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IACS Keynote: Shireen Ahmed & Dave Zirin on 'Erased histories and exclusion in sport'

Before I dig into the research I've heard at the International Association for Communication and Sport summit in Boise, Idaho, this week, I want focus on the conference's two honored presenters: The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin, who was the featured speaker on Friday, and sports activist and Burn It All Down co-host Shireen Ahmed, who delivered the keynote address today.

They did not disappoint.

First, I'll start with Friday. Zirin talked about erased history in sport, showing how sports figures’ narratives are portrayed as more sterile and isolated than they really were. This influences how we perceive and remember individuals like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, for example, and the change they wanted to enact. For example, Robinson "broke the color line" in 1947, but he was part of a larger movement to integrate baseball that began in the 1930s. This movement was "politics," and sports media knew this. To the extent that when sports journalists asked Joe DiMaggio who the best pitcher he ever faced was, few ended up reporting his answer, let alone that the question was asked. This was because DiMaggio said Satchel Paige was the best pitcher. Paige played Negro league baseball. These types of events are all-but erased from history, diluting our understanding of how Robinson fit into a much larger context.

Athletes have historically protested during the national anthem to draw attention to social issues. High jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson was an early example. She refused to stand for the national anthem at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago as a protest against the country’s Cold War policies. (See this 2018 piece by Dr. Amira Rose Davis, "Black Athletes, Anthem Protests, and the Spectacle of Patriotism.") When sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during on the 1968 Summer Olympics podium, what was largely left out of the national narrative was that both athletes were part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The OPHR aimed to end racial segregation in the United States and South Africa. Also neglected is the role of Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist who also participated in the protest by wearing an OPHR badge during the ceremony. He was largely ostracized when he returned home. The sculpture depicting the event at San Jose State University lacks Norman’s likeness, at Norman’s request. He asked for his second-place spot to be left empty, so visitors could stand in his spot on the podium.

This lack of context perpetuates discrimination, to the point that discrimination is perceived as being justified, the result of a"natural" or "common sense" situation. For example, Zirin asked if we knew why women play best-of-three matches in Grand Slams, and not best-of-five, as the men do. A common response he usually receives when he asks this question, he said, is blatantly sexist – something on the lines of women not being physically and/or mentally capable, and that this answer is often given in a confident, "duh"-kind of way. What people don’t know, Zirin said, is that women did play best-of-five. In the 1890s. That changed when women began to struggle to breath. Their tightly laced corsets did not allow for much athleticism – to the extent that they cut into women's skins. (Blood-stained petticoats were not uncommon.) But instead of altering women’s uniform requirements, the all-male council decided the most appropriate solution would be for women to play only best-of-three instead. (If you want to learn more, see this 2016 piece by Lindsay Gibbs.)

Ahmed's keynote address today was about Muslim women’s marginalization in sport. She emphasized that the person telling the story is just as important as the story itself. Much of the content created about Muslim women in North America is not produced by Muslim women. Someone else tells their story, and it's usually someone who is not only woefully uninformed, but doesn't seem to know that they're uninformed. This results in the normalization of content that is continuously incorrect. For example, she highlighted an article from a respected, mainstream news organization that painted Muslim women as being new to the Olympic stage, and doing so only tepidly, with the approval of their fathers, brothers, and/or husbands. However, history is laced with examples that show otherwise. Nawal El Moutawakel, for example, won the women’s 400 meter hurdles in the 1984 Summer Olympics. When King Hassan II of Morocco telephoned El Moutawakel to congratulate her, he proclaimed that all girls born that day in their country were to be named after her. The first Muslim woman to ever compete in the Olympics was Halet Çambel. She represented Turkey in the women’s individual foil at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She disagreed with German dictator Adolf Hitler’s policies. So when she refused to meet him, she was excused from the games.

A big takeaway was the lack of understanding how policies exclude Muslim women and girls. A big one is the language used in sports organizations' rules that end up being de facto bans on hijabs. Bylaw language varies by association, but it’s often something on the lines of equipment or hair pieces being prohibited. Ahmed said outrage on social media about a girl not being able to compete because of a hijab does occur. However, that outrage doesn't necessarily result in corrective action, like someone contacting a sports association and proposing rule changes.


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