Who to support in the World Cup if you like underdogs, national health care, coffee, colonies and chocolate
It is nearly impossible to forget that I'm an outsider in Tanzania. I'm white.
In my study villages, my whiteness explains the fact that I arrive in a truck, that I carry a lot of papers, that I give out bicycles, that the village chairman wants to meet me and that I don't stay long. Even in the office, where I'm working with Tanzanians of a similar education level who are also passionate about development and conservation, my outsiderness lingers in missing Swahili jokes, my direct communication style, misunderstandings of workplace culture and frequent consumption of peanut butter. To me, these things mean I'm a graduate student and American, but to everybody else, this is all summarized by the fact that I'm white.
Tanzanians don't go out of their way to make me feel this way, its an inevitable part of expatriate life. In fact, the consistency of this feeling is part of what leads to the intimacy of expat communities.
But I have found refuge from the spectacle. The only space where I am momentarily free of my mzungu spectacle badge, is on a small field or muddy plot of land with a handful of gangly teenage boys, two make-shift stick goals and a ball in the middle. In other words, playing football.
When the ball goes out, they giggle and remember that I'm white, but when the ball is in play and we are attacking out of the back after a quick turnover, all that matters is that I'm open.
Sports commentator Frank Deford lamented that kickers are too accurate, and that 88% success rates take the fun out of American football. And part of this, he attributes to kickers switching from toe-balls to instep shots:
However, toes -- those both educated and illiterate -- have been replaced on the gridiron by soccer-style kickers, who boot the pigskin side-footed. When these guys first started coming into the NFL they were often as not little foreigners, and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions, who died last week, used to mimic them, calling out in falsetto, "I keeck a touchdown! I keeck a touchdown." Today, though, kickers tend to be good-sized Americans who are more proficient than ever.
Although its is occasionally nostalgic to romanticize the good old days, anyone who has ever played soccer past six grade learned how to hit the ball powerfully and accurately. And it is not with your toe. In American football, the transition from toe-balls to instep apparently didn't happen until the 1960s, when a Europeans showed the NFL how do it right. The rest of the world had been playing a sport dedicated to kicking a ball and it took Americans fifty years to figure it out.
I read Julian Jamison's post on women's professional sports a while ago and have been vaguely been thinking about a response for a while now. Since this month is the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, this seemed like an appropriate time write these musings down. In actuality, there isn't actually much to disagree with in his post, as he basically give his opinion on the types of sports he prefers to follow, and of course, we're all entitled to our personal preference. But I do think there are some particular implications and cautious generalizations to think about based of his view.
Jamison claims of his own personal preference: I personally prefer to watch the best in the world, if I’m going to watch professional athletes at all, and that almost always means men.
No offense taken there; as he points out, aside from a few interesting cases or sports, the top podium is held by men.
Meanwhile, the talented female ultrarunner, who complained about the media coverage which gave more attention to the male winner, very likely had a different preference for what to follow. And most likely that was a preference for women's ultra marathon winners. As is often the case (from my complex empirical assessment of talking to my friends), many women athletes like to follow women's sports. She may have incorrectly called this coverage bias towards the male winner 'unfair,' but since it has only been forty years since women gained access to the same athletic resources in school, the intellectual history of gendered athletic 'fairness' is rather short and subjective.
Now, I'm going to attempt to step back from this micro-level preference expression and think about macro-level trends in sports coverage and popularity. I should preface all this by exposing my dearth of knowledge of the TV sports networks; the very small amount of TV that I do end up watching (such a hipster) rarely includes sport. Except the world cup. And as a presupposition, I base this discussion on the fact that media coverage of professional sports highlights significantly more men's sports than women's. It's not a zero-sum game, and I don't point to much data, but the assumption seems fair.
The preference Jamison expresses towards following the fastest racers, winningest teams and top athletes in professional sports, (let's call this the bestness preference) seems that it could be an explanation for why women professional athletes don't get as much coverage. His logic is sound and its true that the best professional athletes and teams do seem to take up most of the front page sports section (or sports network?). At the professional level, its important to point out that sports coverage is a source of revenue, so as he says: if fans want to watch female runners or tennis players or golfers more, [they] will pay for the privilege. The reporting on professional sports obviously reflects what the media anticipates will make the most revenue. In other words, they respond to consumer demand. However, it may be a challenge to specify exactly what the majority of these consumers prefer.
Now I want to step out from Jamison's opinion and think more macro-level about why sports coverage focuses so much on men in the context of various sport-consuming preferences. Since his logic is sound, it seems possible that consumers of sports news have, on average, the same bestness preference as Jamison.
But, this notion wouldn't hold up, as Jamison readily admits, as an explanation for the massive coverage of March Madness, since professional basketball players in the NBA are better than college athletes. Perhaps here, the enticement for coverage here is more about unpredictability and the tournament thrill. But that could be found in so many other places, including women's professional sports (i.e. women's NCAA basketball tournament and who knew Japan would would win the women's world cup?!).
Is it some elusive combination of bestness and unpredictability that women's professional sports just haven't found a balance for yet? This seems unlikely. Perhaps the majority preference expression is just completely contrary to that of the talented female ultrarunner: a preference for men's sports. A social preference like this is much more a derivative of an old cultural valuation of men's sports over women's, and much less so based on the logic of a preference for bestness. So while an affinity like Jamison's is sound and not biased on an individual scale, it doesn't appear to be an explanation (though he never intended to do this) for why our media coverage focuses so significantly more on men's sports.
For me, this actually just brings up more questions, none of which I have an answer to.
Why don't many people have a preference for media coverage of female athletes? Why don't more women support female athletes? Do folks who don't like women's sports at all consider themselves to be pursuing only the best athletes? Is there any way to change the cultural lopsided valuation of athletes and are we even aware of it?
Hat tip: LANS
More from Wainaina in One Day I Will Write About This Place:
Now, soccer itself is not a negotiable object. Democracy is, treasuries are, French government loans and grants, the lives of all citizens, the wombs of all women- all these things can bend comfortably to the will of the first family, but the fates of the national soccer team belong to the people. Nobody has ever successfully banned the playing of soccer in Africa.
And on that note, an ambitious and inspirational girls soccer academy in Nairobi's biggest slum. It turns out that the school's American development director is another mwanafunzi baya struggling with me through the second semester of "Beginning" Swahili.
Sex sells. Is it the best way to get support for women's soccer?
Five players from the German national team posed for Playboy to promote the 2011 Women's World Cup. Three members of the French team posed naked for Blid magazine to rival the attention. And back in 1999, Brandi Chastain, who was a commentator for ESPN in the tournament this year, posed for the cover of Gear magazine to promote the 99 world cup. An excellent post by Anjali Nayar debates the issue of selling sex to sell tickets.
Meanwhile, Hope Solo has a different response to the sexual media attention and crushes on the world's best keeper. From ESPN:
As soon as U.S. keeper Hope Solo arrived at a roundtable to chat to the media, a T.V. camera followed. Replying to a print reporter who said teenage boys all over the U.S. had pictures of her on their walls, she cut him off. "Well, let's hope there are teenage girls as well," Solo said. "We're here to inspire a nation." With that, she moved to the next question.
Hat tip: LANS
This game was insane.
And in case you (absurdly) missed what we were all reacting too...
Up next: France.
I'm fighting with weebly to make my wealth index paper actually upload-able, in case anyone had actually been interested enough to read (or look at) the whole thing.
In the meantime, here is a much more interesting true story of the Panyee Football Club in Thailand.
This past Wednesday, I was ready for another quasi-productive English Club theater practice but found out (about an hour beforehand) that today was a field day of sorts at school. I heard a few rumors of a soccer game so I grabbed my shorts and running shoes before heading over to the school in the afternoon. I've been here for three weeks and still haven't had the opportunity (or haven't taken the opportunity...) to play soccer with some kids, so I was psyched. When I arrived at Bassirou Mbecke, loud music was being played over huge speakers by an MC with a noisy mic (a sign of a typical Senegalese party), but no real activities seemed to be taking place. A lot of kids were there for late afternoon but everyone was just standing around. A schedule of sorts dictated that there would be running races and a teachers versus students soccer game. So I started asking around if I could play soccer but most people seemed skeptical (a tubaab girl who plays football?) or told me to wait.