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Spinning in the end zone

As activists scrutinize the world of sports for evidence of discrimination, they are being met with fierce resistance from fans, coaches and administrators who warn against imposing “politically correct” ideas on games. MSNBC’s Alex Johnson reports.
Former football coach Hayden Fry said he had the visiting locker room at the University of Iowa painted pink to take the competitive edge off opposing teams. Critics said it was a homophobic dig to mock his opponents’ masculinity.David Wallace / AP/File
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There’s an old joke in Alabama:

St. Peter greets a man at the Pearly Gates and gives him a tour of heaven. They stop at a cloud where a big man is yelling and throwing his weight around.

“Who’s that?” the newcomer asks. “That’s Knute Rockne,” Peter says. “He thinks he’s God.”

They stop at another cloud, where another big man is yelling and acting tough. “That’s John Heisman. He thinks he’s God.”

They come upon the same scene at a third cloud.

“Who’s that?”

“Oh, that’s God. He thinks he’s Bear Bryant.”

Sports are wondrously important. Along with love of God and love of country, love of your team is part of the holy trinity unifying Americans.

The sports world is also, perhaps, the closest thing to a pure meritocracy in our society; all that matters, ostensibly, is whether you’re better than the other guy. That makes loyalty easy. There are few complications of race, economics or faith.

So when someone comes along to question whether a particular cherished tradition is consonant with a free and equal society, neck hairs rise.

Perpetuating a stereotype, or paying for one?
Erin Buzuvis, an adjunct law lecturer at the University of Iowa, is one person raising questions.

For years, the visiting locker room at Iowa’s football stadium has been painted pink, a tradition that goes back to the days of Coach Hayden Fry, a psychology major who said it would calm his opponents’ competitive edge. After a recent renovation, every surface in the locker room — floors, walls, showers, urinals — is pink.

Buzuvis objected in a posting on her Weblog this year, saying the pink locker room fostered homophobia because pink was associated with girls and gay men. E-mail messages threatening her life soon followed, the school’s general counsel confirmed. (The blog has been pulled down, and Buzuvis no longer talks to reporters.)

Buzuvis’ sin was not one of perpetuating a stereotype. It was the sin of pointing one out.

As cultural activists increasingly scrutinize the world of sports for evidence of discrimination, they are being met with fierce resistance from fans, coaches and administrators who warn against imposing “politically correct” liberal ideas on a pursuit they think should remain free of politics and ideology.

Activists run the risk of heavy criticism if they question why Tiger Woods is the only African-American player on the PGA Tour, or why there are less than a handful of black coaches in Division I-A football, or why some people want the Washington Redskins to change their team name.

“It’s very easy to get in trouble, and I think it’s the kind of thing that people don’t want to talk about, being politically correct, because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing,” said Ronald Dick, an assistant professor and director of the Sports Sales Lab at James Madison University.

‘The new sports magazine for the beast in you!’
Which is good for Ben Wyant. He is an organizer and contributing editor of The Journal of Sports, an online magazine that launched last week.

The Journal of Sports has a simple pitch: “Tired of wimpy and politically correct publications and web sites? Well, fret no more because Journal of Sports is the down and dirty — tell it like it is SPORTS site!” it says. As if to prove its point, one of its first postings features a photograph of blonde Hungarian handball star Szabina Tapai (who “has captivated the hearts and minds of sports beasts the world over”) and the line “Is that a handball ... or are you just glad to see me?”

Wyant said in an interview that he was eager to get discussion rolling on a lot of controversial questions, among them the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s partial ban on American Indian mascots and the disintegration of athletes’ loyalty to their teams. (There’s a whole section devoted to wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was kicked off the team last week by the Philadelphia Eagles.)

The Journal, Wyant said, is important because the pressures to conform to a “politically correct” construct often stifle open debate, especially among the site’s target audience of young men.

“I think that a lot of times, people don’t necessarily say what they want to say,” he said. “A lot of times, I think a lot of things are controlled, a lot of our media are controlled.”

Wyant said his own take wasn’t quite as outrageous as that of the site. Indeed, he said, it’s irrelevant whether he agrees with the material on it. What is relevant, however, is that sports fans need a place to vent without fear of being labeled racist, sexist or sectarian.

“This is a forum and a place for people to go and feel free to discuss issues, to talk about sports and the culture of sports, the culture of our society and how it’s changed, maybe, in the last 20 years and how things are reflected on today,” Wyant said.

“The thing about sports is people get real passionate about it.”

Avoiding the landmines
For sports executives, it’s not that simple. If you’re trying to market the Women’s National Basketball Association, which has wrestled with perceptions that its main appeal is among lesbian fans, what do you do with superstar Sheryl Swoopes’ revelation last month that she is gay?

Especially when she tells MSNBC’s Rita Cosby in an interview that she rejected the prevailing medical and psychological theory that gay men and lesbians are born that way.

(To pick just one recent example.)

“When you market the WNBA in Houston [where Swoopes plays for the Comets], you market it to the average 2.2-kids, white-picket-fence Mom and Dad. And then you also market it to the alternative lifestyle,” said Dick, the James Madison professor. He spent 13 years in sales with teams in the men’s NBA, which owns the women’s league.

Even though you’re running the risk of a backlash — potentially from both sides, in Swoopes’ case — you have to “get the word out to people that are not heterosexual. I think that’s a difficult thing to do, and the WNBA is really struggling with it,” he said.

Sports leagues are businesses, and they must always grow their fan bases. Multibillion-dollar worldwide advertising support demands it — never mind the societal complications.

“We have to take those blinders off and realize that this is being seen globally,” Dick said, pointing to impressive audiences for the Super Bowl around the world.

“I can go into Tokyo, I can go into Germany, I can go into Italy, I can go into Australia and buy a Coke,” he said. “As a result I do have to sell a lot of Cokes.”

That means you have to make your sport as appealing as possible to as many people as possible — traditionalists and those offended by the traditions alike. It’s especially difficult with the question of Indian team mascots, because the land hasn’t yet been fully mapped.

Rule Number 1
Dick was speaking a day after James Madison’s football team beat William & Mary College. William & Mary’s mascot is the Tribe. It got him to thinking.

“The William & Mary Tribe. Is that offensive?” he asked. “No, it’s not, but the Redskins are? The Seminoles — is that offensive?

“I think you have to begin to prepare for a name change,” he concluded, “but at the same time, I think it has to be forced by the people that, inevitably, it would offend.”

He took his lesson from the experience of St. John’s University, which caused something of an uproar when it abandoned its Redmen mascot in 1994. The furor eventually died down. Likewise, when the Warriors of Marquette University became the Golden Eagles the same year, “was it really that hard?”

“We live in amazing times,” Dick said. “When you deal with the public, as I have done before, you need to be sensitive to their needs and wants. ... The public’s never wrong. That’s rule Number 1. Rule Number 2 is: When the public’s wrong, see rule Number 1.”