Flashback Friday.

The common sense assumption about success in sport often involves the belief that success is a result of innate talent and intensive practice. The more of both you have, the better you are. However, who is good at a particular sport is also the result of how that sport is organized. Sports have rules and those rules are made by the people who have the power to enforce their own ideas about what the rules should be over and against less powerful people with other ideas.

Long distance ski jumpers benefit from maximizing their surface area while simultaneously decreasing their weight. The less they weigh and the more drag they can produce, the farther they go. Their bodies are the primary source of weight and, as a result, there is incredible pressure for competing ski jumpers to be as thin as possible.

After criticism that the sport was creating an incentive for disordered eating, the International Ski Federation began penalizing jumpers who had a body mass index below 20. These skiers were required to jump with shorter skis, the primary source of drag. The hope was that the shorter skis would balance out the incentive for thinness, allowing jumpers to be competitive without starving themselves.

So, who wins isn’t only related to talent and practice. It is also a consequence of rules that no longer make the ability to train while starving oneself an advantage. This is a great example of the way that we write rules that shape the context for success in a sport.

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In light of this, it’s really interesting to consider the fact that ski jumping was the last Olympic event that excluded women. Women were given their first ski jumping event in 2014, though they still have one and the men have three.

The International Olympics Committee and the International Ski Federation listed a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from claims that the sport is not yet developed enough, to the idea that adding women would crowd an already overwhelmed Olympic schedule, to the assertion that the sport is not “…appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

The rationales seem transparently thin, leading to the suggestion that the real reason that women weren’t allowed to compete — and still aren’t on parity with men — is because they might kick ass. If being lighter is an advantage, then women might beat men at the sport. In fact, during the time women’s future in Olympic ski jumping was being debated, the world record holder on the ski jump track at that year’s Olympics was held by a woman: Lindsey Van.

Sociologists recognize sport as a terrain on which social claims about gender are demonstrated. Not letting women play is one way that the mythology of men’s physical dominance has been maintained. Football is an excellent example. Women aren’t allowed to play football, it is asserted, because they are not big enough and would get hurt. Of course, rules that make size so critical to success in football also exclude the majority of men (who aren’t big enough to play either). If we organized football by weight classes, instead of gender, women could play football, and so could all of the men who are excluded as well. But, if we organized football by weight classes, we couldn’t claim that women were too small, weak, and fragile to play it.

It will be interesting to see how the future of women’s ski jumping plays out.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

Toban B. sent in some photographs and a discussion of how energy drinks are gendered.

Energy drinks are already gendered to begin with in a couple of different ways at least: (1) they are marketed as hydration for athletes and sports is a masculine arena and (2) women aren’t usually encouraged to consume “extra” calories. But, in addition to being seen as somehow for men, Toban shows how a particularly violent and aggressive kind of masculinity is reproduced in the marketing, even across different companies.

Monster energy drinks include slashes on the packaging that look like a vicious scratch and what appears to be a crosshair and bullet holes (bad aim?):

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Notice that the “flavor” in the picture above is “Sniper.”  Toban notes that “Assault” and “M-80″ are also flavors:

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The can for the Assault-flavored drink also features a camouflage design, invoking militarism.

They call their “shooters” “Hitman”:

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Both Monster and Guru link their product directly to (extreme) sports:

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Full Throttle and Amp (“Overdrive”) go for a connection to aggressive driving:

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Full Throttle energy drinks make it explicit with the tagline, “Let Your Man Out.”

Toban notes that it’s ironic that a lot of these products are marketed as health drinks when, in fact, internalizing an aggressive form of masculinity is associated with taking health risks (e.g., refusing to wear seat belts or hard hats, drinking hard). “In any case,” Toban concludes, “this marketing normalizes and makes light of a lot of aggression and danger that we should be opposing.” And which, I will add, isn’t good for men or women.

See also our post with hilarious fake commercials making fun of energy drinks and hypermasculinity.

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“No. We’re Italian. We don’t Irish dance,” said Kristi Corcione’s mother in 1973. The proscription wouldn’t last a generation. Today her daughter trains for the World Irish Dance Championships

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Irish dance has left Ireland and the ethnic communities in which it used to be quietly practiced.

Irish dancing schools have sprung up in Israel, Japan, Norway, Romania, Russia and many other countries not known for their Irish populations. Competitions… can now be found in Hong Kong, Prague and St. Petersburg, among other far-flung cities. More than 5,000 competitors from 20 countries are expected in April at this year’s World Championships in London.

At the New York Times, Siobhan Burke gives the credit to Riverdance, a phenom that “exporting [Irish dance] to an international audience of more than 24 million.”

The spread of Irish dance is a great example of the social construction and evolution of our invented concepts of race and ethnicity.

When it was whites who made up the majority of U.S. immigrants, it really mattered if you were Irish, Italian, or some other white ethnicity. The Irish, in particular, were denigrated and dehumanized. If one wasn’t Irish, it certainly wasn’t a group that most people would want to associate themselves with.

Over generations, though, and as new immigrant groups came in and were contrasted to Europeans, the distinctions between white ethnics began to fade. Eventually, ethnicity became optional for white people. They could claim an ethnicity, or several, of their choice; others would accept whatever they said without argument; or they could say they were just American.

Once the distinctions no longer mattered and the stigma of being Irish had faded, then Irish dance could be something anyone did and others would want to do. And, so, now anyone does. The three-time winner of the All-Ireland Dancing Championship in Dublin is a biracial, black, Jewish kid from Ohio.

Today, the big Irish dance production is “Heartbeat of Home,” a show that Burke describes as a “multicultural fusion” that delivers “plenty of solid Irish dance steps.” Irish dance is evolving, borrowing and melding with other cultural traditions — and it increasingly belongs to everyone — in the great drama of ethnic and racial invention and re-invention.

7Thanks so much to @Mandahl, a proud grandmother of two world class Irish dancers, for suggesting I write about this!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

I have always found it bizarre that lipstick is supposed to make a woman’s lips more irresistible, yet kissing a woman with lipstick gets sticky red or pink smudge all over both faces. So women dress up and look all gorgeous and then their dates can’t kiss them. Or, it’s the end of the night and a woman wants her date to kiss her, does she put on lipstick or go for the chapstick?  Gah, being a woman is hard. And I supposed it can’t be that easy being the person who wants to kiss her in that situation either.

It’s odd to me that this kiss-ability paradox is never addressed in lipstick advertising.  So I was intrigued to see it in this vintage ad:

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Text:

Now water cannot mar your lipstick… it’s protected by a coat of clear Lip-Stae.  Just brush on its liquid lustre… lips stay brillint, alluring for hours.  And clothes, cigarettes, glasses and the man in your life can’t carry lipstick’s tell-tale marks!  Safe, economical, and easy to use. At cosmetic counters everywhere. (my emphasis)

There is so much to unpack here, but I think it all revolves around the fact that women are supposed to wear makeup, but pretend that the face that they put on is their real face.  As the copy reads, lipstick leaves “tell-tale marks.”  Those marks reveal a degree of deception regarding her true attractiveness and, in fact, this is exactly how makeup was characterized in the Victorian era.  This is why a woman’s lipstick must remain on her lips (and be left nowhere else) even when swimming or kissing.  Because, in principle, she’s not wearing lipstick at all.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I am so grateful to reader Emma Farais for recommending that I look into the history of the leotard. It was invented by — well, who else — Jules Léotard.

Born in 1842, Jules grew up to be an acrobat. He is credited with inventing trapeze and performed with French circuses. He invented and then began performing in leotards and he was a big hit. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum:

The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes. Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage.

He was a huge hit with the ladies. Alas, he died at age 28. Or 32, depending on the source.

But the leotard lived on. Leotards were adapted for women, but the form and function were similar. Think vintage muscle men and women.

Jules Léotard, circa 1850 (left); Circus Strong Man and Women, circa 1890 (right):4

Male dancers, athletes, and thespians wore leotards well into the ’70s. Eventually, though, disco happened. Disco fashion emphasized leotard fashion for women, as this roller disco shot from the Empire Rollerdome reveals:

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(Oh, to be a roller disco queen in ’70s Brooklyn. Sigh.)

Men eventually abandoned leotards as they became increasingly popular with women. We saw the same pattern, of course, with high heels and cheerleading: male flight from feminizing fashions and activities. The more women wore leotards, the less men wore them. Eventually, companies stopped making leotards for men altogether.

To the disappointment of all the (het) ladies, I’m sure.

Today, a Google Image search for leotard returns all ladies. Mostly girls, in fact. Not a guy in the bunch:

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I can only think of two arenas in which leotards for men still hold sway: wrestling and professional weight lifting. And, now I guess we know why.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I’m not saying that the Patriots are out-and-out liars. But they are outliers.

The advantage of an underinflated ball, like the eleven of the twelve footballs the Patriots used last Sunday, is that it’s easier to grip. Ball carriers will be less likely fumble if they’re gripping a ball they can sink their fingers into.

We can’t go back and measure the pressure of balls the Patriots were using before the Colts game, but Warren Sharp (here) went back and dug up the data on fumbles for all NFL games since 2010.  Since a team that controls the ball and runs more plays has more chances to fumble, Sharp graphed the ratio of plays to fumbles (values in red squares in the chart below) along with the absolute number of fumbles (values in blue circles). The higher the ratio, the less fumble-prone the team was.

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One of these things is not like the others.  That’s what an outlier is. It’s off the charts. It’s nowhere near the trend line. Something about it is very different. The variables that might explain the differences among the other data points – better players, better weather or a domed stadium, a pass-centered offense – don’t apply. Something else is going on.

As the graph shows, when the teams are rank ordered on the plays/fumbles ratio, the difference between one team and the next higher is usually 0-2, there are only two gaps of 5 until the 9-point gap between #3 Atlanta and #2 Houston. From the second-best Texans and to the Patriots there’s a 47-point jump.

Sharp also graphed the data as a histogram.

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It’s pretty much a bell curve centered around the mean of 105 plays-per-fumble. Except for that outlier. And the chart shows just how far out it lies.

The Patriots play in a cold-weather climate in a stadium exposed to the elements.  Yet their plays/fumble ratio is 50% higher than that of the Packers, 80% higher than the Bears. They have good players, but those players fumble less often for the Patriots than they did when they played for other NFL teams.

Usually, the statistical anomaly comes first – someone notices that US healthcare costs are double those of other nations – and then people try to come up with explanations.  In this case, it wasn’t until we had a possible explanatory variable that researchers went back and found the outlier. As Peter Sagal of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” said, “The League became suspicious when a Patriots player scored a touchdown and instead of spiking the ball he just folded it and put it in his pocket.”

UPDATE, Jan. 28: Since I posted this, there has been some discussion of Sharp’s data (“discussion” is a euphemism – this is sports and the Internet after all). If you’re really interested in pursuing this, try Advanced Football Analytics  or this piece  at Deadspin “Why Those Statistics About The Patriots’ Fumbles Are Mostly Junk,” (to repeat, “discussion” is a euphemism, and if you more strongly voiced views, read the comments). One of the difficulties I suspect is that a fumble is a rare event. The difference between the teams with the surest grip and the most butterfingered is about one fumble every couple of games.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

When sports stories wind up in the headlines and network news, something’s usually very wrong. The news biz, whether print or TV, usually keeps athletes confined in the sports section.  So now we have the network anchors talking about Adrian Peterson leaving welts on the flesh of his son, age four, or showing us the video of Ray Rice coldcocking his fiancee in the elevator. Other NFL domestic violence stories, previously ignored (no superstar players, no video), are now mentioned since they fit the news theme.

These incidents all suggest that maybe football players are just violent people – men with a streak of violence in their dispositions. This personality trait that allows them to flourish on the field, but too often it gets them in trouble after they leave the stadium.

This is the kind of psychological “kinds of people” explanation that I ask students to avoid or at least question, and to question it with data. Conveniently, we have some data. USA Today has the entire NFL rap sheet, and it looks like a long one – more than 700 arrests since 2000.  Nearly 100 arrests for assault, another 85 or so for domestic violence. And those are just the arrests. No doubt many battered wives or girlfriends and many bruised bodies in bars didn’t make it into these statistics. Are football players simply violent people – violent off the field as well as on?

Well, no. The largest category of arrests is drunk driving  – potentially very harmful, but not what most people would call violent.  And besides, NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than are their uncleated counterparts – men in their late twenties.

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This suggests that the violence we see in the stadiums on Sunday is situational (perhaps like the piety and moral rectitude we encounter elsewhere on Sunday).  The violence resides not in the players but in the game.  On every down, players must be willing to use violence against another person. Few off-the-field situations call for violence, so we shouldn’t be surprised that these same men have a relatively low rate of arrest (low relative to other young men).

But let’s not discard the personal angle completely. If we look at arrests within the NFL, we see two things that suggest there might be something to this idea that violence, or at least a lack of restraint, might have an individual component as well.  First, although NFL arrests are lower for all crimes, they are much, much lower for non-violent offenses like theft. But for domestic violence, the rate is closer that of non-footballers.  The NFL rate for domestic violence is still substantially lower than the national average – 55 NFL arrests for every 100 among non-NFL men. But for theft, the ratio is one-tenth of that – 5.5 NFL arrests per 100 non-NFL. Also on the higher side are other offenses against a person (murder, sex offenses) and offenses that might indicate a careless attitude toward danger – DUI, guns.

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Second, some positions have a disproportionate number of offenders. The graphs below show the percent of all arrests accounted for by each position and also the percent the position represents of the total NFL roster.  For example, cornerbacks make up about 10% of all players, but they accounted for about 14% of all arrests. (The difference is not huge, but it’s something; there would be a very slight overlap in the error bars if my version of Excel made it easy to include them.)

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The positions disproportionately likely to be arrested are wide receivers and defensive tackles. Those most under-represented in arrests are the offensive linemen.

This fits with my own image of these positions. The wide-outs seem to have more than their share of free-spirits – players who care little for convention or rules. Some are just oddball amusing, like Chad Ochocinco formerly of the Bengals. Others are trouble and get traded from team to team despite their abilities, like Terrell Owens of the 49ers, Eagles, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals.

As for the linemen, the arrest differential down in the trenches also might be expected.  Back in the 1970s, a psychiatrist hired by the San Diego Chargers noted this difference on his first visit to the locker room. It wasn’t the players – the offensive and defensive lineman themselves looked about the same (huge, strong guys) – it was their lockers. They were a metaphor for on-the-field play.  Defensive linemen charge, push, pull, slap – whatever they can do to knock over opponents, especially the one holding the ball. Their lockers were messy, clothes and equipment thrown about carelessly. Offensive lineman, by contrast, are more restricted. Even on a run play, their movements are carefully co-ordinated, almost choreographed. Watch a slo-mo of the offensive line on a sweep, and you’ll see legs moving in chorus-line unison.  Correspondingly, their lockers were models of organization and restraint.

Maybe these same personal qualities prevail off the field as well. Those offensive lineman get arrested at a rate only half of what we would expect from their numbers in the NFL population. Arrests of defensive linemen and wide receivers are 50% more likely than their proportion on the rosters. That can’t be the entire explanation of course. Running counter to this “kinds of people” approach are the other hard-hitting defensive players – defensive ends and linebackers. According to the principle of violent people in violent positions, they should be over-represented in arrest figures just like the  defensive tackles and cornerbacks. But they are not.

If this were a real article, a journal article, this final paragraph would be where the author calls for more data. But the trend in NFL arrests has been downward, and if fewer arrests means less data but also less domestic violence, that’s fine with me.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Ray Rice’s violent assault of Janay Palmer has placed a spotlight on the criminal records of professional football players more generally. It is tempting to presume that men who spend their lives perfecting the use of violence are more violent in their day-to-day lives, but we don’t have to speculate. We have some data.

USA Today maintains a database of charges, citations, and arrests of NFL players since 2000 (ones they found out about, in any case). According to their records, 2.53% of players are arrested in any given year. This is lower than the national average for men of the same age. And, despite the publicity, this year looks like it will be the least criminal on record.

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Domestic violence is the third most common charge or cite, following closely behind another violent crime, assault and battery. But by far the most common trouble NFL players face is being charged with a DUI.

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Interestingly, not all teams have similar rates of arrests, charges, or cites. These data below reflect 15 years of data, showing the wide disparity among teams. The number of run-ins with police tend to correlate well year-to-year, so this chart represents a stable trend.

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Neil Irwin, writing at the New York Times, says that varying levels of criminal activity may be related to club culture (that is, some franchise’s may be better at suppressing or inciting criminal activity than others) or it may be influenced by the cities they play for (e.g., there won’t be as many DUIs in cities like New York City where there’s substantially less driving). Both are great sociological explanations for the variation between teams and consistency across seasons.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.