Competing in sports where “people don’t look at us like women. They don’t look at us as being girly or feminine” can take a toll on many women athletes with larger physiques. Women athletes face additional pressures in the limelight because the public often pays as much – if not more – attention to their dress and body types than their athletic performance on the field. However, in a recent LA Times article, Olympians such as weightlifter Sarah Robles and shot put star Michelle Carter are challenging traditional standards of feminine beauty by encouraging girls of all body types to embrace their physiques. Sociologist Abigail Saguay believes that athletes fighting back against the stigma of larger and muscular body types is a firm step in the right direction toward promoting positive body image. Saguay explains,
“The Olympians are using the podium to promote a positive message. They are making an important point that health comes at all sizes, and we should be embracing diversity of body sizes rather than assume there’s one good body type.”
Though breaking past historical ideals about body ideals is an uphill struggle, these athletes are challenging conventions in a big way.
In response to the disturbing number of domestic violence arrests of its players, the NFL recently created a panel for implementing domestic abuse education and prevention strategies within the league. Beth Ritchie, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s director of the Institute of Research on Race and Public Policy, was named as one of its five senior advisors.
In an interview with Jia Tolentino for Jezebel, Richie explains that “Race and gender and class justice can’t be separated.” Because about two-thirds of the NFL’s players are African American, it’s important to understand how these factors are connected in designing an effective domestic abuse education program. She explains:
…African-American people perceive and therefore use (or don’t use) police differently. The police aren’t necessarily seen as a protective force; there’s a different loyalty to one’s own people in disclosing, there’s a protectiveness built up from the way the media skews the actions of black men. Consequently, black sexual assault survivors have to walk through a maze before they can acknowledge the abuse or are willing to come forward. There’s a different willingness to turn our men over to the state. And I don’t want to say that turning in an abuser is easy for any woman, but it’s meaningfully different for black women.
Because of this dynamic, Richie plans to work with the wives and partners of NFL players as well, to better understand the challenges of preventing domestic violence. Mindful of the complexity of the problem, she’s excited about the NFL’s initiative:
The NFL taking this up so aggressively is very important, but there’s a real need to be careful; the NFL is an employer, not law enforcement, not family. I think they are trying to be respectful of women’s desires to make their own decisions about whom they’re with, while still holding men accountable.
This past week, the N.C.A.A. announced its sanctions against Penn State University in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Among the sanctions was the decision that all of Penn State’s football victories from 1998 to 2011 were to be vacated. While there were varied reactions, Sociologist Gary Alan Fine reacted in an Op-Ed in the New York Times by stating that famous author George Orwell would be amused.
In his magnificent dystopia, “1984,” Orwell understood well the dangers of “history clerks.” Those given authority to write history can change the past. Those sweat-and-mud victories of the Nittany Lions — more points on the scoreboard — no longer exist. The winners are now the losers.
While Fine agrees that Penn State deserved sanctions and that the N.C.A.A. had an obligation to respond forcefully, he asks if re-writing history was the proper answer.
We learn bad things about people all the time, but should we change our history? Should we, like Orwell’s totalitarian Oceania, have a Ministry of Truth that has the authority to scrub the past? Should our newspapers have to change their back files? And how far should we go? Should we review Babe Ruth’s records? Or O. J. Simpson’s? Should a disgraced senator have her votes vacated? Perhaps we should claim that Joe McCarthy actually lost his elections. Or give victory to John Edwards’s opponent?
It is understandable that an organization wants its official history to reflect its hopes, but Fine argues that histories must properly reflect what happened at the time. Discomfort and shame honoring flawed people is understandable. Yet, “building a false history is the wrong way to recall the past. True and detailed histories always work better.”
The Summer Olympics in London could be a watershed event in sports, as every country is expected to send female athletes to participate. In the past, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei have only sent male athletes, according to the New York Times.
Saudi Arabia, a monarchy whose legal system is based on Islamic law, is considered the most significant of the three, given its size, international oil influence and severe restrictions placed on women in daily life. While female athletes from Qatar and Brunei have participated in national and regional competitions, Saudi Arabia has essentially barred sports for women, according to Human Rights Watch.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, women in Saudi Arabia are systematically discriminated against when it comes to sports. There is no physical education for girls in state schools, and gyms were closed for women in 2009 and 2010. So, while senior Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke welcomes the participation, he notes that the International Olympic Committee should work toward more systemic change.
However, even this change might have effects beyond Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s sending of female athletes could put pressure on other countries with similar restrictions to do the same, said Martha F. Davis, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law.
“I think it’s a savvy move,” she said. “It’s trying to make sure there isn’t a groundswell of Arab Spring-like activities and being responsive to those yearnings to participate. It’s being proactive.”
Professor Erika George (S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah) noted that there may be some negative reactions as well.
“There are people who may think it’s inappropriate,” George said. “But there’s precedent for this. It’s going to be hard to argue that a woman can be an Olympic champion but not be behind the wheel.”
Suzy Maves McElrath and Hollie Nyseth Brehm on December 12, 2011
Each year, millions of people don their running kicks and spandex and tackle 5ks, marathons, or the occasional holiday-themed trot. But if you’ve ever been a spectator at one of these events, you’ve perhaps wondered what Runner’s World’s Jay Jennings found himself asking: Why is running so white?
That perception has become a truism, and the truism has become a joke. The popular satirical blog “Stuff White People Like,” which spawned a best-selling book, ranked marathons 27th on the original list, just behind farmer’s markets and Wes Anderson movies. More scathing was comedian Daniel Tosh, in a segment on his show, Tosh.0: “The only reason marathons are still around is so 20,000 white people can chase three black guys through the streets of Boston like the good old days.”
But how valid is the idea that running is indeed a predominantly white sport?
Well, pretty darn valid, according to Running USA’s recently released biannual National Runner Survey. Media spokesperson Ryan Lamppa stresses that its methodology is “opt-in” from 60 running organizations and clubs nationwide and “may not be a representative sample” of the actual running population. Still, the numbers, compiled between January and May 2011 from nearly 12,000 respondents, are eye-opening: “Core runners” (who tend to enter running events and train year-round) are 90 percent Caucasian, 5.1 percent Hispanic, 3.9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and, in perhaps the most startling figure, only 1.6 percent African-American. (The sample adds up to more than 100 percent because respondents could mark more than one choice.) Those numbers are consistent with ones from other surveys, such as Runner’s World’s, and have remained low even as the number of runners has grown by 56 percent in the past decade, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. (The overall population, from the 2010 U.S. census, is 72 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic or Latino, 13 percent black or African-American, 5 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian or Alaska native.)
The next question is, of course, why? In search of an answer, Jennings spoke with new and well-trod runners, heads of national organizations, race directors, coaches, and academics. Through these conversations, he learned that there are economic and cultural roadblocks for minority runners.
Arguably, a potential runner needs only a pair of shoes (barefoot enthusiasts will say not even that!) and a stretch of pavement, but in reality, dedicated running shoes (which RunnersWorld will tell you elsewhere are critical for injury prevention) and race entrance fees can be expensive, especially over time. Moreover, poor neighborhoods may lack safe avenues for running.
In fact, ‘Lacking a safe place to exercise’ was the top barrier to physical activity for African-American women age 40 and older in a 2000 study published in the journal Health Psychology. In another study for the American College of Sports Medicine in 2007, Simon J. Marshall, Ph.D., the lead researcher, commented,
“People in poverty are more likely to live in neighborhoods where public recreation is unavailable or dangerous,” but he added, this does not mean that culture does not play a role.
Martin Beatty, an African-American head track and field coach at Middlebury College in Vermon, cites social pressure to participate in football and basketball as a factor resulting in low participation in cross-country. Another interviewee told Jennings, “Within African-American culture, if your kids don’t play football and basketball, in a lot of communities, it’s not respected.” Low minority participation in the sport means that there are few role models, on the street or in ad-campaigns, to inspire non-white runners. And when African-Americans do participate in running, stereotypes tend to funnel them toward short-distance events.
Why does all of this matter? Health disparities, for one, says Harvard University sociologist, David R. Williams.
[The] professor (and two-time Detroit Marathon finisher) who studies racial differences in health, told Steve Barnes on an Arkansas public-affairs television broadcast, “You cannot take individuals who have been shackled by chains and put them at the start of a line to run a marathon…and expect them, if they haven’t had any training or preparation, to be successful.” He was speaking metaphorically, but a very real fact he cited is that “96,000 African-Americans die every year prematurely from racial disparities in health.”…”All of our institutions,” he said, citing schools, churches, and others, “Need to be encouraging healthy choices.”
For several months my husband has been trying to get me to read ESPN The Magazine. So when he said, “Hey, a sociologist is cited in here,” I thought his ploy continued. But, as he pushed the magazine across the table, I had to admit I was intrigued.
In the article, Shaun Assael asks, “Why do fans riot?”
You’ve probably heard or read about the uprisings in Buenos Aires over soccer and in Vancouver over hockey. What amazed me weren’t the images of violence that went viral, causing the word “hooligan” to pop as a trending topic. And it wasn’t even the fact that the riots followed historic losses — a playoff defeat for River Plate that demoted Argentina’s version of the Yankees to a lower division for the first time in 110 years, and a bitter Game 7 Stanley Cup loss that left the long-suffering Canucks still searching for a title.
No, what stunned me was the realization that this kind of violence rarely happens in American pro sports. We riot after wins.
To help understand why Americans can be better losers than winners, he turned to sociologist Jerry M. Lewis, who studies outbreaks of sports violence.
…Here are the three warning signs he’s learned to spot: a) a hotly contested championship final; b) watched by lots of young men; c) in a common urban gathering spot with a history of violence.
Lewis mainly focuses on celebratory violence and believes the prevalence of many professional sports and teams in America means that Americans don’t get upset about any particular one. This contrasts to countries where a single sport, like hockey or soccer, dwarfs all others.
The opening ceremony of the Olympics is not short on inspiring imagery for the many millions who tune in around the globe. As the host country provides the spectacle and entertainment, athletes representing their respective countries march one after the other to cheers of the crowd. With such cooperation in the name of athletic competition, the Olympics can’t help but be a large step towards worldwide transparency, peace and equality. Right?
In a recent New York Times editorial, David Clay Large, a professor of history at Montana State University, suggests otherwise. Drawing on analysis of the 1936 Berlin Games, Large explains that there is little evidence that the Olympics works to open up repressive regimes. In fact, the inspiring tales of the Olympics taming Hitler’s Nazi regime are mostly myth.
The Olympics gave the Nazis a lesson in how to hide their vicious racism and anti-Semitism, and should offer today’s International Olympic Committee a cautionary tale when considering the location of future events.
While few would argue that the Berlin Olympics transformed Nazi Germany into the ideal international partner, it is commonly said that Hitler did reduce persecution of Jewish people during that time.
But the truth is more nuanced. Although the regime did discourage open anti-Semitism, this directive pertained only to Berlin. Outside the capital, the Nuremberg Laws remained in full effect.
Large explains that through employing deceitful tactics throughout the Olympics the Nazis learned how was easy it was to mislead the global public through superficial changes.
The article continues with Large deconstructing other pervasive myths about the value of the Berlin Games, including the well-told stories about the impact of Jesse Owens’ dominance. According to Large, the black American track-and-field athlete, did not simply force the Germans and people everywhere to rethink negative views towards black people; rather, the victory simply led to the group in power using the success to enforce negative views.
[T]he publicity surrounding black athletes’ success simply taught the Nazis how to refine existing stereotypes. Instead of arguing that those athletes were physically inferior, they disparaged them as freaks who, because of their “jungle inheritance,” were able to jump high and run fast.
Large’s presentation of “the truth behind the 1936 Games” effectively calls into question many of the underlying assumptions about the positive impacts of holding the Olympics and other large international sporting events in countries with questionable governance and a history of mistreating citizens. And, as Large points out,
there is little evidence so far that the 2008 Beijing Olympics did anything but show the Chinese government how to maintain its clamp on freedom while supposedly opening its doors to the world.
Large concludes with a critical but potentially positive suggestion:
This is not to say that the Games should be held only in politically “clean” countries. But instead of blindly celebrating the alleged openness of repressive regimes that host the event, the international community should use it as an opportunity to hold them to the values that the Olympics claim to represent.
If anything positive came from the debacle that surrounded the International Association of Athletics
Federation’s attempts to ‘determine’ South African runner Caster Semenya’s sex, it is that it brought to light the crude methods that were being used to enforce the male/female binary in sports (See David Zirin and Sherry Wolf’s article in the Nation for critical coverage of the initial controversy).
Two years later the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federation, the governing body for track and field, have released a new policy to regulate athletes whose sex development is considered unusual to avoid a repeat of the nightmare that Semenya faced.
In a recent editorial in the The New York Times, Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, provides a critical read of the new policy. Dreger explains that initially the policy seems like an improvement because:
The new policy no longer allows any room for a simplistic “I know it when I see it” approach to who counts as a female athlete.
The new system relies on setting the ‘appropriate’ levels of functional testosterone a female athlete should have. However, as Dregger argues, this policy is fundamentally sexist. Both men and women naturally produce testosterone.
Yet despite the fact that testosterone belongs to women, too, the I.O.C. and the I.A.A.F. are basically saying it is really a manly thing: “You can have functional testosterone, but if you make too much, you’re out of the game because you’re not a real woman.”
Dregger explains that men are free of any equivalent biochemical policing and can take full advantage of any ‘mutation’ that gives him an advantage. In efforts to create ‘the mythical level playing field’ the committee has taken another step in a now rich history of controlling and categorizing women’s bodies. For women athletes who have more functional testosterone than is considered appropriate for a female the only option is to “submit to being made sexually ‘normal’ through hormone treatments” or they cannot compete.
While Dregger is sympathetic to the difficulties that I.O.C. and I.A.A.F. face, she finds little progress in the decision
this newly proposed biological reduction of women to a hormonally disadvantaged class of people — one medically made disadvantaged, if necessary — struck many of us as regressive from the standpoint of women’s rights. Indeed, it reminds me of those itty-bitty shorts that college women’s volleyball players must wear. They each sexualize the bodies of female athletes as a requirement of play. They each insist that a woman never be manly.
Perhaps the biggest take away point from Dregger’s article and the debates surrounding how to define and separate male from female in the sporting arena is that:
There is no perfect solution, one that is reasonably objective, universally applicable and universally satisfying.
Recent medical reports on the long-term effects of head injuries have resulted in increased concern about the medical risks of participating in football. While the N.F.L. has increasingly shown concern over the safety of its players, a solution has not been found. The safety issues came to a head this past Sunday when a number of players were injured as a result of highlight reel hits.
Michael Sokolove’s article in the New York Times examines the moral issues surrounding consuming a sport where players place themselves at such a high risk. As medical studies continue to build the link between head injuries in football and depression, suicide, and early death, Sokolove asks the timely question:
Is it morally defensible to watch a sport whose level of violence is demonstrably destructive? (The game, after all, must conform to consumer taste.) And where do we draw the line between sport and grotesque spectacle?
To provide insight into the question Sokolove turns to a series of cultural theorists and philosophers who have interest in the role of violent pursuits in society.
The writer Joyce Carol Oates has written admiringly of boxing, celebrating, among other aspects, the “incalculable and often self-destructive courage” of those who make their living in the ring. I wondered if she thought America’s football fans should have misgivings about sanctioning a game that, like boxing, leaves some of its participants neurologically impaired.
“There is invariably a good deal of hypocrisy in these judgments,” Ms. Oates responded by e-mail. “Supporting a war or even enabling warfare through passivity is clearly much more reprehensible than watching a football game or other dangerous sports like speed-car racing — but it may be that neither is an unambiguously ‘moral’ action of which one might be proud.”
Other ‘experts’ argue that the dangerous activity may serve a communal goal.
“We learn from dangerous activities,” said W. David Solomon, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and director of its Center for Ethics and Culture. “In life, there are clearly focused goals, with real threats. The best games mirror that. We don’t need to feel bad about not turning away from a game in which serious injuries occur. There are worse things about me than that I enjoy a game that has violence in it. I don’t celebrate injuries or hope for them to happen. That would be a different issue. That’s moral perversion.”
Fellow philosopher Sean D. Kelly, the chairman of Harvard’s philosophy department, shares Solomon’s emphasis on the potential positive value of sports:
“You can experience a kind of spontaneous joy in watching someone perform an extraordinary athletic feat,” he said when we talked last week. “It’s life-affirming. It can expand our sense of what individuals are capable of.”
He believes that it is fine to watch football as long as the gravest injuries are a “side effect” of the game, rather than essential to whatever is good about the game and worth watching.
Sokolove concludes with the difficult question that football fans, as well as organizers and sponsors of the sport at all levels, must now ask themselves:
But what if that’s not the case? What if the brain injuries are so endemic — so resistant to changes in the rules and improvements in equipment — that the more we learn the more menacing the sport will seem?
Levey explains that it would be an error for the public to be caught up in the type of accident that occurred and we should instead use this tragedy as an impetus to consider the dangers of increasingly competitive youth sport.
Youth racing shouldn’t be alone in getting a closer inspection. This tragedy could have happened to any girl on a balance beam or any boy in a football tackle last Sunday. We should not be distracted by the fact that Peter was in a motorcycle race.
Despite the risk of serious injuries, like concussions, and even death, millions of kids compete in almost any activity you can imagine. Did you know that there are shooting contests for young Davy Crocketts, a racing circuit for aspiring Danica Patricks, and a youth PGA for those pursuing Tiger Woods’ swing? When did American childhood become not just hyper-organized but also hyper-competitive?
Levey shows that youth sport should be examined as the culmination of a century long trajectory of increased competitiveness.
Initially the organized activities served as a way mitigate deviant behavior by reducing the amount of unmonitored idle hours.
In 1903 New York City’s Public School Athletic League for Boys was established and contests between children, organized by adults, emerged as a way to keep the boys coming back to activities and clubs. Settlement houses and ethnic clubs followed suit and the number of these clubs grew rapidly through the 1920s.
However, the level of competitiveness continued to ramp up as the 20th century progressed. National organizations were introduced after World War II and the by the 1970s, for-profit organizations were common.
And, by the turn of the twenty-first century, a variety of year-round competitive circuits, run by paid organizers and coaches, dominated families’ evenings and weekends.
Parents tried to find the activity best suited to turn their children into national champions, even at age seven. As competitive children’s activities became increasingly organized over the twentieth century, injuries increased — especially overuse injuries and concussions. More practice time, an earlier focus on only one sport, and a higher level of intensity in games create the environment for these types of injuries.
Peter Lenz’s death is indicative of an increasingly competitive and organized American childhood. Levey argues that as a society we have the responsibility to make sure the training and safety regulations keep up with the increased pressure and risk of injury. This should include greater monitoring of safety equipment and higher standards for coaches.
While catastrophic accidents like Peter Lenz’s will happen, we can work to better protect all competitive children from more common injuries like concussions and overuse injuries. Kids want to win whatever race they are in and be the champion. Adults should make sure they all safely cross the finish line.
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