The Sound of Sport

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99% Invisible, a San Francisco-based independent radio program exploring design practice, posted a wonderful, hour-long documentary on sound production for sports broadcasts. It’s totally engrossing. “The Sound of Sports” was produced by Peregrine Andrews, and originally broadcast in 2011 on BBC Radio. LISTEN HERE.

Mensplaining

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Why did I click through on this? It’s Taylor Kwellman and Alexi Lalas advising Hope Solo to sit down, like a good girl. When ESPN covers women’s sports equitably, then it can stage this discussion however it likes. Until then, I don’t care to hear Twellman and Lalas opine about what Hope Solo should or shouldn’t do. This story gets more play than does the fact that USWNT players are gearing up to sue FIFA! ARGH.

Sexism, Hope Solo and “the domestic violence case no one is talking about”

Commercial sports media is unrelenting in its sexism; it is no better or worse than the leagues, teams and schools that give the media its headline fodder. The sports media’s framework for conversations about gender, violence and power is not formed by any feminist intelligence—quite the opposite. The media reproduces an ideology of sex which presents gender difference as a difference in species. On some fundamental level, media pundits love stories about “domestic violence” because it lets pundits (mostly men) luxuriate in a patriarchal language about women’s absolute vulnerability/monstrosity. (Media discourse tends to present women as both at once—the victim who seeks out abuse; the victim who asked for it etc.)

This level of institutional sexism is, in fact, a much bigger problem for women in the sports world than is, say, rape and intimate partner violence. This sexist super-structure not only allows gender-based violence to flourish; it requires the violent demonstration of women’s weakness, women’s essential vulnerability. (Ann Travers describes this matrix as “the sports nexus.”) If, say the coach of your team is demanding sex from his players, exactly where do you go for help? Do you go to your national football association—run by men who are as bad, if not worse? How, people ask, as they tune into 48 hours of weekend broadcasts of men’s sports, are these abusers allowed to get away with treating women like dogs?

A world of absolute gender segregation requires heavy enforcement. That enforcement might take the shape of passive acquiescence to the idea that “this is just the way things are” (“well, I can’t report on the women’s football season because editors don’t think that women’s sports is a story—what can I possibly do?”). It might shape the public’s sense of “interest” (“watching women’s sports is boring”). It might take the form of disavowal — a turning a blind eye (as did various people working with Sandusky at Penn State), or self-censorship (“If I come out my career is over”/”If we hire him, we’ll lose our fan base”). Enforcement takes those shapes, as well as more “active” forms—sex-based harassment and worse (e.g. locker-room abuse, gang rape). In media reporting on gender and violence, the active and the passive combine.

We must be nearing the last act in the “NFL and domestic violence” story cycle: media pundits are now calling for Hope Solo to be pilloried. Fans of the USWNT will know well that Solo is facing assault charges. That story is not new. Washington Post editors might want to claim that this is “the domestic violence case that no one is talking about,” but that claim only works we ignore The Seattle Times, which, for example, has covered the story consistently, and responsibly, through their Seattle Sounders FC blog (Solo plays for Seattle Reign). The fact is that the national news media basically doesn’t give a shit about women’s sports stories unless they can be made into stories about men. Unless Solo’s case, in other words, can appear as a footnote to the Ray Rice story and (worse) absorbed into some broad popular sense that women, in general, are somehow getting away with something.

For the media pundit, all of these cases are all the same. This is, in fact, how sexist and racist ideologies work—the media discourse will move towards a “there are two sides the story” structure. Given that there is no way to produce a story of Janay Palmer as the aggressor from the image of her knocked unconscious, we must find some other woman—a woman who is violent just like men are violent. And thus the turn to Hope Solo, who faces fourth degree assault charges stemming from a (by all available accounts on both sides) chaotic, drunken, violent confrontation with her half-sister and 17-year old nephew. Solo’s case is still pending: it was a brawl—and it’s unclear how it got started. The situation was bad enough, however, to merit the charges advancing through the system. Her teams are standing by her. Seattle Reign have been clear that they’ll take appropriate disciplinary action pending the outcome of the court case.

Solo’s story, it must be noted, does intersect with that of the NFL—Solo’s marriage began with another brawl, also involving a group of people.  The police were called out in the middle of the night to respond to a “disturbance.” Her fiancé, Jerramy Stevens (who played for the Seattle Seahawks), was arrested on suspicion of assaulting Solo. The charges were dropped. It was another woman, not Solo, who went to the hospital with a hip injury, and a third person was also reported as injured. Solo’s brother blamed the fight on a few unknown men who crashed their party. The fight, consistently reported by the media as domestic abuse, involved eight people at a party that “got out of control.” Is Solo a victim or an abuser? Or something else?

The idea that Solo is an abused partner/abusive partner makes for a good story: “Hope Solo is the Ray Rice of women’s sports.” Women—just like men, except they get away with more!

It is a very sad fact that people in abusive situations get caught up in violent conflict; they can get caught up in the system. They mark each other, and end up marked. I don’t know Solo, I have no idea how to understand these stories of drunken brawls except as an indication of the ubiquity of intense, alcohol-fueled violent conflict in her family—a reasonable take, especially if you’ve read her memoir. In some situations, especially from a depersonalized distance, you can’t see the difference between the abuser and the abused. Violence circulates. This is one reason why police will sometimes take all parties involved in a fight into custody. It is a reasonable assumption that Solo was at risk of being an abused partner. But that Stevens was arrested does not make this so. Similarly, in Solo’s current case, we can’t know exactly what went down—even when the court deciding the case comes to whatever conclusion it settles on.

It is also the case that the court system is woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing intimate partner violence, and that throwing people in jail is no solution to the problem. Community based, restorative forms of justice are rarely discussed in these situations, but they should be. But, then again, where women and mainstream sports are concerned, there is nothing to restore. There is no community to repair.

What we have now is: men talking about men, men coaching and administering men’s sports and women’s sports, addressing an audience imagined as men — women are exiled to a separate and totally unequal system. We get the occasional public sacrifice of gender non-normative people like Caster Semenya (the difference between men and women must be enforced!), or the ritual hanging of problem masculinity (almost always black men) — these figures render the systemic discrimination which defines the NFL, ESPN and just about every apparatus handling the sport spectacle into an anomaly (Semenya) or a managerial problem (Rice) to be resolved.

All of this is to say that it just isn’t helpful to equate Solo with Rice, or, for that matter, Rice with Peterson. Or to imagine that the solution is to pillory any of these individuals. The answer certainly is not to sweep this level of crisis under the rug, but there must be something better than the facile moralizing which seems to be the order of the day.

There are lots of reasons for separating out Solo’s case from those plaguing the NFL and other sports. There is a whole category of precedent-setting Title IX rape cases involving football players and programs. The entire culture/sociology/economics of mainstream men’s sports is defined through intensely gendered forms of brutality. Penn State didn’t happen because people ignored one incident, or downplayed it. It happened because the entire system is set up to protect masculine forms of power and authority.

I recall here that in 2010, there was not one meaningful story published in US or UK-based sports news about the fact that the head coach of the South African women’s football team was sexually abusing players — that this was happening through the men’s World Cup, almost certainly with the knowledge of people at the South African Football Association. It’s hard to believe that FIFA administrators were ignorant of this. And I’d frankly be surprised if that was the only national women’s team that was poisoned by this level of sexual harassment. In 2009, the biggest story in women’s sports was a series of ludicrous fouls conducted within a regional, amateur women’s soccer game that happened to be recorded and broadcast (that in and of itself is a rarity). Everyone reported that incident like it was news.

There are months when it seems that women only appear in the sports pages if they win a world championship or file a rape accusation. So I guess we should be glad Solo’s personal life is so awful, so explosive. Were it not, the US’s win over Mexico and Solo’s shut-out record wouldn’t have appeared in the news as the footnote it is to the story “no one is talking about.”

All of this is to assert that the media’s relationship to women is itself violent. And as long as the day-in-day out struggle of women athletes—to win games, to set world records, to win appropriate support for their sport—remains the story that “no one” is actually talking about, no one gets to indulge the fantasy that a woman athlete’s domestic assault charge is “the same” as that faced by a multi-million dollar male athlete playing for a billion dollar business run by and for men.

Women: They are all the Same to Sepp

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Grant Wahl’s Sports Illustrated article on FIFA’s sexism opens with story from Abby Wambach:

U.S. forward Abby Wambach tells one from the time she and her now-wife, Sarah Huffman, were backstage in a VIP room in January 2013 before the World Player of the Year awards gala in Zurich, Switzerland. “[FIFA president] Sepp Blattercame into our little area, and he walked straight up to Sarah and thought she was [Brazilian star] Marta,” says Wambach.

“Marta!” Blatter said, hugging a bewildered Huffman, who doesn’t look much like Marta. “You are the best! The very best!”

“He had no idea who Marta was, and she’s won the award five times,” says Wambach. “For me, that’s just a slap in the face because it shows he doesn’t really care about the women’s game.”  Read the rest of Wahl’s story here.

Blatter has not only met Marta Viera da Silva many times; his organization has used her and Wambach as alibis for the “good work” FIFA does for the world. Marta is not just another great player—she functions quite specifically as a poster-image for the world game.

There’s a lot more to say about the incidents recounted in Wahl’s article—but that one moment speaks volumes.  Imagine if Blatter mixed up, say, Kaká and Klose. (Men in suits—who can tell them apart?!) Given the difference in the game’s scale, however, the bar of our expectations regarding Blatter’s ability to recognize women players is actually quite low. One would expect him to be familiar with only a handful of people who look nothing like each other—Wambach, Marta, Nadine Angerer, Birgit Prinz, Homare Sawa and Hope Solo. Sepp Blatter can’t even manage THAT.

ABC’s Rock-N-Roll Sports Classic (1978)

Music was different. Sport was different. Television was different. Courtesy of Please Kill Me.

Second Sex, Artificial Turf

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If we needed proof that the people who govern the beautiful game do not see women as real athletes, we need look no further than FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf. Players have been angry since was this announced; a complaint of gender discrimination has been filed with Canadian courts. Artificial turf forces a different game: tackling is different, injuries are different, the speed/pace of the game is different. You can play harder when the ground is softer. Football’s Sith Lords probably figured that women would prefer the artificial turf because it’s prettier and doesn’t stain.

The women’s game is treated by FIFA as charity work that serves to justify its monopoly over the “real” sport. Note the opening page of “The Laws of the Game,” which categorizes women as disabled players for whom the rules might be adjusted. If FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association wanted to move the goal posts, make the field smaller, the match shorter, if they wanted to make women play with smaller balls, they could. They could do none of these things for men, unless those men were not men but children. Or over 35. Or disabled.

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If I were going after FIFA as a player, I’d call for a BOYCOTT. I’d demand that this “exception” for the women’s game be wiped from the books, and that FIFA change its leadership—dramatically. A few professional players might have a lot of success organizing amateur and semi-pro players—the bulk of the Women’s World Cup roster—especially players from countries where the administration of the women’s game is fucked up. Which is most places.

Sepp Blatter is as much a sexist bastard as Avery Brundage was an abominable racist. Why stop with a demand for real grass? How about a demand for real change!

 

Super Slow Motion and Rocky’s Ghost

skycam view

a skycam view

While watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup I got obsessed by the cameras used in the production of the broadcast. FIFA produces a single feed for all media outlets through a company called Host Broadcast Services. There were, according to HBS, “up to 34″ cameras in use at each match. The field was saturated with cameras. Sometimes we got a thrilling bird’s eye view thanks to the Skycam. But at other times it could be hard to assess the field of play: instead it was all close-ups and slow-motion. The constant use of super slow motion could sometimes squeeze a sense of agony from any gesture or action, no matter how banal. Or it could remove all force from a tackle, all intention from a dive. I’m not convinced, in other words, that more is more when it comes to visual information.

I watched the tournament with an artist who happens to be researching the development of different kinds of cameras. He explained to me that many of the cameras that define sports broadcasts were invented by the same guy—and that the story of those cameras goes back to one of the most famous sports films of all time, Rocky. I wrote about my friend’s project for KCET’s Artbound. Below are the opening paragraphs, and a link to the full story.

Rocky Balboa’s run up the wide steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema; we can easily recall his gesture, on reaching the top: hands in the air, in triumph. These steps are in the local news again: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is expanding. Frank Gehry’s design involves cutting out a large section right down the middle: straight along, in other words, Rocky’s path.

As part of an ongoing investigation of the relationship of the body to the camera, the Los Angeles-based artist Adrià Julià found himself climbing those steps. In the past year, Julià has interviewed cinematographers and camera operators in Los Angeles and Paris and conducted a series of experiments. These short films, sculptures, lenticular prints, choreographic studies attempt to pull the embodied experiences of filmmaking into his own practice.

Julià was drawn to Rocky’s ascent because that scene is associated with the origin of the Steadicam — one of the most important inventions in cinema history. The Steadicam moves with but also against the cameraperson’s body; balancing itself as that person moves. A 2008 profile in ICG magazine (the magazine and website for the International Cinematographers Guild) reviews the history of its development with reverence, tracing each step in the process as Garret Brown and his collaborators arrived at this device that seemed to have a life of its own. One cinematographer remembers, “‘in the early days, the Steadicam operator was treated like he had his own little bag of voodoo.'”

Brown has gone on to create more magical devices, including many of the cinematic tools used in major sporting events — such as the World Cup — flycams that run with the athlete along the length of a track or a field; skycams suspended by wires that can swoop over the field of play like a bird. He has even created underwater cameras, used to capture the swimmer’s body as she races down the lane. The Steadicam, however, is the device that made Brown’s career.

In 1974, Brown produced a reel demonstrating what his camera could do with the aim of bringing his invention to Hollywood. On that reel is a film of Ellen Brown, his wife, running down, and then up, the museum’s steps. (The two lived in Philadelphia.) When the team producing “Rocky” saw Brown’s reel, they decided to set the film in the city of brotherly love so that its hero could run up those steps, just as Ellen had done. Ellen, in other words, is the reason “Rocky” is a Philadelphia story.

[FULL STORY]

A People’s Cup

Each broadcast of FIFA’s World Cup opened with plastic samba and cartoon favelas—the actual streets of Brazil were off-limits as far as FIFA’s marketing department was concerned. They are not up to standard, and so they were replaced, like so much else.

Around the world, however, people practice the sport according to a different set of guidelines.  Las Futbolistas, for example, offer a weekly kickabout where “anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, liberation-minded lovers of the sport [can] go to relearn the game.” This past weekend, the Los Angeles collective staged a small game in Skid Row, a neighborhood in downtown LA with a large homeless community. They then marched to the Federal Detention Center, and projected the 3rd place match on a wall across the street from the building. Las Futbolistas were kind enough to share video highlights from the day.

 

Sports Play (an excerpt)

Two passages from Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play (trans. Penny Black):

So many people with personal drive. Then, all at once, as if the stroke of an invisible clock had smashed something in their skulls and reset them to an imaginary tune, they are ticking to the same beat. They grab their sports equipment and thrash each other, smash the bowls that previously they’d held up in front of a prettily-set breakfast table or in the pub, in order to take a swig from their neighbor’s. Well, cheers! Now they are giving him one and how! Bottoms up! Heads down! (40)

Bones crack, tendons rip, veins burst, ligaments stretch, but somehow someway they survive. In sport the human bodies are like pizza boxes or disposable cups: at first they’re beautiful, and then they’re used, even abused. Nevertheless they’re washable and easy to clean…. (52)

All in one rhythm!

FIFA, Adidas, and Marina Abramovic

Above is an Adidas-sponsored re-performance of a collaboration between artists Marina Abramović and Ulay. The original work was part of a long series of experiments in the possibilities of relation-in-performance. Many of those performances had strong durational elements to them: the 1978 performance cited here involved just the two of them moving stones around in buckets. Abramović outsources the work to 11 performers for this contribution to the Adidas World Cup campaign. We watch 11 people engaged in a pointless task. Seems pretty apt.

Folks in the art world are furrowing their brows.

The FIFA/Adidas/Abramović collaboration is grotesque. But I don’t recall art critics frowning when Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno collaborated with Zidane—and Adidas, and La Liga—in their production, Zidane: un portrait du 21e siècle (2006). That work was only possible because Adidas saw it as good publicity. A reminder of this, for me: about five years ago, I tried to develop a program on experimental football cinema to propose to the Nike theater in Hollywood: the project fell apart because the Nike folks saw Zidane as an Adidas film.

I also don’t recall there being much irritation when Kehinde Whiley produced his 2010 advertisements for Puma. LACMA has been using that work all summer to advertise its exhibition Fútbol: The Beautiful Game. You will see this gorgeous ad for Puma’s “Africa Unity” kit on banners across Los Angeles. When male artists work with the commercial structures of football, folks in the art world enjoy the chance to feel like one of the guys. But when a woman does it, she’s whoring herself?

Kehinde Wiley, Samuel Eto'o (2010)

Kehinde Wiley, Samuel Eto’o (2010)

I’m not one to give Abramović a pass. But, excepting the medium (performance-based work v. visual art), I don’t see that she’s doing anything that much more awful than what blue-chip contemporary visual artists do pretty routinely. Why, review FIFA’s expensive special edition art posters. A complete set costs $6,589.99. There you will find an impressive (shameful!) array of artists who have licensed their work to FIFA.

Marina Abramović’s recent collaborations with dumb celebrity annoy most everyone in the neighborhood of performance art. The performance cited here was developed outside the charnel house. Her collaborations with Ulay were intense. In their own way, they could be painfully sincere. The deployment of that performance history and archive (with its serious affect, black and white photography, etc) within the World Cup economy is gross, but it is perhaps no more or less gross than anything else circling this particular drain.

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