The power of language

The power of language

The first time I held my niece I was overcome by love. It was the kind of love I never realized was possible. This tiny, perfect, half-asleep little girl grabbed my heart in a way that flooded me with emotion. One of the biggest pulls: Protection. 

As my niece grew, she evolved into a beautiful little girl. She's the kind of child who prompts strangers to stop on the street and remark on her piercing blue eyes, her infectious smile, her ebullient personality. “You are such a pretty little girl,” they would say. 

While it made me smile, their observations also made me cringe. My niece was barely a toddler, yet I was terrified she would grow up believing her greatest attribute would be something mostly out of her control -- how attractive others perceived her to be. 

It was in that moment I knew I had to change the way I spoke about women and girls while also fighting to make sure others saw the importance of doing the same. 

* * * * *

“They're just words,”people will say. 

“Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.”

Except . . . words do hurt. They're more than just a compilation of letters and punctuation. 

Webster’s Dictionary provides a number of definitions for “word” but one stands out. Definition 2 a (1) states: a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use. 

Communicates a meaning. 

Translation: Words do matter because they carry the weight of meaning.

As my niece grew, so did my linguistic awareness.

If she wore a cute outfit or had her hair styled a certain way, of course I would give her a compliment. However, I made it my mission to ensure our time together was focused on reading, playing, engaging kindly with others and standing tall for herself.

When she did something well, I was careful to be specific with my praise using words and phrases that endorsed qualities like strength, intelligence and understanding. 

I desperately wanted this growing little girl to know she could be and do anything.

* * * * *

Sally. Pink Hat. Throwing like a girl. Playing in a skirt. 

How often do we still hear these terms used to describe deficiencies in male athletes or fans who lack knowledge? 

On the surface, these phrases seem harmless. At the core, they perpetuate stereotypes that women are weak and inferior to our male counterparts. 

Trust me, I fall into the trap of using demeaning language. For example, describing an upset athlete as “whining like a little girl” has been ingrained in most of us for decades. But nothing is permanent. 

We can change attitudes and perceptions with a slight shift in how we speak. 

Do we need to call a guy a “Sally” or say a team “might as well have worn skirts”? Why not be a little more creative and use our words wisely? If an athlete doesn’t play well, why not explain their performance as “poor, sad, unacceptable, dreadful, atrocious, awful, garbage, shaky, anemic, powerless, weak, etc . . . ” Shall I go on? 

Do we have to describe inept fans as “pink hats” or could we simply call them . . . inept? How about ill-informed, bumbling, or incompetent? 

The reality is, there is a term for when we use female adjectives to relay a message of weakness: Lazy. 

* * * * *

Five years after the birth of my niece, my sister delivered a bouncing baby boy. Any fears I had about my ability to love them both equally was swept away the first time I held his tiny, perfect, half-asleep little boy in my arms. I was once again overcome by a love I never thought possible. 

It was also the first time I realized the way I convey messages leaves an impression not just on the women in my life, but also the men. 

When we criticize men for showing emotion, or belittle them for falling short, the message we send is that males need to show perpetual strength while avoiding feelings. This only works to drive home the idea that women are to act one way, men another.

If you've ever been around children, you know that while they tend to gravitate towards certain toys and activities, it's often because those are the only choices they see or hear. I’d like to think that by displaying a multitude of options to my niece and nephew, they're perceiving the possibility of a world without limits based on gender. 

Women are not inherently weak, men are not automatically strong. Women are not born inferior, men do not emerge into this world superior. Women are not all followers just as all men are not leaders. We're each capable of what we believe is possible.

So let’s stop talking as though the only truths are those which we’ve spoken in the past. 


#YesAllWomen in Sports

#YesAllWomen in Sports

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a sports journalist.

There might have been a very brief stint in kindergarten where Friendly’s waitress was discussed as an option, but that melted away as quickly as a Cone Head sundae.

With the exception of kindergarten, there was no hesitation or question; I was going to be a sports journalist. I was going to do anything to get there, but there were going to be some rough moments.

I remember being the only girl watching the game with the boys. I remember the isolation of being the only woman on a beat. I remember the skeptical looks, the odd questions, and the doubtful comments.

But by far, the absolute worst part of all was, and still is, The Quiz.

Any woman that works in sports journalism will tell you that at some point in her life, she has been subjected to a quiz by someone who thinks they know more about sports than she does. It could be someone close to them, like a friend or family member, or someone that she’s just met, like a guy in a bar, your barista or mechanic.

The quiz normally starts with little questions with an air of superiority and condescension, normally starting with “WELL” and ending with “Huh?!” (Real-life example-WELL, What is Utah’s mascot, huh?!)

As a woman, you know that a man would never be subjected to this in a serious context. You are acutely aware that this is not a joke. There is an expectation that you must answer the basic, idiotic questions to show your knowledge and that is the most frustrating thing of all.

If someone tells you they’re an accountant, you don’t ask them to debit an account. If someone tells you they’re a history teacher, you don’t demand they list all the presidents. You don’t make them prove that they are knowledgeable in their field. You take their word for it.

As a society, we still have a long way to go with how we see women in sports, both on and off the floor, but we have made tremendous progress. For all of The Quizzes, there are genuine questions and supporters.

I once asked my mom if she ever tried to convince me to pursue another career. She started to laugh. “Even if I wanted to, I never had a chance. You decided very early that this was what you were going to do. You were constantly going to games with your dad, so I just tried to help in whatever way I could.”

Her encouragement made me focus on the positive aspects of what I do.

For me, work is debating whether or not Terrell Owens should be in the Hall of Fame or covering a March Madness game. It’s always something new.

There’s enough competition in sports, so let’s stop the quizzes and start the support.

A sport for women, created by women

A sport for women, created by women

By Janell Cook, executive director of the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA), and Mary Ann Powers, head coach of acrobatics & tumbling at Quinnipiac University

Acrobatics & tumbling is the first sport in a century that was created for women by women. The interests and abilities of young women were primary to cementing a competitive and fan-friendly format for this sport. And fan-friendly it is, as can be witnessed by the game-day attendance at the 17 current universities supporting the sport. 

As one ticket-office person described, “I am not surprised by the enthusiasm of the little girls and family members who come to watch these women in action. However, what is extraordinary is the ‘ordinary’ sports fan who arrives curious, but leaves inspired by the scope of the landscape these pioneers have built”. 

The sport is fun to watch. As one "traditional" college athlete stated: “These women do skills that no one else on our campus can begin to imagine”. 

The pioneers of acrobatics & tumbling weren't afraid to dream big. When the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association  (NCATA) was formed, the mission was simple -- provide opportunities for more young women to compete at the collegiate level.  Despite over five million girls competing in gymnastics (and another three million who utilize gymnastics skill sets in the activity of cheerleading), the opportunities for varsity collegiate competition are limited to approximately 1,600 positions available on women’s collegiate (artistic) gymnastics rosters.  Simply put, a new and safe haven supported by athletic training, academic assistance, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, scholarships, and proper budgets would be nailed into once-barren walls.

Discussion began.  How could the skill sets of acrobatics and tumbling translate to a competitive sport in the collegiate athletic environment?  Six of the original NCATA coaches examined existing NCAA competition formats in sports like gymnastics, track and field, and basketball as they collaborated to create an entirely new format in which teams would compete head to head.  They researched and worked with administrators to ensure the sport met the provisions laid out in Title IX to be considered a varsity sport on college campuses. They reviewed NCAA policies to form comparable rules for competition season, training schedule, recruiting and eligibility.

Thus a new sport was created and it was time to put the roof on the structure. Acrobatics & tumbling and its governing body, the NCATA, were officially founded in 2010.  The sport became sanctioned and named a discipline of USA Gymnastics within three years of its formation. In just seven years, Acrobatics & Tumbling has provided over 500 young women the life changing experience of competing as a varsity student-athlete.  

“By my senior year of college, after a lifetime of arguing with individuals who refused to admit I was an athlete, my university stood behind me and said, ‘Yes you are’. Now, I will be the first to agree with you if you are saying that standing on the sidelines in a skirt, with pom-poms, cheering on another team is not a sport, but for the majority of my teammates over the years, this was just something we had to do in order to do what we really wanted; to compete. When Quinnipiac University helped create the female collegiate sport ‘Acrobatics & Tumbling’, I could not have been happier. Don’t get me wrong, I loved supporting my fellow athletes, but preferred to do it as a fan in the stands. We were given a strength-and-conditioning coach who went above and beyond to learn and understand our sport and where each team member would need to improve. Our athletic trainers were on hand at every practice, attending to any injuries and making sure we were only pushing our bodies to the extent that they could handle at that time. The change had begun, and I could not have been more proud to be a part of it.”
-- Alicia Chouinard, Quinnipiac University acrobatics & tumbling alumni and Senior Producer/Editor at CSN New England

There's no denying the impact of the student-athlete experience in the lives of young women. In a 2014 survey of 400 female executives, more than 50 percent played collegiate athletics and an astounding 97 percent competed in sport at some point in their lives.  The experience is transformative, providing the structure and opportunities for young women to develop the confidence, skills and proficiency to be highly successful in their careers after their collegiate days are over.

What remains remarkable is that the tenacity displayed by administration, coaches and athletes has grown this sport without yet attaining NCAA emerging-sport status. Seventeen colleges and universities currently sponsor acrobatics & tumbling as a varsity sport on their campus. This year, the ECAC announced the first-ever Acrobatics and Tumbling League as a conference sport.  And this summer, the NCATA will submit a proposal to the NCAA for emerging-sport status, its goal from the very beginning.

Women are still leading the way with acrobatics & tumbling.  At all seventeen NCATA member schools, a woman is the head coach.  Five of the six original coaches remain, sharing the history with the younger ranks.  Many are former student-athletes, applying their personal experience to the mentorship and instruction of their own team.  While much has been accomplished, this inspired group of women is just getting started providing a place to call home.