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Studying gender and sports fandom

Editor's Note: She's too humble to admit it, but this piece came after a lot (and I don't use that term lightly) of people requested she synthesize her paper. We're lucky to have her. And yes, it is relevant to the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans.

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As a master’s student, I spent a lot of time in bars 1. I had a good reason, I promise: I studied sports fans and sports bars. While my colleagues in the Department of Health and Kinesiology were measuring gait changes in response to obstacles or they were surveying child athletes, I was studying rowdy sports fans. This led to some very interesting research experiences, to say the least. Like the time I was sitting with my thesis advisor at the bar during a football game, and we were constantly accosted by an older fellow with what I described in my field notes as a "gravelly, pirate-like voice." We weren’t entirely sure what he was trying to say to us, but we were pretty sure that he was blaming us for the quarterback’s poor performance because we were distracting him with our beauty. Luckily for us, one of the bar owners eventually intervened and we were able to continue to watch the quarterback's poor performance in as much peace as you can expect in a sports bar.

Almost every time that I went to this particular bar to do "participant observation", I would have an encounter with another patron that would make me feel like I didn’t quite belong at a sports bar as a sports fan. This was frustrating, to be sure, but it made me feel even more that my project was an important one.

I am certainly not the first to notice this: when you are a woman in sports fan circles, you’re often made to feel like an outsider. Women are often not taken as seriously, they’re asked if you’re only a fan because the players are hot, or they're assumed to be a "bandwagon fan" or a new fan or a fan because of a boyfriend 2 or anything else that makes you come across as less "legitimate" in the eyes of others. I’m not personally suggesting that these ways of being a fan are inferior. But given that they are often perceived as not being "real" ways to be a fan -- whether these stereotypes are true of a person or not -- many women have been excluded as sports fans as a result.

This exclusion of women as sports fans is a problem that should be addressed. I wanted to learn more about how women feel about these exclusionary practices, but further, I wanted to know more about precisely how or why these exclusions occur.

To begin to answer these questions, I conducted in-depth interviews with eleven women3 that I recruited from a sports bar that we refer to as "Second Street Tavern" 4. In particular, I was interested in how the participants defined sports fandom, how they experienced and enacted sports fandom themselves, and how they felt that their experience as sports fans was impacted by their gender.

A manuscript based on this research project that I coauthored with two of my master’s thesis committee members titled "‘It’s supposed to be about the love of the game, not the love of Aaron Rodgers’ eyes’: Challenging the exclusion of women sports fans" was recently published in the Sociology of Sport Journal.

An important part of research that works towards social change is translating your findings and making them available to as many people as possible. This journal is only available to those with a library or direct subscription to the journal (basically, people at universities). And the writing itself can be a little dense at times -- we use a Foucauldian conceptualization of power and we talk a lot about neoliberalism (much like everyone else in academia).

These are necessary evils in the world of academia, but unfortunately, publishing in inaccessible journals using inaccessible language tends to make your scholarship kind of, well, inaccessible. Not a lot happens when you write that way.

My goal here is to communicate some of these findings to a broader audience than my master’s thesis committee and the four people who will ultimately download the journal article.

In the article, we argue four main points:

1. Sports fandom has many definitions.

When I asked the participants how they defined sports fandom, I got a lot of different answers. Within these responses, there were certainly some common threads-- several of the participants mentioned wearing the team colours/logo, watching the games, being knowledgeable about sports, or talking about your team with others. But there were notable differences, too.

Some had very stringent definitions. For Jennifer 5, a "true fan" (her words) should have season tickets, be a lifelong fan, know the history of the team, have memorabilia, and feel devastated when their team loses. But for Lindsay, anyone could be a fan if they felt like they were a fan. Drawing lines as to who counts as a fan, and who doesn’t, wasn’t important to her.

Some definitions of sports fandom are inclusive, such as Lindsay’s definition, but this was rare compared to more exclusive definitions like that of Jennifer.

The fact that there are differences in how people define sports fandom is not merely academic. Definitions of sports fandom matter. These definitions enact boundaries for who is to be included and who is to be excluded as a sports fan.

2. Many people do not measure up to their own definitions of sports fandom.

The more specific and detailed the participants were when defining fandom, the more likely they were to find themselves wanting as sports fans in one way or another. After a participant would describe their understanding of a "real fan" (whatever that meant to them), I would always ask her if she saw herself in that definition. Most did not.

Sarah, for example, described sports fans thusly:

"You see that guy, the big guy that’s always like, face painted, head dress on, just probably drunk, you know, they’ve been there since two tailgating the day before, and they have front row seats to every game, you know? As a hockey fan, they’re, you know, on the glass, every game… They’re ready to fight anybody that has anything bad to say about their team."

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sarah does not fit this description. Most wouldn’t. But I found it really interesting -- why are we setting standards for sports fandom that we can’t meet ourselves? The participants used terms like "should" or "shouldn’t" when talking about their fan behaviours, as if there is an external standard which they are or not meeting. Juliet lamented, "It's supposed to be about the love of the game, not the love of Aaron Rodgers' eyes" as she castigated herself for her professed attraction to the Green Bay quarterback.

But it’s important to ask, why "should" we as sports fans engage in fan behaviours that aren’t important to us? What is sports fandom "supposed to" be? And who is more likely to meet these standards of fandom than others?

3. The language that is used to define sports fandom is very often gendered.

Read that last quote from Sarah again. What do you notice? The sports fan that she is describing, the biggest sports fan -- "that guy, the big guy" -- is a man. This happened a bunch of times throughout my interviews. Jennifer saw herself as "know[ing] more than...some typical females." It is understood here that being a "typical female" sports fan is to not be particularly knowledgeable.

Juliet explained her goal of "talk[ing] like a boy more", which very clearly means that she wants to sound more knowledgeable about sports. Saying the reverse -- that she hopes that she can sound more like a girl in the future -- wouldn’t really make sense.

This is because maleness and masculinity are the standards against which sports fandom is measured. To be a fan, in short, is to be a man -- or perhaps, in the case of some of the participants, to be a fan is to be like a man.

4. Women negotiate stereotypes about women sports fans in complicated ways.

Many of the stereotypes about women sports fans -- that women are not knowledgeable or committed as sports fans, that they are only fans because of attraction to players/to please a boyfriend or husband/to get a boyfriend or husband -- position (heterosexual) femininity as anathema to sports fandom.

Some of the participants agreed that if a woman possesses these traits as a sports fan, she isn’t a good one. In some cases, they participated in the exclusion of other women, like Alanna did when she critiqued women who became sports fans because of their boyfriends.

Others, however, were critical of the sexist exclusion of women through stereotypes. Michelle lamented:

"I feel like I’m the living definition of what it means to be an actual sports fan, female, male, whatever, doesn’t matter. ...I do all the things you’re supposed to, right, as a sports fan-- I wear the stuff, I buy the stuff, I dedicate the time, my moods go up and down with it, I’m excited--you know, all these things that come along with it. … For something like, I think, you know, A.J. Pierzynski is hot, you know, to kind of disqualify… or somehow cheapen my sports fandom just really irritates me."

Participants like Michelle pushed back against the stereotypes, arguing that conforming to them should not "cheapen" a person’s sports fandom.

I asked all of the participants if they felt excluded as sports fans because they are women. Only a minority said yes. But interestingly, almost all of the participants listed at least one experience of sexist exclusion. Roberta described an incident where she was called a "blonde-headed C-word" at an away game, but later went on say that "sports really bring people together."

I’m not trying to say that women are unequivocally included or excluded as sports fans. It is considerably more complicated than that. The participants all excitedly recounted stories of dramatic wins, seeing someone wearing a hat for their team on the other side of the world and talking to them for hours, and a love for their teams that clearly show that sports fandom is very meaningful to them, and they experience a lot of pleasure as a result. This is not to be discounted. But I have to admit, I was kind of surprised as to how many of them did not see themselves as excluded as women despite telling stories of sexism in the stands, in the sports bar, or even at home.

So what now? What does this all mean?

Well, a lot of things.

Sports fandom is gendered, and as a result it continues to be exclusionary to those who do not fit these gendered definitions -- including many women.

This exclusion is not an organized campaign by angry male gatekeepers (usually) -- it occurs through diffuse attitudes that women themselves can often take up. This exclusion is in many ways built into the very language that is used to define sports fandom.

Defining sports fandom, however, is messy. There is no one definition as to what counts as a sports fan. I would argue that this is the way that it should be. Instead of rules and rankings for sports fans, perhaps we could instead accept that different people are sports fans in different ways, and as long as those ways of being a fan are respectful, there isn’t a need to judge or insult them.

Coming up with potential solutions to these problems -- the "what do we do now" part of my thesis -- was by far the hardest part. The obvious solution is to not make assumptions about women as sports fans, to re-value what has traditionally been derided as "feminine" ways of being a fan, and to expand our understandings of what being a sports fan means. But in all honesty, I have no way of trying to get people to adopt these recommendations.

Sports fan communities are a loose congregation of people with no rules, standards, or governing bodies; unlike organized sports, where you can perhaps institute a policy or a law, sports fandom is not amenable to change in this way.

I view gender equality in sports and in sports fan communities as related-- if you don’t think that a woman can understand icing when watching hockey, you’re unlikely to think that she can go out and play hockey herself. This exclusion matters.

The best thing I feel that I can do is to write about, and hopefully some people will read work like this and change their perspectives on what a fan is or should be. I believe that we as members of sports fan communities will benefit from being more open and inclusive.

1. I can guarantee that my master’s thesis advisor will write me an angry e-mail after reading that sentence. Just trying to make you proud, Cheryl!

2. I’m writing this as someone who is heterosexual, as well as perceived to be heterosexual by others. My experiences of these stereotypes would surely be different if either of these were not the case.

3. This is a relatively small sample, but this is not uncommon in qualitative research. Furthermore, the sample was very homogenous. This is a limitation of the study, certainly, but I was limited in terms of who I could recruit in this given sports bar and in this given Midwestern town. All participants identified as white, middle or upper class, had a university education/were pursuing a university education, and many talked about boyfriends or husbands indicating that they were likely heterosexual or perceived to be heterosexual by others. Women are not a homogenous group; nor are women sports fans. The experiences of these women are not universal. But given the demographics of the sample, gender is often presented as a "stand-alone" factor that does not interact with other identities such as race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. which is not the case. I could write at length about this -- but given that I’m already in a footnote, I’ll just say that I am happy to discuss this in the comments.

4. Second Street Tavern is an interesting place, to say the least. When I was conducting participant observation in the bar, men would continually say inappropriate or offensive things to me and the women that I was with. The atmosphere of this still-beloved bar certainly influences the kind of clientele that will become regulars, and in turn, who ended up participating in the study.

5. All names used are pseudonyms.