Worthwhile recycling of old articles into new thematic volume by way of clever introduction

Alan Bairner
Loughborough University

Cheryl Cooky & Mike A. Messner
No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change
303 pages, paperback.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2018 (Critical Issues in Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-8135-9204-6

When this book arrived it was not quite what I was expecting. I had been anticipating an original and possibly highly innovative contribution to the debate on sport and gender. After all, the authors are eminent contributors to this field of inquiry and are more than suitably qualified to produce such a volume. Cheryl Cooky has been presenting and publishing in this area for over twenty years and Mike Messner for even longer. He first came to the attention of the global sociology of sport community in 1990 with the publication of Sport, Men and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives which he co-edited with Don Sabo and, three years later, he was presented with the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Outstanding Book Award for his Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity.

However, people say that we should never judge a book by its cover presumably with the intention of either approving or disapproving of its contents. Sadly, there is certainly no indication on the cover of this book that it is actually a collection of articles already published in other outlets preceded by a short but illuminating introduction co-authored by Cooky and Messner.

The introduction is undoubtedly valuable with the authors reflecting on what has been achieved in terms of the advancement of women’s sport and what remains to be done.  Their thesis is that there has been ’dramatic but uneven change’ (p. 3). They argue that there are four overarching ways in which this uneven development are analysed in the subsequent collection of articles.  The first is structural analysis. The second social analysis. The third is through a ‘a critical analysis of boys’ and men’s relationships to sport’ (p. 6). Finally, there is intersectional analysis. The authors also identify, in the introduction, how the articles that constitute the main body of their book have been organized. The opening section is focused on ‘the big questions about gender, sport and social change’ (p. 7). The second section includes chapters that ‘illuminate the experiences of sports participants’ (p. 7).  The final section is concerned with media coverage of sports.

As one turns to the articles themselves, one is immediately struck, but not necessarily surprised given the relative insularity of much sociology of sport in the United States, by the extent of the American focus. It is something of a relief, therefore, to read the contribution by Cooky, Marko Begovic, Don Sabo, Carole Oglesby and Marj Snyder on gender and sport participation in Montenegro even though their conclusion is not dissimilar from the argument put forward in the introduction to the book: ‘There have been tremendous gains in women’s sport in Montenegro but efforts need to continue to achieve gender equality’ (p. 201). Moreover, they equate the barriers faced by women in Montenegro to those challenges that face women in small island states, Asian and Middle Eastern states, Central and South American states and Aboriginal and Native American peoples. One wonders if there needs to be greater recognition of the specificities of particular countries and communities if the remaining barriers are ever to be broken down.

However, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, we shall have to wait a little longer for the type of study I had expected to encounter when I agreed to review No Slam Dunk.

With that in mind, the two contributions that focus on Caster Semenya are most welcome.  Cooky and Shari Dworkin are the authors of ‘Policing the Boundaries of Sex. A Critical Examination of Gender Verification and the Caster Semenya Controversy’, first published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2013. Also written by Cooky and Dworkin together with Ranissa Dycus is ‘“What Makes a Woman a Woman?” versus “Our First Lady of sport”. A Comparative Analysis of the United States and South African Media Coverage of Caster Semenya’, first published in the same year in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues. In the first of these essays, the authors call for an end to discriminatory practices that ‘violate the rights of some female athletes to compete in sport’ (p. 50). Change, they argue, is needed, ‘not only to protect the rights of female athletes who may be intersex but also to ensure the rights of all female athletes to participate in sport that is free from discriminatory practices’ (p. 50). As is made clear in the other essay, however, there exists a widespread view, not least in the corridors of sporting power and in the United States media, that gender verification tests represent ‘a scientific process necessary to “ensure” a level playing field’ (p. 285). It is on account of the somewhat misleading character of this book that there is no scope to bring the story up to date with Semenya challenging the IAAF’s requirement that intersex women athletes in her main events must take what can only be described as performance decreasing drugs if they are to be allowed to compete. Just when we thought arguments about performativity and self-identification had been won, along comes a sport governing body to take us back to square one.

Other thought-provoking articles in the collection discuss children’s construction of gender, the exclusion of women’s sport in televised news, and the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in contemporary media. At the end of each article, there is a set of questions for reflection and discussion which presumably were not present when the various studies were initially published. The aim is clearly to present the book as a teaching aid and this attempt is generally successful.

Rutgers University Press together with the authors are to be commended for making so many important papers available in a single volume, thereby ensuring that it is a helpful resource for lecturers and students alike. However, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, we shall have to wait a little longer for the type of study I had expected to encounter when I agreed to review No Slam Dunk.

As an afterword, it was good to see that the book is dedicated to the memory the late Stan Eitzen, ‘sport sociology pioneer, prolific author, inspiring mentor, and friend’. Stan died in July 2017 and his great friend George Sage, another towering figure in the sociology of sport, passed away in February of this year. It would be nice to think that someone is currently putting the finishing touches to a manuscript that will be a fitting tribute to George.

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2019

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