On motherhood, choice, and the celebration of Agata Mroz

UPDATED Reminder about comments policy:

This comment thread is open to feminists and those who are feminist-friendly only. Thread-derailing to advance an anti-feminist agenda has no place here. I’ve been remiss in enforcing this recently, but am going to be better about it out now.

On the Fourth of July, KJ Lopez at the National Review Online offered up what she calls “A Good Girl Role Model”. (One assumes, after reading the piece and being familiar with K-Lo’s work, that the adjective “good” modifies “girl” rather than “role model”. Lopez is from that school of social conservatives who wish fervently that there were more “good girls” — in the classic sense — running around. Or, better yet in the right-wing world, not running around.)

Lopez tells us the story of Agata Mroz, a former Polish volleyball star who died of leukemia shortly after giving birth.

When Agata was 17, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a collection of disorders that prevent the bone marrow from producing sufficient blood cells. Some forms of MDS progress to leukemia, and Agata’s did. In the prime of her sports career, Agata needed to take a sabbatical in 2007 to fight the disease. The first part of her treatment involved many blood transfusions. When her fans discovered that she needed blood, they formed a queue to be donors, giving 3,170 pints.

Her condition worsened as she was preparing to marry Jacek Olszewski on June 9, 2007, leaving her too ill to go on a honeymoon. Because of her illness, doctors cautioned her against getting pregnant, but she tried anyway. She was realistic about her slim prospects to beat the disease and, if she were going to die, she at least hoped to be able to give life.

She became pregnant soon after marrying. “The news about the child made me feel lucky again,” she said in a February news interview. “I felt happy that I would know what it is to be a mother and that I would give my husband something good of myself.”

A few weeks later, doctors discovered her cancer had progressed. They told her that she urgently needed a bone marrow transplant, but she opted to wait until after delivery to receive the transplant lest she imperil her child’s life. She clearly knew the risk she was taking, but considered the reward worth the danger, putting her child’s life above her own. She gave premature birth to a daughter, Lilliana, on April 4.

Agata died on June 4.

It’s a bittersweet story. Who among us would question Agata’s decision? She did what she wanted to do, making a conscious choice to get pregnant despite the huge risk and to forego lifesaving treatment in order to ensure her daughter’s well-being. I honor that choice as a good and valid one. I was moved reading the account Lopez shares.

But what is so infuriating is the clear sense that Agata’s decision wasn’t a choice, but a spiritual requirement for any woman who might find herself in a similar tragic predicament. For Lopez — and indeed, for many Catholics, a woman is required to put the life of her unborn child ahead of her own. It isn’t so much a “choice” as a divine mandate. Lopez’s piece concludes:

In his homily, the celebrant of the Mass, Bishop Marian Florczyk, said that Agata’s life is a witness of “love of life, motherhood, the desire to give life and the heroic love of an unborn child.”

It is all that. I’m not raining on Agata’s parade, of course. But Lopez doesn’t entitle her piece “A Mother’s Choice”. She calls it “A Good Girl Role Model”, driving home the point that young women ought to aspire to be as radically selfless as Agata to the point of de-valuing their own lives. Continue reading

Gay sports update

I am delighted with all the hits I got as a result of Andrew Sullivan linking today to my post about the causal effect that legalizing gay marriage clearly has on sports championships. Jeff Fecke gets the credit.

I haven’t had over 5000 unique visitors in a single day in a very long time — and the last time was in the midst of the whole Full Frontal Feminism argument that tore up the feminist blogosphere!

Sullivan also notes something I forgot, which was that Denmark legalized same-sex unions (without using the term marriage) way back in 1989 — and promptly won the next European championship in 1992.

The evidence grows stronger.

Gay marriage: good for winning championships?

I got home from working out in time to watch the Spain-Germany European Cup final from Vienna. I’m not inclined to patriotism in any form, but I’ll be darned if I, the son of an Austrian-born war refugee, was going to root for the Germans to win anything in the city of his birth. Spain won a deserved victory. A.S. Byatt has, not surprisingly, the best write-up of the whole tournament.

This leads me to my observation: legalizing gay marriage is good for sports teams. Spain did it a few years back, and wham, they win the Euro for the first time since 1964. Canada did it just before the 2006 Winter Olympics, and bingo, they had their best-ever medal haul. South Africa legalized gay marriage in 2006, and won the Rugby World Cup the following year. Massachusetts gave same-sex couples the right to wed a few years ago — and ask Red Sox and Celtic fans about how nicely things have gone for their teams since. For all those folks who insist that God’s punishment for gay marriage will be obvious, so far the evidence is, um, lacking. The evidence for the opposite is growing.

If California upholds gay marriage at the ballot box in November, I predict championships for USC football, UCLA basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Anaheim Angels — all within short order.

Knees, feminism, and young warriors: the relief of Michael Sokolove’s new book

Back on May 8, I wrote about The Uneven Playing Field, a long article by Michael Sokolove that appeared in the New York Times magazine. The piece was excerpted from his then-forthcoming book, Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports. The book has been published; my copy came last week and I finished it this morning, just moments ago.

I was anxious to read the book, particularly because I was more than a bit troubled by the title. Historically, when a man talks about the need to “protect our daughters”, you know trouble’s coming. “We’ve got to protect our daughters from the lesbian menace, boys!” “We’ve got to protect our daughters from abortion-promoting, Wicca practicing, bra-less, unshaven, radical feminists!” Though I know some paternalistic language creeps into my own writing, I do make a conscious effort to avoid obvious tropes like the need to “protect daughters”, recognizing that very phrase has been associated with everything from homophobia to the lynching of young black men. One wishes Sokolove had chosen a different subtitle for what ends up being a terrific, pro-feminist book. (I suspect, but have no evidence, that it was his publishing house who came up with the “protecting our daughters” line as a marketing ploy. Nothing sells like anxiety, after all.)

I love women’s sports. I’m married to a former high school soccer star who, like many of the women profiled in Sokolove’s book, suffered a career-ending knee injury. In my wife’s case, that knee injury cost her what had been the promise of a division-one scholarship. I’m particularly passionate about soccer — for its purity, its deceptive simplicity, its abhorrence of timeouts, and its endless capacity to surprise. Sokolove’s book is mainly about soccer, the sport that more American girls play than any other, and about the epidemic of knee injuries that has brought so much pain and devastation.

In my May 8 post and the Times excerpt, you can read about some of the research that explores both why young women suffer more frequent catastrophic knee injuries than men, as well as about the many proposed solutions to the problem. I’m happy to say, after reading the book cover-to-cover, that Sokolove repudiates the idea that girls are less interested in or less able to play sports than boys. The troglodytes seeking to repeal Title IX will find no comfort within the pages of “Warrior Girls.” Sokolove, whose previous books have all been about male athletes, including a much-admired sociological study of baseball and young black men, writes as someone passionately committed to athletic competition — but even more passionately committed to the well-being of the athletes themselves. Continue reading

On “Warrior Girls”, knee injuries, and the tangible costs of adolescent perfectionism: some thoughts on Michael Sokolove’s article

The New York Times has a preview up today of a long article coming out on Sunday in their magazine: The Uneven Playing Field. It’s by Michael Sokolove, and based on his forthcoming book Warrior Girls: Protecting our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports. (I’ve pre-ordered the book, and will review it this summer when it comes out.)

In this lengthy adaptation on the Times website, Sokolove writes about what he sees as the extraordinary number of knee (ACL) injuries that are being sustained by female athletes, soccer players in particular. His thesis:

(the epidemic is) part of a national trend in the wake of Title IX and the explosion of sports participation among girls and young women. From travel teams up through some of the signature programs in women’s college sports, women are suffering injuries that take them off the field for weeks or seasons at a time, or sometimes forever.

Girls and boys diverge in their physical abilities as they enter puberty and move through adolescence. Higher levels of testosterone allow boys to add muscle and, even without much effort on their part, get stronger. In turn, they become less flexible. Girls, as their estrogen levels increase, tend to add fat rather than muscle. They must train rigorously to get significantly stronger. The influence of estrogen makes girls’ ligaments lax, and they outperform boys in tests of overall body flexibility — a performance advantage in many sports, but also an injury risk when not accompanied by sufficient muscle to keep joints in stable, safe positions. Girls tend to run differently than boys — in a less-flexed, more-upright posture — which may put them at greater risk when changing directions and landing from jumps. Because of their wider hips, they are more likely to be knock-kneed — yet another suspected risk factor.

The rate (of ACL injury) for women’s soccer is 0.25 per 1,000, or 1 in 4,000, compared with 0.10 for male soccer players. The rate for women’s basketball is 0.24, more than three times the rate of 0.07 for the men. The A.C.L. injury rate for girls may be higher — perhaps much higher — than it is for college-age women because of a spike that seems to occur as girls hit puberty.

At this point, my heart was sinking. Was this going to be anti-feminist ideology dressed up as professed concern for the health of young women? Was Sokolove trying to scare parents into pulling their daughters out of competitive sports? I even wondered if Sokolove was some sort of shill for the anti-Title IX crowd, trying a new tactic in their never-ending crusade to roll back a policy of equal funding for women’s sports. As a passionate sports fan, married to a former club soccer star, I have a deep and abiding commitment to women’s athletics — particularly the “beautiful game” of what the rest of the world calls football.

Happily, reading the article to the end (it is ten pages long) makes it at least fairly apparent that Sokolove is committed to women’s sports. Rather than imploring parents to pull their daughters off soccer teams, he writes sensibly and knowledgeably about the causes of what is undeniably a common problem: catastrophic ACL injuries among young female soccer players. The chief culprits have nothing to do with inherent feminine weakness. Rather, they are two-fold: poor bio-mechanics and the exhausting “club” system in high school and college that leaves many talented girls playing a demanding sport literally year-round. Continue reading

The sheer delight of injustice

I like many sports, but if forced to watch but one for the rest of my life, it would be what the rest of the world knows as football. I follow several teams in England as best I can, rooting in particular for Newcastle in the Premiership and Exeter City in a much-lower division.

I also enjoy good sportswriting, and reading this tonight, I gave a shout of recognition. Writing in the Times of London, the splendid Rod Liddle notes:

Chronic and preferably cruel injustice is a much underestimated attraction in football.

Yup.

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The gloomy Golden Bear redux: celebrating mediocrity

My wife, a loyal USC alumna, always accompanies me to Cal-UCLA football games. She’s happy to make my Golden Bears her second favorite team each autumn, and I try and return the favor. (We avoid each other entirely on the day of the California-USC game.) We enjoyed each other’s company yesterday (celebrating five years since we started dating) at the debacle in the Rose Bowl.

Two quick notes: far too many of the Cal students in our section left the stadium before our band could play the alma mater. Today’s Cal students are spoiled; they’ve never known a losing season, and they take bowl games and wins over Stanford for granted. As they walked away disconsolately after a painful loss, I gently berated a few for bailing out on the band and the traditional post-game “Hail to Califonia.”

As we left, some UCLA fans chanted “Over-rated” at us; I yelled back, cheerfully and in the same sing-song voice, “you’re soooo right!” As an Old Blue, there’s something familiar, even soothing, about a slide back into the mediocrity from which we seemed on the verge of finally emerging.

I love my Golden Bears, win or lose. And you know, I think I love them more when they’re losing.

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The gloomy Golden Bear

Those of you who read me regularly or know me well are aware that I’m a devoted Cal football fan. If you’re wondering why I’m not blogging about their recent rise to #2 in the national polls, it’s because I have every expectation that in some way yet to be revealed, my beloved Golden Bears will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the very last possible moment. The only chance we have at genuinely going undefeated this season is if as many fans and alumni as possible glumly predict disaster before each and every game. And that is what I intend to do.

In that spirit of carefully manufactured pessimism, I anticipate that Oregon State will nip my dear Bears this weekend, 23-21.

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Cal-Tennessee, masculinity, and another post in praise of Joe Ehrmann

Like many a loyal Old Blue, I eagerly anticipated the Cal-Tennessee football game that was played on Saturday. Though I have little use for the NFL (and in many ways, would rather watch “soccer” than American football), I am a long-standing Golden Bear fan. After a disappointing and painful loss to Tennessee at the start of the 2006 campaign, Cal supporters were eager for redemption. We got it in splendid fashion two days ago, and to my wife’s great amusement, I offered several renditions of the happy dance over the course of the game.

Yesterday, I read half-a-dozen news accounts of the game. This one by Olin Buchanan, from the respected Rivals.com site, annoyed me immensely:

Last year Cal was branded soft and overrated after a 35-18 season-opening ambush in Knoxville, which wasn’t nearly that close. Then, before kickoff on Saturday night a propeller-powered plane circled high above the stadium towing a banner that read: SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS.

Apparently, that perceived drooling was actually the 12th-ranked Bears’ mouths watering for a chance to prove they were more talented, more competitive and more masculine than they showed a year ago.

Thirty-five years after the advent of Title IX, and we’ve still got neanderthals like Buchanan associating toughness with masculinity? What’s the implication, Olin? That “soft and overrated” is somehow a particularly feminine quality?

For decades, sociologists of sport have had fun with the language of American football. The language of “scoring”, “penetrating the defense”, “getting in the end zone”, and even — Lord help us — the “tight end” is certainly suggestive. And a great many “old school” coaches (I’ve known one or fifty) played on the sexual anxieties of their young athletes by associating defeat with allowing oneself to be feminized by the opposing team.

When I was a student at Cal in the mid-80′s (the fun but mediocre Joe Kapp era), practices at Memorial Stadium were open to the public. I often went and sat in the bleachers, did my homework, and watched. I remember an assistant coach yelling at a group of linemen doing drills: “tighten it up or you’re gonna get fucked like a bunch of bitches come Saturday.” I was aghast. (Let me be clear, I never heard that language from dear Coach Kapp.) I hadn’t even started taking women’s studies classes yet, but I was still disheartened by the brutally sexist language I heard from this coach (and from many of the players.)

Some say that the violent game of American football is inherently misogynistic; the sport, for some, is beyond redemption. The cynics say that young men will only play with maximum passion and intensity when this language of sexual warfare is employed. But as a fan of this most popular of American games, I’m convinced otherwise. And fortunately, I can look to the likes of Joe Ehrmann, about whom I’ve written a couple of times — at greatest length here.

Ehrmann, a former star defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts, now coaches the enormously successful Gilman (Maryland) high school football team. This is how he preps his team for a game:

“What is our job as coaches?” Ehrmann asks.

“To love us!” the Gilman boys yell back in unison.

“What is your job?” Ehrmann shouts back.

“To love each other!” the boys respond.

The words are spoken with the commitment of an oath, the enthusiasm of a pep rally.

This is football?

It is with Ehrmann. It is when the whole purpose of being here is to totally redefine what it means to be a man.

Joe Ehrmann knows what authentic masculinity is, and it has nothing, nothing to do with athletic prowess. His teams win state titles regularly (while he enforces his “no cut rule”, meaning everyone plays). For those of us who love competitive sports but who are often dismayed by the ugly cultural rules around those sports, men like Ehrmann are vital role models. (His biography is compelling.)

From the first day of practice through the last day of the season, Ehrmann and his best friend, Head Coach Biff Poggi, bombard their players with stories and lessons about being a man built for others.

They stress that Gilman football is all about living in a community. It is about fostering relationships. It is about learning the importance of serving others. While coaches elsewhere scream endlessly about being tough, Ehrmann and Poggi teach concepts such as empathy, inclusion and integrity. They emphasize Ehrmann’s code of conduct for manhood: accepting responsibility, leading courageously, enacting justice on behalf of others…

Olin Buchanan, take note. Go Bears.

My hero…

… this morning is Haile (Heila) Satayin of Israel. At age 52, he finished 19th in the marathon at the World Track and Field Championships this weekend, in a blistering 2:22 — run in high humidity. Satayin, a Jewish native of Ethiopia who made his aliyah in 1991, has qualified for the Beijing Olympics, where he’ll be by far the oldest marathoner in the field and almost certainly the oldest Olympian. Mazel Tov, Haile!

The older I get, the fewer still-competitive athletic heroes I have. And though I can admire men and women younger than myself, I’ll admit I can only truly look up to those who have a few years on me. And no, this doesn’t mean I am an exuberant Barry Bonds fan.