Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don McPherson, proof the good guys will win (and why you should respect the WNBA)

Be the change you want to see.

That is one thought that has spun out the the story about ESPN's Erin Andrews (you're sick of hearing about it). One can believe fully completely what happened to Ms. Andrews was simply indicative of a sick nut and a criminal act, but treat it as a jumping-off point to express hope some of the sexism in sports perpetuated on the web won't last forever. That's not the same as blaming people for what happened.

It is germane that Don McPherson (pictured) has been in the news while all this is going on. McPherson, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last week, has found a post-football calling as a spokesman against domestic violence. Writing a post about him would have been a bit of a stretch for this site (and to be crystal-clear, no one is trying to draw a parallel between what happened to Andrews and domestic violence). Thankfully, this country's ace football reporter, Dave Naylor, not only wrote a post about McPherson's work but re-posted a 2004 article he did on the former Syracuse QB:
"McPherson has always had a strong interest and awareness of social issues. Part of that came out of his experience as an African American quarterback at a time when the position was mostly open to whites. And part of it came from the uneasiness he felt in the role of a star athlete, everything from the special treatment he received to the impressions the public had about how star athletes were supposed to act.

"When he retired in 1994, he had difficulty moving on with his life and began exploring the reasons why, eventually focusing on the issues of masculinity as they applied to athletics and society in general."
"What came out of it was a career as one of America’s most prominent spokespersons on the issue of domestic violence and the ways in which men deal with the pressures and expectations related to masculinity. Don has spoken to U.S. Congress, been on Oprah Winfrey and crossed North America speaking to audiences of all sorts.

"And with the profile of a retired football player, he is able to reach new audiences with these kinds of talks. He is also the founder and former executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University on Long Island."
McPherson is not the first person nor the last player who was ambivalent about certain aspects of pro football. It was a big theme in North Dallas Forty. There was a quarterback around the same age as McPherson named Timm Rosenbach, who walked away from the NFL in the early 1990s because "he began to 'despise,' as he said, the dehumanizing aspects of football that 'can turn you into an animal.' " (Ira Berkow, The New York Times, Oct. 3, 1993.) One of McPherson's teammates at Syracuse, defensive end-turned-author Tim Green, also wrote a book called The Dark Side of the Game.

That is relatable. Everyone is ambivalent about certain things in their professions. Typically, one just learns to go along to get along.

There is a lesson in reading about McPherson's work. Here is a person who is trying to engage people and make it clear individual acts of idiocy (and a man striking a woman is idiotic) don't happen in a vacuum. Oftentimes, it is a reflection of a society which will look the other way about such behaviour. As Naylor related in 2004, the gist of McPherson's message includes:
"The good guys must meet the challenge. Male silence is unacceptable.

"All men have women in their lives they care about. Yet male language often casts them as lesser beings. Telling a boy that 'you throw like a girl' insults both him and girls. The impression can last a lifetime."
Eradicating domestic violence, of course, is way more important than changing how women are represented in sports media. However, the "silence is unacceptable" part should strike a note with anyone who has ever wanted to change anything about her/his profession.

As you can guess, on this end that would entail how the sports media in North America depicts women. This is coming from a male feminist, but one who is also a What Is guy.

There was little arguing when Bruce Arthur wrote in The National Post, "This is an industry of men, writing and talking about the exploits of men. Women's sports don't sell, not really, unless sex appeal is involved. Outside of women's tennis — where Anna Kournikova was the biggest thing in the sport, and not for her play — women are largely destined to be cheerleaders, or sideline reporters, or ignored."

Arthur, who's a fine writer, was just stating What Is. It's a minor point to note Women's Professional Soccer has had a successful launch or that the WNBA might add another stand-alone franchise (one that doesn't share an arena with the NBA) and that its has increased sponsorships and stayed lean and mean, much like the CFL, another niche league (an entire WNBA team's payroll is less than $1 million for an 11-player roster). If you believe betting action signifies a groundswell of support for a sport, it's noteworthy that, a sports betting site, offers advice on WNBA games, which is proof the league is getting more respect or that gamblers will bet on anything.

It's not clear how one brings about change. On a personal level, while writing features for Sun Media on high school and university-aged athletes the past two years, there has always been an effort to give the young females and males equal space. Write a feature about a girl from the west end one week, then try to find a boy from the east end the next. Similarly, on, Rob Pettapiece came up with the idea of eschewing the label women's basketball on posts and just using basketball.

Those are small moves, but maybe it's better than directly challenging people. Local actions have universal repercussions, right?

In a sense, the person who violated Erin Andrews was a grotesque. That's a literary term for a reprehensible being who points out a society's hypocrisies. No one is to blame for what happened save for the perpetrator ). Perhaps wanting to believe it ends with the perpetrator is because people don't want to challenge their beliefs. And that is fine. You're not required to use sports for introspection.

However, to some extent, it does "lay bare the Internet culture ... that preaches everything is designed for entertainment." (Chris Zelkovich, Sports Media Watch.) We also know that in Arthur's "industry of men," many conversations take place about women that leave people "mortified," in Jeff Pearlman's phrasing. Perhaps that has to change, little by little.

Maybe if you're a guy, you don't see why you should have to care. Think of Don McPherson, though, who saw something he couldn't abide and has spoken up. There's someone being the change he wants to see. It's probably not easy.

(McPherson's work had come to attention before Naylor wrote about him, but it seemed like a stretch for this site. McPherson played at Syracuse, but that 1987 season was ahead of my time and I am an Orange basketball fan who never paid much attention to the football team even when Donovan McNabb was leading them to the Orange Bowl. You know that was a long time ago.)

Update: Oddly enough, a few hours after this post went up, Ben York wrote a piece for Dime magazine, "Why You Need To Pay Attention To The WNBA."
"The general knock against the WNBA (usually from people who haven’t spent a single minute watching it) is that it’s less fun or enjoyable to watch; the players are faster, better, and flashier in the NBA. To that I have to pull the 'true fan; card. Yes, there is probably more flash, showmanship, and dunking in the NBA … but does that really make it a better league to watch? On the contrary, too often it becomes solely about that and the basic foundations of the game are lost. Hey, I enjoy seeing an amazing dunk or athletic play as much as the next person, but I also love to see good, team basketball. If you’re honest with yourself, this has been lacking in the NBA collectively for years. However, the WNBA is built upon damn near perfect fundamentals and structured (but no less fun) team basketball. Plus, there is so much competition for minutes and a recurring roster spot that no player can afford to take a night off."

McPherson gets his due (Naylor's Sideline View, July 20)

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