Fantastic Lies and TRex: Documentaries and Sports in American Society

Wow, I haven't blogged in three months. Why? Most of my time has been taken up by the course I am teaching this semester, a large lecture class at Brown called Sports in American Society.

[It's not that I haven't been writing at all. I've published several book reviews in some of my usual outlets like Brain, Child and The Providence Journal.]

Basically if I'm not in class lecturing or leading discussing, I'm preparing to lecture or lead discussion, or meeting with students, or re-doing the course reading, or re-watching the course documentaries... And, yes, even reading/watching to tweak things for next year's iteration of the course.

In that vein I've recently seen two powerful documentaries that are each so good I just had to write about them. And if you plan to take my class next spring, know you will be watching them (one is so good it just might even make an appearance this semester).

  1. T-Rex

This is the story of Claressa Shields, a teenager from Flint, Michigan (yes, that Flint) as she struggles to make the 2012 Olympic team in women's boxing-- the first year women's boxing was ever offered at the Olympics.

I was lucky enough to get to see this at the Providence Children's Film Festival, where the Producer, Sue Jaye Johnson, spoke to audience members following the screening.

Claressa, who started boxing at 11, is a compelling character, so she plays a huge role in making the film work. But she is also surrounding by a compelling cast of characters (sister, parents, boyfriend, and most significantly, her coach and his family) who make the work sing. Their personalities combined with the long history of boxing and its connections to social mobility in this country (ok, yes, and also with violence) make this a film that will resonate within the sports community.

But T-Rex goes a step further in terms of linking Shields' story to issues of inequality, race, gender and universally admired themes like determination, hard work, and perseverance. For those reasons I not only want to assign it to students in my course next year, where we look precisely at sports through the lenses of race, gender, and history, but I suspect that when T-Rex is released on Netflix this summer it will make waves.

Not to mention that Shields' expected Olympic performance should help. She's already getting early press in NBC's Rio promos and it will be most interesting to see if endorsements ever come through for her, a la Gabby Douglas. At least this Olympic cycle, unlike last, there aren't any silly calls to have female boxers wear skirts (which I previously blogged about in my now defunct blog series Shrinking and Pinking).

2. Fantastic Lies

Fantastic Lies is the latest installment in ESPN's worthy series, 30 for 30. But Fantastic Lies takes it to another level as this documentary, directed by Marina Zenovich, is truly compelling. The pace, the presentation of evidence, the way the interviews are woven together combine to leave the viewer thinking, questioning, and, in my case, feeling gobsmacked at the end (particularly when it came to the updates on individuals involved with the scandal).

I think the only suggestion I would have made is that I wish they had covered a bit more about the history of lacrosse in North America, especially its Native roots, and how that relates and doesn't to its contemporary prep school links-- and how the Duke situation halted or helped the growth of lacrosse, acknowledged today as one of the fastest growing organized sports in the U.S.

In terms of how it relates to my course this quote about sums it up:

A former public editor for The New York Times explained why the Duke Lacrosse case was the perfect media storm.

I would add to this that it was a sport, an elite one at that, at a highly selective institution, which amplified things even more. Sports reflect, refract, transform, and multiply larger society and subcultures with which they are associated, as this documentary so eloquently shows. Look, you only need to check out all the memes last weekend from the Duke-Yale basketball game to see that these stereotypes remain unbelievably powerful.

So I'm hoping to show Fantastic Lies the last week of the semester, especially because one of the accused, Reade Seligmann, ended up transferring to Brown.

Stay tuned!

Shrinking and Pinking: The XX(X) Olympiad Edition

It's finally here! This week the Summer Games begin.  I-- and my DVR-- are ready. While some are calling them the Title IX Olympics, I prefer  the XX(X) Olympics.  Sure it's the first time that women (269) outnumber men (261) on the US team (hence the "Title IX" moniker [and it helps that this is the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX]), but that just addresses the US. A lot has been happening internationally as well.

After some back-and-forth it's the first time that every Olympic nation will be represented by a woman at the Games (though I'd be remiss not to mention that one of the Saudi Arabian women grew up in the US and likely wouldn't have had the same opportunities to develop in sport if she had grown up in Saudi Arabia; though Khadija Mohammed, a 17-year-old from the UAE, did grow up in the Persian Gulf and will be the first female to represent her country in the Olympics and the first Persian Gulf woman to lift at the Olympics).

Since the 1908 London Games women's participation has risen from 1.8% to 9.5% in London 1948 to over 40% at this London Games.  It's also the first time that women will compete in every sport (thanks to the inclusion of female boxing).

Not only are there more female athletes but women are making strides in other aspects of the Games.  This year for the first time ever Russia will have a female flag-bearer in this Friday's Opening Ceremonies (tennis superstar Maria Sharapova). Female coaches are also making strides.  I find it somewhat odd that the USA women's swim team has a female head coach for the first time, but it's true.

Is there more work to be done when it comes to athletic equality between men and women? Of course. Case in point? Last week there was outrage after the Japanese women's soccer team (who is better than the men's team) was flown to the Games in economy while the men enjoyed business class. Same thing for the Australian basketball teams (imagine how hard that would be with long legs!).

Still, I plan to spend the XX(X) Games celebrating amazing strength and stories of triumph.  As a woman who was recently pregnant I'm in awe of Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, a Malaysian rifle shooter who is competing while seven months pregnant.  As a new mom I'm so impressed by high jumper Amy Acuff.  Not only is this her fifth Olympics, but she has a young daughter and she coaches herself. Not everyone can win the Gold, or even a medal, but they can inspire and impress people around the world just by competing.

Later this week I plan to write about my favorite summer Olympics sport: gymnastics. Stay tuned and get your TV set for some inspirational performances starting this weekend!

Shrinking and Pinking: Skirting Controversy

It seems that often when there's a woman's first in sports, there's some sort of controversy shortly after.  Case in point? Women's boxing. Last month I wrote about the inclusion of women's boxing as an Olympic sport for the first time (for another inspirational story about how this came to be, check out this story about Irish boxer Katie Taylor).  But now the men who run boxing want to make sure that these female boxers wear skirts while they compete. Why? Well, first of all, they claim it's hard to tell men and women apart when you watch a match (I'm not quite sure why this is a problem though).  They also feel, according to a great piece by Christine Brennan, that skirts make female boxers more "elegant."  Polish coach Leszek Piotrowski is quoted as saying, "By wearing skirts, in my opinion, it gives a good impression, a womanly impression."  If you recall, badminton faced a similar controversy over the summer... Which lead them to reverse their decision on women having to compete in skirts at the Olympics. Hopefully the same will happen when it comes to women's boxing.

Then again, at least female boxers have a chance to compete in London next summer. Women's racewalkers don't have that opportunity-- skirts or not.  American Erin Taylor-Talcott has qualified for the US Trials in the 50k, but even if she performed well enough to qualify for the Games (which it appears in unlikely), she would not be able to compete in London.  Because the 50k speedwalking event isn't tremendously popular among men, it seems like giving women an opportunity makes sense. Perhaps in the next quad?

In my home state of Massachusetts there has also been recent controversy because of (lack of) parity between women and men. In this case the issue is allowing boys to compete on a girls sports team. No, not field hockey, which I've discussed before; this time it's swimming. Because many schools only have girls' teams, boys are allowed to compete on those teams. This year a female state record in the 50 free was almost broken... by a boy. If a male had broken the record it is unclear how that would have been handled.  But this is likely a situation that will come up again so some decisions should be made in advance.  I can't help but think that if a girl could possibly break a boys' record we would likely applaud that achievement, so is it fair to punish a boy who doesn't have a similar opportunity?

At the same time, it is wonderful to applaud women's achievements. As various major league baseball decisions are made for next season it's worth noting that the Dodgers recently hired Sue Falsone as the first female trainer in MLB. I'm guessing she won't be wearing a skirt during games though.

Shrinking and Pinking: A Month of Firsts for Female Athletes

It’s been a month of firsts for women in athletics.  While women have definitely made many strides in gaining access to various playing fields, it’s startling to realize how many more physical milestones there are left to hit.  But it’s also inspiring to learn about the women who break barriers and set the standards. For example, for the first time ever female boxers will be included in the Olympics.  The inaugural women’s Olympic trials will be held in February 2012.  Eight women will vie for a chance to compete in London next summer. Click here to read about one of those inspirational women, Patricia Manuel. (While I’m pretty sure none of these young women will end up as Olympic boxers, this story about female boxers who are part of the Harvard Boxing Club is a fun read.)

Sticking with Olympic sports, Ibtihaj Muhammad is poised to become the first American Muslim woman to compete in a hijab.  Muhammed is a New Jersey-based fencer (ranked second in the US and 13th in the world at sabre) who not only hopes to contend for Olympic medals, but also be a role model for female Muslim athletes.

An Egyptian-born squash player also serves as a good role model for playing with the boys. Nour Bahgat, a Trinity College student who won the 2009 Women’s Collegiate National Championship as a freshman, is the first female player to join the professional squash tour. She practices with both men and women, but enjoys games with men because of quicker play and longer rallies that help her develop skills.  It seems that playing and training with men is important across different sports to help women elevate their game (even when they play against other women).

Alex Hai is another woman who tends to work around men.  Though her professional pursuit isn’t strictly defined as a sport, it is certainly physically demanding.  Hai is a gondolier in Venice. In fact, she is the first ever female gondolier.  When I make it back to Venice someday, I will have to seek her out! I was surprised that it has taken this long to have a female gondolier; while it doesn’t surprise me that there are many more male gondoliers, I would have expected there to be more than just the one woman.

Of course, the other big female athlete crossing boundaries story this month was Brianna Amat, the field-goal kicking homecoming queen, who I have written about before.  But I thought this story about the reaction to female football players—both by teammates and peers and the media—was particularly powerful and incisive.  Micheline Maynard explains that in some sports, it’s not just the milestones that matter now. It’s the fact that females are accepted not just on the frontstage of the field, but also backstage in locker rooms and at practice.  We have a long way to go, but we have also still come a long way, as Maynard notes.  Best of luck to Manuel, Muhammed, and Bahgat as they do their parts to achieve both accolades and parity.