I was attending a Gender Sociology seminar at the University of Florida and the conversation turned—of all things—to the uniforms worn by the American Women’s Volleyball team at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Since I am more of a soccer fan I had not seen the uniforms in question at the time, but judging by some of the rhetoric in the class room I assumed they must have been quite offensive. In reality, they look like anything any person would be likely to see in any beach town in the United States. Essentially the uniform is a swimsuit, or a bikini.

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The “Uni” In Question. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/08/09/scant-gender-parity-in-uniforms-for-olympic-beach-volleyball/?utm_term=.2eeb23b6b967

My first reaction to the comments in the class was that “sex sells”. In our modern society where instant gratification is all that matters it seems that the amount of skin shown is directly proportionate to the amount of money made. Just as industrial football in soccer is a commodification of sport, then these uniforms can—in some way—be seen as a form of commodification of sport as well; they might be using physical beauty to sell sport. Which—while not my cup of tea—is in line with capitalism. One need only look at the pictures of soccer stars David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo to see that such cynical marketing affects men as well as women.

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Becks As a Sex Symbol. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.enstarz.com/articles/5367/20120815/david-beckham-underwear-ad-soccer-star-shows-off-body-in-latest-h-m-shoot-photos.htm

Marxist theory itself underlines that the development of capitalism changed the gender roles of men and women; as society shifted from the traditional to the modern egalitarian gender roles began to fade. Gender scholar Cecilia Ridgeway, writing in her book Framed by Gender (2011), explains that:

Under conditions of greater social and material resources, however, the desperate interdependence between the sexes is lessened somewhat, and the egalitarian balance between gendered spheres of influence might be difficult to sustain. With more available resources, the risk is greater that one sex will gain greater access to these resources, creating a tipping factor that consolidates specific gender status beliefs into a diffuse status belief that broadly advantages that sex over the other (Ridgeway 2011, 51).

Interestingly, the discussion about the volleyball uniforms was not in these terms. Instead it was seen as some sort of male dominance that made the women wear the uniforms; the prevailing opinion was that the Olympians were being made into sex objects. This made me curious, and I decided to look into the matter a little more. Many commentators mentioned the controversy over the uniforms, while the Washington Post wrote a strange opinion piece blasting the “scant gender parity” while praising Egypt’s choice of uniforms  (which to me is like comparing apples and oranges, but that is for another day).

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Egypt’s More Modest Uniforms. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/08/09/scant-gender-parity-in-uniforms-for-olympic-beach-volleyball/?utm_term=.2eeb23b6b967

What seems to be lost in much of the discussion, however, is the voice of the players themselves. It is easy to approach the topic with pre-existing biases and opinions, but to ignore conflicting points of view is no way to debate a controversial topic. One CBS story for instance, noted that women’s volleyball players have a choice of uniforms while men have no choice:

The women actually have a choice of what to wear while the men only have one option. The women can either wear a two-piece bikini, or they can wear a one-piece suit. The sport did used to only have the option of bikinis for women, but they changed the rule in 2012 be be more inclusive to other cultures and religions. The men only have one option: a tank top and shorts.

American star Kerri Walsh Jennings took to Twitter to reject the notion that the players were wearing bikinis to get better TV ratings. A useful piece by the Independent Journal Review gave reasons for why the U.S. women’s volleyball team continues competing in bikinis, using quotes from the players themselves. Misty May-Treanor, a gold medalist, said it simply in an interview with Slate: “We’re staying in our [bikinis]. I don’t see too many people changing. To each his own. If you get down to it, it’s about the sport and not what we’re wearing.” And that is precisely the argument that I make. By lowering the debate to such a base level and focusing on what women are wearing when playing volleyball it ignores what is really going on, you miss the focus on the sport and athletes involved. In order for true “equality” to exist people—male or female—should be scrutinized for their athletic prowess, not on what they are wearing. These kinds of debates, rather than furthering a “progressive” agenda (to use the term that is currently in vogue) in society, actually serve to be more regressive. Another example from the sports world can be given.

When the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers (an American football team), Colin Kaepernick, chose not to stand during the American national anthem before a preseason game in protest of racism, his actions elicited varied responses from all over the social spectrum. The president of the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colorped People) went so far as to compare him to Rosa Parks. Although I’m not sure how Ms. Parks would have viewed this comparison, it certainly shows how important people perceive Mr. Kaepernick’s actions to be, and players from other teams are planning to take part in other “demonstrations”.

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Colin Kaepernick. Image Courtesy of: http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/49ers/2016/09/07/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protest/89975464/

Unfortunately, it seems that—as with the women’s volleyball uniforms—things like this tend to increase, rather than decrease, the divide between different people. If it isn’t men and women being divided, then here it becomes blacks and whites.

Former NFL player Ray Lewis made a good point (albeit one that the author of the article, Will Brinson, doesn’t agree with) that the issue with Mr. Kaepernick’s protest is his focus on the flag. Mr Lewis said: “Listen I understand what you’re trying to do, but understand, take the flag out of it. I have uncles, I’ve got brothers, going into the military, that said I will never see you again. To understand that I will always respect that part of what our patriotism should be.” Focusing on the flag itself clouds the issue, and in a different way than Mr. Brinson would have you believe. He writes: “People yelling about whether protests should include the flag or feature the national anthem or whether a certain day is acceptable for protesting only cloud the waters further.” The flag is, for many, a symbol of unity—that we are all Americans. For others, it is a sign of Police brutality and even systemic racism. I understand that. But by focusing on the flag Mr. Kaepernick has made a lot of people upset—his own actions have led to the very “clouding of the waters” that Mr. Brinson blames not on the quarterback, but on his detractors instead. The perceived disrespect towards the flag and national anthem doesn’t solve the problems of racism in the United States; rather it just polarizes people further.

And we can see that in the attacks made on Mr. Kaepernick. There have been claims that his girlfriend, a Muslim, influenced him to protest social injustice. Mr. Kaepernick’s decision to focus on the flag has brought other issues out now that go way beyond the purpose of his original protest, in this case those of Islamophobia and gender equality. But his original message is lost. It is the “progressiveness” that sows division and—ironically—actually makes society regress.

This climate of racial division has led California State-Los Angeles University (CSLA) to debut segregated housing which will, among other things, “serve as a safe space for Black CSLA students to congregate, connect, and learn from each other” according to a list of demands from the CSLA Black Student Union. The freshman in the dorm are wary of calling it “segregation”, but the fact remains that Dr. Martin Luther King fought against the very concepts of “separate but equal” that CSLA’s policy represents! And sadly…other places are doing the same. The University of Connecticut will also have segregated housing this fall, while Oregon State and UC Berkeley are also sponsoring segregated events in what The Federalist rightly point out stems from a “far-Left [that] has found itself championing a toxic form of second-wave segregationism than only exacerbates division”. Even liberal civil rights leaders in the United States spoke against CSLA’s decision.

It is my hope that people stop focusing on differences so much that it stops them from seeing the similarities. People should not focus on the uniforms of the U.S. Women’s Volleyball team to the extent that it overshadows their play; by creating a controversy out of nothing (the players seemed to take no issue with their uniforms), we end up doing the very thing we intended not to do: focusing on these women because of their gender. They are volleyball players, just like a male volleyball player. Focus on them for what they do in sports, not for what they wear. In the same vein, Mr. Kaepernick should not focus on the American flag when he makes his protest to the extent that people forget about his initial protest—it is about race relations, not about nationalism. If he wants true equality in the United States of America, he should know that it will not come by antagonizing those who believe that the flag (and anthem) hold real, emotional, meanings. Respect is a two-way street. A perceived insult to the flag overshadows—for others—the very things Mr. Kaepernick is protesting against and that creates even more of a splintering within society. Black or White, Male or Female, Christian or Muslim, people are people. By creating artificial divisions in society problems will not be solved. Rather, they will be exacerbated to the point that, fifty years on, segregation returns. It is a chilling reminder that blind “progressiveness” can have its unintended “blowback”; by not listening to the opposing sides in society we risk finding ourselves in an intractable situation that will only unravel further, like yarn on a spool.

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