Got Milk? Dara (I mean Dairy) Torres does.

The ‘Got Milk?’ campaign has a long history of featuring celebrities and athletes who encourage consumers to increase milk consumption for improved health. dara_torres_milk-adpdf4Athletes for example such as, Diana Taurasi, Steve Nash, Serena Williams, and David Beckham have appeared in the campaign. With the release of her new book Age is Just a Number, swimming Olympian Dara Torres seems to be everywhere, including in the most recent Got Milk? ad pictured here.

While this ad is just one of many Torres’ sexy “see my body at 42” pictures (See TIME cover also pictured here) what ‘Got Me’ is the ad copy.

dara_torres_timeTorres is not featured as Dara Torres…but “Dairy” Torres. Why is this a problem? Dara Torres is a five-time Olympian with 12 medals. Dairy Torres is a fictional character…she does not exist. The play on words at the end of the ad copy also sexualizes Torres (“Lap it up” and Dairy…I don’t need to make the connection for you do I?). These two ad copy examples demonstrate how even the most successful female athletes can be marginalized, often in subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

I looked at numerous other Got Milk? ads featuring athletes, and I did not see one ad that referred to a person by a name other than their own—male or female. For example David Beckham’s ad says “Goal By Beckham. Body by Milk”. Why is it that one of THE most decorated female Olympians who has defied assumptions about optimal performance, age and motherhood is portrayed in this way? To prove my point would a similar ad featuring male Olympic swimmer Micheal Phelps say “Milky Phelps” and end with a tag line saying “Lap it up” or “Suck it up”? The ad for Torres could of simply said, “(Alot of) Medals by Torres. Body by Milk”.

If You Succeed…Don’t Try, Try Again…Coach Men!?

When a coach excels in coaching, for example women’s basketball, why is the coach encouraged or challenged to try a hand at coaching men?

This pattern of comparison has happened a few times this year, ironically to two of the most successful coaches in women’s collegiate basketball. Most recently, Geno Auriemma (Head Coach of the UConn Women’s Basketball team and current National Champions) was praised by Bobby Knight after Tuesday’s championship game. Knight said in response to Auriemma’s sixth national title in women’s basketball, “The guy is really, really a good coach. One of the best that I’ve ever seen in the game of basketball.” Knight went on to say that Auriemma is so good, he could even coach men. When Tennessee Lady Vol Head Coach Pat Summitt won her 1,000th game this year, adding to the fact she has the most wins of ANY coach in college basketball, some argued she is “so good” she should or could coach men. (Ironically I don’t think Knight had similar praise for Summit’s achievements) I have NEVER heard the reverse, such as, “John Calipari is so good, he should consider coaching the women,” or “Roy Williams has won a couple national championships on the men’s side, he could even coach women.” Why?—because this would be perceived as a ludicrous step backwards.

Assuming Auriemma or Summitt would want to coach men, suggesting they could or should is insulting, not complimentary. Such statements are based on the assumption that coaching men is the “real game”, the pinnacle, or more rewarding than coaching women. It also implies that a coach hasn’t “made it” unless s/he has coached men and constructs the women’s game as less valued and important. Similarly, it suggests that coaching men is more difficult and challenging, takes away from the accomplishments of successful coaches in the women’s game, and marginalizes their coaching achievements. Instead of speculation and comparison, let us simply celebrate and applaud their accomplishments.

What Makes an Effective Coach?….It’s NOT Gender!

Ok, ok so there were two male head coaches vying for the NCAA-I Women’s Basketball Championship in 2009—the first time since 1988. Kudos to Geno Auriemma and Jeff Walz, obviously they are effective coaches. Why was this media worthy? The media’s coverage and the public interest in this phenomenon seemed disproportionate and rooted in three major beliefs (and probably more, so please weigh in!). First, is it that we are shocked that is has been SO long—over 20 years!—since males have coached two teams to the national championship in the most visible, well attended and popular sports in women’s collegiate athletics (even though men are the majority of coaches in this sport and level)? Or second…is it that we are surprised that at least one female coach has trained her team into the championship for the past 21 of 28 years (click here to see the breakdown)? Did you know that in the history of the NCAA-I Women’s Basketball Tournament that 75% of the winning teams were coached by female head coaches? Or third, are we celebrating the fact that despite the dearth of female collegiate coaches and the host of social, personal and structural barriers they face, females have managed to thrive in women’s basketball? Or… is it a mix of all three? Whichever way you lean, the bigger questions are—why are people surprised, and why is this newsworthy? I think the disproportionate attention reveals some deep seeded beliefs about male and female coaches and their abilities.

One writer on the NCAA.com blog quickly made the link between two male coaches in the final and why female athletes prefer male coaches. That is a BIG leap and is problematic on many levels as fellow Women Talk Sports blogger Megan Hueter points out. I am also reminded of the Women’s Sport Foundation position paper that refutes myths and commonly held assumptions about the female athlete “preference” for male coaches. I won’t recap all the main points which discuss in short, the effects of rarely seeing females in positions of power in all contexts, the belief that male coaches are more competent, and homophobia. I encourage you to read it.

In the end, after UConn and Auriemma cut down the nets, I am certain of a few things. I’m certain that the reason why all the women’s basketball teams in the last 28 years have ended up playing for a national championship is that they had EFFECTIVE coaches—which has nothing to do with the gender of the coach. I’m also certain the players on those teams were talented. I hope, sooner rather than later, that we can move away from talking about the gender of the coach and turn our primary attention to the characteristics that make a coach effective.

Size Matters: Big Girls on the Court

The Women’s NCAA Final Four basketball games aired Sunday night, April 5. I enjoyed the games, but was distracted by the constant focus on the weight and weight loss of the athletes. Based on water cooler talk and Twitters, many others noticed this trend and were also bothered. Two of the most notable discussions pertained to Oklahoma player Ashley Paris and Stanford’s Jayne Appel—both of whom had “dedicated” themselves in the off season and lost “over 20 pounds”. I lost track of how many times their weight loss was discussed. I know the weight loss of “The Dancing Bear”(aka Draymond Green) a player on the Michigan State men’s team, was also a topic of discussion in the coverage of the men’s tournament…but not nearly to the degree of the female players (Note: when men are “fat” they are often feminized…i.e. “dancing” bear…not “fierce, vicious bear”…but that is a topic for another blog). Why does lopsided gendered commentary about weight matter?

In the case of Appel and A. Paris, sport fans were told the weight loss was motivated by the desire of the athletes to optimize performance and commentators were very quick to attribute improved performance to weight loss. This may be true, however the repeated focus of sport commentary on the weight loss of female athletes also raises concerns and questions.

A constant focus on weight loss may send the message to young girls that in order to be a good athlete, you need to be thin. Thin, lean, disciplined bodies are the feminine norm, while strong, powerful, big female bodies often fall under scrutiny. Young girls who love and play certain sports where big, tall, strong bodies are requisite—like basketball—might be scrutinized (internally and by others). Therefore it is not surprising is that both A.Paris and Appel are “big girls” that play under the basket—positions where you need size and strength. I did not hear any discussion about the weight or fitness of any of the perimeter players. Mixed messages about body size and athletic performance may deter some girls from pursuing sports where strength and size matter, while making “fat” athletic (as some sport scholars call f/athletes) girls feel inadequate or self-loathing.

Decades of research documents sport media coverage more often than not highlights the physical attractiveness of female athletes while downplaying athletic competence. This pattern has consequences. The American Psychological Association states that the high value placed on physical attractiveness can result in girls experiencing reduced cognitive functioning, low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, diminished sexual health, and internalization of stereotypes. Similarly, the National Eating Disorders Association states, “Media messages screaming “thin is in” may not directly cause eating disorders, but they help to create the context within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body. To the extent that media messages like advertising and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful and what is ‘good,’ the media’s power over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong.”

Public commentary about the weight of female athletes by coaches (i.e., in practice, public weigh-ins) or sport media on national television is not productive and might be detrimental to girls—let alone the target(s) of the commentary.

Commentary on weight loss also reinforces the idea that if an individual is overweight (which has a “know it when we see it” quality), she is morally corrupt and irresponsible. F/athletes often create resentment and hostility from onlookers who often assume, are taught, and learn that being “fat” or “big” is bad. These themes played out in the constant comparison between the twin sisters Ashley and Courtney Paris. Ashley Paris was described as a hard working, disciplined player who decided to get herself into shape and rededicate herself to becoming the best she could be. In fact, multiple times the commentators said Ashley would go in the first round of the WNBA draft due to her new found fitness level. Conversely, her twin sister Courtney Paris (known most recently for her promise to pay back her scholarship if Oklahoma did not win the national championship) needed to “lean up” and was implicitly constructed as the less dedicated (i.e., lazy), fat, unfit sister—despite the fact she is a unanimous first round pick. There were many times where talk of Ashley Paris’ improved footwork and her newly fit body was combined with talk of “only if” her sister could also “get fit” and improve her game for the next level. While this may be true, Courtney Paris ALREADY IS a good player! In fact she is the first player—regardless of sex, division, or governing body—to score 2,500 points and record 2,000 rebounds in a career, and the ONLY four-time All-American in women’s basketball. Some might ask, “How did Courtney Paris achieve this elite level of sporting success DESPITE her ‘level of fitness’?” or “How can a fat body be a healthy and athletic body?” C. Paris as a high-performing large female body, challenges assumptions and raises many questions.

Many of my colleagues have written about these issues in depth, I am merely borrowing from their critiques (see the special issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2008 dedicated to the social construction of “fatness” in athletic bodies).

With both Stanford and Oklahoma out of the tournament, hopefully we won’t hear anymore female “f/athlete” commentary in the championship game. It is distracting to say the least.

Because sport can be a powerful tool in negating the effects of an over-emphasis on the physical appearance of females, media portrayals and sport commentary of sportswomen become an important tool for teaching young girls to focus on—and honor—what their bodies (regardless of size) can do versus what they can look like. For the Championship game the sole focus should be on the athletic abilities of these great female athletes—who come in all shapes and sizes.

UConn’s Auriemma Refutes Race Logic in Women’s Basketball

I’m about to watch the Women’s Final Four and I’m looking forward to it.  During the last couple weeks I’ve watched a lot of basketball—like many of you. When I watch I can’t help myself but watch with a critical eye.  Examining sport with a critical eye is the focus on this blog. I will try to use that critical lens to challenge the common sense ways we think about sport, to raise questions about deeply held assumptions, note inequalities as well as significant similarities and differences, and to point out connections between our love of sport, and the larger social world in which we live, work and play.

When I watch sports I listen to the commentators and the coverage for patterns of gender, class and race logic language that perpetuate inequalities. (I don’t believe sport commentators purposely try to reproduce these patterns, but the effect is the same nonetheless). Tonight the match-up between Stanford and UConn will provide a perfect breeding ground for race logic to flourish—but I hope I’m wrong.

Race logic is the idea that athletic success for White athletes is attributed to intelligence and hard work, while athletic achievements for Black athletes is attributed to toughness, speed, power and athleticism.  Race logic is a way of thinking and web of beliefs that people use to give meaning to the world and make sense of their observations and experiences. As colleague and sport sociologist Jay Coakley writes, “There is no evidence showing that skin color is related to physical traits that are essential for athletic excellence across sports or in any particular sport.” Today, UConn Basketball Head Coach Geno Auriemma stated in an interview race logic does indeed exist in the women’s basketball and that it is “bull” and “unfair”.

In the Final Four in St. Louis, the “smart” and mostly White Stanford team matches up with an “athletic”, predominately Black UConn team. Listen for examples of race logic and comment on them here. The problems with race logic are many, but to name a few: 1) race logic is form of racism, and 2) it is based on stereotypical overgeneralizations, and 3) the athleticism, speed, talent and toughness of Stanford and the intelligence of UConn gets erased. An NCAA Division I athlete has to possess both athletic talent and intelligence to succeed at the highest level of collegiate sport. Geno got it right…race logic is crap. Good luck to all four teams tonight that are filled with young women who are highly talented basketball players AND who are also intelligent.

If you want to examine your knowledge about race and sport, take the White Men Can’t Jump and Other Assumptions About Race & Sport quiz.