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“Strong WOMEN in sports and in life” – A story of Sexism, ignorance and fear

“Strong WOMEN in sports and in life” – A story of Sexism, ignorance and fear

 

IN THIS ISSUE:

Strong WOMEN in sports and in life” – A story of Sexism, ignorance and fear

By now ex-shock jock, Don Imus’ infamous, sexist and racist blunder directed towards the Rutgers University mostly black women’s basketball team is ancient history. Imus was supposedly kidding around on April 4th 2007 when he called a group of accomplished female scholar-athletes “nappy-headed hos” as he watched film clip of their National Championship final against the largely white University of Tennessee Lady Vols and bantered with his simulcast producer, Bernard McGuirk from MS-NBC. Actually, Imus’ comments immediately followed McGuirk’s reference to the Rutgers players as, “those are some hard-core hos.”


Help me here please. Why would watching top-flight, college black women playing basketball conjure up the image of “hard core hos” in this guy’s mind? Was it because of how hard they crashed the boards? Was it because of the amazing core muscle strength these women had developed? Perhaps it was because of how well they executed the fast break or pick and roll? Maybe it was the soft touch of their three- point shooting? Wait a minute! I think I’ve got it! It was because a number of the Rutgers women had tattoos on their bodies to go with their well-developed muscles and superior athletic skills. Oh, “I see,” said the blind man. Muscles, superior athletic skills and tattoos on black female athletes makes them “hard core hos” in Mr. McGuirk’s mind!” (Question: Does watching top flight, black male athletes also conjure up the image of “hard core pimps” in Mr. McGuirk’s mind?) And, of course, all of this was somehow supposed to be just for fun and worth chuckling over? Apparently I wasn’t the only one confused about their comments and behavior because there was nothing funny in the tumultuous s--- storm of a reaction that these two men generated!


While some thought that people totally overreacted to Imus’ comments, his words earned him outrage and exceedingly low marks from women’s rights organizations, the NAACP, and just about anyone with a shred of social consciousness, decency and/or intelligence. As the Imus uproar intensified, product sponsors scrambled to distance themselves from his apparent on-air racist and sexist gaff like rats jumping off a sinking ship. CBS radio immediately suspended old Don from the airwaves for two weeks without pay. As more and more of the big companies began pulling their products off his show, MS-NBC had no choice but to fire the I-Man from his very successful and popular TV simulcast. Despite his numerous and sometimes close to tears apologies, CBS radio soon decided that they couldn’t, in good conscience, (“conscience” spelled $$$$$$$$) keep Imus on the air any longer and sent him packing after a career spanning several generations. A week after Imus was canned, his producer and side-kick McGuirk was also shown the exit door to the street.


Poor Imus had gone and drunk from the well of thoughtlessness, indecency and “isms” once too often. It’s been said that his show had a long history of being a vehicle for inappropriate comments, tasteless banter and people bashing, and this time the man had touched off the “perfect storm” of controversy. Civil rights activists decried the obvious racism of the man. Feminists slammed his blatant sexism. Level-headed thinkers made fun of the mindlessness, ignorance and mean spiritedness of his comments, using them as concrete evidence that the I-Man wasn’t troubled by deep waves of thought when he opened his mouth. In his defense, Imus tried to explain the nature of his show, “this is a program that makes fun of everyone on the planet. It is what I do…. Some people don’t deserve to be made fun of and the Rutgers women didn’t deserve it.”


Free speech advocates loudly countered that Imus was just doing what was his God-given right to do: FREELY SPEAK HIS MIND. Others claimed that Imus was being unfairly scape-goated, pointing to the widely popular lyrics and music videos of successful black rap artists which regularly put black women down, portraying them as “bitches, hos” and mindless sex objects for “real men.” Those in talk radio offered their two cents that Imus did nothing wrong. He was simply doing his job to “entertain” the listening audience, as if publicly demeaning another’s race and gender is considered “entertainment.” Anybody who was somebody and everybody who was nobody had something to say about the man and his unfortunate and ill-thought out remark.


Long-term friends rushed to the I-Man’s defense claiming that he wasn’t a racist and that his comments were completely misunderstood and nothing more than the unintended, poorly timed and badly executed product of a shock jock. “Isn’t that what this kind of radio is supposed to do?” they claimed. “Aren’t there cruder, meaner voices on the air waves?” they wanted to know. Before he left the show, and in his own defense the I-Man sincerely said, “I’m not a bad man. I may have said some bad things but that doesn’t make me a bad man.” In further support of his character, the I-Man’s other friends chimed in to list all the good that the man has consistently done over the years for children who have cancer and other serious blood diseases. Imus has run a special no-cost program on his ranch in New Mexico for children with terminal illnesses for the past 10 years. To try and make things right, Imus privately met with the entire Rutgers University basketball team and staff to apologize for any unintended pain that he may have caused them.


The Imus media storm that had engulfed the whole country for several weeks was suddenly extinguished by the tragic and random shootings at Virginia Tech. With it, the Imus controversy dropped off the radar screen. However, I’d like to more closely examine the less obvious social context that Imus and his producer’s comments sprung from.


Most people were up in arms about the apparent racism of his remarks. I would like to address the underlying sexism implied in his banter, sexism that is alive and well today in our country, especially in relation to female athletes. While I’ll be saving the topic of racism in sports for another newsletter, it is important to at least point out here that Imus and McGurik’s comments were not just directed at female athletes in general. They specifically targeted black female athletes. While sexism negatively affects all women, the impact of this sexism varies depending upon race, class, ethnicity, age and sexual preferences. The oppression that black women face in this country is far more complex because they are doubly marginalized by being black and female. “Nappy-headed hos” wasn’t aimed at the white athletes on that basketball floor!


SEXISM AND FEAR


Why would supposedly mature, grown men reflexively make demeaning comments over the national airwaves about female athletes without any knowledge or understanding of the individuals who they were commenting about? Is there something about strong, talented, aggressive and competitive female athletes that totally confounds and/or threatens the male psyche and ego, setting off testosterone alarms that defensively lead men to act and speak in inappropriate, mindless and demeaning-to-female ways?


Now we might answer the first question quite narrowly by simply explaining that both Imus and McGuirk were racist, sexist Neanderthals and that their comments were nothing more than a reflection of both their ignorance and failure to evolve as human beings. To be fair, I do not really know either of these guys. I don’t have clue one as to who Imus the man is. I never listened to his program and I’m not really into radio shows of this type. Certainly his apology on national TV sounded sincere and heartfelt enough. However, to just blame “hos-gate” on Imus and his producer as individuals and their personal shortcomings is to completely miss the bigger picture. Their comments are merely a reflection of a much larger, present day societal problem in this country, a problem that extends far beyond sports and is woven into every fabric of our lives: Gender discrimination, i.e. sexism.


Sexism? Dr. G, what on earth are you talking about? How was the I-Man being sexist? C’mon, buddy, lighten up! He was just cracking a joke! Where’s your sense of humor Doc?


First of all, let me tell you a little something about jokes. When they are directed at another race, gender, individual, class or religious group there is almost always an underlying hostility to them. What does this mean in English? Jokes at someone else’s expense are often a great way to indirectly express your anger or resentment towards that person. They are also a subtle way for an oppressor to keep the oppressed down. Most people who hide their anger or hostility in humor are not always aware that they harbor these feelings inside of them. When you challenge the jokester and complain that their comments were indeed hurtful, they defensively respond, “Oh, I was only kidding! Don’t be so sensitive? Can’t you take a joke?”


So let’s take a quick look at sexism. First off, what exactly is it? Sexism is commonly considered to be discrimination and/or hatred against people based upon their sex rather than their individual merits. It’s housed in certain beliefs and attitudes held by the individual that one gender or sex is superior and/or more valuable than the other. Sexism is also found in the attitude of imposing a limited or false notionof femininityon females and a limited or false notion of masculinity on males. In addition, sexism can include a hatred and/or mistrust of the opposite sex.


So, by this definition was Imus and company being sexist? Two old guys making fun of strong, aggressive, competitive female athletes? Sounds like it to me! However, it’s not really fair to just dump all over Imus and his former sidekick for their sexist transgressions because, as men, they are far from alone in their attitudes towards female athletes. There are many male coaches, athletes, fathers and sports fans out there right now who sometimes knowingly and most often unknowingly perpetuate the myth that females are in so many ways slightly inferior to males.


In this special issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter I want to address what you may find to be an upsetting and controversial topic, the underlying sexism that still pervades our thinking and attitudes in sports. Even with the advances of Title IX in collegiate sports, women’s athletics are still considered by many to be “less important” than men’s sports. Much of this stems from the fact that sports were long the sacred domain of boys and men. The true history of sports is the history of men. In the past, girls and women could only watch and cheer from the sidelines while the “real” male athletes competed in their games. Back then, girls and women needed to be sure that they maintained the “proper” feminine behaviors, attitude and appearance. It was always fine for boys and men to be tough, competitive, aggressive and athletic because that was what “real men” did. Girls and women however needed to present themselves as attractive, soft, physically weak, cooperative and non-athletic. There had to be something really wrong with any “deviant” female, a “male wannabe” referred to as a “tomboy”, who wanted to get physically strong, learn and excel in a sport and compete on a man’s playing field.


It’s only really since the late sixties and early seventies that the world of competitive sports has more widely shifted and opened to female athletes. Today female athletes have far more opportunities to learn, train and excel in a wide variety of sports than their counterparts in the middle of the last century. However, regardless of the tremendous advances that they’ve made through these years, the female athlete is still unconsciously put down because of the inherent sexism in our society. There are still remnants of a “men are the breadwinners” and “a woman’s place is in the home” mentality skulking around in the dark recesses of a lot of male minds.


How else can we explain the demeaning to women comments that are often used by male coaches to put down their male athletes? “Come on ladies, let’s pick it up shall we.” “You played like pussies out there today!” “Where’s your dress Smith?!!! You’re acting just like a little girl.” “What’s wrong with you son? Are you going to go all girlie on me and start to cry?!”


As we examine this topic, I’d like you to take an honest look at yourself and your attitude towards females both in and out of sports. If you’re a female reading this, then I’d like you to examine your own feelings about yourself as a strong, competitive and competent athlete-individual. How do you feel about being an aggressive, competitive athlete? Are you comfortable allowing yourself to take on this role or do you have problems feeling/behaving this way? Do you get flack from others for being a competitive athlete?


If you’re a male reading this, then I’d like you to closely examine your attitudes in relation to females. How do you see yourself in relation to female athletes? Do you think female competitors in general are weaker and less competent than you? Do you value and appreciate female athletes for their skills and competencies? Are you threatened by them? Would you even admit it, if you were?


It’s only when we allow ourselves to take an honest and hard look at who we really are and how we really feel that positive change and growth can occur. Awareness is one of the most powerful and constructive tools that you can use in your life to improve and develop as both an athlete and human being. Without self-awareness you are doomed to ignorance and making the same old mistakes. Without self –awareness you can never really evolve. Do you have the courage to be self-aware? Do you have the courage to take an honest look at how you view yourself and others? Why does this take courage? Being really strong is about having the ability to know yourself and acknowledge your mistakes, shortcomings and weaknesses. Hiding your shortcomings from yourself and others is not a mark of strength. On the contrary! It is a sign of weakness.


So let’s bolster up some courage and take a good hard look at how girls and women are portrayed in and out of sports in our society and what you as an individual might do in your life to constructively change this. If everyone and especially males developed some awareness of the underlying issues that fueled Imus and McGuirk’s on-air commentary, then perhaps we might eliminate these kinds of ignorant, mean-spirited sexist attitudes and behaviors from the social landscape of sports and life.


YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY BABY, or have you?”


In 1972, Title IX guaranteed female student-athletes equal opportunity when it came to intercollegiate athletics. What this meant was that whatever had been made available to male athletes in the past in terms of athletic scholarships and nurturance of athletic ability must now be made equally available to female athletes. No longer could college athletic departments simply pay lip service to women’s athletics. Instead they had to demonstrate that they were in compliance with Title IX and provide the female athletes at their school an equal opportunity to compete just like the males.

While Title IX has opened up many doors over the years that had been previously closed to the female athlete, it hasn’t significantly touched the subtle and sometimes not so subtle male attitudes towards women in general and female athletes in particular that are responsible for bringing us Imus’ “hos-gate.” Many of these attitudes were obnoxiously captured by tennis legend Bobby Riggs. Riggs was a master showman, sports hustler, and a 1940’s tennis star who, for three years, had been ranked #1 in the world. At age 55 he came out of retirement to challenge the top female tennis player in the world, Margaret Court. His sexist reasoning was that the female game was so far inferior to the male one that "any half-decent male player could defeat even the best female player.” Surprisingly enough, Riggs easily beat Court 6-2, 6-1 using drop shots and lobs to throw her stronger, more aggressive game off balance. His victory landed him on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine and further fanned the flames of his sexism. From this national limelight Riggs then taunted all female tennis players to try and beat him. Billie Jean King took him up on the challenge and played Riggs in a widely publicized “Battle of the Sexes” match held in the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

King had learned from Court’s loss and so was ready for Riggs’ softer, craftier game. Instead of playing her normal aggressive style, she stayed back and ran Riggs back and forth from side to side, quickly wearing the 55 year old down physically and beating him handily, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Her victory stunned the male tennis world, especially Riggs’ contemporaries who apparently quietly harbored similar feelings as Bobby. So shocked that a woman could beat a man, some even felt that Riggs had deliberately thrown the match.

However, King’s victory in the battle of the sexes hasn’t quieted the utterly ridiculous argument that still plays today like a broken record in the male psyche that male athletes are faster, stronger and better than female athletes. First of all, what is the male athlete’s need to constantly tout his supposed superior prowess when it comes to the female athlete? There’s no question that the male body is physically different from the female body and that these physical differences provide males with distinct strength advantages. So what? Males and females are different animals, plain and simple. My feeling is that obsessively bringing up this male-female comparison is a product of what I think fuels male sexism: FEAR and underlying feelings of inadequacy.

If you look closely at why people, in general compare themselves to others, the answer is very simple. Comparisons most frequently come from a place of insecurity. Athletes who are too preoccupied with specific opponents or teammates are worried that these particular individuals may indeed be better than them. It’s their fear that fuels their endless comparisons and from this fear they feel a need to put the other down. Who cares if a male athlete claims that he’s better than a female one? What’s the point of making this statement? It’s seems to be somehow reassuring to the ego-centered male psyche to be able to look at a comparable female athlete and say, “Well at least, I’m better than you.” For example, one male tennis broadcaster once commented during a women’s match at a Grand Slam event that a man ranked in the top 300 in the world could easily beat the top ranked woman.

And the point of this Bobby Riggs-esque remark? Men have significant physical strength advantages over women. They can hit the ball harder. So a male athlete could effortlessly physically overpower a female athlete. Does this lessen the female athlete’s accomplishments? Does this mean that the number one player in the world isn’t really that good because she might get easily beaten by a low ranking male player? Forgive me, but this is an absurd, testosterone-fueled argument. Women compete against women, not men. Achieving the top 300 ranking in the world is not even in the same ballpark as earning the #1 ranking in the world! And please don’t burden me with the lame argument that it’s easier for a woman to get to number one than it is for a man. If you believe that sexist malarkey, then you have some pretty powerful testosterone blinders on!

If we’re going to insist on measuring the “true worth” of the female athlete’s accomplishments on the male yardstick, why stop there. Let’s do the same thing with female recording artists, movie actresses, physicians, architects, authors, rocket scientists, and you name it. Let’s help all these very talented, accomplished professional women see that all that they’ve accomplished in their careers can only be accurately evaluated when held up next to a male’s achievements in their field. Of course, this argument is nonsensical because these women and their accomplishments stand alone. They don’t need to be compared. In a similar way, female athletes are completely different than male athletes so let’s just drop the competition-between-the-sexes thing. Bottom line: When men make these kinds of comparisons, they’re down-right demeaning to women and they lessen the female’s achievements!

A male’s need to reassure himself that “at the very least I can still outplay the girls” comes from a deep-seated threat posed by the female athlete, a threat that goes right to the very core of the male athlete’s “maleness.” That is, a “female” might be more talented and skilled than a “male,” and, unconsciously, that a female actually might be more male than a male. For example, my youngest daughter, Julee played high school basketball for four years. Now in college, she reports that guys are shocked when she easily out shoots them in a game of HORSE. Some get upset, a few are impressed and others explain their loss away by claiming that because she’s using a smaller women’s ball, she has an unfair advantage. Of course, they are left speechless after she beats them using the men’s ball. The assumption held by a lot of these guys is that just because they are male, they will be superior athletes.

I think we can better understand this whole issue by looking more closely at gender stereotyping in this country. How are boys and men supposed to be/act in our society and how does this differ from the role ascribed to girls and women?

REAL MEN AND REAL WOMEN

Gender stereotyping? You know the rule. From day ONE, boys are brought up dressed in blue with “guy” things on their bedroom walls while girls are dressed in pink and surrounded by feminine things. Never, ever dress guys in pink or girls in blue! In general terms, boys and young men are both subtly and not so subtly socialized to be aggressive, competitive and tough. They are encouraged to focus on themselves, go after their needs and seek the limelight. They are discouraged from feeling and expressing their emotions, and instead are taught that this kind of emotional display is soft and somehow “unmanly,” (which means, it’s what “girls” do). Girls, on the other hand are socialized to be passive, cooperative and frail. They are encouraged to focus on others’ needs and discouraged from being “selfish,” i.e. taking care of themselves first. Girls are taught to avoid calling attention to themselves and given the message early on that being competitive and aggressive is not what “ladies” do and will ultimately hurt others.

As girls enter adolescence in our culture, they have been brainwashed for years to believe that their value in the world and personal happiness is dependent upon their physical attractiveness to the opposite sex. In innumerable ways they are subtly encouraged to base their self-esteem upon their sexual desirability. This “education” includes learning to passively subjugate their needs to that of a man’s and to avoid doing things that might threaten and/or turn off that man. These gender “no no’s” include taking on “male” attributes like aggressiveness, assertiveness and competitiveness. Perhaps this may partially explain why an alarming number of very bright, high achieving young 11 and 12 year old girls stop trying once they hit 7th and 8th grades and tend to drop out of extracurricular activities because “it’s not cool” to be smart and athletic, (translation: it may turn some guys off).

In many ways, girls and young women who buy into this socialization B.S. end up “selling their souls down the river.” They give up their strengths, interests and self-respect so that they might make themselves more of a “catch” for males as if this is the “be all, end all” for the female gender in life. They put a lid on their needs, muzzle their assertiveness and competitiveness, and allow themselves to be defined by the boy or man they’ve been able to snag.

The wonderful thing about sports is that it provides a very healthy alternative for young women to avoid the pitfalls inherent in this “normal” female socialization. It provides an arena where participants are taught that not only is it OK to be aggressive, competitive and strong, but it’s a prerequisite for success. Through the vehicle of sports, girls are encouraged to pursue their own dreams. In a healthy sports environment they are even taught that competitiveness in a young woman is desirable and that it fosters their overall growth and development. Sports provide girls and young women a way to feel good about themselves and build self-esteem without having to subjugate themselves to the opposite sex in order to do so. Athletic prowess cuts through the B.S. about appearances and gives a young woman an inherent value and identity that far transcends her worth as a mindless, soulless sexual object.

However, as female athletes get more skilled, aggressive and competitive, our male dominated society becomes quite confused and unconsciously threatened. Who are these “females” that are crashing the boards, smashing overheads and aggressively going for and winning those 50:50 balls? Why are these “girls” bulking up in the weight room, sweating like men and thriving on head-to-head competition? What on earth are we supposed to think about them? Are they really girls/women or is there something else more insidious going on here? When these female athletes compete, shouldn’t they be simultaneously making themselves more attractive to us, the male viewing public? Shouldn’t they be wearing something that is a little more flattering and that shows a bit more skin? You know, kind of like that luscious tennis pro, Anna Kournikova. After all, aren’t these athletic girls and women supposed to be pleasing for us to look at? Isn’t that their main job in relation to us males?

Herein lies the very confusing dilemma for the typically socialized male in our society. “Real” athletes, i.e. men, are supposed to be strong, masculine, dominant and aggressive. They are supposed to compete hard and do everything in their power to win. “Girls” are supposed to be sexually appealing to look at, passive, non-competitive and focused mainly on attracting that “special someone” from the opposite sex. How is it possible for an aggressive, competitive female athlete to simultaneously be sexually attractive? For many men these two different roles are unconsciously held in their mind as mutually exclusive. You either have to be a male athlete or an attractive babe. There is no in between. For girls and women to be strong, talented, goal driven and athletic tends to fry the wiring in a lot of male psyches. Simply put, it’s downright threatening!

This threat gets voiced in the dark recesses of the male mind as follows: If you are female and a real athlete, then something has to be very wrong with you. Why? Because your “primary” role in life is to make yourself attractive for me, the dominant male. If you instead, pursue this aggressive, competitive athletic stuff instead of concentrating your efforts on looking good for me, then perhaps there may be something slightly off about your sexual preferences. i.e. you must be a lesbian! Athletic women are often taunted about their sexuality and assumed to be gay. After all, how else do we explain a “chick” who is stronger then me, can run faster, hit the ball harder and lift more? Labeling these athletes as “lesbians” eliminates the threat that many men experience around these high achieving women.

In our male dominated society, female athletes find themselves between a rock and a hard place. That is, they are either hyper-sexualized or dismissed as lesbians. An athlete like Russian tennis pro Anna Kournikova is a prime example of the former. During her professional career, Kournikova got as high as a top 20 ranking in the world. However, her tennis prowess paled in comparison to her achievements as a sexual object and media darling. Kournikova made the cover of Sports Illustrated for her sexual appeal, not for her tennis skills. Her mostly nude body graced the cover of the special swim suit edition of this very popular sports magazine. During her career, Kournikova garnered far more press and media attention than all of her higher ranked contemporaries. Whatever athletic successes Kournikova achieved were basically deemed irrelevant. What was considered “relevant” was how “hot” she was. By ignoring the female athlete’s accomplishments and instead focusing on her sexuality, we depersonalize her and, in the process, remind all women that deep down, they simply exist as objects to please men.

If a strong, talented female athlete does not succumb to the demands to become a sexual object, or if her appearance is deemed less than acceptable by the male viewing public, then she is often stereotyped as a lesbian. Athletic women break the mold of what a woman should be, and in doing so, they generate anxiety and confusion in a lot of men. Labeling these “deviants” as lesbians simultaneously explains away their athletic success and abilities, (lesbians aren’t real women) and helps men unconsciously feel more secure about themselves in the face of this female threat.

SEXISM OR MAKING A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLE HILL?

Now I understand that if you’re a male reading this then you’re probably not liking what I’m saying. Maybe you think that I should lighten up a bit and that I’m blowing this whole thing way out of proportion. Perhaps you strongly disagree with my point that men in general treat women and female athletes as sexual objects. You could even be a female athlete and disagree with me. You’d be in good company, right along side multiple Olympic gold medal swimmer Amanda Beard! A past Sports Illustrated swim suit model, Beard was recently interviewed by SI discussing her upcoming cover appearance on the July 2007 issue of Playboy magazine. When asked by SI if she was concerned that posing nude is sexist or reinforces negative stereotypes about female athletes, Beard responded, “I do something if I feel comfortable doing it, and if I feel my family will get behind me on it. I couldn’t care less what other people think. I work extremely hard to get the body that I have, so I kind of want to flaunt it a little but before it goes away.”

So does being on the cover of Playboy depersonalize Beard or diminish her accomplishments as an elite athlete? Hard to believe the readership will be able to truly appreciate the amazing competitor that Beard has developed herself into through mind-boggling amounts of good old fashioned work. Will the readers understand how extremely difficult it is to attain gold medal status in swimming, a sport which continuously requires athletes to move towards pain and exhaustion in order to improve? Will they get a sense for how mentally tough she is and the sacrifices that she has had to make along the way to greatness? Will they get a good feeling of who Amanda is as an intelligent, feeling person? I’m sorry, but I have serious doubts about whether the male mind is able to truly appreciate the special qualities, disciplines and strengths that make Beard the person who she is while they are objectively perusing naked views of her body.

Maybe this whole issue is different in Beard’s case. Apparently she’s quite comfortable with herself, her body and her tremendous accomplishments. On top of this, she doesn’t really give a hoot what you or I think about her, nor should she. Clearly, she is a great role model for a strong, aggressive and successful female athlete. However, I still wonder about the distorted message that young boys and men will take away from her spread in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and Playboy. Please don’t think that it’s just me and I’m being overly sensitive about the sexual objectification of female athletes. My concern is not ill founded.

Case in point: Eli Saslow, a sports writer for the Washington Post recently wrote a disturbing story about Allison Stokke, an 18 year old, high school pole vaulter from Newport Beach, California. In her high school track and field career, Stokke had won the 2004 California state pole vaulting title, broken five national records and earned a scholarship to the University of California. Allison is a talented, hard working dedicated athlete and her story captures the sexual objectification of women. The following is excerpted from Saslow’s piece:

Up until recently, only hard core track devotees had noticed Stokke. Then, in early May 2007, she received emails from friends who warned that a year-old picture of Allison idly adjusting her hair at a track meet had been plastered across the Internet. Suddenly she had more than 1,000 new messages on her MySpace page. A three minute video of Stokke analyzing her performance at another meet had been posted on YouTube and viewed 150,000 times…..

Shortly after this a fan on a Cal football message board posted a picture of the attractive, athletic pole vaulter. A popular sports blogger in New York found the picture and posted it on his site. Dozens of other bloggers picked up the same image and spread it. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Internet users had searched for Stokke’s picture and leered.

On May 8th blogger Matt Ufford received Stokke’s picture in an email from one of his readers and he reacted on instinct. She was hot. She was 18. Readers of Ufford’s, WithLeather.com – a sports blog heavy on comedy, opinion and sometimes sex – would love her. The picture, taken by a track and field journalist, was part of a report on a California prep track web site. The photo was hardly sexually explicit. At 5 feet, 7 Stokke has smooth, olive colored skin and toned muscles. In the photo, her vaulting pole rests on her right shoulder. Her right hand appears to be adjusting her ponytail. Her spandex uniform – black shorts and a white tank top that are standard for a track athlete – reveals a bare midriff.

Each month Ufford’s sports blog attracts almost 1 million visitors, 18 to 35 year-old males, with tongue in cheek items about the things they love: athletes and beautiful women. Stokke was “a no-brainer to write about,” said Ufford who posted her picture with a four paragraph blurb” MEET POLE VAULTER ALLISON STOKKE …HUBBA, HUBBA, HUBBA AND OTHER GRUNTING SOUNDS.

I understand there are certain people who are put off immediately by the tone of my blog,” Ufford said. “Every week, there’s somebody who takes offense to something, but that’s part of being a comedy writer.” (Sounds just like Imus to me. Hey, want to have some fun? Let’s find some attractive female athletes that we can turn into sexual objects).

How’s this for fun Mr. Ufford: Stokke read on message boards that dozens of strangers had her picture as the background image on their computers. A search for her name on Yahoo revealed almost 310,000 hits! She felt violated. It was like becoming the victim of a crime, Stokke said. Her body had been stolen and turned into a public commodity, critiqued in fan forums devoted to everything from hip-hop to Hollywood….On her unofficial Allison Stokke fan page, (www.allisonstokke.com) you can see a rolling photo slide show of her, talk to any of the 1000 member fan group on MySpace, use the associated message boards and chat forums where hundreds of anonymous users looked at Stokke’s picture and posted their sexual fantasies. (Now that’s great fun, Mr. Ufford! I wonder how much you’d be enjoying all these extra hits on your site if Allison was your daughter)

Stokke’s response to all this unwanted, distorted sexual attention: “Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning. I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees ME.” (Are we having fun yet?)

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT SEXISM IN SPORTS?

If you don’t believe that sexism is that big an issue for female athletes, then how would you explain what happened to Allison’s Stokke? Her story is quite troubling and clearly illuminates the sexual objectification of today’s female athlete. As a male, it may be very difficult for you to understand the plight of today’s female athlete. In fact, most young men are totally unaware that their behaviors and testosterone fueled reactions may be sexist or demeaning to women. When my athletic, social activist younger daughter Julee points out sexist comments and behaviors to her male friends, they first respond with confusion and then denial that the issue is that important. They tell her that she’s being overly sensitive. Bottom line: Sexism isn’t that much of a problem for the group that isn’t the target of it!

As men, we are given a birth right of privileges that are extremely easy to take for granted. In fact, we are mostly unaware of these advantages in much the same way that whites are unaware of all the benefits that they experience in our society for the color of their skin. Just because we might be unaware of these advantages doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from them.

In fact, many men adopt the attitude, “because I’m not a girl/woman, it isn’t my issue.” It’s the old, “since it’s not about me, it doesn’t affect me” routine. Unless you go through a gender change operation, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that as a man, you can never really know what it’s like to feel oppressed from the female perspective. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to be more sensitive to and empathize more with the plight of the female athlete. The fact of the matter is that every male has family member who is female. At the very least your mother, and more than likely, your sister, a cousin, niece and/or maybe even your own daughter. How do you want the women in your life to feel in relation to men in the world? How do you want them to feel about themselves and being female? How would you have felt if Allison Stokke was your daughter, sister or niece? If you can’t empathize with female athletes in general, then perhaps you can at least put yourself in the shoes of these female members of your family.

Simply having more of an awareness of this issue and what young women have to struggle with today will make you someone who is part of the solution rather than someone who is continuing to knowingly or unknowingly fuel the problem. Empathizing or being able to step into another’s shoes and feel what she is feeling, will also tremendously help. As males in this society we are socialized to be somewhat insensitive to the feelings of others, especially those of the opposite sex. We have been trained at a very early age to not pay as much attention to emotions in general, and have also been covertly encouraged to pay far more attention to our own needs rather than others’. Being too caught up in ourselves tremendously distorts our view of the world and tends to make us intolerant of others. This self-centered view of the world will not make you a better human being. On the contrary, it will leave you handicapped and basically out of touch with yourself and others.

If you’re a male athlete or coach and you’d like to have a positive impact on this sexism issue by doing something radical, here are some suggestions:

Male athletes:

  • Make a serious effort to watch the language that you use when you are talking with other guys about women, or when you’re talking with women.

  • Be aware of and eliminate using female terms in a derogatory manner to describe a teammate’s or other male athletes, i.e. “he’s a girl,” “he hits like a lady.”

  • Understand that women’s sports at your school have equal value to the women competing as the men’s sports have to you.

  • Be respectful of female athletes.

  • Treat all girls and women the way you would want others to treat your mother, sister, cousin, niece, daughter, etc.

  • Regularly attend women’s competitions. They support you, why shouldn’t you support them.

  • Have the courage to stop other males from being sexist and demeaning to female athletes.

  • Do not get into comparing yourself/competing with female athletes as a way to reassure yourself that you are better.

  • Appreciate the dedication, drive and hard work that female athletes put into their sport and training.

  • Remember, just being male doesn’t automatically make you a superior athlete.



Male coaches working with male athletes:

  • Stop referring to your male athletes as “girls,” “ladies” and “sissies” when they don’t play hard or tough enough. This kind of language simply continues the negative stereotyping of women and unconsciously reinforces sexist attitudes in all of the athletes who are listening to you.

  • Do not use female names to humiliate your male athletes, i.e. “Did everybody see how aggressively Sally went for that tackle? She sure is a toughee!”

  • Try to control your own anxiety and gender training when one of your male athletes is in emotional and/or physical pain. Remember that a show of emotion is NOT a sign of physical and/or mental weakness. Crying is something that normal, well adjusted human beings do.

  • Do not embarrass or humiliate your athletes for a show of emotion by comparing them to girls.

  • Encourage your team to support female sports in your school. Have your athletes regularly attend women’s games.

  • Model this supportive attitude by regularly supporting female sports yourself.

  • Teach your athletes to watch women’s sports as a different game than the men play, not a lesser quality one.

  • Demonstrate in this and every way that you can that you as a coach value athleticism regardless of gender.

  • Encourage a genuine mutual support and respect among your players for women athletes.

  • Don’t patronize the female athlete. Know that these athletes are working just as hard as your male players and deserve an equal shot at their dream.

  • Set up practices for your team where you occasionally work out with the women’s team. This should never be done in a competitive way.

  • Encourage your athletes to view the women’s team as a part of their team. Both teams play for the same school and this attitude fosters mutual support, respect and encouragement of developing athleticism.

Male coaches working with female athletes:

  • Expect just as much from your female players as you do from the males.

  • Continually challenge your female athletes to excel and get better.

  • Do not assume that just because there may be more visible emotion around that your female athletes are weaker and/or less committed.

  • Give your athletes permission to be aggressive and competitive by directly teaching them how to play with aggression and to feel good about it.

  • Create a safe environment on the team for individuals to improve, excel and be competitive without a fear of resentment, jealousy or social reprisal from less talented teammates.

  • Don’t refer to your athletes as “girls” or “ladies.” These terms are continually being used in negative ways in our society and can be experienced as demeaning, (unless it’s coming from a female coach). Instead, refer to them by name or simply call them “women” or “young women.”

  • Contact the coach of the male team and arrange to occasionally train with them.

  • Set a powerful example in how you interact with and coach these young women that you sincerely value them as committed, dedicated athletes.

  • Be respectful, professional and appropriate in all of your interactions with your players.

  • Avoid sexually inappropriate language and behavior with your athletes.

  • Avoid focusing on or discussing the female athlete’s weight or appearance.

 

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Dr. Goldberg is a noted sports psychology expert Read more about Dr. G