Monday, July 30, 2012

The Weight of History: Great Britain & Brazil play at Wembley

According to the FIFA preview for this event, Team GB's game against Brazil will be the first women's football match ever played at Wembley.*

I'm a big supporter of Team GB. They have great players - just the midfield features Jill Scott, Rachel Yankey, Fara Williams, Anita Asante. There's Kelly Smith, Ellen White, Alex Scott - all fantastic and very experienced players. England (Team GB is England w/ a few players from Scotland) beat Japan 2-0 in the World Cup. They beat the US in a friendly a few months before that. They lost to France in the quarterfinals on penalties. (That left us with a lot to talk about as manager Hope Powell complained to the press that too few of the players wanted to take the penalty shots. The media storm created by that was perhaps even worse than that created recently by Solo. There was talk of Powell's retirement from the England team.)

Team GB is a legacy team. If within the men's game there is a romance to playing for the countries that "invented" football, the women who take the field at Wembley tomorrow honor a far more heroic past. For fifty years of women were banned from football pitches. Where at the end of WWI, people turned out in huge numbers (far exceeding attendance at women's league matches in England and the US) by the 1970s (when the game was decriminalized) it was a nearly universal object for derision.

But off the grid, behind that history of prohibition and hostility women played on. If the FA banned women's football and created a culture in which the idea of women playing the game seemed ridiculous, they also created a football underground. The ban produced a punk-rock oppositional zone for gender non-conforming girls and women to find each other. By this I don't mean that women footballers circa 1970 were gay punks and labor organizers. But rather that the history of women's football is that of a counter-culture - far more powerfully than is true of the men's game, even given its working class roots. How many men are bullied and harassed off of football pitches, for being men? (Histories of women's teams through the 70s and 80s can include stories of women being physically assaulted for taking pitches - telling men to get off the field you've paid for could be dangerous.)

I just love the women of those generations and the legacy they've given us - a legacy of outspoken, pig-headed, delusional figures like Hope Powell - who fought her way through circumspect and hostile boys, proved herself amongst them, played for women's teams through years when doing so was seen as a ridiculous waste of time, then slugged it out with the FA. As she put it in an interview, "I will not be bullied."

And she won't take anything less than that level of determination from her squad.


My emotional attachment to this team is complicated. They have contributed some of the most exciting matches to the recent history of the women's game. It has been generally true that you can count on Brazil for entertaining football - technical skill, theatrics, gamesmanship, emotion and drama. The women's team has everything the men's team is famous for. Except money and institutional backing.

It was easy to root for them when they played Germany - when they were the underdog, the talented side proving themselves to an indifferent CBF (the organization managing the sport in Brazil). They have pleaded for help from the CBF for years. In 2007, while at the Women's World Cup, the team's players wrote and signed a letter of complaint to the federation. They complained that not only was the team under-supported, the CBF routinely failed to direct awards money to the team. There was no clarity regarding financial support for players, and no consistency in material support for the team's training.

They thought things would improve when they won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. They gave the heavily favored USWNT a run for the money (Abby Wambach who put the game away in its waning minutes). Given their outstanding performance there, the Brazilian thought maybe things would get better for them. But their future success would only highlight the potential that was going to waste. Year after year.

At the 2011 World Cup, the team went into competition wearing the uniform for the men's side. That's as big a symbolic statement as a federation can make - they do not order team kits specific to the women's side (and so their shirts had stars for all the World Cup trophies won by the men). The women complained publicly about these problems in 2007. Little has changed. Lost in reports regarding the profound corruption at the highest levels of Brazilian football is the impact of this lack of professionalism must have on the women's team. It's dire.

Brazil's women ask their federation for support, holding up a banner at the 2007 Women's World Cup award ceremony.
Imagine you compete against the US and Germany, year after year you show that you have the ability to conquer teams with far better training.

The team's semifinal win (4-1) against Germany in the 2008 Olympics remains one of my favorite viewing experiences. In that match they broke Germany's defense. Better teams (including the US) had tried and failed. It was a very physical game, but it was a game that also featured fantastic technical ability and a certain ruthlessness. Both teams tried to knock their opponent out of rhythm. Brazil played like a real team. Their first goal was a telepathic collaboration between three of the game's absolute best: Formiga, Marta and Cristiane. They never connected like that in the final, though. The USWNT took all the wind out of their sails, and took the trophy with one goal scored in extra-time.

Imagine that over and over again you find yourself inches from a trophy. You have not just one of the best players in the world on your squad (Marta), but two (Cristiane) - and a host of others who are absolute all-stars (Formiga - playing in her fifth Olympics). But you never get to the winner's circle - after so many years, maybe you stop thinking that you can. Because the grim reality of it all soaks in: the world is full of talented players. You need more.

Cut to last year's World Cup tournament. The team's performance in the game against the USWNT was heartbreaking. As much as I was rooting for the American women, I was rooting for a great performance from Brazil. Yes, they almost knocked the US out of the tournament. They were so close. But they played angry.

They didn't play with the kind of focused anger Wambach used to avenge herself against Colombia's Lady Andrade. Last year, Brazil played like they were angry at the world - like the USWNT had everything that they have been fighting for and have been denied. Like they were frustrated and like they were very tired of being frustrated. It looks to me like the battle with the CBF is breaking them. I guess they were just playing by the 'by any means necessary' playbook. Infamously, at about 115 minutes Erika plopped herself down on the field and just lay there, faking injury and eating up nearly four minutes of the game. After watching that, I wondered if I could ever want to see them win anything again, ever.

I still can't believe that happened.

In this tournament, Brazil has yet to be tested. Five unanswered goals against Cameroon isn't really a game. To score only one against New Zealand - late in the match, too - it doesn't bode well.

Whatever the outcome, Team GB and Brazil are both heading to the quarterfinals. They are playing to avoid moving on to face the second place finisher in group F: right now, that's likely to be the reigning World Cup champions. If it's not, then it's formidable Sweden Canada. The winner of this match, however, will move on to face Canada or North Korea. That's where both will want to be.

*I never trust this kind of information, as people have a tendency to frame every big women's event as a "first," even when history says otherwise. (The launch for the FA Women's Super League was staged at Wembley, but no matches have been played there.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Ladies of Old Trafford

As the USWNT moves from Glasgow to Manchester, and as players gear up for the thrill of playing at Old Trafford, I thought this might be a good moment to reflect on the place of women's football at Manchester United. My aim isn't to be a total killjoy (this story is depressing) but rather to signal how far things have come and to suggest that all the women playing at Old Trafford should feel the support of generations of players who could never imagine playing in "the theater of dreams."

Manchester United's women's team formed in the late 1970s as "Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies" and became founding members of the North West Women's Regional Football League in 1989. They enjoyed increasingly competitive seasons at varying levels until 2001, when they were brought into an official relationship with Manchester United. Manchester United had been running schools for girls through its community development programs. Some of the women players had come up through this system. The women's side was then disbanded in 2005. The team had played over twenty years outside the club's administrative umbrella, and in four years Manchester United FC killed it.

Manchester United's involvement in the women's game is best described as reluctant. This hardly makes the club unique. If they could have had it their way, they'd probably never have adopted that team.

Although the FA lifted its ban against women's football in 1971, it was quite a few years before they started to pay attention to it. Towards the end of the 1980s, FIFA took an interest in the women's game and required women's programs to affiliate with their men's FA in order participate in FIFA sanctioned competition. The whole question of England's national women's program thus became the FA's business and they took over administration of the Women's FA in 1991.

English clubs were soon required to offer training for girls in order to run a school for boys. At the time, people were eager to try and professionalize the women's game, and saw a quick answer in the affiliation of existing women's sides with professional men's club. So, in 2001 Manchester United took over management of Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies. And killed it four yeas later.

Tony Howard's 2005 Salford Advisor article about the disbanding of the team suggests that the club's investment in the women's program was never honest:
MANCHESTER United are booting their ladies team into touch and out of their Salford home - leaving the players with only water bottles as souvenirs of their time with the 'worlds biggest football club'.
United expected the women to play in ill-fitting hand-me-down kits, gave them water bottles as an end of season gift and have now told them they're surplus to requirements despite it costing less than one week of Wayne Rooney's wages to run the team for a whole year.
The ladies, who train at the Cliff in Broughton, were notified by letter that they will be disbanded at the end of the season and must look for another team - leaving United as the only club in England's top two divisions without a female side.
Some of the players were used as models to help sell the kit, but United say they're no longer wanted because they don't benefit the 'core business'. All this at a time when ladies' football is apparently on the up and Manchester is set to host the high-profile women's European Championships this summer.
Hayley Bates from Old Lane, Little Hulton was one of the models United were happy to use in their advertising campaign for the current strip. She said: "I've loved Manchester United all my life but after the way they've treated us and seeing how things are run behind the scenes I now feel animosity towards them.
"Even though we modelled the new kit we had to wear the old one for months. Then when the new one arrived it didn't fit.
"We've had one training kit in the six years I've been involved and it's really tatty but they wouldn't replace it.
"We have to rummage in the academy team's kit bags to find shorts to wear and make do with hand-me-down gear.
"We were pulled into the office last year and told it was an end of season presentation where they gave us a water bottle as a gift. Then they don't even tell us to our faces that we're no longer needed. It's insulting."
Hayley, 18, added: "Everyone talks about how much United make but they can't spare the £60,000 it would cost to run the team for a season including travel to and from games. All this from the so-called biggest club in the world - it's a joke.
"The likes of Arsenal are on television every week, while we're left trying to find new teams to play for."
By law United are obliged to allow girls to train at the club up to the age of 16 in order to be permitted to have a boys academy.
United say it was never their 'intention to become involved in women's football at a high level'. A spokesman said: "We have always made it clear the ladies' and girls' section was about community partnership and education rather than establishing a centre of excellence.
"Ultimately the hope is the boys will progress to the first team. So naturally more resources are put into that area because it is our core business." 
In other words, women's soccer was only as good as a side show.
The letter sent to players informing them that the team was disbanded also told them that they could not play together under any name. 
According to a May 2005 MUFC shareholder's newsletter, Bates (the player quoted above) saw the dismantling of the team as the final expression of "a pattern of a lack of respect for the women and sexual discrimination since the inception of the women's department."
Things have changed since I wrote my original article on this subject in 2007. Manchester City's women's side competes in the Women's English Premiership, and Liverpool plays for the professional Women's Super League. FC United of Manchester, founded by fans who felt betrayed by MUFC's corporate turn, announced that it's first women's team will take the field this season. As far as I can tell, the Manchester United Foundation supports youth teams for girls but still no women's side.

In any case, I'm curious to know when women have played football at Old Trafford prior to these Olympics. I imagine that even with this history of ambivalence haunting its stands, it'd have been a great thrill.

[The above is an edited and expanded re-post of one of From a Left Wing's first articles.]

[Update - the plot THICKENS:

So far, I've only found one reference to a women's match at Old Trafford. The Wikipedia entry for the FA Women's Cup lists Old Trafford as the location for the 1989 final between Leasowe Pacific (which merged with Everton) and Friends of Fulham Ladies FC. Leasowe won 3-2.

Attendance is listed there as 941 - this is the lowest attendance figure given in that Wikipedia entry for any final, by a significant amount. Several years before and after are missing information on grounds and attendance, however. And there is no source given for this information - so it is totally unreliable.

Even more mysteriously, "baseball grounds" are listed as the location for the 1990 final [[comment below clarifies]]. I can't see how the Women's Cup Final went from Old Trafford to a baseball field. Except, of course, I can. Gosh if anyone knows this story I'd love to hear it. Meanwhile, I'm digging through my library. Sadly I left my copes of Jean Williams's books on history of the women's game at the office!]

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Solo thoughtz

If you aren't following Hope Solo's twitter feed, do.
Today's tweets were in response to Brandi Chastain's remarks during the US game against Colombia. At about 18 minutes, Chastain disparaged defender Rachel Buehler's ball control. She said that Buehler gives the ball away too much, and "needs to work on an improve on" her trapping skills. The problem is not exactly what she said. What defender doesn't need to work on, improve on her game? The problem is the way Chastain said it - these remarks were part of a constant stream of negative commentary about the US's game. There was, in fact, so much criticism of the USWNT that there was hardly any real discussion of their opponent. A commentator is supposed to offer criticism of the match - Chastain is not being paid to be a cheerleader for the team (this is where Solo is wrong). But criticism should be even handed. What did we learn today about Colombia? Not nearly enough.

I've been hesitant to criticize Chastain - like a lot of people, I admire what she's done for the game in this country. (She was delightful in an interview I did with her a couple years ago.) I also like having a defender's perspective in the mix. Personally, I always want more attention to the game's dark arts.

For me, the real problem with Chastain's commentary is that it is humorless. That's why the criticism she doles out for 90 minutes can feel so grating. She sounds irritated with the game. She sounds annoyed. It just is not fun to listen to.

Supporting the sport doesn't mean going easy on teams - quite the opposite. Informed, detailed, animated analysis of the game makes everyone watching it smarter. Passionate narration of the action gets everyone more involved in the broadcast. In an interview about his earliest memories of soccer, Zidane recalled not the action, but the commentator's voice - he remembered being pulled to the television by his voice. The sound of a person totally interested in and excited by a game.

The shocking thing here is not that Solo had something to say about how Chastain calls matches. It's that she let loose about an NBC commentator and former US national team player on Twitter, right after a game. Someone wound her up. This leaves us with some interesting questions:
  • How did she find out about that segment of the broadcast? (These tweets were sent right after the match finished.)
  • Who let her have a phone? (She's infamous for what she's capable of saying right after a match finishes.)
  • What was it about that remark about Buehler that got Solo mad, with so many other similar moments to choose from? 
Anyway, I love that we have players who are not totally controlled by the team's handlers.  Or maybe they are. Maybe this is all about stirring the pot, keeping the women in the news, and using the ancient trope of the cat fight to do so.

A Punch in the Face

Colombia played a good game: they have hustle and you can see flashes of real skill in their ball handling. But they were clearly frustrated by the USWNT, which seemed sometimes relaxed and in the groove and sometimes distracted. But they were dominant nevertheless. Those flashes of insouciance would have driven me mad - nothing worse than playing a team that's thinking about the next match while it's dispatching with you.  Colombia had a moment of thinking there was a chance, just a chance - they kept the game scoreless for the first thirty minutes. But then Rapinoe scored.

A few minutes later Rapinoe was flying up the wing with the ball. Lady Andrade struggled to get ahead of Wambach, who was racing up the middle. Incredibly, Andrade reached around Wambach with a hook to the face. Deliberate foul.

Except the referee didn't see it. Wambach was just about in line with Rapinoe - so I'm really stunned that none of the other officials caught it. No whistle for the foul. Wambach took another hard foul almost immediately after - this one less deliberate, though. And then a scrap over a dead a ball. Thankfully, things calmed down in the second half. The USWNT, already up 1-0, put the game away with two more, and qualified for the quarterfinals. Good news but Wambach may have a nice shiner to show for it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

In which the IOC suppresses access to the women's game

International tournaments give fans a chance to see women players from around the world in action. People who only watch the men's game have little idea what this means for us. In the men's game, you can see the best players whenever you want. They are on TV 24/7. They are in advertisements, they get whole sections of some newspapers even when they aren't doing a thing. These men play in leagues that pump their product non-stop. There are also more fan-authored montages using footage of the men's game than any of us can fathom.

Not so for women. We get these tournaments. Or minimal, hard to find broadcasts distinguished by few cameras and little editing. Sometimes these are broadcast on "floating" channels that don't appear in your tv guide. Seriously.

Youtube deactivated the one video I found the other day showing the very cool goal that Portia Modise scored in South Africa's first appearance at the Olympics.

The last time I blogged women's Olympic matches, every single video I initially used was deactivated for infringement. All of those videos were posted to other sites by devoted fans - all did nothing but celebrate the best moment from the day's matches. After the tournament, for most of us this kind of video will be our sole access to especially those sides that are not our home team.

If FIFA and the IOC cared at all about the women's game, they would encourage the circulation of fan-authored video celebrating players. It's free publicity for a sport that badly needs it. Instead, for no reason that I can see, they quash circulation of information about the game - except when that information is blatantly sexist. Google "female goalkeeper" and you'll see what I mean. One of the shittiest anti-women's-soccer videos I know has been on Youtube since 2007 and features nothing but pirated footage from the 2007 World Cup.

Weirdly, the policing of copyright infringement targets footage used by supporters of the game rather than its detractors. The rare exceptions are those stories in women's sports that go viral - for good or bad.

Marta's crazy 2007 World Cup goal against the US, highlights from the USWNT's 2012 defeat of Brazil, the ponytail incident. In those cases, footage circulates so widely it enters the cultural commons - it becomes impossible to control. But in the vast majority of cases, the circulation of footage of women's matches is so limited, it is easy to kill. And so that's what the trolls do. They shut it down. Because whoever these gremlins are, they have their heads so far up their asses they think that an image loses its value if it circulates too freely - when in fact it is absolutely the other way around. The more freely an image circulates, the more valuable it becomes.

Anyway, you can see Modise's golaso here:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2012 Olympics: A Note on Banyana Banyana

South Africa's women's team has a lot to be proud of. Qualifying for the Olympics is a big deal - this is a first for Banyana Banyana. This is also the first time Africa was allowed two teams in the tournament. Relatively little of the money and media attention poured into the country in 2010 flowed in the direction of their game. And scarcely anyone in the international sports media has paid attention to the difficulties faced by the squad since 2010.

Just as the World Cup hangover wore off, South African media reported on the terrible situation within the women's camp. The team's head coach, Nthabiseng Matshaba, had been harassing and abusing the women on the team. Two players came forward with complaints, which were corroborated by others. My understanding is that journalists in South Africa helped take this story public: but without players willing to come forward, nothing would change. It took a few months, but the guy was eventually ousted. That was in January 2011. Not that long ago. (See this old FaLW post about this story.)

Banyana Banyana will not be defined by this awful past, but rather by the strength of character that it took to come forward with the harassment charges and to push for change. And to then qualify for the Olympics. Portia Modise scored a goal against formidable Sweden today. Consider it a strike on behalf of the right for all athletes everywhere to play free from sexual harassment and homophobic abuse.
Portia Modise goes for the goal

2012 Olympics: USWNT says cou cou!

Cou cou is French for "hey girl."

If Les Bleues feel robbed today it's in the way you do after leaving the doors to the house unlocked and the windows wide open. They took the early lead with two quick, confident and gorgeous goals from Gaëtane Thiney and Marie-Laure Delie.

But the Americans kept their cool. Or, rather, they woke up.  Rapinoe replied with a well-placed corner picked up by who else and what else but Abby Wambach and her head. French players shrugged with a "what are you gonna do?"

Alex Morgan's first goal was a delicious example of how smart she is as a player.  Revolving her body around a loose ball as it dropped at her feet, she tapped it into the goal with two defenders on her. At least that's how I remember it.

There was more. Lloyd rocketed a P'noe assist. P'noe was just a great play maker today, setting off a counter attack with Heath and Wambach that had Morgan racing up the right as the ball was moved forward across the field - she took her place at the far post with plenty of time to spare and nicked the ball in as it came across the goal. The US played a fantastic team game today.

France fought the whole way - it wasn't an easy win but it was an assured one. Les Bleues will be back: they looked very strong, very smart. I think that early lead surprised them?

Some of the other games remind us of the teams that aren't here. Also of programs that had a great history but have fallen off the international radar, like China. Cameroon seemed so young, so inexperienced - it just isn't right that a side like Nigeria has become such a shambles they didn't earn a spot here, or that Equatorial Guinea is at home (for a player eligibility violation during the World Cup) while North Korea are here. North Korea just shouldn't be here. The team was disqualified from the 2015 World Cup but allowed to play in the Olympics - adding insult to injury, word is FIFA forgot to run drugs tests on North Korea during qualifying matches.

You have to feel for the North Korean players, though: that can't be easy. Especially when the match organizers slap the South Korean flag next to your face in the team introductions. The team stayed off the field for nearly an hour as that diplomatic nightmare was sorted out.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Friendly Look: France's 2 goals against Japan

Check out Marie-Laure Delie and Wendy Renard's two sweet goals from a July 19 friendly against Japan:

Shamefully, there were scarcely any French fans at the semi-final at the World Cup - this was in spite of the fact that the match was played very close to the French border. A jump onto the So Foot's Équipe de France forum provides a handy lesson in what ordinary French fans think about the women's squad. For example, I just learned how to say "Hey, the girls aren't horrible" and "Fuck, they don't know how to mark for shit" and - my favorite - "It's not sexist for me to say that a game full of tits and ass sucks." Actually, that's all from the same con. There are fans of foot feminin. I've been in the stands with them in Montpellier, where you can watch women's matches for free just about a mile in from the Mediterranean.

The French women's team is very, very good.

These are more complete highlights, with very enthusiastic commentary:

USWNT & France dive into the deep end of the Olympic pool

When the US women square up against France tomorrow (noon EST), they will be facing one of the tournament's toughest opponents. Les Bleues lost the 2011 World Cup semifinal to the Americans and players didn't hold back in expressing their anger at the result. Louisa Necib put it plainly enough to L'Equipe: "The worst is that we were better than them."

As luck would have it, I was in the team's hotel lobby when the more beautiful team (as they dubbed themselves) rolled in after that match. They didn't look defeated at all. They seemed, in fact, defiant.

As it happens, US women were staying in the same hotel and the post-match party was in a hall just off the lobby. They piled out of the bus exhilarated, jubilant, radiating with joy. Abby Wambach had a halo around her head.

Necib, Elodie Thomis and the ascot-wearing FFF entourage glowered at the doors behind which the USWNT celebrated their win. It was clear they felt robbed.

The US won on the strength of their counterattack. They did steal the win. The USWNT have a different kind of skill than that for which the French team is known. It's the classic match up - physical strength and strategy against skill on the ball.

My overall take: France is capable of winning the whole thing. Winning a tournament is the only thing they haven't done, and that's probably their biggest obstacle.

Germany is out thanks to the shitty IOC/FIFA qualification process. Nigeria, which wears down every team it plays until someone finally sends them home (thus doing important work for everyone left) has been set back years by mismanagement. England and Brazil will make it out of their groups. But Brazil has not looked right recently. They could implode. It's not impossible. Something is rotten in São Paulo and if they don't take home a medal the players should freaking strike.

Japan are of course world champions and their group looks not so bad - South Africa is weak and inexperienced. Canada's performance in the World Cup was underwhelming. Japan v Sweden (7/28) is obviously a match to watch - their World Cup face-off was a nail-biter.

France and the US are in a group with the ever mysterious North Koreans - who by all rights should not be at the Olympics, having been banned from the 2015 World Cup for doping and not having been subjected to testing in their qualifying matches. Thanks FIFA!

Columbia are also in this group: they have scrap. But if France and the US don't make it out of this group, it'll be a freaking scandal. Either because one was beaten by a serious underdog (with some exciting young players) or because one was beaten by a squad that's been banned for doping. But events shouldn't play out that way: teams like North Korean, violated and abused by their management, are not usually able to pull out the big win.

tomorrow we will see a little of this (look how relaxed she is - and those eyebrows!)

versus a little of that (see her American hustle!)

I. Can't. Wait.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Winner: Roller Derby as Queer Feminist Sport

Bless The Pet Shop Boys. In advance of their performance at the closing ceremony for the Olympics,  they've released a lovely portrait of the London Rollergirls. This is the version of women's sports that I know & love!

No Justice, No Peace in College Sports: More on Penn State

I'm jumping into the Penn State mosh pit! In this week's column (Why the NCAA Sanctions Are Just Dead Wrong), Dave Zirin takes the NCAA to task for the $60 million dollar fine and post-season ban that it leveled against Penn State. Zirin isn't arguing that the program shouldn't be punished: quite the opposite. His argument is with the role that these sanctions play in the political theater of college sports, supporting the NCAA's self-assigned role as divine authority over the kingdom of amateur athletics.

I can see the point. As a culture, we have a tendency to turn to colleges and universities as if they were Meta-Parents. We wait for the NCAA to step in and punish its children. But the assignation of that kind of authority to almost completely unsupervised structure goes hand-in-hand with the abuse of that power. (Think: FIFA)

The problem is that the NCAA is a meta-version of the Penn State program itself. That organization has had full contact with so many forms of abuse of power and authority in college football especially that its attempt to claim some kind of moral high ground here is nauseating. 

That I would feel queasy about it is something. Penn State football is the Scientology of college sports. Let'em go down. But I have a couple things to add to Zirin's critical look at the NCAA's actions. 

Zirin expresses concern for Penn State as a public institution. He writes, "The punishment levied by Emmert was nothing less than an extra-legal, extra-judicial imposition into the affairs of a publicly funded campus." At least some of Zirin's criticism is directed at this - the idea that Penn State is a public institution, and that the NCAA is here interfering with publicly governed resources. I absolutely agree - but the problem is big, deep and complicated.

Not all public universities are the same. Penn State is so beholden to the financial teats of alumni wealth and the commercial payoff of big time sports that it turned a blind eye to years of sexual abuse. And as the Freeh report makes clear, the whole of the university leadership conspired to keep the story under wraps. Worse, they actually helped Sandusky into his position at a youth outreach program whose relationship with the university would provide the architecture for his access to victims.

Worse, Penn State's cover-up of child abuse was staged while the university was also suppressing complaints about the homophobia of one of its other coaches (Rene Portland, a Paterno protégé). For about two decades athletes were kicked off the team, and staff were silenced. The administration ignored protests of faculty, staff and students. But then an exiled player filed a Title IX complaint: and the campus faced a losing fight against the feds. The settlement produced by that complaint required all supervisors, coaches, staff, administrators to attend educational meetings about reporting harassment and abuse. The university was getting a big lesson in compliance - which it ignored. I heard from very good sources that Paterno attended at least one of these policy sessions, arriving late and plainly showing his irritation.

But back to the defense of Penn State as a public university. Public education is not what it used to be. In 2012, about 14% of Penn State's budget was supported by public funding - this is a reflection of decreased public support for all of the Commonwealth Campuses (Penn State is the flagship campus of a network that stretches from Erie to Scranton). 

That figure goes hand in hand with increases in tuition. Penn State's State College campus has the highest in-state tuition of any public university in the United States ($15,250/year in 2011) and it has held that distinction for quite a few years. (See, for example: "Should Public Universities Behave Like Private Colleges," in Business Week Nov 14 2004 and Penn State's 2011/2012 "budget breakdown.") The fact that Penn State is a public university doesn't mean that it serves the mission we associate with that term "public education."

The NCAA is concerned about the value of the brand and the stability of the organization's power. Penn State officials are worried about the same - they are not thinking about Penn State as a part of the public system. And the state's elected officials aren't thinking about Penn State as a public resource either: they've been working for years to privatize the whole system. 

It has been a long time since the leaders of public universities acted like stewards of the state commons. Just look at what happens when one does: UVA President Teresa Sullivan was ousted by a Board of Trustees for doing just that.

Anyway: I keep returning in my own mind to the public outrage regarding Sandusky. That outrage appears in exact proportion to the fervor of the public's investment in college sports as some sort of Oz where the playing field is leveled by scholarships, where gender inequity was banished by a single legislative act, and where things like rape are aberrations and not in fact part of the same culture that fetishizes paternalistic, macho authority. "Jo-Pa couldn't possibly have known!" becomes "We can't talk about this!" becomes "Nobody needs to know!" We turn to "JoPa," then to the paternalistic structures of the university, then the NCAA - each an exponential replication of the same institutional psychosis in which people imagine that these people actually care about us. 

I take Zirin's anger to be about that - that an independent report and an NCAA sanction might be mistaken by the public as justice, or as change. It is, in fact, neither. Rage on, sister.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Olympians to Watch: Mary Kom

India's Shot at Gold, Rahul Bhattachary profile of the boxer Mary Kom is a terrific introduction to one of the best stories in the the Olympics. My favorite section of Battacharya's article:
FOOTAGE OF HER fights is not easy to track down. The national broadcaster Doordarshan, private sports channels, her own agents, Olympic Gold Quest – nobody can supply it. After a fortnight of hard pursuit, a solitary bout emerges on an unlabelled cd in the boxing federation office from a mass of discs in a paper bag. Another is found on Jimmy’s hard disk in Manipur. They are from Podolsk, Russia, 2005, and Barbados, 2010, both world championships.
The bouts are shot on single hand-held cameras with no commentary. They have the air of an underground activity, like 19th-century prizefighting.
But amateur boxing—or Olympic-style boxing, as it is beginning to be called—is a very different beast from prizefighting, then or now. There is no prize money, no pounding music or showboating mcs, no showbiz bright lights blazing around the ancient glamour of blood. Nobody dies in these bouts; knock-outs are rare.
Especially in the lighter categories, the boxers dance on the dazzling borderline between fisticuffs and fencing. They feint and prance and lunge to find openings off which to score. Scoring is a subjective and contentious affair: at least three of the five judges must instantly concur that a punch is substantial and delivered by the “knuckle part” of a “closed glove” to the legitimate target zone, between the stomach and the head, on the front or sides of the body. Without an electronic scoreboard, the audience would be lost.
Even by the standards of pinweights, Mary is so quick that judges regard her bouts as about the hardest task in the women’s game. At Podolsk, her opponent is a Korean (the difficulty level of this bout she recalls with the Indianism “fifty-fifty”). To watch Mary, 22 years old and 46kg light, is to watch the physical equivalent of a raconteur of irrepressible wit and repartee. It feels like pugilism.
In the breaks, the women’s coach Anoop Kumar rubs down her arms and legs. There is something wonderful in this unselfconscious athletic intimacy among countrymen who might be segregated by gender on public transport; in a country, indeed, where women boxers were initially asked, in the interests of modesty, to wear t-shirts under their vests.
As the clock ticks on in the contest, something raw cracks through the balletic Brownian motion. Grunts can be heard, the odd wild haymaker appears. There is something more existential at stake: boxing, where metaphor is meaningless because here it is what it is. Mary has never felt pain in a ring, or fear; those are areas she forbids her mind to go. What she does sometimes feel is the title of her favourite song, “Lonely”, by the Senegalese pop star Akon. Early in the last round, she throws a strong right off-balance to the head of the Korean, which forces her into a standing eight-count. The vulnerability in her opponent flares like a rage in Mary’s movements; she stalks her nervous prey around the ring, showing the killer instinct that figures in every appraisal of her.  - Rahul Battacharya, "India's Shot at Gold" in Intelligent Life (July/August, 2012)
You can get another great introduction to her here, in this BBC profile of the fighter:

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