Mad Man At Courtside

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written Dr. Jacquelyn Cuneen, a retired Professor of Sport Management at Bowling Green State University. 

Viewers of the Emmy winning AMC series Mad Men are taken back to the 1960’s in America — an era of stringent social order when all individuals were branded by gender conformity. Even the most unattractive of males were able to swagger as if they were Frank Sinatra and even the brightest of females were expected to sashay as if they were Marilyn Monroe. Sport, of course, was the domain of males. Females were tolerated in certain “gender appropriate” activities (see Eleanor Metheny’s essay on Connotations of Movement in Sport), and women in some of those sports (e.g., golf, tennis, bowling) were starting to establish their place in athletics.

The Olympic Games provided the biggest stages for 1960’s athletes who happened to be female and some of the most visible athletes at both the summer and winter games were women from the former Soviet Bloc countries. The Soviet women were particularly dominant in track and field. They were highly trained, highly fit, very serious, and very muscular. Their appearances prompted the American media, particularly the print media, to focus more on the athletes’ bodies rather than their performances. Amid questions related to doping, chromosome testing, and sexuality, the Soviet athletes were chided for being too masculine. In other words, they were too good to be women. And, the collective Ministers of Sport from the Soviet countries were outraged over these insulting questions and accusations.

Fast-forward to half a century later when some of the best and most popular athletes in the world are skilled, strong, forceful, muscular women and the era of Mad Men is far behind — except perhaps in Russia, the principal country of the old Soviet Bloc. In October 2014, Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev appeared on his country’s late-night talk show Evening Urgant and, due either to unbelievable ignorance or a dim-witted attempt at comedy, referred to Venus and Serena Williams as The Williams brothers.

The Williams Brothers! Venus, who can walk a fashion runway to rival any Vogue model. Serena, so dazzling that she can walk on to the CBS Late Show set and render host David Letterman speechless. Brothers? What could prompt a coach to refer to such women as brothers? Could it be that, in his Mad Men mind, they are too good and too powerfully built to be women?

It is appalling that the Williams’ or any females who work to reach the top of their sport must hear such comments from their sports’ insiders. It is particularly disconcerting to hear such denigrating remarks from someone who has worked so closely with skilled women and ought to know their capabilities. A person such as Tarpischev, of all people, should know the success that comes to women who are accountable and committed to their sport and prepare themselves for excellence. He behaves like a mad man.

A final word to Shamil: Watch Mad Men and be happy you live in an era when you have accomplished women to coach. Then, get yourself off the talk show circuit, go back on court, leave social commentary to Gloria Steinem, leave comedy to Chelsea Handler, and start coaching better so some of your Russian players can come up to the Williams standard.


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