Monday, November 30, 2009

Serena’s Fine Reflects Double Standard (Again)

After we found out that this summer that Wimbledon officials were assigning women players to centre court according to their sex appeal, we knew the double standard for men and women athletes was alive and well. Now, that double standard is confirmed in the report today that Serena Williams will be fined $82,500 for her US Open tirade against a line judge. She will also be on a two year probation during which, if she has another “major offense,” at a Grand Slam tournament, the fine would increase to $175,000 and she would be barred from the following U.S. Open. I agree that Williams’ outburst deserved to be punished. It was profane and unacceptable behavior.

However, it was no worse than the temper tantrums we tolerated repeatedly from John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. I recall profanity, abuse of officials, bird flipping, crotch grabbing and more from them. Were they ever fined? If they were, it certainly wasn’t a whopper like the one levied against Serena. Let’s see what could be the difference here? White men, Black woman. Could it be that, not only do we insist on our women athletes being sexy, we also demand that they be well behaved? Is a Black woman blowing up on court more threatening than a white woman? Would a white woman exhibiting similar behavior be fined equivalently? Would a black male player be fined more severely than a white male player?

We do know that white male tennis players can be butt ugly and still make the cover of Sports Illustrated if they are champions. They can be as rude and boorish as they like and we just chuckle (John McEnroe makes commercials now spoofing his ill tempered behavior on the court) or forgive their outbursts as fiery competitiveness reflective of a champion’s drive to win.

Maybe standards have changed. Maybe a current male player who had a blow up similar to the one by Serena would be fined as much. I don’t know. I just know we never leave our sexism or racism at the gym door or the entrance to center court. I don’t believe they were absent from the conference room when tennis officials decided on Serena’s punishment either. What do you think?

Brendan and Brian Burke: Thanks for Sharing

Why is Brendan Burke, son of Brian Burke, coming out as a gay man such a big deal? Well, Brian Burke is the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and we all know that ice hockey is one of the big four men’s pro sports (the other three are baseball, basketball and football) that is supposed to be so macho that they just have to be homophobic, right?

This story has gotten a lot of media coverage which is a good thing because it gives men in sports opportunities to talk about their reactions to this news and the hypothetical question that is always raised when we talk about gay men in sport: How would you feel about having a gay teammate? It is hypothetical only because no man playing a professional team sport has come out publicly yet. I believe the more athletes and coaches talk about having an out gay teammate the easier it will get for them to be comfortable actually having one. When some of these athletes respond to the big question in positive ways, the more it breaks the “rule” that, if you are a pro team sport athlete, you have to be hostile to the possibility of sharing your locker room with a gay man. I believe that the more athletes and coaches speak out positively, the easier it will be for gay athletes to make themselves known. I know there are still plenty of these big ole macho guys who are scaredy cats when it comes to the idea that the guy using the locker next to theirs might be gay, but times are slowly changing.

The most touching part of the Brendan Burke story is his father’s loving reaction. I guess it is a sign of how far we still have to go when it is a compelling news story that a father publicly affirms his love and admiration for his gay son, but there it is. We still expect macho men in sports to be homophobic. We are surprised when they aren’t. I am happy for Brendan that his father has been so publicly loving. Brian Burke commands a lot of respect in the ice hockey world and I am happy for the possibility that other macho men in sports might read about Brendan and Brian Burke and rethink their own fear and hostility about having a gay teammate or coach or family member. It’s a kind of education that can be as effective as a workshop if it invites more openness and comfort.

This story also reminded me of how terrifying it was to tell my mother that I was gay. I believe it is a fear only other gay people can understand and the reason seeing PFLAG moms and dads marching in pride marches still brings tears to my eyes. The fear of parental rejection or disappointment is a big deal, at least it was to me. I remember the mental rehearsal, the chickening out numerous times, the pounding heart and finally the blurt: “Mom, I have something to tell you.” The fear in her eyes about what I was to come following that. Then my announcement: “I’m gay.” Then her look of relief. “Oh, honey, your father and I knew this for years. We just want you to be happy.” I went out for my run that morning, stood on the front steps, smiled and took what felt like the first deep breath of my life. Nothing could stop me now. I wish the same feelings for Brendan Burke.

I know it doesn’t turn out as well for everyone. Sometimes it takes time for parents to adjust. Sometimes they never do. For most of us, coming out to our parents isn’t a public event. It happens in private and only we and they are affected. The great thing about Brendan and Brian Burke is that they have chosen to share this family event with all of us. I offer my thanks to both of them for sharing this moment and for giving the men’s sports world this opportunity to reflect on the homophobic culture that we have too long accepted as inevitable.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Intersex Athletes: Could We Have Some Science and Sanity, Please?

Could the international and national sport governing bodies, the international press, and, basically, anyone involved in the process surrounding Caster Semenya’s controversial world championship in the 800m run have screwed this up more? I don’t think so. Amid media leaks, secret “gender” tests, failure to follow their own rules, hysterical and sensationalistic news coverage and all around poor judgment, the fact remains that a young woman’s life has been turned upside down.

On Friday the IAAF announced that Caster will retain both her gold medal and her prize money, which is welcome news, but there is no word at all about whether or not this young woman will ever be allowed to compete again in women’s events. The IAAF also announced that the results of the “gender verification” tests performed on Caster Semenya will remain confidential. Never mind that reports of the results were all over the international press over a month ago with National Enquirer style headlines proclaiming her a “hermaphrodite.”

One good thing coming out of this mess is that the IOC is organizing an international “Gender Summit” in mid-January to review policies on “gender verification” and, I hope, come up with better policies for how such issues will be dealt with in the future. Let’s hope there are people at the table who can bring some science and sanity to this discussion. I fear the conversations are too late for Caster Semenya and that is the tragedy here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brian Sims: A Gay Football Player Speaks Out

Brian Sims was a college football player. He is gay. He was out to his teammates. He was a team leader. He had a positive experience. These are five sentences that, according to some people, we should not expect to see written in the same paragraph about the same man. It probably helps that he is also smart, good-looking, strong, tough and completely comfortable with who he is.

Nonetheless, Brian has decided to speak out about his experience in hopes of helping athletic departments, coaches and male athletes to think more critically about what it means to have a gay teammate and to help them rethink the knee jerk reaction of many football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey players and coaches: “A gay man just wouldn’t be accepted on our team.”

I have always thought that a star athlete or team leader who is gay is more likely to be accepted by teammates and coaches because he has “proven” himself (read: he doesn’t act like everyone expects a gay guy to act). We will truly have turned the corner on homophobia in sport when the guy at the end of the bench who doesn’t log a lot of playing time and is not seen as a team leader gets the same acceptance and respect as a gay star. It is still a good thing though when a man like Brian Sims speaks out because he does defy those lingering stereotypes of gay male athletes that some straight athletes harbor. A little dissonance is a good thing.

It’s also true that sometimes, football players (and other male athletes) need to hear from football players. Brian Sims has some credibility with that group that someone else, say a middle-aged lesbian whose only football experience was as a ten year old playing tackle in the front yard with her boy buddies in the 1950’s, doesn’t have. Thanks to Brian for speaking out. We need all the different voices we can muster to raise a lusty chorus for harmony and social justice in sport. Ok, that last sentence was over the top, but you get my drift.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Unfair Competitive Advantage: What’s It All About, Aimee?

I just read this article written by Aimee Mullins, an accomplished track athlete and former President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, who runs with two woven carbon fiber Cheetah Legs. Her article is a dissection and refutation of “unfair competitive edge” arguments used against athletes with disabilities who want to compete against athletes who do not have disabilities.

Mullins sums up her argument:

“The crux of that question lays under the umbrella of ethics, which should indeed govern our rule structure within the competitive arena, but there's something in this story which specifically points toward a deep-seated fear, one we don't want to talk about in polite conversation, one which parallels historical instances of racial integration of sport and gender integration of sport. If we allow a person, one who we view as our inferior (in whatever way), to play with us, and then that person beats us, what does that say about us?”

Mullins makes the point that sport is based on gaining an advantage and asks the question, how do we separate gaining an advantage within the bounds of the rules we have agreed to in a sport and gaining an “unfair” advantage. And I would add, who gets to decide which is which? Few people would agree that all athletes who enter a contest have an equal chance to win. Each one has advantages and disadvantages based on genetic gifts from their parents, training regimens, access to the coaching and state of the art sports equipment, access to clean air and good nutrition, discrimination, financial resources, mental toughness and on and on.

Mullins asks the question, why are her Cheetah Legs seen as an unfair advantage in a race with athletes who run on their own legs when we do not disqualify athletes based on these other advantages? Why do we suddenly get all concerned about a “level playing field” when we know there is no such thing?

Mullins’ article focuses on athletes with disabilities, but the argument can be applied to other situations where we fret about competitive equity too. When intersex or transgender athletes want to compete in women’s sports, similar concerns are raised about unfair competitive advantages. We wrestled with these questions at length at the Transgender Think Tank a few weeks ago. One of our guiding principles was to “preserve the integrity” of women’s sport as we discussed policies that would enable transgender athletes to compete in their preferred gender (most people’s concerns focus on transgender or intersex women competing in women’s sports, not transgender or intersex men competing in men’s sports though there are issues there as well).

When women competitors take the field, dive into the pool or run onto the court, the range of differences among them is wide. Competitive equity is a relative term. Using Aimee’s argument, how do we decide when a transgender or intersex woman has an unfair competitive advantage and why do we focus on her potential advantages when we do not worry about the advantages or disadvantages of the other women in the competition? It’s because we see these variations as normal. We expect them. I won because I am taller, stronger, more skilled, more determined, I worked harder. I deserved to win. Our challenge is to stretch our vision of what is normal to include competitors who have been excluded based on fears and prejudices or our desire to maintain a sense of superiority. Excluding athletes of color, women, lesbians and gay men, people with disabilities, transgender and intersex athletes have historically and still are too often based on these fears and prejudices. The similarities among the arguments used to justify this exclusion or limitation is surprisingly similar regardless of the group being targeted.

Interesting connections, don’t you think?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Women’s Basketball Media Guides: Lipstick, Yes. Lesbians, No.

Here is a terrific article written by Jayda Evans for the Seattle Times about women’s college basketball media guides and a trend toward photo shoots that highlight the players’ femininity (code word for heterosexuality, in my opinion). The problem is that this is nothing new. Back in the late 80’s there were several media guide covers that featured players in sexy dresses and high heels or similar attire. The most offensive one was from, I believe, Southwest Louisiana that featured the women’s team dressed as Playboy bunnies in Playboy bunnyish poses. The copy read, “These girls can play, boy!” The arena was called the “pleasure palace.” Guess who they were marketing to.

This is just more of the same tired old “sell women’s sports as heterosexy and feminine” to ward off those unsavory associations with lesbians. Whether trying to market women’s sports to fans or appeal to potential recruits we just can’t seem to turn the corner on that fear and put it behind us. It keeps popping back up like that punching back guy with the weighted bottom. Punch him and he goes down, then rocks right back up. Punch him again… We need to move on, for the love of Pete (whoever he is).

Google “woman athlete” in images. See what you get. Yep, women athletes in sexy poses. Google “male athletes” or “athletes” and you get men playing sports. People, it’s almost 2010. The protective camouflage of feminine (heterosexual) drag didn’t work in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90’s or the first 10 years of the new millennium. What the hell makes anyone think it will work now?

New Flash, people! There are lesbians playing and coaching sports. Some of them win national championships and set world records. Some were the pioneers who fought for the rights of young women who enjoy playing sports today.

Plus, it is so simplistic to think that all lesbian athletes shun dresses, high heels and make-up or that all straight athletes can’t wait to put on their femwear as soon as they get off the court. It’s drag! And it has nothing to do with anything, except, of course, conforming to fantasies about what it means to be a man or woman, gay or straight.

What’s more frustrating is that we now have emerging research that indicates that the sexualizing or feminizing of women athletes to make women’s sports more palatable, popular or acceptable doesn’t work. A study by Mary Jo Kane at the University of Minnesota indicates that showing women athletes in sexy poses to young men only makes them want to see more sexy photos of the women. It does not make them want to rush out and buy season tickets to the nearest WNBA franchise. At the same time these sexy photos turn off other important fan constituencies: Older men, who are likely to be fathers of women athletes, and most women.

Another study recently completed by Vikki Krane at Bowling Green University indicates that young women, the recruiting targets that team media guides are aimed at, want to see women athletes playing their sports (duh!), not posing for a faux Playboy feature or a high school prom picture. These findings make it all the more depressing that the “new” trend in team media guides for college women’s basketball seems to be the same old same old.

We just can’t seem to take that bold step out of the closet it would take to be proud of ALL the women who play sports: the lesbians, the heterosexual women, the big women, the small women, the femmy ones and the butch ones. We keep apologizing for who we are. We keep compensating for our strength and athleticism and our muscles by pushing the pretty or sexy ones forward, as Marie Hart said back in the 1960’s. We keep posing in sexy or femmy costumes to disguise the reality of our diversity.

Maybe one thing that Elizabeth Lambert did for women’s sports is shock people into seeing that women athletes are tough and women’s sports are not tea parties anymore. Though I deplore the violence in that incident, at least it showed tough competitive women playing sport not primping for a date after the game. We could do with a lot more honesty in how we present women’s sport. If we never get that 18-35 male demographic into the stands, who cares? Let’s not sell our souls trying.

We keep talking about how the world has changed for women athletes, but if it has only become acceptable to be a feminine appearing heterosexual acting athlete than not that much has really changed at all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Violence in Women’s Sports: Part of the Game, Transgressing Gender, or Sexy Catfight?

Video clips of Elizabeth Lambert, a soccer player from the University of New Mexico, putting the hurt on BYU players during a game over the weekend has attracted some serious attention from all corners of the sports and social media. Reactions to the video clips are fervent and widespread. If only people paid as much attention to women’s sports on a day to day basis. Has there been this much reaction to women’s soccer since Brandy Chastain ripped off her jersey to celebrate winning the World Cup in 1999?

First, I have to say, Elizabeth Lambert’s violence was over the top and I wonder where the refs, the coaches and her teammates were. She is being demonized and has been suspended from her team indefinitely, but only after the video went viral. She has apologized publicly and it actually felt like a real apology. I am not saying what she did was acceptable (especially that vicious ponytail jerk from behind), but she was not playing that game on her own. There were lots of other people there who bear some responsibility for letting things get out of hand. Where is the conversation about coaches and referees and what their responsibilities are?

I am as disturbed by some of the reactions to the video as I am by Lambert’s actions. If this had been a men’s game, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The kind of physical, dirty play in the video is an accepted part of the game in men’s sports. Maybe the eye gouging incident at the University of Florida was a little over the top, but generally, we don’t even bother to comment on similar levels of outside the lines play in men’s sports. But when women engage in shady physical intimidation practices or a fistfight breaks out during a contest, all hell breaks loose. Some people want Lambert banned from ever playing soccer again. We have a clear double standard here for the violence in sport we are willing to accept.

The overblown reaction is based on so many sexism notions. First, there is the idea that women are the kinder, gentler sex who don’t (shouldn’t) engage in violence on the field or even rough physical play that falls within the bounds of acceptable standards. Women are supposed to be nice and fragile. In the male world of sport fandom the absence of violent collisions, elbows flying, jersey pulling and punching are just another reason to dis women’s sports as inferior. I’m not saying I love violence in sport. I’m just saying we should have the same standards for all sports whether it’s about expectations about tough physical play or intolerance for violent play.

Other reactions include people who are supporting Lambert for her aggressive play and claim, with some credibility, that rough play happens in women’s soccer all the time. Why has this incident provoked such an outcry? Is it just that there is this video montage all over the internet?

But here is where it gets creepy. When this kind of play does happen in women’s sport, it isn’t often hailed as evidence of women’s tough competitive play as it is for men. Instead it is sexualized as really hot, a turn on, a catfight. There is a titillation factor that makes me very uncomfortable. A little woman on woman action becomes a show for the purpose of gratifying men’s sexual interests. The competitiveness and athleticism of women athletes are eroticized and in the process women’s sports are trivialized. Read some of the comments on men’s sports blogs or news coverage of this.

I also see a lesbian subtext in these reactions. A staple part of pornographic material is woman on woman sex staged for the gratification of men. Are men who think two women fighting or women being violent with each other is hot and sexy treating the incident like woman on woman porn? Is that what this incident has tapped into? At the same time, the prospect of actual lesbians playing sports is framed as a complete turn off for the same male demographic. These are the guys who hate the WNBA with such a passion that it feels almost pathological.

I would like to think we can take this as a great opportunity to have a conversation about sexism in sport, violence in sport, heterosexism in sport. My fear is that the titillation factor will win the day and the “catfight crowd” will enjoy yet another moment of sexualizing and trivializing women athletes. I also worry that the only outcome will be that Elizabeth Lambert will be demonized and banned for her rough play without examining the deeper manifestations of sexism embedded in our response to this incident.

Monday, November 9, 2009

No Homo! No Dumbo!

I have resisted commenting on the term “no homo” because I think it is one of the most idiotic phrases ever, but I ultimately decided to comment after all (the blogging well must be dry this week). Don’t know about “no homo?” The phrase apparently originated in hip hop culture, not exactly known for its gay friendliness, and has been perpetuated in men’s professional sport culture and now more broadly in “man culture” it seems. You can find some pretty funny YouTube videos parodying the phrase.

Anyway, “no homo” is like an all-purpose disclaimer used by guys to exempt themselves from any association with gayness because of a previous statement or action. Confused? Here’s an example: A guy tells another guy, “Hey, man, love your new shirt…no homo.” Another example: A guy says to another guy, “Tom Brady is a cool dude…no homo.” One more: A guy hugs a male friend…then says, “No homo.”

I even read over at Outsports that some athletes are now tweeting a (pause) after statements they think require the “no homo” disclaimer instead of actually writing the words, “no homo. “ I guess this is to avoid being in Larry Johnson’s cleats.

It’s not exactly a big secret that the use of “faggot” and “homo,” as well as a lot of anti-women slurs, are an unfortunate but staple part of men’s locker room discourse. These words tumble easily from the mouths of too many athletes and coaches. Every now and then these words slip out in public places and require the athlete or coach who said it to issue a non-apology (sorry if I offended anyone) and gets a lot of media attention. A few months ago it was the University of Hawaii football coach. The last few weeks it’s been Kansas City Chiefs Larry Johnson. It will be someone else next week. It slips out of the locker room and becomes part of school and playground discourse too as the ultimate putdowns, fighting words, and bullying taunts. Out of the mouths of young, mostly boys, these words can become weapons that provoke fragile peers to suicide or murder. Think this is an exaggeration? Check here and here.

Last week minor league professional ice hockey player, Justin Bourne, wrote an editorial calling for an end to the use of anti-gay slurs in male sports locker rooms. It was a refreshing break from the ranks of silence among most male professional athletes about anything gay, unless it is to say something ignorant and negative (think Tim Hardaway). Bourne’s editorial followed the public advocacy for same-sex marriage by NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Scott Fujita a few weeks ago. These public actions stand out for their unique stance against homophobia among male professional athletes. As far as I know Brendon, Scott and Justin Bourne are all straight and I respect that they did not feel the need to add “no homo” to their statements of support for gay rights and against gay slurs.

Unfortunately, I think that this fear does keep other athletes who privately agree with them silent. The threat of being called or perceived as..homo is still scary for these grown men. What does that say about heterosexual masculinity? Is it really that fragile that it must be protected and defended at all times? Is the “hetero man” pose so affected that one slip up – wearing the wrong color shirt, noticing another man’s attractiveness, hugging a friend – can call it into question and require a disclaimer – “no homo?” How profound is the fear of being cut out of the “man” herd?

I have an idea. Maybe we can propose a response to the use of the “no homo” disclaimer. Whenever you hear some guy say this, respond “no dumbo.” Be sure to have the appropriately disdainful expression on your face to accompany your comment. Try to convey the message, “Seriously, dude, are you THAT insecure?”

Oh, yeah, my apologies to any flying elephants who are offended by my suggestion.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A New Blog By A Transgender Athlete

I want to alert readers to a new blog that I think you will find interesting and informative. It is written by a transgender athlete. “Corbyn” is female-bodied and identifies as a man. He is not yet taking hormones and describes himself as “pre-surgery” because he wants to continue his sports career competing in women’s events. He competed on a women’s team in college and is continuing his sports career at the national elite level now.

The blog is a courageous personal statement from a perspective that has been long silenced in athletics. Corbyn is using the blog to share his experiences, both the triumphs and the frustrations, as a trans-identified athlete so that we all can learn more about the importance of developing sound and inclusive policies that enable transgender athletes to participate in sports.

We have a lot to learn from Corbyn and I am grateful that he is willing to share his experience with us. Check out his blog -