Oppressive Stereotypes for Strong Women

My letter to the editor in the Washington Post, February 19, 2014:

With all due respect for a brave person who is determined to chart her own path, Marion Cory [“Genderqueer at the gym,” Outlook, Feb. 16] inadvertently reinforced the very gender stereotypes that oppress her.According to Ms. Cory, derby cars, self-discipline, adventure, challenge, sports and weightlifting are masculine. Has she never heard of feminism? That, in part, was the point: freedom from gender roles — for all of us. Has she never watched the Olympics? When women lift weights, they’re not acting masculine, they’re acting like people who want to get stronger.And why in the world would she want to use the men’s locker room? That’s for men. She’s a self-disciplined, adventurous, strong woman — just like millions of other women. The word for these people is not genderqueer; it’s athlete.
— Mariah Burton Nelson, Arlington
Marion Cory in her apartment building’s gym. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Violence, Silence, and How to Be a Man

leadershipHow to Be a Man

Brilliant Ted Talk by Jackson Katz on male responsibility – and opportunity – to take a leadership role in ending violence against women, girls, boys, and other men.

Sex, Seduction, Power, and Love

My letter in the Washington Post today (regarding “Ex-swim coach gets 7 years in sex case”):

“I loved him.” Those were the three most important words in Rick Curl’s sentencing hearing. Kelley Currin’s sentiment has been echoed by victims everywhere, including Jerry Sandusky’s. “It was awesome. I loved it,” one boy said of his relationship with the football coach. I felt the same way about the coach who abused me. In my 14-year-old mind, we were having a love affair.
Parents must understand: Children can be manipulated and seduced. All of us crave love and affection, especially from charming, successful adults. Statutory rape laws are based on this premise: Young people are not developmentally capable of handling complicated and dangerous emotional situations.
Secrecy

Our message should not be, “If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, tell me.” Unfortunately, they’re not going to tell us. Even in the face of disturbing and damaging sexual contact, they’re going to preserve their “special” relationships with beloved mentors, coaches, teachers and priests.

Instead, we need to give children and teens this message: We know how powerful love can be. Then we need to demonstrate the power of our love by protecting them.

Being Out, Not Coming Out: Brittney Griner

Even people who don’t give a hoop about basketball are rallying around Brittney Griner, and what’s not to like? This Baylor center, best known for her spectacular dunks, is now publicly chatting and writing (most recently in the New York Times) about what it’s like to be OUT, and why it matters.

And it does matter, to all of us.

Learning that a female basketball player is gay cannot exactly shock anyone. So compared to Jason Collins’ announcement that he is gay (wow – a MALE basketball player? Finally!) the Brittney story is a yawn.0402010951_zpsfc873352-1

I had already heard through the grapevine she was gay – and she herself didn’t see it as an announcement. Unlike Jason, she wasn’t “coming out.” She was “being out,” which is different. Coming out is revealing a secret, or making a revelation that will surprise the audience. Being out is “just being who you are,” as she put it.

But as long as discrimination  exists, being openly gay matters. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way,” she told SI.com.

Even in 2013, being out takes courage – and many athletes still fail to live courageously. They’re afraid of losing corporate sponsorships, and thus sacrifice authenticity for money. That’s counterproductive, because as long as corporate America can in effect pay athletes to feign heterosexuality, we will not achieve the equality we deserve. Plus we’ll feel miserable and ashamed.

When I came out as a Stanford basketball player in 1976, I said the same things: “I’m just being who I am.” That was at the height of the feminist movement and the beginning of the gay liberation movement. I naively expected that 37 years later, gay people would have achieved full legal rights and full acceptance. We’ve come a long way, but we aren’t there yet.

What WILL surprise – and please – me is when gay college coaches start “being openly who they are.” Now THAT will be newsworthy.

In the future, who’s gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, or “fluidly” sexual or asexual over the course of their lifetimes will not be a big deal. That’s the goal, or my goal anyway: To create a world where human diversity is appreciated but nowhere near as interesting as a good game of basketball.

— Mariah Burton Nelson has written six books about gender and sports. She enjoys “being out” – and being shorter than Brittney Griner, as pictured above.

Game-Changer: Let Athletes Major in Sports

I sometimes joke that at Stanford University, I “majored in basketball.”

Truth is, I spent hours each day immersed in a highly educational experience involving leadership and team-building lessons that were far more hands-on than anything I might have picked up at the Biz School. I also took those lessons and used them as a foundation for a career as a sportswriter.

The author shooting (#12)

But what if athletes could really major in sports? In today’s Washington Post, always-thoughtful sportswriter Sally Jenkins makes the case that NCAA Colleges Should Consider Offering Sports as an Academic Major.

Jenkins’ proposal is a game-changer because her plan would legitimize sports participation for the educational experience that it is – and encourage universities to create integrated curricula including existing courses such as sport science, sport psychology, sport sociology, sport management, physical education, kinesiology — and the currently missing piece, the connection between theory and practice: varsity participation.

Most athletes are not football players, and most sports do not generate revenue (nor do most football teams, but that’s another story). Her main point has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with challenging the way we think about sports as an educational experience.

Congrats, Sally, for raising a fascinating new subject.

Maybe if I had been encouraged to study sports as an academic discipline, I would have thought of your wonderful idea myself! 🙂

Mariah Burton Nelson now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

The Art of Excellence (Interview)

The following interview appeared in the May 2011 edition of Sport Management Academy Newsletter.

An award-winning athlete, author, journalist, speech writer and speaker, Mariah Burton Nelson has played a leading role in redefining what it means to be a success in the sports industry. She currently serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

Q. What do you feel is your greatest achievement?

A. Populating the world with more female athletes. When I ride my bike (in the Washington DC area), and see trails full of female cyclists, runners, walkers, and in-line skaters of all ages, I feel gratified that I have played a small role in creating those opportunities. I reflect on how far we’ve come from my childhood.

My mother was a swimmer (and still is, at 87,) but she and her friends never ran or rode bikes or played team sports. When I was growing up, people expected “tomboys” to “grow up and be ladies.” Now girls and women take for granted their right to move, and they understand the relationship between exercise, health, and happiness.

Many women have told me, “You inspired me to be an athlete.” That was not my initial intent — I just wanted to write books and give speeches about women’s sports experiences — but what a satisfying result!

Q. What qualities do you think are key to professional success?

A. Discipline. We do so many things because we’re in the habit of doing them. And those habits — the good ones — are what lead to success. I swim or lift weights or ride my bike or do yoga every day because I made a decision many years ago to be an athlete, and that’s what athletes do. I don’t need to re-decide every day. That’s the good news: Discipline itself becomes a habit. You become the kind of person who does the right things, over and over again.

The same is true for discipline at work. After a while, you dispense with the inner dialogue about whether or not to work, or work harder. You write the proposal, then polish it until it shines, because you made a deal with yourself a long time ago. You might not even remember why or when you made that deal, any more than you recall your original tooth-brushing agreement.

Another word for discipline is practice. This is more good news: When you do something repeatedly, you get better at it. You feel increasingly competent, and confident, which leads you to try even harder.

I just submitted a proposal, and the recipient told me that in the 25 years he’s been writing and reviewing proposals, he’s never seen a better one. I was happy, but I wasn’t really surprised. I’m sure that much of my own professional success is largely due to the fact that I work harder, and have higher standards, than most people.

I think this is rooted in self-discipline. I learned it in sports, and continue to benefit from the daily discipline of sports, but discipline begins with commitment. Anyone, even someone without athletic training, can start there.

Q. What role do you feel mentors play in achieving career goals?

A. I’m reading a new biography of Babe Didrikson called Wonder Girl (coming out in June 2011). She died the year I was born, but I read her autobiography as a young girl, and she inspired me by being so incredibly disciplined, hard-working, passionate, competitive, and successful. I also looked up to my mother, an exuberant swimmer and physician who was openly, playfully competitive. They were my two role models: Babe and Mom.

But I did not have any mentors per se because so few women were playing sports when I was growing up (I was born in 1956), and so few people were writing about women and sports when I started doing that, in 1980. Basically, I invented my career (as a sportswriter focused on women and gender issues.) I admired Frank Deford and George Leonard and other male sportswriters, but I didn’t know them personally, and often wished that I had a mentor I could turn to for advice. Perhaps I would have made fewer mistakes. Given a chance, someone certainly would have taught me something about respectful silence and tact. Sometimes I’ve been too outspoken for my own good.

So I can’t really comment on mentors from personal experience, but I’ve heard good things about them, and try to be what I think of as “the kind of person who’s worth looking up to, in case anyone’s looking.”

Q. If you could give one piece of advice to today’s sport managers what would it be?

A. Actively seek diversity. Birds of a feather flock together, so we must consciously transcend our natural tendency to hire and promote people who look and sound and think as we do. My current staff of nine includes people of Indian, Korean, African, European, and Iranian descent, someone who is legally blind, and someone who is gay. (That’s me.) Do we talk about those differences? Rarely. We’re too busy talking about how to promote physical activity, and how to best serve our members. But does our diversity make us stronger as a team? Surely. To achieve this sort of diversity, one must recruit widely, and make a commitment to putting aside personal prejudices in order to get to know people as people. The rewards – personal and professional – can be great.

Women Who Exercise (and Sing)

One of many pleasures of public speaking is engaging an audience in something new and slightly risky. A tension builds: Who will participate? What will happen next?

Most adults do not consider themselves singers, and are reluctant even to sing Happy Birthday among family and friends.

Therefore – to create dramatic tension and challenge audience members to “practice taking a small public risk,” I write songs that reinforce the messages of my speeches, invite some singers to join me on the podium, then encourage everyone else to sing along.

(“How many of you cannot sing well?” I ask. “Fine. Please tell the person next to you, so that they won’t be surprised when they hear you singing off-key.”)

Here (by request) is a song I shared with the Executive Women’s Golf Association last week, the Bethesda AAUW in January, and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport last spring. I’ll probably share it (or some variation on it) at the upcoming Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference too. You’re welcome to use it too; please just give me credit.

Women Who Exercise
Sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music

Women who exercise
build bones and muscles
Less risk of stroke and
Less strain on blood vessels.

Less diabetes
Arthritis and fat
Physical happiness!
How about that!

OSTEOPOROSIS!
Deep vein THROMBOsis!
These would FEEL so bad.

But when we get moving
We rarely get sick
More good news:
We’re RARELY sad!

We are all athletes
I hope you believe it
Fitness is yours
I know you can achieve it.

Make it a habit
and learn how to train
Your BODY will love you
and so will your BRAIN!

FEWER BACK aches!
FEWER HEART aches!
Better sleepand sex

Go golfing or swimming
Invite all your friends
Good HEALTH is all YOURS…
Go flex. 

by Mariah Burton Nelson, who did not consider herself a singer until she started singing these songs on stage at her own speeches — then noticed, over time, that her singing improved through practice, which confirmed one of her messages: Practice works!