Glam Photos Show the Ugly Side of Women's Collegiate Basketball
How do you make women's college sports more attractive to both potential players and fans? Well, if you're Florida State University, you get the team all gussied up in evening gowns and make-up. FSU, with the assistance of Ron Sachs Communications, recently launched its new and glamorous site, which emphasizes "Confidence. Strength. Beauty. We've got it all." Indeed, ranked no. 15 in the nation, the FSU women's basketball team does appear to have both the confidence and strength to be a winning team. But beauty? The players certainly look beautiful in those glam photos that adorn the site, but as they exit or artfully pose against a stretch limousine in silky metallic dresses, they look more like fashion models attending an awards show than athletes who play hard on the court. And it seems that this was the point.
Jayda Evans, whose blog covers collegiate and professional women's basketball for The Seattle Times, suggests that this marketing campaign is part of a larger trend in women's sports that attempts, in her words, to "sexualize basketball." It is also an attempt to de-sexualize the sport, that is, to disassociate female athletic achievement from being a lesbian. Other colleges, like the BIG 12 Texas A&M, are following suit (or gown) and publishing beauty shots of their female athletes. While most college administrative types talk about this new trend as good for business, some players, coaches, and fans are labeling it homophobia.
Evans quotes the words of FSU coach Sue Semrau: "We feel it is important to set ourselves apart as much as we can. We look around at how things are presented in our business, and so much of it looks the same. We had a vision for something that others were not doing. We wanted to have a product that would stand out to the people we are trying to reach." While it would be naïve to believe that college sports isn't or shouldn't be concerned with the bottom line, such words, especially from a coach, really seem to instrumentalize the players' achievements. Add to this business rhetoric the stereotype of the pretty woman, and women's sports marketing moves further and further away from the actual sport.
The baddest word in team sports has always begun with an L: lose. However, the glamor shots suggest that another L word has become blasphemy: lesbian. Women who happen to be lesbians (or are thought to be) are finding themselves sidelined or even kicked off teams because they don't live up to a particular image desired by the coach, the university, or the sport in general. Portland State coach Sherri Murrell, the only out lesbian among more than 300 NCAA Division I coaches, says, "At the end of the day, we're all trying to come together to win basketball games. Kids talk and my players know people at such-and-such school where their coach will kick them off if they know their gay. It's tough because I think we need to value a player as a player."
Such tactics and their impact are the subject of a new documentary on homophobia in women's sports, Training Rules. The documentary focuses in particular on the alleged policies of former Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland: no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians. What happened when Portland came into conflict with one of her most talented players ever brought about her downfall. Watch the trailer at the end of this article.
As Evans points out, these business decisions with their hateful subtext seem to be undermining the spirit of the game altogether. "But what are they selling? I thought the 'target audience' was recruits who sign to play hoops (and get an education)? You do get a sense of the players as people on the site, yet there's not much basketball going on. And if anything is placed before 'athlete,' isn't it supposed to be 'student' not 'sex'?" she writes. Unfortunately, these women are getting an education of sorts from such off-court strategies, and it doesn't do much to uphold those old chestnuts of college athletics: team spirit and fair play.