It used to be something that seemed, well … kind of gauche. Or at least it was to me and most other writers I knew. We’d never say, “Oh, by the way, did you read that story I wrote?”
We’d roll our eyes at those writers who might have done that. Self-promotion was almost seen as a character flaw. We were writers, not salespeople. Hey, the story was published. If it was good enough and people were interested, they would find it. Maybe somebody who liked it would pass it on – by word of mouth or, as technology advanced, by e-mail or message boards. That was OK … but we weren’t going to beat our own drums.
Wow, how stupid were we?
As the profession of journalism continues its collapse along with so much of the rest of the economy, we have had to totally change views on that. Now, I write things and often post links to them right away on Facebook and Twitter. At first, it made me really uncomfortable. Then I realized everybody was doing it.
I say all that as a way to launch into the multi-tentacled issue of women’s basketball programs doing their own self-promotion.
They blog and use Twitter and Facebook. And as I wrote about last year, some media guides are no longer for the media at all. They are just picture books. Other teams now have their own special Web sites or post elaborate multi-media team guides.
Supposedly, the point of it is to promote the basketball program and potentially bring in new fans. In some cases, maybe that’s true. But I have my doubts with certain aspects of this that luring fans really is the point of it. I think the picture books and the web sites/on-line media guides are about luring recruits. They’re geared toward today’s young people, who – thanks to technology – are the most prolifically narcissistic creatures in human history.
They have more ways to take, display and distribute images of themselves than we could have possibly imagined 20-plus years ago when I was in college. I’m not saying folks of my or any other previous generation weren’t every bit as vain. Hey, people are people – the myth of Narcissus goes way back.
It’s just that such self-adoration was a far more clunky and limited endeavor when you had to pay to develop film … and couldn’t be sure if a shot was even going to be in focus until you got it back. Plus, there really was no practical way to mass-distribute images. People just had to fill bulletin boards in their dorm rooms with pictures of themselves (oh, and their friends).
Last year, I was teasing Texas A&M coach Gary Blair for his program’s hard-cover picture book that was no longer an actual media guide.
“Way to go,” I said in my old-fogey persona. “Could you possibly feed any more into their narcissism?”
Blair explained that was the way of the world now … he said he had to do stuff like that appeal to potential recruits. I didn’t know then, of course, what Texas A&M would have in store for us this season.
I found out upon seeing A&M’s “team photo” at Big 12 media day. It is the cover shot for Texas A&M’s “virtual media guide,” which is on their Web site and is some kind of spy/espionage thing with secret agents and James Bond music.
Some elements of the video guide are neat, and I know people worked extremely hard on this, but … not sure how they decided the best “theme” for a women’s basketball team was James Bond/spies. Let me put it this way, women are not what you’d call “empowered” in Bond movies. They typically serve two roles: they have sex with Bond and/or they get killed.
Anyway, then Wednesday, Florida State sent out an e-mail about its new women’s hoops Web site:
It’s a jarring juxtaposition: Beautiful young women in glamorous eveningwear and sneakers. The new Florida State University women’s basketball team Web site uses that kind of arresting imagery to send an important message: Women athletes are powerful and beautiful.
I hate to break it to the firm Florida State paid (I hope not too much) to come up with this Web site. But … the prom dress and sneakers thing really has been done before. A lot. It’s not new or jarring or arresting.
One instance I remember was by Virginia during Dawn Staley’s career two decades ago _ back when everybody was still doing those hokey “themes” to their seasons, such as, “We’re Going Dancing!” to allude to the NCAA Tournament. I recall Georgia Tech in prom dresses on their media guide cover one year in the last decade or so (but I don’t think they did the sneaker thing with it). Both of those photos, though, most folks would call – and I know this is a stereotypical, loaded word _ “wholesome.” Frankly, they were like the prom pictures people would send to their grandparents.
Then there was a preposterous Nebraska cover in the late 1990s that showed a tuxedo-clad coach Paul Sanderford with player Anna DeForge, who was exiting a limo in an evening gown. It was supposed to convey that she was the star of the Huskers’ show … and what better way to do that than make it look like she’s going out on date with her coach, right?
When I think of that Nebraska photo – which I still do, because it was absurd – somehow in my mind Sanderford morphs into the cartoon Peter Griffin of “Family Guy.” Which makes it even funnier.
In the last 10 years or so, the “theme” thing was largely dying out _ except at Tennessee, where they still do it for old time’s sake and because Debby Jennings keeps coming up with clever ideas _ but “themes” have been somewhat resurrected now for the Web.
Anyway, my friend Jayda Evans at the Seattle Times blogged about the Florida State site and the Texas A&M photo yesterday. I admit, I wish I could have actually heard Jayda’s verbal reaction when she first saw the Aggies’ picture.
Suffice to say it is not like a prom picture people would send to their grandparents. Or, at least, I don’t think it is. One friend looked at it and asked if it was supposed to represent Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. Of course not … but that’s kind of the problem. Team promotional photos shouldn’t give anyone that impression.
Jayda included the A&M image on her blog; she used the word “creepy” because of the way it appears Blair is adjusting his tie. Which conveys … what, exactly? OK, that would be creepy. I actually thought the same thing at first. On further review, however, he’s not touching his tie and I think his hand positions in the photo are just a way for Gary to show off those gigantic championship rings he has. Gotta display the bling, you know. Gary keeps current.
Anyway, as I said, this dressing-up stuff _ women’s basketball has been there, done that for years. It keeps re-emerging. The debate over the use of potentially sexual images to sell women’s sports would fill up enough pages for several sets of encyclopedia. And based on life experiences and perspectives, people see and react to these images very differently.
When I first saw Texas A&M’s picture last month, I thought it was kinda silly and just another in the endless attempts to “hetero-up” women’s sports: “Look at us! We’re sexy hot chicks! We can give come-hither looks! We’re not a bunch of you-know-whats!”
There is a long history of this _ dressing/posing certain ways to “hide” or to disdain lesbianism _ in our culture (not just in sports). If you think the prom-dress/evening gown stuff doesn’t have any hint of that, then you are ignoring or are perhaps just unaware of the history. The potentially heterosexist aspect of it is something Jayda also addresses in detail.
However … I am also very attuned to the fact that my reaction is absolutely not the same as everyone else’s. Some people love the picture and may even get really angry at my response. I can understand their point of view, too, which might be, “If the young women feel like doing this, what’s wrong with it? Why can’t they show off for the cameras and dress this way? Why does it have to be a so-called declaration of their sexuality? And even if it IS such a declaration, why shouldn’t they be free to make it?”
My answer is: There’s nothing wrong if a female athlete wants to dress up and strut her stuff for the cameras. If it’s a truly comfortable form of self-expression for her, that’s fine.
IF, IF, IF it’s her choice.
But when the people in charge of a program dress up an entire team this way, the message isn’t that it’s about anybody’s personal choice and self-expression. The message is: This is the image that we are presenting of our program and everybody has to conform to it.
I like media guides or team photos that let everyone appear in the ways she is most comfortable. Some of the young women are very stylish, some are more conservative, some are androgynous. That, in my experience, is much more reflective of the makeup of the players on most women’s basketball teams.
I remember once at a media day, there were two players from a school sitting next to each other answering questions – one was dressed kind of like Beyonce and the other was dressed kind of like k.d. lang. I don’t know that has to mean anything about sexuality, or that it matters. What I thought was, “This is exactly how both of these kids feel most comfortable dressing and presenting themselves. Good for them.”
You know which school that was? Texas A&M.
So … I think there’s legitimate concern in regard to these group “dress-up” sessions as a practice for programs. It doesn’t feel like it’s about allowing young women to express themselves and let fans learn who they really are as human beings away from the court. It feels like they are play-acting to present an image that might fit some young women quite well but might be very uncomfortable for others.
How, considering the culture of any team, could one young woman at a program (especially if she were, say, a freshman) feel like she could stand up to everybody – the coaches, other teammates, the sports-info staff, the photographers, an outside advertising/Web design firm – and say, “You know, I really don’t want to wear that. It’s not me. I don’t want to do this.”
I think most of the time, such a player would go along because she thought she had no choice. I’m not saying that happened at Texas A&M or Florida State … but that it could happen somewhere. And I don’t like that.
Nor am I comfortable with feeding more into that notion that women are “beautiful” only if they’re dressed up, as if they can’t be beautiful while in the process of being athletes. It’s almost buying into that age-old prejudice that there is something inherently unfeminine about sports. Like, “We want to show your our athletes’ feminine side.” Well, for some women, being in athletics IS showing their feminine side.
Now, back to the overall idea of self-promotion of programs: Ventures such as what Florida State and Texas A&M did seem to me like they had good intentions but then were executed in a way I don’t necessarily think achieves what they really could if done differently.
“We feel it is important to set ourselves apart as much as we can. We look around at how things are presented in our business, and so much of it looks the same,” FSU coach Sue Semrau said in the press release that the Seminoles sent out. “We had a vision for something that others were not doing. We wanted to have a product that would stand out to the people we are trying to reach.”
OK, but the thing is, as I said, going the prom-dress route is not something others haven’t done. Further, it’s ironic that by putting everyone in the same “costume,” you aren’t setting the players apart as interesting individuals with their own stories. You are making them all the same. I look at Florida State’s site, and it doesn’t tell me a lot that would distinguish one player from another. (The “prom” pics aren’t the only ones on the site, but they are what’s used to illustrate “Meet the team.”)
Further, who are the people they are trying to reach? That goes back to the question: What is the real purpose of this web site? Is it to grow the fan base and promote the game? Or is it actually just something to show to recruits to lure them to Florida State? Come here and you’ll have your own photo gallery and video page.
I’m not saying the latter is wrong … every program can decide what it chooses to spend money on and how it wants to appeal to recruits. (Although, I hear coaches complain all the time about how kids in college athletics are so much more self-absorbed now than they used to be. I have to laugh and say, “OK, and who’s enabling them?”)
Ultimately, coaches and programs in women’s basketball all face some of the same issues. They want to establish themselves or maintain the status they have. They want to lure better recruits and new fans. They want to “stand out.”
Well, you could say winning a lot does that more than anything. And, indeed, that’s a vital component. Texas A&M and Florida State are good basketball programs. I think Blair and Semrau are both talented coaches who care about their athletes. And I understand why programs like them want to do self-promotion that may include ideas such as their own Web pages and virtual guides.
When I was college sports editor at The KC Star, we did all kinds of “themes” for special sections and centerpiece packages. My favorite was the year we did “suspense” as the theme for our college basketball special section and used the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, to illustrate it. We found an image of Hitch with his hand stretched out and photo-shopped in a basketball. We did a lot of other stuff, like having former Kansas State men’s coach Tom Asbury pose in front of a blank screen as if he were ducking and running – then photo-shopped in a cornfield and crop-duster to make him look like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.”
It was a fun way to illustrate the stories about various teams to get readers’ attention. And if teams themselves really want to do that same thing and have the time and resources to do it, why not?
But again, they should think hard about what they are selling, who they are really trying to sell to (recruits? fans? both?) and how they choose to go about it.
Now, should I go post this link on Twitter?