expression. But near-adult college students and risk-free anonymous expression? Lawyers, start your search engines! It’s asking for trouble, as precedents JuicyCampus and TheDirty.com clearly demonstrate.

And I’m sure Yik Yak will hide behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for legal protection, just like the many that have preceded it have. The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear a Facebook case in which a man either threatened or did not threaten his estranged wife with posts, both written and photographic. It is this “true threat” determination that will swing the case one way or the other.

Now most people understand that First expression rights aren’t absolute, a principle that goes back to 1919 and Justice Holmes’s philosophical question: Should it be protected expression to yell “Fire!” in a crowded moviehouse, recognizing that this can and has led to death by trampling (a fire in a Rhode Island nightclub a few years ago, for ex.). (Steve Martin asked the corollary in his standup act in the 1970s: Is it OK to yell “Movie!” in a crowded firehouse?) But the First is understood today to protect offensive, troublesome, disturbing expression, even especially so, because we don’t need the First for expression that isn’t any of these things.

So where should the line be drawn?

For the Supreme Court, that line would seem to be required to pass two tests: First, it can’t discriminate against some expression, or preference some expression over other expression (RAV v. City of St. Paul, ’92). This decision struck down a state law that forbade burning crosses or the display of swastikas because it therefore ALLOWED all sorts of other problematic expression. Abortion clinic buffer laws have to pass this same test.

Second, the discriminating line has to criminalize ONLY expression that is perceived as a targeted or directed threat, which is Virginia v. Black (’03), one of O’Connor’s last big cases, and the just-mentioned Facebook angry husband case. In the former, a burning cross in an open field in Virginia was protected expression because no one person could persuasively argue that that cross was meant to threaten him or her.

So there is a sort of Scylla and Charybdis (rock and a hard place) dilemma for college administrators trying to find the balance. These administrators, some of whom understand the value of academic freedom and the hard-won First rights we all should enjoy and some of whom do not, are asked to come up with and then enforce policy that attempts to discourage “rape culture” but that at the same time stops short of infringing on anyone’s First rights. This is really, really difficult, especially at public institutions (or “state actors”), which is why speech codes and hate speech codes at places like Stanford and Michigan have been found unconstitutional under the First when challenged in a court of law.

But anonymous expression? Especially problematic, because to take action against someone whose expression has heretofore been anonymous, you must know who he or she is, and to unmask that person is to go ahead and punish them before the case is even heard. When and where that should be allowed puts judges in a most difficult position indeed. Should Thomas Paine have been unmasked (he wrote The Common Sense pseudonymously)? The writers of the Federalist Papers, all of whom wrote pseudonymously? Benjamin Franklin? He used at least 40 different pseudonyms during his long, illustrious publishing career, including Silence Dogood and Anthony Afterwit. Really. And Mark Twain, O. Henry, Voltaire, George Eliot, and George Sand all are pseudonyms.

So this is a really hard nut to crack.

Coincidentally, this week we celebrated Tuesday the 50th anniversary of protests in the wake of student Jack Weinberg’s arrest for distributing civil rights literature from a table in a public square at U Cal Berkley in 1964.

What do the 45 words of the First Amendment actually mean? On a college campus where students are experimenting with so many things, including expression, often with little regard for the reputational rights of others? They will mean what our justices and judges say they mean.


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