Sportswriter discusses gender issues in sports

Alissa Ricci

Sportswriter Dave Zirin addressed the topic of sports and gender to an audience of 125 students and faculty on Sept. 23 in Driscoll Hall Auditorium.

Zirin writes a weekly column entitled “Edge of Sports” linked to Sports Illustrated online and is a frequent guest on ESPN and MSNBC.

Zirin was born and raised in New York City where he played high school baseball and basketball.

He graduated from Macalester College in 1996 with a degree in history.

After a brief teaching career in Washington, D.C., Zirin became a sportswriter who blends politics and sports into his work.

The departments of sociology, gender and women’s studies, writing and rhetoric, communication, peace and justice, history and athletics all jointly hosted Zirin’s visit.

The Faculty Panel consisted of Rick Eckstein (sociology), Mary Beth Simmons (English) and Paul Rosier (history).

Eckstein introduced the guest of honor.

“Dave rejects the conventional wisdom that organized sports are somehow immune from exercising social power; he rejects the idea that sports are a respite from social injustices such as racism and sexism,” Eckstein said.

After Eckstein’s opening remarks, Zirin began his talk.

“I have a passion and love for sports,” Zirin said. “That’s my starting point. I’m pumped up for today’s talk. I’ve been taking steroids all day.”

He then proceeded to give a brief 25 minute talk about sports in today’s world.

One hot topic of discussion included the way female athletes are portrayed by the media.

Zirin used NASCAR racecar driver Danica Patrick and WNBA basketball player Tonya Parker to introduce conflicting stereotypes.

“Parker is portrayed as a wholesome mother figure,” Zirin said. “Patrick is portrayed as a sexually available seductress. The stereotype of female athletes insists that they are women first, jocks second. I’m tired of this. This is the same box female athletes have always been in.”

Zirin points to sexism and homophobia as the two social problems that sports brings to light, particularly in regards to female athletes.

The recent controversy over the gender of 18-year-old South African runner Mokgadi Caster Semenya also garnered much discussion.

“At this very moment, as we sit in this room, Semenya is under 24-hour suicide watch,” Zirin said. “Why? Because there are objections that she might not be fully female. She is being examined by endocrinologists, psychologists and gynecologists to determine her gender.”

Zirin explained how gender testing for female athletes implies not only a gender bias, but also poses that men are the measure of women’s athletic abilities.

“Gender testing only applies to female athletes,” Zirin said. “It should be abolished. Gender variance and hormonal differences in people are part of human nature.”

After Zirin’s talk, faculty members Rosier, Simmons and Eckstein each gave brief commentaries on the history of sports and gender.

Simmons discussed how she was a beneficiary of Title IX and became the only girl on her high school golf team.

“In the last round of tryouts, one of my friends and I competed for the last spot on the team,” Simmons said. “I beat him. Our friendship was over after that. Then I played for the next four years, despite my teammates making sexist remarks behind my back and not treating me as part of the team.”

Her story is one of triumph and tension that Zirin demonstrated in his talk.

“Sports should be the one place where it doesn’t matter what we look like or what we wear,” Zirin said. “We should be able to go out there and sweat and have fun and make friends. Sports are like a hammer. You can use them to build a house or beat someone down.”

Junior Jenn Maez enjoyed the lively debate over sports that Zirin prompted with his talk.

“Messages of teamwork, communication, sportsmanship, work ethic and determination are all great qualities that can be achieved in the form of athletics,” Maez said. “However, as I would argue, sports and athletic organizations influence society in negative ways and mirror social problems that require sports to be looked at with scrutiny.”

Following the event, Zirin’s book “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” was available for sale and signing by the author.