Social movements and observations from a day in Wisconsin

March 21, 2011

Given my interest in social movements (such as the Nike social movement that gained momentum in the late 1990s), I have been intrigued by the rallies taking place in such locations as Wisconsin and Michigan. With the chance to gain some first hand insight about these events, I spent a day at the state capitol in Madison, WI on Tues., March 15. Throughout the day, there were relatively sporadic groups of protesters around the capitol. There was little organization to the protests, as many individuals indicated they came out briefly during a lunch break or slipped away from work for an hour or two. This is perhaps not surprising as it was a Tuesday and Governor Scott Walker had signed the bill on the previous Friday. However, in speaking with people throughout the day, we heard about a rally to take place at 4 o’clock that afternoon in front of the M&I Bank building across the street from the capitol.

For context, M&I Bank took money during the TARP bailout, has donated to the Walker campaign, and is involved in a forthcoming buyout that will move its headquarters out of state to Chicago – a deal in which CEO Mark Furlong will receive an $18 million bonus after the sale closes. The rally featured approximately 150 people marching in front of the bank, carrying signs, and chanting slogans. The rally itself appeared to receive some brief coverage by one of the local TV affiliates, but not much else. A more thorough account of the rally can be found at PR Watch.

Perhaps the most interesting event happened as the rally was culminating with some brief remarks from speakers, including Peter Rickman of the UW Teaching Assistants’ Association. At one point – and I’m not sure how to best word this, but I’ll describe the guy as “overenthusiastic” – a man demanded the megaphone from Rickman, which he reluctantly handed over. This impromptu speaker opened his remarks by saying that he was just arrested the other day “for no reason” (a statement which, upon later reflection, I question). The man identified himself as “Union Mike from Vegas” and went on to talk for 30 seconds or so about something not particularly intelligible, including a recommendation to eschew traditional currency for copper and zinc. After reacquiring the megaphone, Rickman continued speaking. Another man at the rally then diverted Mike’s attention by conducting a pseudo interview with him, after which another individual asked him to come across the street to speak further, helping to diffuse the situation. This example serves as a useful case study about how to deal with an “overenthusiastic” protester who shows up at a rally, and I think the organizers did a pretty good job in this case.

Just when it appeared the situation with our overzealous friend from Sin City had been diffused, State Senator Glenn Grothman began crossing the capitol lawn toward M&I Bank. Grothman, the assistant majority leader of the senate, had referred to the protesters as “slobs” in previous remarks. As Grothman approached the bank, he was recognized by some protesters, who began chanting “shame, shame, shame!” Grothman then entered the bank building. I think it’s worth asking why he would wait until the middle of the protest to enter the bank, but, who knows, he may have had a really urgent deposit. Anyway, after a couple minutes, Grothman exited the bank, at which time he was again greeted by the ire of many at the rally. As he crossed the street, however, Grothman was intercepted by none other than Mike with what was later described as a “big bear hug.” Several protesters concerned with this turn of events were able to facilitate in ending the embrace after 3-4 seconds of awkwardness. Interestingly, once this event was chronicled in a police report, it received coverage far exceeding the original rally. For example, local TV affiliates, the Wisconsin State Journal, and smaller local newspapers took interest in the squeeze, as, of course, did bloggers.

A final interesting note to this event is that Grothman has claimed the police are not properly protecting M&I Bank from protesters. One question that comes to mind is: what would Grothman consider an appropriate level of “protection”? Throughout the rally I witnessed that day, at least four police officers stood within about 50 feet of the protesters. They appeared to be closely observing the rally, and I’m sure they would likely have intervened if any  violence had taken place. But short of that, what intervention would he have the police take during a non-violent protest?


Coercive or voluntary?

December 20, 2010

In Playing with the Boys, McDonagh and Pappano (2008) argue that coercive sex segregation in sport reproduces ideas of female inferiority. However, they attempt to make a distinction between coercive and voluntary sex segregation, recognizing that voluntary sex segregation can be valuable.

While this point has much merit, as voluntarily segregated settings can potentially be powerful sites for resistance, I can’t help but question whether segregation can ever be truly voluntary. For example, when Little League Baseball’s policy of excluding female players was declared unlawful in 1973, the organization created Little League Softball. Today, although girls are allowed to play Little League Baseball, the vast majority “choose” to play softball. Even though girls are not literally forced to play softball instead of baseball, I would suggest that their choices (and those of their parents) are impacted by a variety of social factors.

Another example of this issue that comes to mind can be found in the gendered nature of parental involvement in youth sport. Specifically, the majority of coaches (of both boys and girls teams) are men, while almost all “team parent” positions are filled by women. In his book It’s All for the Kids, Messner (2009) documents how a “sex-category sorting process” works in such a way that the vast majority of women volunteers are actively sorted into a team parent position, while the vast majority of men volunteers are sorted into coaching positions. Messner is careful to clarify that saying people are “sorted” is not to deny their active agency in the process; rather, it is to underline that what we often think of as “free” choices are shaped by social structures. Considering the ways in which social forces impact our individual decisions, I find it potentially problematic to divide choices into categories of either coercive or voluntary.

Ticket pricing, gender, & “value”

October 31, 2010

“You get what you pay for.” This common saying expresses the idea that more valuable things are going to cost more money, while things of little value are going to cost less money. Clearly, women’s sports are not valued as highly as men’s sports by most people. Even those who have grown up in the “Title IX age” tend to view women’s sports as uninteresting and inferior to competitions involving men (Lebel & Danylchuk, 2009).

As far as the answer as to why this is the case, most explanations I hear involve the idea that women’s sports are less interesting because women are not as good at sports as men. This claim has never had much explanatory power for me because, for example, college sports are very interesting to many people even though college athletes are not as skilled as professional athletes. If people only found the best athletes interesting (as is the argument for why women’s sports are uninteresting), then college sports wouldn’t enjoy much popularity. Thus, rather than rely on oversimplified explanations about skill level, it is important to consider the social and historical factors leading to the devaluation of women’s sports.

Returning to the issue of money and perceived value, let’s consider the issue of tickets to women’s sporting events being priced lower than those to men’s events. Regarding this issue, I believe most people would make an argument such as, “of course tickets to women’s basketball cost less…because no one cares about women’s sports.” However, research regarding ticket price and perceived value suggests the situation is more complex. For example, a study by Hebl and colleagues (2004) found that ticket price disparity results in lower evaluations of women’s teams, even when controlling for other potential explanation for the discrepancy. Further, the researchers found, “when women’s tickets cost less than men’s tickets, the women’s team was rated lower than the men’s team. When the cost of women’s tickets was greater than the cost of men’s tickets, the women’s and men’s teams were considered equivalent in ability and fan support” (p. 233).

In other words, this research suggests that the lower price of tickets to women’s events is not merely a reflection of the lesser value assigned to women’s sports, but it also reinforces the inferior status of women’s sports. Unfortunately, the study also found the disparity between men’s and women’s ticket prices is growing, which makes me think the prospects for seeing progressive change in the near future are not good.


  • Hebl, M. R., Giuliano, T. A., King, E. B., Knight, J. L., Shapiro, J. R., Skorinko, J. L., & Wig, A. (2004). Paying the Way: The Ticket to Gender Equality in Sports. Sex Roles, 51(3/4), 227-235.
  • Lebel, K., & Danylchuk, K. (2009). Generation Y’s Perceptions of Women’s Sport in the Media. International Journal of Sport Communication, 2(2), 146-163.

Business, gendered inequality, & Augusta National Golf Club

October 18, 2010

Sports matter. They matter because sports have important connections with a host of social, cultural, political, and economic issues in society. One example of how sports matter is the important place of golf in the world of business. Some might argue that more business often gets done of the golf course than in the boardroom. This is the case because activities such as golf have an important role in forming personal connections, and people often like to do business with their friends. When one considers the gendered inequality that exists in the world of business (only 28 women hold CEO jobs at Fortune 1000 companies), it becomes clear that the issue of women’s membership at Augusta National Golf Club is not just a struggle about golf, but a struggle over power in the world of business.

In a 2004 Golf for Women magazine survey of 1,000 businesswomen, 73 percent said playing golf has helped them develop key business relationships (January-February issue). In that same issue of Golf for Women, Ruth Ann Marshall, current President of the Americas for MasterCard, talked about the role of golf in her business success. Specifically, when she had become CEO of Buypass, a company that processes retailing transactions, one of her first executive decisions was to buy tickets to the Masters Tournament. She used these tickets to invite people with whom she wanted to do business (CEOs of petroleum and supermarket companies) to the Masters, which allowed her to form relationships she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to develop.

If women were allowed to be members at August National, they could similarly invite potential business contacts to play a round at the prestigious course, thus developing key relationships. However, because women are denied membership, female executives are precluded from engaging in such connection-building activity, which plays a role in perpetuating the gendered inequality that exists in the world of business.

Why sex segregate sport? Title VII and Title IX

October 18, 2010

A central question posed in Playing with the Boys (2008) by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, is why do sports remain the most sex-segregated (secular) institution in American society (with the possible exception of the military)? Considering Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 adds an interesting twist to this question. Specifically, Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual based upon race, religion, or sex. The only exception to this rule is when sex is a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOC). Title VII does not allow employers to discriminate based on statistical group differences between women and men. For example, in Diaz v. Pan-American Airlines (1971), the airline company argued its policy of hiring only female flight attendants was justified, in part, because women were more soothing to anxious passengers. However, the court ruled that even if it accepted this doubtful argument, some men would be better at reassuring anxious passengers than some women. Thus, it would be more appropriate for airlines to hire males sensitive to passenger needs rather than have a blanket policy of hiring no men at all. Similarly, in cases where strength has been at issue, courts have ruled that if a woman is strong enough to perform the required tasks, she is qualified to hold that job.

In contrast to the approach required by Title VII — that a person’s individual attributes be taken into account — Title IX’s implementing regulations (1975)  specifically permit sex segregation in contact sports. This creates an interesting legal conflict between Title VII and Title IX. While a woman cannot be excluded from a job for which strength is a requirement just because she is female (based on Title VII), a girl hoping to play football may be excluded from doing so just because of her sex (based on Title IX). Although males, on average, may be larger than females, there is a great amount of overlap between men’s and women’s athletic ability. The approach taken by Title IX, however, may prevent such evidence of a continuum (Kane, 1995) from being seen. Thus, as McDonagh and Pappano (2008) suggest, although it has played an important role in growing sport opportunities for girls and women, Title IX has reinforced rather than challenged the belief that women are physically inferior to men.

Little League Baseball and a lost opportunity for exposing the continuum

October 13, 2010

Little League Baseball, which began in the late 1930s, maintained a policy of allowing only boys to participate for more than its first 30 years of existence. When in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few individual teams allowed girls to participate, LLB addressed this issue by threatening to revoke the charters of leagues in which girls participated. With this strategy LLB was able to resist the entry of females for a few years. However, following a 1973 lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women on behalf of Maria Pepe (a young baseball player in New Jersey), LLB was forced to allow girls onto its teams.

The possibility of young boys and girls playing baseball together would seem to create quite a possibility of exposing what sport sociologist Mary Jo Kane has referred to as a continuum of athletic ability wherein “many women routinely outperform many men and, in some cases, women outperform most—if not all—men in a variety of sports and physical skills/activities” (1995, p. 193). However, rather than embrace this opportunity, Little League officials created softball leagues — a decision that has worked to maintain Little League Baseball as a largely sex-segregated institution. While many might argue that sex segregation is necessary for the benefit (protection) of women, this example demonstrates how it is often men’s interests that are protected by sex-segregation in sport.


  • Kane, M. J. (1995). Resistance/transformation of the oppositional binary: Exposing sport as a continuum. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 19(2), 191 -218.
  • McDonagh, E., & Pappano, L. (2008). Playing with the boys: Why separate is not equal in sports. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Messner, M. A. (2009). It’s all for the kids: Gender, families, and youth sports. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Athletes and criminality

June 24, 2010

It is quite common for writers and pundits in the sports media to rail about the behavior of athletes in professional and college sports. Much of this commentary focuses on why criminal behavior by athletes has gotten so bad in recent years. I am compelled to ask, however, if the behavior of athletes is significantly worse now than it has been in the past.

For example, Smith (2009) points out that “the marriage between sportswriters and teams and players from the past allowed many bad deeds and violent crimes by athletes to go unreported…today, bad behavior is more likely to be reported” (p. 175). He goes on, however, to argue that sport used to have a sense of civility that has been lost, leading to the bad behavior we see by athletes today. I see a problem with this argument, in that it lacks support in the form of direct evidence showing that criminal/uncivil behavior by athletes is worse than it has been in the past.

Thus, I return to my question about the extent to which athletes are engaging in an increased amount of criminal behavior, compared with the extent to which such incidents are reported and/or prosecuted more than in the past. What evidence is available that might help provide insight to this question?


Smith, Earl. (2009). Race, sport and the American dream (2nd ed.). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Thoughts on history, postmodernism, and politics…

March 16, 2010

While reading James Loewen’s (2007) Lies My Teacher Told Me, I recently learned about the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3), a 160-page bill signed into law by then-governor Jeb Bush in 2006, which contains provisions designed to “meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy.” The bill seeks to mandate that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It further specifies that “the history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” Other provisions in the bill seek to place emphasis on “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute” and on teaching “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” The passage of such regulations may be less than surprising given that, as Loewen points out, the requirement to take American history originated as part of a nationalist campaign in the early 20th century.

In somewhat similar example, the Texas Board of Education is reforming curricula to, well, in the words of one board member, “history has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.” Specific to sociology, another board member won passage of an amendment stressing “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices.” As the board member explained, “the topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything.” Interesting to note, “there were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted.”

Coming across these issues made me think back to Doug Booth’s (2005) book The Field, in which he contrasts reconstructionist, constructionist, and deconstructionist approaches to history.  Specifically, while both reconstructionists and constructionists regard materials of the past as the foundations of historical knowledge that yield truth, deconstructionists view history as a constituted narrative devoid of moral or intellectual certainty. Overall, having seen debates take place within academia, and in considering the examples of legislation in Florida and Texas, I am reminded of just how political sociology or history (or any academic field) is. Perhaps ironically, I would suggest, the fact that academic fields are so political seems to lend support to the need for “postmodern” approaches that seek to deconstruct knowledge.

UPDATE: What U.S. history would look like if written by the Texas Board of Education.

Official recognition of corporate political control?

January 26, 2010

On Thurs., Jan. 21, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling did away with corporate campaign finance limits. Since then, a number of commentators have discussed the concerns such a decision raises. Matthew Yglesias, for example, points out that Bank of America dedicated $2.3 billion to marketing in 2008 and, thus, would have the budget to mount a $100 million series of scathing attacks on a Senator who pisses them off. Once one senator goes down for having crossed BofA, how might this impact other elected officials? Left I on the News points out that in some jurisdictions, judges are elected officials; imagine trying to sue a corporation in a courtroom presided over by a judge who just had his/her campaign financed by that corporation. Newsweek, meanwhile, brings up the question of how this might allow multinational (foreign?) companies to influence elections in the U.S.

Ultimately, an important question is how this will impact politics and government in the U.S. My initial reaction is it probably won’t signal that big of a change. In other words, anyone who thought corporations didn’t have a tremendous amount of influence in politics prior to this ruling would be very mistaken. Will it increase corporate influence and make policies even more favorable to corporations? I would imagine so, but to what extent? In some ways, might it make things more honest (i. e., shifting spending from “front groups” to the corporations themselves)?

SPORT REFERENCE: The NCAA states its core purpose as being “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” Seemingly, however, another major purpose of the NCAA is to help bring tremendous amounts of money into college sports (e. g., the current 11-year, $6 billion deal between the NCAA and CBS to televise the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament). Despite this, the NCAA’s purpose says nothing about working to maximize revenue. Many would argue that the introduction of such massive amounts of money helps create a situation in which the educational experience of the student-athlete is not paramount, creating a conflict between the NCAA’s stated purpose and its actual role. If the NCAA were to explicitly state that revenue generation is one of its core purposes, this likely wouldn’t do much to address the potential problems caused by commercialization in college sports. It might, however, make the NCAA more honest. Similarly, might the official recognition of corporate political influence at least make things more honest?

Haiti, aid, and U.S. priorities

January 24, 2010

Why was aid relatively slow to arrive in Haiti following the earthquake that struck the country on Tues., Jan. 12? Well, a common explanation given in the U.S. media seemed to be that Haiti’s lack of infrastructure, coupled with the massive damage caused by the earthquake, made getting supplies into the country and then delivering those supplies very difficult.  While I believe this is a partial explanation, I came across some information buried near the end of a piece in the New York Times that suggests the reason may be more complicated.

According to the article, Haiti appears to have an airport with only one working runway. Due to an agreement with Haiti, the U.S. is now managing air traffic control at that airport. While the airport is able to accommodate about 200 flights per day, Jerry Emmanuel, air logistics officer for the UN World Food Program, explained that most of the flights had been reserved for the U.S. military to land troops/equipment, lift Americans and other foreigners to safety, and “secure” the country. Even though the World Food Program had tried to land flights of food, medicine, and water as soon as two days after the earthquake, it was not allowed to do so until Sat., Jan. 16 (four days after the earthquake), because of the priority given to U.S. military flights.

Who should be “in charge” of the relief effort and how should priorities be balanced? Should Americans and other foreigners in Haiti be entitled to help before the citizens of the country? How would all of this be viewed by those outside the United States?