Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The National Basketball Association and Global Consumption

The N.B.A. has built community basketball courts in neighborhoods across India, like Nagpada in Mumbai.

Kobe Bryant is the most popular basketball player in China, but there is no denying that basketball in China was given a colossal push when Yao Ming made it to the N.B.A.'s Houston Rockets and quickly emerged as a star player. In an interesting article in The New York Times, Jeremy Kahn refers to Ming's impact in China as a "Yao Ming Moment" -- the point when Ming served as a catalyst who invigorated a critical mass of Chinese basketball fans that would not just follow Ming, but become fans of the N.B.A. in general.

With a critical mass of Chinese now playing basketball and firmly following the N.B.A., the league is turning to the world's second most populated country, India, in hopes that the sport's relatively inexpensive structure will eventually stimulate an "Indian Yao" and new mass market:

... basketball’s popularity could grow rapidly in India because of the sport’s relative simplicity and the fact that a court can be created almost anywhere one can hang a hoop. This gives it an advantage over soccer and cricket, which require open fields. Basketball also requires little
specialized equipment.

A core part of the N.B.A.’s expansion strategy in India is increasing grass-roots participation, based on the belief that people who play basketball are also more likely to follow the N.B.A. The league also knows that the more Indians who play basketball, the more likely it is that one day an Indian player will be good enough to make the leap to the N.B.A. — an event that could vastly expand the league’s popularity in the world’s second-most-populous nation.

Considering the N.B.A. a global business, it is important to illustrate how players are constructed as international symbols, used to further the capitalist culture. As explained in Robbins's (2011) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, the capitalist culture, or consumer culture specifically, divides people into three distinct statuses, which each have separately defined roles in perpetuating mass accumulation:
  • Capitalists - encourage the accumulation of profit

  • Laborers - encourage the accumulation of wages

  • Consumers - encourage the accumulation of goods (p. 11)

But there are what Robbins refers to as "sandpainters," who truly orchestrate society's obsession with mass consumption.

...every society has its sandpainters, those individuals who are given or who take responsibility for representing the universe to others and who have the power to define those elements that are essential for others in locating and defining their identities.... In capitalism, the sandpainter works in churches, synagogues, or mosques, and in theaters, in front of television sets, at sporting events, or in the shopping malls that reaffirm the vision of abundance central to the consumers' view of the world. Contemporary sandpainters...create a vision of the world designed to maximize the production and consumption of goods. (p. 13).

In this case, the N.B.A. executives who begin their early marketing stages in India are the "sandpainters" who hope to find their first symbolic Indian basketball player that will turn basketball into a perceived need for that critical mass of Indian boys and young men -- the potential consumer group. More from The NY Times article:

A core part of the N.B.A.’s expansion strategy in India is increasing grass-roots participation, based on the belief that people who play basketball are also more likely to follow the N.B.A. The league also knows that the more Indians who play basketball, the more likely it is that one day an Indian player will be good enough to make the leap to the N.B.A. — an event that could vastly expand the league’s popularity in the world’s second-most-populous nation.

As the N.B.A. sandpainters take their early steps, building a perceived need for basketball among Indian boys and young men through the development of the first Indian star with mad basketball skills, a few questions are worth asking. Is the N.B.A. truly trying to spread the game for the sake of community development? Or, is it about developing the next big market that will purchase Kobe's and LeBron's jerseys?

Photo via
The New York Times

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

This is SportsCenter: The Predictable Gender Trend

On today’s SportsCenter, ESPN closed out showing their “This is SportsCenter” commercials. As described on ESPN’s official YouTube, "This is SportsCenter" channel:

This is SportsCenter is the name of a series of comical television commercials run by ESPN to promote their SportsCenter sports news show. The ads are presented in a deadpan mockumentary style, lampooning various aspects of sports, and sports broadcasting. The commercials debuted in 1994.

As of tonight (December 24, 2010), ESPN’s YouTube channel profiles 77 of these short videos. Not every "This is SportsCenter" commercial is profiled, but I'm just going with what is up on this page now as the sample data set. I generally enjoy these commercials. Many of them are witty, and they are all short (around 30 seconds). Here are a few examples:

As can be seen, the commercials typically profile a famous athlete and/or a SportsCenter anchor, and on occasion a non-sports-related celebrity (e.g., Richard Simmons). In examining what athletes the commercials profile on
ESPN's YouTube page, a highly predictable trend emerges. Here are the individual athletes the commercials profile (note: when no athletes are profiled and only anchors, gender of anchors profiled noted instead):

  1. Dwight Freeney (football; male)

  2. Derek Jeeter (baseball; male)

  3. Floyd Mayweather (boxing; male)

  4. Tim Lincecum (baseball; male)

  5. Wayne Gretzky (hockey; male)

  6. Dwight Howard (basketball; male)

  7. David St. Hubbins (musician; male)

  8. Arnold Palmer (golf; male)

  9. Oregon Duck (football; gender neutral)

  10. Usain Bolt (track & field; male)

  11. Larry Fitzgerald (football; male)

  12. Matt Ryan (football; male)

  13. Brett Favre (football; male)

  14. Adrian Peterson (football; male)

  15. Joe Mauer (baseball; male)

  16. Adrian Peterson (football; male)

  17. Manny Ramierz (baseball; male)

  18. Josh Hamilton (baseball; male)

  19. SportsCenter Anchors (all male)

  20. Jimmie Johnson (car racing; male)

  21. SportsCenter Anchors (all male)

  22. Manny Ramirez (baseball; male)

  23. David Ortiz & Jorge Posada (baseball; male)

  24. David Wright (baseball; male)

  25. Chad Ochocinco (football; male)

  26. Chad Ochocinco (football; male)

  27. Ladanian Tomlinson (football; male)

  28. Chad Ochocinco (football; male)

  29. Tony Romo (football; male)

  30. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, & Ray Allen (basketball; male)

  31. Michael Phelps (swimming; male)

  32. Ladanian Tomlinson (football; male)

  33. Jim Kelly (football; male)

  34. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (car racing; male)

  35. Chad Ochocinco (football; male)

  36. Stephen King (writer; male)

  37. Michael Phelps (swimming; male)

  38. Jimmy Rollins (baseball; male)

  39. Richard Simmons (fitness pro; male)

  40. Maria Sharapova (tennis; female)

  41. Steve Smith (football; male)

  42. Jose Reyes (baseball; male)

  43. Pat Summit (basketball; female)

  44. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (car racing; male)

  45. Carmelo Anthony (basketball; male)

  46. Chris Paul (basketball; male)

  47. Keyshawn Johnson (football; male) & Kobe Bryant (basketball; male)

  48. "Moving the Franchise" (all male anchors)

  49. "Yahtzee" (male anchors)

  50. Kerri Strug (gymnastics; female)

  51. "Talent Search" (male anchors)

  52. Globetrotters (basketball; male)

  53. Dan O'Brien (track & field; male)

  54. "Journalistic Integrity" (male anchors)

  55. "Sportscaster Celebrities" (male anchors)

  56. "Live on the Set" (predominantly male anchors; female anchor at end)

  57. Michael Andretti (car racing; male)

  58. Gordie Howe (hockey; male)

  59. "Reading Lips" (all male anchors)

  60. "Makeup Buddies" (all male anchors)

  61. "Athletes Bribing" (multiple male athletes from different sports)

  62. George Mikan (basketball; male)

  63. Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics; female)

  64. "Tour" (all male anchors)

  65. "One Track Mind" (predominanty male anchors; female anchor at start)

  66. "Shoot" (female anchor)

  67. "Paws" (all male anchors)

  68. "Serious Journalism" (all male anchors)

  69. "Write Your Own Stuff" (all male anchors)

  70. "Sweet Science" (predominantly male anchor; short appearances by a female anchor)

  71. "Potty Talk" (male anchor)

  72. "Memories" (all male anchors)

  73. Keshawn Johnson (football; male) & Kobe Bryant (basketball; male)

  74. Glenn Robinson (basketball; male)

  75. Barry Melrose (hockey; male)

  76. Landon Donovan (soccer; male)

  77. Jimmie Johnson (car racing; male)

When going through the data set, we find that out of the 77 commercials, women only appear 8 times (10.4%), in some cases in relatively peripheral roles. When looking specifically at athletes, only 3 female athletes are profiled, all 3 of whom represent historically "acceptibly feminine" sports: Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug (both gymnasts) and Maria Sharapova (tennis). One commercial profiles Pat Summit, the famous women's basketball coach from the University of Tennessee. All other commercials featuring athletes have males.

Examining the content of the commercials is also important. For instance, the commercial with Sharapova clearly relies on Sharapova's status as a femininized beauty figure in athletics. And while all the commercials are "presented in deadpan mockumentary style," the humor clearly calls upon dominant notions of heterosexual masculinity -- take for example the commercials that mock femininity among males, such as those in which the male anchors share makeup and mock Richard Simmons as a conditioning coach.

The trends shown here are highly predictable. It is hardly surprising that males are over-represented numerically in the commercials, both as athletes and anchors. Likewise, it is unsurprising that the humor utilized in these commercials so often mocks femininity among males in the sporting world or uses female athletes as sexualized figures.

What we see here in ESPN's "This is SportsCenter" commercials is the typical way that gender is constructed in sport -- patriarchy is reified within an institution historically reserved for heterosexual males.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reality Television and Hegemonic Masculinity: Bridalplasty

Seriously, someone should create a sociology blog dedicated entirely to critiquing reality television. I suppose you'd have to be kind of a reality TV-nut, but the content would be limitless. I caught a little bit of a reality TV show called "Bridalplasty" today and couldn't watch much, so correct me if I'm wrong in the show's premise.

From what I could tell, the show revolves around engaged women competing for two things: (1) a paid celebrity-esque dream wedding; and (2) paid plastic surgery to "improve" the way they look for the dream wedding. As with most reality shows, the contestants go through a series of competitions that provoke conflict and drama as winners of competitions move on and losers are dropped.

The show exemplifies hegemonic masculinity working at its best:

  • The female contestants seem to truly believe that in order to improve themselves, they must engage in behaviors that actually extend male privilege (e.g., manipulating their physical appearance), an excellent example of false consciousness.

  • Symbolically, the leader/host of the show is also female, who represents "ideal" beauty from a traditional western standard (I wonder if the producers are male).

  • Rather than challenging these gender roles that obviously value women for their physical appearance, the women are forced to challenge each other (divide and conquer).

  • Males make minimal appearances on the show (or at least in the promos), but when they do, they are seen as doctors (high status plastic surgeons) or in clips as future husbands (the men these female contestants are trying to please).

  • Heterosexuality is normalized.

Another way of putting it, the show is among the most extreme examples of emphasized femininity -- women heighten the focus they place on physical appearance, are willing to risk their own health in doing so, and further value themesleves through a dream wedding that will last a day. All this in the name of being attractive for their male fiancees.

Enjoy a few YouTube videos advertising the show:

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More Gendered Mobile Phones

I've written a few other entries on the ways that gender is constructed in mobile phone commercials (see here and here). And here is another commercial, clearly relying on gender-role expectations for Net10:

Pretty self-explanatory...

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Monday, December 6, 2010

More Football Violence

Sometimes it's difficult for me to reconclie being a football fan. As you can see in the video, he got up and walked away on his own.

Made me think neckrolls might be appropriate for the NFL.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sport, Sex, and Cinema: ESPN the Magazine

ESPN The Magazine has a "Movie Spectacular" edition that was released Nov. 29. The edition features a number of stories related to sports films, including pictures of contemporary pro athletes re-enacting iconic images from famous movies.

Some of the pictures include race car driver, Danica Patrick in the movie, "Anchorman," Baron Davis and Terry Kennedy in "Back to the Future," and Tank Johnson, Dhani Jones, and Chad Ochocinco in "The Hangover" (see, below).

Not surprisingly, however, ski racer and Olympic gold medalist, Lindsey Vonn, made the magazine's cover, as she portrayed Sharon Stone's highly sexualized character from "Basic Instinct" back in the early 1990s.

There is not a whole lot to say here, other than this is yet another example of the pathway female athletes can follow if they want to "out-stage" their male counterparts -- by promoting a heightened sexuality. While the other famous athletes do get exposure within the magazine's pages, Vonn graces the cover by showing skin and re-creating a film scene that exudes sexual aggression.

In this constructed combination of sport, sex, and cinema, we see how ESPN -- a media giant in the sporting industry -- markets its magazine to what is likely a predominantly male, heterosexual audience.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Permissible Violence: Kobe Bryant, Jimmy Kimmel, and Call of Duty: Black Ops

In 1997, Hutchins and Phillips published an important article in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, titled "Selling Permissible Violence." The article utilizes Australian rugby to illustrate that standards of violence fluctuate in society. These fluctuating standards of violence are contingent upon the market's commodification of violence, evolving technology and media, and political ideology. And while Hutchins and Phillips's article centers on sporting violence, the concept of permissible violence can be extended to other forms of popular culture, as well as war.

To this end, recently, National Basketball Association (NBA) icon, Kobe Bryant, and television late show host, Jimmy Kimmel, were featured in an XBOX 360 advertisement for the recently released game, "Call of Duty: Black Ops," re-enacting combat in war. Here's the commercial:

Link to commercial here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yzeCsv-qrM

It is important to note a few other dimensions of the commercial. First, it makes a concerted effort to include a very diverse array of additional characters -- men, women, younger people, older people, those from different ethnic and occupational/class groups. This diversity tactic then leads to an ending slogan: "THERE'S A SOLDIER IN ALL OF US." In other words, all of us (supposedly) have the innate capacity and desire to partake in war (or at least buy the video game).

The commercial has generated a small degree of controversy. On ESPN, sports pundits discuss whether or not Bryant's participation in the commercial warrants a response from NBA Commissioner, David Stern:

Bomani Jones hits the nail on the head. With approximately 1 minute left in the video, Jones points out that if Bryant was re-enacting what's portrayed in the video game, Grand Theft Auto (e.g., murder, assaults, prostitution), he would be reprimanded by Commissioner Stern. However, because Bryant, Kimmel and the other actors are re-enacting war against each other, and presumably against American enemies in the game, the portrayed violence is at the very least permissible, and more likely glorified as a kind of American patriotism.

And this is the problem with America's blind fascination with war -- the general public only sees what our media wants us to see. We see the most extreme violence (death) glamorized and commodified in "benign" video games, leaving the public completely misdirected from the realities of war.

Bryant and Kimmel's participation in the commercial, and in turn support of this war-based game, speak nothing to the physical and mental health concerns soldiers (including American soldiers) experience because of war (listen to Terry Gross's fantastic interview for a discussion on soldiers' mental health concerns: Psychologist Craig Bryan: Treating Vets For PTSD).

Likewise, "Call of Duty: Black Ops" speaks nothing to the alleged war crimes that American soldiers have been accused of committing in Iraq and Afghanistan (Leaked U.S. Video Shows Deaths In Baghdad; A Murder Controversy in Afghanistan).

What we see in this commercial, is that war is not just permissible. It is cool. If Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel can have fun re-enacting war games and show "they have a soldier in them," video gamers should likewise view war-based video games that bring death upon others in fiction uncritically. But in real life, these media blitzes simultaneously and covertly also support American military efforts, without problematizing the tragic outcomes of war on all sides of the battlefield.

Should society be glamorizing war to make money, and turning to celebrities to peddle these products? I wonder, how many of the marketers for "Call of Duty: Black Ops" have been in combat, lost a limb, dealt with severe war-related mental health problems, killed someone, or had a loved one killed?

Photo via ESPN; more from The Orlando Sentinel: ESPN shot down by Call of Duty Black Ops creators over Kobe Bryant ad, Examiner.com: Activision denies ESPN use of COD: Black Ops commercial with Kobe Bryant, 'Call of Duty: Black Ops' video game commercial controversy, Media Bistro: Activision Shoots Down ESPN’s Request To Air Kobe Bryant Commercial.

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The National Football League Making Strides Against Breast Cancer

People wondering why the National Football League (NFL) is now America's premier sporting organization can look beyond football's inherent violence. The NFL does a fantastic job of marketing to multiple demographics, including women. While watching NFL highlights today, I noticed players with pink shoes, pink gloves, pink towels, coaches in pink hats, and I thought, "What's up with this?"

The NFL is making a significant and symbolic effort to "
Make Strides Against Breast Cancer":

The NFL, its clubs, players and the NFL Players Association are proud to support the fight against breast cancer. Our campaign, "A Crucial Catch", in partnership with the American Cancer Society, is focused on the importance of annual screenings, especially for women who are 40 and older. Throughout October, NFL games will feature players, coaches and referees wearing pink game apparel, on-field pink ribbon stencils, special game balls and pink coins - all to help raise awareness for this important campaign. All apparel worn at games by players and coaches, along with special game balls and pink coins will be auctioned off at NFL Auction (www.NFL.com/auction), with proceeds benefitting the American Cancer Society and team charities. This is an issue that has directly touched the lives of so many in the NFL family, and we are committed to helping make a difference in breast cancer prevention.

I thought this was an excellent example of a sport that typically exudes traditional masculinity shifting its gendered norms to actively support a cause historically considered a woman's issue. And in this public service announcement, Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, makes this statement, noting how breast cancer has had an impact on his life:

NFL PSA with Larry Fitzgerald

"High five" to the NFL. It would be nice to see more organizations that represent historically male sports (e.g., basketball, MMA, hockey) engage in similar socially responsible efforts, rather than simply supporting social causes that perpetuate violence (e.g., war-related causes).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Racism, Xenophobia, and Homophobia in Combat Sports - The Floyd Mayweather Attack on Manny Pacquiao

If you haven't heard Floyd "Money" Mayweather's recent rant directed towards boxing's current pound-for-pound king, Filipino boxer, Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao, it's worth a listen. YouTube has removed the video, though it can still be seen (and heard) in its entirety HERE. Be forewarned, the content is disturbing to say the least.

Systemic discrimination in sport is nothing new. As I've documented in my blog time and time again, sexism ("
America's Favorite Athletes"; "Yankee Babes vs Phille Babes"; "Blatant Sexism Tolerated"), homophobia ("Homophobic 'Slip'"; "MMA Does Not Get a Pass on Discrimination"), and classism ("Theorizing Violence in Sport"; "Marxist MMA") are rampant in contemporary sport...as is racism.

Attempting to belittle Pacquiao, Mayweather uses blatant racialized language. Embellishing verbal jabs is common in combat sports -- a promotional tactic used to build hype in the midst of long layoffs in between fights. Whether Mayweather is attempting to build "heat" for a possible showdown with Pacquiao or not, the public utilization of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia is unacceptable and requires regulation by the boxing organizations that profit from such promotional tactics. Some of Mayweather's racist, xenophobic, and homophobic

  • @ 0:57: "I'm gonna make that mutherfucker cook me a sushi roll and cook me some rice."
  • @ 1:40: "...gonna cook that mutherfucker with some cats and dogs" (repeated @ 2:18).
  • @ 2:21: "Rice with a little bit of cat, and rice with a little bit of bbq dog."
  • @ 2:50: "Ah man, don't tell me about what Pacquiao did, 3 losses, 2 draws. Ah, hell nah. This America baby. We built on winning. Step your game up faggot."
  • @ 3:10: "Supposed to be talking to Pacquiao, but you know that mutherfucker Pacquiao can't speak no English."
Again, it is not as if this is simply an individual act operating in a vacuum. True, Mayweather may have made these statements on his own. However, he is not the only individual who benefits from these discriminatory statements. Should a Pacquiao-Mayweather mega-fight happen, Mayweather, his opponent (yes, Pacquiao), promoters, the venue owner(s), television pay-per-view companies, etc. will all benefit financially from this type of disgusting discriminatory hype.

In short, the entire industry benefits financially from blatant discrimination. Therefore, it is up to individual athletes and the institutional organizations that run various sports to outlaw discriminatory behavior. As long as the organizations and their leadership allow for this type of glaring discrimination to continue, they are not only complicit in the problem. As direct beneficiaries, they actively contribute to the problem, while sitting covertly in the shadows.

Up next: James "Lights Out" Toney's use of homophobia in MMA.

Photo via The Examiner

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Pocahontas Meets Adriel Luis’ Slip of the Tongue"

Saw this excellent example of how community advocates can re-construct discriminatory cultural artifacts from the mainstream over on Sociological Images.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teaching Sociology: How American Media Uses Violence Against Women in Afghanistan to Veil the Public

One of the more difficult things I find when teaching popular culture is getting students to connect media trends to broader trends in society. It is not difficult for students to identify patterns of discrimination. But identifying discrimination alone misses critical context.

Since 2001, the media has been saturated with coverage of “The War on Terror” (or whatever the slogan of the day is). I recently read an extremely interesting journal article by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar (2005) in Media, Culture & Society, titled “Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan.”

Stabile and Kumar’s article makes the following key points:

  • Prior to 9/11, American politicians and American media were not concerned at all with women’s rights in Afghanistan or other Middle Eastern countries. Following 9/11, all of a sudden, the American military became Afghan women’s saviors across American televisions and in major print sources.

  • American media constructs the military’s efforts to liberate Afghan women from their oppressive Afghan male counterparts as a first-time effort, thereby dismissing any and all efforts Afghan women have taken to liberate themselves.

  • American media fails to acknowledge that when the United States armed and trained the mujahideen in the 1980s to push back the Soviet Union, the CIA was completely aware of the mujahideen’s extreme sexist tendencies. Thus, American efforts were far more invested in securing contracts to oil pipelines through Afghanistan and winning the Cold War than they were in humanitarian/women’s rights.

  • American media never acknowledges that since the Soviet Union was ousted and the Taliban took over Afghanistan (due heavily to American support), Afghan women’s rights declined immensely.

  • And since America’s military presence in Afghanistan, our media suggests Afghan women’s conditions have improved, when in reality they have hardly changed.
Some text from Stabile and Kumar’s article:

When we look at the condition of women today in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that the US never really had their liberation in mind. While some things have changed since the collapse of the Taliban for women, much remains the same. So, for instance, women may now venture out in certain regions without a male escort, but they still do not enjoy basic human rights. And while 1.5 million Afghan children now attend schools – one third of them girls – more than 3 million children do not go to schools because no infrastructure exists. Reports reveal that women are still punished according to Islamic laws. Kabul jail had no women prisoners shortly after the fall of the Taliban, but as of April 2002 women were being incarcerated for crimes such as leaving their husbands or having relationships with members of the opposite sex (Ahmed-Ullah, 2002). One year after the US attacked Afghanistan, the war-ravaged country had the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world (Sierra Leone was number one): 1700 out of every 100,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirth. In the US, the maternal mortality rate is 12 out of every 100,000 (Reuters, 2002). In December 2002, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting continued violence against Afghan women, particularly in the Western regions of Afghanistan (Human Rights Watch, 2001). (p. 775, 776).

The bottom line is that the American media does not present a realistic, accurate portrayal of Afghan women because Afghan women's so-called emancipation due to American efforts serves as a moralistic veil, influencing the American public to continue supporting the war. But what’s clear is American economic, political, and military efforts are not truly invested in Afghan girls’ and women’s rights; they are interested in oil.

How then, do we interpret TIME magazine’s recent issue and its cover portrait, showing Aisha – an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off after she fled her abusive in-laws? Richard Stengel, Managing Editor for TIME, discusses the cover portrait in his article, “The Plight of Afghan Women: A Disturbing Picture”:

In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.

The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time.

Explicitly, it appears TIME is taking an apolitical approach, simply reporting the news so to speak – reporting what is out there, in turn, allowing the public to make their own assessments. Implicitly, however, it is what is not reported (what is never reported) that makes this picture and the attendant discourse entirely political.

The messages implicitly conveyed: Afghan men and Afghan culture are horrible; American culture is great. We are, once again, the white knights coming in to save the tortured, helpless women of color from their demonic brown-skinned men. Orientalist discourse, truly at its best.

The messages never conveyed: American foreign policy helped set the stage for this hideous practice to transpire by knowingly supporting a regime rooted so deeply in sexism years ago. And now, America continues to invest more in its ubiquitous war machine than it does in say Afghan women’s and girls’ education (seriously, how many schools have been built and sustained by American efforts?) or in public health facilities. Oh, and dimensions of sexism (institutionalized and personal) persist in the United States.

At the risk of being opportunistic myself, the TIME magazine portrait and its attendant stories, coupled with Stabile and Kumar’s article make for an excellent teaching/learning opportunity. Simply viewing the TIME magazine cover and articles, one could easily point to horrifically sexist norms, and stop there. With Stabile and Kumar’s article, the questions and discussion become much richer.

Does the mainstream American media inadvertently (or deliberately) collude with American political, economic, and militaristic entities by using women’s rights as an opportunity to make our country look good, when really, we simply want resources? If efforts were truly being made to impede violence against women, why isn’t our military taking a stand in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo (listen to this inspiring podcast)? What should America’s role really be in the Middle East if women's rights are a central concern?

Full Reference:

Stabile, C. A., & Kumar, D. (2005). Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan. Media, Culture & Society, 27 (5), 765-782.

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Mixed Martial Arts, Fighters Rights, and an Enforced Muhammad Ali Act?

For those who believe that a society and all its components are best understood through its economic system, we need to examine external regulation if we are to understand and predict future worker-employer relationships. This is true for any industry, sporting or otherwise, including mixed martial arts (MMA).

Those familiar with combat sports history know that boxing is among the most corrupt sports in the modern era. While all sports include dimensions of constructed spectacle, boxing’s track record in manipulating theatrical drama is particularly bothersome. The backdrop to boxing mega-fights, dramatized press conferences and other pre-fight hype includes a plethora of unknown, underpaid fighters, sacrificed in manufactured mismatches that build prospects’ reputations.

As a combat sport promoted through gladiator type pageantry, MMA inevitably follows a good portion of boxing’s promotional structure. Fighters typically build their reputation at the local level in smaller shows, working their way through modest paydays in organizations that have varying levels of oversight. The sacrifices of today are deemed worthwhile in hopes that financial dreams are realized in a larger organization tomorrow. As noted previously, these hopes and dreams are rarely met, and the stories of unknown fighters remain, unknown.

The process for every fighter is long and arduous – physically taxing on one’s body, emotions, pocketbook, and social network. In working through the process, fighters incessantly go through what Spencer (2009) calls “body callusing” – “whereby the fighter takes his/her body as a site of action and aggressively seeks…to harden the body and turn it into a weapon” (p. 127) that can distribute and endure pain.

Because MMA has been institutionalized for under two decades, we are still unable to tell the long-term health effects its training and competitions have on participants. But considering MMA’s physical demands, it is appropriate to ask how fighters will be protected in the years to come by external regulating bodies, if they are protected at all.

Federal Regulation or Not?

Central to this issue is whether or not industries should be regulated by the free market, states, or federal government. Under the Reagan-Bush era, governmental regulation was defined as a hindrance to individual rights and private enterprise. Essentially, this political ideology professed that entrepreneurs, their innovation and business drive should not be stymied by oppressive federal oversight. The flip side to this political paradigm is that an unbridled free market without regulation fuels brutal business practices where business owners act dishonorably, exploiting labor as they market their product.

With regard to MMA, regulation in the United States materializes on a state by state basis. This was accomplished first in 2000 in New Jersey, just before Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White took over the helm of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2001. Since then, the UFC has actively sought regulation, serving as MMA’s principle lobbyists across the United States and selected cities beyond U.S. borders.

A key topic in the push for regulation is fighter safety, more specifically, how the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat” minimize major sporting injuries. This is one of two publicly debated issues (the other being the glorification of violence). Lost in the public discourse, however, is how regulation protects fighters’ financial interests.

Maher (2010) provides a few notable examples rarely discussed across the MMA media landscape. California, for instance, does not allow individuals who have been licensed within the MMA industry within the past two years to serve on its athletic commission, thereby deterring conflicts of interests between commission members and private MMA organizations. Nevada’s commission requires a “bout agreement” in advance of matches which insures that fighters are compensated their promised purse (i.e., payment).

“Deal content,” or compensation, on the other hand, is currently not regulated. Thus, fighter pay is essentially determined by each individual fighter’s bargaining power, which is contingent upon his/her fight record, management team, and especially public notoriety. In short, there is very little, if anything, in the way of state regulation that assists fighters in advocating for what they may define as fair pay and other occupational rights (e.g., broad-based health insurance). Federally, occupational rights specific to MMA are non-existent.

Bolstering Regulation Via a Federally Enforced Muhammad Ali Act

As stated by Varney (2009), Congress passed the Professional Boxing Safety Act (“Safety Act”) into law in 1996 to help clean up the sport while providing federal oversight. The act requires that (1) all boxing matches are supervised by state athletic commissions; (2) all boxers go through a physical examination by a certified physician to determine his/her physical fitness; (3) an ambulance and/or medics with proper medical equipment be on sight; and (4) a physician be present at ringside.

The Safety Act clearly has a focus on physical safety and is more or less mimicked in the MMA industry. The Safety Act, however, does not address in any way the potential financial exploitation of fighters. Thus, the Safety Act was augmented in 2000 with the Muhammad Ali Act (“Ali Act”), which calls:

  • To protect the rights and welfare of professional boxers on an interstate basis by preventing certain exploitative, oppressive, and unethical business practices;

  • To assist State boxing commissions in their efforts to provide more effective public oversight of the sport; and

  • To promote honorable competition in professional boxing and enhance the overall integrity of the industry (Varney, 2009, p. 288).
Perhaps most importantly, the Ali Act also requires that bout information be provided to the State Attorney General upon request as a means to further “discourage a promoter from engaging in unfair or unsavory business dealings” (Varney, 2009, p. 292).

Varney’s work explains how the Ali Act would benefit MMA fighters. For example, boxing matches on Indian reservations must follow Ali Act regulations. MMA matches on Indian reservations are entitled much more leeway, often allowing for matches without proper medical testing and unequal matchmaking (e.g., unreasonable weight differences between fighters).

Furthermore, Varney argues that arbitrary/subjective enhanced bonuses provided to select fighters by MMA promotions would be lessened if these financial rewards were properly and publicly disclosed. While these arbitrary bonuses help the selected fighters, they obviously do not help the majority of other fighters competing on respective fight cards. And being subjectively distributed, the bonuses could point to favoritism on the part of the promotion.

A properly administered Ali Act in MMA would also insure that title fights and ongoing employment were based on objective rankings (which would be based on fight records and opponents fought). This would help prevent deserving fighters from being released or “buried” by promotions if they expressed disagreement with certain managerial practices. And finally, a properly enforced Ali Act in MMA would standardize minimum bout agreements.

Of course, even if the Ali Act was applied to MMA, it would change nothing unless it was enforced. Title IX is a perfect example. While Title IX mandated gender equity across all sectors of educational institutions, its impact was not felt until universities began enforcing it. Enforcement for Title IX only came with threatened legal action. In MMA, fighters currently lack the power and solidarity to take such action.

Federalization and Unionization

Fighters could be empowered if MMA was legally sanctioned in all 50 states, and done so in standardized form. Maher (2010) worries that because some states currently regulate MMA with stricter guidelines than others, MMA promotions (particularly those on the fiscal bubble) may “race to the bottom” by holding events in states where regulations are the most relaxed (i.e., cheapest), thereby increasing the risk to fighters. This could also apply on Indian reservations, where regulations appear the most lenient and least costly economically for promotions.

Unionization is also relevant here. Maher writes, “Existing state regulation does little to regulate the terms of the deals between promoters, managers, and fighters…. Like laborers elsewhere, MMA athletes face significant bargaining disadvantages relative to promoters, in terms of financial and legal resources, education, and alternative employment” (p. 41).

A fighters union could help push for minimum compensation and other worker rights, such as extended health insurance and initial planning into some kind of pension plan. The alternative outlook is increased numbers of aged-out veterans who continue to fight paycheck-to-paycheck, snared in by the sport’s onerous fiscal structure (see for example,
Jonathan Snowden’s recent piece on Jens Pulver).

A drive towards unionization, however, cannot materialize until a number of other legal conditions are ironed out. As Maher explains, if MMA fighters are considered independent contractors, as opposed to company employees, unionization is not an option. However, when fighters are under exclusive promotional contracts (meaning they cannot fight for another organization) and are engaged in “an essential part of the [promoter’s] normal operations” (p. 43) (i.e., fighting), fighters stand a good chance of being defined as employees, who could then advocate for unionization.

What does the future pose for fighter rights in MMA?

Maher (2010) speculates that fans may be inclined to see increased federal regulation since our current economic crisis is blamed heavily on a lack of federal oversight. Previously,
I noted that most fans would not seriously support fighter rights since improved fighter rights means higher company costs, and in turn, higher costs for fans to watch MMA, and I believe this to still be the case.

In the era of Obama and the President’s extremely minor push towards expanded health care (Clinton’s health care reform proposal was actually stronger), the conservative backlash to federal regulation has been extremely strong. Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, bank bailouts, and high unemployment rates, the American public’s frustration with “big government” continues to fester. Unfortunately, if calls for government to “stay out of our lives” continues, this allows the free market to run unchecked, leaving the average worker with less leverage, and fighters more exploitable.

That is unless, someone, somewhere, with significant influence takes action.

Non-internet References:

Maher, B. S. (2010). Understanding and regulating the sport of mixed martial arts. Hastings Communication & Entertainment Law Journal, 1-43.

Spencer, D. C. (2009). Habit(us), body techniques and body callusing: an ethnography of mixed martial arts. Body & Society, 15 (4), 119-143.

Varney, G. (2009). Fighting for respect: MMA’s struggle for acceptance and how the Muhammad Ali Act would give it a sporting chance. West Virginia Law Review, 112, 269-305.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading Eminem and Rihanna's 'Love The Way You Lie'

Ever since Eminem and Rihanna's video for their hit song "Love The Way You Lie" was released, I've been thinking about the song's violent lyrics and its video's violent imagery. The folks over at Sociological Images helped me wrap my initial thoughts around the video:

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a beautiful song. Rihanna’s vocals are gorgeous; it’s was hard to not feel heartfelt while listening to them. And that’s the problem. It’s a powerful form of socialization. That we might internalize the message that passionate love and incontrollable rage go hand-in-hand is really very scary. It suggests not only that you should tolerate interpersonal violence but that, if there is no violence in your relationship, perhaps you don’t really love one another.

How many individuals feel happy when their partner expresses jealousy, even goes into a jealous rage? Why is that dynamic normalized in varying degrees? There's no denying the song's popularity. According to Yahoo! Finance, "Love the Way You Lie," "...has reigned at No. 1 on the Digital Songs chart for five consecutive weeks and has sold more than 1.4 million downloads." A portion of the lyrics:

Told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I'm pissed
I'll aim my fist
At the dry wall
Next time
There will be no next time
I apologize
Even though I know it's lies
I'm tired of the games
I just want her back
I know I'm a liar
If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I'mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire

Graphic and shocking to say the least, as are the images in the video, which features movie and television stars Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan:

Graphic and shocking was largely the point. The song was authored by Eminem, who then asked to collaborate with Rihanna, in part because of her history as an intimate partner violence (IPV) victim (listen
here for an excellent discussion on Rihanna, Chris Brown, and the gendered politics of IPV). Against my general principles, I dug into the "bee-bop" popular culture internet sites to see what I could find about how this song and video were intended to address IPV. In fact, there are direct connections being made between the video and IPV.

For instance, Megan Fox has
donated her video appearance fee to a shelter for battered women. And in a VH1 interview with Rihanna, the music star explains her and Eminem's personal connection to the song's theme:

"It's something that, you know, [Eminem and I have] both experienced, you know, on different sides, different ends of the table," she said.

"It just was authentic. It was real," Rihanna continued. "It was believable for us to do a record like that, but it was also something that needed to be done and the way he did it was so clever. He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence and it's something that a lot people don't have a lot of insight on, so this song is a really, really powerful song and it touches a lot of people."


Ultimately, the song was something Rihanna felt was in line with her past relationship. "The lyrics were so deep, so beautiful and intense. It's something that I understood, something I connected with," she revealed.

"The concept of 'Love the Way You Lie' was essentially a look at the relationship that Eminem was in with his wife, Kim, so I kind of felt like I was playing Eminem a little bit, and Megan Fox was kind of playing Kim.

"It's the story of them getting to know each other, and it's the story of their tumultuous relationship, and it was the story of the breakdown of their relationship," he continued. "Ultimately, what I think he's trying to say in the song ... is that he should have walked away a little bit quicker than he did and not let it get as messy as it did."

At least explicity, there was critical thought put into this popular culture artifact. My question is, how will young people from different demographics and different life experiences interpret the song's and video's violent content? The one empirical study I could find on Eminem's music and its effects on listeners found that young adults who listened to his songs with misogynistic lyrics were largely unaffected by them, though the study was only conducted with research participants who were college students (Cobb & Boettcher, 2007).

In my
dissertation, adolescent research participants spoke quite openly about the ways they saw IPV as completely normal. These were teens who had experienced multiple forms of violence throughout their lives (peer, family, romantic, drug, physical, verbal) -- certainly not the average college student. I wonder what their interpretations would be.

Then yesterday, I heard a male radio DJ essentially state the following after "Love The Way You Lie" was played: "You know, Megan Fox is supposed to play an abused victim in that song's video, (chuckling) but in the video, she's the abuser. I didn't see her get hit once. She was doing all the hitting!" Uh, yeah, real funny. Was that the video's intent? And did he miss all the punching of the walls (physical intimidation)? Contrast that point of view with a female student in my Sociology of Popular Culture class:

As for the video, I think maybe it has good intentions, especially using two artists who have a history with IPV, but I don't think it will be beneficial. Using [Dominic Monaghan] and Megan Fox (a sex symbol for everyone today) [it] seems to glorify the topic by using two high end celebrities. This video seemed like it wanted to make domestic violence look sexy and possessiveness look masculine.

Perhaps for some listeners, the song and video do raise consciousness regarding IPV prevention -- what Monaghan said the video is intended to accomplish. But certainly not for everyone. For the student quoted above, the video was offensive and reified traditional gender norms. To get a little academic, from John Storey (1993):

...an image containing references to pop music culture might be seen by a young audience as an index of freedom and heterogeneity, whilst to an older audience it might signal manipulation and homgeneity. Which codes are mobilized will largely depend on the triple context of the location of the text, the historical moment and the cultural formation of the reader (p. 80).

Since people with different social histories interpret popular culture differently, I'd be interested to see how young people from different demographics digest this song and video. Do the cultural artifacts problematize IPV (the stated intent) or further normalize and perpetuate this form of violence?

Or, as indicated by the radio DJ, does this video mobilize codes that perpetuate misunderstandings about co-occurring violence in intimate relationships? For instance, too many people assume that when males and females hit each other, the physical ramifications are equally harmful. Does the video gloss over the fact that verbal abuse, social isolation, and other forms of control (e.g., forcing what a partner wears) can be more damaging than physical violence?

The song's and video's influence will likely diminish over time. Nonetheless, "Love The Way You Lie" demonstrates how people's readings of the same cultural product can vary greatly, and how received meanings can be shaped more by audiences' past experiences than by the cultural producers.

Non Internet Sources:

Cobb, M. D., & Boettcher, W. A. (2007). Ambivalent Sexism and Misogynistic Rap Music: Does Exposure to Eminem Increase Sexism? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37 (12), 3025-3042.

Storey, J. (1993). An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Mixed Martial Arts: Evolution Of The Sport and Its Fans

Sporting traditionalists frequently grumble when chief administrators alter sporting structures as they cater to new fans' demands. Traditionalists tend to argue that when sporting rules are changed or athletic skills are abandoned, we are witnessing a commodification of sport that values theater and spectacle over virtuous athleticism (Sewart, 1987).

In the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), the debate is a bit more convoluted, calling for a somewhat technical and academic examination.

Despite MMA's mere 17 year history, supporters and critics have quarreled extensively over the sport's trajectory and the way MMA may symbolize a moral threshold for societal violence. However, in MMA we have seen a public effort to formalize rule structure and secure governmental regulation since the sport's 1993 inception, both before and after Zuffa, LLC took over the UFC in 2001.

Sports theorists (van Bottenburg & Heilbron, 2006) have suggested that as MMA continues to grow (or stagnate), it can follow four overarching pathways, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive:
  1. Abolition and demise: states or countries may pass or maintain legislation that bans MMA (e.g., the push back seen in New York State, Vancouver, and Germany). Demise may also include the folding of MMA organizations due to financial concerns (e.g., EliteXC).
  2. Underground: abolition and demise may contribute to illegal, unregulated MMA competitions hidden from state officials (though underground competitions can also take place in regions where MMA is legal).
  3. Re-sportization: increased state regulation with stricter rule sets that would focus not only on in-ring/cage competition, but also on refereeing, athlete health prior to and after competition, and fighter-manager-promoter relationships. In contrast with many other sports, MMA (in particular the UFC) has overtly pushed for state regulation in recent years (Smith, 2010).
  4. Spectacularization: "...a shift of attention away from fighting skills to the show and spectacle surrounding the events" (p. 277). The recent match between Cris Santos and Jan Finney stands as an example here. The match was so uneven, some argue it never should have been allowed in the first place, but was scheduled nonetheless so fans could watch Santos' compete at all.

While all four pathways are occurring simultaneously across different MMA organizations and in different regions of the world, the modest academic literature published to date on MMA argues re-sportization is the more common trajectory being followed thus far.

Garcia and Malcolm (2010) argue in their essay, "Decivilizing, civilizing or informalizing: The international development of Mixed Martial Arts," that although MMA promoters tend to publicly advertise MMA competitions as dangerous and appear excessively violent in order to draw in more fans, sporting violence in MMA has actually decreased. They suggest that while MMA, like all combat sports, is inherently violent and can be dangerous, the violence now manifests in a highly controlled environment (when properly regulated).

The staunchest defense of MMA, however, has come from Maher's (2010) work, which meticulously details how regulation of MMA has sought to improve athlete safety through improved rules, oversight of performance enhancing drugs, and medical safeguards. Maher also argues MMA organizations have improved in promoting fair contests (as opposed to unfair matches booked to promote a more likely winner), and in restricting conflicts of interest between promoters, managers, and fighters.

Maher's very thorough work, however, focuses too heavily on the UFC. As noted previously, spectacularization still transpires in MMA, which does little to promote fighter safety. The most interesting questions Maher raises are whether or not (1) MMA can secure federalized, standardized regulation across the United States; and (2) fighters can coalesce to form a union that effectively advocates for their rights (questions I will be addressing in my next piece, and related to my last piece, "Marxist Mixed Martial Arts?").

Notably, all the above referenced work is theoretical or historical. Very little scholarly research has been conducted that relies on empirical research. In fact, the only empirical research conducted thus far relevant to the issue of spectacularization and fan desire has found that invested MMA fans do not want to see lopsided matches.

Kim, Andrew, and Greenwell (2009) surveyed MMA fans attending an amateur card in the American Midwest (N = 208) and an event held in South Korea (N = 229). In both sites, research subjects indicated that their primary motive for attending the event was their interest in the sport (i.e., they are an MMA fan and care about MMA). "Drama" ranked #2 among South Korean fans and #3 among American fans, meaning fans desired close competitions, not unfair, lopsided fights.

Among the 12 possible motives for attending the event, "violence" ranked #5 for Americans and #11 for South Koreans. These findings are especially important because they tell MMA promoters that fans want to see fights exemplifying high-level MMA skills between evenly matched, prepared opponents, not promotional "freakshows" that decrease fighter safety.

Let's give the fans what they want.


Garcia, R. S., & Malcolm, D. (2010). Decivilizing, civilizing or informalizing: The international development of Mixed Martial Arts. International Review of the Sociology of Sport, 45 (1), 39-58.

Maher, B. S. (2010). Understanding and regulating the sport of mixed martial arts. Hastings Communication and Entertainment Law Journal, Winter.

Sewart, J. J. (1987). The commodification of sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 22 (3), 171-191.

Smith, J. T. (2010). Fighting for regulation: mixed martial arts legislation in the United States. Drake Law Review, Winter.

van Bottenburg, M., & Heilbron, J. (2006). De-sportization of fighting contests: the origins and dynamics of no hold barred events and the theory of sportization. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41 (3/4), 259-281.

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