Much of what I have done athletically and now do professionally would not look the same without Pat Summitt.We have lost a pioneer for women’s sports and a legacy coach. While she holds the record for most wins in college basketball, her legacy is about so much more than winning and National Championships. While I only met Pat once very briefly, I feel compelled to honor and thank her. Pat, I and so many others, are grateful for how you made a difference, particularly for girls and women in sport. RIP
Elizabeth Daniels, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Mary Jo Kane, Ph.D., Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, U of Minnesota
Cheryl Cooky, Ph.D., Associate Professor of American Studies, Purdue University
Nicole M LaVoi, Ph.D., Co-Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, U of Minnesota
Sports Illustrated (SI) recently named Serena Williams its Sportsperson of the Year. As scholars who have spent our academic careers examining media coverage of women’s sports, we are thrilled to see a highly accomplished female athlete awarded this most prestigious title. Considering her on-the-court accomplishments in 2015 Williams is clearly worthy, having won three major tennis titles, amassing an overall 53-3 record, and extending her No. 1 ranking for a third consecutive year. Williams has now joined an elite club of past SI winners: Only 8 other women and one women’s team are in this elite group compared to 68 male athletes or men’s teams. It should be noted that Williams is only the second women of color to be awarded this distinction (track & field star Judi Brown King was the first in 1987). This honor is especially poignant on the heels of Williams’ return to the WTA’s Indian Wells Tournament this past spring after a 13-year boycott of the tournament where she endured racist comments from the audience in 2001 about which tournament organizers did nothing. SI noted her commitment to drawing attention to issues of race in sport was part of why Williams was selected. Serena Williams has proven herself to be a champion time and time again despite discriminatory and harmful distractions leveled at her by sport audiences and media. For example, she was subjected to critiques of her muscularity this summer in an article in The New York Times on body image in sport, which some argued was a thinly veiled commentary regarding black women’s bodies and how they do not fit white, middle-class norms of beauty.
In spite of Williams’ unprecedented accomplishments as arguably the greatest female tennis player in U.S. history, she was featured on the cover in a sexually provocative pose. Perhaps anticipating criticism for such a choice—SI is, after all, a sports not a fashion magazine—they immediately emphasized the point via tweet that this portrayal was Williams’ idea. The choice to feature Williams dressed in an all-black lace bodysuit and patent leather power pumps perched on a throne as Queen of the Court has been supported by some who see this portrayal as empowering. We suggest that there were other choices available to SI and to Williams herself, ones that are not only empowering, but powerful. Unfortunately, such an editorial choice is not new at SI. Anna Kournikova (5 June 2000), Jennie Finch (11 July 2005), and Lindsey Vonn (8 February 2010) have all been portrayed in similarly sexualized ways. Serena Williams herself has appeared in SI’s Swimsuit Issue in 2003. Perhaps not surprisingly, SI has a poor track record when it comes to depicting highly accomplished female athletes outside of the Swimsuit Issue. A recent study of SI covers from 2000-2011 found that women were on only 35 out of 716 covers, and just 11 of those 35 covers showed female athletes in poses comparable to male athletes (2). Clearly, it is a rarity to see a female athlete portrayed as an athletic champion on the cover of this incredibly influential U.S. sports magazine. Regrettably, female athletes are similarly ignored in broadcast media (3). As a result, we fail to see female athletes on any regular basis portrayed as accomplished athletes in mainstream sport media and we have all written previously about how this paucity of coverage negatively impacts interest in women’s sports (4).
Sexualized images of female athletes, in contrast, are not hard to find–simply google ‘female athletes.’ Numerous scholars have also documented that the sexualization of female athletes is a common practice (5). Unfortunately, this is part of a broader pattern wherein girls and women are sexualized in media and popular culture. Three major reports from the UK (6), U.S. (7), and Australia (8) have all documented the prevalence of this practice and its negative consequences on girls and women. When women are sexualized in the media, female viewers may think of their own bodies as objects and reduce their personal value to their physical attractiveness instead of to their talents, personality, and contributions to the world. Our own research has shown that this is precisely how adolescent girls and college women respond to sexualized images of female athletes (9). In addition, sexualized images of female athletes do not generate interest in women’s sports (10). Research also indicates that media images which portray female athletes in powerful action photos generate not only interest in, but respect for, women’s sports. Additionally, after viewing such images teen girls and college-age women are more likely to think about their bodies in terms of their physical skills and capabilities. Portraying sportswomen as gifted and accomplished athletes has the untapped potential to make girls and women feel good about their bodies—which is a significant challenge in today’s media environment inundated with unrealistic and idealized images that create body dissatisfaction.
In an ideal—not to mention realistic—world, images which display female athletes (and their bodies) for what they actually do rather than how sexually empowered they may appear would be easy to come by. If this were the case, girls and young women could have magazine covers of their female sports heroes in their bedrooms as a reminder of what women are capable of and as an equally important reminder that our society values them for what their own bodies can achieve on the court, rather than for how sexually attractive they are. Unfortunately, as Sports Illustrated reminds us, female athletes who dominate their sport are currently only celebrated if they look good doing so.
I recently had the opportunity to work in collaboration with espnW to develop discussion guides for the Emmy-nominated Nine for IX film series.
Nine for IX premiered June 18, 2013, as part of ESPN’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Inspired by the 40th anniversary of Title IX, ESPN Films and espnW produced nine documentary films about women in sports, told through the lens of female filmmakers. Nine for IX Films are a collection of remarkable stories that offer teachable moments and powerful lessons in the history of sports. .
The Nine for IX Knowledge Center is a free resource available to institutions, organizations, administrators, professors, coaches, and students who want to lead thoughtful and engaging discussions around key themes in the films. The Knowledge Center provides discussion guides for each film, film posters, and a sign-up form to receive the Nine for IX DVD set, all free of charge. The Knowledge Center is a tool that goes beyond the entertainment value of the films and leverages the rich educational content of the embedded lessons and messages within the films.
The discussion guides generate thought-provoking discussion topics around key themes and issues present in the films such as gender equality, intersectionality, identity politics, sport and politics, social class, racism, and sexism, along with issues related to sport psychology, sports media coverage, sports marketing, and sports as a vehicle for developing role models. Each unique guide contains Key Concepts, Discussion Questions, Additional Readings and Additional Activities.
I wrote a specific guide for coaches for The 99ers, a film about the 1999 Women’s World Cup Championship team, that coaches can use as a team building activity and to discuss what it takes to develop performance excellence and a positive team culture.
To access the free materials, including obtaining a free DVD box set of the Nine for IX film series, discussion guides, and posters visit the espnW Nine for IX Knowledge Center.
Recent events in sport and outside of sport (i.e., Elliot Rodger) have given visibility in clear and stomach turning ways to the fact that girls and women face sexism, misogyny and sexual and domestic violence at alarming rates. Lately blatant acts of derisiveness against women have been numerous, or perhaps they promoted more dramatically by the media. I hope these events and others provide a real and critical turning point in bringing awareness and dialogue about how to reduce all these offensive behaviors directed at and onto women….especially in and through sport.
NFL star Ray Rice was caught on hotel video cameras dragging his then fiance (now wife) from an elevator after he punched her unconscious. In an embarrassing press conference where he tried to save face, he never apologized TO his wife yet she acknowledged her role in contributing to the incident. The Ravens perpetuated and minimized the culture of violence against women by live tweeting from the Rice press conference that constructed a “feel good narrative of personal redemption” without having to really address the problem with their star or their organizational complicity to victimizing the victim. Rice’s sanction is TBD, but I will predict it will be minimal.
The rape case against high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio is also a not too distant occurrence.
Sexism is such a common part of women’s lives, many do not realize they experience it daily, and females who experience more egregious behaviors from men often take blame for their own victimization (just ask Janay Palmer). The incidents above and countless others that involve men in positions of power in sport and star athletes in the most popular and televised men’s sports, highlight the uphill battle that all girls and women face when battling sexism, misogyny and violence toward them and their sisters. Sport is one of the most powerful social institutions and when men in sport exhibit egregious behavior toward women and are not punished, it not only tells young men this is an expected part of being a male athlete, but it communicates to women and girls that being victimized, belittled, objectified and powerless is a normal part of womanhood. What do all these men have in common?…..power.
Whether that power is personal, professional, social, economic, or expertise-based (or all of the above) when it is used and enacted in a “power-over” way, the result for women and girls is often negative. Public apologies for egregious, boorish and/or illegal behavior of men in sport toward women should not be sufficient, but is often used to erase collective memory and the “Restart” button is pushed. Violence toward women is not funny or something to be joked about (like it was in a recent Texas bar sign which read–“I like my beer like I like my violence. Domestic.”). Female fans, parents with daughters, men with wives or anyone that cares about the treatment of women should be appalled that such behaviors go unpunished as it creates a culture of violence and mistreatment toward ALL women and girls.
Many have argued that sexism is the last “ism” to be seriously confronted and conquered, and I would agree. However, until there are more women in positions of power in sport, men are held accountable in real ways for their damaging behavior, boys are taught that “being a real man” isn’t related to violence, domination and physicality on or off the field, society takes sexism and violence against women seriously (such as the recent White House campaign NotAlone.gov) and we stop hero worship of male athletes in “the Big 4” sports, this is unlikely to change. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
With the death of Maya Angelou who wrote:
“I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.”
If we lived in a world where all girls and women believed and embraced the sentiment of your poem and all males respected and treated women as equals, the world would be a better place.
Recently I was asked to speak to a student assembly at my high school alma mater, St. Cloud Technical High School in St. Cloud Minnesota. Go Tigers! Although I lecture to college students everyday, I suddenly was fearful I had nothing of worth to say to high school students. I decided to tell them what I wish I would of known in high school. So here are 5 things I came up with:
1. High school is not the “best time of your life”, this is a marketing gimmick used to sell class rings. High school for some can be a painful time of puberty, hazing, bullying, isolation, identity crisis, friendship and romantic relationship turmoil, mental health issues, and trying on new ideas to name a few. The best days of your life are ahead!
2. Follow your passion. Listen to yourself and follow your instincts to do what you love. Life is too short to do something, whether it be a sport, job, or relationship, you are not happy doing. Follow your positive energy. A book I’m excited to read over winter break is The Energy Bus. One idea in this book is to think about is be your own CEO–Chief Energy Officer. Think “I get to do…” rather than “I have to do.” Many things we do in our lives, it is a privilege, but we often start to feel negative or obligated. Reframe your thinking to “I get to” and see if it doesn’t make a difference in how you feel.
3. Learn from everyone you encounter. Take the best from that person and make it your own …or remember what you don’t like and promise never to do or be THAT person.
4. When things get tough,hard, sad, scary or frustrating–and they will–remember thatthis too shall pass.
5. Use your passion and energy to create change, do good and make a difference. One person CAN make a difference. Be THAT person.
I haven’t had much to time to blog lately with end of semester stuff, reading thesis drafts, grading papers, and all those things professors do. However, yesterday I went to both the undergraduate and graduate student commencements for the College of Education and Human Development for the University of Minnesota and wanted to share a few thoughts.
1. One of our commencement speakers Na’im Madyun, gave a creative, thoughtful address to the undergraduates. T. Mychael Rambo also performed a musical piece and gave a speech in which he said his father used to tell him, “Everyone is born with a degree in the humanities and accounting. You are accountable for yourself and everyone is a human being, so act like one.” Love this!
2. Each time I go to commencement I am reminded by the 1997 commencement address by Oprah at Wellesley College, when I was teaching and coaching tennis there. She said, “The first time someone shows you their real self, believe them,” I have reflected on and used this advice many times over the years and it holds true every time. It holds true for people who both enrich your life, and for those who are toxic energy vampires. Her address is worth reading.
3. Seeing the smiling faces of the students as they walked across the stage reminded me why I am in higher education…and everyone needs a reminder like that from time to time.
4. Three of my amazing graduate students walked in commencement, including my very first doctoral student. Oprah read Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Women” poem to the women of Wellesley College, and it is a fitting poem these graduate students and the others I have the privilege of working with on a daily basis. I am very grateful for all the students I get to work with and teach (even when they are questioning me about their final grades!)
Summary: Act like a human being with kindness and empathy, be grateful for the people who make a difference in your life, and make sure to take the time to reflect on why you do what you do.
As I was walking into school today from the parking lot, two men were talking about women’s sport who were walking behind me. Given the topic I was listening in to see what they were saying, as it is rare I hear two men discussing this topic. It quickly became apparent to me they were discussing a class that one of them had taken, and dropped, that is taught by my colleague.
I’m guessing because they were coming upon Cooke Hall, where he took the class, it spurred him to remember the professor whom he described as “a feminist”…and he wasn’t using that as a term of endearment. In fact he then went onto to say “she was some sort of raging feminist who thought women’s sport should be on TV…and that she should get real because it is a business.” At that point his buddy asked him, “Did she used to play soccer?” Now I was really listening!
He said he’s taken the class as part of his major but this professor was a real crazy b*tch because one day they were talking in class about football, and the professor was arguing that “some women could play football.” To him, as a former high school football player, this was the most ludicrous idea he’d ever heard and because she so out there and was such a crazy feminist, he dropped the class and switched majors!
He as never going to entertain another perspective. His perspective was right, and this female professor was crazy. Period. I find these type people and students dangerous, because they then have the possibility to go into the work force and perpetuate current power structures and ideologies (ways of thinking) that marginalize women and dismiss alternative perspectives.And because he was a young, White, fairly good looking former athlete his opinion automatically carries more power.
Second, I didn’t like the venomous way he talked about “feminists.” I’m not sure he really knew what a feminists really way, but he didn’t like them and in his words thought “they were stupid.” For his information and anyone else that wants/needs to know the definition of a feminist is: any person (not only women) who have an aim of establishing equal rights and legal protection for women, and who believes in the social, political, and economical equality of the sexes.
Why it might be good idea to let her play: the team will mirror the gender composition of the workplace in which she will largely compete against males, helps her develop life skills and “toughness” in competition, her tennis skills will improve, increased recognition which may help with recruiting, helps the boys learn to appreciate athletic talent of girls, has the potential to change outdated gender stereotypes of female athletes as “lesser”, separation of boys and girls in sport is arbitrary anyway so why not let them play together?, challenges the gender binary that all males are better than all female athletes and provides proof that many females CAN outperform or perform with males.
Why it might be a bad idea to let her play: the boys might not want her on team and it will destroy team cohesion, it might reinforce outdated gender stereotypes and ways of thinking about female athletes (the best athletes are male), her experiences will depend greatly on how the coach and the boys’ parents handle her presence on the team, Is it appropriate or should a 12 year old girl be around 17 year old males?; it takes her away from her female peers during a critical developmental window, Is it fair or healthy to ask a teen age boy to play (and possibly lose!) a younger girl…isn’t that emotional abuse?, it might open the floodgate of boys wanting to play on the girls’ team.
One thought I want to share is that I think that most boys can greatly benefit from having to compete against girls. It has the potential (and I say that cautiously) to be a great opportunity for both competitors. Isn’t that the true meaning of competition…to strive together and bring out the best in each other? (NOTE: for a good book on this topic, read True Competition by David Shields & Brenda Light Bredemeier, former colleagues of mine at Notre Dame) However, the opportunity will be lost if the adults in the lives of both competitors mess it up. By that I mean if the coach or parents tease or allow teasing of the boy if he loses, which reinforces that boys should naturally be better than girls. It also tells the boy he isn’t “a real man” if he can’t beat a GIRL and therefore should be ashamed. Comments, teasing, hazing, and bullying directed towards the female competitor should also not be allowed or tolerated.
Some colleagues and I (Fink, LaVoi & Newhall, 2015) did a study of male practice players of NCAA D-I women’s basketball teams. These researchers found the men in their study respected and appreciated the female athletes, and perspectives about female athletes and women in general did change. Overall the men described it as a very positive and transformative experience, therefore providing evidence that co-ed competition can work and lead to positive development and growth.
If it can be done at one one the highest levels of competition, surely co-ed competition can be successfully achieved at the youth and interscholastic level. Let the kids play and hopefully if the adults get it right, it will be a positive and teachable moment for all involved.