Review of No Slam Dunk

Cooky, Cheryl and Michael Messner. No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018. Pp. 314. Notes, index, and 19 tables. $42.95 paperback, EPUB, and PDF. $39.95 Kindle.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

Are we finally approaching a much anticipated watershed in women’s sport?

This summer, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) won its second-consecutive World Cup title, earning acclaim not for serving as exemplars of doting and dutiful “all-American” girls but for their willingness to defy proscribed proprieties with their vibrant personalities and progressive politics. Their success also has inspired interest in their lawsuit against US Soccer, as well as spurred interest in the NWSL, with record-breaking attendance numbers motivating efforts for expansion. 

Rutgers University Press, 2018.

After naming former Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert the league’s first Commissioner in the late spring, the WNBA and its Players’ Association appear ready to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that will situate the league and its players to gain further purchase and power in the American sporting landscape. In women’s tennis, the revolution wrought by the Williams sisters is beginning to culminate, evidenced not only by Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, and a wider, rising generation of women of color who appeared poised to dominate the sport in the years to come but also by the attitude exhibited by the sport’s younger stars, including 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andrescu, the pugnacious, unapologetic Romanian-Canadian teenager.  

All the more, the 2020 Olympic Games should present another potent opportunity for women, both from the United States and other nations, to insert themselves into the sporting consciousness, challenging norms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, and ability through their achievements. 

For those who both study and support women’s sport, these seemingly promising developments do inspire optimism. But also much cynicism and skepticism. The conclusion reached by sociologists Cheryl Cooky and Micheal A. Messner in No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Changes reinforces this sense of optimism, cynicism, and skepticism. While the research of Cooky and Messner highlights the gender progress that has occurred in the spaces of American sport, their studies also underscore how difficult it has been (and will be) to overcome the deeply embedded inequities and stubbornly persistent ideologies that have constrained girls’ and women’s sport in the United States. 

No Slam Dunk is organized into three parts –  Part I: Sport, Gender and Sexuality, Part II: Sport as Gendered Practice, Part III: The Gender of Sport Media – with four to five chapters composing each part. All chapters previously have been published in other volumes or journals. As such, scholars well-read in the research of Cooky and Messner likely will find many of the chapters familiar. While No Slam Dunk usefully organizes these prior studies, updates to certain of them could have enhanced the scholarly impact of this volume.

Parts I and  II both include research from Messner on gender and youth sports. In Chapter 1 (“Gender Ideologies, Youth Sports, and the Production of Soft Essentialism”), Messner analyzes how youth soccer, and youth sports in general, act as key social locations for the construction of soft essentialism, which he defines as “a currently ascendant hegemonic ideology of the professional class” that “valorizes the liberal feminist ideal of individual choice and women while retaining a largely naturalized view of boys and men,” (19). Messner conducted this research in the early 2000s, examining the roles of girls, boys, mothers, and fathers in a small slice of the Southern California youth soccer world to conclude “youth sports has become an ideal site for the construction of adult narratives that appropriate the liberal feminist language of ‘choice’ for girls, but not for boys, in ways that help to recreate and naturalize the continuing gender inequalities in professional-class work and family life.” (17).

While unreasonable to expect recent research, some updated observational data or hypotheses would be appreciated. For instance, although the post-Obama era certainly has not been the age of social equality and opportunity that was too optimistically imagined, altered expectations of gender and race have occurred, especially among the “professional class” that Messner’s original study concerns. In these professional communities that have tended proudly to proclaim their progressivism in the age of Trump, has the soft essentialism of youth sports declined? Or, is it firmly intact, suggesting that performative progressive masks the endurance of more traditional ideologies of masculinity? 

In Chapter 5 (“Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender”), Messner explores similar issues, again using late 1990s and early 2000s youth soccer as a site through which to examine the social construction of gender. Based on his observations of the self-declared Sea Monsters and Baribe Girls at the interactional, structural and cultural symbol levels, Messner asserts that gender “is not simply something that individuals ‘have’” but “it is actively constructed by groups within institutional and cultural contexts that are themselves organized by gender and saturated with gender meanings,” (94). While the datedness of this study does not make it irrelevant, updated data could allow for a consideration of the changes that have (or have not) occurred. As intimated above, it is quite possible that substantial changes have been more elusive than expected. An absence of change at the youth level also can help to explain why professional women’s sports, both now and it moment’s past, always seems to sit on the precipice of widespread respect and relevance. 

Chapter 8 (“Separating the Men from the Moms: The Making of Adult Gender Segregation in Youth Sports”), which was published in 2009, does provide more up-to-date data. Messner, along with Suzel Bozada-Deas, analyzed how youth soccer and Little League also contribute to the reproduction of adult gender roles, with women not only consigned to the role of team mom but also often expected to perform unrecognized, invisible labor. The scholars concluded that “youth sports is intimately connected to uneven change in gender relations in people’s everyday lives as workers and as family members,” (161). 

As Cooky and Messner state in their introduction, “changes and continuities in gender in/equality are happening simultaneously,” (5). Messner’s research convincingly captures how the organization of youth sports produces and reproduces this simultaneity. As such, more recent youth sport case studies and/or updated analyses of these youth sport studies could help to underscore the relationship between change and continuity and, in turn, inject this volume with more interpretive insight.

A similar critique applies to the sport media analyses conducted by Messner and Cooky. In a time of seemingly rapid social change and, all the more, a time when sport is (finally) beginning to receive more recognition as a site that can initiate and intensify social change, one cannot help but want additional, updated information. For instance, in Chapter 12 (“It’s Not about the Game: Don Imus, Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Media”),  Cooky and other scholars intersectionally analyze the media coverage of the infamous Don Imus episode, when the radio shock-jock called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s” in 2007. In the preface, Cooky and her co-scholars noted, “Of course, at the time we were conducting this research, we could not fathom that the normalization of sexist and racist language would not simply be an easy but horrific strategy of a radio host to garner attention and listeners but that this language would infuse the campaign strategy of the Republican candidate in the United States 2016 Presidential Election,” (248).

Yes, the normalization of disgusting, derogatory language begs for additional analysis. Can sport media provide insight into increased prominence and prevalence of language of that deploys racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist tropes? The various “controversies” surrounding Serena Williams and the coverage of these “controversies” could serve as a valuable complement to the Imus episode. Usefully, Cooky and Messner’s analysis of the presence (or absence) of women in sports media features data from 2015 (Chapter 10, “‘It’s Dude Time!’: A Quarter Century of Excluding Women’s Sports in Televised News and Highlight Shows”). Their research about the persisting invisibility of women’s sports in sports media, as well as sports media’s enduring failure to cover women’s sports with as much excitement and anticipation as is evident in the coverage of LeBron James’s taco consumption, provides a context for understanding how and why sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism continues to infect the coverage of women athletes, as well as strong women in other spaces of society. 

 In addition to these multiple US-centric studies on gender and youth sport and gender and sports media, Messner and Cooky also include studies on gender and sport in the Global South, an effort to decenter the United States and Global North in gender and sport scholarship. Three chapters analyze the Caster Semenya “controversy” (Chapter 2, “Policing the Boundaries of Sex: A Critical Examination of Gender Verification and the Caster Semenya Controversy;” Chapter 3, “Gender Relations and Sport: Local, National, and Transnational;” Chapter 13, “‘What Makes a Woman a Woman?’ versus ‘Our First Lady of Sport’: A Comparative Analysis of the UNited States and the South African Media Coverage of Caster Semenya”), as well as a study by Cooky and other scholars on gender and sport in Montenegro (Chapter 9, “Gender and Sport Participation in Montenegro”).

While this reflexive organizational choice is to be applauded, the outcome is uneven. In particular, the trio of chapters about Semenya, while reflecting how her situation presents opportunities for rich, critical analyses, also highlights how decentering the United States and Global North can prove challenging for scholars who have long studied and practiced in the United States. The Semenya situation is obviously worthy of analysis. It presents a legible contrast between dominant, western-centric ideologies of gender, sexuality, and race and those of other national and/or local communities. But otherwise, when, where, what, and how to study gender and sport can be difficult to determine. Just as the subjects that sociologists study have been deeply socialized in certain ideologies of gender and sport, so have scholars of sport often been socialized to privilege the sporting cultures and happenings of their home countries. More work on gender,  sport, the body, and physicality by historians could possibly aid this process, providing the historical context needed for sociologists and other scholars of sport to study present-day social and cultural patterns in other places. 

So, just as more (or much more) social change is required to establish a less uneven and more enduringly equitable sports culture, more (and more diverse) scholarship on women, gender, and sport also is necessary. As this volume attests, both Messner and Cooky significantly have contributed to the current scholarly repository. A review of their work also alerts to the additional, innovative study that is needed. While scholarship cannot create social change, it allows for a critical appreciation of it, thereby permitting us, when the time comes, to optimistically celebrate, without skepticism or cynicism, the progress and promise achieved by women athletes. 

Cat Ariail is a historian of women’s sport, studying issues of gender, race, and nationalism in the twentieth-century United States and Caribbean. She also is an instructor of history at Middle Tennessee State University. 

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