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Friday, February 3, 2017

February 3, 2017: Women and Sports: Ronda Rousey

[Each year for the last few, I’ve used Super Bowl week as a platform for a series on sports in America. This week, I’ll be AmericanStudying figures and moments related to women in sports, leading up to a weekend Guest Post on cheerleading in American society and culture!]
On why I haven’t quite appreciated the MMA superstar, and how I’m trying to.
I’ve written in this space before, as part of my annual (and upcoming!) non-favorites series, about why I can’t bring myself to watch or enjoy boxing (although I recognize its longstanding, vital importance to American history and culture). Well, everything I said in that post I would likewise say, and with even more force, for mixed martial arts (MMA), the newer sport that has (I would argue) both far less of the historical and cultural significance and far more of the violence than does the sweet science. I’m not suggesting that MMA should be banned in any way, nor would I dismiss it in the same way that Meryl Streep did in the one sour note in her otherwise pitch-perfect Golden Globes speech earlier this year (although I’m certainly no fan of Streep’s antagonist in that hyperlinked debate, Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC] President Dana White, and wasn’t even before he spoke at Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention last July). Instead, I’m just expressing a strong personal antipathy toward MMA, a feeling that it taps into (as I likewise argued for boxing) some of the darker sides of our human psyches and desires. I’d do most anything for my sons, but if they asked me to watch (or even talk about) MMA with them, I think I’d have to say no.
Given that overall antipathy toward the sport, it’s no surprise that I haven’t been able to share in the widespread appreciation for (and even I would argue adulation of) its most famous single athlete (and one of the most famous athletes in the world): Ronda Rousey. But my unhappiness with the accolades sent Rousey’s way hasn’t been limited simply to the fact that I don’t believe anyone who makes a living beating the living crap out of other people is necessarily an ideal candidate for a role model (which is how Rousey has often been described, especially for young girls, although to her credit she has resisted that label). Instead, I would add that (in my admittedly partial experience observing Rousey, at least in her public and professional personas) I have often found Rousey to represent some of the sides of sports and competition that I find most distasteful: self-confidence and –centeredness to the point of arrogance, blithe dismissal of and disrespect toward fellow competitors, even some of the same problems of aggression and domestic violence that I highlighted with Hope Solo in yesterday’s post. None of those elements take away from the groundbreaking successes she has achieved in her sport—indeed, at least some of them have likely been contributing factors to her dominance in that sport and the sports world overall—but they have led me to do my best to steer clear of any stories or coverage of Rousey over the years.
Until this week, that is, when (in preparation for this series and post) I came upon an article on Rousey’s overt and impassioned opposition (in an Instagram post, which still feels weird for this AmericanStudier to write but is no different from the kinds of Twitter activism about which I’ve written in this space on multiple occasions) to Donald Trump’s immigration Executive Orders. Seeing that social and political activism of Rousey’s crystallized a question I had already begun to ask myself: couldn’t I level many of the same critiques of her public and professional persona that I raised above against another fighter in a sport I don’t enjoy, Muhammad Ali? Few if any athletes have been as purposefully and proudly arrogant, as dismissive of competitors, as was Ali in his prime—and few have backed up such attitudes more consistently than he did, although Rousey in her prime would have to be said to have come close. I’m not suggesting that Rousey has faced the same or even similar obstacles and attitudes as did Ali, nor that her activism measures up to his (at least not yet—the story is far from over). Yet in any case there’s no doubt that, despite the parallels in both their sports and their personas, I have found myself far more instinctively supportive of Ali and dissatisfied with Rousey. And I wouldn’t be doing justice to the topic of this week’s series if I didn’t at least consider whether gender has anything to do with that distinction, and thus whether I shouldn’t challenge myself to change my perspective as a result.
Special Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other women and sports connections or analyses you’d share?

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