Sex Talk

Public discourse has not caught up with the lived contradictions that lie at the root of sexual harassment and the culture of harassment. The media can’t get enough of these stories. And yet, no amount of coverage of rape, harassment seems to shift things. The story of one’s harassment/rape has always already been written by someone else. This is one of the many things that make sexual violence so awful. It is why DJT’s language matters, why it feels so familiar. We know that sentence, because we have felt it on our bodies.

All that talk — the blaring of the story of one grope after another — we are angry hamsters in a spinning wheel.

There is no necessary relationship between how much people talk about sex, and much sexual generosity/intelligence is produced by that talk. Plenty of sex talk is abusive, phobic, sexist and harassing. Much of that sex talk is presented as “knowing” but is in fact ignorant. Plenty of sex talk is a site of intimacy, bonding and generosity. Much of that talk is staged around one’s humiliation and ignorance but is in fact wise.

People sense a hypocrisy in public outrage vis a vis DJT’s behavior but can’t quite name its nature.

Harassment does not disrupt the workplace’s order; it actually regulates it. The more hierarchical and segregated the environment, the more this is true. Those who confront and resist harassment take a beating for this reason.

Take the strange and shifting place of sexuality in this anecdote lifted from a story in The Nation, regarding a recent DJT rally. The reporter describes a conversation with a female DJT supporter:

She also mocked the women who accused Trump of assault. ‘What we say in private, who cares? The other day, a bunch of women at work: We was talking trash talk, about sex and everything else, it’s what we do. None of us are saints. Who cares?’ She doesn’t care if he grabbed these women against his will? ‘Who said he grabbed them? And lemme tell you right now: back in the day, a billionaire had come by, I’d have been wanting him to grab me! I’m sure they were wanting him to grab them.’ Then she added, ‘Even though I am a victim of sexual assault.’ I told her I was sorry for that, and she brushed it off. ‘That right there with the women, if it happened, I’m sure it was wanted.’

We should not mistake the contradictions that this woman voices for stupidity. This woman is describing the lived contradiction shaping the life of the sexed worker — the worker who embodies sex, is sex, and moves through the workplace as the embodiment of the world that has already been mined for resources before she arrives for her working day. Sex haunts the workplace as the sign of all that has been stolen from the worker before she earns a dime. Groping literalizes that theft. It is a reminder: that body is not yours. Never was. In a way, there is a cruel truth to that fact. These stories of sexual harassment are slippery. The harassment story spreads like a germ from one man to another. This sick energy swirls around the figure of a powerful woman in a pantsuit who presents herself as a soulless wall — she is irrelevant. This is what harassment does to its victim. Maybe that position advances to: She is the same as him. She is the problem. Get rid of them both. But of course, she is not.

She is different, and yes — difference is the problem here. She is the one who will embody our embarrassment. That is HRC’s struggle — how not to become that figure (which has never not haunted her, as the public’s “good wife”).

We bemoan the fact that DJT’s racism never grabbed the public’s fascination in the way that his sexual behavior does — that, too, is a difference problem. One is knotted into the other: his campaign opened, after all, with the declaration that Mexicans are rapists. And because this country didn’t, in numbers, at that moment, recognize the seriousness of the problem in his candidacy — we are here, now, counting the numbers of women willing to come forward and tell the stories of how they were touched.

Until we get how harassment grows from the contradictions which structure our lives, until we come to grips with how, as Silvia Federici once put it, “sexuality is work,” we will not get very far in cleaning up this mess. In part because we’ve grossly underestimated its scale.

Capturing Semenya

As the women’s 800m approaches, headlines about Caster Semenya proliferate — once again, seven years after she won the World Championship in the 800m and became a news headline, we have been saturated with “debates” about her presence on the track. This year, these stories unfold in striking contrast with those celebrating other athletes who dominate their events. Where Usain Bolt’s singularities (at 6’5″ he is unusually tall for a sprinter) are presented as a blessing, hers are presented as a curse. In the past week, feminist writers have pushed back on the bullying of Semenya by the press. (See, for example, Jules Boykoff’s interview with bio-ethicist Katrina Karkasis, Kate Fagan’s op-ed on the racism and sexism which pattern writing about Semenya.)  The story of Semenya has been produced as the worst kind of clickbait and so, as exhausted as many of us are by seven years of making the same intervention over the same athlete, we cannot sit this news cycle out — we’ve been drawn, again, into the same fight.

This year, I notice that stories about Semenya tend to be illustrated by images in which she faces the camera. We see her broad shoulders, her braids, her serious face. Her speed puts her in the media’s view, but the preferred image of Semenya communicates not speed but strength. While the image of Usain Bolt’s lead is celebrated as already iconic, the image of Semenya’s physique circulates as a warning. It is used to present Semenya’s presence on the track as “unfair.”

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Iconic photo of Bolt’s lead.

Images of Semenya running, especially when those images are shot from the side of the track, illustrate her speed and also affirm her context: the women’s 800m. The dominant frontal framing of her image, however, excludes her competitors or leaves them out of focus — a visual tactic which affirms the “truth” of sexist/racist vision that cannot see her as a woman.

Ledecky Leading

The media approaches Katie Ledecky’s superdominance in the pool with a giddy enthusiasm. Editors seem to enjoy illustrating the distance that Ledecky puts between herself and everyone else, and how Usain Bolt manages to come from behind in the world’s fastest sprint. Ledecky’s stamina is a miracle, Bolt’s stride expresses the blessing of his freakish height. The potential of Semenya’s speed on the track, however, has been narrated as a “ticking time bomb” and a threat “to the future of gender based athletics.” Over the image of Semenya’s broad shoulders Slate’s editors drape the question, “Should Semenya be allowed to compete against women?

Behind that question is the long story of the attempt to create a “fair” gender test, given that gender differences are not reducible to any single aspect of a person’s being. Debate about gender testing has been staged almost exclusively around Semenya since she first came onto the world’s stage in 2009.

This attention to Semenya and the IAAF’s (the recently suspended) use of testosterone levels to police women athletes has distracted people from the myriad of other rules which enforce gender segregation.

To ask if Semenya should be allowed to run against women, for example, suggests that Semenya has some other option. Even if a woman runner wanted to compete against men, even if such competitions were allowed (they aren’t), that athlete’s performances against men would not qualify her for events like the Olympics even if she ran faster than all the men in the world. Not only would such a thing not “count” as a women’s world record, it would not qualify her for the Olympics in any gender category. Women are not only not allowed to run against men, in some ways, they are not allowed to run with them.

IAAF regulations regarding qualification for the Olympics are quite clear on this:

Performances achieved in mixed competitions in track events will not be accepted. Exceptionally, in accordance with IAAF Rule 147, performances achieved in events of 5000m and 10,000m may be accepted in circumstances where there were insufficient athletes of one or both genders competing to justify the conduct of separate races and there was no pacing or assistance given by an athlete(s) of one gender to an athlete(s) of the other gender. [IAAF Rio Qualification and Systems Standards]

The prohibition of cross-gender pacing was produced to address the fact that men and women often run alongside each other in longer distances, especially the marathon. A few years back, disturbed by the spectacle of this athletic miscegenation (in sports, men and women are treated as a different species in a manner that closely resembles white supremacist and eugenic discourse about racial difference), IAAF officials decided to distinguish world records set by women in women-only races from records set by women running in “mixed” races (where the fastest women are running with, and being paced by men). Records set by women in “mixed” races should not, according to the IAAF, be understood as women’s records. The IAAF treats pacing — the situation of every runner who is not the fastest on the track — as a form of unfairness only when the men and women are on the track together. And so mixed races cannot be used to qualify for the Olympics.*

There is no good reason for this rule.

Women are prohibited from being paced by men because the fastest men make the fastest women faster. Top women athletes in a range of sports — from running to soccer to judo — train alongside and against men. So, why can’t women run with them? Why don’t women’s achievements in competitions that include men count as a women’s achievements? If mixed-gender pacing is so wrong, why allow it in training?

The spectacle of mixed gender racing unravels fascistic models of sex/gender difference and sex/gender purity.  Every woman runner competes with the lie that men are faster than women. That fiction can only be maintained by ensuring that men and women never run with each other — when men and women run with each other, they scale down each other’s understanding of their differences.

The truth is: the fastest men are faster than the fastest women. Some men are faster than all women and most men, but some women are also faster than most men. Most men reading these sentences, for example, are quite a bit slower than Caster Semenya — most men reading these sentences are, in fact, quite a bit slower than the slowest women running her event in Rio.

[For example: Mary Keitany finished the 2015 NYC Marathon in 2:24:25. This time was the 19th fastest overall that year, and about fourteen minutes behind Stanley Biwot’s winning performance. She finished, in other words, 19th in a field of nearly 50,000 people. She ran the marathon faster than all the women and faster than about 28,880 men. Keitany started the race 30 minutes before the men: her time would likely have been faster had she been running with the professional men. Marathon starts are staggered: people are lined up according to their pace. It is only at the “professional” level that men and women are segregated from each other.

A fun fact, in 2015, a slightly higher percentage of women completed the NYC marathon than men.]

Protecting Women from Each Other

The IAAF presents its prohibition against cross-gender pacing as a defense of the integrity of women’s running events. The suppression of the fastest women’s capacity for speed by the prohibition of cross-gender pacing in long distance running is not, however, in women’s interest.

Arguments for Semenya’s exile from sports are not unlike that stupid rule. As sporting bodies confront the fact (and this is a fact!) that there is not one isolatable element which “causes” men to the men and women to be women, they are losing their ability to police the difference between men and women. That policing is now clearly visible as unethical: it is categorically unfair by every measure of sporting fairness.

Bioethicist Karkazis explains:

So-called sex testing policies have been around for decades and are aimed at controlling sex and policing who can legitimately compete as a woman. All of the policies, which rely on an individual criterion—for example, chromosomes—to determine women’s eligibility, have been based on the faulty assumption that any singular marker of sex is adequate to classify people as male or female. Because no one sex marker is definitive, the policies have always unfairly excluded some women.

Sports governing bodies have said they abandoned sex testing in the 1990s. But they clung to a reserve clause allowing them to investigate any woman they deem “suspicious.” They investigated Caster Semenya [in 2009] during the period the policies were “abandoned.”

Despite the scientific-sounding rationale about competitive advantage, only the screening criterion has changed; it’s now testosterone levels. Unlike chromosomes,T levels can be manipulated, and so for the first time women are required—effectively coerced—to change their bodies to maintain eligibility, consequently “violat[ing] ethical standards of clinical practice and constitut[ing] a biomedical violence.” Policymakers nevertheless characterize the regulation as “progressive.”

Note that no other extraordinary athlete has been singled out with such determination for this form of exile or medical intervention — not Michael Phelps, not Katie Ledecky, not Usain Bolt, and not Simone Biles. Each of these Olympians is arguable more dominant in their sports that Semenya is in hers; Phelps and Bolt, furthermore, have maintained their dominance over a long stretch of time.

The US women’s national soccer team, which for decades has advanced to the semifinals or finals of every major international tournament (but not this one!), is not banned from international competition for the massive advantage the team enjoys by virtue of the fact that the USSF is not as sexist or as corrupt as Brazil, Spain, Chile or Mexico’s federations, which hobble their women’s teams. If journalists and pundits actually cared about “protecting” the integrity women’s sports they might investigate the intersection of corruption and sexism in sports. Sexism and corruption actually harm women’s sports. Gender variance enhances them.

Competitive sports are about difference. They produce differences in speed, distance and skill. Women are quite different from each other. Men are also quite different from each other. Usain Bolt’s physical difference from his competitors is actually very similar to Caster Semenya’s difference from hers (they both look stronger than everyone else). In sports, men’s physical differences from each other do not lead to their disqualification. Usain Bolt is so tall (6’5″) that he covers his distance in fewer steps than do his competitors. This is one of the many things that makes Bolt so fast. It does not make him so much of a man that he has an “unfair” advantage over other men. It makes him into a hero, not a monster.

Women athletes who perform above people’s expectations regarding women’s capacity — especially when they are black — are scrutinized not as athletes, but as women. Meaning: they are evaluated according to a racist and sexist sense of what defines women. Any aspect of her being which defies that image, which is in conflict with cultural notions about what makes a woman a woman is at risk of being identified as having “unfair” advantage — she is, in this view, a threat to other women.

As Kate Fagan argues, in conversation about the rules maintaining sex segregation in sports, where those conversations are not informed by expertise regarding sex/gender differences, women’s sports has increasingly been presented as a “protected category.” This has, she points out, gotten worse as sports federations have been forced to confront the bad intentions (and bad science) behind any number of gender tests. Fagan writes:

This “conversation” is supposedly about fairness and protection. Or, rather, protecting female athletes whose appearance reflects society’s standard of femininity. Ross Tucker, a South African professor of exercise physiology who has banged the drum the loudest (and who did not respond to multiple email requests for an interview), offered this quote to the Guardian: “If Semenya can eventually run 1:51 she is better than [Usain] Bolt comparatively. But Bolt doesn’t compete in a protected category for people with fast-twitch muscle fibers. He isn’t subjected to the same classification issues as Semenya is by virtue of the fact we’re trying to protect women.”

Who are women being protected from in this instance, Fagan asks, if not each other?

Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson indulge the same line of thinking in an awful conversation published recently in The New Yorker. Gladwell explains to Thompson,

no one is saying that Caster Semenya shouldn’t be able to compete. People are only saying that women’s athletics—as a “protected category”—requires her to have testosterone levels in line with her competitors’.

The two non-experts express their agreement with what “people are saying” and proceed to dress up their sexism with technical-sounding bullshit about testosterone, hyperandrogenism and gender difference. They discourse about these issues as if it were self-evident that all women athletes should have testosterone “in line with her competitors” even though (for example) no such requirement is made of men. Gladwell and Thompson stage this conversation without any meaningful discussion of the decision issued by the International Court for Arbitration in Sports, which supported Indian athlete Dutee Chand’s challenge to IAAF/IOC rules which would require women with high T-levels to take hormone suppressants or face a lifetime ban.

Runner’s World published a terrific breakdown of CAS’s decision:

What did the CAS decide?

First, the court decided that the Hyperandrogenism Regulations are clearly discriminatory, in violation of the IAAF and IOC charters, because they apply only to women. There is no equivalent rule disqualifying high-T men from competition. Second, both Chand and the IAAF agreed that there should be a distinct female category of competition, and such competition should be “fair.” Third, the Hyperandrogenism Regulations are unlike other athletic bans in that they are essentially a lifetime ban, not a time-limited ban. Fourth, Chand failed to prove that a high-T woman taking estrogen and other female hormones would suffer a significant decline in performance.

Fifth and most important, the IAAF failed to establish that a woman born with naturally high testosterone levels has a significant performance advantage over other women

Unfettered by the weight of the science on this issue, uninterested in the rationale behind the decisions of the juridical bodies that determine what constitutes fairness in sports, Gladwell and Thompson borrow from the arbitrary nature of sports structures to explain why Semenya should not be allowed to compete. In an extraordinary bit of group masturbation, Gladwell and Thompson cite some more men to make Semenya’s exclusion appear as if it were necessary to maintain the structure of athletics. Again, Gladwell:

People need to understand that an athletic competition has to have rules; otherwise there can be no competition. David Epstein wrote a characteristically brilliant piece for Scientific American last week in which he quoted the philosopher Bernard Suits, who once described sports as “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” And that’s what’s at issue here. Semenya is equipped with an extraordinary and anomalous genetic advantage. The previous policy of international track was that she could compete as a woman if she took medication to lower her testosterone to “normal” levels. That restriction has now been lifted. And so we have a situation where one woman, born with the biological equivalent of a turbocharger, is now being allowed to “compete” against the ninety-nine per cent of women who have no such advantage.

At about this point Gladwell cites Ross Tucker (the man Fagan cites as beating the testosterone drum the loudest), who explains,

We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. Radcliffe’s marathon WR, for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.

Gladwell glides from the arbitrary nature of sports (“the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles”) to the subject of the difference between men and women in order to naturalize the expulsion of women from the category of women’s sports. This suggests, for example, that the contrived structure of track and field (why race 800 and not 850 meters?) — and an athlete’s “voluntary agreement” to compete within such a structure is akin to, say, one’s participation in sports as a man or a woman. This is, on its face, a stupid comparison.

(There is more nuttiness to the Tucker passage Gladwell cites: Why, in this imaginary world in which there is no “category for women,” would it be only the odd woman riding a horse who might qualify for the Olympics!? Why not archery? Or synchronized swimming? Or rhythmic gymnastics? Or wrestling? What about Ledecky, whose 1500m freestyle is already in the zone of men’s times? It’s quackery!)

This end-of-women’s-sports fantasy imposes on women’s sports a surprising fragility given that almost every women’s sport we can think of has survived being actively suppressed by men with arbitrary regulations and outright bans (limiting, for example, women’s tennis matches to three sets instead of five; barring women from marathons, virtually outlawing women’s soccer).

Women’s sports will not disappear because women with different hormone levels are allowed to compete against each other. PERIOD.

Women’s sports is not a “protected category.” It is, instead, the category that takes the most beatings.

Athletes compete as women by virtue of the alignment of their identity (as they perceive it, as others perceive it) with this already-existing category of gender. That alignment is not stable; it is a site of constant negotiation. And it is compulsory. We do not have women’s sports because women need to be protected from men. We have women sports because the world has women athletes. We also have women’s sports because gender difference is such a powerful, defining aspect of our experience of being in a body that we enjoy – as athletes and as spectators — the spectacle of gendered subjects in competition with each other as gendered subjects. Quite a few of us, furthermore, also enjoy direct physical competition across gender and know to our bones that women must be allowed to lose to men in order to win against them. And so when it comes to mixed-gender competition, there are a lot of us out here who say: bring it.

As IAAF regulations stigmatizing the speed of women racing against men show us, protecting women from direct physical competition against men holds women back. (Lindsey Vonn, the downhill skier, has bumped up against even more intense rules whose explicit aim is to slow women down. Men’s and women’s courses are mapped out differently, women’s courses are designed to be slower. When Vonn petitioned to race against men, she was petitioning to be allowed to race the same course as men — in order to achieve faster times. That petition was denied.)

The only thing worse than these rules — which do nothing other than slow women down — is the attempt to root out from women all traces of their own masculinity — the shaming and humiliation of women on this score has got to stop.

Women’s sports is not a defensive structure from which men are excluded so that women might flourish. It is, in fact, the opposite of this: it is, potentially, a radically inclusive space which has the capacity to destroy the public’s ideas about gender and gender difference precisely because gender is always in play in women’s sports in ways that it is not in men’s sports (with a few exceptions — e.g. figure skating). Because men have been so committed to the “end of women’s sports” for so long, women’s sports thrives in the zone of destruction. It has its own character thanks to the gender trouble at its origin. If women’s sports has one job that really is different from men’s sports, it is the destruction of sex/gender difference. Men’s sports (with a few exceptions which prove the rule) reinforce ideologies of gender difference. Women’s sports destroy them.

We must  take notice of that fact that for seven years the conversation about the relationship between gender difference and women’s sports has been staged exclusively around the body of Caster Semenya, even though there are other women athletes who are more dominant in their sports than Semenya and even though there are other very problematic gender-based rules in sports. Pundits choose Semenya’s story over these other subjects. Her broad shoulders, her hairstyle, her manner of dress, her sexuality — the queer, black female masculinity which she presents  — allows these pundits the cheap thrill of unveiling a queer interloper. Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson refer to her body with an invasive clinical language that masks their ignorance about it. This casual discussion of physical difference is an appalling rhetorical echo of the sexual violence of lynching campaigns (which were often staged in the name of protecting white womanhood). It resonates, too, with the murderous violence directed at gender non-conforming people the world over.

I have not seen anything like this sustained level of aggression in reporting on Katie Ledecky, whose dominance in her sport is much more spectacular than Semenya’s. Where Ledecky is subject to hushed speculation (“is she like Semenya?”), the media approaches Semenya as if she were a walking scandal. What makes one athlete’s superdominance appear like victory, and another like theft — what makes people agree on the need to protect one kind of athlete from another, if not the queerness of her blackness?

The Sex of Speed

We do not think of a race as a particularly gendered event. A race has an absolute clarity. This is its defining element: the spectator thrills in the event’s clarity, its definition. Someone wins, everyone else loses. The win and the loss are decisive.

This is quite different from obviously gendered sports like gymnastics and figure skating — in which the performance of gender is built into categories of judgment. These events are scored by a panel of experts. They are judged, and the moment of judgment is a part of these sports’ theatrics. The subjective nature of the way those athletes are judged is a part of that sport’s drama. The theater of these sports is not about things that are measurable (speed, distance, strength), but rather an unattainable perfection. The “perfect ten” must be elusive: once achieved it risks becoming not perfection but, instead, a standard. And so when perfect scores started to populate its scoreboards, the standards of measurement in gymnastics were changed. (This is the subject of Dvora Meyers’ The End of the Perfect 10.) The sport plays with a sense of flawlessness — a flawlessness which one can approach but never actually achieve.

Katie Ledecky and Caster Semenya’s performances are not about flawlessness. They are, instead, about the capacity for speed, pure and simple. Are they the fastest? Are they faster that all those who have ever raced?  The answer to the former is yes, but the answer to the latter is no. One is taught to think that they are not the fastest ever because are they are women. What if we saw this difference differently? All men who are not Usain Bolt are slower than Usain Bolt; this is not because Usain Bolt is more of a man than they are. It is, quite simply, because he is faster.

Of course gender matters — we enjoy watching women compete. It is important enough for us to have fought quite hard, in fact, for the right to watch women compete against each other.

Women athletes who compete in sports which appear to be about absolutes, which promise the spectator a decisive result surface the fictive elements of their sport’s certainties and guarantees — what does it mean to be the fastest woman, but not the fastest person? What is a woman? Is that what prevents her from being faster? How do we know what that thing holding her back is?

Caster Semenya’s speed is mute reply to that question. Women who are the fastest and strongest stir up the matter around them. They open up new spaces of differences when they stretch their lead over the field. That space is gendered — and yes, the boundaries which define that space are porous. A handful of athletes in a lifetime slip through that gendered net. Whether that moment is figured by sports officials and the press as a kind of transcendence or as crime for which she must be punished has everything to do with the color of the athlete’s skin.

If Caster Semenya has the capacity to defy people’s sense of how fast a woman can run, let us hope she does that and more. Let us hope she sets one world record after another, and that these records stand for a hundred years as a cosmic payback for the shit she’s been through, the shit every woman has been through— cis, trans, black, brown, poor, gay, promiscuous, pregnant, abortive, sick, over-worked, underpaid and pissed-off.

Let her leave her sisters in the dust and laugh her way across the finish line.

 

[*I am using the word “pacing” in a non-technical way to refer to how one’s pace is set by the people in front of you. Within running sports, “pacing” often means something more specific: the use of a runner to set a fast pace for a race’s initial laps. These runners usually contract to run a certain pace and distance, and drop out of the race. International competitions (excepting the Olympics) allow for the use of pace-setters or “rabbits”: these runners will go in front of the pack and set a goal pace — this wards off the kind of tactical races one saw in these Olympics (which often leads to slow times). This is different from the “frontrunner.” The frontrunner aims to win the race, a pace-setter/rabbit aims to make the entire race faster. IAAF rules which do not recognize times achieved by women in mixed gender formats treat women as having been illegally paced by men. Thought I ought to add this, as you could see what not having a pace-setter means: so many of the middle and long distance races at the Rio Olympics were very slow. It also demonstrates how much pacing is a part of the sport. They are, today, a very important part of creating the conditions of possibility for setting world records. For more on “rabbiting,” read this post from a runner who has done it: Lauren Fleshman.]

Shizu Saldamando takes on Serena Williams

Saldamando La Serena

Shizu Saldamando, La Serena (2015). Oil, mixed media on wood panel.

La Serena, a beautiful portrait of Serena Williams by Los Angeles artist Shizu Saldamano, is currently on view at New Image Art in Santa Monica, CA, as a part of the group exhibition “The Thrill of Victory The Agony of Defeat: Sports in Contemporary Art.” Curated by Patrick Martinez, this exhibition also features work by Martinez, Gregory Bojorquez, Hiro Kurata, Mark Mulroney, Andrew Schoultz, Vincent Valdez, and Mario Ybarra Jr. I recommend seeing the show: all of these artists make very interesting work.

Saldamando, the only woman artist in this group exhibition, is (I understand) the only artist to take on the female athlete as a subject (I haven’t seen the show yet). The marginalization of women’s sports, as I’ve argued elsewhere, mirrors the wildly disproportionate scale of men’s sports as the subject of media broadcast and attention.* This goes to some of the things that make Saldamando’s work particularly interesting.

 

First, Serena Williams is a kind-of exception to the rule I described above. She is one of very few athletes to transcend the awfulness of mass media’s active suppression of public awareness of women athletes. The attention of a racist and sexist media, however, has mixed effects for black women athletes. The Williams sisters have been very savvy (and circumspect) in their navigation of that world, which exalts them and then tears them apart. That lifting and crushing is, of course, how mass media attention works. But the media’s wheel of fortune turns on a racist and sexist axis. Many portraits of iconic black athletes take this up, directly or indirectly. Consider, for example Keith Piper‘s installation Transgressive Acts: A Saint Among Sinners/A Sinner Among Saints (1993-1994), a twinned portrait of Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson. They are honored, here, in the style of stained glass windows in a chapel, on whose pulpit is a copy of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.

In La Serena, Saldamando gives us a deliberately iconic image—the use of gold, for example, marks this work as hagiography. Serena is not just victorious, she is exalted. The portrait vibrates with the weird story of Serena Williams’s recent upset, however. This year, in the semi-finals of the US Open, a completely unspectacular player, Roberta Vinci, brought Williams’s supposedly inevitable Grand Slam triumph to a brutal stop. In advance of this tournament, the press was unrelenting in its presentation of Williams’s triumph as a certainty. This, of course, feeds the media economy which needs saints to burn at the stake.

La Serena’s gesture, at least for me, expresses an awareness of the athlete’s future struggle. La Serena’s composure — her calm, her strength, her power and defiance — might easily have been lifted from communist or labor movement works celebrating women workers (see below). It is, however, also a citation of the most famous sport spectacle of them all — Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest from the medal stands at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. This image belongs to a pool of images of defiance — portraits of resistance, defiance and protest.

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In this photograph, one of most famous and powerful images in sports history, Smith and Carlos’s hands are raised straight up, and their heads are bowed.** In Saldamando’s portrait, Serena is looking forward, toward a future that she creates. She raises her fist, but she also flexes her muscles. The artist maximizes our access to her physical power, and the metaphysical meaning of that power. La Serena contributes to an archive of images celebrating women’s power — these images differently engage and resist the ideologies of race, sex and gender that circumscribe women’s access to her own body. Some images (Norman Rockwell’s, for example, pictured below) render the working woman’s muscular body into something folksy and hypermasculine; others feminize the woman flexing her muscles (making her muscles disappear) — how and why embodied strength appears in these images is complicated. Michelle Obama’s arms, Dyana Nyad’s (captured below in a portrait by Catherine Opie), Serena Williams’s — each appearance of a woman’s muscular strength reaches from the image into the world to shake things up.

Black women, in particular, find their bodies read through a vicious matrix that pathologizes any sign of power and defiance. Her blackness appears, within racist ideology, as a disruption of gender. This form of racism flourishes around the figures of women like the Williams sisters — by which I mean black women who are among the very best women athletes alive. Their success as athletes becomes a sign of their always-already failure as women. Thus the social media trash-heap is sprinkled with videos, blog-posts that argue that Serena Williams is, in fact, actually man [I refuse to link that racist/sexist garbage]. In that world, her arms are stolen by a frightening army of fascist lunatics who see them as evidence that she isn’t, really, even human.

Saldamando’s La Serena calmly turns that shit into gold.

 

*Most group exhibitions centered on sports don’t feature any works centered on women athletes. So kudos to Martinez for including Saldamando’s portraits of Serena Williams and Kristi Yamaguchi.

**Note: Peter Norman [left] was an ally in this gesture. He is wearing a pin supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights and willingly absorbed the controversy surrounding his participation this moment.

Passions United, a review

The bored room.

A FIFA boardroom, in which passions are united.

United Passions is fascinating. Not as a movie, of course. FIFA’s 30 million-dollar self-portrait is, instead, fascinating evidence. FIFA leaves its fingerprints on every aspect of the work’s form and content.

Structurally, the film stages a bold intervention against story-telling practice. United Passions demands that cinema catch up with the times: the dominant narrative form used by the people who govern our lives from conference rooms is that of the bullet-point presentation. This biography of a corporation thus appropriately takes the form of Powerpoint Cinema.

Blocks of information are presented in a static visual form, usually in a manner that is not entirely unlike this sentence: a passive presentation of the way things are. Randomly-generated transitions move the viewer from one information block to the next. A cause-effect relationship will be implied by the flow of one slide to the next. Sequencing is, in and of itself, all one needs in terms of structure. Information flashes across the screen; the audience is spared the burden of understanding and insight. This presentation of information is usually accompanied by an image grabbed through a google search.

One might call this a “lie-back-and-think-of England” approach to one’s audience.

This phrase, “lie-back-and-think-of England,” for the reader lucky enough to not know, refers to the advice given to women regarding the inevitability of sexual coercion in their married lives. United Passions gives us a new spin on that phrase, as several bullet points are dedicated to demonizing the men of the English Football Association. The English FA’s pomposity is here developed as a background — perhaps the only available background — against which FIFA leadership might indulge the idea that they are merely humble servants to the beautiful game. FIFA/the English FA: this the film’s most compelling face-off. Or perhaps I should say, “most compelling bullet-point sequence.”  The only thing that unites the passions of FIFA’s founding characters is their shared hatred of that other imperialist congress of entitled white assholes. (To be clear, true to its form, this is indicated in the film, rather than, say, written and acted.)

Passions United is admirably open about the scale of self-serving ambition that lies at the root of the organization. FIFA was founded, we are told, for the sole purpose of having total control over the game everywhere such control matters, mainly because a few European men were annoyed that a few English men were bitchy to them. Men in suits, largely indistinguishable from each other, declare that the only rules of the game that will matter are their rules, that the only associations that matter will be FIFA associations. Voilá! FIFA Article I: Football will not exist outside of FIFA. This naked desire for monopoly is presented by the film’s swelling score as a “win” for the game.

Sprinkled throughout Passions United (I can’t get enough of this title) is imaginative thinking which presents FIFA’s so-called political neutrality as a simultaneously anti-fascist and populist politics — e.g. a party sequence in which an English FA executive spews racist and sexist nonsense at a horrified woman (Rimet’s daughter, more on her below), a bizarre boardroom scene that recycles debunked myths regarding wartime matches (these stories are also so badly told that one can’t actually follow them anyway, so their veracity is perhaps less an issue than their coherence). These moments are reassuringly familiar as staple elements of FIFA’s pantry: bad faith and pure bullshit.

Of course, as a feminist football critic, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that women are not only not forgotten by United Passions, they are all over its Powerpoint script, as is, shall we say, the idea of Africa.

The film confirms something we have long suspected: women and Africa occupy similar, even perhaps the same symbolic territory for FIFA. The film wonderfully maps out FIFA’s psychopathology so that we might better understand the exact roles that women and Africa play in the organization’s self-understanding. Women and Africa appear in United Passions as spaces of conquest, ownership, and creepy intimacy.

Africa functions as a scapegoat for FIFA’s corruption. One scene (one bullet-point) identifies Africa’s increased participation in FIFA as a “pandora’s box”—Africa functions in this film at once as a territory to be rescued, the locus of all foul play, as cash cow, and as a trophy. Women operate as both an alibi guaranteeing FIFA’s good intentions and, also, as evidence demonstrating the nature of FIFA’s bad intentions.

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The daughters of Jules Rimet and Sepp Blatter are given a shocking amount of screen time.

Nary a scene happens without one or the other fille: they are represented as essential conversation partners—the people with whom Rimet and Blatter talk out all of their ideas—within the script they are, really, the only people that these patriarchs can trust. This creates a little confusion. Normally, when a man talks this much at a woman in a film, it is because she is the object of his sexual interest; possession of her functions as an affirmation of his phallic power.

In short, the father-daughter partnerships of United Passions are startlingly incestuous. This is in no small part because Rimet, played by Gerard Depardieu, constantly puts his hands on his daughter (played by Jemima West), and because in at least one scene, in which the two are standing in an empty, large open public space, they stand so closely that Depardieu’s belly touches poor West. It is also because both women “characters” (that is really not quite the right word for them) function as fluffers: their sole function is to pump up Daddy’s ego. Take one of the most infamous lines of the film—as Rimet worries that playing a World Cup during the Great Depression might be wrong, his daughter says: “When have dreams ever been appropriate?” Indeed.

I appreciate the way that United Passions re-envisions Hollywood casting practices, in which women young enough to be the daughters/granddaughters of the male lead will be cast as their romantic object of interest as if such sexual relationships were fun to watch. Here, at least, that romance is called out as fundamentally incestuous—and it is presented as extremely uncomfortable viewing.

But this perhaps also reflects FIFA’s actual world, in which women can never function as equal partners, or should I say co-conspirators? The only appropriate position for a woman is as a “daughter” to FIFA’s “daddy.” Lie Back…

[I now have to wash out my eyeballs and scrub down my brain.]

Readers totally unfamiliar with the most banal conventions of the sports film might be surprised to learn that the film’s narrative superstructure is provided by a joyous pick-up game, played by children who have taken over a dusty pitch in a worn-out stadium on the edge of a city in an “emerging” nation. They are the children of the world—one of every color, and even one of the “other” gender (fair-skinned, of course). This sequence, which opens and closes the film — a “bullet point” which declares the game’s universal appeal — was filmed in Azerbaijan, whose government generously funded Passions Uniting Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, and is therefore listed as a production partner.

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This sequence, ironically depicting exactly the kind of game over which FIFA has no control whatsoever, as well as a kind of match (mixed-gender football) that FIFA explicitly prohibits, is the part of United Passions that one might equate with the google-search-produced image dropped into a Powerpoint slide. Of course, at first the lone girl resigns herself to playing goal. And she doesn’t know how to defend, apparently, because she makes barely a gesture to blocking shots—accepting humiliation and uselessness as her gendered lot—until, at the last moment and for no particular reason, she takes the ball, dribbles it up the field, shoots and scores. Her teammates are overwhelmed with joy. “Who would have believed this!” The film’s audience is asked this in a voice-over—an editorial accident superimposes the surprise that FIFA has lasted as long as it has, “accomplished” as much as it has, over an image which suggests a community’s surprise that a girl knows how to kick a ball.

Embedded below, the film’s conclusion. “Enjoy” it while you can.

Michael Sam: Welcome to the Family

Joe Sola, Saint Henry Composition, 2001 (still)

It is a marvelous thing when an athlete tells the world that he is not going to bargain with his happiness.

It is marvelous thing that Michael Sam, a serious NFL prospect, has announced to the people who run the show that he’s gay – it’s just plain wonderful that he made this announcement as publicly as possible through mainstream and LGBT media. Michael Sam is daring the sports world to turn its back on him. Daring the suits to defy the (relatively) easy acceptance shown him by his teammates and coaching staff.

“And, by the way, I’m GAY” is something that gay men in the most macho of sports usually say on their way out the door. Retiring as a player is accompanied by a release – for many LGBT athletes, participation in a sport is synonymous with the suppression of one’s life as gay, lesbian or transgendered. A robust professional career becomes a straight-jacket. Hanging up the uniform is done with a certain joy, and a lot of bitterness.

In 2009, the Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, a real star in an international game, asserted the possibility of a different story for men. Thomas came out to the media in 2009 (he retired in 2011). He was already out to his teammates and his coach: he was in his late 30s and in the rare position of being so loved, so admired that his coming out could not  have unsettled people’s understanding of his value as an athlete. Most queer folks walk away much sooner. As teenagers. They walk away from the track, they walk off the field. If they read as gay to the people around them – they get kicked off the team, they don’t get selected for national development programs, they are bullied and shamed and never get to a place where they might be offered a spot on a big college team. Most say something like, FUCK THIS BULLSHIT and do something else.

A few of these young people find it within themselves to fall on the sword and file lawsuits, and it is thanks to them that we have any legal tools for confronting the intense homophobia that shapes lesbian and gay athletes’ experiences of sports. Penn State basketball stand-out Jennifer Harris did so in 2007 when she was bullied by her coach – Rene Portland had a “no lesbians” policy which she advertised to the media for 20 years. Portland didn’t think there was anything wrong with her policy, it felt totally natural to her to ban lesbians from her team (lesbian, here, meant any woman who doesn’t appear feminine). Those people never get to take their sport up again – people who fight for social justice are not, according this side of the sports world, “team players.” That kind of attitude still prevails among the corporate drones of the sports world. The people writing endorsement contracts, making media deals – the people in the business of selling the game, the people who make selling out into a profession – they are the ones holding us all back. As Chris Kluwe told the New York Times:

The men in charge will pose problems, Kluwe said. “It’s the general managers and coaches who are going to say it’s a distraction.”

These are the people who force the lesbian, gay and trans athlete to choose. Sport or sex. And by “sex” here, I mean the whole things – everything that word means. The gender of one’s romantic partners, sexual acts and identities, one’s own relationship to gender and sexuality, one’s social relationships to gendered people, the gender-culture of one’s sport, the sexual culture of that sport. One is asked to suppress and participate; embrace and exile.

That suppression might require that one deep-six one’s happiness, all expression of gender rebellion, all expressions of same-sex love and attachment. It might require something lighter – but still quite heavy – an undercover cop’s level of discretion as one leads the classic double-life – and in which the more successful you are in your sport, the more vulnerable you are for having made even the smallest gesture towards that word ‘gay.’ Maybe, as is the case with a lot of women athletes, one “just” watches the team’s management, the Olympic committee’s administration, and corporate sponsors quash all things that signal “gay” – from the existence of a long-term, live-in girlfriend and the importance of a gay family as part of an athlete’s support team (athletes have gay parents!), to an athlete’s haircut, outfit choices, participation in Pride or mentorship of other LGBT athletes. All of that might be conducted “off-the-record” to make a bunch of out-of-touch assholes feel like they are stewarding the development of your sport. Which usually involves putting women athletes in bikinis, giving them make-overs, and finding stories about teammates who are getting married – to men. To reassure themselves that women are not lesbians, lesbians are not women. If Sam wants to talk to out pro athletes about negotiating all of that – new territory in men’s sports – he’d do well to seek out the women who’ve been out there in sports world’s genderwarzone for decades. Now that he’s out, he gets to navigate the problem of being visible.

It is interesting to watch the straight media struggle to describe the shape of Sam’s life. All media accounts describe him as open in a way that is perfectly commensurate with the lives of young gay men who are in college, who are finding their way through a homophobic world – telling friends, finding the right bars and making more friends. Right now, the media is making a lot out of his family’s homophobia, for example. The New York Times profile dedicates a fair amount to space to his father’s discomfort, and suggests that being closer to friends than family is some sort of tragedy – even given the hundred other things Sam had to overcome, the idea of a homophobic father – especially one who is a black man – will prove irresistible as headline fodder. For queer folks, a family’s homophobia is a misery, but it is often also part of a more complicated story. A family’s homophobia may be just one ingredient in a toxic cocktail, and homophobia has all sorts of shapes, textures and sounds. Sometimes a family just can’t support you for who you are and there might be a thousand reasons why that might be so. Discovering a whole world of people – friends – who are happy to mentor and guide you, who are dedicated to your happiness and to the realization of your potential – who will open up their homes, shelter you and more – that is a magic time in one’s life and queer folks turn away from all sorts of trouble in favor of this other family. The families we choose. Queer friendship, in fact, points out the poverty of the system that only validates relationships that fit a heternormative, reproductive paradigm. We should not look at biological families or friendships through the lens of that paradigm. Friends are not a poor substitute for a “real” family. It seems like Michael Sam is really good at making friends, finding family in the larger world. And that this is the place he’s coming from.

This is what I like about his timing. This is not just a coming out, this is an athlete who is already making a home for himself in the world as a gay man. His announcement to the media is a very public demonstration of the choice that LGBT athletes make every day, especially in their youth – a decision, often made by necessity – as a matter of survival – to live otherwise and to make the world into something different – something better. His message: “This game is asking something of me that I don’t want to give it. A denial of who I am. So I’m going to demand a different kind of game.” Few are in a position to force a game to change. Michael Sam is, and he’s going for it.

They Should At Least Be Topless

“If I’m going to pay $60 for a pay-per-view to watch women fight, they should at least be topless.”

UFC fighter Matt Brown made this remark on the inaugural episode of what was meant to be a regular podcast (Legit Man Shit, which is back on-line but is, I think, edited). That one sentence – as banal as it is – captures a lot. The sexualization of the woman athlete; the straightening out of women’s athleticism into an acceptable, non-threatening product; a resistance to the idea that women athletes be paid; the positioning of women’s athleticism in direct conflict with their sex appeal – it’s all there.

UFC issued a boilerplate apology on behalf of Brown – something about UFC’s conduct policy, the practice of inclusion and a non-discriminatory workplace. The hullabaloo has provoked a familiar conversation. The remarks are disavowed, there’s discussion of a fine etc, but, as Aurora Ford reminds us in her opinion piece for Fightland, this attitude is absolutely common – it has more stamina than it should. Brown is not an outlier.

Women athletes are routinely told to be feminine, pretty – to “sell” the game. The language that manages their appearance is only slightly more refined than Brown’s comment. It is packaged as some sort of service to the marketing and development of the women’s game. If women athletes are told to grow their hair long, to wear dresses to awards ceremonies, if they are given makeovers as publicity stunts or asked to pose nude to advertise an international tournament, it’s because sports officials and corporate executives still believe that people want to see in women a sexual spectacle – and that any other narrative frame for the female body is a turn-off.

It’s important to signal that the sexual spectacle invoked in remarks like Brown’s tends to be very specific: it conjures the “hot girl” imagined by a very vanilla straight guy. A “pretty” girl with long hair, curves. Feminine, straight. White. Fit, athletic – but not muscular. More graceful than strong. People like Sepp Blatter think like this. Ronda Rousey was marketed this way – think of that ESPN Body Issue which pictured her as a sex-kitten in pastels. Which is a riot when one thinks about what Rousey’s personality is actually like. (I’m trying to picture Johny Hendricks in his gloves, naked and with this come-hither sex face.)

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The uptightness of attitudes about women athletes, about women’s athleticism should be read as not only sexist but as homophobic – it supports gender policing as women are “dolled up” to reassure the spectator that they are “really” women. And it is a displacement of the panic the homophobic spectator feels when asked to consider the amount of attention and energy he spends thinking about, talking about, and playing with other guys.

Ideologies of sex, sexuality and gender shape our ideas about what a sport spectacle is; they shape how we experience those spectacles. They in fact shape how we experience the sports we practice.

Embedded in Brown’s remark is the resistance to the professionalization of women’s sports (“If I’m going to pay…”). The sports world is one arena in which men do not have to compete directly against women and much of the rhetorical shit that gets thrown around on the boringness of women’s sports reinforces this segregation as somehow “right” and “natural.”

Brown’s remark may in fact express professional worry about having to compete against women – for audience, for prize money and sponsorship dollars. Most pro male athletes do not have to live in the same economy  as women athletes – UFC is the one popular professional sport where women participate in the main event. Where a fight between women might be named the fight of the night (e.g. UFC 168, Rousey v. Tate), where men can lose a huge financial bonus ($75,000 for each fighter) to women because the women put on a better show. This is one thing that keeps me glued to UFC: I’m curious to see how all this plays out – because there is no ignoring the fact that the fights between women have the capacity to upstage fights between men.

Matt Brown’s remark was dumb, but like a lot of sports fans I don’t like singling him out – or even censoring him. Because as long as the only issue of Sports Illustrated dominated by women is the issue in which they wear bathing suits and do nothing (for example), the true sports fan knows that the opinion expressed by Matt Brown is, in fact, an opinion endorsed at every turn by sports media and its attendant commercial monsters.

raising a fist at the fix

“Since the time of Jesse Owens it has been presumed that any poor but rugged youngster who was able to jump racial fences into a college haven was happy all day long.” So wrote Harry Edwards in The Revolt of the Black Athlete (p. 75). The observation describes the ruling common sense, which is to say, a ruling ideology – in which an education is a blue ribbon or trophy (something you win, rather than earn); a college campus is “a haven” and the black male athlete is imagined as the eternal supplicant, “happy all day long” because he has been saved (from what? himself? his world? his color?). Any poor but rugged youngster – any “Jesse Owens” – must be running with joy, he must run as a means of joyful escape – running isn’t his job; it isn’t his work. If he’s happy all day long, it is because this discipline is his pleasure.  This is perhaps, more true today than it was in 1969, the year Edwards published his account of the radicalization of the black athlete, of the movement that led to one of the most enduring images in sports history – Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the Olympic medal stand, heads bowed and fists raised.

NKU @ Garmsville1968_BlackPowerSalute1

Tommie Smith (the gold medalist) has a dim view of college athletics (even as he has a real love for his sport). Smith is one of the greatest sprinters to have ever taken to the track – he was, of course, a stand-out at San José State, then known as “speed city” for its sprinting program. Smith’s memoir, Silent Gesture, is remarkable for many reasons – he is an incredible person – but many would likely find his lack of nostalgia for his college years bracing. Smith describes his relationship to his alma mater as a big fat blank. Recalling a trip to San José State to participate in events honoring Smith and Carlos’s shared legacy, he writes,

I didn’t feel anything from the faculty and the administration when I was a student, I didn’t feel anything after I graduated and I didn’t feel anything that night [when he and John Carlos were honored] or since.

Smith is clear in his memoir: college sports is a fraud. Black athletes playing big-time sports then and now are ruthlessly exploited; they are treated as frauds (as undeserving), they are abandoned to a world of lowered expectations, used until they are used up. Smith doesn’t think that much has changed since the late 1960s, neither does Edwards.

The myth of the grateful black athlete puts a gloss on the collusion between universities, the NCAA, media and sports corporations – systems that bank on the spectator’s investment in the idea that this athlete is, indeed, “happy all day long” because the world is doing him one favor after another. That spectator’s pleasure is easily purchased, but the cost for the athlete is high. 

Fraud charges were filed last month against a former professor at UNC Chapel Hill, the latest plot twist in an old fashioned college sports scandal that’s been at a gentle boil for over three years. (See The Daily Tar Heel’s “Tracking a Sports Scandal”) It’s a particularly depressing story. 

Professor Julius Nyang’oro (who retired in 2012) chaired the African and Afro-American Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for 20 years.  Today, he stands accused of defrauding UNC by accepting pay for a 2011 course that he basically didn’t teach. That summer course, according to the Raleigh News and Observer

is one of more than 200 such lecture-style classes dating back to the mid-1990s that show little or no evidence of any instruction. These classes included roughly 500 grade changes that are either confirmed to be or suspected of being unauthorized. (See Dan Kane, “Former UNC Official Nyang’oro will fight felony charge”)

The  course in question had enrolled only current and former athletes, and athletes in the school’s football and basketball programs dominate the roster for the other classes. It seems pretty clear from media reports that this faculty member, with the support of administrative staff, helped athletes out by giving them course credit for courses that were barely taught. An NCAA investigation was conducted, and UNC responded with a report. Some tutors and  coaching staff were fired; an athletic director retired. A host of athletes were benched, declared ineligible, dropped and disciplined. And yet it seems the professor stands relatively alone in criminal court. It would be nice for UNC if it could wind this story up by claiming the campus was defrauded by a rogue faculty member – but it defies belief that the situation described in the press could have been conducted without – at the very least – an intense and deliberate blindness. It defies belief that the level of fraud implied here could flourish in the African and Afro-American Studies department without the collusion of the university administration – a New York Times journalist reports:
People in the department described it as balkanized — professors stuck to their own courses and research — and said that Mr. Nyang’oro was an inattentive administrator who was often out of the country, even when he was supposed to be teaching. They said that his continual reappointment as the department chairman, a job most professors hold for 10 years at most, reflected the university’s indifference to what was going on there. (Sarah Lyall, A’s for Athletes)
It’s a Philip Roth novel: by which I mean, it’s a white supremacist fantasy – the corrupt black studies professor as the instrument of a corrupt athletic department, affirming the “common sense” that the black athlete has no real place at all in the classroom – the student is a fraud and so is the black professor. It’s a terrible story – one that reminds us of Edwards’s strident calls for deep reform:
Like a piece of equipment, the black athlete is used. The old cliché ‘You give us your athletic ability, we give you a free education’ is a bare-faced lie, concocted by the white sports establishment to hoodwink athletes, white as well as black.
First of all, there is no such thing as a ‘free’ ride. A black athlete pays dearly with his blood, sweat, tears, and ultimately with some portion of his manhood, for the questionable right to represent his school on the athletic field. Second the white athletic establishments on the various college campuses frequently fail to live up to even the most rudimentary responsibilities implied in their half of the agreement. (Edwards, 16)
In the UNC report regarding the empty credits awarded to student athletes, we see that if anything has changed, it’s the complexity of the system. It’s a miserable story; here I’ve outlined just one or two aspects of its ugliness.

Gym Music

One of the artists I’m hoping to write about in my next book helped choreograph this ad for Gillette.

That artist is Heather Cassils. Cassils is performing this weekend in Birmingham, UK.

Watching The Belles

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The Belles was aired in January 1995 on BBC 1.  This is perhaps one of the most unusual documentary portraits of women athletes I’ve ever seen. It covers a few weeks of the team’s season, moving back and forth between conversations with individual players, match footage, and peeks into the team’s life together off the pitch.

There are startlingly intimate moments, as players speak about their relationship to the sport while, say, lying in bed. Or celebrate a big win in the changing room and, perhaps more scandalously, at a gay bar. My favorite moment: players on the disco floor, FA cup in hand and mirrorball overhead.

FA Cup win The Belles

The FA didn’t take kindly to the documentary: Belles captain Gillian Coultard had captained the England squad and was demoted after The Belles aired.

Writing in the wake of that grim period, Pete Davies describes the team as scarred:

When the Belles let a BBC crew make a documentary that was broadcast last year, they thought they were helping promote women’s football. Instead, they got a sharp letter from Graham Kelly about the tone of the programme, and are now scared stiff about talking to the media. Last month, they felt obliged to turn down Yorkshire TV when that company wanted interviews – and a dread of publicity, when you’re needing sponsorship, isn’t too helpful. (The Independent 11 March 1996)

The Belles – the documentary and the story of this incredible club – inspired a television series that ran for five years (Playing the Field). But in 1995, its airing left the team with a difficult burden.

This weekend the Doncaster Belles will play their last match in the Women’s Super League – the FA’s attempt at the establishment of a professional women’s league. The FA is off to a flying start in confirming at least this writer’s belief that you cannot leave the administration of the women’s game to men whose decisions are guided by sexism and greed.

The Doncaster Belles were relegated to the second division at the start of this season in order to make room for Man City’s women’s side.

I still can’t wrap my head around the FA’s behavior towards The Belles, except as a continuation of their behavior towards the team ever since the FA was  forced to deal with the culture of the women’s game in the early 1990s, when the Belles were a super-dominant club and a fine expression of the independence and autonomy of  women’s football in England.

Some football fans might agree that today, “professionalizing” the sport is synonymous with ruining it for fans and for young players. The story of the FA’s behavior towards this team, which hasn’t not played in the top flight since the FA began organizing such things, is fine evidence of that dismal truth.

To read an excellent overview of the FA’s treatment of the Belles, read Glen Wilson’s article on The Popular Stand.

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