By Kyle R. King
This fall semester, I taught a course called Sports, Ethics, Literature. One of the course units was first foreshadowed in a scene from episode ten of Friday Night Lights, which we watched near the beginning of the semester. In the scene, cheerleading captain Lyla Garrity explains to her paramour Tim Riggins why he cannot sit next to her in the lunchroom, which would confirm the Dillon High School gossip that Lyla has cheated on her paraplegic boyfriend, former quarterback Jason Street, with his best friend. Gasp! The scene is, like much of high school (and most of Friday Night Lights), melodramatic—but students find the situation both relatable and accurate:
Lyla: “What are you doing? Don’t you know you’re sitting with the school slut?”
Tim: “Let ’em look, Lyla. I don’t care.”
Lyla: “It’s different for girls. You can sleep around all you want and people think you’re cool. I make one mistake—and it was a mistake . . . Tim, you’re making it worse. You can’t be here.”
This scene, and the subsequent treatment Lyla receives—bullying and cyberbullying from girls and teammates she thought were friends, indecent proposals from immature boys—give the episode its title: “It’s Different for Girls.” This tagline applies to more than adolescent sexual double standards, though. It’s Different for Girls is also a punchier way of phrasing one of Sports, Ethics, Literature’s central ideas—that sport cultures may create many possibilities for gendered performances while valuing some more highly than others based on social expectations that exist outside sports. In other words, there are a whole set of expected beliefs, attitudes, and actions usually attached to those girls who decide to adopt the identity of cheerleader. Those expectations are defied at great peril to the social standing that cheerleaders might otherwise attain in their peer groups and larger communities.
In our course, conversations about how sports are different for girls took a variety of forms. Through The Best American Sports Writing 2016’s outstanding concluding essay, Henley O’Brien’s first-person account of her relationship with a passive-aggressive and borderline abusive male rowing coach, “About Winning,” students debated whether coaching boys and girls were fundamentally different enterprises. Reflecting the experience of many college and youth athletes, all but one female student had been coached by a male at some point in time in her athletic career, while only one male student had ever had a female coach—“and that was tennis, so it didn’t really count,” he offered. But there are likely benefits if more young male athletes had female coaches. Even if Amélie Mauresmo couldn’t quite help push Andy Murray past Novak Djokovic to the number one ranking in men’s tennis in the two years she was his primary coach, Murray has credited her with leaving a lasting impression on the need to speak out on gender inequality in sport. He’s risen to the occasion several times over the past year, most notably when correcting a Wimbledon reporter’s casual sexism in typical dour Scot fashion.
Another thread of our conversations centered around Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary, Branded. As part of ESPN’s acclaimed 9 for IX series produced to mark the fortieth anniversary of Title IX legislation, Branded forwards the thesis that women in athletics have only been able to find commercial success through one of two personas: All-American girl (think Mary Lou Retton on a box of Wheaties in 1984) or sexy vixen (think Anna Kournikova Google searches in the dial-up internet days of the late 1990s). Students debated whether certain athletes—especially former mixed-martial artist and soon-to-be professional wrestler Ronda Rousey—challenged this thesis or conformed to its dictates, while sport media scholar Dunja Antunovic has noted that the film doesn’t nuance its argument through an intersectional analysis that accounts for athletes of color and LGBTQ athletes. For instance, both Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe have found commercial success, though neither fit easily into either category. Williams has reinvented herself commercially multiple times, most recently with a well-received Gatorade ad, “Sisters in Sweat,” which foregrounds her new role as a mother. Rapinoe’s 2012 “Always On” Nike ad conscientiously courts an “alternative” market, from its Pacific Northwest setting to its choice of musical accompaniment. When combined with the video, which features Rapinoe not only practicing with the U.S. Women’s National Team, but also grabbing food and attending a concert with friends and then-girlfriend Sera Cahoone, the lyrics of “Simple Song,” sung by indie rock darlings The Shins, offer an upbeat being-out message equally at home as part of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project.
In contrast to our conversations about the commercialism of women’s sports, the most popular text in the unit was Lola Lafon’s recently translated The Little Communist Who Never Smiled. Lafon, an avowed anarchist-feminist who slyly skewers capitalism and communism alike, richly imagines the life of Romanian gymnastics prodigy Nadia Comăneci and her importance to the authoritarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, future U.S. women’s gymnastics head coach Béla Károlyi, and countless young girls around the world who watched her score the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics history. The text’s rich web of allusions also led us to learn about some understudied Olympic heroines, including political dissident Vera Caslavska, who recounted sexual abuse, forced pregnancies, and abortions at the hands of male coaches, and became a national anthem protestor avant la lettre, down casting her gaze on the Olympic medal stand when the Soviet anthem played, in protest of its 1968 invasion of her native Czechoslovakia. (For more on the history of Olympic politics in the mid-20th century, check out Toby Rider’s recently published Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy.)
Caslavska helped tie a thread between the sport literature topics covered in the unit on sports and gender and current events in women’s sports. Dvora Meyers’s contributions at Deadspin have provided the most consistently essential coverage of the Larry Nasser scandal in women’s gymnastics, chronicling both how a “culture of abuse” was created in the United States women’s gymnastics team’s training camps and how Michigan State University officials—apparently taking a page from the cover-up culture at Baylor University (both who have been reluctant to publish a publicly accessible report of their internal investigation), Penn State and elsewhere—have avoided any meaningful measures of public accountability and transparency in the wake of Nasser’s tenure as a university doctor. A recent lawsuit by 2012 Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney suggests that the national team may have been actively engaged in buying the silence of top athletes who were sexually assaulted.
Female athletes refuse to be silenced, however. In addition to Maroney, fellow gymnast Aly Raisman, Atlanta Dream guard Layshia Clarendon, and Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart are among the athletes who have spoken out about being sexually abused. Countless other athletes have offered social media support through the viral hashtag #MeToo. As recent stories emerge about the NFL Network and ESPN, it’s obvious that women in and around sports media often work under the threat of sexual harassment, as well. When athletes speak up as key figures and allies in the #metoo movement, three things happen. The ubiquity of sexual assault and sexual harassment is further revealed. The “field of play” emerges as a labor venue, a workplace that faces workplace culture issues rather than a retreat from the rest of society. Finally, athletes who speak out tend to narrate their experience of sexual assault alongside common sports narrative frames about resilience and overcoming adversity; these stories teach audiences that even the strongest women can be wounded and scarred, but also that victims can emerge stronger, fiercer, and committed to a cause.
Nor has #MeToo been the only social movement that female athletes have joined over the past year or so. Megan Rapinoe began kneeling during the National Anthem in October 2016 to protest police brutality and inequalities in the justice system and wrote eloquently about her rationale in The Players’ Tribune. The United States Soccer Federation responded with a policy requiring athletes to “stand respectfully” during the anthem, though it is unclear what penalties protesting players would actually face. WNBA management initially fined players and teams who violated its uniform policy before rescinding the fines and becoming a more accepting party to athletic activism. In one of the most prominent examples of player protest in 2017, Minnesota Lynx players linked arms while Los Angeles Sparks players remained in the locker room during the national anthem before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, shortly after President Donald Trump called for NFL owners to fire protesting players. What Lindsay Gibbs of Think Progress has chronicled and catalogued as “The Kaepernick Effect” surely acquired an element of Trumpian resistance over the past few months; nevertheless, that Gibbs can shorthand the anti-racism protests after the former 49ers quarterback rightly or wrongly seems to confirm Bitch Media’s Britni de la Cretaz’s argument that female athletes’ contributions are often given second-class status amidst protests by more publicized male athletes.
Which returns us, interestingly enough, to where we started: cheerleaders. At the University of Pennsylvania, at Howard University, at Kennesaw State University, and elsewhere, cheerleaders have joined the ranks of athletic activists. The two kneeling Penn cheerleaders, Alexus Bazen and Deena Char, acknowledged that their decision was made in solidarity with Kaepernick. The cheerleading team at storied HBCU Howard, which rivals the football team in popularity, reported facing little resistance from fans for kneeling, despite cheerleading coach DeMarco Brooks admitting that it wouldn’t have been his preferred mode of protest. Cheerleaders there plan to continue protesting until they believe they see sufficient progress toward racial equality in the United States. Some protesting cheerleaders ran into resistance, however. When five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders—later called the Kennesaw Five—kneeled during the national anthem this fall, local high-ranking Republican political figures pressured KSU president Sam Olens and athletic department officials into removing cheerleaders from the pre-game ceremony. When evidence of text messages amongst the figures went public, Olens—already under pressure because of his lack of background in education—resigned.
The case at Kennesaw State now marks at least the second occasion when a university president was ousted for inadequately dealing with racism-related student protest, eliciting comparisons to the University of Missouri in 2015. To limit the impact of cheerleader protests to gestures of Kaepernick solidarity is inadequate, however, because images of protesting cheerleaders do rhetorical work in their own right. The visual politics of the Kennesaw Five, for instance, evoke the political differences between many white and black women over the past year. For instance, while Donald Trump won 53% of white women’s votes in the 2016 presidential election, Alabama’s Doug Jones recently won a closely contested special election for a Senate seat in large part due to gaining 98% of Black women’s votes in an election where they comprised 17% of the electorate. Female athletes who protest also rebut a common argument against athletic activism. As Bill Rhoden and others have argued, the “conveyor belt” of resources given to young black athletes is designed to cultivate satisfaction and ‘gratefulness’ toward the status quo. College cheerleaders and women’s professional basketball players are immune to any allegations of being spoiled multimillionaires. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these activist cheerleaders disrupt stereotypes of the passive and passé gender politics of the sport. Usually typecast somewhere on a spectrum from ditzy to hypersexualized to mean girl, the young women who have kneeled for their moral and political beliefs are reinventing what it’s possible to think and say and do alongside the identity of cheerleader. To be a cheerleader does not necessarily entail a supportive and subordinate role in the world of sport—or in life.
These women are leading—and that’s something to cheer about.
Kyle King is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Penn State University-Altoona. He conducts research on sport and social movements and the rhetoric of sport communication. He teaches courses in sport literature, rhetoric, and writing studies. He can re reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.