sports

Our lives are a team effort, often influenced by larger social forces outside of our control. At the same time, we love stories about singular heroes rising to the occasion. Sociologists often argue that focusing too much on individual merit teaches us not to see the rest of the social world at play.

Photo Credit: Vadu Amka, Flickr CC

One of my favorite recent examples of this is a case from Christopher A. Paul’s book, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games, about the popular team-based competitive shooter Overwatch. After the match is over and a winning team declared, one player is awarded “play of the game,” and everyone watches an automatically-generated replay. Paul writes that the replay…

… takes one moment out of context and then chooses to only celebrate one of twelve players when the efforts of the other members of the team often make the moment possible…a more dynamic, holistic system would likely be harder to judge and code, which is a problem at the heart of meritocracy. Actually judging skill or effort is ridiculously difficult to do…the algorithm built into selecting what is the play of the game and which statistics will be highlighted rewards only what it can count and judge, stripping out situation and context. (2018, Pp. 34-35)

It isn’t just the computer doing this; there is a whole genre of youtube videos devoted to top plays and personalized highlight reels from games like Overwatch, Paladins, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

 

Paul’s point got me thinking about the structure and culture of replays in general. They aren’t always about a star player. Sometimes we see the execution of a brilliant team play. Other times, it’s all about the star’s slam dunk. But replays do highlight one of the weird structural features about modern competition. Many of the most popular video games in the massive esports industry are team based, but because these are often played in a first-person or limited third person view, replays and highlight reels from these games are often cast from the perspective of a single “star” player.

This is a great exercise for thinking sociologically in everyday life and in the classroom. Watch some replays from your favorite team sport. Are the highlights emphasizing teamwork or are they focusing on a single player’s achievements? Do you think different replays would have been possible without the efforts of the rest of the team? How does the structure of the shot—the composition and perspective—shape the viewer’s interpretation of what happened on the field?

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Want to help fight fake news and manage political panics? We have to learn to talk about numbers.

While teaching basic statistics to sociology undergraduates, one of the biggest trends I noticed was students who thought they hated math experiencing a brain shutdown when it was time to interpret their results. I felt the same way when I started in this field, and so I am a big advocate for working hard to bridge the gap between numeracy and literacy. You don’t have to be a statistical wizard to make your reporting clear to readers.

Sociology is a great field to do this, because we are used to going out into the world and finding all kinds of cultural tropes (like pointlessly gendered products!). My new favorite trope is the Half-Dozen Headline. You can spot them in the wild, or through Google News with a search for “half dozen.” Every time I read one of these headlines, my brain echoes with “half of a dozen is six.”

Sometimes, six is a lot:

Sometimes, six is not:

(at least, not relative to past administrations)

Sometimes, well, we just don’t know:

Is this five deaths (nearly six)? Is a rate of about two deaths a year in a Walmart parking lot high? If people already struggle to interpret raw numbers, wrapping your findings in fuzzy language only makes the problem worse.

Spotting Half-Dozen Headlines is a great introductory exercise for classes in social statistics, public policy, journalism, or other fields that use applied data analysis. If you find a favorite Half-Dozen Headline, be sure to send it our way!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Flashback Friday, in honor of Kathrine Switzer running the Boston marathon 50 years after she was physically removed from the race because it was Men Only.

The first Olympic marathon was held in 1896. It was open to men only and was won by a Greek named Spyridon Louis. A woman named Melpomene snuck onto the marathon route. She finished an hour and a half behind Louis, but beat plenty of men who ran slower or dropped out.

Women snuck onto marathon courses from that point forward. Resistance to their participation was strong and, I believe, reflects men’s often unconscious fear that women might in fact be their equals. Why else would they so vociferously object to women’s participation? If women are, indeed, so weak and inferior, what’s to fear from their running alongside men?

Illustrating what seems to be a degree of panic above and beyond an imperative to follow the rules, the two photos  below show the response to Syracuse University Katherine Switzer’s running the man-only Boston marathon in 1967 (Switzer registered for the marathon using her initials). After two miles, race officials realized one of their runners was a girl. Their response? To physically remove her from the race. Luckily, some of her male Syracuse teammates body blocked their grab:

Why not let her run? The race was man-only, so her stats, whatever they may be, were invalid. Why take her out of the race by force? For the same reason that women were excluded to begin with: their actual potential is not obviously inferior to men’s. If it were, there’d be no risk in letting her run. The only sex that is threatened by co-ed sports is the sex whose superiority is assumed.

Women were allowed to begin competing in marathons starting in 1972 — not so very long ago — and, just like Melponeme, while they’ve been slower on average, individual women have been beating individual men ever since. In fact, women have been getting faster and faster, shrinking the gender gap in completion times, because achievement and opportunity go hand in hand.

Thanks Kathrine Switzer, and congratulations.

Originally posted in 2012.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In a humorous article, Gloria Steinem asked, “What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” Men, she asserted, would re-frame menstruation as a “enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event” about which they would brag (“about how long and how much”).  She writes:

Street guys would brag (“I’m a three pad man”) or answer praise from a buddy (“Man, you lookin’ good!”) by giving fives and saying, “Yeah, man, I’m on the rag!”

Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve in the Army (“you have to give blood to take blood”), occupy political office (“can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priest and ministers (“how could a woman give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”).

Of course, male intellectuals would offer the most moral and logical arguments. How could a woman master any discipline that demanded a sense of time, space, mathematics, or measurement, for instance, without that in-built gift for measuring the cycles of the moon and planets – and thus for measuring anything at all?

Perhaps in homage to this article, the artist Käthe Ivansich developed an installation titled “Menstruation Skateboards” for the Secession Museum in Austria. Drawing on the same sort of re-framing, the exhibition was marketed with ads with bruised and bloody women and tag lines like “I heart blood sports” and “some girls bleed more than once a month.”  See examples at Ivansich’s website.

The exhibition included skateboards that generally mocked sexist language and re-claimed the blood of menstruation. This blood, the message is, makes me hardcore. The art project nicely makes Steinem’s point, showing how things like menstruation can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the social status of the person with whom it is associated.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Many hope that Misty Copeland is ushering in a new era for ballet. She is the first female African American ballet dancer to have the role of Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She has literally changed the face of the dance.

Race is a central and important part of her story, but in A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary featuring her career, she describes herself as defying not just one, but three ideas about what ballerinas are supposed to look like: “I’m black,” she says, and also: “I have a large chest, I’m muscular.”

In fact, asked to envision a prima ballerina, writes commentator Shane Jewel, what comes to most of our minds is probably a “perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is… pale as the driven snow.” White, yes, but also flat-chested and without obvious muscularity.

It feels like a timeless archetype — at least as timeless as ballet itself, which dates back to the 15th century — but it’s not. In fact, the idea that ballerinas should be painfully thin is a new development, absorbing only a fraction of ballet’s history, as can clearly be seen in this historical slideshow.

It started in the 1960s — barely more than 50 years ago — in response to the preferences of the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Elizabeth Kiem, the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, calls him “the most influential figure in 20th century dance,” ballet and beyond. He co-founded the first major ballet school in America, made dozens of dancers famous, and choreographed more than 400 performances. And he liked his ballerinas wispy: “Tall and slender,” Kiem writes, “to the point of alarm.” It is called, amongst those in that world, the “Balanchine body.”

 

We’re right to view Copeland’s rise with awe, gratitude, and hope, but it’s also interesting to note that two of the the ceilings she’s breaking (by being a ballerina with breasts and muscles) have only recently been installed. It reminds me how quickly a newly introduced expectation can feel timeless; how strongly it can ossify into something that seems inevitable; how easily we accept that what we see in front of us is universal.

In The Social Construction of Reality, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explain how rapidly social inventions “harden” and “thicken.” Whoever initiates can see it for what it is — something they created — but to whoever comes next it simply seems like reality. What to Balanchine was “I will do it this way” became to his successors “This is how things are done.” And “a world so regarded,” Berger and Luckmann write, “attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way, and it can no longer be changed so readily.”

Exactly because the social construction of reality can be so real, even though it was merely invented, Copeland’s three glass ceilings are all equally impressive, even if only one is truly historic.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1America woke up this weekend to the news of the Orlando massacre, the deadliest civilian mass shooting in the nation’s history. The senseless tragedy will undoubtedly evoke anger, sadness and helplessness.

In the meantime, many will forget to think and talk about Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s crime and his “summer vacation” jail sentence: three months for the vile sexual assault of an unconscious woman.

As a sociologist, I was struck not by the abrupt shift to a new moral crisis, but by the continuity. Sociologists look for the bigger picture, and in my mind, Mateen’s crime didn’t displace Turner’s. Yet the media simply replaced one outrage with another, moving our attention away from Stanford and toward Orlando, as if these two crimes were unrelated. They’re not.

Status, masculinity and sexual assault

Brock Turner was an all-American boy: a white, Division I swimmer at one of the nation’s top universities. What he did to his victim was arguably all-American, too, confirmed by decades of research tying rape to a sense of male superiority and entitlement.

I study sex on campus, where sexual violence is perpetrated disproportionately by “high-status” men – fraternity men and certain male athletes in particular. These men are more likely than other men to endorse the sexual double standard, believing that they are justified in praising sexually active men, while condemning and even abusing women who are less sexually active.

They are also more likely to promote homophobia, hypermasculinity and male dominance; tolerate violent and sexist jokes; endorse misogynistic attitudes and behaviors; and endorse false beliefs about rape. Accordingly, athletes are responsible for an outsized number of sexual assaults on campus, and women who attend fraternity parties are significantly more likely to be assaulted than those who attend other parties with alcohol and those who don’t go to parties at all.

Status, masculinity and violent homophobia

Omar Mateen’s crime is related to this strand of masculinity. Mateen’s father told the media that his son had previously been angered by the sight of two men kissing, and reports claim that he was a “regular” at the Pulse nightclub and was known to use a gay hookup app.

Anti-gay hate crimes, like violence against women (Mateen also reportedly beat his ex-wife), are tied closely to rigid and hierarchical ideas about masculinity that depend on differentiating “real” men from women as well as gay and bisexual men. Men who experience homoerotic feelings themselves sometimes erupt into especially aggressive homophobia.

As the sociologist Michael Kimmel has argued, while we talk ad infinitum about guns, mental illness and, in this case, Islamic identity, we miss the strongest unifying factor: these mass murderers are men, almost to the last one. In his book Guyland,” Kimmel argues that as many boys grow into men, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”

He means “annihilate” literally.

We now know that many boys who descend on their schools with guns are motivated by fears that they are perceived as homosexual and that attacking suspected or known homosexuals is a way for boys to demonstrate heterosexuality to their peers.

It makes sense to me, as a woman, that men would fear gay men because such men threaten to put other men under the same sexually objectifying, predatory, always potentially threatening gaze that most women learn to live with as a matter of course. Being looked at by a gay man threatens to turn any man into a figurative woman: subordinate, weak, penetrable. That can be threatening enough to a man invested in masculinity, but discovering that he enjoys being the object of other men’s desires – being put in the position of a woman – could stoke both internalized and externalized homophobia even further.

Meanwhile, gay men, by their very existence, challenge male dominance by undermining the link between maleness and the sexual domination of women. It’s possible that Mateen, enraged by his inability to stop men from kissing in public and struggling with self-hatred, took it upon himself to annihilate the people who dared pierce the illusion that manhood and the righteous sexual domination of women naturally go hand-in-hand.

The common denominator

Mass shootings, frighteningly, appear to have become a part of our American cultural vernacular, a shared way for certain men to protest threats to their entitlement and defend the hierarchy their identities depend on. As the sociologists Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober wrote last year for the website Feminist Reflections:

This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else… Gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men. So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.

Some members of the media and candidates for higher office will focus exclusively on Mateen’s Afghan parents. But he – just like Brock Turner – was born, raised and made a man right here in America. While it appears that he had (possibly aspirational) links to ISIS, it in no way undermines his American-ness. This was terrorism, yes, but it was domestic terrorism: of, by and aimed at Americans.

I don’t want to force us all to keep Turner in the news (though I imagine that he and his father are breathing a perverse sigh of relief right now). I want to remind us to keep the generalities in mind even as we mourn the particulars.

Sociologists are pattern seekers. This problem is bigger than Brock Turner and Omar Mateen. It’s Kevin James Loibl, who sought out and killed the singer Christina Grimmie the night before the massacre at Pulse. It’s James Wesley Howell, who was caught with explosives on his way to the Los Angeles Pride Parade later that morning. It’s the grotesque list of men who used guns to defend their sense of superiority that I collected and documented last summer.

The problem is men’s investment in masculinity itself. It offers rewards only because at least some people agree that it makes a person better than someone else. That sense of superiority is, arguably, why men like Turner feel entitled to violating an unconscious woman’s body and why ones like Mateen will defend it with murderous rampages, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. And unless something changes, there will be another sickening crisis to turn to, and another sinking sense of familiarity.

Cross-posted at The Conversation, New Republic, Special Broadcasting Company (SBS)United Press InternationalNewsweek Japan (in Japanese), and Femidea (in Korean).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Scatterplot.

Olympic fever has hit! As we all marvel at the power, precision, and grace of the athletes, a more disturbing commentary has also emerged, one that diminishes women athletes’ accomplishments, defines them by the men around them, places them in tired tropes of sex objects, or infantilizes them as “girls.” Some journalists, in combination with a robust social media discussion, are calling this bad behavior out. But should we be so surprised?

According to past research, no. In our work, we see this as a more pervasive issue, and women’s collegiate coaching is a prime example. When Title IX was enacted in 1972 approximately 90% of women’s teams were coached by women; in 2014 that number dropped to 43%. Women comprise only 23% of head coaching positions. Why are women coaches – especially of women’s teams – being left out? We talked to 9 female and 12 male coaches of women’s and men’s teams and many of their own explanations suggest a view of fundamental and “natural” differences between men and women.

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Talking to Coaches… Gender Matters

In general, the qualities of sport – competition, confidence, physical strength, aggression – are seen as masculine, while characteristics of cooperation, passivity, and dependency are coded feminine, raising suspicions about women’s capacity to excel. Masculine dominance has helped to define the parameters of what it means to be a coach.

Interestingly, coaching may be seen as an example of conflicting masculine roles. Given the low pay and high time commitment, coaching undermines the traditional male family role as breadwinner. As this male head women’s tennis coach explains,

I’ve been kind of lucky… I didn’t feel like I had to make a certain amount of money, X amount of dollars to be happy. So I was ok with where I was at salary wise… I think that the key to that is having a wife that also works, and that we can still make it happen, and sort of live the way we want to live and be happy.

Many of the men echoed the idea that without a spouse’s support, a coaching career would be difficult. Although respondents all felt women opt out of coaching due to family pressures, none felt that men needed to opt out to support their families. Arguably, the relationship between masculinity and athletics provides men with the social compensation necessary to remain in coaching in a way that does not operate for women.

Especially when asked why women don’t coach men, many of the respondents did not think women would have the strength, athleticism, authority, and leadership abilities to be effective men’s coaches. As a male head men’s soccer coach expresses:

I think the game is slightly different. The understanding of the nuances of the men’s game versus the women’s game… for a female to go into a men’s athletic team and command respect from those guys, it’s difficult. A female wouldn’t be able to step in and play seven versus seven and be able to play at the same level. Not technically, not tactically, I mean simply physically…just the strength factor.

Other arguments highlight the assumed biological connection between men and leadership. A female assistant women’s soccer coach argued that “the leadership gene is much more apparent in guys, it’s much more inherent in them.” Additionally challenging is the perception that taking orders and guidance from a female threatens masculinity and calls into question male superiority in a male dominated field. A former male head golf coach notes,

A woman coach is going to have to work harder to gain respect from a guy player than a male coach will have to work from a female player. … [Individuals are] raised to say if a guy’s leading, you give them a little benefit of the doubt. A woman has to prove herself, and until she does there’s going to be doubt.

By internalizing and enforcing stereotypes a gender pecking-order can be preserved. As this woman, an assistant women’s soccer coach, suggests, socialization improves men’s leadership ability:

When girls are socialized… it’s share, everyone in groups, be nice to everyone; guys are taught much more of competitiveness… a guy leader comes out in a group much easier… because in a girl’s environment it’s no one should be above anyone else… guys and girls are just different. They’re socialized different.

Stereotypes about men’s competitiveness and women’s need for emotional bonding were prevalent, and if these are carried into hiring decisions it is easy to see why male coaches are favored. Yet, if gender differences are so stark, we would expect to see same-sex coaching across the board, instead of the current disparity. Instead, this difference only legitimated women’s absence and was not used to question men’s presence as coaches of women’s teams. None of the women said they wanted to coach men’s teams and nor were they upset at being denied access to these positions. Respondents were more in favor of increasing women coaching women, but did not question or challenge any of the main gender stereotypes. This man, a former head men’s golf coach said,

I’m a fan of a woman coaching women’s sports, if skill levels are equal, because there are certain intangibles – I don’t understand the woman animal as well on certain things.

Shattering the “Glass Wall”?

Coaches we interviewed recognized the role that resources and opportunities played in incentivizing men into coaching women, but none challenged any aspect of the system. Respondents automatically buy into the “glass wall” such that 50 percent of jobs (those coaching men) are off-limits, thus if women coach approximately 50 percent of women’s teams, it’s “fair.” We see that unquestioned assumptions of gender difference supported perceptions that masculinity and men were superior to femininity and women. Twenty years ago scholars on this topic said it is beliefs in male athletic superiority that justify gender disparities in coaching, and according to these interviews little has changed. So, yes, observers should continue to call out the failures of Olympic commentators to treat women athletes equally, but as we say goodbye to Rio, let’s not forget how these issues are shaping coaches’ and athletes’ experiences every day.

Catherine Bolzendahl is a professor of sociology and the co-author of Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family. Vanessa Kauffman is a PhD student.  Both are at the University of California, Irvine. Jessica Broadfoot-(Lee) is an alum and was a member of the women’s tennis team and a two-time Big West Scholar-Athlete..