According to a pie chart in the film “Playing Unfair: The media image of the female athlete,” women account for 40 percent of the participants in sports nationwide, although studies indicate that they represent just 3 to 5 percent of sports media coverage.
Michael Messner of the University of Southern California and author of “Taking the Field” continues on this subject in “Playing Unfair,” stating, “When women do peak into the frame, it’s usually in ways that are mostly dismissive or disrespectful.”
Ideologies and subject matter like that above are brought to the forefront in Cal Poly professor Camille P. O’Bryant’s very popular elective, and cultural pluralism requirement class Kinesiology 323, Sport and Gender. Her course, according to its syllabus, is “designed to familiarize students with the intersections between sport and gender in American society.” So I thought to myself, what better person to interview for my column than a woman who studies and teaches about this subject matter for a living?
Along with Sport and Gender, O’Bryant, who earned her Ph.D. at Ohio State University, teaches KINE 324, Sport, Media and American Pop Culture every other year, along with other orientation, graduate and thesis kinesiology courses.
O’Bryant participated on the rowing team in college and swam through high school. She said that the sports she played were not “typical” sports for African-Americans to participate in.
When she was questioned about her sporting choices in college, she became interested in the study of sociology. “What is it about people’s ideas about who can and can’t play and what’s contributing to that?” she said. She added that she always thought it was best to judge people on their abilities and not their physical makeup.
While at Ohio State, she studied women’s studies, psychology and sociology.
“I was always curious about how gender impacts people’s sport experiences, positively and negatively and everything in between,” she said. She attended a seminar on gender and sports in society while at Ohio State and when she came to Cal Poly in 1999, she thought it would be interesting to keep teaching along the lines of what she heard at the seminar.
She asked to be a member of the women’s studies advisory board when she came to Cal Poly and then introduced the idea of her class as an elective so “students across the campus could look at something that is so pervasive in our culture – sports – and another thing that is so pervasive in our culture – ideas of people’s perspectives around gender.
“Your baby comes into this world. Usually one of the first things people ask is, is it a boy or is it a girl? And you wonder, ‘Why should it matter?’ Well, gender matters. How should we know what bathroom to go in?” she said.
Sport and Gender is a class attended mostly by males – on sports sociology primarily – but O’Bryant says she tries to come into the course from “a critical feminist perspective” with gender as a central subject in conversations about sports in society.
Topics in class include, but are not limited to: socialization, sexual orientation, physicality and “what is typically normal for boys and girls and then how people sort have begun, especially in the last 50 to 100 years, to shift the boundaries of what gender is,” O’Bryant said. “And to try to think about gender as not either-or but this sort of continuous trait.”
In “Playing Unfair,” which O’Bryant shows to her class, Messner said that in the past, while men have usually been typified as powerful and athletic through sports, women used to play the weaker, supportive role. He poses a question to viewers, “Are we ready to see the images of tough, physical female athletes?” O’Byrant said “it’s always kind of fun to play around with the stereotypes that are just reinforced in our culture all the time in toy aisles and clothing stores.” While girls are associated with, as she put it, “pinks and pastels and light purples,” boys are connected with “primary colors and action figures.” Sports pose a great opportunity to look at these social norms, she said.
O’Bryant’s students also learn in detail about Title IX. She said that most people think the civil rights law was created to provide opportunities for girls in sports while in reality, the law was not written for that reason specifically; sports are where it’s had the most impact. Title IX, which is made up of just 37 words, was written to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender in all educational programs that receive federal funds.
“In one generation, we have gone from young girls hoping that there is a team to young girls hoping that they make the team,” said Mary Jo Kane, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.
Interestingly enough, 99 percent of the coaches of women’s sports in college were women prior to Title IX, but as money came into women’s sports programs, the tides changed. Now just 44 percent of women’s sports coaches are women and 2 percent or less of all men’s sports coaches are women.
O’Bryant explained that being hired as a coach is different than being hired for other professions. “Sexism is alive and, well, everywhere. People hire who they know in sports networks. Women weren’t in those networks,” she says.
In a recent survey administered by O’Bryant and some of her students, they asked students at two major universities if they would prefer a female or male coach as student athletes. The results found that females would enjoy having a female coach, but that they thought male coaches were more suitable. The reasoning was because men either know sports better or they’re more competitive, while females have to balance family and kids along with their coaching.
To put it simply, I think this is poppycock.
Body image, self-esteem and how people have ideas of how they should look in terms of physical attractiveness is addressed in Sport and Gender. O’Bryant said she shows “Playing Unfair” in class to call attention to those female athletes who have become hyper-heterosexualized so they aren’t seen as less feminine to the public.
The film addresses the fact that when female athletes reach print – which is already rare – often, their photographs and the articles written about them are not in an athletic context. Female athletes argue that when they do pose for magazines in bathing suits or similar attire, it is to show off their powerful, athletic bodies. The film challenges this by asking why women can’t show off their bodies with clothes on, instead of presenting themselves as sex symbols for men to gawk at. Or, more fittingly, why can’t there be photographs of the women actually playing their sport?
“Critical feminist theory allows you to look at paradoxes and how something that can be empowering – to be an athlete, to be strong, to be successful – can also be exploitative. Do female athletes get their visibility primarily because of their attractiveness? Do we see the female first, the athlete second?” O’Bryant asks. Advertising today, in her opinion, does push us to see the female first. “As long as we do that, it’s going to keep devaluing, in my mind, females as athletes – for them to accept themselves as athletes, and for others.”
A subject O’Bryant and I spoke about in length was women’s basketball. We touched on the WNBA in comparison to the ABL, which folded around the time the WNBA came to be in 1997. In another film O’Bryant shows her class, “Breaking the Glass,” female athletes like Jennifer Azzi, who played in both the ABL and the WNBA, speak on the issue. Unlike the WNBA, players in the ABL played during the same season as the NBA – as opposed to a summer season – at the same times and with the same-size ball. These women were paid higher than those in the WNBA, although the NBA obviously has much more money to work with than the ABL ever did.
“If the NBA really wanted to support women’s sports and be a co-partner with the WNBA, they would have found a way to support both in the same season,” O’Bryant said.
In response to those who would say that women’s basketball is not exciting to watch or that female basketball at its highest level would never compare to men’s, O’Bryant said, “Pound-for-pound, the average man is stronger than the average woman, typically, but the average female basketball player is stronger than the average male or maybe even taller.”
In order for more attention to be placed on female sports, O’Bryant said, “it needs air time in prime time. People need to take some risks.” Also, she said that perhaps cutting back air time on some men’s sports would do the trick. “If people love sports, they’ll watch whatever’s on,” she said. Pat Griffin of the University of Massachusetts and the author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets” said in “Playing Unfair,” “All I’m asking is, turn the camera on and let us see what it looks like when women participate in sports.”
O’Bryant said that although Sport and Gender was first designed for women’s studies, very few women’s studies minors actually take it. “Historically women’s studies didn’t want to touch sport with a 10-foot pole because of its patriarchal nature,” she said.
The thought originally was that sports were made for men, so women need not study it. O’Bryant says, “Come on feminists, this is a great place for you to do your scholarship. You want to talk about the last great bastion of patriarchy that needs to be abolished, come on over to the sports world.”