(This is a topic I wanted to examine in my recent series “Women’s Sports Without Illusions,” especially after a perceptive reader brought it up. I pledged to address it in a new phase of my inquiry that continues on this blog and elsewhere. So here’s a little bonus coverage.)
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SLAM Online contributor Clay Kallam points to some uncomfortable biological truths about women athletes when ruminating off the likely season-ending injuries to Candace Parker (knee) and Lauren Jackson (hip), two of the WNBA’s most visible stars:
“The rate of ACL tears, arguably the most devastating knee injury and arguably the one with the greatest chance to have long-term impacts on knee health, is four times greater for women than men. Anyone involved in the sport for any length of time has seen far too many players go down in pain, from WNBA all-stars to freshman girls trying the game for the first time.
“And at some point, we all have to come to terms with this painful sacrifice that so many women and girls make for the sport. Yes, women are tough and strong, but it’s also true that a variety of factors make them much more vulnerable to crushing, debilitating injuries.”
Kallam, who has coached girls high school basketball in California for many years, is raising a taboo that women’s sports would rather not acknowledge, and that author Michael Sokolove found quite revealing while researching “Warrior Girls,” his 2008 book about female youth sports injuries. (Here’s the article in The New York Times Magazine that led to the book.)
Difference = Unequal?
For example, Sokolove was surprised to discover that the Women’s Sports Foundation did no physiological research into the topic. The WSF has since teamed up with the University of Michigan to create the Sports, Health and Research Policy Center that will open this fall. Its mission is to “generate interdisciplinary research on issues related to women’s sports, health, gender issues and kinesiology.” And here’s the real kicker:
“As a result of the collaboration, the new center will generate a variety of information and tools central to the foundation and university’s educational role of supporting evidence-based public debate that informs public policy and encourages elimination of the obstacles girls and women face in sports participation.”
That last part is a reference to legal, sociological and cultural barriers that figure to prompt calls for more gender equity measures; there’s no specific mention of female sports injuries being part of SHARP’s research efforts that I could find. This think tank will be housed within Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, so there you go.
(Update: In this recent interview with espnW, WSF chief executive officer Kathryn Olson said the SHARP Center will indeed address injuries, including ACLs and concussions. This is encouraging; and it bears watching as the center holds a conference next spring.)
But the real heat Sokolove received for his book came from sports feminist academics at the University of Minnesota who went on an all-out offensive to refute his claims.
The Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport entitled its response “Anatomy Isn’t Destiny,” marshalling perspectives from the public health, sports medicine, orthopedic surgery, sports psychology and sociology faculties at the university. Read as one, this is an attempt to diminish real physical differences that get in the way of larger political gender equity aims:
“Sokolove skillfully links the sport ethic—striving for distinction, accepting risks, playing through pain and not accepting barriers in the pursuit of goals—with a Mars-Venus dichotomy whereby females are routinely portrayed as different from (and inherently inferior to) males. He seems determined to create a moral panic for already overly concerned sport parents who are understandably trying to do what is best for their daughters.”
The Tucker Center was decent enough to give Sokolove space to reply to its criticisms, which he keenly understands:
“The overall concern of your scholars seems to be that my book – as well as any overt discussion about injuries among women athletes – is going to drive women off the playing field. I’d say it is injuries that takes athletes off the field – not information and discussion. And not one of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from female athletes, or parents of athletes, have said the book had induced anyone to leave their sport.”
But wait, there’s more:
“There’s a problem out there, and I believe that advocates of women’s sports – those at the Tucker Center and elsewhere who have done important work in advocating for Title IX and its rigorous enforcement – have a responsibility to take it on as a cause.”
Bemoaning the body electric
The Tucker Center does indeed look into these matters, but it hardly amounts to a cause. Tucker Center associate director Nicole LaVoi, one of Sokolove’s biggest critics, spends far more time writing for the center and on her blog about the “sexualization” of female athletes in media, almost to the point of obsession. Last week, Time magazine quoted her in a story about the Women’s Tennis Association’s latest provocative portrayal of its most attractive players, and comments like this have become her stock-in-trade:
“Yes, these women are beautiful, but we see lots of cleavage and legs, and it’s set to music that is reminiscent of soft-core porn. That might be interesting and titillating, but it isn’t going to make me turn on Wimbledon.”
So will only Whistler’s Mother do?
I shouldn’t revive the old saw about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, nor should I elaborate that this isn’t about what LaVoi would watch. But I just did by way of arguing that there’s nothing tasteless in any of this. She apparently wants her muscle without even a hint of glamour (a staple of women’s tennis since the marvelous Suzanne Lenglen dared to bob her hair, among other 1920s taboos). This is typical of the legion of sports feminists who disdain any association between female athleticism and aesthetics. As I wrote in my women’s sports series, they prefer an androgynous ideal that trumps sex in favor of gender. We all know which is more fun, and which is decidedly not.
In the same Time piece, Penn State sports journalism professor Marie Hardin complains that such imagery revolves around homophobia:
“There’s this idea of the lesbian bogeywoman, the predatory lesbian in sports. Unfortunately there’s a real fear mongering that doesn’t help women’s sports at all.”
But her rhetoric actually marginalizes women’s sports, especially by implying that women athletes shouldn’t get all Hester Prynne about themselves:
“There’s a real tension there. What female athletes choose to do to empower themselves personally does often times chip away at the collective power of female athletes and of women’s sports.”
Is this what she teaches her journalism students? That women athletes should not make their own choices if those choices offend The Sisterhood?
“The collective power of female athletes” is the abiding cause of sports feminists, and anything that interferes with that objective as they define it is emphatically denounced or shunted aside. Individual preferences or experiences do not fit in this dogmatic, airtight narrative, as I also wrote.
If LaVoi, Hardin, et al, were less concerned about how women athletes look in pictorials than with what happens when they get hurt, they might better justify their credentials as “experts” on topics about which contrary points of view are rarely allowed to enter the public discourse.
You don’t have to be an academic to understand that what they’re postulating isn’t scholarship, but pure advocacy.