The locker room as sexualized space?

Today’s ‘Sports in America’ discussion was about 2 recent articles related to Michael Sam and the details of his pre-draft coming out, draft result, and experiences with the Rams and Cowboys afterward. Here are the two articles we read, both by Dave Zirin:

After the Press Conference: Michael Sam and “The Man Box

Michael Sam gets drafted and the NFL has issues

These were great conversation starters, but I couldn’t have predicted the way the conversation went. Early on one of the students asked if Michael Sam being openly gay would be a problem in the locker room, and if so, why? The class was in general agreement that while, morally, it shouldn’t be a problem, sociologically, it almost certainly would be. Why?

While our 50 minute conversation took many twists and turns, we spent a good bit of time talking about locker room norms and culture. The male students, most of whom are athletes now or have high school sports experience, told stories of ‘life in the locker-room.’ One said, basically, ‘in the locker room everyone is 12.’ I said, but why would homosexuality matter, in that case? It turns out that the locker room must be a very sexualized space. To hear my students tell it, the locker room is a place where straight men engage in a range of behavior, some of which mimic sex, and sexualized dancing. One student said it really was expected if you are to be part of the team. So, everyone should be sexual, but no one should take it too seriously. The fear (yes, it’s homophobia) is that a gay teammate might ‘take it too seriously.’

Obviously there is much here to explore, but I was surprised to learn that the locker room may in fact be a very sexualized place for male athletes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that performances of masculinity would be different in a locker room than elsewhere, as Tristan Bridges points out here. Bridges writes that locker rooms are “often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal.” I would have imagined hyper-heterosexuality, not ‘blurred lines’ between heterosexuality and homosexuality that would generate homophobia because ‘gay guys might not understand.’ The female student athletes seemed to know this, too, but said the female locker room isn’t the same. Nonetheless, there was discomfort at the thought of lesbian athletes in the women’s locker room. What explains it there?

A sociological reflection on the APSA fire

The meetings of the American Political Science Association were significantly disrupted by small fires that started around 1am on Saturday morning at the Wardman Park Marriott in Washington DC. What exactly happened, as far as I know, isn’t yet certain. Was the cause arson? Was there someone loose in the building after guests had been evacuated? Was the ATF called in to investigate? I have no answers, but perhaps some of the rumors we were hearing and sharing as we spent around 7 hours either waiting outside the hotel, sleeping in the lobby, or herded into a ballroom are true.

To make some sense of the experiences of those hours between 1am and about 8 on Saturday morning, it really doesn’t matter what facts about the cause of the fires are true. The ‘facts’ of the event as I know them include these: we were woken up at 1am by an automated voice, accompanied by a traditional fire alarm, saying “there is a fire emergency in the building.” I got out of bed, quickly put on a pair of jeans and my shoes, grabbed my wallet with the room key and headed into the hallway. The first image I saw was a middle aged woman who appeared very frightened, and I heard someone, maybe her, say “we can’t find the stairs.” That disconcerting moment was quickly resolved as I watched the woman open the fire escape door just a few feet behind me and we entered the stairwell from the 9th floor. The stairs were crowded and slow moving. It took us only a few minutes to make it down, but it was stop and start, and near the bottom a few people rushed past others who were making an effort to give folks in front time. The perceived slowness and rushing added to what was an altogether nerve wracking few minutes.

Once outside and across the Marriott’s main drive I did like others and looked up. There was no visible evidence of fire, but there was a strong odor of what I assume was burning plastic. At that point I wondered if my colleague who was on another floor was out yet and sent a text. She wasn’t out yet, but was on her way. So, I waited a few minutes until I received a text that she was out, but on the other side of the hotel. Now attention turned to what would be the primary question of the next 7 or 8 hours: When do we get back to our rooms? The building wasn’t an inferno, and in all the fire evacuations I’ve experienced I’ve gotten back to normal within minutes. Not this time.

Instead, the hundreds of us outside watched as firefighters moved in and out of the building. A few minutes stretched to 3 hours as hotel staff began distributing bottles of water and bed sheets for those who were cold. Some started to sleep on the grass around the building. Others stood an chatted with colleagues like you might at any professional conference when you run into friends you only see once a year. Of course, the main topic of conversation was ‘What’s going on in there, and when do we go back in?’

Around 4 we were allowed back into the lobby. Some of us got chairs and benches, while the majority sat or slept on the floor throughout the large first floor of the hotel. I’ve never seen anything like this. The pictures I tweeted to express just how strange it all was got shared pretty widely, including on two local tv news stations.

Those pictures don’t do justice to how surreal it was to see all these folks, many pretty well known scholars, relatively dazed and disheveled, and sleeping under sheets on the floor. Walking and tweeting was dangerous because you could easily have stepped on someone. The situation was outside the bounds of any of my own experience. The pretensions of the self so common at academic conferences were thrown into sharp relief (aided by some who continued to network, work on presentations, and even run statistical analyses on the laptops they’d grabbed on the way out of their rooms).

Around 6 we were all moved into a large ballroom on the first floor. I found it unsettling and had the urge just to leave the building at this moment. Some folks were starting to yell for some info, many made jokes to deal with the nerves and uncertainty. I have a much better understanding of the value of gallows humor now than I did before. It was a scary situation, and what I’m sure looked like crass tweets from outside were comforting to those of us using them to find some relief and common understanding.
 

There were, I think, representatives of the fire and police departments talking to us. I’m short, and in a crowd I can rarely see who is speaking. Also, the room had two sections with a divider between them, and I ended up on the side away from the announcements. As we sat barely dressed at round tables, eating the semi-fancy fare common at catered academic conferences and drinking the coffee provided by Marriott, we strained to hear muffled instructions from the authority figure who was controlling access to our rooms. After a failed attempt to distract us all with about 5 minutes of what looked like a movie few political scientists would find entertaining, we began to learn how we’d get to our abandoned stuff.  

 
First to get back would be those with early flights out of town or medication needs, and they’d go back floor by floor with police escorts. The rest of us would wait, but for how long? Around 7, as that process was wrapping up, we were told we’d all get to back to our rooms, by floor, to retrieve our stuff before the building was shut down and we’d all have to find somewhere else to stay. The conference events planned for the building had already been canceled until noon, so now it sounded like everything was off. But then, 5 minutes later we were told that in just 2 hours or so we’d all get to back to our rooms and stay. Then, about 5 minutes later we were told the building was open and everything was returning to normal as a ‘last sweep’ of the hotel was complete. In around 10 minutes, at the end of a very strange 7 hours, we’d gone from a serious situation requiring closing a major DC hotel to ‘everything is normal, return to your activities.’ 

Many of us went quickly to sleep to try to rest up for whatever we had to do later. I stayed in the lobby for a few minutes and called my wife to report the unbelievable events of the night. As I stood on the phone in my jeans, sneakers with no socks, and white t-shirt I watched as academics in standard conference attire (political scientists love suits and ties, by the way) filled the hotel for working breakfasts and early morning sessions. 

 

On not caring about students getting jobs

Like most college teachers at this time of year I’m thinking about my fall semester courses. Most of these thoughts are about details – choosing readings to assign, revising class policies that prove inadequate every semester, shifting last year’s M/W/F dates by one and remembering to schedule in the vacation days, etc. The details, however, are really only worth fussing over if you are trying to design a course that reflects what you think is important about teaching as a craft. I had a nice conversation with a friend tonight about exactly that.

I’ve never been eager to teach to the job market. Yes, social science students end up with skills employers will value – don’t worry mom and dad – but taken to its logical conclusion, teaching to the job market would require us to bring in employer-consultants when we design our curricula. I mean, reading Mills’ critique of the fourth epoch probably isn’t going to directly translate to a good performance evaluation or an annual bonus. But it is valuable. Feel free to read any current defense of a liberal arts education you can find, probably something about how critical thinking and comfort with diverse cultures and ideas are valuable in the workplace.

So, even these common defenses are really ceding the argument to those in control of the job market. Saying that what we are doing is valuable because of its marketable byproduct doesn’t really give me the inspiration I need to worry about test dates and policies about line spacing.

After saying basically this to my friend and colleague, he asked (out of curiosity, not dismay) ‘if you don’t care about your students getting jobs, then what do you teach for?’

I think my answer was basically “First I want students to be good citizens, next I want them to be compassionate, and third I want them to be ready for graduate school. And then, maybe, I care about job readiness.” No administrator at a school living and dying on enrollment and selling its ‘real world’ applicability is going to want to hear that, I imagine.

Nonetheless, the basic question ‘why do I teach’ and the tension between teaching to the market versus teaching what I hope is at least a little bit of a ‘critical’ social science are things I hope I never stop thinking about. To that end, I’ve spent the last few hours trying to articulate it a bit more.

A good social science class ought to be oriented toward civil society, not the job market. I want students to recognize the value of being curious about the world around them for the sake of living a richer life. I want students to be thoughtful about how they live in relationship with others; who recognize that the decisions they make as members of society have consequences beyond their own lives. I want students who take my classes to believe that it is important to be an informed citizen who thinks not only about how they make their own way, but also how we might make a different society that works for everyone.

Tea Party activism, electoral success, and terrorism

Eric Cantor, as you know by now, lost a primary election to economics professor Dave Brat. Brat is, by all accounts I’ve read, “Tea Party backed.” The Tea Party isn’t a political party like we typically think, but rather a well funded social movement of sorts. Not being a party like the Democrats or Republicans, its organizational structure is rather diffuse, with a number of small, local organizations across the U.S.

In general, Tea Party organizations that identify as such promote small government and lower taxes. They don’t like ‘Obamacare’ and want it repealed. Many websites of ‘Tea Party’ groups promote strong defense of the 2nd amendment (well defense of one interpretation of it, really). Many Tea Party groups (though not all) oppose recent proposals for immigration reform that call for amnesty – forgiving entering the country illegally for immigrants who are already in the U.S. (see an old post of mine about why borders are bad – this professor won’t be getting any Tea Party backing).

The Democrats have the Donkey and the GOP the Elephant. Does the Tea Party have a symbol? Again, because the movement isn’t strongly centralized, there isn’t an official emblem. However, the Gadsden Flag, or the ‘Don’t Tread on Me Flag’ commonly appears at Tea Party rallies and on web pages, etc. Fox News ran a story last winter about the popularity of ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ license plates in Virginia demonstrating the strength of the Tea Party movement. It’s not unreasonable, it seems, to give the Tea Party the rattle snake.

Brat does seem to walk the Tea Party line. A look at his issue positions shows he wants to defund Obamacare, wants a balanced budget amendment, wants to ‘secure the borders’ and rejects amnesty, and calls himself a strong supporter of gun rights. He told Fox News (I think Sean Hannity) that he was happy for Tea Party support. A web forum at ‘The Last Refuge’ was full of celebratory posts cheering the Tea Party victory, including gifs of the Gadsden Flag and hopeful calls for the end of ‘amnesty for illegals’ and calling Cantor ‘Mr. Amnesty.’ So, a quick look at responses on the internet seems to show Tea Party folks very happy about the win, Brat was thankful for Tea Party support, and the media narrative is certainly that this is an electoral win for the Tea Party. (To see the page Google search ‘last refuge, Brat wins’- I don’t want to link to it. As of 1 am June 11 the post “Update #4 – Dave Brat Wins!!!!” had 182 responses).

Is the Tea Party just an electoral force? We know the movement is diffuse and its members choose a number of ways to express their displeasure with established authority. Do we see other forms of participation in political and civil society? For example, in Las Vegas last week two terrorists shot two police officers and then draped their dead bodies in the Gadsden flag. Is this Tea Party terrorism? There is not a centralized movement to claim responsibility, and Tea Party activists will certainly deny it. However, terrorism is violence aimed at political ends, and the shooters chose a symbol of the Tea Party movement and representatives of the government as targets. It fits a Tea Party narrative.

Finally, just last week I was driving around and noticed this pair of decals on a car.

wpid-wp-1402455620883.jpeg

Tea Party activism via decal?

Here we see the Statue of Liberty holding a gun on top of the outline of the United States made up of the phrase “Fuck Off We’re Full.” Never mind the engraving on the Statue of Liberty’s pedastal:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

To the contrary, the driver of this car appears to be promoting a well armed defense of America’s borders to keep out, well, anyone not already here. Again, this strikes me as activism, in the civic sphere, that nicely fits the Tea Party tenets of gun rights and secure borders, two of the points that seem to have helped Brat beat Cantor in Virginia.

So, in the last week I’d say I’ve seen Tea Party action in civic life, as terrorism, and now in electoral politics.

The biggest big data: qualitative observation

Sometimes I wish sociologists would write and share detailed observations of brief public moments. These vignettes could be compiled into a large data set others could use for analysis. It’d be qualitative big data. Obviously the data we’d record would be influenced by our background conceptual knowledge and interests, but what data isn’t? This could be the biggest big data set ever established.

Here’s an example:

Today I was walking through a public space; a park. In the park, which is a large, flat swath of grass without much else, there were two softball games being played. These games weren’t being played on formal softball diamonds, but rather on make-shift diamonds set up with small orange cones. Others who were enjoying the park were walking through the grass, generally following an informal path along where the two improvisational outfields merged. I walked between the two games, and then stopped to watch for a few minutes.

As I stood on a sidewalk that wrapped around the park, a group of young men, probably in their mid twenties, walked past. They pointed to a location directly across the park, between the two games, to indicate that was their destination. They also noticed the two games, and I heard one of them say ‘they’re playing softball, we shouldn’t walk through.’ He hadn’t seen the others walking through I guess, so they followed the sidewalk as one of them mentioned taking the ‘longer way.’

In the back of the group, one of the men said to everybody, “that’s ok, some of us could use it!” He then turned and smiled to the man next to him, the heaviest set of the group, who replied “what’s that supposed to mean?” The first man, who had made the comment, laughed, leaned over and grabbed the second man’s shoulders. The look on the second man’s face, however, was one of shame and embarrassment, not a laughing smile.

**

I’m sure I’ve done more interpretation in this short observation than I’d like, but I tried to keep it as descriptive as possible. How would you make sense of it?

Cottonwood seeds, my dad, and me: 20 years and a day after a funeral

I wasn’t going to write a post about the 20 year anniversary of my dad’s death. That was on May 15th. I thought I might write about the 20 year anniversary of his funeral, which was on May 19th. Reflecting on the funeral ritual and tying it to my own identity development, I thought, might be reasonable sociology content for whatever my blog is becoming. I also thought it would probably be more personal and self indulgent than I feel like being right now, so I was going to let the anniversaries pass without comment.

Then, this morning, May 20th, I was driving to our district high school to vote on the school budget. I was imagining some snarky tweets like “I vote yes in school budget elections just to piss off the Syracuse.com ‘cut my taxes’ crowd.” I was mentally crafting some pretty terrific tweets as I turned on to Grand Avenue and headed for the school when the windblown cottonwood seeds engulfed my car and entered the open windows.

My dad used to say, as best I remember the saying*, “when the cottonwood’s a-flying, the fish are a bitin’.” I think he fished less than he would have liked, but I actually have a good number of fishing related memories of time we spent together. I never much liked fishing or fish, and today fishing is about the last thing I’d do to pass the time. Nonetheless, every spring when the cottonwood fly I think of that saying, I think of my dad, and I think of his funeral procession.

It was on the ride from the church to the cemetery that the saying really got burned into my memories of my father. I was riding with my family in an SUV behind the hearse (did we call them SUVs, then?), we were heading north on Janesville’s Ringold street, approaching my elementary school, and for some reason the ‘Snow’ song “Informer” is strongly associated with this memory (was it on the radio? No way, right?). And of course the cottonwood was flying. My mom quoted my father’s fishing wisdom, ensuring that every spring since, at unexpected moments, memories of my dad would enter my thoughts through an open car window.

I held on to a few of my father’s things after he died: a fishing knife I lost sometime during college; a business card I’ve misplaced somewhere in my messy home office; and a jeweler’s loupe I pull out occasionally for no real reason. These material things symbolize memories of my dad, sure, but they do more than that too. They keep the relationship with my dad alive. That’s why I kept them and why I occasionally spend time with them. But it’s the cottonwood seeds more than anything else that makes my dad feel present. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in afterlife or souls. I do, however, believe in memory and emotion, and in their fundamental place in identity. The memories and emotions the cottonwood seeds trigger are a function of that relationship with my dad, which continues to structure who I am 20 years later.

_

*the accuracy of the memory is less important than the existence of the memory

Producing Fun: How they are Saving the Syracuse Chiefs

 Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I’m a Syracuse Chiefs fan. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that, and probably would like me tweet a bit less about it. I’ve tweeted lots of photos and comments about games this year, made fun of the Chiefs on my timeline, and last year I waged a quixotic battle trying to get the ‘Chiefs’ to change their name to the Salt Potatoes (which I still think would be a better name – see the Montgomery Biscuits). Part of the reason I do this is because even a lot of baseball fans think minor league ball is a weak substitute for the big league game, and not much fun. But they are wrong, and I want to share the fun that can be had at NBT Bank Stadium. A lot of the fun is a result of the social experiences surrounding the game, so you don’t even need to be a baseball lover to enjoy an evening at the ballpark.

 

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Le Moyne Lacrosse: Interaction Ritual and the Sacred

Yesterday afternoon I attended the Le Moyne versus Merrimack lacrosse playoff game that took place at Le Moyne’s Ted Grant Field. Unfortunately for Le Moyne, we lost a close contest in the last 5 seconds. The game, however, was very exciting, and significantly more enjoyable than the one other lacrosse game I’d previously attended 5 years ago or so. As I watched the game I was thinking about what made the experience more exciting this time around.

In general, I find lacrosse quite boring, and the main reason I went was because I wanted to support a few lacrosse players I’ve had in classes this semester. I know my boredom is primarily because I really don’t understand what I’m looking at. To me, it appears to be a bunch of folks running around, beating each other up, and throwing a ball past a goaltender with little to no reasonable chance to make a save (even though the Merrimack tender did seem to make a lot of stops today). As a baseball fan, however, I suspect that most folks who say baseball is boring really don’t know the game very well. Once you know what’s ‘really’ happening out there, you see a lot more going on during those times it appears most of the players are just standing around. I have to assume, therefore, that I just don’t have the stock of lacrosse knowledge to make sense of, and therefore enjoy, lacrosse. This was still true today. I watched nearly the whole game, and at any point I would have been hard-pressed to explain what I was watching. Clearly, it wasn’t my knowledge of the game that made it more fun today.

Fortunately, as I wandered over to the fence to watch the game, I ran into some colleagues who had done the same. They aren’t the colleagues I hang out with the most often, but I know each of them is a sports fan. There were also a few other faculty and college staff, including our president, who joined us for a while as the game progressed. A good crowd of students, only a few of whom I recognized, were also gathered around the fence and in the stands. I can’t say if it was a more well attended game than normal, but it was a playoff game, so probably there were others like me who came just to check it out. I was watching the game with folks who were chatting with one another about the game and some other college issues, and we were all part of the larger crowd focused on the game.

So, can any of these details help explain why I had a more enjoyable time at the game than I expected. First, I did have a connection to a few of the players. I know these students off the field after spending a semester with them in class. So, they weren’t just numbers and face masks, but rather people I’ve cultivated relationships with. I wanted them to win because I knew they’d be proud and happy, and I’d experience just a little bit of those positive emotions if they did.

The folks I was with certainly added to the fun of the experience. Part of that was because I could draw on their stock of lacrosse knowledge to resolve the regular confusion I experienced about the game play. Why did the game stop? Because he stepped across that line. Why was that a penalty when otherwise hitting with sticks seems perfectly legitimate in this game? Because he hit him in the wrong place. Oh, ok. Nobody likes being confused, and I was less confused than if I’d been there on my own. But, it was more than just lacrosse talk making the game fun. We also commiserated about avoiding grading, congratulated one another on accomplishments, and learned more about colleagues we only knew a little. We were engaging in friendship rituals, and it made us happy, despite the fact the game really was never going Le Moyne’s way.

Beyond our group, the larger crowd, not all of whom were cheering for Le Moyne, helped produce my enjoyment too. The excitement, and even the dread, were contagious. It’s fun to be around people having fun, and sharing an emotional connection, even a relatively negative emotion, with a large, loud crowd can help produce a sense of community with people you’ll never get to know personally. This definitely happened, and it’s not a stretch to say that at Le Moyne the lacrosse field is sacred ground. We have a pretty good team, after all, and the men’s lacrosse team in particular has brought a lot of positive attention to the school. That was the background of these sports rituals we enacted, the school’s reputation beyond campus and shared spirit of supporting the team.

I’d say that I enjoyed the game mostly because of all the positive emotional energy that surrounded us, even in defeat. It was a few hours of solidarity and fun, shared with some friends, some acquaintances, and a lot of strangers.

The Dolphin Dolphy Day Interview

As I wrote last week, after a series of Dolphy Day tweets, I was contacted by Le Moyne’s student newspaper to be interviewed about my Dolphy Day opinions. The nicely done story, by Editor-in-Chief Aubrey Zych, appeared in today’s Dolphin, and here is a related student response also published today. It’s clear there are varied opinions about Dolphy Day at Le Moyne, but since I’ve been here, I don’t recall this much discussion or recognition that there are people, including students, who have problems with the tradition. It’s good that we are talking about it, and I hope we continue to do so. If the tradition goes like usual, however, no one will think much about it until next spring, and it will continue to be as disruptive, dangerous, and exclusionary as ever. One thing is certain, I’ll continue to tweet freely about the things I want to see changed, as well as the things I love about Le Moyne.

With Aubrey Zych’s permission, below I’ve posted my complete responses to the emailed interview questions.

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My week on Twitter with ‘off-Twitter’ consequences

This week, via Twitter, I had several interesting experiences. Here I’ll just summarize and describe them, but I’d like to think more about how these stories relate to identity, power, and community. Monday, April  14, was Dolphy Day at Le Moyne. If you’re curious about what Dolphy Day is, I guess you could look here. I don’t know if there really is a good account of what the day ‘is,’ but over the last few years perusing the hashtag #dolphyday would give you some impression. This year I saturated Twitter with tweets critical of the day (I’m surprised I still have followers). I meant to criticize, on intellectual grounds, what I feel is irresponsible student behavior, bad institutional policy, and the basic disrespect of students, staff, faculty, and campus neighbors the day ritualizes. One of my least interesting but most sincere tweets was used in this article from syracuse.com. A number of students responded to me in defense of Dolphy Day, some rather aggressively, others very respectfully. As a result of my tweets, I got an email from a recent Le Moyne graduate very eloquently defending what she considers the good parts of the day. I had students approach me offline to tell me they liked what I was saying, but none telling me they disagreed. A few students asked me how they could communicate what they dislike about the day to administrators. One administrator on campus told me I wasn’t acting as a good colleague. I was also asked to do an interview for the campus newspaper about my opposition to Dolphy Day. I’ve asked the reporter if she’ll let me post the interview here on my blog, and I’ll do so once her story is published. I think it’s a good thing that what I and my colleagues did on Twitter, as well as on a very long ‘reply all’ email chain, might help start a real conversation about what Dolphy Day is at Le Moyne, and how it might be done differently and better.

Then, on Thursday, I had 2 unrelated Twitter experiences that I think are less about being a ‘public scholar’ and more about being a member of a supportive community. In the morning, I had a relatively long Direct Message exchange with a colleague and friend I met via Twitter about some non academic issues I’m finding it hard to talk about with others. It was really nice to have that chance, and it simply wouldn’t have happened without connections I’ve made via web based social networking. Thursday night I went to a Syracuse Chiefs double header, and midway through game 2 I tweeted a picture of view along with my seat location.

The view from my seat at NBT Bank Stadium.

The view from my seat at NBT Bank Stadium.

A Chiefs fan that I follow, and who also follows me, happened to see the tweet and it turned out he was sitting one section over. As we figured that out, he walked over and introduced himself. It turns out he’s a teacher with a great interest and knowledge about baseball. He even wrote his college senior year thesis about the economic impact of minor league baseball teams on their home cities. It sounds like a very interesting project, and I’ve asked to read it.

Each of these experiences are examples of how Twitter, and social networking more generally, have the potential to create community, to foster larger conversations about change, and to be integrated into our offline lives.