Coach Gone Wrong (and it isn’t about Paterno or Sandusky)

The last week was a particularly terrible week in terms of egregious coach behavior coming into public light. I am not going to weigh in on the Penn State/Paterno/Sandusky/He Said-He Said/Student Riots Sex Abuse scandal. Others have written on this topic. My favorite pieces (here and here) of the many out there on this topic are by Dave Zirin, who writes for The Nation. He summarizes The Big Problematic Picture of “the billion-dollar logic of big-time college football”.

What may have been lost in the media frenzy over the aforementioned was the egregious behavior of another football coach. A Wyoming high school football coach resigned after he made his players fill out a “Hurt Feelings Survey” (see picture). What would possess a coach of boys to conceive, construct and deliver such a survey is baffling to many. However, it isn’t all that mysterious when placed in the big picture context of how football is the epitome of a masculinity breeding ground and apprenticeship for teaching boys how to be men.

This survey teaches boys exactly what is expected of (real) men: don’t be weak, don’t have feelings, don’t show weakness, don’t tattle on other boys and men (i.e., perpetuate the culture of silence if you are harmed or abused, or see harm being done to others…sound familiar?), don’t be anything but a masculine heterosexual, and don’t turn to others for support or seek comfort¬† when you are hurt (especially from a female like your mother who will surely feminize you even more!…tough it out by yourself and be a rugged individual). This survey teaches boys that being a real man is in opposition to: boyhood and childish behaviors, girls and women and all things feminine, nurturing forms of masculinity (like those needed by fathers and real partners), and gay men.

While the coach who constructed this survey was dumb enough to actually put this all on paper, don’t for a second think other coaches don’t “teach” these lessons to boys every day, in every sport, in every state. Until “lessons” like these are eradicated in youth and interscholastic sports through awareness, coach education and public outcry, the problems like those we have all hard about this week will unfortunately persist.

A New, Old Model of Sport

Since I returned from the espnW Summit a month or so ago, coupled with the WNBA Champions Minnesota Lynx win and the media treatment of their season, the conference the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport just hosted about creating change, the sport sociology conference (NASSS) which followed, and the breaking news of the Sundusky/Penn State/Paterno/Football scandal….I have a LOT of thoughts I’m going to try and put together coherently.

We are coming upon the 40 year anniversary of Title IX in 2012, landmark federal legislation which dramatically increased participation opportunities for female athletes in educational settings. Roughly 40% of all female sport participants at the high school and collegiate levels are female, yet female athletes receive only 2-4% of all sport media coverage and when they do they are often sexualized and portrayed in ways that minimize athletic talent, females are under-represented at all levels of sport in all positions of power, rampant homophobia exists in most sport climates which affects the sporting experiences of athletes and coaches regardless of sexual orientation, and in all sport settings boys and men outnumber girls and women.

How it is that after 40 years of participation progress for females males are the majority of participants, that females are covered LESS often in the media and are LESS often head coaches and athletic administrators than in previous decades?

As espnW is trying to find its way in marketing and drawing in female fans of sport, at the summit there was much discussion about a “new model” of sport for girls and women and not just replicating the dominant “male model” of sport which keynote presenter and former NFL player Don McPherson said “is broken.” Female athletes and those who run women’s sport do not have to aspire or replicate the male model. Some seem to forget or never knew that a different models in collegiate athletics did exist (i.e, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, AIAW, Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports, Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, CIAW). For the most part these groups were student-athlete focused, looked out for the interest of the female athletes first, and were not concerned with the big time and growing more popular “Beer & Circus” aka Sperber model that those men’s athletics were making popular. These female athlete centered, women-lead groups were (to my understanding) not about making money, corporate sponsorships, TV contracts, opportunistic conference alignments, skirting rules in order to win and satisfy alumni and fans, and figuring out how to brand their programs to increase relevancy and thus be more scalable and salable. However as the NCAA took over the AIAW, men were predominately assigned to run and coach women’s athletics, women’s collegiate sport began to resemble the men’s model (note: arguably there are some positive outcomes to imitating the male model).

My point and challenge to those who care about girls’ and women’s sport is to think about who benefits when “we” replicate, imitate, uphold and reproduce the male model of athletics? Is this what we want to aspire to? Can we do it better? What does “better” look like and mean? How can we take what was working in the days of the AIAW, DGWS and CIAW, and merge it with new innovative ideas, to create a “new-old” model of women’s sport?

Should we think about these questions? Does it matter? I think the answer is a resounding: YES. It does matter because if we want sustainability, growth, and respect for women’s sport I believe that is not only a good idea to think about how to do it differently than what the men are doing and from what is currently being done in women’s sport, but it is necessary and imperative. Right now there are many signs that indicate the male model is broken…look no further than big stories of this year alone including the Ohio State Football/Tressel NCAA violations, conference realignments which are all about football and fail to take into account how longer travel might affect all athletes, women’s athletics or men’s “non-revenue” sport, the University of Miami football violations scandal, or the Sandusky/Penn State/Paterno/Football sex abuse scandal.

I think “we” can do better. Participants at the Tucker Center conference discussed concrete action strategies about how to create change for girls and women in sport and move the needle on some key disparities and inequalities. I challenged them to report back in one year to tell us about what they have accomplished. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, we all should think about how to create broader change in the structure of (men’s) sport that allows and even encourages and permits the egregious behaviors of abuse and discrimination to flourish. (note: I’m not even touching upon the male professional model, which is a different discussion. Instead I’m focusing on sport programs situated in institutions of higher education).

So how do you think we can create structural changes in sport that move the needle that benefit girls and women in sport? I’d love to hear your concrete action strategies…big or small, grass roots or national, public or private.