Q & A: Sportista Author Andrei Markovits on Women and Sports

U of Michigan professor Andrei Markovits on women, sports and "speaking" football
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Women have been fighting to be recognized in sports for longer than we think. Just ask Fraulein Kussin.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last fall, when I arrived at the University of Michigan on a journalism fellowship with a brief to study whatever I wanted, I had in mind that among other things I would answer a question that had long interested me: How exactly do we decide that a given activity is a sport? Somewhat anticlimactically, Andrei Markovits answered the question in one of the first lectures I attended, then outlined the process by which cultural spaces for mass sports are created as a corollary of industrialization. Here was a man who knew what was what.

Among the many remarkable things about Markovits is that, having grown up in Romania, Austria and the States speaking five languages, having taught all over the world, and having done work in political theory and sociology that’s landed him with chairs in two departments and the freedom to indulge his curiosity about comparative sports cultures and whatever else interests him, he is—of course!—a champion sports bullshitter, pretty much the man you would most want to introduce you to watching the Wolverines at the Big House.

It’s good, then, that his latest book, Sportista—written in collaboration with the excellent Emily Albertson, a current law student at Michigan who was, at the time of writing, an undergraduate—would be, among other things, about the modes of sports discourse, all the bullshit in which men indulge in before and after and during games. More than that, though, it’s about another way of watching sports, one perhaps less catered to by the giant nonsense machine but no less important and surely no less interesting. In an email exchange, Markovits told me all about it.

The Classical: What is Sportista?

Andrei Markovits: The typical female sports fan remains very different from her male counterparts. In our book Sportista, we examine the significant ways many women have become fully conversant with sports—acquiring a knowledge of and passion for them as a way of forging identities that until recently were quite alien to women. Sports to us in this case denote what Markovits has come to term "hegemonic sports cultures," meaning those very few constructs—almost exclusively team sports focused on a ball-like contraption (pace hockey puck!)—that are followed by millions and known passively by billions. One has to be a cave man of some kind, an inveterate hermit, or a terribly snobbish human being not to know who the Tigers are in Detroit, or the Mets in New York, or Bayern in Munich. One need not know their line up, need not know individual players' stats, but one DOES indeed know their existence. Moreover, pursuant Markovits's earlier work on this subject, we argue that the following (i.e. consumption) of sports may only be tangentially (if at all) related to their doing (i.e. production). Indeed, this virtual separation between the two forms one of the main pillars of sports' male persona, in notable distinction to its female version in which sports' production and consumption are deemed to be much closer.

Sportista chronicles the relationship that women have developed with exactly such sports in the wake of the second wave of feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The changes women athletes have achieved have been nothing short of revolutionary. But, as we argue, women’s identities as sports fans, though also changed in recent decades, remain notably different from that of men. Sportista highlights the impediments to these changes that women have faced and the reality that, even as bona fide fans, they “speak” sports differently from and remain largely unaccepted by men.

And, separately, just what is a sportista?

A sportista is a neologism, our very own invented term, which we derive from the word fashionista. Indeed, we hope that our readers and the public will pick up on precisely this pun.

Thus, a sportista is a woman who not only LOVES her sports but also KNOWS them, just like a fashionista not only LOVES her fashion but also KNOWS them. We argue that both knowledge and affect have to be present in some degree to attain the true characteristics of a genuine fan.

How did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

Emily was a student in my very popular “Sports, Society and Culture” class, in which I always ask after my very first lecture to meet female students who fulfill the following conditions: The watching of ESPN's Sportscenter at least five nights a week; the watching of either PTI or Around the Horn—or both—at least three times a week.

Of the 80-100 female students comprising this class (by the way, in the course of my having taught this class since 2000 on a relatively regular basis, the gender ratio, initially heavily male, has become a virtual 50-50), about seven or eight respond. I then ask them to write me a long e-mail in which they address the following two issue areas in as much detail as they possibly can: First, how they became interested in sports, when and through whom; and second, how they currently live this aspect of their lives on a regular basis as young adults, in other words how is their affinity for sports articulated and manifested in their daily lives.

Emily was one of these young women. Indeed, we utilized 33 responses that I received in our writing Sportista. She was also an absolutely superb student who was not only brilliant in her learning and studies but also wrote well. I hired her to help me organize the vast amounts of data and materials that I had accumulated on this topic over the years in the hope that this might—the operative word being MIGHT—lead to something, whatever that may be. I was hoping for a solid article of some kind. Well, it became a fine book published by a prestigious university press in good part due to Emily's excellence as a scholar, researcher and writer.

What are your most important findings? The most surprising ones?

The most important findings:

-—How on the surface (and in quantity) women have come to approximate men in being sports fans in the course of the past four decades but how—at the very same time—a closer look reveals gaping differences as to what such fandom means to each, and how differently they live and "valorize" such fandom in their daily lives.

—Briefly put, women have become virtually men's equals in terms of following big event sports: The Super Bowl, World Series, NBA playoffs, huge college games in football and men's basketball, the World Cup, the Olympics.

But behind this apparent similarity and equality lie different meanings that each gender attaches to these events.

Women have become huge fans of these events—but not the weeks- and months- long PRE- and POST-event analyses and conjectures and talking and talking which is SO crucial for men. Women have a much more bounded relationship to these events. Once they have occurred, they are over. On to the next gig. None of the historicizing, the comparing, the statisticizing, the incessant talking that is SO essential to men. Indeed, as we surmise in the book, one could argue that to many male fans, the events themselves take second place to the PRE- and POST- event fretting, worrying, discussing. Women love sporting events, they are not preoccupied by sports.

—Women do not follow women's sports, male sports omnivores like Markovits and assorted pals do. To the latter, who are so multi-lingual in sports by speaking the Big Four North American sports languages plus soccer and most likely golf and possibly cricket and rugby (both League and Union), learning one more language is not hard.

Just like in the world of real languages, being multilingual in five or six will render the acquisition of a seventh and eighth quite easy even if one will not speak it as well as the earlier ones and be less interested in them than one has been in the earlier ones.

—Virtually all of our subjects—sportistas, that is—mentioned at one point or another how uneasy their being as sportistas renders their male interlocutors. In other words, men feel proprietary about their sports identity, above all their knowledge about sports, which they do not accord women to have even if they do. Precisely because sports fandom is an immensely democratic entity which allows very easy access to virtually anybody—in contrast to, say, physics or mathematics or pretty much any other field of knowledge and expertise—and precisely because there is no official credentialing agency that accords one the officially sanctioned title of "sports fans", anybody in this club—meaning, by our society's conventional definition, pretty much any man—will be suspicious of any newcomer, which is not special to men but a common characteristic of any member of any collective anywhere. And to guard one's position in this club, one establishes constantly shifting barriers of entry, which in our case means constant raising of the knowledge bar for women aspirants to the world of sports fandom. "You call yourself a baseball fan, well, name the starting lineup of last year's National League All-Stars."

The most surprising findings (to me, I do not know about Emily):

—How highly charged the complex "beauty" and "sexualization" have remained in pretty much every aspect of the world of sports for men and for women, though often in different ways.

—How conventionally-defined good looks often are a virtual necessity for a woman to gain entry into the highly male world of sports, while at the same time this very asset becomes a liability in terms of this woman's overall credibility and legitimacy as a genuine sports expert.

The idea of sports as languages makes a lot of intuitive sense—my Spanish and my American football are both pretty bad, for instance, but I learned them early enough that I can get by with them if I have to. We think of languages as something you just soak up, though. Why is there a gendered difference in how well these get soaked up?

By the way, linguists will tell you that the learning and speaking of REAL languages is massively gendered. So why should those of sports languages be different?

Briefly put, men soak up sports languages because they have been exposed to them from when they were babies. They become NATIVE sports speakers, so to speak, for whom the acquisition of further languages thus becomes easier than for women who—typically—are NOT native sports speakers.

To men, speaking sports is an ASCRIBED trait, to women it is an ACHIEVED one.

As we argue in our book, quoting Gillian Warmflash, one of our sportistas and the author of a fine undergraduate thesis at Harvard University when she was my student in 2003-2004, "When men speak sports, they do not speak sports, they speak MAN."

Women speak sports just fine but with an accent, with a foreign inflection which men notice immediately and which to them is prima facie evidence that women—try as they might—are not fully accepted and accredited members of "our" club.

Women are naturalized sports speakers and followers. They have a GREEN CARD in the world of sports fandom. They are resident aliens, maybe even naturalized citizens, but they are not BORN sports speakers. To stick with the language analogy, women are actually much more multi-lingual, much more polyglots than men, meaning women MAY CHOOSE to speak sports to each other and to men, but they do not have to. They can talk about a panoply of topics, among which sports are one. For men, sports becomes the only safe communication medium that bridges social class, status, station, ethnicity and any number of other dividing conflict lines. The topic of sports is much safer than just about any other, say religion or politics or economics. As long as one does not reveal one's AFFECTIVE side of sports—meaning one's AFFECTIVE fandom as in "I am a Yankees fan," which might not go over well in a Boston bar, or "I am a United fan" in the company of Liverpool supporters—sports comprise a topic of ENDLESS conversation and engagement for men. On and on we go about history and comparisons and all such stuff that actually creates an extant space of intimacy without any danger or harm or hurt.

There is a one-upmanship, you propose, inherent to sports talk among boys and men that isn't necessarily there among girls and women. What does this say about differences in the way we experience sports?

About the gendered nature of one-upsmanship in sports talk and the living of sports culture, it’s very simple, really: For men—at least for conventional heterosexual men_sports, their talk, their knowledge, their language, is a baseline. Simply by being male, one is SUPPOSED to know and love sports, and be conversant about them. If one does not, one is an outlier. The exact opposite pertains to women. Sports are not an essential item for being female, they are not the conventionally constructed expectation of female identity. Thus, women do not earn any kudos among other women by knowing sports. And they do so with men only after having passed a number of hurdles—if then.

You've experienced some very different sports cultures, both in time and place. How universal is the dynamic you describe in "Sportista"?

This dynamic is TOTALLY ubiquitous, at least to cultures in advanced industrial societies. Indeed, we give lots of examples in our book from Europe, Germany in particular, where I have done similar research and arrived at the exact identical conclusion. Women in Germany relate to that country's hegemonic sports culture—meaning soccer— in EXACTLY the same way as do American women to our Big Four of baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey.

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among other things, about the modes of sports discourse, all the bullshit in which men indulge in before and after and during games. More than that, though, it’s about another way of watching sports, one perhaps less catered to by the giant nonsense machine but no less important and surely no less interesting. In an email exchange, Markovits told me all about it.
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