Women in Sports: Still for Ogling

by Shaker Em

So I've been asked to make a guest post on a subject near and dear to my heart—women athletes. The sport in question is rugby. I play it, I am a club administrator, I recently received my referee certification, and I hope to one day coach. I am unabashedly in love with this sport. That's why I'm so pissed off today. Today I discovered that the website representing my local area union had—oh wait. I suppose I better explain a little about rugby in the United States.

Rugby in the US is governed in a hierarchal structure that starts at the local level with affiliations known as local area unions (LAUs). These LAUs can govern an area up to the size of a state. These in turn are grouped into seven large territorial unions (TUs) that encompass multiple states. At the national level, the TUs are governed by USA Rugby, who in turn answers to the International Rugby Board (IRB). It's a simple Matryoshka doll set-up, with LAUs as the smallest piece, and consequently, they tend to be most informally organized and receive the least oversight from the national organization. Got it? Good.

So like I was saying, today I discovered that the webmaster for my Iowa LAU homepage had posted this:

I wonder what USA Rugby thinks about having its logo prominently displayed next to such a fine piece of ass?

Now, I really can't figure out what that picture has to do with rugby, can you? Does it look like it has anything in common with this?

You don't think so? Well, neither do I, and neither did one of my teammates who also saw it. We both wrote letters to the webmaster and to the LAU President, who addressed our concerns by telling us that being "extremely angry" about the inappropriate and irrelevant photo was "a bit of an overstatement" and that use of naughty language should be avoided if we "want to be taken seriously." See, apparently the word "fuck" when used by a feminist in legitimate anger is problematic, but posting an image of a woman suggestive of the activity to non-feminists is not. Who knew?

Further fun was had as our LAU President explained that he noticed the picture when it was first posted, and thought it was inappropriate, but "wanted to see how long it would take for someone to comment on it" in order to gauge website traffic. (Tip: Get a hit counter.) And, repeatedly, he told us it was up for more than a month before anyone said anything, as though it has actual meaning as to how much traffic the website gets. All that month between posting and uproar really says is that anyone who saw the picture either approved of it, further reinforcing the sexist culture of rugby, or didn't feel comfortable speaking up. I can't help but wonder how many potential female players might have stumbled across that site and been lost to rugby before we spoke up about it.

But things were about to get worse.

After several email exchanges, the picture was replaced…with an image of Oscar the Grouch:

Get it? Teh wimminz, they have no sense of humor! HAW! HAW!

The sexpot and the nagging killjoy: two classic misogynist views of women, all in one post! See, ladies, complain about how we treat you and you will magically grow green fur and bushy eyebrows! And then we won't want to fuck you, and wouldn't that be sad?

Funny how still there is no image of a woman athlete...you know, the sort of woman that the union and the site are supposed to be representing? Funny, that.

When confronted about this remarkably passive-agressive move, the webmaster explained, "The replacement picture was the result of a random pic search on google and seasame street pics is what came back."

Oops, caught you lying! Take a look at the Google Image search page. Notice that there is no randomizer button. Therefore, the search Shawn conducted must have been for a specific term or phrase. Now take a look at the result of a search for "sesame street". Do you see the image anywhere in there? I'll save you the trouble—it isn't anywhere in the first five pages of search results. Now look at the result for the search string "oscar the grouch". Notice anything? First page, bottom right corner. Sorry Shawn. Your innocent act isn't fooling anyone.

When I said I would make this issue public if an apology was not issued posthaste, our LAU President replied, "I'm not going to kowtow to threats." Okay, fine. Then how about doing it because it's the right thing to do? Let me remind you of something, pres:

Rugby is the only contact sport in the world where the laws are exactly the same for men and women. It is truly the finest example of a level playing field in the sports world today—at least, that is, in terms of theoretical opportunity. Let me make that a little more explicit…

In rugby, we.are.EQUAL.under.the.law.

In real terms, however; that is, in how many women get to truly access those opportunities?—well that's a bit different. Women's teams are consistently underfunded, understaffed, underwomanned, and placed lower on the totem pole than men's teams. It is only the early start of women's rugby in the US compared to other nations, and the large potential player pool, that has allowed the US women's side to remain competitive internationally, and frankly, if a fifth place finish in the most recent Women's World Cup says anything, it is that our consistent devaluation of women's rugby in this country is opening the international field to other countries. We are losing ground, and if the old boy network that still controls many of the LAUs around the country is any indication of our commitment to women, we will continue to lose ground.

You know what attracted me to rugby? That chance to be completely equal, just for 80 minutes on ten or so Saturdays every year. No bubble, no bigger or smaller ball, no different three-point arc, just me and my team, together, playing the game by the exact same laws as every other side across the world. The one field on which I can make a hit by the same rules as anyone else. That's fucking special. What you don't seem to realize is that, despite how much you guys have done for rugby and women's rugby as a whole, your behavior on this particular incident has SET RUGBY BACK as a whole. You have a great history, and I'm glad that other people care about rugby as much as I do and are in positions to make more changes than I currently can. I am not questioning your history of supporting rugby. I am questioning your response in this particular incident, and you have as much as admitted it is completely indefensible:
Call it a bs answer, but it's the truth. Call it inappropriate, and maybe I don't have a response...or at least not a very defendable one. Whether or not I'm a nobody or somebody, I'm still able to make questionable calls.
This was a not a questionable call, and to characterize it as such further reveals exactly why we need to be having this conversation. As my teammate said:
Of course I'm extremely angry. Why is it so hard to understand that the image would be offensive to women? Especially when displayed on a site that is supposed to represent the women's rugby teams of the state of Iowa. This is a direct reflection on the union, and the attitude you are taking does not give me much faith in how the union feels about its women's teams.
And in the words of other women ruggers:
I am appalled to see how the Iowa Rugby Union is representing itself. It is disappointing to see how high you value women.
Is that how the Midwest views the women who play rugby for this territory? Scantily clad in underwear, objectified? The Midwest currently boasts a large number of international women's players, women who have fought to earn our nation a fifth place finish in the entire world. We women in the Midwest are the reigning National Division 2 champions and runners up as well as the runners up for the Division 1 National Championship. We continually dominate National All Star Championships. In short, Midwest women's rugby players are some of the best in the nation and the world. I understand these are achievements of the territory at large, but Iowa is part of this effort and I am outraged that such a photo would appear on a website representing part of my rugby union.

Images like that, postings like that, are harmful to the advancement of women's rugby as a sustainable and legitimate sport in this nation. Only when thoughtless actions such as that are stopped will we be able to gain headway and advance. As a woman, as a rugby player for one decade, and as a professional, I am insulted that the union would display something such as that image.
Like I was saying, this was not a questionable call. It was an easy one, and you completely blew it. Your responses to the above emails claimed the problem had been fixed, instead of the truth, which was that one offensive image was swapped with another. Most importantly, your responses lacked both an acknowledgement that sexism in rugby is still endemic and an apology for contributing to its perpetuation. And even in the midst of these placating replies, you continued to defend the indefensible and justify the ridiculous caricature of myself and my teammate as whiny grouches. In an email to me:
The picture that he posted as a replacement is comical and sarcastic, maybe leaning towards an inappropriate inside joke, but it does not make the matter worse. Since he's doing all of the web development without charging the union, I figured I'd give him his little victory for a day before telling him to remove it.
And I should believe you respect women, why, again?

Ultimately, THAT's what's making me angry. Falling back on privilege instead of standing up and admitting you were wrong is a coward's ploy. It's difficult to confront the fact that you messed up. Yet, people do it every day. It is important to understand that as a man and a rugby player, you have privilege over women and women rugby players. An abuse of that privilege such as has been recounted here is detrimental to the fight for women's equality both within rugby and without. You need to understand that it is not your commitment to rugby I'm challenging, but that privilege. I care about rugby too. Like the rest of the people involved in this crazy sport, it takes up more of my life than I should probably admit. And that is exactly why I cannot let actions such as these stand. They hurt something I care about, and I won't be quiet about it. It's my right and obligation as a woman, a rugger, and a member of the human race, to demand that women's bodies and athletic abilities be respected, and to challenge the dismissal of women's voices in rugby. This is not an inside joke or an isolated incident in a small LAU on a web page hardly anyone sees. It is part of a larger culture that needs reform, and I am doing that work to the best of my capacity.

I wish my LAU President (and the webmaster) would join me.

[I depart with another huge thank you to Melissa for providing me this opportunity to blog here. For every woman and girl who wants to play, there's an incident like this that discourages them. It has to stop. If you are so moved, I would like to encourage you to send a letter addressed to LAU President and/or LAU Webmaster to Liss, or leave it in comments, and I will make sure they get them.]

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