Monday, August 31, 2009

Basketball Games as Religious Events: A Really Bad Marketing Plan?

While reading the Women’s Hoop Blog recently, I found my way to this thoughtful article in Full Court Press, the women’s basketball journal. The article, written by Lee Michaelson, publisher of Full Court Press, raises some really interesting questions about mixing sporting events and religion, WNBA marketing strategies, “promoting diversity and tolerance” and homophobia. It is a fairly long article, but I recommend that you read all of it.

The event sparking the article (pardon my terrible pun) was a Gospel Night sponsored by the LA Sparks as one of the many theme nights that WNBA teams have to entertain fans and highlight various events, groups and educational efforts. As part of Gospel Night in LA, gospel choirs sang at half-time and an evangelical Christian minister took the microphone to exhort fans to “put your hands together for Jesus” and “wave your hands in the air if you are a believer.” You can read the article for a more complete description and discussion of the event, but this abbreviated description provides the core issue for me.

While writing Strong Women, Deep Closets several years ago I attended a UMass Women’s basketball team exhibition game before the season started. They were playing a touring team from Athletes in Action. AIA is an evangelical Christian sports ministry. This is apparently a common practice for some men’s and women’s college teams. I had not experienced an event like this, however, and I remember being offended by the open proselytizing that occurred during half-time. The audience was invited by the AIA spokesperson to “accept Jesus,” A Christian testimonial was delivered by Nancy Lieberman, one of the players on the AIA team, and AIA informational brochures were distributed throughout the crowd. I was appalled and embarrassed that UMass would sponsor such a blatantly religious event. Partly because I knew of AIA’s position on homosexuality (it’s a sin and you can pray your way out of this deviant lifestyle choice), but the source of most of my discomfort came from the belief that this was an incredibly inappropriate event at a public education institution. What happened to the separation of religion and state? Who thought this was good for women’s basketball? Who approved this event? The incident spurred me to include an entire chapter devoted to the issue of evangelical Christian sport ministries and their relationship to homophobia in sports.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one was upset about turning the Mullins Center into a Christian revival meeting. After receiving complaints from me and others, the athletic department has never sponsored such an event again.
I find myself having the same feelings of discomfort, uneasiness and, yes, anger that some WNBA teams are also sponsoring religious events featuring only one variety of Christianity (evangelical) under the guise of “appreciation of diversity and tolerance?” Gospel Night is, first and foremost, a marketing strategy. I understand that, but is it smart marketing to risk alienating segments of your audience?

How could they not get that this could be, at the least, uncomfortable, and at the most, seriously offensive to non-Christians and Christians who just came to see a basketball game, not a religious celebration or who believe that the principle of separation of religion and state serves an important function in a country that believes in freedom of religion.

Then there is the whole gay angle. First, I am sure there may have been some gay Christians who enjoyed Gospel Night, but given the role that many evangelical Christian groups play in opposing civil rights for gay people, safe schools programs for LGBT students, and passage of hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation or gender identity, for example, I bet there are many more gay people and heterosexual allies who are offended by events like Gospel Night.

Michaelson notes that some people are offended by WNBA marketing outreach to lesbian and gay fans, but makes the point that equating Gospel Night with marketing to gay fans is not analogous. Rarely does any WNBA team acknowledge gay fans in the arena and I don’t know of any team that sponsors an event during a game that “celebrates” lesbian and gay fans and their families. Most “outreach” to gay and lesbian fans takes place safely out of sight of other fans who might be offended – at pride events, in gay bars, on web sites, but in the arena during a game with an actual gay person holding a microphone asking fans to kiss your neighbor if you are gay – not so much.

OK, before someone thinks I am advocating that WNBA teams start sponsoring “Gay Kiss-In Night, I am not. I just think it is worth noting, as Lee Michaelson does way more articulately than I can, that some WNBA teams seem to be a lot more concerned about offending some fans than others. I wish the WNBA could hit on a successful marketing strategy that was based on a real principle of appreciating and respecting diversity that embraced all fans, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight, black and white. We could all learn something and we could all feel happy to embrace differences if we are included in the definition of what is valued in a diverse fan base.

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's Baaaack! Sex Testing "Suspect" Women Athletes

Imagine that you are an 18 year old South African woman track runner. You just won a gold medal in the 800 meters and set a new world record doing it at the World Track and Field Championships. Cause for celebration and jubilation, right?

Unfortunately,Caster Semenya will not have the opportunity to enjoy her victory. Her performance has been overshadowed by accusations and disparaging comments questioning her sex. Because of Caster’s appearance, read as masculine by her detractors, and her speed, she smashed the world record, some of her competitors and other track officials are questioning whether Caster is a woman.
Following an earlier outstanding performance by Caster, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), suspected a doping violation, but tests on Semenya found no substantiation for that charge. So, now, the IAAF is looking into the possibility that Caster is not a woman.

Instead of celebrating her victory, Caster will be subjected to a series of humiliating and invasive“sex tests” by various medical doctors that could take weeks to determine if she will be allowed to keep her gold medal and her world record. She will be prodded, poked, visually examined, blood will be drawn, she will be scrutinized from head to toe, questioned and observed.

As if that were not humiliating enough, her privacy has been completely violated as the entire issue is now fodder for the world wide sports press and any idiot with a computer to comment on. Though the testing procedure is supposed to be confidential, the IAAF spokesman said that since the word had already leaked out, their choice was to lie or violate Semenya’s privacy and that it was “unfortunate” that this has happened. Ironically, the IAAF will not reveal the names of the competitors or team that filed the official complaint. Apparently, their privacy is more important than Semenya’s.

This sorry incident provides more evidence that the world of sport needs to come into the 21st Century with regard to sex, gender and sexuality. These social constructions are way more complicated and fluid than we are led to believe in our simplistic either/or world. Add sexism to the mix: how could a woman possibly run that fast, she must be a man! Add a little narrow-mindedness about gender expression: She’s too muscular, her hair is too short, her voice is too deep. Possibly add a little racism: would a European or American athlete be treated in the same disrespectful way without regard for her privacy? Heck, while we are at it, let’s also add some homophobia too. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

What a sad day. Caster Semenya won the race, but she lost the sex/gender game: She doesn’t look feminine enough and she is performed too well to be considered a “real” woman.

Here is a good commentary on this from Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf in The Nation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taking A Moment For Mom

I’ve been missing in action blog-wise for a few weeks and I want to explain why: My mom died. Since August 2 when she passed, I’ve been to MD for her memorial service and to CA to visit family there. No time or inclination to write. Losing a parent is always difficult. Anyone who has experienced this loss knows this. My mom and I were especially close. I’ve been losing her slowly over the last nine years to dementia and other assorted physical ills. Still, she knew who I was to the end and I am grateful for that. I dreaded the day when I walked into her room and she looked up at me with a look of confusion and non-recognition on her face. I was spared that heartbreak. One of the last times I saw her, I kissed and hugged her as I readied to leave and told her she was the best Mom ever. She looked at me and said, “I’m your only Mom.” “Yes”, I replied, “but you are still the best.”

I’m sure Mom did not expect the daughter she got. I was a tomboy who loved sports and hated dresses. She was elegant and her accessories always matched. She never made me feel out of place just because I was the only girl playing football and baseball with the neighborhood guys. She had never been interested in sports. She ferried me to high school basketball games and sat on countless bleacher seats to watch me play. She did give me a few dolls at Christmas (which made great hostages in my fantasy adventures where I saved them from disaster). She did make me little dresses (which I insisted on wearing my two gun holster set over). She sighed and let me be me. I will always love her for that simple act of love and acceptance. Not everyone gets this from their parents.

Few parents are prepared to have a gay child. My mom was no different. When I finally came out to her after several trips home and chickening out (My Dad died before I had the courage to tell them both), she knew exactly what was important and was able to brush all other concerns out of the way. She focused on her love for me and the fear of disappointing her she saw in my teary eyes as I told her. Just as she loved the tomboy and the athlete, she loved the lesbian who was her daughter. She gave me the greatest gift a parent can give: She loved me as I am and let go of all the things I was supposed to be or that she may have wanted me to be. She was in my life so completely because I was able to share it with her – both the good and the bad.

At her memorial service, my brother and I both spoke of her sense of humor and told some stories about her irreverence and playfulness that we learned to love as we grew up. I’ve spent the last two weeks since she died looking through old pictures and remembering some of her particular “momisms” as I started calling them. The friends I have who knew her have reminded me of stories about her. We talk and laugh about the woman she was before the fog of dementia closed in on her and robbed her of so much of her personality, humor and playfulness. I cherish all of these memories and am grateful to have friends who share them.

Even as dementia closed in though, there were some days when the fog cleared and her wit was still there. I was visiting her in the nursing home where she lived the last two years of her life. The TV was on. It was an old John Wayne movie called North To Alaska. The 60’s rock n roller, Fabian, had a bit part in the film. When I was in junior high school, I had a big fat thing for Fabian. I had pictures of him all over my bedroom walls. I had all of his albums. I was a member of the Fabian Fan Club. Never mind that Fabian couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket and had no sense of rhythm. I guess it was a sign of my heterosexual impairment.

Anyway, I saw Fabian on the TV and said, “Mom, it’s Fabian! Do you remember him and how I had that big crush on him?” She looked at me, the fog rolled back, and she said, “Yes, and it’s a good thing you have better taste now.”

That’s my Mom. Augusta Scott Griffin, Gussie to her friends, just Mom to me. Mom, I’m glad you are free of the mind and body that were failing you. I am happy you are with Daddy. And I will miss you more than words can express. If the task of parents is to give children roots and wings, rest assured that you certainly did that for me.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

University of Hawaii Football Coach Uses Anti-Gay Slur at Press Conference

Is anyone surprised to hear that a football coach used an anti-gay slur to make fun of an opponent? That’s what University of Hawaii football coach Greg McMackin did at a press conference last week. You can read about it here. Calling an opponent a “faggot” is a time honored tradition in men’s sports. Coaches also use anti-gay and anti-woman slurs to insult their own players into performing better on the field. After all, what could be worse for a man or a boy than to be called “fag” or a girl. Everyone knows they don’t belong in sport, right?

I suspect that Coach McMackin, like way too many coaches, uses this insult in the locker room and on the field with some frequency. I believe this because I don’t think this kind of language is likely to slip out in a press conference unless it is something you say without giving it much thought in other less public contexts. McMackin was trying to be funny, he said later. Fag jokes are always a good laugh, right?

McMackin is not laughing now. This is the part of this story that does surprise me. The University of Hawaii suspended McMackin for 30 days and cut his pay. He is also required to participate in awareness training and take some leadership in training others about the negative effects of anti-gay slurs. Both the university chancellor and the athletic director soundly and publicly condemned his language. The Western Athletic Conference, of which Hawaii is a member, has not decided whether to take action against McMackin. McMackin also made a tearful public apology for his actions at the press conference.

It is encouraging and refreshing that University of Hawaii leaders have taken such strong and immediate action. They set a terrific example for other school administrators whose response to far more egregious violations of university rules, values or policies by athletic personnel is timid or apologetic. It is particularly surprising because football coaches, especially in Division 1 programs, are often so powerful that they are not held accountable for unacceptable behavior for which other school employees are.

Strong administrative action and enforcement of policy are important aspects of successfully addressing LGBT issues in athletics, whether it is anti-gay slurs used by coaches, negative recruiting, firing gay and lesbian coaches or dismissing gay or lesbian athletes from teams. Unless administrators are willing to educate athletic staff and impose sanctions when coaches cross the line, the policies are meaningless.

LZ Granderson
makes another terrific point about this incident by calling the reporters at the press conference to task for their reactions to McMackin. If you listen to the audio of the press conference, you can hear the reporters laughing when McMackin uses the anti-gay slur. They snigger like Bevis and Butthead every time he says it. That’s professional, right?

As a side bar: About 10 years ago, the University of Hawaii changed their mascot from the Rainbow Warriors to the Warriors. At the time, the previous athletic director told reporters that part of the reason for changing the mascot was that the athletic program did not want to be associated with the rainbow flag used as a symbol for gay and lesbian groups. They’ve come a long way at the University of Hawaii and I hope coaches and athletic directors everywhere are watching.