Making football the enemy of women’s sports

This is the fourth in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that critically examines the nearly four decades of the women’s sports movement, including Title IX, cultural and social developments, the growth of professional and international women’s sports and current challenges and issues.

All posts in this series can be found here.


Women’s sports leaders had long done battle with college football figures over financial resources, with University of Texas women’s athletics director Donna Lopiano famously lambasting the “golden goose” of the gridiron that had become too fat and needed to share with women’s sports.

By the early 1990s, Lopiano had become the head of the Women’s Sports Foundation while a wave of sports-related Title IX litigation ensued, highlighted by the landmark Cohen v. Brown dispute.

But the animus over gender equity on legal grounds was compounded by a fiery charge from a new breed of sports feminist fulminating with deep cultural resentment against men and the games they play.

Former Stanford and pro basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson earned plenty of mainstream media attention for her unrelenting 1994 polemic “The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football,” for which she was also deemed a cultural authority on women and sports.

What she didn’t receive was much scrutiny of her sweeping claims that the male sports culture in America was limiting the progress for women in sports and becoming an unchecked breeding ground for violent male athletes who were a danger to women off the field.

The pigskin as patriarchy

With American football at the metaphorical and literal core of her argument, Nelson advanced a dreary narrative that initially surfaced during the women’s movement of the 1960s. The Catholic theologian Michael Novak, in his classic “The Joy of Sports,” writes that the century-old American gridiron game collided head-on with the ideology of feminists determined to rip apart the pillars of mainstream culture:

“They have wished to feminize the male, in order to ‘humanize’ him. They will extirpate, they say, machismo, militarism, fascism. Football has become for many the symbol of everything they loathe.”

Nelson’s scornful prose follows the path of feminist legal advocate Catherine MacKinnon, who waged various anti-pornography crusades and asserted that heterosexual sex was tantamount to rape. This deepened divisions with American feminists committed to the First Amendment and skeptical of gender and cultural wars. The legendary New York journalist Pete Hamill, among many others, lamented the warped views of “The New Victorians” whom MacKinnon embodied.

A seamless blend of the toxic ideas of MacKinnon, “Backlash” author Susan Faludi and feminist academic theory, “The Stronger Women Get” was Nelson’s attempt to bring sports into the “airless, sunless” world that Hamill described. In that, she succeeds quite well.

But a few pages in, open-minded readers are smothered by this dour absolutism as Nelson states in her thesis that sports are not communal experiences shared by Americans of both genders. Instead:

“They unite American men in a celebration of male victory.”

This is the first of dozens of one-sided, unprovable, ludicrous and even mean-spirited claims Nelson makes, as she ditches intellectual rigor to traffick in cheap emotionalism and male-bashing. A few examples:

“Everything that happened a hundred years ago is happening today.”

“Men have culturally sanctioned rights to violence.”

“Sportswomen disrupt the manly sports lovefest.”

“Who will win, Team Macho or Team Feminism?”

Nelson was writing before the creation of the WNBA, the 1999 Women’s World Cup and the growth of television interest in sports like women’s college basketball. Her unremitting diatribe reflected a new, more virulent strain of women’s sports activism that went far beyond the realm of Title IX.

But American women weren’t buying it. At the same time, some the fastest-growing groups of football fans were women untroubled by the manly lovefest. If anything, they reveled in it, for many of the same reasons many men admit to loving the game.

Nelson, however, sees full-flush male genitalia even in the routine act of a football official measuring for a first down, with the yardstick the penis and the ball, well, a ball.

Did this imagery keep her awake at night?

By the time she’s finished, Nelson has vilified practically every male who’s ever put on shoulder pads and equated male participation in “masculinist” sports as license to commit rape, especially gang rape. She trumpeted debunked studies about increased domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday, and hailed other advocacy research that exaggerated the levels of sexual violence committed by male athletes, in order to make her most scurrilous charge:

“Maybe the the question is not why so many sportsmen rape, but why more of them don’t?”

There is no element of this sports world in which women (many of them athletes) are not constantly being excluded, hounded, harassed, molested, beaten, raped and even killed by males sanctioned through their sports to do these things.

As loopy and ham-fisted as this was, Nelson has inspired her own adherents who perpetuate this gloomy pronouncement.

Tales from the Pink Locker Room

Before she began the Title IX Blog that is often cited by the gender equity establishment and major media outlets, Erin Buzuvis was a visiting law professor at the University of Iowa. In 2005, she was horrified to discover that the visitors locker room at Kinnick Stadium was awash in light pink. Indeed, it was a very calming shade ordered up by former football coach Hayden Fry as a psychological ploy. It worked.

The late Michigan football coach Bo Schemechler hated that locker room for competitive reasons. Buzuvis hated it for cultural reasons, denouncing it as a symbol of misogyny and homophobia:

“With a pink locker room, you’re saying that ‘You are a girlie man. You are weak like a girl.’ That implies that girls are non-dominant, therefore, lesser. And that is offensive.”

With that, all hell broke loose in Hawkeye Nation, as Iowa football fans vigorously attacked her on message boards and blogs, with some regrettably making death threats and posting other vulgarities.

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post couldn’t resist putting in a dig at this antiquated grievance:

“It’s so 1968. What’s missing from the picture is merely 40 years. What’s also missing is the recognition that male and female athletes alike have been deconstructing and subverting pinkness for years quite cleverly. Joe Namath put on panty hose. Roosevelt Grier did needlepoint. Herschel Walker took ballet and used moisturizers. Fry understood something Buzuvis apparently doesn’t: The people most likely to be undone by pink walls are not straight men, women or gays, but misogynists and homophobes.”

In 2008, after she had become a professor at the Western New England College law school, Buzuvis published a paper (PDF) about the Iowa incident that would have made Nelson and MacKinnon proud. Infested with academic feminist jargon, Buzuvis cites Marxist theorists in laying out a “cultural studies” framework for her argument that football indeed is the enemy of women in sports, the color pink does indeed signify its misogynist nature, and that there are serious Title IX implications to all this as well.

Her poverty of ideas is surpassed only by her pretentious and obscure use of language that few people outside the academic world even know about. Read this passage and weep:

“Interpellation can be accomplished by visual as well as verbal calls, which is to say that individuals’ relationships to ideology are often ‘symbolically mediated.’ Analysis of ideology and hegemony thus incorporates semiotics, the studies of signs. Semiotics is incorporated into much of cultural theory because it positions the reader or consumer of cultural symbols as actively engaged in the construction of the meaning of symbols by producing symbols themselves.”

Diagram those sentences.

There used to be Bad Writing Contest some academics started to mock this. A professor Buzuvis approvingly cites in her paper is a previous winner. It’s too bad the contest ended before Buzuvis picked up her poison pen; she might have been a worthy honoree.

Buzuvis makes repeated references to “hegemonic masculinity” and phrases not commonly heard in everyday English. This is just the point: To make it indecipherable to all but a few “scholars” like herself. She finally gets to her point, at the end of 53 godforsaken pages of this:

“The conclusion I draw from the PLR is that cultural values must change before the equality guarantees of Title IX will ever be fully realized.”

But of course. How original.

Coming Friday: While the lords of college football gained more power and wealth as a new century dawned, women’s sports advocates continued to push themselves further down a cultural rabbit hole, obsessed with sexuality and media representation. Naturally, they blamed all of this on the “patriarchy.”

Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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  1. Beau Dure
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I see a complication here. Football is the boogeyman in many Title IX arguments not because the people making the arguments are steeped in academic-ese, but because football gets so danged many scholarships and is only profitable about 50-60% of the time in the FBS and maybe 10% of the time in the FCS. Even those who are more concerned with non-revenue sports in general than with women’s sports sometimes ask why the third-string tight end is getting a full ride while the four-year starting midfielder is splitting a scholarship with the goalkeeper.

  2. Burn
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for calling out Buzuvis on her bias. Frankly I think the 800 lb gorilla in the room concerning women’s sports is the disproportionate impact members of the GLBT community exert upon all women athletes and athletics policy particularly in academia. To be clear, I don’t have an issue with the GLBT community and everyone should compete but I do have an issue with a minority of women’s athletes highjacking women’s sports for their political and cultural purposes. It has nothing to do with sports or competition, it’s just another platform for them to voice their real or perceived grievances with where they see themselves in the world.

    I think the real truth is that most of the straight women that participate and administer sports won’t take on the GLBT women’s sports caucus because they know the drama that will result. Frankly the other truth is the the GLBT community knows that their community is over-represented in women’s sports versus the general population and also know that if that were a commonly known and understood fact it would have a negative impact with the general public upon women’s sports so they can’t be overt relative to “all” of the lesbian participants in women’s sports. This of course drives people like Pat Griffin who recently lectured all straight women athletes about supporting the GLBT community. This is of course at a time when most of the GLBT community personally refuses to come out publicly concerning their orientation.

    Your tag “The Sisterhood of Perpetual Indignance” is destined to become a classic. It’s perfect. Keep up the great work.

  3. Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I will recommend!