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Sports as a trope of American national identity

November 07, 2012

Editor's Note: This op-ed by Abigale Vercauteren is part of Title IX week at ASU – a celebration and examination of the 40th anniversary of the landmark piece of legislation that paved the way for equal opportunities in education and sports for women and girls.

As we celebrate the anniversary of Title IX, a component of the Education Amendments of 1972 signed into law by President Richard Nixon, it is important to critically reflect on the progress that has been made during the 40 years since its implementation.

Although Title IX protects against discrimination on the basis of sex “under any educational programs or activity receiving federal assistance,” it is most commonly referenced in regard to intercollegiate athletics.

Despite individual success stories – such as that of Ashley Martin, the first woman to play in a Division I college football game, or Gabby Douglas, the first African-American woman to win an individual all-around and team gold medal at an Olympic Games – Title IX continues to be a source of controversy. Underscoring such contention is the ongoing belief that mainstream athletics are intended to be participated in, and consumed by, (white, heterosexual, able-bodied) men. Women’s literal and cultural exclusion from athletics has become even more problematic in recent decades, as sports have become increasingly intertwined with U.S. national identity and belonging.

Just weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush delivered a speech at the Little League World Series in which he described a childhood of “playing on those dusty little league fields in west Texas” and praised the “great sport of baseball."

In the days following the terrorist attacks, baseball was repeatedly invoked as a symbol of hope, resiliency and patriotism by athletes and politicians alike. However, narratives linking sports with American national pride extend beyond moments of national crisis. For example, the Dallas Cowboys, a member of the National Football League known for aggressive play and on-the-field antics, has been affectionately dubbed “America’s team,” while professional athletes have achieved near-celebrity status (and ever-expanding salaries) in recent years.

Meanwhile, the WNBA, one of the few professional leagues open to female athletes, is often openly mocked and delegitimized, and athletes such as Danica Patrick and Maria Sharapova are recognized more for their physical appearance than their athletic prowess. In fact, a recent article in Men’s Fitness magazine – titled "Hottest Female Athletes" – declared that “nothing makes the mercury rise quite like these sexy ladies, who make their sports look good just by being part of it.”

Although Title IX has undoubtedly resulted in significant gains for women – particularly in academia – athletics, as a whole, remains male-dominated and male-defined. While funding for women’s collegiate sports has increased as a result of Title IX, barriers remain for female athletes and others who do not fit the mold of “ideal sporting bodies.” For women’s athletic participation to be consistently delegitimized suggests that only the experiences of certain people – typically those with privilege – matter.

Next time baseball or another sport is used as a trope for national belonging or pride, it is essential to question whose “field of dreams” we are really discussing.

Abigale Vercauteren is a gender studies doctoral student in the School of Social Transformation, within ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her research interests include feminist movements in the Middle East, transnationalism, and the intersection of homophobia and sexism in U.S. sports culture.