covid19 · fitness · team sports

Sports and risk during COVID-19

In early/mid March 2020, all sporting events came to a screeching halt. No more college sports, pro sports, annual tournaments or races. No more kids’ sports leagues. No more swimming at the local pool. But sporting fans and participants around the globe will not be denied for long, and they are getting impatient.

Whether or not some reopening process for some particular sport in some location is prudent is hugely important. Lots of sports associations, government agencies and community groups (and sports franchise lobbyists) are working on putting together guidelines for returning to athletic activity. In early May, the Italian government released a 404-page report (in Italian) on “Safely Restarting Sports” (Lo sport riparte in sicurezza). You can find parts of the document here. It’s super-detailed, identifying dozens of features that affect the riskiness of sporting activity. Here are some of them:

  • how many athletes are playing?
  • are the groups consistently playing together or randomly put into groups?
  • Where is the play happening– outside, inside, how big a space inside?
  • What sort of physical contact is necessary, and what sort of contact can be avoided?
  • What sorts of equipment are necessary, and who has how much contact with it?
  • What sort of activity is happening– conditioning, skills lessons, training drills, scrimmage, game?
  • Who else other than the athletes is in potential contact (e.g. coaches, spectators, facility staff, other persons)?

In this document, there’s an analysis of various basketball activities. They are broken down into risk categories (1–8) and then there’s a table showing the activity (e.g. warmup exercises, fundamentals drills, game), its description, its level of risk, and ways to mitigate the risks (generally through sanitation, individual protection, curbing contact, etc.).

So, do we have reliable information about specific sports? Uh, maybe. This news article (the Dubrovnik Times) reported on sports that the report deemed safer:

Reportedly, sports that offer almost no possibility of spreading the infection are sailing, open water swimming, golf and tennis.
As for tennis, it also has rules that recommend that tennis players wear goggles and gloves and that each player has their own balls at the service.

As for collective sports, water polo, which is in category two, has the lowest risk of spreading the virus, with the explanation that water polo is played in chlorinated water, which can disable the virus.

Football is placed in category three, while rugby, basketball, volleyball and handball are in the “most endangered” category four, as are all martial arts.

I’m cycling this summer, and buying a kayak this month so I can get out on the water. I do own a tennis racket, so maybe that will be in my summer plans as well. No yoga studio classes are in the offing any time soon, but zoom yoga has some virtues (among them that all classes take place in my living room).

Readers, what physical activities are you doing or contemplating doing this summer? What are you returning to? What are you substituting for activities you’re not doing? I’d love to hear from you.

p.s. the phrase at the top of the article, “Ognuno protegge tutti” means “each one protects everyone”. I like that.

femalestrength · fitness · football · kids and exercise · soccer · team sports

Warren vs The Wolves: What To Tell Your Teenager Daughters About Sports, Power, and Taking Over the World

This week I’ve shared a post with my online teaching community, The Activist Classroom, about Sarah DeLappe’s amazing 2016 play, The Wolves. The play follows nine powerful young women, 16- and 17-year-olds, through their indoor soccer season; in it I find a different kind of future to the one that Elizabeth Warren imagines when she fears, in her primary concession speech on 5 March, that we might need to wait four more years for an American woman to come into real power.

If you’re wondering how to inspire your teenage daughter – OR your teenage son, or young people of all genders around you… and maybe yourself too! – this post is for you.

(Read the post on The Activist Classroom here.)


Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.

Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.

These are The Wolves; keep reading. (Photo from the Howland Company production at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, October 2018)

As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”

True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”

Four more years? Or right f#$king now? The Wolves burst forth off Broadway in September 2016.

Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)

So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.

What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?

It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.

Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.

Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.

I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issueplease check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.

Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.

(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)

Hard play means conflict; negotiation; team work is hard. But these sisters are doing it for themselves – no creepy male coach required.

The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.

She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!

Rehearsing for The Wolves in New York, 2016. 

I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.

Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.

Not planning on waiting,



fitness · soccer · team sports

Women’s soccer: questions of pay, politics and (mis)perceptions

The United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT) won the World Cup this year—their fourth. They played 20 games last year, posting 18 wins and two draws. The United State men’s national soccer team played 11 games last year, posting three wins, five losses and three draws. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

1.Question of pay. is the USWNT paid equitably? By “equitably”, we could mean something like “paid the same as men’s professional soccer in accordance with”:

  • their win-loss record, compared to those of the men’ teams
  • their tournament play/record, compared to mens’ teams
  • the prize money offered in the tournaments they play in
  • prize money offered in professional soccer tournaments in general
  • revenues generated by league and tournament games
  • revenue generated by sponsorships, merchandise, viewership, etc.
  • I could go on

Yes, we know: economics is complicated. But do we have some idea of the answer? We do– the answer seems to be “no”. The USWNT is not paid in accordance with any of the above-listed measures. How do we know this? Here are some informative bits from articles I read (here and here and here).

US women’s soccer now has edged out US men’s soccer in terms of game revenue generated ($50.8M vs. $49.9M)

The US Soccer Federation sells broadcast ad sponsorship rights for the women’s and men’s teams together, so they haven’t provided information to separate out the revenue streams.

Nike’s highest-selling soccer jersey is the USWNT’s home jersey. Here it is:

The USNWT home soccer jersey-- white, with blue and red stripes on the sleeves, and logo on front. Also back view.
The USWNT home soccer jersey– white, with blue and red stripes on the sleeves, and logo on front. Also back view.

The USWNT is paid a guaranteed base salary, while the US men’s soccer team is paid in bonuses alone. However, the men are paid when they play (win or lose), so their annual pay depends on how many games they play in a year.

The total prize money for the women’s World Cup is about $30M, whereas the FIFA men’s World Cup prize money is around $400M.

The US men’s and women’s teams have different contracts under different collective bargaining agreements. The US men’s team has publicly stated its support for increased pay equity for US women’s soccer.

The USWNT has sued the US Soccer Federation for changes in their pay structures (read more about it here):

All 28 female players sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) — their employer — in U.S. District Court in March, alleging they are paid less than the men and are provided with less support, despite their consistent outstanding performance. The lawsuit also argues the team’s success has “translated into substantial revenue generation and profits” for USSF and “during the period relevant to this case, the WNT earned more in profit and/or revenue than the MNT.”

The soccer federation denied the claims in the women’s lawsuit, arguing in a May court filing that the pay differential between the men and women players is “based on differences in aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex” and that the two teams are “physically and functionally separate organizations.”

The Washington Post, in the article I cited above, goes into much more detail, but their conclusion is this:

Are the women players paid less? Sometimes. When the female players have appeared to make about the same or more money, they’ve had to turn in consistently outstanding performances on the world stage. Even with those feats, earning the same amount as the men’s soccer players was near-impossible under the previous collective-bargaining agreement.

The new agreement has provisions that may reduce the difference in bonuses for friendly games and tournaments, but there is — without question and for whatever reasons — still a massive gap between men’s and women’s World Cup bonuses.

2.Question of politics. Is the question of the USWNT’s pay becoming a nasty political fight? That one’s easy.

Yes indeedy!
Yes indeedy!

Prominent Democratic politicians have not just tweeted support, but in fact introduced legislation requiring that US Soccer pay women’s and men’s teams equally. In response, the US Soccer Federation hired two lobbying firms to present a case that the women’s teams are not paid inequitably. Groups are battling over the numbers, which (as I pointed out above) are complicated. So far the lobbyists are working on Capital Hill but haven’t registered yet (they are required to register within 45 days of beginning work). The lobbyists and US Soccer say they are trying to give accurate information, and the USWNT say that the lobbyists and US Soccer are trying to derail legislation and mislead legislators. Politico reported the following interchange: of the lobbyists representing U.S. Soccer — Ray Bucheger, a former Democratic congressional staffer who’s now a partner at FBB — told a Democraticcongressional staffer late last month that one of the bills could jeopardize the country’s chances of hosting future Women’s World Cups, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Bucheger declined to comment.

3.Question of (mis)perception. It is, sadly, true that lots of people hold women’s sports in lower esteem than men’s sports. And there are loads of reports and surveys and studies that show that non-professional-athlete men think they are as good or better athletes as world-class professional women athletes. You have no doubt seen the survey, published here, that 1 in 8 men in the UK surveyed believed they could take a point off tennis titan Serena Williams.

Serena's bullet serve, meme saying "I'd really like to see them try".
Yeah. Me, too.

In the comments section of this article (I know, don’t read the comments ever, but I’m doing this for blog research purposes) I saw exactly this same view: some people said that the USWNT were less good soccer players than mediocre men’s professional teams. Some cited a 2017 scrimmage with a US Soccer development program under-15 boys’ team (that the USWNT graciously did to teach the boys some techniques) in which the final score was 5-2 in favor of the boys’ team. You can read the real story here. You also might be interested to hear that in 2017 (maybe encouraged by the USWNT’s participation?) US Soccer added some girls’ development soccer teams (finally).

Other commenters said that this is the way of all women’s sports, that professional women athletes pale in comparison with (most? all?) male athletes in terms of performance. So it’s okay to pay them less and think less of them as athletes (or not to think of them as athletes, period).


Person taking in a long breath, with caption "using deep breathing to calm down".
Let’s all take a deep breath now.

Responding to this general claim– that women just aren’t as good/strong/interesting athletes as men– takes a lot of hard work. Scholars and activists and athletes have been and are currently spending their careers responding in a bunch of ways. Some of those ways include:

  • carefully documenting and framing the comparative histories of sports and athletic development programs for boys and girls, pointing out the myriad disparities girls experience in everything from resources to coaching to goals to opportunities to social support, etc.
  • framing and revealing the historical and social contexts in which girls and women interested in physical activity/athletics are treated; in short, it’s not good.
  • providing context for the ways media coverage of women athletes treats and judges their athletic performance, I blogged about the juggernaut UConn women’s basketball team, stuck between a rock and a hard place– media criticized them for being too good and messing up the sport. Really. Read about it here.

What I hope and even expect is that, with increased support and programming, society’s perceptions of girls and boys and men and women as athletes will change. Then we will be able to see and value girls and women as the athletes they are and can be.

Readers– what do you think about our current atmosphere of sports development and outlets for girls and women? Any stories or ideas or suggestions you want to share would be most welcome.

A girl, throwing a heater over the plate.
A girl, throwing a heater over the plate.
advertising · fitness · motivation · soccer · team sports

It may be an ad, but “Dream Further” inspires and uplifts

Did you know that the FIFA Women’s World Cup is happening right now, in France, from June 7th to July 7th?

The latest Nike ad, released on the eve of the women’s World Cup of Soccer, is a heart-pumping, rousing ad that celebrates women’s soccer through the eyes of a child with an exciting dream. As the article “Nike’s New Ad Is a Celebration of Badass Women’s Soccer Players, and We’re Studying Up” says: “The commercial is a who’s who of talented women’s soccer players, from the United States’ Crystal Dunn to Brazil’s Andressa Alves, introducing you to the stars you’ll see in the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup. The real star of the show, though, is Makena Cooke, a 10-year-old soccer player from California.”

In the 3:00 commercial, we follow Makena Cooke running, kicking, falling, cheering, and even scoring alongside the very best of the FIFA women’s World Cup soccer rosters from all over the world. It’s an exciting ad that is sure to lift your spirit.

It might make you want to watch the world-class women’s soccer that the World Cup has to offer. It might make you want to kick a ball around yourself. It might make you want to cry (a few people reported that it made them emotional).

Whatever it might make you want to do, here it is.

Nike Dream Further commercial.

Enjoy! (I’m keeping my Saucony’s though)

Guest Post · swimming · team sports

Women for Water Research Swim Trans Tahoe Relay (Guest Post)

Here’s a post by Roberta M on her relay swim of Lake Tahoe (whoa– isn’t that water really cold? Read more to find out).

On Saturday, July 21, I had the opportunity to join five other UC Davis-affiliated women to swim the Trans Tahoe Relay.  The Trans Tahoe Relay serves as a fundraiser for Keep Tahoe Blue, but we also swam to support the  Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) and the Center for Watershed Sciences (CWS).  The day was sunny, the water was cool, clear, and refreshing, the mountains ringing the lake were beautiful.  It was an exhilarating, fun, tiring, and fulfilling day.

Just to give a sense of size of the lake and its surroundings, here I am with my guard poodles at a Lake Tahoe overlook in August 2014.
Just to give a sense of size of the lake and its surroundings, here I am with my guard poodles at a Lake Tahoe overlook in August 2014.


The Trans Tahoe Relay is a race that crosses the northern end of Lake Tahoe from east to west at a part of the lake where it is 10 miles wide.  (The lake overall is approximately 22 miles long and 12 miles wide – it’s a very large and deep lake!).  Teams are composed of six swimmers each, with a support boat.  (We owe big thanks to TERC for providing us with a boat and to TERC’s director, Geoff Schladow, for piloting the boat).  The rules are that each swimmer swims for 30 minutes, and then takes turn swimming 10 minutes each, until the 10 miles is completed.  On our team, after our first leg each of us did two 10-minute legs, with two members of the team doing a third 10-minute leg.  So, we didn’t break any speed records, but we were happy with our result anyway!

Our boat for the day arriveth! We were very grateful to have the use of the TERC boat.
Our boat for the day arriveth! We were very grateful to have the use of the TERC boat.


We didn’t all know each other before the race, but we were brought together by our love of swimming and our passion for the environment, with each of us doing research in an environmentally-related field.  (My own areas of research encompass philosophy of evolution and ecology as well as environmental ethics).

Here we are, the swim team, plus vital support folks, on our boat, all smiling.
Here we are, the swim team, plus vital support folks, on our boat, all smiling.

I’ve done a number of open water swims, including one at nearby Donner Lake (2.7 miles), but this was my first relay, so I didn’t know what to expect.  In some ways it was very much the same.  You’re in the water, it’s often a little cold (we were told to expect 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, but thankfully it was more like high 60s), and you’re just trying to stay focused, keep your pace up, keep going.   In other ways, though, it was very different.  In most open water swims, you feel very much alone, and that can be part of the challenge, to be “in your head” for such a long period of time.  But here all you had to do was pick up your head to see the boat and your teammates, so you never felt alone.

Getting ready for the tag and switching of swimmers.
Getting ready for the tag and switching of swimmers.


And whereas my best time for the Donner Lake swim had me in the water for an hour and 23 minutes (and that was drafting like mad), here the swim was broken up into segments.  In some ways that made it harder, as muscles tightened between swims and then were forced to be used again, but it also made it less mentally challenging because you knew that your time in the water was a limited, manageable chunk.

Still smiling, even after my 30-minute leg of the swim. Warm swim coat courtesy of my sister and nephew.
Still smiling, even after my 30-minute leg of the swim. Warm swim coat courtesy of my sister and nephew.


But I’ve left out one really big difference between a relay and a solitary open water swim: the time in between swims.  Here whichever five swimmers who were not in the water got to hang out on the boat.  We talked about swimming – how much swimming we’d done in the past, how much we were able to fit into our busy schedules now.  We talked about our research, and learned about the interesting projects that each of us was engaged in.  We ate snacks and recovered between each swim.  And we encouraged each other and cheered each other on.  No one worried about our time or how fast each person was going (something that is in any case impossible to tell without a GPS).  Instead, we enjoyed the day, enjoyed each other’s company, and swam for a good cause.  We were a true team.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.  2019, perhaps?

Almost at the end, now!
Almost at the end, now!


Roberta M is a professor in the Philosophy Department at UC Davis, specializing in philosophy of biology and environmental ethics. She enjoys walking with her poodles, swimming with Davis Aquatic Masters, and her 10-minute bicycle commute to campus.

athletes · team sports

Girls’ Hoops (Available Free for Women’s History Month!)

One of the exciting things about my new job is meeting my wonderful new colleagues in the College of Arts at Guelph and finding out what they’re up to, where they’ve come from, and what they’re passionate about.

Of course, in getting to know me many of them are reading the blog and so sometimes we’re connecting about feminism and women’s sports. Justine Richardson is the project manager for the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation here at Guelph and they’ve just been awarded funding for an improv lab. Super good news for them and for us. You can read about our exciting new renovations here. Anyway, we were in a meeting the other day about space planning and we got talking about women’s basketball and this film Justine made about girls’ high school basketball in Kentucky. It also turns out it’s available free right now in honour of women’s history month. Just a few days left…

Here’s Appalshop in Kentucky: “Appalshop is dedicated to the proposition that the world is immeasurably enriched when local cultures garner the resources, including new technologies, to tell their own stories and to listen to the unique stories of others. The creative acts of listening and telling are Appalshop’s core competency.” You can also find them on Facebook.

“In honor of #womenshistorymonth, we’re sharing “Girls Hoops” – Directed by Justine Richardson, this film explores the history of girls’ high school basketball in Kentucky, from its first heyday in the 1920s, followed by a 42-year ban on statewide competition, to its rebirth into the fiercely competitive, popular sport it has become today.

Asked about her stance on the issue of femininity in a traditionally male sport, Richardson replies, “I think it gets misconstrued sometimes as being about trying to be more masculine. It definitely is not a traditional norm; you don’t learn domestic ideals when you are on the basketball court. You learn about competition, strategic cooperation, you learn a lot of things that aren’t molding you necessarily toward a traditional family life, or whatever that set of stereotypes about women includes. It’s different, but it shouldn’t be coded as unfeminine.” – from ACE Weekly magazine.


Director: Justine Amata Richardson
Release Year: 1998
Running Time: 27:15
Original Format: 3/4″ Umatic
Color / B&W: color

In Kentucky, basketball is a cultural obsession. The enthusiasm of Kentucky fans permeates every community in the state. Communities draw a sense of pride and identity from successful high school teams, and people support these teams by the thousands, especially in the rural, Appalachian mountain region of the state. In the towns of Whitesburg, Jenkins, and Hazard, girls teams dominate the basketball spotlight.

Of special interest amidst the debate over the value of Title IX support for women’s athletics, Girls’ Hoops explores the history of girls’ high school basketball in Kentucky — from its first heyday in the 1920s, followed by a 42-year ban on statewide competition, to its rebirth in the 1970s and development into the fiercely competitive, popular sport it has become today. Filmed over the course of a basketball season, the program features exhausting practices, intense games, rousing half-time talks, championship performances and enthusiastic fans from small coal mining communities where a winning girls team is the talk of the town. Girls’ Hoops includes up-close interviews with today’s players and coaches, comments from a 94-year old player from a 1920s championship team, and interviews and game footage of the woman who broke the gender barrier in the mid-‘70s.

You can download it here.

In Kentucky, basketball is a cultural obsession. The enthusiasm of Kentucky fans permeates every community in the state. Communities draw a sense of pride and identity from successful high school teams, and people support these teams by the thousands, especially in the rural, Appalachian mountain region of the state. In the towns of Whitesburg, Jenkins, and Hazard, girls teams dominate the basketball spotlight.

Of special interest amidst the debate over the value of Title IX support for women’s athletics, Girls’ Hoops explores the history of girls’ high school basketball in Kentucky — from its first heyday in the 1920s, followed by a 42-year ban on statewide competition, to its rebirth in the 1970s and development into the fiercely competitive, popular sport it has become today. Filmed over the course of a basketball season, the program features exhausting practices, intense games, rousing half-time talks, championship performances and enthusiastic fans from small coal mining communities where a winning girls team is the talk of the town. Girls’ Hoops includes up-close interviews with today’s players and coaches, comments from a 94-year old player from a 1920s championship team, and interviews and game footage of the woman who broke the gender barrier in the mid-‘70s.

You can download it here.

fitness · team sports · winter

We Do Us: A Fun Run in the Snow (Guest Post)

Previously I have blogged about the 2016 Mudmoiselle as an example of the “party run phenomenon” and how a completing a winter obstacle course helped me to “find my tribe”.

This year, wearing our red winter finest, Team Freezer Burn made its return to the Polar Rush obstacle challenge (and fundraiser for Sick Kids) at the Horseshoe Ski Resort North of Barrie, ON. Set up along a zipline and golf course adjacent to the resort, the event had participants run the 5km without disrupting the skiers and snowboarders on the hill. The untimed race had wall and hill climbs, slides, and balance activities that were completed individually, or cooperatively if someone needed encouragement or a hand.

Freezer Burn Team members, including the Spicy Chicken and I, Tonya.

Afterwards, our team celebrated with an evening of hot tub soaking, food, and games at the hotel, during which we recounted and laughed about the day’s events into the night.

Over breakfast at Timmie’s the next morning, my roomies and I discussed some of the reasons why we enjoyed this all-lady, team-based activity:

  • It made 2 hours of exercise more fun;
  • Some work (and exercise) indoors, so the outdoor activity was a welcome change;
  • Running as a team, everyone was supported, and no one was left behind;
  • Everyone’s comfort levels were accepted–“You do you,” as my roomie, Jordan, put it.

Together we reflected on how this winter fun run provided a situation-based activity that we felt were different other women-folk event. Jordan compared it to (the often but not exclusively male) relationships that develop while watching sporting events or poker nights, which don’t revolve around exclusively talking for its own sake. While complaining, gossiping, or other types of chit chat over coffee or wine have their place, such socializing often involves sharing about our own separate lives. In contrast, the chat following our obstacle course run involved enjoying memories made together–a life experience that friends, old and new, had shared.

This post is titled we do us because for me it describes our fun run in two ways. First, the team’s vibe was inclusive and supportive, but we also honoured our differences. Based on our various levels of fitness and interests, team members could opt in or out of any obstacle or social activity—with absolutely no judgement. Second, we weren’t just being together—we were doing together, which meant participating in a shared experience, even as we were each experiencing it differently.

This vibe may not be for everyone, but it allowed this particular group of women to have a lot of fun. And winning the team award for Best Costume—that was pretty fun too.

Elan “Red Cheat-Ah” Paulson of Team Freezer Burn, which won Best Costume at the Polar Rush!

Elan Paulson works at Western University, and she is a converted Fun Runner. She thanks Jordan P., Deb V., and Mary Lou G. for thoughts that contributed to this post.

fitness · team sports

Not just football: more on sports and types of head injuries

It’s Super Bowl Sunday today, and much of the news this year is about– yes, you guessed it– head injuries impact sports, and the risks of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in football, from children to teens to NFL players.  Ever since this report on deceased NFL players came out,  there’s been increased media awareness and acceptance of the fact that repeated head injuries can lead to debilitating diseases like dementia, depression, and other severe degenerative brain conditions.  I co-wrote a post with Julia F-C about CTE here, asking what we know about concussions in women.

One person who does know a lot about concussions in women is Meena, who’s written extensively about the experience of concussion, the long road to recovery, and what that looks like from the point of view of a runner.  You can find her blogs here.

Since that study, there has been a lot of published research strongly suggested that concussions may not be the source of CTE and other chronic neurological and psychological conditions in athletes.  Hits to the head in general, not necessarily concussions, may be the source of long-term neurological damage.  Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times writes here of some recent developments in research, suggested that the effects of even sub-concussive heady injury may  result in severe damage.  There’s another article here from the Washington Post about the effects of even mild head injuries.

But head injuries and the damage from them are not limited to contact sports.  It turns out, spinning in figure skaters subjects them to g-forces on their brains that aren’t as large as those in football, but they experience them for much longer, which worries researcher David Wang (from this article).  Figure skater Lucinda Ruh, well-known for her spins, was experiencing various debilitating symptoms.

“It was devastating. For 5 years I felt like I was going to die. I still have symptoms here and there,” she said.

Doctor after doctor could not diagnose her health problems, according to Lucinda, until one physician finally traced her symptoms to her skating.

“He put all the pieces together and said, ‘I think you’ve been suffering from concussions, ongoing little concussions every single day’ and that was causing all my symptoms,” said Lucinda.

Research Dr. David Wang explains below how spinning may be hazardous for skaters.

“Now when you hear about football forces and people getting hit in the head where you’re talking about 80 G’s, certainly that’s a lot more force. But the impact time is much shorter. It’s an instant, where [skaters] they’re holding this force for a period of time and they’re doing it repetitively over and over and over again. So you can imagine it actually adds up,” said Dr. Wang.

Dr. Wang said so far his data shows spinning can induce headaches and dizziness in skaters, but serious concussion-like symptoms are only a concern in extreme cases like Lucinda’s.

His current research proves there are significant forces to the head during spinning. Next, Dr. Wang wants to answer the questions of how much spinning is too much, and whether these symptoms are in fact part of a concussion.

This research is in preliminary stages, so we don’t yet know how various g-forces in various amounts to the head over time contribute to degeneration.  We want to move and spin and kick and jump and yes, sometimes make contact with others in the course of our physical activity.  It’s good to keep an eye on developing research on how to do these things in ways that support all the things we want to do over hopefully a long life of movement, sport and physical activity.  Stay tuned here for updates.



fitness · team sports

Women’s sports and the Goldilocks problem: are we never “just right”?

Today is the day for the Final Four matchups between the University of Connecticut and Oregon State women’s basketball teams, as well as the University of Washington and Syracuse. There’s the usual talk about stars and standouts—UConn power forward Breanna Stewart is hands-down the dominant player, but she’s not the only great example, either on her own team or in this year’s tournament. Fans should expect some superb play in both games, as well as in the final on Tuesday.

However, that’s not what people are talking about this week. Instead, we are treated to a spate of articles debating the question, “is the dominance of the UConn team bad for women’s basketball?” We have Dan Shaunessy of the Boston Globe to thank, as he both tweeted and wrote an article to say that the lack of competitors for the UConn team makes women’s basketball (all of it, now!) no longer interesting to watch.

If you want the short version of my response, it’s this:

  1. It’s arguably false that UConn’s dominance will make people less likely to be interested in women’s basketball. Other sports teams (UCLA men’s basketball coached by John Wooden in the 60’s and 70’s, the New York Yankees baseball team in the 90’s) dominated play, and those sports didn’t wither away from fan inattention.
  2. Understanding the context of women’s collegiate sports can explain this developmental phase of one-team dominance, and pave the way for more opportunities and support for players and probably more parity among teams.
  3. Once again, we’re treated to a heaping helping of sports misogyny, setting up impossible and shifting demands on women’s teams—they’re damned if they’re too good, and they’re damned if they’re not good enough; right now “balance” is the word being used—they need to be “just right”…


just right

For those readers who have forgotten (or didn’t get around to this story), my repeated references of “just right” are from a version of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In short, Goldilocks breaks into the house of a bear family while they’re out, eating porridge, breaking furniture, and then sleeping in one of their beds. (*SPOILER ALERT*) She is discovered and escapes.




But in the course of her destruction and consumption and use of property, she keeps looking for the thing that’s “just right”—not too hot, cold, big, small, soft, hard. This idea has even been codified into the Goldilocks Principle, which gets applied in a wide range of disciplines, from economics to climate science. Everyone, it seems, is searching for the elusive “just right”.



Okay, enough about Goldilocks—let’s get back to women’s sports.

Dominance in sports is not unheard-of, either in pro or amateur sports. This year’s men’s NCAA basketball tournament was dominated by the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). There are lots of others cases as well—UCLA men’s basketball, the New York Yankees, Tiger Woods—in which a star or star team garners most of the wins and all of our attention. In a National Public Radio interview this week, the issue came up (I edited this slightly):

(sound clip from UConn coach Geno Auriemma): When Tiger was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf. Actually, he did a lot for golf. He made everybody have to be a better golfer.

Interviewer: So what’s your answer to this?

David Ubben: It’s not a great argument. Tiger Woods isn’t recruiting the best golf balls and the best golf clubs to come play for him. Tiger Woods is the golfer. And when he plays, he’s not preventing anyone else from getting better. But Geno Auriemma has to recruit, every single year, the best women’s players in the country. So when he gets a good player, somebody else doesn’t get a good player. And so when you’re asking everyone to improve your game, well, you could start by handing off some of those good players to other programs. And that’s a ludicrous request, but UConn’s still going to be out in front as long as Geno keeps getting the best players and developing the best players. It’s a credit to them, but it’s still not helping the women’s game.

Really?  This is an absurd claim, as it assumes that there’s a small but obvious pool of already-great high school players waiting out there to be scooped up. He discounts the value of good developmental coaching, peer motivation, mentoring by other players, social and academic support, training, and cultivation of an atmosphere in which women athletes are supported and lauded.

Big sports does tend towards a star culture (academia does this too), often ignoring the huge pool of great talent that supports those stars, making their superlative performances possible. And UConn did hit the jackpot with Breanna Stewart.  But let us remember that, while media treatment of stars dominates sports news, sustaining the practice of sports requires the participation of thousands of players, parents, coaches and trainers, local press, school and facilities staff, etc.

Benjamin Norris of explains the current developmental state of women’s college basketball here. Below is a nice excerpt:


  1. There is a lot of talent: Women’s basketball has been the most-played women’s sport at the high school level for decades. Its upper echelon likely has the highest concentration of talent relative to sport participation of any women’s sport other than tennis.
  2. The top teams recruit well, but not abnormally well, relative to the top men’s teams.
  3. However, because many of the most talented male players skip college or go abroad or leave for the NBA, a much higher percentage of the best young female basketball players will be playing in college at any given point than the best young male players. Which is to say that if guys like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns stuck around campus for four years, there would be a lot less parity on the men’s side, too.


Norris (in true stats-geek fashion—I love these folks!) provides scads of graphs to show the current state of dominance of both Stewart and the UConn team. (For any of you teachers/professors out there who want examples for showing students how to read graphs, his article has some of the coolest ones ever). But his main point is that there are structural and historical reasons why this pattern of one-team dominance appeared, and, supposing continued development, the pattern will dissipate and more quality play (and parity, too) will ensue.

Finally, what about the “damned if they win, damned if they don’t” problem? Here’s another choice excerpt from that NPR interview:

Interviewer: What do you say to women, especially young women players, who hear this and may think that this kind of argument from Shaughnessy and others is essentially sexism passed off as sports opinion, right? I mean, the idea being that women – we don’t want to watch them. They’re not as good, until they’re really good, and then we say we don’t to watch them because they’re really good. I mean, this is – this is seeming very much like a catch-22.

David Ubben: Yeah, I think there’s certainly something to that. And I think it’s a tough line because I think that it’s hard to sort out. And a lot of times, it’s hard to have honest conversations about, how do we improve the women’s game? How do we fix these issues without sort of being drowned out by, well, you’re being a sexist.

Once again: Really? Instead of answering the question with informed discussion about the developmental state and support of women’s college sports, David Ubben tried to turn the tables and say that, by being challenged on his view, he is being attacked as a sexist. Well, that won’t do at all.

We all know from our experiences in sports (and life) and from reading this blog that women with extreme achievements make people nervous. We hit too hard, grunt too loudly, sweat too much, work out too long, and run too far. Our bodies are too muscular, too hard, too strong, too tall, too big, or too small.

Honestly, we’re all just right. And if you don’t believe me, listen to Skeletor.









fitness · team sports

Football and violence: a half-time meditation

Today is the Super Bowl—one of the sports high holy days in the US. American football has been in the news a lot recently because scientific investigations have revealed that many deceased NFL players suffered from brain damage due to multiple concussions. Just this week, famed Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died from colon cancer in June, was confirmed as having CTE. The last 10 years of his life were marked with numerous debilitating symptoms, thought to be due to CTE. 94 brains of former NFL player were donated posthumously for research, and 90 of those brains show evidence of CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Of course, that number—94—represents a small percentage of the total number of football players who have died. However, there have been many cases of younger players who have committed suicide who have been confirmed to have CTE, and others for whom brain trauma is suspected.

Frontline,the investigative documentary show on the Public Broadcasting System in the US, in an article on CTE, provides some perspective on those numbers:

…the figures come with several important caveats, as testing for the disease can be an imperfect process. Brain scans have been used to identify signs of CTE in living players, but the disease can only be definitively identified posthumously. As such, many of the players who have donated their brains for testing suspected that they had the disease while still alive, leaving researchers with a skewed population to work with.

Even with those caveats, the latest numbers are “remarkably consistent” with past research from the center suggesting a link between football and long-term brain disease, said Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” said McKee, who runs the lab as part of a collaboration between the VA and BU. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the NFL said, “We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”

So the researchers are suggesting a picture of potentially pervasive brain trauma to professional (extending to college athletes as well) football players.  The NFL says they are responding by funding research and trying to improve the game.

Some of the players are responding, too.  24-year-old Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers announced his retirement from football, citing concerns about long-term brain trauma.  Other players have said publicly that even though they love the game, they would not allow their children to play football. This group includes Terry Bradshaw, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and current NFL sportscaster.

What are the fans saying?

Writer, essayist and advice columnist Steve Almond wrote a book about his decision to stop watching football.  In an interview he cited numerous concerns about the violent nature of the sport, including this:

One of the central rationalizations people use of football is that it’s a way out for certain kids. I don’t believe that football is the right model for empowering communities who are disadvantaged economically and socially and educationally. I think this is a perversion of our values, which should say that every kid matters because of their intellect and morality, not because they get really good at playing a brutal, murder ballet game that we really love watching.”

Some football fans are reacting negatively to all of this news.  In the comments section o a New York Times Room for Debate piece on “Is it wrong to watch football?”, the comments included lots of responses along the lines of, “The players know the risks, and it is their choice to play or not to play.”

One thing I learned as a feminist philosopher is that the idea of “choice” is a complicated one.  We, the humans, have the capacities to take in information, assess what we care about, and make choices to act in certain ways.  But we don’t act alone and in isolation.  One term that gets used in feminist philosophy is “relational autonomy”.  The idea is that our choices are influenced by our ties to others– friends, family, workplace, sports teams, and community.  We care about belonging, being a part of groups– it informs our identities.  I’m a philosopher, a sister, a member of a bike club, a Massachusetts resident, and so on.  What I do is in part designed to reinforce that identity.

Kids and parents and coaches and advertisers and players all are caught up in a culture of football, one that binds us together in some positive ways– we share loyalties with other fans, teammates develop and perform together, etc.  But this culture is one that is causing harm to those who play– serious long-term harm.  Maybe it’s worth reexamining on the grounds that the culture is distorting our view of what sports are for.  Something to think about at halftime.