Muslim sportswomen are too often read and represented as the oppressed “other” needing saving from their backward culture/society. However, my research on the digital lives of Muslim sportswomen reveals the multiple and nuanced ways they are taking matters of representation into their own hands, and in so doing, are challenging dominant portrayals of Muslim women in the mass media. Mainstream media coverage of Muslim women tends to focus on the hijabi athlete, while other Muslim sportswomen are often overlooked. The overrepresentation of the “oppressed” hijabi athlete obscures the multiple ways that Muslim women are participating in sport, as well as the cultural differences and diversity within this group. For example, the image below of a beach volleyball match between teams from Egypt and Germany, dubbed by some as the “clash of civilizations,” was circulated widely on social media. Many of the conversations and images centred around the hijabi athlete and rarely mentioned her Egyptian teammate who did not wear the hijab.
For most of January 2018, one of the worst sexual abuse scandals ever in sports dominated the news cycle, as former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, more than 100 sexual abuse victims testified about the predatory environment Nassar had created. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman delivered an awe-inspiring 13-minute testimony that received national praise. Raisman, who identified herself as a powerful voice and advocate for all victims of sexual abuse, embodied the persona of feminist advocate and champion for abuse victims. However, Raisman’s credibility as a feminist advocate has come into scrutiny in light of her decision to pose – for the second time – for the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. This case raises several questions: Can Raisman still be considered a feminist advocate in light of her choice to pose for a sexist, white, heteronormative, and objectifying magazine feature? Where is the line between empowerment and objectification? As a rhetoric scholar, I am interested in how both Raisman’s traditional form of activism (public address) and her embodied rhetoric are compatible feminist discourses. My purpose is to explain Raisman’s multi-modal activism through the lens of feminist rhetorical criticism – highlighting the concept of “power feminism” – in order to complicate what feminist sports scholars and hosts of the Burn It All Down podcast call the “Sports Illustrated swimsuit conundrum.”
A substantial body of research has demonstrated that media coverage of the Olympics often perpetuates nationalistic and ethnocentric ideas. While the Olympics are popularly touted for “bringing people together,” Olympic media coverage may also reinforce and naturalize problematic ideas about gender, race, nation and culture. With these concerns in mind, one storyline to be mindful of is the qualification of a women’s bobsled team from Nigeria, the first from the African continent to appear in the Olympics.
While a record number of countries and athletes are expected to participate in the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, the Winter edition of the Olympics remains an exclusive event. South Korea will be just the 12th country that has ever hosted the Winter Olympics, a quadrennial event that was inaugurated in France in 1924. Only a few countries have the geographic and economic conditions to host the event, which accounts for the fact that only 6 percent of the 206 recognized National Olympic Committees have ever done so. Further, a majority of countries still do not participate in the Winter Olympic Games. At the 2014 Sochi Games, 89 countries participated. This number increases to 92 in PyeongChang (plus the “Olympic Athlete from Russia” category), which still leaves 55 percent of countries out of the Games. According to the organizing committee website, 31 nations are participating with just one athlete (18 countries) or two athletes (13 countries). Seven of the eight participating African countries will send only one or two athletes to PyeongChang, while Nigeria has the largest African delegation with three athletes. For comparison, the United States of America is participating with 242 athletes.
In North American professional sports culture, parades are typically organized by cities and organizations after a major team accomplishment, such as winning a league championship. On Saturday, January 6, 2018, however, thousands of Cleveland Browns fans, in response to their team’s failure to register a win during the National Football League’s (NFL) 2017 regular season, congregated near FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio to “celebrate” the Browns’ “perfect season” record of 0-16. The fans braved frigid January temperatures, creating satirical floats, signs, and costumes to publicly mock team owner Jimmy Haslam—CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, a company embroiled in an FBI investigation concerning rebate fraud—and the team’s consistent lack of success in the NFL. Parade organizer Chris McNeill described the event as a protest expressed through “macabre-humor”: “I think we have every right,” McNeill said, “after this organization has given us nothing now for how many years.” The parade, thankfully, benefitted the local community in ways other than creative celebration, as event promoters raised over $17,000 and collected perishable food donations, all of which were subsequently donated to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
For our book Doping in Elite Sports: Voices of French Sportspeople and Their Doctors, 1950-2010 (Routledge, 2018), Christophe Brissonneau interviewed 55 former dopers who competed in a variety of different Olympic sports. At the end of one interview, “Pascal” concluded with a story illustrating the life of an elite cyclist. As he told the story, his face lit up with an expansive smile. One morning during training, Pascal woke up as usual, except he could not move. He was paralyzed. He could not even get out of bed to call his father for help. The next day, Pascal’s father checked in on him and Pascal was still paralyzed in bed. Brissonneau asked what had happened. Through a peel of laughter, Pascal confessed that he had injected himself with a drug a friend gave him, but it turns out the drug was meant for snakes! After the interview, Brissonneau wrote in his research journal that Pascal’s story was extraordinary. Who in their right mind injects themselves with snake medicine they got surreptitiously from a friend and then laughs about almost dying from it?
In mass media and popular culture, sport is often presented as a level playing field where the most skilled and committed athletes rise to the top. The racial composition of American football is often presented as evidence of the supposed meritocracy of sport. While 13.2 percent of the U.S. population is black, 47.1 percent of NCAA Division I football players and 68.7 percent of National Football League (NFL) players are black. Thus, if black men are more commonly from poor and working-class backgrounds compared to white men, yet are overrepresented in football, one might conclude that factors such as race and social class play little to no role in player development and selection.
The recent spate of highly-publicized, mass mediated instances of sexual misconduct has brought attention to a culture in which men have been permitted to harass, humiliate, fondle, and even rape women – and men – with impunity. While the narrative surrounding this culture has been mostly bound to the entertainment, news media, and political industries, the recent firing of Gregg Zaun, television analyst for Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays, shows that the sports media are also implicated in a system that turns a blind eye toward sexual misconduct.
College sports fans probably weren’t surprised to learn that the University of North Carolina (UNC) had been engaged in academic fraud for decades. In this particular instance, students, predominately varsity athletes, were enrolled in classes with few (if any) academic requirements. They almost always received high grades.
The UNC scandal is just one of many recent examples where universities have prioritized athletic prowess over academic integrity.
CrossFit, the popular group fitness regimen that members half-jokingly call a “cult,” is much more than the latest get-ripped-quick fad, according to a recent study my colleague Ted Butryn and I conducted out of San José State University. CrossFit’s massive growth from one gym in Northern California in the early 2000s to over 13,000 worldwide in 2017 has sparked fierce debate about the program’s safety and efficacy, and disrupted an industry that has for decades been built on selling the superficial aestheticism of bodybuilding and aerobics. Instead of wading into the ongoing debate about CrossFit’s methods, our study sought to understand the social significance of CrossFit in a moment when work is becoming increasingly sedentary and technologically dependent, especially in the Silicon Valley area where I spent five months as an ethnographer in two CrossFit gyms. Our results showed that CrossFit portends a deeper angst about the purpose of physical bodies in a world that is rapidly devaluing physical labor, particularly for a well-educated white-collar workforce.