Friday, December 31, 2010

Note to espnW: a woman is not a horse

Zenyatta: "Am I not a woman and a horse?"
ESPN recently launched a website for women sports fans, espnW. Today the site listed its top ten stories in women's sports. In cooking up this list, ESPN adopted a flexible definition of the category "woman" by including Zenyatta, the horse, as #4.

Setting aside the rather large problem regarding the network's confusion regarding the category "woman," the list is a rather bland summary of accomplishments. The biggest stories are not always the ones we want to hear - a real list of the biggest stories for women in sports would include a mix of the good and the bad. I've approached this from a journalism standpoint, and have forwarded a few of the stories that I think are most important.  This is quite different from listing accomplishments of female athletes.

  • Mary Kom wins 5th women’s world boxing championship. Indian women dominate the sport and are poised to bring the first Olympic gold medal to the country in the London Olympics.
  • Two South African players charge national women's team coach with sexual harassment – accuse coach of prowling dormitory at night and dropping players from the squad who reject his advances.
  • U Conn claims record for longest winning streak in basketball – Stanford claims honor of breaking 90 game run. Meanwhile the accomplishments of the individual athletes (most notably Maya Moore) are ignored in end-of-the-year awards for athletes.
  • FC Gold Pride - possibly the best women's club team ever assembled - wins season, and folds: WPS is the most competitive professional women’s soccer league in the world, but struggles to win sponsors and is overwhelmed by media blackout.
  • Nigerian women’s soccer team become first African [women's] team of either gender to play in a World Cup Final – as the national association is swamped in scandal, their remarkable achievement goes unnoticed.
  • Mexico beats the US women's national soccer team in a crucial World Cup qualifying match. Sends the latter to a desperate play-off with Italy, and initiates what fans hope will be an extension of the infamous border rivalry in the men's game to the women's game. 
  • Ines Sainz harrassed by New York Jets, international coverage of story revives sexist attitudes about women journalists and sports coverage. Brett Favre sends explicit pictures and texts to hostess working for Jets, given a slap on the wrist fine by the NFL.
  • Serena Williams wins 4th Wimbleton singles trophy, breaks tournament record with 89 aces across her career. 13th title puts her 6th in list of grand slam champions.
  • ESPN names horse as a top story in women's sports.  We LIKE horses. That doesn't MAKE us horses. 
[Since publishing this, I wrote a mildly satirical post for The Guardian's "Comment is Free" page: ESPN makes mare's nest of women in sport. I think I do my best work in the comments section.]

BBC story on Mary Kom, 5 time Women's World Boxing Championship, from Manipur, India

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dancing with India's Football Star

In the interest of keeping things light, here are some highlights from the 2009 season of India's Dancing with the Stars. The winner that year was Baichung Bhutia, the country's most accomplished footballer. Bhutia is responsible for forming a player's union in India and is a public figure in the best sense - using his celebrity to raise money for good causes, taking stands on issues that matter to him (like Tibetan independence), and devoting much time and energy to the development of resources for Indian soccer players. Bhutia was just named captain for his team's Asia Cup campaign.

The challenges of Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa are really fun to watch. Celebrities are paired with renown Bollywood choreographers who are stars in their own right. The judges are hilarious and make me wish I understood Hindi. The 2009 season was also notable for featuring Hard Kaur, India's first female hip hop star.

Bhutia appears at about 3:30 min.

Bhutia appears at about 3:50, and is totally charming as he takes ribbing for his lack of facial expressions.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holiday Cheer: a football music mix

In the interest of spreading holiday cheer, a mix of the amusing, the interesting & the sublime:

New Order, The World In Motion. Produced for England's 1990 World Cup campaign, it features John Barnes singing along and rapping at about 2:30. (He's not bad!) Is it my imagination, or were footballers goofier circa 1990?

Richy Pitch f. M.anifest, Blackstar. I've posted references to Football Jama before - one of my absolute favorite football-inspired songs. This track is only tangentially related to football. Pitch spent two years in Ghana, absorbing the scene into his music practice. It's a sweet video, and a great song. Ghana, I think, has produced more songs inspired by its national team than any other country - aside from Brazil, that is.

On the subject of Brazil: Elis Regina, Meio de Campo. This would be what I meant by sublime:

TWO players collaborated on this gem. Basile Boli and Chris Waddle both played at Olympique de Marseille and apparently bonded over a love of pop music. You can see the latter commenting for ESPN.

Neeraj Shrindhar, Ishq Ka Kalma. This is from the 2007 Bollywood film Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal. I do not know where to start. I love everything about it, especially the backup dancers - women in football kits. Not sexed up costumes, but football kits. Minus the shoes - because you really can't dance like that in football boots. Note the number of hits this video has had: 1.1 million at last check. (See this clip, of Billo Rani from the same film - actually, just see the film - you can watch it instantly on Netflix.)

Last and certainly least: Football and Music pointed me to Alleluia, a 1986 Italian Christmas charity record featuring "The Football Stars" - all players active in the Italian league, including Ruud Gullit and Michel Platini. I would describe the recording as plodding, and labored. Seems to have been inspired by "We Are the World" (which was recorded in 1985). Some lovely football nut recorded this off Italian TV, but could only take 4:17 of it -  the video cuts out before the song's no doubt awful conclusion. 

Buon Natale!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Good Intentions: notes on the WPS as cause & business

Stuff you won't see on TV (Brazil v Canada)
Photo by Sereias da Vila
It's been a harrowing month for fans of women's soccer. This year's WPS champions, FC Gold Pride, folded. The team is thought to be one of the best assembled, but the club's backers were not prepared to weather more years of financial loss. The Chicago Red Stars - which has a strong fan base - announced that they were suspending operations for the upcoming season. No one expected to break even in the league's first few years, but few expected to lose the money they are losing - the league has yet to recover from the impact of global economic disaster. I think lots of us can relate to that. Other teams will come into the league but the upcoming season only features six sides, all on the east coast. That said, there may be two teams from California entering the league in two years and there are rumors of Santos supporting a US-based sister team. And much of the news on the international level is good: better competition (e.g. Brazil and Canada's recent performances in São Paolo) will make for an exciting World Cup.

As all this unfolds, sports journalists quite rightly turn their attention to the Women's Professional Soccer league and offer up their diagnoses for its rocky start. There are a lot of good takes on the league's struggles, and the more we have, the better. (All White Kit is my go-to blog for all thing women's soccer.) Of course, I'd trade those grim end-of-the-season stories for regular, consistent coverage of women's soccer throughout the season.

In the reporting on the WPS that we do have, there is one kind of observation I could do without. Noah Davis, in his mostly on-point diagnosis of the state of women's soccer in the US, points to a tweet from a Washington Post journalist:
Steve Goff...noted, "WPS is becoming a cause instead of a business. Can't sustain a pro sports league on good intentions." His thoughts echo those of many who cover the sport.
I've lost track of how many times I've read or heard some version of this statement in discussions of women's soccer, and witnessed these nods of recognition and agreement.

From Puma/WPS 2010 ad campaign
I would like to ask where this sense of "cause" is coming from, and why it feels like such a burden to these folks. The WPS marketing budget is so miniscule that one can hardly assert that any fan of women's soccer has been overwhelmed by its message. That message has, in my experience, tried in fact to stay as far from "cause" as possible. (This ad is my favorite.) But of course, the "cause" is always there in women's sports. Whether it's spoken or not.

Being a fan of women's soccer - hell, nearly any women's sport - means that some part of what you do becomes feminist, whether you identify yourself with that word or not.  I don't have a problem with feeling like the WPS is a cause. Fans actually connect around "cause" more than "business" - the cause is what gets us to the game, the business is what makes us complain about the price of the ticket.

And there is something obnoxious about the statement "Can't sustain a pro sports league on good intentions." It is just a tweet, but it does seem to capture a broader "common sense." Let's look at the NFL as a model for what happens when you throw out "good intentions" and embrace the logic of "business." We could look at Liverpool, or any number of severely leveraged clubs. We could look at stadium development. Or FIFA. Actually - why stick to sports? We could talk global warming and the environment. Or mortgages and the housing market.

I would rather see the WPS fail than become like the NFL. I do not need women's soccer to be like the English Premier League, or like any business that makes a few people wealthy and the rest of the world poor. If we can find a way to build a league that allows women to play soccer, develop their game, and not have to work full-time in order to do that, a lot of us would be happy. Sustainable business is a cause, shaped by "good intentions" and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

If that's a killjoy for people who want to worship at the altar of the absolute corruption and greed of big time sports, well, they have plenty of other leagues that will be all too happy to make it their business to lift the burden of "cause" from their shoulders.

[See also Tanya Keith's "Can Women's Soccer Survive? Is the Wrong Question"  on her blog "Soccer...Family Style."]

Monday, December 20, 2010

U Conn's Winning Streak: are they freaks, frauds, or the best women's basketball team ever?

Geno Auriemma, U Conn's head coach, dared to say out loud what is a given: sports media is only paying attention to their record because the Huskies are about to break a men's record.  The media barely made note of the moment they surpassed the longest winning streak in women's basketball. He ALSO speculated that some fans of the men's game are "pissed off" to see women break a men's record.  This, he implies, is the reason many feel the need to knock down his team's accomplishments.  

ESPN: Jemele Hill and Skip Bayless talk over Auriemma's post-game polemic

The Huskies have a home game against Florida State tomorrow (Tuesday, December 2) at 7:00pm ET (4:00pm Pacific). The game - which is sold out - will be broadcast NATIONALLY, on ESPN2. Imagine that! The BIG game, however, will be at Stanford - one of their stronger rivals.  That show-down is on December 28th, 7:00pm Pacific/10:00pm ET. I can't tell how that game will be broadcast outside of Connecticut (where you can watch it on CPTV).

To the people who piss on their accomplishments: If women's basketball is so lame, how come this team is so awesome? Are they space aliens? Robots? Are all these other women's college basketball programs disasters? There are two labels that get mapped onto female winners - that they are freaks, or that they are frauds. Marta, for example, is a "freak" - a total anomaly - the Huskies are "frauds" - who aren't the best team, but the least worst of teams playing not "real" basketball.  That is not only an insult to the Huskies, but a really profound insult to Baylor, Duke, Xavier, Tennessee, West Virginia, Texas A&M, Stanford, UCLA, UNC, Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State... 

Go Huskies - everyone but Florida wants you to take that record and destroy it. And "go!" to every team looking to take them down - because perhaps the only thing as awesome as holding a record like that, is being the team that breaks the streak.

For those of you who want to know more about women's college basketball, I recommend watching This Is a Game, Ladies, about C. Vivian Stringer and the Rutgers University women's basketball team. It's a GREAT documentary and available on netflix!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Disturbing allegations against South African team coach Makalakalane

While pundits whine about having to figure out where Qatar is and worry about overly long flights from one Russian World Cup match to another, players for the South African women's national team have come forward with charges that their coach, Augustine Makalakalane, sexually harassed the women and was openly, aggressively homophobic, declaring (for example) he only wanted "straight ladies on the team." Two former players charge that they were dropped from the team when they refused their coach's advances. They describe abusive behavior and a lack of respect for women and for the women's game.

Makalakalane (pictured here, center) is already in trouble with the South African Football Association, as his team failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup when they lost to Equatorial Guinea and came in 3rd in the Africa Women's Championship this year. Makalakalane refused to call up any of the South African players living and playing abroad (Equitorian Guinea, on the other hand, is stacked with international players who were rushed through eligibility procedures), thereby cheating the team of the wisdom those more experienced players might have brought to the squad.

Players describe him as having a "stinking attitude" towards women. Banyana player Nthabiseng "Moemish" Matshaba alleges that the coach made direct advances toward her, and dropped her from the team for not sleeping with him - just before the African Women's Championship. According to Sameer Naik's story for IOL Sport, Matshaba
said she had been 'heart-broken' after she was left out of the squad, but will refuse to play under Makalakalane. Naik, "More allegations against Makalakalane," 11/27/2010
No one should have to endure such abusive behavior, and no one should have to feel that playing on a team requires their silence and complicity.

This story reminds me of a hypothesis I've been entertaining for the past year: FIFA's involvement in the women's game is in the best situations a mixed bag, and for a much of the world it has created serious problems - one which stunts, even prevents the development of national teams around the globe.

FIFA only got involved in the women's game in the late 1980s, after a Norwegian official became the first woman to speak at one of its congresses, with the demand that FIFA pay attention to the women's game. FIFA took on the organization of a World Cup in baby steps - at first refusing to associate its "brand" with women by calling its tournament anything but a "FIFA World Cup." But lo and behold, people cared, the games were great and there were real crowds in attendance.

Today, all FIFA associated national programs are supposed to have a women's program.  In order to submit a women's team to World Cup qualifications, that women's program must be run by the existing structures of the countries (men's) football association.

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, in those countries with women's soccer programs, the groups organizing national leagues and teams were forced (I don't think that's too strong a word) under the umbrella structure of the FIFA affiliated men's national association. This means that in a lot of countries, men who had enforced bans against women's soccer as recently as the mid 1980s were now charged with taking over women's soccer.

In South Africa (I am oversimplifying its history here), prior to its absorption by the South African Football Association, the South Africa Women's Football Association managed the national program. SAWFA's history is interesting, as they were originally white and colored, then integrated - there was a Black women's association as well - the South African Women's Soccer Association - which merged with the SAWFA before it was taken over by the SAFA. Also interesting: the period during which FIFA's involvment with the women's game forced the absorption of the women's association into SAFA - late 1980s/early 1990s - coincides with the transition from Apartheid - the first universal election was held in 1994.

By 1994, women's football was administered through the SAFA, and this is where the story starts getting very ugly. According to Cynthia Pelak's 2009 overview of women's soccer in South Africa (from which I take this history), "as more women showed up at their local soccer pitches, highly gendered spaces, more overt power struggles between men and women emerged." Around this time, serious charges against male owners and managers emerged, as they were accused of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement (and corruption). Players asked the SAFA for help and were ignored until a commissioned was formed in 1996. As a result, women's soccer - which had been "affiliated" with the SAFA - was brought fully into its organizational structure, as a subcommittee, allowing the women's programs more access to SAFA resources and adminsitrative support. But this did nothing to change the basic problems regarding the absence of women from leadership roles in the SAFA itself.

Pelak interviewed a SAFA administrator about the situation in Johannesburg in the 1990s:
The sport grew very rapidly and in 1994 we started having a lot of problems with men. They saw women’s sports growing and they wanted to come and start running it. We had huge troubles in those years – 1994, 95, and 96. It was really a tormented time for all of us. A lot of the women were threatened by these men and their kids intimidated. It led to the police being involved and all sorts of mess. And, unfortunately the men who were trying to take over the running of women’s football had connections with the federation [SAFA] and the federation supported them instead of the women. The people in charge did not take us seriously. We had to go to the Minister of Sports. And there was a huge commission for men and women in soccer [along with other concerns] and it took about three years to complete. It resulted in women being rendered powerless. It resulted in the federation disbanding women’s soccer as a separate entity and incorporating it into the men’s structure.   - SAFA adinsitrator interviewed by Cynthia Pelak, "Women and gender in South African Soccer: a brief history" in Soccer and Society (December, 2009)
To return to the emerging story regarding Makalakalane: For the sake of argument, let's assume these allegations are true. Let's assume that things would have to have gotten really bad for these stories to come out - for no female player who makes such a charge will do so with an expectation that she will go on to have a career playing for her national team, especially given the ongoing betrayal of women's trust in administrative structures like the SAFA.

Furthermore, given the grisly statistics regarding the numbers of South African women who experience sexual violence, and the frequency with which women footballers are subjected to extra-harassment for participating in a sport coded as masculine, it's very likely that players on this team are all too familiar with the dynamics of sexual abuse. And all too familiar with the systemic indifference to the problem in judicial and employment spheres.

Players come forward with these charges with the hope of making the national team better but they do so with few illusions about the struggle required to make such changes.

The team's manager, Fran Hilton-Smith, is a highly visible advocate within the SAFA. Patrick Baloyi reports that while players said they told Hilton-Smith about the situation, she was not given anything specific enough to respond to, until now. "Maybe the players were scared to talk," she posited, "because they wanted to play." In its investigation, apparently the SAFA brought a host of former players in for a confidential discussion of the crisis. This - bringing in senior and retired players - seems like a step in the right direction - and let's hope it is part of a broader effort to include such women in the administrative structures of the game.

A stronger female presence in the organization of football associations won't fix everything by a long stretch, but it has got to force some positive changes by at the very least raising awareness about what sexual harassment is, and how toxic it can be to any collective - I can't imagine anything destroying one's relationship to a team and the sport more than the systemic harassment these players are describing.

In any case, this is a reminder that the FIFA World Cup is a pop-up nation unto itself - hosting a World Cup is no magic elixir, and FIFA is not a human rights organization.  It's controlling presence in the sport works not in the service of the greater good, but in the service of globalization and to the benefit of the politico-economic forces invested not in making a better world, but in selling you an image of a better world, so that you can forget about the shitty one you actually live in.

Sorry for sour tone, but it's hard to put a positive spin on this story.

A few of the articles on the charges against Makalakalane:

"Good as Gone - 'If Fired, Life Goes on'" Sunday World (November 21, 2010)
Patrick Baloyi, "'Rude predator' 'randy coach' too hands-on" Sunday World (November 21, 2010)
Sameer Naik, "More allegations against Makalakalane" Sunday Independent (November 29, 2010)

And: I come across this story initially via the Justin Campaign's website. Glad the anti-homophobia campaign is reporting it, but I must confess that I was a bit turned off by their afterthought of a headline: "It's not just for men."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Brandi Chastain Called Me! (to talk about the Capital One Cup, media politics, the new Title IX generation & Arakawa's awesomeness)

Brandi Chastain and I talked on the phone today! Skip to bottom for the MP3 if you don't want to read my somewhat fragmented overview.

Chastain is remembered by most people for scoring the winning penalty kick at the historic 1999 Women's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.  (And for tearing off her shirt with joy - and the controversy the gesture created.)

She's had an unusually long career playing at the highest levels in the US and internationally, having retired from competition only recently, at the tender age of 42. Today she made the press rounds as the spokesperson for the Capital One Cup - a new annual award for Division I NCAA sports teams, recognizing them for their records and for the integrity of their programs. The $200,00 grant will fund student-athletes at the winning program who want to pursue graduate study. Chastain sings its praises, quite rightly as it recognizes the need to reward non-revenue generating programs, and celebrate, too, athetes' ambitions beyond their Division I careers. Their facebook page is a great way to learn more about the competition. We talked about this award, and then roamed across a variety of subjects, like:

The media's attitudes about aggression and gender as NFL players Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan threw fists at each other on the field last week, and the story barely made an appearance in the headlines (in contrast to what happens when women so much as swear, or knit their eyebrows at each other).

She spoke briefly about the Gold Pride's folding, and had very warm words for the team's primary investors - it sounds like they just got in over their heads, but had their hearts in the right place.  (Sorry for the consecutive body metaphors.) This makes the fold more tragic.  (Though check out this announcement regarding the formation of two California Women's Premier Soccer League teams for next season, which should form the backbone of two WPS teams in the following year.)

In this year's NCAA women's soccer final four we see some new faces -  Stanford, Boston College; Notre Dame, Ohio State. While we think of Title IX's impact being most visible in the '99 generation, Chastain pointed out that it is in the rising generation of athletes that we will really see what Title IX. The number of schools forwarding teams in NCAA women's soccer has tripled since Chastain played for Cal and then Santa Clara University.  This very large and growing wave of players are only just becoming visible at the top tier of the sport. Good news.

I asked Chastain what she's learned from international players, and she waxed about how much joy is in Eriko Arakawa's 'fro, I mean, style of play.  (She made the observation that Japanese players develop great footskills because most develop their game in small courts - I'd never thought of this, but it makes perfect sense.)  And we talked about how Germany's women's team has picked up another kind of game, in addition to the organization for which the team is famous. They now also have a flare to their game, just as the new generation of male players do. Brazil, she said is fun to watch, too, because in addition to the skill, you have the drama of "can they hold it together?"

I steared clear of the USWNT, as I figure we are all going to talk ourselves blue in the face about those gals in the next few months.

Anyway, in a From a Left Wing first, I've uploaded an MP3 of the interview.  It's minimally edited, and I'm rusty - lots of uhms and me ranting - thank god she's a good talker and managed to get a word in edgewise.  I was super grateful for the interview, and happy to help Chastain bring attention to the Capital One Cup - it's a fantastic idea, and somebody better figure out how not to give it to U Conn's basketball team, lest they win EVERYTHING.

Brandi Chastain, on the phone with From a Left Wing (December 1, 2010)
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