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NWSL seems to be learning from predecessors

January 18, 2013 – 2:16 PM

By Laura Pappano

It’s draft day for the National Women’s Soccer League. Don’t bother turning on your TV or tuning into sports radio.  Don’t expect NFL-style high drama.

Thanks to the rise of cheap media, though, you can catch it on Twitter and Facebook (NWSL doesn’t have its own website).

Sure, there is reason to be nervous about yet another patched-together and rolled-out iteration of women’s pro soccer following failed WUSA and WPS efforts.

But before you dismiss the NWSL as another desperate run at an elusive dream, recognize that they are doing some things very right. Unlike the cliché of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football – failing to recognize that Lucy will always snatch it away – there is a learning curve here that is being honored.

A few observations:

1. It takes time to build an audience. The launch of WUSA on the heels of the spectacular 1999 World Cup victory mistook the groundswell of news coverage and excitement as evidence that women’s pro soccer had a huge audience that wasn’t being served. There is an audience, but it takes time to identify, reach, and commit them to become regular fans. WPS may have folded, but in many places play carried on. It may finally be the right moment: People have at last gotten used to the idea of a women’s pro soccer league sticking around.

2.  Defining the brand – on fewer $$. As a corollary to the above point, WUSA started big with lots of cash, gimmicks, and giveaways (I won a refrigerator at a Breaker’s game). WPS downsized venues and simplified, but still dreamed of big-time corporate dollars (and leaned on that model). We have learned that soccer can matter without foam fingers and pre-game bouncy castles, but it does gain from the high-touch of small venues and players who sign autographs and greet fans. Let the on-field product lead.

3. You need star players.  Whether it’s Broadway or Jeld-Wen Field, fans come to see talent they know. The fact that 55 National Team Players (including all 18 U.S. Gold Medalists) were allocated to the eight teams is critical. That this allocation happened ahead of the draft means that every market will have players who are a draw (granted, some more than others). This is where good media management will matter: teams that can tell the story and build public interest in rising talent will win fans.

4.  Financial structure. This is where the NWSL is playing an essential role, not only for pro soccer, but also for women’s pro sports. It remains unclear in America what an independent, sustainable financial blueprint looks like for women’s pro sports. We know that – post WUSA – corporate dollars are scarce (even for the WNBA). We know (thanks to WPS) that individual owners with too much power can prove catastrophic. Aligning the financial stability of the league with natural allies – in this case governmental soccer federations of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada who need to develop players for their national teams – makes great sense. This synergistic approach may expand fan interest in international competition. The NWSL lets private and corporate sponsorship – which we learned can be fickle – to bear some, not all, of the weight of this developing league. By definition, that’s a more realistic and stable design.

Do we have the stomach for football?

January 12, 2013 – 2:49 PM

By Laura Pappano

News that NFL veteran Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year, suffered from degenerative brain disease was hardly a revelation.

We paused, saddened, on Thursday when the National Institutes of Health announced that Seau’s brain revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the result of absorbing frequent blows to the head.

I love watching this game, but lately, it’s rattling my conscience. Is football becoming like foie gras or fur – with such ugly downsides that consuming feels cruel?

Seau is not the first former NFL player for whom head blows have wrought catastrophic outcomes. Concern has been mounting, not just about concussions, but also about the still-unknown long-term traumatic effects of a game that has grown more violent (tackling has given way to hitting), despite feints at making it safer. For good reason NY Times columnist Joe Nocera last month asked: Should Kids Play Football?

Credit the genius of Bert Bell for the rise of the N.F.L. and a sport that was little more than another college game until the 1960s. There is now no more effectively marketed athletic event in the world.  This prestige has trickled down to every level of play. In athletics, from rec to college, there is football – and there is everything else.

Is football in trouble? This time last year, the Penn State scandal put everyone on notice – especially college presidents – of the risks that come when programs became bigger than the universities they represent. The sheer popularity of a sport had bestowed dangerous power. Starry-eyed presidents were suddenly sobered (or said they were).

This latest news asks a more elemental question of many more of us: Is football simply too dangerous?

It is one thing to cheer knock-outs in boxing and view the brutality of a bull fight (sports some shun as a result). It is another for debilitating assaults to be the dark, delayed underside of a sport that we gather in communities to watch on Friday nights, that we make heroes of the children who play, that we sell to the world and to ourselves as America’s greatest game.

 

 

Warm-up playlist: Time to get pumped up without being put down

December 13, 2012 – 4:51 PM

By Ashleigh Sargent and Mariah Philips

Get ready, it’s game day!!!!! As you prepare mentally and physically, you want help getting into your zone.

Which songs pop up on the warm-up playlist? Chances are, messages of female empowerment and gender equality are not major themes in your favorite jams.

In fact, it might be quite the opposite. As two female college athletes, both with a competitive background in basketball, we have ample exposure to the warm-up playlist culture.  Walking into a gym the first thing you hear is music from speakers.  Basketball players like the playlist because it energizes them before competition.

But take a closer listen, and the words dropped into those catchy beats tell a much less motivational story. Most songs that have the type of sound (i.e. heavy bass and fast-paced rhythms) also call for female subordination.  Think of the chart-topping “N****s in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye West in “I got that hot b**** in my home. You know how many hot b*****s I own?”

This hardly begs an explanation.  If the music is not completely objectifying women, it’s presenting them as hypersexualized.  Big Sean raps in his song Dance A**, “They pay me respect/they pay me in checks/and if she look good she pay me in sex.”  Women are good for one thing only — or so it seems in these songs.

When players prep for competition, it should be a time to feel strong, not to absorb jabs at their gender. Sure, the songs are catchy – the main requirement of effective pump-up music. But isn’t it time we also paid attention to the message? When people attend college basketball games, they see accomplished and strong athletes. Younger girls aspire to be like them and yet, they watch warm-ups with shouted messages of female inferiority.

We think this needs to stop. We have compiled a playlist of equally motivating songs that include serious messages about equality and empowerment. Yes, it was more challenging than going to the fall-back alternatives, but isn’t it better to get pumped up without being put down?

Anthems to avoid:

Pop That by French Montana

Mercy by Big Sean

N****s in Paris by Jay-Z, Kanye West

Shake Señora by Pitbull

Clique by Big Sean

Dance A** by Big Sean

 

Instead play these:

Fighter by Christina Aguilera

Stronger by Kelly Clarkson

Gunpowder and Lead by Miranda Lambert

So What by P!nk

Survivor by Destiny’s Child

We are Never Getting Back Together by Taylor Swift

 

 

 

There’s sport in politics: College athlete to campaign operative

November 30, 2012 – 4:57 PM

Rachael Goldenberg at campaign HQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rachael Goldenberg

Politics is often spoken about in sports metaphors. This election cycle, however, I found that the comparison not only fits, but is key to being a successful political operative.

Just before graduation I was thrilled to accept a position on a high profile, high-intensity congressional campaign. In the six months since, I have gone from being a student-athlete to a field organizer, from fielding ground balls to handling policy questions — and from leading a team of 20 players to directing 300 volunteers.

Election night brought victory for my candidate, sleep for me, and the chance to breathe and reflect. The lessons and habits I learned as a softball captain, I am convinced, made me a successful field organizer. Here’s why:

Training. Each phone bank, each 10 p.m. reporting call were drills for Election Day. All our massive Organizing Days with 400 volunteers knocking on undecided voters’ doors were scrimmages to hone our recruitment and leadership skills. When Nov. 6th came, we had put in the practice and were ready for Gameday.

Endurance. Softball taught me that even if it’s the last inning, and you are up by 10 runs, you run onto the field. You don’t walk. On Election Day our team knocked on voters’ doors right up until the clock struck 8 p.m. and the polls closed. You don’t let up until it’s over.

Seeing the end goal. During the long summer days it was easy to get lost in the tedious details of running a phone bank or recruiting for a canvass, but athletics taught me to always keep the bigger picture in mind. The details—the well-run phone bank or the two extra volunteers– were what would win it for us.

Pushing past limits. I didn’t think I could be pushed harder than I had been as a collegiate athlete. I was wrong. Forcing myself to keep my technique clean at 5 a.m. practices prepared me for the grueling 4 a.m. data entry sessions. Being pushed hard, in other words, felt familiar.

I had done it before and I could do it again.

How would Lindsey Vonn fare against men? (Pretty well, I calculate)

November 8, 2012 – 1:42 PM

By Laura Pappano

When the International Ski Federation turned down Lindsey Vonn’s request to compete in the men’s downhill World Cup the explanation was wearily familiar – there are races for guys and races for women and they’re separate.

Actually, FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis didn’t put it quite like that, rather invoking the term “ladies” as in, “the men race the men’s World Cup and the ladies race the ladies’ World Cup.”

Such gender-segregation doesn’t move us forward; it reinforces old stereotypes that females can’t – and shouldn’t (there is a moral tone to this) – compete with males. Yet athletes at the very top of their game – and Vonn is dominant — want to test themselves against the best (remember Annika Sorenstam at the Colonial in 2003?).

As I figure, Vonn could well finish in the top 20. Here’s my (very rough) calculation:

If we consider Vonn’s performance – take her win a Schladming in Austria last March in the downhill. She finished in 1:46:56. The men’s winner, Aksel Lund Svindal, won in 1:46:81.

Of course, the men’s and women’s courses are different. As the Alpine Official’s Manual for the US Ski and Snowboard Association observes, “Course setting is acknowledged as an art — not a science – and cannot be easily taught or explained.”

The FIS site doesn’t detail differences between the men’s and women’s courses for that event, but we can take another venue, Lake Louise, for which there is course information and where Vonn hopes to compete in the men’s race. The women’s race is shorter than the men’s (3119 meters to 3225 meters). The difference is 106 meters, making the women’s race three percent shorter.

For fun, let’s add three percent to Vonn’s winning time, which puts it in the 1:49-range. That would have her finishing between 15 and 20 in the men’s field in Schladming.

This is rough, I know, and doesn’t consider vertical drop differences and snow conditions, among other factors. But the point is this: Vonn’s times are not WAY out of line and are probably competitive with top men.

Doesn’t she deserve the chance to find out for real?

Nothing doing with the net: Lowering hoops 7″ is backwards idea

November 4, 2012 – 12:19 PM

By Ashleigh Sargent

UConn Women’s Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma believes the women’s hoops should be lowered seven inches from the standard 10-foot height (or 7.2 inches for 1972 when Title IX passed).

Why? He says lower rims would yield greater offensive production – more scoring — and more fans for the women’s game.

He might have a point, but as a female collegiate player, I disagree.

On the surface, Coach Auriemma makes a valid argument. A lower rim would spur more scoring, higher shooting percentages, and more play above the rim.  Some sports, like volleyball, use different net heights for women (and children) than for men. Some might argue that lowering the rim would promote equality by giving women (who are, on average – and “average” is always a tricky word, slightly shorter) the same scoring opportunity as men. More offense, the thinking goes, equals more popularity – and ticket sales.

Still, I don’t buy the arguments.

Attendance at NCAA women’s basketball games last season was the most ever – 11.2 million – and continued a run of five consecutive seasons with attendance over the 11 million mark. Players like Brittany Griner break stereotypes about the limits of the female body.  And last season when the NCAA moved the women’s three-point line back to match the men’s line, shooting percentages remained largely unaffected.

Female players at all levels have risen to challenges over and over again. The game gets faster, stronger, and more athletic every year. I look forward to watching the NCAA women’s basketball games this season and being impressed by new talent, new plays, and new skills.

People are watching and those fans appreciate the women’s game precisely because it doesn’t lean on show-boating, trick shots, or dunks. There is offense and defense, and an emphasis on fundamental basketball.

Promotion of the women’s game should not focus on all the ways we are like men. Lowering the rim seven inches would be a step backwards in women’s quest for equality in sports. I’m glad Coach Auriemma is thinking about strategies to promote the women’s game. But lowering standards for women is not the way to win fans.

We’ve proven already: We’re better than that.

Golf power play: As women ascend, men’s-only clubs look foolish

August 22, 2012 – 9:58 AM

 

By Laura Pappano

Augusta National’s decision to invite two female members (former Secretary of State Condi Rice and financier Darla Moore) to join reminds us that private golf clubs are not just about golf. And this is where I do some head scratching: Why wouldn’t all clubs want women?

When Virginia Rometty, the new CEO of IBM, was not invited to join August this spring because she was female, despite the club’s tradition of offering membership to the Masters sponsor CEO, it looked juvenile.

If Augusta – and other clubs – serve as a de-facto corporate water cooler, why would you want to deny your members access to IBM’s CEO?

Some have compared the tradition of all-male golf clubs and outings as equivalents to “girl’s night out.” But they’re not.

Golf is a sport that reveals instincts and character. It is a sport in which you inflict penalties on yourself (even if no one else saw the ball move during your practice swing, it’s your job to assess a stroke.) It is a game that invites collaboration and problem solving (how do you read the green? Your ball landed over just left of that bunker, etc…) It elicits congratulations to your opponent even as you compete.

Golf is also slow. It takes time to play, allowing for relationships to develop and conversation to unfold. It is apart from e-mail and (mostly) cell phones. It is time to think and talk and relate.

At a time when all the leaders were men, having a men-only club seemed like a clever maneuver, if you could pull it off (and Hootie Johnson did despite being called out by Martha Burk).

But as more women ascend to prominent leadership roles, it looks counter-productive. If we consider that females now outnumber men on college campuses and in seeking advanced degrees, the future suggests this march will continue.

Augusta National may be a high profile example, but elite mens-only clubs remain spotted around the country excluding as members accomplished and prominent women. Women should cry foul – if the guys don’t cry foolish first.

 

Olympic mettle has no gender

August 8, 2012 – 4:25 PM

By Katie Culver

How can one not be inspired by the Olympics?! The 10 days of coverage I’ve watched remind me of my spirited Olympic dreams. As a young gymnast, I was rapt by Nadia Comaneci (the first perfect 10!) in 1980 and by Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

Women’s soccer years ago lacked the prominence it has now. But when I first saw the U.S. team play on TV in the 1999 World Cup, I understood the camaraderie of teammates playing a tough opponent: The elation of success and the exhaustion of defeat.

For many kids, the Olympics seed a dream. For girls, the games provide a tangible, visual image of that dream – a vision hard to come by rest of the year.

This year, however, one thing is striking: The Olympics now offer a dream that lacks gender. Both girls and boys watch the U.S. women’s soccer team in awe; they discuss the feats of Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin; their comrades cheer on British Rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. Both girls AND boys are excited about sports, and they make no hierarchical differentiation between male and female athletes. That’s big.

Catch this BBC photo of the British Army’s 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery cheering on Stanning:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media discussion around women’s Olympic sports is behind the curve, falling into the familiar rut with commentary on bikini’s – or not; adequate hairstyles; who’s had a baby. But if you listen to kids talking about the Olympics, they get at the heart of Olympic competition: athleticism and perseverance.

Hopefully, the ultimate dream female athletes have had to work for—in addition to their athletic accomplishments—has finally come to fruition: the recognition of women’s sports as SPORT, not specifically women’s sport and not in critique or comparison to men’s. The female athletes we see are strong and powerful and no one watching at home thinks for a minute that they could compete–guys included.

The Olympics offer intense contests, but these are the culmination of effort and training. Success is not a product of luck, but a narrative of hard work, tenacity and mental toughness—all of which are absent gender. The story is relevant to every child watching the games, imagining that one day – if they work hard — maybe it could be them.

And best of all – male or female — the medals are all the same.

Marathon Olympic challenge: More female athletes, but fewer events

July 27, 2012 – 9:31 PM

 

By Laura Pappano

In 1963, a Sports Illustrated story headlined, “Why Can’t We Beat This Girl?” got at one tender aspect of the Cold War conflict: U.S. Olympic medal counts suffered in comparison to the Soviets because American women, we learned, “will not even try.”

No need to worry about that now. This is being called “the Title IX Olympics,” the year in which female athletes on Team U.S.A. outnumber men, 269 to 271.

Much is made of this, but it’s not the whole story. Women have made strides on and off the field. They outnumber men on college campuses and are ascending to key roles in business and government, triggering a new iteration of the mommy wars.

The upside and downside of women’s quest for equality is a debate between the generations on the meaning and role of working and mothering. Like the rings revealed in a cut tree, we can track our growth in a way men collectively cannot, aware of droughts and years of plentiful rain.

The political importance of sports – particularly the Olympics – makes this a thick-ring year. Not only are numbers impressive, but many competitors are also mothers, trumping old beliefs that childbearing came after an athletic career.

Even so, gender disparities remain. There may be more female competitors, but there are fewer events in which they are allowed to compete (read: fewer medal opportunities). And within sports with male and female versions, rule differences continue to mark women’s events as “lesser.”

In shooting, for example, there are nine events for men and six for women. And within events, men often shoot from further distances and more rounds – even though the sport is completely co-ed at the collegiate level and that until 1996 women once competed alongside men at the Olympics. (In 1992 female competitor Zhang Shan of China won gold in the skeet shooting event).

Even in popular events like swimming, there are differences. There is no 1,500m freestyle for women (they do 800m instead). In water polo, 12 men’s teams compete; only eight women’s teams do. In kayak events, women have shorter distances, half as many events, and in canoe, do not race at all. In sailing there are six events for men; four for women. There are fewer women’s events in wrestling and rowing; fewer women’s teams in soccer. This list  is not exhaustive.

The point: We are not there yet.

The Olympics are political, not just among countries seeking medals, but among female athletes seeking equal opportunity for glory. It’s well and good that the Queen can parachute (wink, wink), but the pomp, pageantry, and excitement of the games should not trump the ideal of  fair play.

 

Title IX: 40 years and three generations chart the change

June 21, 2012 – 10:15 PM

By Laura Pappano

For those of us who think and write about gender and sport, Title IX never seems adequately enforced, to go far enough, or to be effective enough in addressing the inequities in our culture around sport. And — still! — it’s often under fire, forcing us to ardently defend it, flaws and all.

Sometimes, however, you need to get out of your own strident way.  Title IX deserves its celebration: It has profoundly shaped the way we treat and view girls and young women.

To chart the progress, I asked my mother, JoAnne Pappano, and my two daughters, Olivia Lynch and Molly Lynch, to join me in thinking about what Title IX has meant to each of us. What follows are separate posts that I hope will reveal what seems compelling: The law has not just altered obvious boundaries, but has changed our interior landscapes and how we women think of ourselves.