KRISTINE LEAHY IS POKING THE BEAR

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You might not know who LaVar Ball is, but I think you should. LaVar Ball is a fascinating man who is captivating the sports world with his persistent and often over-the-top promotion of this family and entrepreneurial endeavors. His family is comprised of a wife and three incredibly talented young men, all who play basketball. The eldest, Lonzo, just finished his first and only year at UCLA and is expected to be one of the top picks in this year’s NBA draft. The middle son, LiAngelo, is a UCLA basketball team commit and the youngest, LaMelo, is still perfecting his craft at the high school level. LaVar has strategically built a brand, figuratively and literally, around his basketball playing family. He speaks of his sons’ talents in seemingly hyperbolic ways and provides no holds barred commentary. Beyond the talk, he created the Big Baller Brand, an apparel company, owned exclusively by the Ball family. While BBB started with hats, t-shirts and sweats, LaVar has taken the brand to the next level by making a shoe, Lonzo’s signature shoe, the ZO2. The ZO2 and matching slide ($220), which sells for between $495 and $1195, is sold exclusively on BBB’s website and without any licensing, endorsement or sponsorship from the large brands like Nike or Adidas. It’s a pretty bold step to turn down millions upon millions of dollars in potential endorsement money in an effort to grow one’s personal and ancestral wealth. I hope the Ball family collects big, big checks into infinity for taking such a leap of faith.

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BUSINESS AS USUAL

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By now you’ve read, heard, and debated the racially-charged comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling.  At best, the comments are the result of a delusional old man staring senility in the face.  I mean, he’s telling his half African-American girlfriend to not take pictures with African-Americans or show up with them at Clippers’ games.  Really dude?  At worse, the comments provide a glimpse into the mind of a bigot who truly believes that the African-American men who work tirelessly to bring glory to his organization are inferior to him because of the color of their skin.  Either way, the comments are awful.  What’s more awful, however, is the fact that his sentiments aren’t unique.  In fact, the Sterling fiasco reminds me (and I use the term “reminds” very loosely since I wasn’t even a teenager in the early nineties) of another team owner who made headlines for harboring racist beliefs, Marge Schott.

Good ol’ Marge was the owner of the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1999.  Remarkably, she was only the third woman to own a North American major-league team without inheriting it.  Girlfriend had big money.  Sadly, she isn’t so much remembered for the strides she made for women in sports but for how much of a blatant, outright bigot she was.  Womp, womp.  After years of making disparaging comments towards African-Americans, Jews, Japanese and homosexuals, Schott was banned from managing the Reds from 1996 through 1998 for her public support of Adolf Hitler.  Schott was indeed a character of epic proportions.  She admitted to calling two African-American outfielders, Eric Davis and Dave Parker, her “million dollar n*****s.”  She admitted that she kept a Nazi swastika armband at home, but only to honor the memory of her late husband. *Rolls eyes*  She referred to homosexuals as fruits, and she just couldn’t see why the term “Jap” was offensive.  She made Sterling look like a saint. 

What’s most surprising to me about these two is not that they’re racist.  I spent most of my childhood in South Carolina, so I’ve been confronted with racism a time or two.   And I know that racism exists in every part of this country.  No, their beliefs don’t surprise me at all.  What’s most surprising (and at the same time disheartening) is how long major league organizations tolerate such people.  League insiders surrounding both owners have been and were clear that the owners’ beliefs and comments were no secret to those who worked with and for the owners.  Realistically, no one goes from being a silent bigot year after year to just exploding and saying seriously offensive things overnight.  Major leagues know what kind of people sit in owners’ boxes and front offices, but as long as they keep their unpopular beliefs relatively quiet, it can be business as usual.  It appears that if it hadn’t been for pretty significant law suits against both owners, the greater public may not have known about their beliefs.  The players and other employees of those organizations would have continued to “suffer” in silence.*

Yes, the leagues’ acceptance of racism and bigotry is surprising, but it really shouldn’t be.  The leagues (even though they may have tax exempt status), like the vast majority of American companies, exist to sell their products and in turn make a profit.  So as long as a players, coaches, executives and owners don’t do things to damage the leagues’ brands and bottom lines, people can say and do as they please…it’ll be business as usual.  The NBA, like the MLB did with Schott, can (and probably will) suspend Sterling and strongly encourage him to sell the franchise, but that really doesn’t do much.  Sterling will turn a profit when he sells, he won’t change his beliefs, and bigots will still be bigots. 

The people who really have the power, in my humble opinion, to effect any sort of change are the athletes and the fans.  Once the leagues quiet the grumbles and prove that racism will not be tolerated (insert another eye roll), it will be tolerated again and again…and again.  It will be tolerated in board rooms across the country.  It will show up in secret conversations, negotiations and in hirings and firings, but the leagues and individual teams will still make money, so nothing will really change.**  But if the players first, followed by their supportive fans, decided to take drastic, epic measures like boycotting and starting their own leagues, things would certainly change.  No longer would players, league employees and fans be subjected to the biases of filthy-rich owners who literally own teams for sport.  Owners couldn’t get rich off of players or they’d quickly figure out a way to filter out bigotry.  Players could run, jump, throw and catch on their own terms without wondering what the team owner really thought about them, and fans just might get a better experience.  The millionaires would defeat the billionaires.  It would be nothing short of miraculous and fun, and I would pay to see every minute of it.  It’ll also probably never happen. 

Above worrying about the beliefs of their respective teams’ owners, players just want to play in the most famous leagues on the planet.  They want to win championships.  They want fat checks.  Fans want to see athletic prowess that nears the power and strength of superheroes.  They just want to go to the game, grab a beer and root for their favorite teams.  So players and fans will be satisfied with leagues when they shut down the occasional outlier, and things will go back to business as usual. 

*I put suffer in quotation marks because it can easily be argued that one is forcing anyone to work for those organizations and that they “suffer” because they are willing to subject themselves to working for such people. 

**I just learned that a few sponsors have pulled and are considering pulling their sponsorship for the LA Clippers.  That’s pretty major, but I’m sure the sponsors will be back once the NBA finds a way to smooth things over.  

GladiatHer To Watch

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What were you doing at the age of 17? Probably not running in World Championships, right? Well, that’s exactly what today’s GladiatHer to Watch, Mary Cain, was doing.  At 17 Cain became the youngest person EVER to run in the finals of the 1500 in the World Championship.  On the way to the WCs Cain shattered record after record in middle distance races (800m to 2 miles).  Today she announced that she will be forgoing the experience of running as a college athlete and will head straight for the pros.  If the past year is any indication of the career ahead for the Bronxville native, it won’t be hard to watch her because she’ll be everywhere, winning everything.  Run, Mary, run! 

It’s not Just Incognito

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The recent news surrounding the Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has, for obvious reasons, brought issues of bullying and racism to the forefront of sports talk.  In America, where the NFL (66.3% black) and NBA (76.3% black) dominate our television screens and many of our most celebrated athletes are people of color; it is sometimes easy to forget that racist sentiments permeate sports—but they do.  Unfortunately, racism often becomes clear when sports are played on an international level, like the Olympics and World Cup.  Remember the Lithuanians who threw racist taunts at the Nigerian basketball players in the London games? And have you been keeping up with the debate about the 2018 World Cup in Russia? While most of the discussions about racism and sports typically involve male athletes, female women of color are not insulated from racism in sports.  While there are overt instances of racism, like the ones that typically make headlines, it appears that female athletes of color more frequently suffer from the more covert, institutional form of racism.  And that form of racism may be more difficult to overcome.

Out in the Open

We have all heard of the overt instances of racism in women’s sports.  For instance, remember the Greek athlete who was dismissed from her team in the London games for her racist tweet? Remember learning about the racism in Australian through the Aboriginal runner, Cathy Freeman? Overt racism shocks fans, causes uproars and encourages conversations about race, tolerance and justice.  While thankfully these instances of overt racism in female sports do not happen frequently, their occurrences often have the ability to promote discussions that change the way people view the world and educate others about cultural and ethnic differences.  They show that while this world has come a long way since the times where overt racism was acceptable, there is still room for improvement.  When athletes bring public attention to racism they and the greater public have the opportunity to turn someone’s hatred into good.  The positive discourse that comes from a vile place can really change the world.  The other form of racism that female athletes suffer tends to be more insidious.  Consumers are fed stereotypical ideals and images and never realize that they are being subjected to a systemic racism that is more difficult to fight than the overt displays.

In the Media

In a study1 published in 2005, entitled Listening to the Voices: The Experiences of African American Female Student Athletes, researchers showed that the American media significantly mis- and under-represented African American female athletes; showing them in limited capacities as mainly basketball players and track and field athletes when they choose to show them at all.2 While there are exceptions to the norm, like Venus and Serena Williams, the vast majority of female athletes who are promoted through the media in America are phenotypically Caucasian.  Outside of the Williams sisters and basketball and track and field, most Americans cannot name three female athletes of color.  Does that mean that only Caucasian women play golf, tennis, soccer, volleyball, softball, gymnastics, etc?  Or that only Caucasian women are good at those sports?  Of course not.  It suggests that the media has promoted a select group of athletes and foregone the serious promotion of athletes who do not fit the mold.3   

Even when you consider the female athletes of color who are promoted in the media, the endorsements, sponsorship and general spotlight is placed on them in a different way than on their Caucasian counterparts.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.  In the world of tennis, consider how the Williams sisters have been promoted when compared to Maria Sharapova.  Typically, the Williams sisters are promoted for their strength and their athletic abilities, never for their looks.  Sharapova, on the other hand, is promoted as both a world class athlete and world class beauty.  If we look to golf, you’ll see more of the same.  Natalie Gulbis with her one LPGA tournament win has had endorsement deals with Adidas, Canon, Michelob Ultra, and EA Sports (for example); and has been featured in Sports Illustrated, FHM, and various television shows as a sex symbol.  You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows who Chie Arimura, with her 13 LPGA wins, is let alone any ad suggesting that she’s beautiful.  The only endorsement deal I could find for her was with Colantotte, Inc.  (Who, you ask. Google it.)   While on the surface the lack of diversity in the media for female athletes seems like no big deal, in reality it affects current athletes, young girls who aspire to be athletes, and society as a whole.

Silenced Athletes

The 2005 Bruening report discussed above further revealed that the media’s failure to promote African-American female athletes in any substantial way outside of basketball and track and field had the effect of silencing the African American female athletes.  The lack of exposure developed or reinforced beliefs within African American female athletes that they reside on the outer edges of the female athlete community; that they are marginalized.  Marginalized persons (or those who believe they are marginalized) often react to their position in society by being less vocal and staying in the “accepted” roles, thereby reinforcing their positions in society.  The idea is that if African American athletes only see themselves promoted in basketball and track and field, then they will be less inclined to try other sports and those who play other sports will be less inclined to speak out about their presence.  If the lack of exposure marginalizes African American female athletes, undoubtedly, it has the same affect on other nonwhite female athletes.  The media’s refusal to promote a diverse pool of female athletes has essentially created an environment where very few female athletes of color feel compelled or justified to make their voices heard in the marketplace because they believe that their voices simply are not marketable.  While it’s bad enough that the media’s one-sided portrayal of female athletes has silenced a large portion of the population, what is worse are the effects on young girls.    

The Next Generation

If the media’s portrayal of female athletes has the power to influence current athletes, I am certain that it has the potential to influence how young girls choose which sports they would like to participate in.  I am sure that if young Asian American girls watch television and only see women who look like them playing golf, or young Latin American girls rarely see women who look like them playing sports at all; the chances of these ladies picking up a basketball are probably significantly smaller than the chance of a young Caucasian girl doing the same.  The media creates images and those images create beliefs in those who consume those images.  For young impressionable minds, those images can create long lasting beliefs that define what young girls aspire to become as adults.  The lack of diversity in the media promotes a lack of diversity in the minds of young girls, perpetuating stereotypes that women of color are confined to participating in a limited number of sports.  As young girls cling to a select group of sports, or no sports at all, the overall all talent pool in sports suffers.  We’ll never know just how fast Asian Americans can run and African American women can swim if these little girls are not shown that they can step out of the false comfort zone that the media has created4.  

What we Consider

Just as the media influences current athletes and young girls, it also influences society as a whole.  The media’s generally whitewashed portrayal of female athletes suggests two things: 1) that female athletes of color have talents and affinities skewed towards particular sports and 2) there are no limits for Caucasian female athletes.  In his book, The Sports Gene, David Epstein tackles the very touchy subject of race and athletic superiority.  Epstein shows that athletic abilities are tied to genetics/physical build (which are sometimes influenced by geographic location), and practice.  Those genetic/physical characteristics are found in people of all racial backgrounds so that if a woman of Asian descent had the right height and wingspan and IQ and work ethic, she could be just as successful at basketball as a woman of African descent with those same characteristics.  So it’s not race that defines athletic abilities, but genetics and hard work.  Instead of showing this by promoting women in sports from various racial backgrounds, the media promotes stereotypes about sports and racial groups: African Americans run and play basketball, Asian Americans play golf, and Caucasian Americans do it all, skiing, swimming, soccer, gymnastics, etc.; leaving viewers to believe that such are facts.  Of course there are exceptions to the rule, like gold medalist Gabby Douglas.  But those exceptions require women of color do something extraordinary, like be the first woman of color to win the all-around competition, before they are promoted on the same level as their Caucasian counterparts who are often widely promoted having accomplished less extraordinary feats.  Until the media diversifies its portrayal of female athletes, what we consider acceptable sports for women of color may not change.

The Challenge

Racism, overt or otherwise, is never ok.  It is especially important that racism not find its place in sports because sports are universal.  They can and are enjoyed by all, and all should feel free to participate without being hampered by sentiments that are based on fear and ignorance.  For overt racism, the challenge is to counter the negative acts with positive speech that educates and encourages tolerance.  For systematic racism, the challenge is to encourage the promotion of women from all backgrounds.  Of course this may be difficult, considering the fact that the market for the promotion of female athletes is relatively small when compared to the market for male athletes.  But difficult does not an excuse make.  Executives and representatives have to be willing to challenge the status quo by promoting what is different, and society has to be willing to demand that the athletes they see look more like the real population of athletes who exist.  So who’s up for the challenge? 

Footnotes

1.  Bruening, J. E., Armstrong, K. L., & Pastore, D. L. (2005). Listening to the voices: The experiences of African American female student athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport,76(1), 82-100.

2. While the study did not touch on women of other races, I’m willing to bet that a similar study on the representation of other non-white female athletes would produce similar results. 

3. In my article entitled Media Darlings, I briefly touched on the idea that the media purposefully chooses who to promote based on how well they fit the stereotypical definition of beauty: fair skin, straight hair and thin.

4. I am not suggesting that things like socioeconomic background and geography do not play a role in girls’ choices in sports, because they do.  However, pushing other factors aside, the media plays a key role in promoting sports.  

THE OTHER INTEGRATIONISTS

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This Friday, April 12, 2013, 42 the story of Jackie Robinson hits theaters.  Who doesn’t love America’s favorite pastime?!  I’m particularly excited because I love to see the stories of people of color’s impact on American history told on the big screen.  In my excitement about 42, I began to reflect on African American women in baseball.  I did a little googling and came across three women who left their mark in men’s baseball.

Toni Stone

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A woman who refused to wear a skirt or shorts while she played baseball with the men, Toni Stone played second base as the replacement for Hank Aaron for the Indianapolis Clowns.  Stone was born on January 21, 1921, in West Virginia but was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota.  In 1953, when she signed with the Clowns, she became the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues.   Stone passed away in 1996 but not before being inducted in the Women’s Sports Foundation International Hall of Fame in 1985. 

Connie Morgan

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An all-around athlete, Connie Morgan, was born in Philadelphia in 1935.  From 1949 until 1954, Morgan played for the all-female baseball team, the North Philadelphia Drippers and played for the city’s Rockettes, a basketball team, in the off-season.  After hearing that the Clowns signed Stone, Morgan contacted Clowns’ owner, Syd Pollack, and requested a tryout.  Morgan went on to play for the Clowns for two seasons and then retired from the sport.  After being inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, Morgan passed away in 1996. 

Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson

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Hailing from my home state of South Carolina, Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson grew up loving baseball and fashioning bats from tree limbs, bases from pie plates and balls from rocks wrapped in tape.  Not satisfied with the level of play in women’s softball or baseball, Johnson found her way to the Negro Leagues.  In 1953, Johnson, a pitcher, became the third woman signed to the Clowns.  After a career that included 33 wins, 8 losses, and a batting average of 270, Johnson went on to practice as a registered nurse and often coached youth baseball teams. 

Not Woman Enough

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Shortly before the start of the 2012 Olympic games in London two of the world’s largest and most powerful governing athletic bodies; the International Association of Athletics Foundations (“IAAF”), responsible for regulating international track and field competition, and the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”), the governing body of the Olympics, enacted new rules that may significantly alter women’s sports.  The organizations enacted rules that target women with hyperandrogenism (see below for definition) after the world embarrassingly questioned the sexuality of Caster Semenya, a young South African runner, pictured below.  In August 2009, Semenya raced in and won the 800-meter event at the Berlin World Championship in Athletics by a margin of 2.45 seconds.  Her competitors immediately vocalized their concerns about her sexuality.  These concerns sparked a media frenzy which led to the extensive testing and the release of embarrassing details about Semenya’s sexuality.  The scrutiny was so intense that it forced Semenya into hiding and to seek counseling.  After the IAAF banned Semenya from competition while it conducted its investigation, the IAAF eventually let Semenya’s victory stand.  Her victory was upheld because Semenya was not cheating, nor was she a man.  She was diagnosed as having a condition known as hyperandrogenism.  With the damage done to Semenya’s privacy and her career, the IAAF and IOC set about devising rules that would prevent such public humiliation and maintain the integrity of female competition.  Unfortunately, the new rules have missed the mark.  The rules on hyperandrogenism are based on unproven scientific assumptions and limited views of gender and sexuality.  This essay attempts to expose the new rules and calls for their appeal.

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The Rules

In our quest for what is fair and righteous, lawyers like to start with the law.  So start with the law I shall.  The IAAF establishes two methods by which hyperandrogenic women come under the purview of the new rules.  Either a woman who knows she is hyperandrogenic can report herself to the IAAF, or another party who is suspicious that an athlete is hyperandrogenic may report the suspected athlete. In order to compete, athletes who are known to have hyperandrogenism must submit to medical treatments designed to “normalize” testosterone levels.  If the athlete declines such treatments, she is banned from competition.  If IAAF officials believe that an athlete is hyperandrogenic, the athlete must submit herself to any combination of three tests that analyze the athlete’s androgen levels and overall physical and mental health.  These tests and the results are submitted to a panel of medical “experts” for review and determination of eligibility. If an athlete’s testosterone levels are found to be “below the normal male range” or “within the normal male range but [she] has androgen resistance,” then she is allowed to compete.  If not, however, the athlete is ineligible to compete unless she is willing to subject herself to medical treatments designed to bring her body under conditions suitable for competition.  The full codification of the rules can be found here.  IOC’s rules are similar to the IAAF’s, and maybe found here.

The Science…or Lack Thereof

Before delving into the problems with IOC and IAAF’s new rules, it’s important to understand the science, or lack thereof, behind the new rules. 

Hyperandrogenism (hy-per-an´dro-jen-izm) refers to a condition in which a person experiences excessive androgen secretions.  (From here on, HA will be used to refer to hyperandrogenism) Androgens are steroids that control the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics.  For purposes of this discussion, HA refers to the condition where a female naturally produces excessive amounts of testosterone.  The increased amounts of testosterone cause hyperandrogenic females to have features commonly associated with males, but there is no question that they are female.  So what’s the big deal?  Why are there new rules for women with HA?

Many have been taught that testosterone gives males athletic abilities that are superior to females.  Supposedly, it allows them to throw farther, jump higher, and run faster.   Following that train of thought, if a female naturally produces more testosterone then most females, as do females with HA, the theory is that they will display athletic abilities that are superior to other females.  The new rules seek to prevent females with naturally elevated levels of testosterone from competing against females with normal testosterone levels.  Well, one big, better yet HUGE, problem with this theory is that the link between testosterone and athleticism, especially in females, has not been proven.  Stated another way, there is no evidence that shows that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful athletes.  That is not to say that there is no evidence that testosterone does not help individuals increase their muscle size, strength and endurance, because there is. But no study has shown that testosterone makes people more athletic.  Athleticism requires more than strength.  Think about the extra buff, body builders who are strong but not necessarily athletic.  What has been proven is that individuals have different responses to the same amounts of testosterone, females do not react to testosterone the same way that males do, and that testosterone is just ONE component in the complex neuroendocrine feedback system that may affect athletic performances.

In an effort to prove my point let’s consider females with two different diseases that relate to testosterone.   First, there is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS).  Females with CAIS have tissue that is completely unresponsive to testosterone.  Despite this, females with CAIS are overrepresented among elite athletes.  Testosterone plays absolutely no role in their athleticism, but they dominate their sports. [See hurdler María José Martínez Patiño]  Second, there is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH).  Females with CAH have high levels of testosterone; however, they are disproportionately affected by short stature and obesity, the antitheses of athleticism.  These conditions support the arguments that while testosterone functions similarly in females and males, testosterone’s effects on athletic abilities are different in males and females and testosterone probably is not what makes one female more athletic than another.  In sum, relying on testosterone to determine athletic ability, especially in females, is not supported by actual science.  At least until science supports the theory that increased testosterone in females provides a competitive edge, I think the rules should be repealed.

99 Problems

My analysis of the rules could have stopped at the fact that they are based on incomplete science, but that just wouldn’t drive my point home strongly enough.  The problems with the rules add up…

First, there are two justifications for the new rules, both of which are unsupported.  One justification is health.  The IAAF’s preface to its rules suggests that the rules were designed out of a concern for the health of athletes who have HA.  Actually, there are many instances where there are no clear health risks for females with HA.  If a hyperandrogenic athlete competes successfully, chances are that her condition is not negatively affecting her health at all.  Furthermore, after an athlete is diagnosed with HA nothing in the rules suggests that the IAAF will offer any financial aid towards medical treatment.  The rules’ second and most publicized justification is competitive fairness.  The IAAF and the IOC both use competitive fairness as one of the main motivators behind the new rules; however, as I have already explained there is no evidence that testosterone is solely responsible for providing athletes with a competitive edge.  The IAAF and IOC seem to suggest that HA gives females superwoman-type of abilities; however, the facts just don’t support this line of thought.  For example, while Semenya’s Berlin results showed an improvement over her earlier times, her performance only ranked 26th overall for women and 7th for girls.  Plenty of females had run faster than Semenya, and her times did not even rank on the men’s or boy’s lists.  Her HA certainly did not turn her into a super-competitor.  The legitimacy of the IAAF and IOC’s motives for the new rules just don’t withstand a rational test.  After analyzing the organizations’ weak arguments for the new rules, it becomes more apparent that the rules are a danger to female sports.

Another issue of significant concern is the blatant sex discrimination that the new rules sanction.  HA affects both females and males.  If increased of testosterone gives females with HA a competitive edge, why would the same not be true for males?  Why not enact a similar series of rules, tests, and bans for males?  After all, it would be no fairer for “normal” males to compete against hyperandrogenic males than it is for “normal” females to compete against hperandrogenic females, right?  That females are held to a completely different standard than males is quite disturbing, especially when the rules are supposedly based on fact and science.

Not far removed from the issue of sexual inequality in testing, is the fact that the IAAF and IOC have somewhat arbitrarily decided on an acceptable range for testosterone levels in female competitors.   The rules require that female competitors have testosterone levels lower than the “normal” male range.  The “normal” male range is ≥10 nmol/L.  The rules simply require that the females’ testosterone levels be less than 10 nmol/L without providing an actual range for normal female testosterone.  Supposedly, the average female has testosterone levels that are one-tenth of the average male levels, or 1 nmol/L of testosterone.  If, as the rules suggest, above average testosterone gives females a competitive edge, why are females who register at 9 nmol/L, for instance, more worthy of competing than females who register at 10 nmol/L?

The legtitimacy of the rules is again questioned when other genetic defects are taken into account.  Though not commonly known to the masses, many elite athletes are born with exceptional biological variations that give them athletic advantages.  Some runners and cyclists have rare mitochondrial variations that give them extraordinary aerobic capacity and resistance against fatigue.  Some elite athletes have variations in genes that affect muscle growth and efficiency and blood flow to skeletal muscles.  In fact, many speculate that Olympian Michael Phelps has Marfan’s syndrome, a rare genetic mutation that results in exceptionally long limbs and flexible joints, that helps to make him an exceptional swimmer.  These are just a few examples that show that there are many elite athletes who have genetic variations that give competitive edges.  These athletes are, however, allowed to compete.  HA, if it gives a competitive advantage at all, is no different than any other genetic variation.  Hyperandrogenic females have not introduced any foreign substance into their bodies and should not be banned from competition or be forced to endure treatments to alter their natural biology as if they have.  99 problems lead to the question: Why such different treatment for HA?

Gender: Not Woman Enough

I believe that gender discrimination is at the heart of the new rules.  The new rules are solely about gender and discriminate against females who phenotypically appear to be less female than many of their counterparts.  Gender refers to the psychological and behavioral traits that are designated as “masculine” or “feminine,” i.e., traits considered more common for or appropriate to boys and men versus girls and women.  Sex, on the other hand, refers to the biological and anatomical traits that are used to label a person as female or male.  IAAF and IOC rules are not aimed at sex testing.  Both organizations accept the fact that athletes with HA are in fact female, and that they have not introduced any foreign substance into their bodies.  The rules target females who look like males, not those who have the athletic abilities of males.

When Caster Semenya was forced to undergo tests for HA, the tests were driven, not by her performance, but by concerns for her image.  In speaking of Semenya following her now famed Berlin run, writers referred to her as “breathtakingly butch” and a “hermaphrodite.”  Her competitors called her a man saying, “these kinds of people should not be allowed to run with us.”  She was placed under the microscope not because she had done some remarkable feat, but because her look, too masculine for some, made competitors uncomfortable.  Remember, her times were nothing extraordinary.  The rules, prompted by the Semenya incident, which allow athletes and coaches to report females they believe have HA opens the door for females to have to submit themselves to testing simply because they do not fit into the socially accepted norms of femininity; not because of a legitimate concern about fair competition.  Attacks on the outward appearances of female athletes will not ensure a fair playing field, but will reinforce paternalistic definitions of what a female should be.  Instead of giving female athletes the freedom to be themselves and compete to the best of their abilities the rules pressure them to conform to popular notions of gender or shy away from competition all together to avoid scrutiny.

Attacks on gender have the potential to seriously detract from the growth and prominence of female sports.  Instead of focusing on performance, the rules encourage debate about femininity.  For years women and girls have fought to have their athletic accomplishments legitimized.  The rules open the door for athletes and the public to challenge the legitimacy of athletic performances simply because a competitor does not fit the mold not because legitimate evidence of competitive unfairness exists.  They condone boxing athletes into arbitrary perimeters of what a female should look like, and promote fears about those who do not fit some image of the “model women.”

The image of a woman as feminine and docile has been defined from a largely white, male perspective that leaves little room for acceptance of different definitions of womanhood.  Confined definitions of womanhood promote discrimination when a female does not fit the mold.  Compare the public’s reaction to Semenya’s victory to that of Nadzeya Ostapchuk, the Belarus shot putter. Ostapchuk, pictured below, won the gold medal in the shot put in the 2012 Olympics in London.  While arguably Ostapchuk looks no less masculine than Semenya, none of Ostapchuk’s competitors questioned her sexuality.  However, after testing positive for steroids, Ostapchuk was stripped of her gold medal.  Ostapchuk’s tests were not a result of a public outcry about her appearance as too masculine, but as a result of the testing that every athlete must submit themselves to after winning an Olympic medal.  Here we have a situation where a complete new set of rules was established because a South African runner, who had introduced no foreign substance into her body, did not look the part while no one questioned the woman from Belarus who too lacked the feminine touch but was in fact cheating.  Could it have been Semenya’s skin color, dark like her ancestors from Africa; her hair, braided in a style less embodied by Europeans; or her build, strong and chiseled, that made her susceptible to public scrutiny?  If any one of those things led to the disparate treatment between Semenya and Ostapchuk, it shouldn’t be so.  One individual’s athletic performance should not be scrutinized based on her appearance, and the IAAF and IOC rules allow for just that.

 

Conclusion

I do not doubt that the IAAF and IOC had admiral intentions when enacting the new rules on HA in female competitors.  I believe however that engrained ideals of masculinity and femininity drove the organizations to rely on incomplete science to silence public outcry.  While the rules have the potential to harm female sports and female athletes who do not fit the accepted norm of womanhood, it is not too late for the rules to be repealed.  No one thing makes us females.  Females come in all shapes, sizes and colors; with different athletic, mental and social abilities; and should not be hindered by antiquated beliefs about what they should do and how they should look while doing it.  The new, and unjustified, rules on HA lack scientific backing, they discriminate against females and athletes with unusual genetic mutations, and they promote gender discrimination.  With so many problems and no solutions, we have to ask, what’s taking so long for the rules to be repealed?

Scientific Source

Karkazis, Katrina. Out of Bounds. The American Journal of Bioethics, 12(7): 3–16, 2012. Available here.