In the first three months of 2006, two images of female athletes and their subsequent media interpretations played on television and front pages across the country. The first one showed Lindsey Jacobellis during the 2006 Winter Olympic Snowboard Cross competition falling after a jump near the end of her run. Headlines such as “Showboating Costs Snowboarder Gold” suggested that she tried for a “hotdog” finish which led to her subsequent second place. Apparently, with no one close behind her lead, Lindsey grabbed her snowboard in a showy move and lost control. In interviews, Lindsey claimed “I was having fun. Snowboarding is fun. I was ahead. I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the crowd. I messed up. Oh well, it happens.”
A few months later, Kristi Yamaoka, a cheerleader for Southern Illinois University, fell backward 15 feet onto her head from atop a human pyramid and suffered a concussion and a chipped vertebra at the base of her neck. The accident was certainly an unfortunate event, but interestingly, Kristi received national attention for her “loyalty and toughness” when she continued to perform cheer arm motions as she was wheeled off the court on a stretcher. On NBC’s Today Show, Kristi explained, “I’m still a cheerleader—on a stretcher or not. So as soon as I heard that fight song, I knew my job and just started to do my thing.” Further, she admitted that her biggest concern was that her cheerleading squad and the basketball team would be distracted by her accident.
Jacobellis’s explanation that she was having some fun, along with Yamaoka’s argument that it was the cheerleader coming out in her, speak to the contradictory status of contemporary American female athletes. Historically, organized sport has been one of the most masculine-identified institutions in American society, and women’s entrance into sport has been contested, but not just by men. At the turn of the 20th century, female collegiate athletics was controlled by female physical educators whose goal for female collegiate sport was not only to encourage physical activity among women, but also women’s moral well-being. This was exemplified in “play days,” which took the place of intercollegiate competitions and emphasized social interaction and harmony. The mantra for this feminine model of athletics was “sport for all,” meaning that participation was valued over competition. This approach was in direct opposition to the male model, which lauded fierce competition, individualism, and commercialism, and resulted in large numbers of injuries, particularly in football. In 1905, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was created to decrease these catastrophic injuries. Although this organization helped institutionalize the masculine model of sport, the feminine model continued to prevail within women’s collegiate athletics.
But several factors led to the undoing of the feminine model. The failure of U.S. female athletes to secure gold at the Olympics during the Cold War encouraged the NCAA and other male athletic organizations to begin the slow process of acquiring control of women’s collegiate athletics. With the second wave of feminism during the 60s and 70s, many women athletes and feminists wanted to increase female participation in sports and also wanted the resources and benefits male athletes received but which the feminine model of sport did not compete for. Further, the social shifts engendered by the Women’s and the Civil Rights movements also contributed to a rethinking among some women regarding the female athletic model, which was anti-varsity, anti-scholarship, anti-competitive, and anti-Olympic.
With the passage of Title IX in 1972, the controversy regarding women’s status in sports changed from a philosophical discussion to one of legality. The implementation of Title IX, often by federal court order, encouraged females of all ages to participate in sport. However, this legal challenge also shifted the discussion of the purpose or philosophy of sport, which the earlier female educators had encouraged, to a more technical and legal discussion. While there has been an exponential increase in girls’ participation in sport since the inception of Title IX, there has also been a general acceptance of the masculine model of sports as demonstrated by the power of the NCAA over both men’s and women’s collegiate athletics.
So what are the meanings of Lindsey and Kristi’s falls? Lindsey was belittled both for what she did that led to the fateful fall and for how she explained it. First, most sports commentators were incredulous that she would blow a substantial lead in an Olympic competition through a showboating or “styling” type of move. But several commentators noted that snowboarding itself is about style and that Lindsey’s style had already been commercialized through photo shoots and Visa commercials. Thus her board grab was part of the sport itself, as well as a typical move by many male athletes who are celebrating their physical prowess. Think here of slam-dunks. Lindsey’s fall could be read as a focus on individualism and bravado, a mainstay of professional sports throughout the nation. At the same time, her comments about the “fun” of the competition and that she “messed up” speak more to the earlier feminine model of sport as found in the play days.
Kristi’s fall is more problematic than Lindsey’s, since whether cheerleading constitutes a sport is still an ongoing controversy. Although cheerleading began as an all-male activity at elite universities over 100 years ago, its femininization during World War II and its sexualization in the 1970s via the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have contributed to its entertainment and non-sport status. However, in the last 20 years, with the focus on competitive cheerleading, the inclusion of gymnastics-oriented stunting, and the participation of more men at the collegiate level, the status of cheerleading has shifted somewhat. The fact that Kristi could receive such a serious injury as a cheerleader speaks to this change. Some commentators compared her actions of continued cheering with a concussion to male athletes continuing to play with severe injuries, and she was labeled tough. At the same time, Kristi’s worries of distracting the team and her squad place her fall and her sport back into the traditional feminine model of sport, and in many ways, into the traditional model of femininity, that of concern for others.
Two female athletes. Two public falls. And multiple ways of making sense of both. But perhaps these two falls and how we make sense of them could lead to a creation of a third space for female athletes, one that encourages both competition and fun and both individual accomplishment and concern for the team.