Surveillance of women in sport called ‘widespread’

Courtesy of U of M Tucker Center (l-r) 1st row – Nicole LaVoi, Nefertiti Walker, Nancy Lough; 2nd row – Beth Daniels, Jaime Schultz, Ann Pegoraro; 3rd row – Cheryl Cooky, Angel Brutus, Anna Posbergh

Surveillance is not just about privacy concerns, but also about how it unfairly scrutinizes women athletes. The University of Minnesota Tucker Center’s annual fall lecture featured several female experts who discussed the increased surveillance of females and how it impacts girls and women in sport, especially Black females.

Tucker Center Director Nicole LaVoi moderated the October 27 virtual panel discussion with six women, two of whom were Black. “Many types of surveillance exist, so it’s woven into the fabric of our everyday lives,” stated LaVoi in her introduction.

Dr. Angel Brutus of the U.S. Olympic and Paraplegic Committee (USOPC) Mental Health Services Team also has a private practice in Atlanta. She said that the experience of being surveilled is “being policed in many ways, whether it’s policies and procedures, to having a certain body type,” and to media portrayals of females.

UMass Amherst Vice Chancellor Dr. Nefertiti Walker said that Black women, LGBTQ, “and those [females] who identify as having multiple, marginalized identities” are often impacted by surveillance. “I’m sure there are other groups that I’m missing, but I focus on those three groups in particular,” she pointed out. 

Walker advised that “counter spaces” for females are needed. “They’re similar to safe spaces,” she explained. “[Such] spaces are designed for individuals or marginalized groups that they can include allies for advocacy from advantaged groups. In my opinion, the WNBA in many ways has served as a counter space to the larger institution or in opposition to the culture of exclusion in sport.

 “The W is not perfect,” noted Walker, “but they have prioritized the intersection inclusion of their players. The WNBA was one of the first, if not the first professional sport league to embrace Pride nights.

“I think the WNBA has offered a case study on how to mitigate some aspects of exclusion as well as some aspects of the surveillance of women in sport,” she reiterated.

Brutus pointed out that Black female athletes must constantly deal with longstanding stereotypes. “When you talk about specifically Black athletes, or Black women athletes, you specifically talk about animalistic ways as opposed to [being] skilled, tactical, competent,” she said.

“I think Black women have always been under surveillance in this country from the very beginning,” Walker said. “Certainly, Black women in sport have been under surveillance, and we’ve seen it with numerous track athletes.

“We’ve seen it in sports over and over and over again,” especially with Black female athletes, she emphasized.

In a separate phone interview, Walker told the MSR, “I try as a researcher not to speak to [something] unless there’s research behind it.” Her area of expertise is sport organizational issues; she studies the intersectionality of race, gender and culture in sport.

“I’m doing a project where I’m talking to a bunch of Black women coaches,” said Walker.  “I’m talking to them about the culture of women’s basketball. What I’m finding is surveillance of [them]…trying to control these women to fit into norms and culture.

“What I’m finding is that women’s basketball is actually incredibly anti-Black,” Walker concluded.