Archive for the ‘A Sporting Chance’ Category

One of the things I try to do in my sociology courses is disrupt students’ normal way of looking at the world to show them that things are often not as simple as they seem. From this perspective, one of the most interesting things about the Zimmerman trial to me was his claim that he was defending himself after he actively pursued Trayvon Martin. As President Obama noted in his recent speech on the case, the idea of Stand Your Ground laws are complicated by the difficulty of telling who is on the offensive and who is on the defensive. Obama stated:

For those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘‘stand your ground’’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

While my fighting experience is limited to being punched twice in the face (on separate occasions), it seems that in most fights both parties are on both offense and defense. In this case, the fight between Martin and Zimmerman could have easily started because Martin felt threatened by the man who followed him first in his truck and then on foot. In the event that somebody is pursuing you, defending yourself seems like a reasonable course of action. As soon as the fight started, though, Martin’s defense would be perceived by Zimmerman as offense and Zimmerman may have felt that he was defending himself. The cliche that the best defense is a good offense is based on the complicated interplay in situations like this.

The idea that fights like this are either/or affairs where one person is attacking and the other may be “standing his ground” could use a good dose of disruption. Situations like these are the perfect time to commit sociology for the greater good.

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Arrest Rates

Following the arrest of Aaron Hernandez, who played tight end for the New England Patriots, a Facebook posted the CNN screen cap above. If you ask a member of the general public how the arrest rate in the NFL compares to that of other sports, or even the country as a whole, they might guess that it is higher, not lower. This is a good example of the difference between raw numbers and statistics and is an important part of the information literacy that students should learn in research methods and statistics courses. Exploring the numbers in a bit more depth (and ignoring the fact that the type of crime, which could easily influence perceptions, is not noted), we can see where misconceptions in the general public might come from.

Major League Baseball has 30 teams and each team has 25 players on its active roster, with up to 40 players signed at any given time. Assuming that these statistics are per year (another good question to ask!), if 2.1% of MLB players are arrested that means that 15.75 (for a 25-player roster) or 25.2 (for a 40-player roster) players would be arrested each year out of 750 or 1200 total players, respectively.

The National Basketball Association has 30 teams and each team has 15 players. If 5.1% of NBA players are arrested in a given year, that results in 22.95 players arrested out of 450 players. As you can see in the table above, this is above the national average. David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, has famously tried to clean up the league’s image by enforcing a dress code since the beginning of the 2005-06 season.

The National Football League has 32 teams and each team has 53 players, more than twice the active roster of MLB teams and more than three times the number of players on an NBA team. If 2% of NFL players are arrested in a given year, this means that 33.92 players will be arrested out of 1696 total players. A more in-depth exploration of the rate of arrest for NFL players compared to the general population is available here.

If each arrest leads to a news story, it is easy to see how the general public could think that NFL players are getting arrested at a higher rate than their counterparts in other professional sports. Looking at statistics, however, reveals the truth that the large rosters of NFL teams that lead to more media coverage of arrests. A discussion of an easily-accessible topic like this might lead into a more detailed exploration of the selective coverage of certain types of crime by the media, leading to public perceptions about the rate of crime among various race and social class groups.

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Since March Madness is officially upon us, it must be time to talk about basketball. Kate Fagan at ESPN has a nice article discussing Baylor’s Brittney Griner and the role of gender in sports. Griner is a 6’8″ player who is able to do things that most female basketball players cannot do (see some highlights here). If Griner were a male, Fagan argues, her accomplishments would be celebrated. As a woman, her accomplishments are simultaneously celebrated and questioned. Fagan writes that no matter Griner’s achievements, “the naysayers hop on message boards and social media to deliver a variety of insults, questioning her fierce on-court demeanor, her talent in comparison to male players, even her genetic makeup.”

Fagan compares Griner to Shaquille O’Neal, who was also physically dominant as a college player. She writes:

But whereas Shaq was hailed for being big, bold, different, Griner is sometimes viewed in a harsher light, with skepticism bordering on suspicion. When people called Shaq a freak of nature, it was a compliment; when directed at Griner, the term often carries a cruel edge, punctuated with the refrain of “She’s a dude!”

Such wary appraisals are not unique to Griner, of course. This is what Joe Fan does to any female athlete who doesn’t fit neatly into one of two boxes: the cool, tough-talking guy’s gal (see: Ronda Rousey, Lindsey Vonn) or the unattainable beauty (see: Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova).

Fagan also quotes Nicole LaVoi, a professor at the University of Minnesota, who adds:

“People can’t just say, ‘Wow, Brittney Griner is a great athlete.’ We need to have a caveat: ‘She plays like a guy, she looks like a guy, she must be a guy.’ These qualifiers marginalize what Brittney has done and serve to keep the current pecking order in place, whereby men’s sports are more valued, more culturally relevant — the norm.”

The entire article is interesting and could be used to spark a classroom discussion.

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Some people watch the Super Bowl for the football game, some people watch it for the halftime show, and some people watch it for the commercials. This year, hashtags were featured in half of all super bowl ads, encouraging the public to talk about their products on social networks like Twitter. The most interesting hashtag, however, was #notbuyingit, intended to call out sexism in advertising. Missrepresentation.org, which started it all, provides a recap here. According to the site, the worst offenders were GoDaddy.com (no surprise there), Audi (are you brave enough for sexism?), Kia (female spokes-robots!), Budweiser (would you like some beer with your women?), and Calvin Klein (notable for sexualizing a man). Maybe Twitter is useful after all.

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Just in time for the Super Bowl, a recent Rolling Stone article examines the effects of concussions on young people’s brains. Although the article is behind a pay wall, a video discussing the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, can be seen here. When faced with the evidence from a doctor who specializes in CTE, one father responded “You haven’t convinced me. I’ll need more evidence than that.” It is amazing that when it comes to things like CTE or global warming that threaten the lives of our children or the future of our planet mountains of scientific evidence will not convince us of their danger. I suspect that many of these same people, however, would be outraged by a single picture of a shorter-than-average sandwich from Subway.

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Unlike those cited in my previous post, it turns out that you can talk about the dangers of kids playing football without mentioning sex or gender at all. It turns out that tackle football for kids might not be such a good idea, though it is unlikely to change any time soon. As Fatsis notes:

Science or no science, the real reason 5- and 6-year-olds will keep padding up and hitting is consumer demand. If Pop Warner offered only flag football, its executive director, John Butler, candidly told the panel, “90 to 95 percent of our members would drop out” and play for independent teams “because whether it be kids or parents, they want to play tackle football.”

I wonder if switching to flag football would allow more girls to play, since they wouldn’t have to overcome gender stereotypes about toughness and masculinity. Unfortunately, an increasing number of girls would probably be used as evidence that flags instead of tackles feminized the sport.

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After several classroom conversations about gender roles, one of my students sent me a link to a news story about a nine-year-old named Sam Gordon who has been tearing up the competition on the football field. Unlike the highlight reels put together for a number of high school students, the purpose of this video wasn’t to draw the attention of college coaches. The purpose was to motivate Sam to focus on doing well on each play, as Sam’s dad notes in the linked article. Why is this news? Sam is a girl.

In terms of gender roles, the video, in which Sam runs past opposing players but also gets tackled by, and tackles, them, is interesting. Sam’s dad has apparently taken the video down, but here is another version with different music:

More interesting to me than the gender roles depicted in the video, though, are the gender roles depicted in responses to it. The Yahoo article that I linked to includes several asides asking whether it is appropriate for a girl to play with boys. For example, see the following paragraph:

It may be real, but is it appropriate? This is a 9-year-old girl playing against bigger, stronger boys. She even had a trainer who put her through agility drills and plyometrics. Gordon is not even 60 pounds, and there’s a kid on her team who weighs more than 150. (His nickname: Tank.) In an era of concussions and frequent ACL tears, it’s fair to ask: What are the adults thinking?

It is well known, of course, that only girls can be injured playing contact sports.

Another highlight is this sentence: “A lot of people won’t accept a 9-year-old girl playing tackle football, and perhaps with good reason. But it seems Sam loves it.” In the video below, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith unequivocally states that girls should not be playing football because it might make boys hit them outside of the game, somehow. Another commentator talks about his daughter playing football as a sophomore in high school and lasting three games before hurting her shoulder.

Christian Fuaria says that he wants his daughters to be able to play sports as long as they are watched over by the right kind of coaches (probably men) and as long as they are young (because it is cute when they are kids). The Memoirs of a SLACer Award for Excellence in Masculinity, though, goes to the commentator who asks whether it is fair to boys to have to play with girls since they are conditioned from a young age not to hit girls, giving girls an unfair advantage. Just like all of those advantages they have in the workplace.

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I recently learned that one of my former students has passed away, which is strange. This is actually the second time this has happened, following the student who found out that her cancer had come back near the end of my first semester of teaching. Unlike that student, this student was not particularly engaged in class. In fact, he was my student twice because he failed my intro course the first time he took it and enrolled in my course again over the summer, where he failed again.

When a student fails my course once, I wonder what else the student could have done. When this student failed my course twice, I wondered what else I could have done. The odds were against his academic success. He grew up in a poor area and went to a poor school. He was not prepared for college but was able to attend on an athletic scholarship. In addition to the demanding practice schedule he was frequently distracted from his school work by trips home to visit an ailing relative.

The way that students enter our lives, spend 16 weeks with us, and then leave our lives is strange to me. This was especially true when I was teaching in graduate school, since I often taught the same course and repeat students were rare. Still, I sometimes wonder what happened to them. The student who had cancer. The student who was suffering from depression. The only student to have failed one of my courses twice. Regardless of their in-class performance, I always hope that things will work out for them and it is always sad when they don’t.

This student died of an apparent medical condition, not the fact that he failed Introduction to Sociology twice, so it is unlikely that I could have had an effect on his life if I had been more involved in his education. But still, I wonder.

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The Olympics have officially ended (don’t tell NBC, they’re airing the closing ceremonies right now!) but here are some interesting statistics that the Wall Street Journal posted last week anyway. Somebody (probably an unpaid intern) analyzed 129 medal ceremonies from the London Olympics and examined the reactions of the winners. As the article states:

About 16% of them cried at some point during the ceremony. Another 16% either bit or kissed their medal on the podium, while 44% sang along with their anthem—sometimes through a stream of tears. Women cry more than men—25% compared to 8%—but many of the men who did cry seriously lost it. South Africa’s Chad le Clos needed tissues after he beat Michael Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly, while the Dominican Republic’s Felix Sanchez was a complete wreck after winning the 400-meter hurdles.

Among the three countries with the most gold medals thus far, China cries the least, with only 7% of its athletes succumbing to tears. More than 17% of American winners cried, while a whopping 37.5% of athletes from host country Great Britain cried. And since they weren’t crying, the Chinese also sang the most: 92% of their athletes belted out the anthem, compared to 61% from Great Britain and 44% from the U.S.

Additionally, at least one athlete was not impressed with her position on the podium. An interesting thing about these statistics is that Fox News used all of them in a slightly longer article in which they mentioned the Wall Street Journal but did not provide a link. I suppose the fact that they mentioned their source still puts them ahead of Fareed Zakaria.

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Watching Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings win their third consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball the other night, I noticed something interesting about their uniforms (no, it was not related to their asses – I’ll get to their asses in a second). The backs of their uniforms only displayed their maiden names (as you can see on May-Treanor above). Women taking their husbands’ names personally while keeping their maiden names professionally is nothing new (the two of them even demonstrate two sides of the “to hyphenate or not to hyphenate” decision), but the announcers never used just their maiden names (they did, however,  sometimes use just their first names). It would be interesting to know how these decisions were made, though they might have had more to do with the small space available on their uniforms than statements about gender. Hell, maybe they’re just superstitious.

Gender is certainly involved, however, in the fact that I had to work fairly hard to find a picture of one of their backs that did not also show their asses. This phenomenon is not limited to May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings. Lisa Wade over at Sociological Images took a look at the photographs of a few different Olympic sports and found that those focusing on beach volleyball players were conspicuously different:

I googled beach vollyball and three other sports: track, diving, and gymnastics.  All involve relatively skimpy uniforms, but beach volleyball certainly stood out.  The top results included five photographs of just butts in bikini bottoms and four “cheesecake” pictures in which women are posed to look like pin-ups and volleyball is not part of the picture.

That may not seem like a lot but, in contrast, none of the top photos for the other three sports included butt shots or pin-up poses (with the exception of one butt shot for track, but it was of a fully-clothed man and used as a photographic device, not a source of titillation).

Wade doesn’t suggest any reasons for this phenomenon but I suspect that it comes down to some combination of age and the motions involved in the sport. Like beach volleyball players, female gymnasts wear clothing that is similar to a swimsuit but they are typically younger (see this graphic for a breakdown of men’s and women’s age ranges by sport) than beach volleyball players, making their usage as sex symbols taboo. Female divers actually wear swimsuits but their age range also includes those in their mid-teens. Finally, female track athletes are both older than gymnasts and divers and sometimes wear uniforms that are similar to the bikini-style uniforms worn by female beach volleyball players. Running, however, does not lend itself to titillating photos in the same way as a sport involving bending at the waist and diving face-first into the sand does. Off the track, however, female runners are still commonly depicted as sex objects, as the recent debate over the coverage of Lolo Jones in the New York Times demonstrates. Jones also demonstrates the challenge that athletes face to earn as much notoriety and endorsement money as possible when and their sports only gain the general public’s attention every four years.

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