Monday, November 30, 2009

The Unquantifiable Gap in Women's Sports

Common talking points in arguments about prevailing gender inequalities in American sports typically zero in on big issues like unequal participation numbers, conflicting amounts and varieties of sports available to men and versus those available to women, and salaries for coaches and professional athletes. All of these points are important and germane to the topic of women’s sports; that said, these points are not as closely related to each other as many advocates and academics often believe them to be. Make a quick jump to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s website and you will find a page entitled “Pay Inequality Athletics” (hat tip to the Women’s Professional Sports blog). This page presents an array of bullet points that reel off numerous statistics that point out just how unequal the American sports landscape remains today. I’ll list a few:
  • Although the gap has narrowed, male athletes still receive 55% of college athletic scholarship dollars, leaving only 45% to be allocated to women.
  • Women's teams receive only 38% of college sport operating dollars and 33% of college athletic team recruitment spending.
  • In NCAA Division I-A, head coaches for women's teams receive an average salary of $850,400 while head coaches for men's teams average $1,783,100. This is a difference of $932,700.
  • For a WNBA player in the 2005 season, the minimum salary was $31,200, the maximum salary was $89,000, and the team salary cap was $673,000. For NBA players in the 2004-2005 season, the minimum salary was $385,277, the maximum salary was $15.355 million, and the team salary cap was $46 million.
Because disparities are most effectively expressed numerically, it’s tough to look at these statistics and still argue that women are getting a fair shake in both collegiate and professional sports. Numbers don’t lie—this why advocates like those at the Women’s Sports Foundation cite them. Taken at their face value, these statistics are more than enough to convince any rational person that there’s much more work to be done in athletics in order to level the gender playing field. Unfortunately, the numbers contained in these bullet points belie much larger philosophical issues, ones that transcend the numbers and, in fact, go on to show how unrelated these statistics are to each other and how grouping them together is (while good-natured) manipulative.

The common thread amongst most equality arguments—whether it is directly addressed or indirectly assumed—is money. Look again at the stats mentioned above. Scholarships, salaries, recruitment dollars… Whether the issue is high school, college, or pro sports, the elephant in the room is that men’s sports have access to more dollars. Sports, then, is absorbed into a larger gender inequality sphere of argument: economics. This is where the intentions of many women’s sports advocates become disingenuous: sports and economics, while often related, are not the same.

This is where a person’s own philosophical stance towards sports comes into play. Think of it this way:

- Sports as business, or
- Sports as pure athletic endeavor

This major philosophical difference is rarely, if ever, cited in arguments surrounding gender inequalities in American sports. Aside from the obvious reason that one outlook is quantifiable where the other is not, a big reason I think women’s sports advocates avoid the topic of ‘Sports as pure athletic endeavor’ is because the necessary requirement to realize this simple precept already exists: access. Salaries, endorsements and business models are not necessary requirements for those wishing to participate and experience the competitive thrill of athletic competition. Women (and men, for that matter) need only the chance or opportunity to a play a sport (high school sports, youth leagues, backyard games, anything) in order to realize the meaning and benefit of that sport. Clich├ęs like “for the love of the game” originate from the very real fact that sports themselves have an unquantifiable inherent value, and it is that value that supersedes any monetary benefits that a lucky few athletes are able to earn. As I mentioned in my previous post, opportunities for women to participate in a wealth of different sports has never been higher. Title IX’s efforts to sniff out discriminatory practices in events like sports have been extremely effective. Most advocates would not deny this.

It is at the professional-level—where the bottom-line is not the unquantifiable spirit of athletic competition but the quantifiable value of the almighty dollar—that the gap separating men’s and women’s sports is at its widest. Professional sports—not sports in general—are pure business. And if a fair businessperson is to properly run an enterprise the size and scope of a professional sports league, this businessperson should adhere to the laws of supply and demand. All participants in this league (owners, management, coaches and players) should be paid based on the revenue they produce. This is how fair and successful businesses operate.

You see where I’m going with this. It’s a cold, black-and-white way of viewing the world; it’s a way in which I hate discussing things. But if advocates for equality in women’s professional sports are going to invoke monetary statistics, they must also address things like the amount of revenue a women’s professional sports league produces and the actual demand that exists for women’s professional sports in general. The former is often discussed and excused with arguments like “women’s sports do not receive the same marketing pushes as men’s sports, so of course they make less money…” There’s a lot of truth to such points. But the issue of demand is hardly addressed (at least from the research I’ve conducted) at all. How many people are demanding women’s professional sports? And which sports are there demands for?

I want to leave off on a similar note as my last post. How can women’s professional sports be transformed into a viable economic product, one that best utilizes the abilities of our best female athletes? With recent developments like the inaugural season of the Lingerie Football League, it’s easy to see how this question can be answered in exploitative, insulting ways. There are better solutions, like re-inventing women’s basketball by tailoring the game to the unique abilities of its players. I’d like to hear some of yours…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Changes we Like to See here at the Guide

By now you may have read Aaron Traister’s piece in Salon, And may your first child be a feminine child. You may have even read this XX piece in response to it. But what I have to say is more personal to this blog than what you’ve read so far.

I would like to take this moment to say that Traister’s piece is an example of the kind of change we’re working toward here at the Guide. Here’s the synopsis of what I saw in that piece:

  • A man wrote about noticing the difference in people’s reactions when he announced he was having a baby boy (his first child) as compared with when he announced having a baby girl (his second child).

  • He noted that people kept acting like they pitied him or there was somehow less to look forward to with girls.

  • The pace of the piece was a slow and deliberate; an indication of how the author thought this through. He raised an eyebrow, he didn’t repress or suppress his gut feelings, and he didn’t jump to conclusions, either. There was much to question about this situation. There were benefits of the doubt to give.

  • Here's the change we're working toward at the blog: a man takes notice of these things and has an understanding of what it means to him and the women in his life.

  • It doesn't matter whether or not he identifies as a feminist himself, though this lesson would not be possible without the contributions of feminism.

  • It doesn't have to be a 'women only' issue.

  • It's everyone's issue.

  • He's not entering off-limits territory commenting on this subject.

  • Or stepping on anyone's toes.

  • He's just a dude with awareness of what's going on around him and has something to say about it. And, most importantly, he did say something about it.

If you wanted an idea of what our goal is here, it is to foster moments like these in the world.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's the Gameplan for Women's Sports?

Believe it or not, 2009 has been a vital year for women’s professional sports in the United States. I’m sure few of you—men and women both—have noticed, but the past twelve months have provided highlights and, unfortunately, many lowlights, all which will no doubt reshape the female pro sports landscape for the foreseeable future. Now rather than bore you with a list of events accompanied by explanations on their significance, I’m instead going to use the events of the past year as part of a broader look at women’s sports in general.

I like this topic because, when you really stop and think about it, women’s sports—especially women’s team sports—is a loaded feminist issue that, at a certain point, typically ceases to be discussed outside of academic circles mainly because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t generate much interest from either men or women. Plus, it’s sports, which in twenty-first century America (thanks in large part to women’s movement-inspired legislation like Title IX) is not really the bastion of political movement it once was. Access to sports for women, primarily at the youth, secondary and collegiate levels, gets broader and more diverse each year. There’s really never been a better time to be a young male or female athlete.

Unfortunately, this level of equality doesn’t extend to both male and female professional athletes. While I fully recognize that professional success is in no way the best or most accurate barometer by which to gauge the progress of gender equality efforts (this would be like saying record sales is the main determinant of artistic merit), I still feel that women’s professional sports’ inability to gain cultural traction raises questions about the root nature of women’s sports.

In late 2008, the Houston Comets, winner of the WNBA’s first four championships, went out of business. The team’s ownership and WNBA’s league offices were unable to find a new owner willing to pony up a paltry $10 million to purchase the franchise. This past October, about three weeks after the Phoenix Mercury won the 2009 WNBA championship, the three-time league champion Detroit Shock announced they were leaving the Detroit for Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The WNBA has only existed for thirteen seasons. The league, which was created and is effectively backstopped by the NBA, has received since its inception enviable amounts of corporate sponsorship and television exposure. Yet the two franchises that have won over half of the leagues titles either don’t exist anymore or have moved to another city. In both cases, the team’s home market (Houston and Detroit) was clearly not viable.

I don’t want rag on the WNBA, but the general consensus among sports writers and journalists is that the league’s business model is flawed. Rather than research markets that are open and excited about the prospect of supporting a women’s basketball team, the WNBA began by placing teams in markets with already existent NBA franchises, in effect killing each team’s ability to fulfill a city’s need or meet a specific market’s demand for professional basketball. The WNBA teams, in theory, would act like sister franchises, operating during the summer and early autumn, a kind of lead-in for the men’s professional season. This model has changed as time has gone by and teams have failed. Still, the WNBA’s operating philosophy mirrors that of the larger, more established NBA. A female professional sports league, in other words, attempts to operate in the same way, shape and form as it male counterpart.

As I previously mentioned, the WNBA’s flawed economic model has been roundly criticized. Interestingly, what has not been truly called into question is the actual game of women’s professional basketball itself. I’m talking about the size of the court, height of the baskets, things like that. It’s not such a novel concept. I know I’m not breaking new ground here. But an interesting side-effect of the Title IX-inspired growth of women’s sports is the tendency for the promoters and facilitators of these sports to simply put women on the same field of play, using the same rules, all in an effort to say, “See, women can play too.”

Basketball is the best example of this phenomenon because it is the most popular women’s collegiate sport as well as the female sport with the most well established professional operation. Why have serious discussions about actually creating a space that is custom-fit to a women’s game never been undertaken? The game of basketball was created by men as a team sport for men. The NCAA, NBA and FIBA institutionalized this male creation. Whether or not you love women’s basketball as it is or find it completely unappealing is irrelevant to the question of why a uniquely female version of the game of basketball has not been institutionalized by the NCAA, NBA or FIBA. Am I out of line to think that some of the WNBA’s woes are less economic and more because the on-court product just doesn’t inherently have the same amount of excitement that fans have come to expect from professional basketball? Am I out of line to think that actually tailoring a women’s sport to the unique abilities of women—rather than shoe-horning women into a sport tailored especially for men—would create a product that rivals the excitement of the men’s sport?

The viability of women’s sports at all levels is a very important topic. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but for now I’m really hoping to begin a discussion, to take get an idea of how people—both men and women, athletes and non-athletes—feel about the state of women’s sports. So let’s hear it!

Monday, November 9, 2009

"To Protect" or "To Support"...

Recently, Salon’s advice columnist Cary Tennis received a letter from a man whose wife was a victim of rape some twenty years ago (“Since You Asked…” 10/28/2009). While his wife has seemingly come to terms with the event, the husband is still, after two decades, unable to move on:
My problem? I can’t let it go. I think about it daily, 20 years after the fact. I wonder about the details. I’m angry at the friend who let it happen. I blame (only to myself) current behaviors of my wife on the fact that she was raped then. I fantasize about causing harm to the man who committed the crime. But this was so long ago, and our lives are so different, and reasonably happy, now. Why my obsession?
Tennis’s advice is standard. He reassures the man that the rape was neither his nor his wife’s fault and encourages the man to open up to a therapist (something the man had also been unable to do, according to the letter) and perhaps consider supporting rape prevention programs. Good advice? Yes. But with delicate subjects like this, it’s tough to expect something revelatory from a major media outlet.

But it’s not Tennis’s response that makes this column so striking. Rather, the letter writer’s unflinching honesty highlights an aspect of trauma that often goes unmentioned in the aftermath of rape crimes. Having been through a similar predicament as the letter writer myself, and so experienced many of the same sentiments and feelings, I was struck less by the longevity of the man’s inability to “get over” his wife’s rape and more with the way the man avoided the proverbial elephant in the room: his own personal guilt. Hovering over his expressed feelings of anger and blame and his fantasies about causing harm to the rapist is the husband’s clear feeling of guilt over even considering making himself an issue in his wife’s trauma recovery.

This, I feel, is a very common roadblock in situations such as these. Many men whose wives or girlfriends (or sisters or friends, the list goes on) have been victims of sexual abuse tend to fall immediately into a sort of paternal or fraternal protective mode. Yet for all the chivalric romanticism attached to these modes of protection comes equal amounts emotional distress. In playing the role of protector, men like the letter writer automatically deny themselves a chance to “get over” the event because 1) they’ve already failed (they did not prevent the rape) and 2) the misplaced notion that it is their place to be the emotional rock in the relationship. In essence, the patriarchal ideal of Relationship Protectorate that guides most men whose spouses are victims of sexual abuse is often the seed to obsessions like the one afflicting the letter writer.

The larger misnomer here is the false notion that ‘to protect’ is the same as ‘to support.’ The letter writer is overtly concerned about his own unhealthy obsession with his wife’s rape largely because he feels wife has seemingly come to terms with the event. One thing I’d be curious to know is whether the man has considered the fact that his obsession may in fact be holding back his wife’s ability to “get over” the rape. As many people who have experienced or spent time around those who have experienced trauma know, triggers exist everywhere. Perhaps if the letter writer recognized that his obsessive behavior could in fact itself act as a trigger that sets his wife back in her own trauma recovery, perhaps then he could more easily overcome his inability to cope with wife’s past rape.

It’s clear that the man’s heart and motivations are in the right place—he genuinely cares for his wife and her safety, happiness and well-being. Otherwise, he would not harp on her past trauma so greatly. Patriarchal notions of protection are reductive, though. In cases like that of the letter writer’s, the notion of protection often completely blinds men to the fact that they are not really supporting their partners—a complex issue involving the emotions of two individuals is collapsed into one simplistic patriarchal ideal. Their compulsive desire to protect actually holds themselves and their partners back. I don’t wish to imply that adherence to unhealthy patriarchal ideals is the only thing preventing men like the letter writer from moving past their spouse’s personal traumas. It’s important to realize just how easily elided notions of protection can be: while they are often beneficial, protection does not equal support.