Saturday, July 16, 2011

Real Women Don't Fake It

I was struck this week by two news items concerning women's sports. These were hidden among the reports of squabbles broadcast from Washington and the ethically dubious and illegal activities undertaken by Rupert Murdoch's employees to garner paying audiences for his t.v. and newspaper empire. Entertainment under the auspices of "reportage" is in fact the premise of my book Early Modern Dutch Prints of Africa, but that's another story (four-hundred years old, no less). With all these, money is the bottom line (pun intended).
 The Women's World Cup is top of mind for many Americans. Certainly, the fact that the U.S. team will be playing against Japan in the championship match has increased the ink spilt on this under-reported sport in the U.S. It was of course, a similar situation in 1999--the U.S. women's team beat China in a shoot-out, culminating in the iconic photo most older than 25 probably still remember:

Chastain's euphoric reaction upon kicking the winning shot past China's goalie showed the world not only the physical strength of women athletes, but the emotional release after the grueling mental strength required to compete at that level. Despite the U.S. Women's victory in 1999 and the 2011 team's ascent to at least second place, not much has changed in the realm of women's professional sports. This disinterest by Americans in women's athletics extends to collegiate sports, where money is the elephant in the room. Even while colleges are legally obligated to create level playing fields for men and women (pardon the pun), The New York Times reported today that many community colleges across the nation are in violation of Title IX, ostensibly because of being cash-strapped. The Times reported that women make up more than two-thirds of students at Los Angeles Southwest community college  but less than a quarter of its athletes. Their only option to play is on the basketball team. Most shocking is that while the college’s athletic director acknowledged that his program is most likely violating federal law by failing to offer enough roster spots to women, he suggested that the reason there are so few female players was because "many of the female students are also juggling jobs and child care, and do not have time to play sports." 
This is quite possibly true. But that doesn't relieve these colleges of the obligation to provide equal athletic opportunities. Indeed, if I were juggling job, school, and babies, I'd relish an opportunity (and excuse) to get away in a physical activity just for me. If creating equal opportunity means providing daycare--so be it! Another athletic director at a community college in the Bronx makes this plain: “People who say they can’t find students who are interested or they can’t recruit, it sounds very much like what I heard 30 years ago, 40 years ago in the 1970s. . .That’s the reason for Title IX, so there can’t be an excuse to not give opportunities.”
Still money--or lack of it--definitely separates mens and women's athletics at all levels. Despite the U.S. soccer team's dominance, they and their players remain mostly anonymous (I can't name one!) at the same time that men's professional football and basketball players are bitterly negotiating for the share of the profits they think they deserve. I honestly have not been following the lockout at all (because I don't care), but I do think it worth mentioning so to put in high relief the accomplishments of the women soccer players. As of yet, their sport remains mostly uncorrupted by the money and ego that seems to pervade men's professional athletics (and politics). It was very interesting to read in the Times the other day that  there is a definite gendered tack to dramatics on the pitch. Men flop. Women "simulate" injury half as much. The researcher suggested that one reason the men flop may be because of the "greater visibility and higher financial stakes in men's soccer" (don't forget in other countries, men's soccer is the most popular sport). The other reason he suggested was the greater speed and forceful contact men bring to the game. It is hard for me buy (ha! third pun! Look at how our language reflects the cultural importance of the dollar too!) the second explanation if women like Chastain are playing equally fit elite women athletes. 
I do not think this needs to be a male/female issue. What irks me is that it has become one because of the ego and greed in which we, as fans/constituents are complicit. We have set up and perpetuate an athletic (and political)  system that rewards ego and showmanship, even if the "entertainment" factor is not ethically role-model worthy. Still, the U.S. women's love of the game is refreshing. Perhaps a U.S. victory over Japan is just what this country needs during these increasingly polarized political times. Indeed, both teams competing tomorrow provide exempla of women's ability to persevere over adversity. As the current debate between the President and members of congress frustrate and divide our nation, Japan's earthquake and tsunami required their citizens to unite to help each other. Would that our elected politicians played as a team with a common goal, rather than holding out for their own benefit. 
I'm looking forward to watching tomorrow's game, and celebrating women's athletics, whichever team wins the match.

ADDENDUM Sunday, July 17:
Holy cow, great game Japan wins in penalty kicks. And even more interesting--and scary-- is the Times article about the High-Roller FIFA men

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