Decoding Distaff Indifference Toward Professional Women’s Sport

Ever wondered why women’s team sports are watched and otherwise supported so meagerly by women themselves? The underlying premise here may strike one as obtuse, even churlish this week, what with thousands of women in the stands watching the World Cup in stadia all over France. But none of last week’s Round of 16 matches sold out and World Cup crowds can mislead. You’ll recall they were enormous during the 1999 Women’s World Cup, here in the U.S. That event was seen as a tipping point for the women’s game in North America, and yet three separate women’s professional leagues have been attempted in the two decades since. The first two folded and the third — the National Women’s Professional Soccer League — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse and cultural irrelevance.

Soccer remains a funny duck in America. More than those in other footballing nations, soccer fans here are beguiled by and pay outsized attention to their national teams — as opposed to the privately administered clubs that compete in domestic leagues.

And surely there are entrenched gender biases that have worked against the success of the serial iterations of women’s pro soccer in this country, or the WNBA, or women’s professional hockey wherein the Canadian professional league just folded. U.S. hockey international Kendall Coyne Schofield told the New York Times in April that, “People are drooling for women’s hockey. But the product we deliver isn’t being shown.”

Are they drooling for it really? And what does she mean when she says, “people”. I don’t have a breakdown on how many folks consume women’s hockey at the Olympics, for example, and how that audience breaks down by gender. But it might surprise you to learn that nearly 70 percent of the WNBA’s viewership is male. That surprised me.

The WNBA has been around since the late 1990s; it has never turned a profit, despite being financially backed and marketed by one of the most savvy sports organizations in world sport, the NBA — an organization that has every incentive to create a larger audience for both of its on-court products. The core of that new, larger audience would be women, of course. But women have responded with the same relative indifference they exhibit toward women’s professional soccer and hockey.

It would be foolish to look past the allure of individual events like the World Cup, women’s Olympic hockey, or the NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament. These are very popular events by any measure, with men and women, but the NBA’s failure to create this new audience (among women) and the serial failure of women’s pro soccer leagues in North America should tell us something — namely, it’s really hard to get women to watch women’s team sports sustainably. Episodic interest in annual or quadrennial events is a different animal, one that has never translated into the gates, television viewership, or profitability that viable professional sports leagues require.

Olympic Lyonnaise Feminin is the most successful club in the history of women’s football. Formed in 2004, it has claimed won 14 French league titles (!), six European Championships, including the last four on the trot. OLF plays its league games in the Groupama Stadium, a 58,000-seat facility it shares with the club’s men’s team. This spring OLF hosted the Women’s Champions League semifinal first leg against English club Chelsea. That match, a final four contest in Europe’s premier club competition, drew 25,907 spectators — the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s football match in France.

Color me glass-half-empty, but why are crowds in football-mad Europe so very modest? More to the point, why are women packing stadia across France this week but not packing them to watch OLF during its league season?

With the Women’s World Cup down to the final 8, with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team having recently filed suit against its own Federation over equal-compensation issues, with distaff March Madness done and dusted (amid complaints of unequal marketing attentions from the NCAA), it seems an opportune (if thorny) time to flesh out some answers, for they get to the root of the soccer suit (which, incidentally, has my support and deserves yours) and other gender-based inequities now prevailing, rightly and wrongly.

Some of those inequities can and should be righted. Others, as we’ll see, depend on women giving more fucks about team competitions between women.

•••

On March 12, just two months before the World Cup kicked off in France, 28 members of the U.S. Women’s National Team filed a class action suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging pay inequities based on gender. It’s difficult to miss their point. As the brief details, “if both the men’s and the women’s teams were to win 20 non-tournament matches, the men would earn on average $263,320 — a little more than $13,000 per game, while the average women’s team player would earn a maximum of $99,000, which equals a little less than $5,000 per game.”

No one at the Federation has said much publicly about the suit or the prevailing issues (the U.S. Men’s National Team has said even less). And yet there are clear market forces that affect this remunerative discrepancy. It seems odd the USSF has declined to detail them in its own defense. Yes, it’s a awkward argument to make, but that doesn’t make the argument any less valid.

For example, if I were to assemble two separate all-star teams for an exhibition softball match — one comprising high school English teachers and another comprising fast-food kitchen workers — it would cost me, the event organizer, more money to convince the teachers to participate. If they were obliged to forfeit their teacher’s pay in order to play that day, they’d be sacrificing more, in order to participate, than would fast-food workers, who are paid less. In monetary terms, teachers have more value in this respect. If teachers took paid-sick days to play softball for me, accounting for their absence would cost the school more than it would cost Burger King.

This is part of the reason the U.S. Soccer Federation has traditionally paid its Men’s National Team more to compete in international matches than it’s female counterpart. U.S. Soccer is more or less in the business of developing talent to stock men’s and women’s national teams, then monetizing the efforts of those teams. Male professionals make more money playing for their respective club teams than do women — a lot more. As a worldwide industry, men’s soccer is far more lucrative; billions more people watch men play on TV; networks monetize that reality and pass along higher advertising rates to various corporate entities. Accordingly, individual clubs pay much larger salaries to male professionals compared to female professionals. That’s true here in the U.S. and in Europe, where nearly all of the truly elite U.S. male pros ply their trade.

A non-tournament, international match (what soccer folk call a “friendly”) featuring men is more costly for the Federation to organize. It is also more lucrative for the Federation to organize, compared to one featuring women, because more people watch men’s soccer compared to women’s soccer. That has been true here (thought there is evidence of a shift since 2015); it remains true for pretty much every national federation on earth.

Yes, the Women’s World Cup final in 2015 pulled a TV rating comparable to that of an NBA Finals or World Series game. But FIFA organizes the World Cup and reaps that financial reward, not the USSF. What’s more, a World Cup final comes but once every quadrennial while friendlies happen 20 times a year without fail. Indeed, these matches and the money they command (from advertisers, who pony up based on viewership) are today the basis of financials supporting men’s and women’s pay scales, so far as the Federation is concerned, from year to year.

Nevertheless, the Federation should settle this suit and pay the athletes equally because the USSF should not operate its national team programs based on these market forces. The Federation should, in this regard, operate more or less as a public trust. The popularity of men’s sports vs. women’s sports should not matter in this context, in the same way it does not matter in the public school context — where it does not and should not matter whether parents better attend or otherwise more staunchly support boys’ high school sports. Public schools are obligated to provide equal opportunity among boys and girl to play those sports — so stipulates Title IX, which says (and I’m quoting the U.S. Department of Education here), “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

What’s more, the “friendly” pay received by U.S. national team players, men and women, cannot and should not slide on a scale based on how good a senior national team might be at any given time. Equity is equity. Accordingly, should the Federation settle this matter to the plaintiffs’ satisfaction, said plaintiffs (and the rest of us) should all stop referring to the fact that the USWNT is a perennial World Cup title contender while the USMNT is not.

For reasons we’ll explore below, women compete entirely as part of a protected class, i.e. they play other women exclusively. That affects the quality of the on-field/televised product, which naturally affects the amount of people who consume said product — which is hugely relevant here because women (who might have an extra incentive to watch or otherwise support a women’s event) generally consume the product in far smaller numbers than men. This is the nub of the commercial factors at issue here.

Indeed, only those organizations that receive federal funds or otherwise occupy a place in the public, national trust (like the U.S. Soccer Federation) should be bound by the obligations of Title IX or like compensation philosophies. Those entities existing outside that these narrow categories — sports leagues, TV networks, and companies looking to market themselves to fans of those leagues (via broadcast enabled by networks) — operate primarily according to market forces, not matters of the public trust. And here is where things, when viewed objectively, get thorny A.F., because international soccer (i.e., competing for one’s country) isn’t where the money is.

Club soccer is where the money is — and federations (like U.S. Soccer) have no real sway over the success or failure of club soccer or the professional leagues that exist from country to country.

A lot has been written, in wake of this USWNT suit, re. the investments a federation should be making to “support” the women’s game. This is relevant in developing soccer nations like Thailand, Chile and Cameroon. There, a national federation must spend (as a public trust should) on the broad identification, development and curation of footballing talent. In the U.S., those systems are already in place. The U.S. has indeed been the sport’s dominant team since the 1999 World Cup.

Unfortunately, in the soccer context (as in the basketball and hockey contexts), big crowds and robust television viewership related to women’s World Cups have not yet translated into crowds and television audiences large enough to sustain women’s professional sports leagues— not in the U.S., not in France, not anywhere in Europe or the world, frankly.

Indeed, all of the top women’s clubs in Europe are attached to established men’s clubs, in the same fashion that the WNBA is attached to the NBA. Without those affiliations, compensation for women at Europe’s biggest clubs — and the television audiences associated with league games — would be smaller still.

There are reasons for this disconnect between what women will watch, in what sort of numbers, and why. Let’s unpack them.

•••

Women’s college basketball is a useful straw entity here, for when it’s compared to the men’s game, the yawning, ever-widening gap when it comes to fan interest, media exposure and revenue production is difficult to miss. March Madness, the NCAA post-season championship, invites this comparison annually, more than the WNBA and the NBA, frankly. Those leagues conduct their seasons at different times, while the men’s and women’s tournaments essentially run concurrently, according to identical formats, administered by the same organization (the NCAA), the men’s event commands far more fan interest, media exposure and revenue. 

On its face, these gaps strikes one as entirely unfair, as men’s and women’s college basketball should be treated comparably. This was the argument advanced by former college star (now WNBA star) Brianna Stewart in March when she alleged the NCAA was disrespecting and shortchanging women’s basketball by not promoting it more robustly alongside the men’s tournament.

While the men’s game becomes ever more popular and lucrative, the women’s college game has not enjoyed anywhere near the same growth, in terms of viewership or commercial value. That’s not a function of marketing. With all due respect to Ms. Stewart, the same gaps exist between NBA basketball and WNBA basketball (where ownership is shared), between Major League Soccer and the serial iterations of women’s professional soccer in America.

Why is this?

Here’s why, and please forgive my bluntness, for these arguments have for too long been obscured and softened by euphemism:

• Women don’t support/watch women’s team sports in anywhere near the same numbers that men watch/support men’s team sports. If they did, women’s college basketball would in fact be a commercial juggernaut today — as would the WNBA and women’s pro soccer in this country.

Women represent a slight majority of the U.S. population (51 percent). Women have money and indeed, over time, according to AdWeek, “men have become less important to advertisers who want to reach viewers with control over disposable income. (According to the Boston Consulting Group, women control or influence 73 percent of all household purchases.)” Studies vary but women tend to watch about the same amount of television as men (between 2.6 and 2.8 hours per day, according to The Neilsen Co.).

If women watched women’s basketball and women’s soccer in numbers anywhere near comparable to the number of men watching men’s sports, the WNBA and National Women’s Professional Soccer Leagues would be rolling in dough and exposure.

But they don’t, and this paucity of female viewership translates quite directly into smaller TV viewership, smaller commercial revenues stemming from associated TV contracts, more meager merchandizing opportunities, and smaller gates at stadia themselves.

I don’t claim to know why women don’t watch women’s soccer or women’s basketball in the same numbers. It could be yet another function of the patriarchy (i.e., men have dominated these realms since the onset of organized professional sports at the turn of the 19th century; soccer and hoops are two sports created by men, for men, and women might well better prefer to watch/support sports created by women, for women).

It could be a relative genetic aversion to team sports… I don’t know. But I can’t think of a single team sport, even those ostensibly cordoned off for women (field hockey, in this country, for example), where women watch/support in the same way, with anywhere near the same ardor as men do.

There are plenty of live TV events that draw strong majorities of female viewers. According to Forbes, the Oscars definitely skew female, which is reflected in the advertising of products and themes geared toward women. CivicScience found roughly twice as many women as men watched the 2019 ceremony in late February.

The Olympic television phenomenon (once a quadrennial bonanza, now merely a biennial happening) was built and remains in large part reliant upon the fact that Olympic sports generally command an inordinately large “cross-over” viewership — another euphemism that essentially means viewership comprising larger-than-normal female viewership. Women accounted for 56 percent of 2016 Summer Olympic viewership in the U.S., according to Neilsen. Women represented 46 percent of the Super Bowl viewership in 2016, though that figure falls below 35 percent for NFL games that aren’t the Super Bowl.

There are sports that women do in fact consume more rabidly, in greater numbers, than men. Figure skating is one example. Gymnastics is another. Both are primarily individual sports. Women’s golf and tennis both produce individuals that can transcend gender when it comes to the ability to draw eyeballs, in person and on television. But they are comparatively rare (Serena Williams), highly nationalized (Korean golfers are rock stars, but only in Korea), and again, these are not team sports.

U.S. women simply do not watch/support team sports in numbers reflective of their numbers in the culture, and it’s taken on the quality of a dirty little sports secret — something no one in the U.S. seems willing to discuss openly and in detail, despite being demonstrably true, obvious, and vital to the fortunes of ventures like the WNBA and women pro soccer leagues.

There’s an important disconnect that stems from this disinterest: There remains the clear expectation among world class female soccer, basketball and hockey players that international success should necessarily translate into commercial, professional, league success — but it does not, and the paucity of women who actually follow their sports day to day, week to week, month to month strikes me as the main reason why.

Men comprise an overwhelming majority of the American sports viewership; they account for more than 70 percent of NFL/MLB/NBA viewers, for example. This much we know. So, they outnumber women when match competitors happen to be men.

And here’s the sobering bit: Men outnumber women even when the match competitors happen to be women. According to Sports Business Daily from 2016, “Unsurprisingly, ESPN says the majority of the WNBA’s audience continues to be made up of men, as it has for years, not women: 66 percent of ESPN’s WNBA audience is male.”

Taking all this on board, does it not follow that if women watched women’s sports in numbers anywhere near commensurate with their percentage of the U.S. population, women’s basketball and soccer would be a lot more popular and lucrative? But they don’t. So they aren’t.

This is a quantitative explanation. Let us turn to its qualitative cousin, whereupon significantly more fur will surely fly.

•••

Fewer consumers of sports programming (men and women) watch and otherwise support women’s soccer and women’s basketball because when those sports are objectively compared to direct counterpart sports played by men, they are invariably viewed inferior sporting products.

Yeah, you heard me right. People are loath to say this out loud, too. And yet, to me, this is the primary reason why women’s soccer does not attract the gates, the TV audiences nor the revenues that viable professional sports leagues require in order to thrive. It is the reason why women’s hoops will never experience levels of popularity, commercial appeal and compensation approaching those of men’s basketball, at the college or professional levels. Ditto for women’s hockey. These respective sporting products just aren’t very good or compelling by comparison — a comparison that increasingly works against women’s sport as the universe of televised men’s sports continues to expand in the digital age.

Apologists often argue that women’s basketball (or soccer) is just “different”, that it requires viewers/attendees to appreciate different aspects of the game. This is true to an extent. When one women’s team plays another, it can be compelling. Hence the demonstrably good fun we’re having with the World Cup in France… I have a good friend whose daughter was part of a very good high school basketball team: three state finals in four years. He and I didn’t just attend dozens and dozens of their games over those four years; we broadcast dozens more via various live streams. It was great fun. I love basketball. Any individual contest, played at any skill level, by men or women, boys or girls, has the potential to be competitive and darned captivating in its own right.

But women’s sports are by definition a competitive construct, an accommodation, an acknowledgement that women constitute a protected class of athlete that requires and deserves its own distinct competitive arena based on a qualitative reality.

Here’s the blunt end of this assertion: If there were but one unisex U.S. National Soccer Team, its roster would be stocked exclusively with men. If there had been a single U-12 soccer team where I grew up, in Greater Boston, back in 1976, it would have been all boys. Serena in her prime may well be the finest female tennis player of all time; she wouldn’t win a play-in match at a unisex U.S. Open. Perhaps not a single set.

Once the testosterone kicks into high gear, in male bodies, the athletic consequences are clear. And so we create girls’ teams, and ultimately women’s teams, to serve this protected class —to allow the broadest possible participation, which is both ethically the right thing to do and adherent to federal statutes like Title IX.

But the moment you qualitatively compare girls’ and boys’ high school soccer, or basketball, the differences are striking. They become no less striking at the elite or otherwise professional levels, where they similarly do not work in women’s favor — not when it comes to attracting viewers and potential ticket-purchasers who (and this is vitally important) have so many other forms of soccer and basketball from which to choose.

Again, this is sticky shit but it’s also established fact: Into adulthood and enduringly, female players are slower, less athletic and aside from free-throw shooting, not as skillful. [Even this trope — that girls/women are better foul shooters — is questionable, in my view. They play with a smaller ball on standard rims; they should make more unmolested shots from the line.] This all sounds horribly boorish (the one upside: my politically correct alma mater, boho Wesleyan, may just stop asking me for money). I’m just trying to assert a clear, persistent reality that, in my view, helps explain why elite women’s soccer and basketball do not command the money and attention of counterpart sports played by men — and cannot seem to build the lucrative professional sports leagues their players seek.

For the entirety of human existence, the patriarchy (which I learned about in the 1980s at Wesleyan, to be fair) and flat-out gender discrimination surely outweighed market forces in this regard. But Title IX, changes in the culture, and the subsequent/serial launch of professional women’s sports leagues argue that today, market forces (combined with the qualitative reality) are working more damagingly against the financial growth of women’s professional sports.

Think of it this way: Why don’t we pay more attention to the NCAA Division III men’s soccer tournament? We can agree it’s a very good brand of soccer. But no one is suggesting that because D3 players are uniformlly smaller, slower and less skilled than their D1 or professional counterparts, we should find some way to recognize D3 games as being just as good, just as worthy of our fandom, in their own way.

There is so much soccer on TV these days, the D3 men’s game simply cannot compete for eyeballs, much less in-person spectators. Hell, the Division I College Cup — soccer’s version of the Final Four — barely gets on live cable television. Why? Because there are a dozen different levels of clearly superior, more compelling soccer available to the consumer today.

This is exactly the problem faced by women’s soccer or women’s basketball, even if women watched in numbers commensurate with men: The product cannot compete from a qualitative standpoint with the myriad brands of superior futbol and hoops now available for live consumption on television. That’s not right or wrong. That just is.

When one bears this in mind, alongside the quantitative reality — that far few women themselves bother to watch women play soccer or basketball; that men in fact watch women’s sports more than women themselves — the disparate picture seems to me relatively clear and straightforward. It’s the reason the WNBA limps along (propped up financially, as it is, by the NBA); it’s the reason women’s pro soccer keeps playing to meager crowds (with paltry TV coverage) here and abroad; it’s the reason women’s pro hockey just went belly up — in Canada!

Is this sexism? I don’t believe that’s what it is. I’ve been fighting the patriarchy, against my own self-interest, since 1984. It seems to me the controlling factors today are market driven and I don’t see how or why they would change — until, that is, women start watching women’s sports in larger numbers, deploying their identities as women to obscure or render moot their own abilities to tell first-rate soccer from fourth-rate soccer. People do indulge in this behavior: men and women. We make this allowance to watch a D3 soccer game played by an alma mater, or a high school basketball game in which our son or daughter is participating. There are examples where this can serve as a platform for pretty big-time revenue production. Think of the way a public university can market its sports teams to a group of alumni, to the region it serves.

On the one hand, women stepping up in this regard could be viewed a reasonable act of solidarity. On the other, why would we condescend to women in this way? They understand soccer, can differentiate between better/lesser soccer as well as any man. To demand the suspension of these ability seems the height of condescension.

•••

The USWNT suit is about more than compensation. It’s a more general howl of righteous protest re. what these athletes consider a lack of respect. The money, the poor facilities, the lack of co-equal marketing efforts… It’s all of a piece. It’s what Brianna Stewart was talking about. It’s essentially what female hockey professionals allege, when noting that 9 of the 10 directors of USA Hockey are men.

But these slights have little if anything to do with why these athletes don’t have commercially viable, professional league in which to compete from season to season. That unfortunate reality is down to the product those leagues produce — and indifference of the one demographic that would conceivably look past qualitative realities to consume the product instead.

There simply is no connection between the actions and pay scales of U.S. Soccer and the fact that so many women’s professional soccer leagues have failed in this country. U.S. Soccer does not exist to support Major League Soccer either; its goals are frankly at cross-purposes with the dominant pro league in this country, as is the case in most countries. It’s not clear to me what women want the Federation to do to better promote the professional women’s game in America; just as it’s unclear to me what USA Hockey is supposed to do in order to further the interests of women’s pro hockey in North America.

With the World Cup in full swing, there is a formless momentum for women’s soccer that reminds me of the momentum we perceived to be taking hold back in 1994. Those feelings were entirely centered on the men’s game. Yet even in hindsight it’s difficult to connect them to the success of professional soccer in this country. MLS was launched 2 years later, in 1996, and it’s taken 25 years to achieve what MLS has achieved, which, we can agree, continues to pale beside the national leagues extant in every nation in Europe and South America.

Women’s soccer at the international level is clearly taking off in Europe. The national teams of Spain, Holland, Italy and England had been also-rans; in 2019, they have raised their games to compete with the world’s elite (if you can find a sports book to take the bet, put $1,000 on Spain in 2023). But there is no indication that professional leagues in those countries will emerge to provide salaries above those commanded today, in France or the U.S. The attachment of women’s teams to top clubs in Europe means the French or Spanish or German leagues will never fold up, as they have in North America. But the 25 years it has taken MLS to reach its modicum of success and stability should sober everyone to the task of building women’s pro soccer into a viable concern.

The NBA, it seems to me, has already reckoned the size of its challenge. It has come under considerable fire for not better supporting and marketing the WNBA. Players complain that rosters are too small (to save money); that salaries are so meager, they must play 12 months a year (in foreign leagues, off season) to make ends meet. Yet depite it built in cost efficiencies (stemming from its NBA relationships; think arena-sharing), the WNBA loses some $12 million annually. That is chump change by NBA standards, but I find it hard to believe that the NBA is unwilling to spend another $100 million on marketing and player salaries if everyone felt they’d make that back in WNBA-related TV, merchandize and gate revenues.

The NBA knows the basketball business pretty well by now. Adam Silver & Co. aren’t skimping on WNBA marketing and salaries because they’re part of the patriarchy. I think it’s clear to NBA suits that, with 20 years of track record, the most meaningful segment of the WNBA’s potential viewership (women) will not watch a midweek game pitting the L.A. Sparks and the Connecticut Sun, no matter how much money is thrown at the WNBA. And even if they did fling that cash, any discerning hoops fan, man or woman, would sooner watch a superior brand of basketball, of which there are six different examples on the air at any time of the day or night, all year long.

The NCAA is in  completely different situation. It is obligated by law to hold women’s soccer and basketball championships on more or less equal bases when it comes to format (per Title IX), which is right and proper.

U.S. Soccer Federation receives no federal funding, so Title IX does not obligate it to pay senior nationals of both genders in a strictly equitable fashion — but that’s exactly what it should do nevertheless. This should extend to the facilities of which these elite players avail themselves, which is a key aspect of the USWNT suit. That the USWNT has for too long been obliged to practice and play on substandard, potentially dangerous surfaces (read: artificial turf, which, let’s be honest, is even more dangerous to female players, whose knees have evolved in ways that make them far more susceptible to ACL and MCLs injuries) is shameful. The U.S. Federation should throw all its support to all players, from all nations, by insisting on natural surfaces in all international contexts, not merely the world’s premier competition.

All that said, the market forces at play here would appear far less correctable when it comes to matters of financial equity.

In 2011, ESPN reached a long-term, multiplatform agreement with the NCAA for expanded rights to 24 collegiate championships, including continued broadcast coverage of the women’s Division I basketball tournament (and College World Series). The $500 million, 14-year deal runs through the 2023-24 academic year. It also covers exclusive multimedia rights outside the U.S. (its territories and Bermuda) for the Division 1 men’s basketball tournament. Five-hundred million isn’t chump change, but that money is spread over 13 years and 24 different championships, each one contested annually. As context, understand that CBS/TNT paid $8.8 billion in 2016 to broadcast the men’s NCAA tournament domestically through 2024.

The qualitative and quantitative disparities in the way men and women watch/support college basketball in this country, not the patriarchy, fairly well explain this yawning chasm of revenue disparity.

And here we’d be loath to exclude a related but pretty hide-worn argument — namely, that revenue created by any men’s Division I basketball program (or football program) enables said Division I college or university to better cover expenses related to non-revenue sports, which would include every women’s sport with the exception of all but a handful of soccer and basketball programs. This point is trotted out whenever financial disparities are discussed, as a way of softening the blow.

An ardent traditionalist would note that colleges and universities somehow managed to maintain varsity and JV teams in all sorts of obscure, non-revenue sports for decades without this trickle-down mechanism (D2 and D3 schools still do).

More to the point, an ardent contrarian would argue that if there were gender bias at work at the NCAA Division I level, it could be plausibly argued that from monetary and pure exposure perspectives, this glut of major sports money (generated entirely by men’s sports) works largely to the benefit of women’s collegiate sports.

At the college level, I’d be more concerned frankly that such non-revenue sports are continually dragged this way and that, to the detriment of those who play non-revenue sports, as football and men’s basketball teams jump from conference to conference in search of greater revenue and branding opportunities.

In 2011, when Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big 10, it did so to enrich its men’s basketball and football programs. Yet all the varsity sports at Nebraska were obliged to follow these “revenue sports” into the Big 10, as well. I’d love to know what the women’s soccer team at Nebraska thinks about that. Last fall its schedule included away matches at Rutgers, Maryland and Ohio State. That’s a long way to travel for regular-season soccer games. Perhaps that is resented by the players themselves. Or perhaps they feel its evidence of them having come a long way.

Adventures in Organics

[Ed. This story appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Management magazine. In April 2019 it won the Gardner Award from TOCA, the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. I’ve won a bunch of these over the years but the Gardners are new — a sort of Best in Show among all the annual winners apparently, so I figured it was worth sharing here. There’s a link herein to another profile I wrote about the same time for GCM, on Dr. Frank Rossi. That one came out pretty well, too, especially if a) you’re a fan of kunekune pigs; or b) you want to know why Bethpage Black has agronomic relevance outside this week’s PGA Championship.]

When Kevin Banks was a turfgrass management student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it wasn’t uncommon for decorated or otherwise experienced golf course superintendents to drop in for guest lectures. When Jeff Carlson, CGCS, came by in 2005, Banks says he remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy is crazy!”

Frankly, that’s how most students in the midst of a traditional turf management education might have appraised Carlson’s work at the Vineyard Golf Club. When permits were being sought for building this golf course on environmentally sensitive Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass., in 1998, developers were obliged to promise the local conservation commission that the prospective golf course would be managed in an entirely organic manner.

The Vineyard Golf Club opened for play in 2002, and Banks graduated in 2008. He would then apprentice at several traditional clubs before this story came full circle — Banks took over for Carlson as head golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club on April 1, 2015.

“I guess I’m the crazy one now,” the nine-year GCSAA member says.

Two-plus years into his tenure, Banks has more than warmed to the nonconforming aspects of his job, one of the few in golf course management that takes the organic approach from mere trend or direction to guiding principle.

“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve also definitely become addicted to it,” Banks admits.

Just 31, Banks today finds himself at the crux of another nascent industry trend, a phenomenon where head superintendents hire and groom their replacements, having accepted another position at the same club. Carlson stepped aside in the spring of 2015, but he remains at the Vineyard Golf Club as property manager, where he oversees capital projects — a just-concluded Gil Hanse redesign, for example.

The idea of having the previous superintendent at the club — perhaps hovering, perhaps exerting undue or unwanted influence — may strike some as awkward. Not Banks, and here, the organic dictates governing turf management at the club intertwine with these issues of succession.

“Before I took this job, I knew who Jeff Carlson was. Almost everybody in New England and New York did too, and I’m sure that reputation extends even farther than that,” Banks says. “He has been the organic ambassador for my entire turfgrass career. Having him help manage the golf course with me my first season here was a really sensible transition. I knew it would be very different for me, at first, but Jeff knew exactly where to expect an outbreak. He knew where we would first see weed pressure, and all this input came with his very relaxed and calm presence.

“I will always thank him for being patient and mentoring me into a truly organic manager — something I take great pride in today,” Banks adds.

Can Banks imagine having taken on the organic learning curve without Carlson there, on-site?

“Not really,” he answers. “Jeff was very patient. My first year, the disease we encountered in certain areas maybe should not have happened. I believed moisture levels were adequate and acceptable enough to fight disease pressure. They weren’t. But Jeff sat back and let me learn from my mistakes, and watched me grow.

“From the beginning, I was talking to anyone and everyone to get my head around the issues. And I still do that.”

Banks says he frequently talks with colleagues, companies and researchers about the specific issues he faces. Frank Rossi, Ph.D., of Cornell University and recipient of GCSAA’s 2018 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship, is “a great resource,” he adds.

“But the way I look at it, Jeff is my best researcher. As often as I do interact with all these organic contacts and their ideas, I still take most of them with a grain of salt. They can recommend what they think is right, but you must compare that to what I’m finding here on the ground and what I think is right — and to what Jeff thinks, because he’s done it.”

Martha's Vineyard golf course
The first new golf course to be built on Martha’s Vineyard in 30 years when it opened in 2002, the Vineyard Golf Club was designed, built and is maintained in an all-organic manner to satisfy the community’s strict environmental standards. Photo by Larry Lambrecht
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Welcome to the Teahouse: Korean Road Warriors Curate, Stylize the Game at Home

[Ed. This story appeared in Golf Australia magazine in 2015, as a preview to October’s President’s Cup. I’m in the midst of a couple Korean projects right now; may be headed back there in September… Figured it was worth reprising here.]

By Hal Phillips
SEOUL, South Korea — Let’s get straight to the irony: Koreans are hands-down the most ardent and prolific golf travelers in the world. For a variety of reasons, however, their collective reputation in these golf destinations, particularly those in Asia (their most frequent ports of call), is less than sterling. For the first time, this October — on the occasion of the 11th Presidents Cup Matches — the golf world returns the favor, en masse, as thousands of internationals will descend on the Peninsula to observe four days of competition and make their own golf holidays.

What will they find? One of the game’s singular golf cultures, highly stylized (sometimes to the point of curation) and complemented by a collection of first-rate parkland courses, immaculately kept. The Presidents Cup is a showcase event for the Korean golf community, the biggest international golf event ever staged here, and while public courses remain somewhat rare (and definitely dear), many private clubs are throwing open their doors to welcome the international golfing public — and make a few won (855 to the Australian dollar) in the bargain.

But Aussies who do venture north this spring — especially those who may have cooled their heels behind a glacial Korean foursome in Pattaya, or perhaps witnessed a Gold Coast waitress endure another East Asian browbeating — will be pleased to find a kinder, gentler, quicker brand of Korean golfer on home soil. One might well ask about the phones, to which Korea golfers seem permanently affixed. Well, don’t expect miracles. This remains the most wired, technologically obsessed population on earth, and that extends to their golfing habits, home and away, for better and worse.

To be fair, there are sanguine byproducts of this high-tech mentality. In June, while striding down the 2nd fairway at Whistling Rock Country Club — a private club northeast of the capital and home to one of the nation’s top 5 tracks — the visiting golfer is immediately struck by two things: First, my playing partners and everyone else on the course that day are dressed to the absolute nines. Second, as my caddie walks beside me, our golf cart drives itself down the path — thanks to an electric-eye mechanism embedded in the concrete and caddie-operated by remote control. It goes without saying these drone carts also come complete with sockets, for phone charging.  

“I love Korea, totally wired and everyone looks sharp, man or woman, 25 or 65,” says David Dale, a partner with California-based course architects at Golfplan, who have designed 22 courses in Korea. “Golfers arrive at the course in sport coats and slacks, carrying small grooming bags with golf shoes and change of clothes. They go to their lockers with their 4-digit security codes and change into these highly fashionable pants, shirts and caps (with ball markers on the brims). Most of the time, they’re putting on sleeves to keep the sun off them, even the men.”

Dale and Golfplan have designed courses in 75 different countries, “But I’ve never been to any other country that had a stronger sense of fashion,” he says. “They have these awesome golf slacks that are fleece-lined with waterproofing and pin stripes. I’ve got a pair. They’re thermal. I use them for construction visits in cold climates — but they’re stylish enough to wear with a sport coat!”

The clubhouse at Whistling Rock is typical of the genre here: palatial, modernist and staffed to the gills. Upstairs, a long, narrow Zen garden splits the hallway leading to a massive but still-elegant dining space, where picture windows look out onto the golf course. Downstairs, some 40 members of a course-rating panel (representing GOLF Magazine Korea) populate a sumptuous meeting space of burled wood and overstuffed chairs. Back upstairs, I pass a golf shop that is, well… remarkably modest: mostly golf balls and a few shirts.

According to Whistling Rock Vice President David Fisher, this is typical of Korean clubs, which stock very little logoed merchandise because the lion’s share of golf apparel is purchased not from clubs but direct from top designers. The golf apparel industry in Korea has been estimated at USD$3.5 billion — this for a country of just 1.5 million golfing souls.

“In Korea, the fashion changes. We have four distinct seasons and the manufacturers come up with new designs for each season,” explained Michael, a Korean-American living in Korea and working for a golf industry company (he asked that his real name not be used). “People tend to keep up with the season and they don’t have loyalties to the club they belong to. Elsewhere it’s common that members will wear shirts with the club logo, but in Korea that’s not the case. People tend to lean toward designers shirts, which can be very expensive, 200-300 dollars. Even if they don’t have a good game in terms of golf skill, they try to look good. In Korea, if you don’t dress up, you’re pretty much looked down upon.”

For men, shorts on the golf course are considered particularly frumpy. “Most of the membership golf courses,” Michael says, “do not permit shorts — and golfers must wear hats outside the clubhouse. Without hats, you cannot go out on the course.”

Um, why is that?

“I don’t know.”

The shorts thing is good to know, though daytime temperatures for October typically range from 7-18 degrees (and these days hats make good skin-care sense most anywhere, anytime). Still, Dale suggests that exacting standards and high fashion are just what we should expect from a population with “the highest level of elective cosmetic surgery in the world and the no. 1 destination for these procedures in Asia. I’m even thinking about getting something done, around my eyes… I’m serious.”

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Sable Oaks is No More; Amid Cheers, I Will Defend Her…

Golf course closures are typically met with howls of indignation and despair, as locals countenance their stark, new, diminished reality. But it’s fair to wonder exactly how the public golfing population here in Southern Maine processed the news, received in late January, that Sable Oaks Golf Club would not reopen this spring (the land will instead be marketed to housing developers).

Because while I loved Sable Oaks, mine has always been the minority view.

Most of the Maine golfers I know never cared much for Sable Oaks. Too penal, they said. Driver was too often taken out of their hands (on account of wetlands too often cutting across fairways in constricting fashion). For walkers, hilly Sable Oaks was death march.

These sentiments, accompanied by knowing nods and perhaps champagne toasts, are surely being bandied about even now. But I must protest. It’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, after all. And so I’m here today not merely to praise Sable Oaks but to defend her — for perhaps the last time.

All the things people hated most about Sable Oaks recommended the course, to me, when I moved to Portland in 1992. I was 28 years old and a pretty good player back then — breaking 80 at Sable (something I managed only three times in 30 years) really meant something. I didn’t even carry a driver for much of the ‘90s, relying instead on a 1-iron (and a weirdly shaped, seldom deployed, persimmon Ping 2-wood). Walking 18 holes at Sable with a bag on my back was certainly a workout and a half; the hike from 17 green to 18 tee in particular was a heart-stopper — but I was young! A round there meant I didn’t need to go to the gym.

And what a taxing-but-comely walk it was. Designed by architect Brian Silva (who laid out the once-private, now semi-private Falmouth Country Club at exactly the same time), Sable Oaks made for golf in an undeniably gorgeous, secluded setting across lush, dramatic terrain, with gargantuan specimen trees framing the greens and colorful wetlands everywhere one turned.

Okay, those wetlands required forced carries on four of the first five holes — but they were even more colorful in the fall!

Yes, Sable Oaks was located directly in the Portland Jetport flight path — but you never heard the highway (!).

I arrived in Portland that March of 1992 to take a new job: editor-in-chief at Golf Course News, a national business journal published by Yarmouth-based United Publications. When I stumbled upon Sable Oaks that spring, I was honestly blown away. The greens were inventive and fun — always in superb shape, too (something Sable could boast to its dying day). Indeed, the place seemed pretty brand new. The overall conditioning, the contour/detail around those greens, the bunkering throughout seemed way too nice for a public course — especially one that charged just $20.

Sable seemed fancy and new because it had been conceived and built as a private golf/residential community just a few years before I showed up in Portland. A late-80s recession obliged it to open and operate as a public course. Ownership would change several times through the years. Housing and other commercial elements never got built. An oversupply of competing courses meant Sable would never do more than survive. National trends didn’t help matters: The U.S. course stock has suffered an annual net loss of some 150 properties each year since 2008. Ironically, Greater Portland’s red-hot housing market today — and Sable’s prime location on a wooded hillock right across I-95 from the Maine Mall — made the closure decision (from current owners, Delray, Fla.-based Ocean Properties Hotels Resorts & Affiliates) something of a no-brainer.

•••

But none of this accounts for Sable Oaks’ poor reputation among Greater Portland golfers. Did it get a bad rap? Or was it simply too hard to enjoy? Are Southern Maine golfers a bunch of pussies? Is course difficulty something they want to observe on television but avoid for ourselves?

The answers here are complicated. I can tell you this much, having spent 30 years in the golf business (rating courses and writing about course-design issues): Difficult tracks are, more often than not, successfully marketed on account of their resistance to scoring, not in spite of it. Portland-area golfers were eager throughout the 1990s, for example, to drive two-plus hours for the pleasure of losing 10 golf balls and shooting 117 at Sugarloaf (where river crossings were celebrated). The Woodlands in Falmouth (another track that debuted about the same time as Sable and Falmouth CC) is a much harder golf course than Sable Oaks, in my view, and yet it has succeeded in attracting private club members in this market.

What’s more, Sable Oaks was not a long course; it played only 6,300 yards from the tips. Indeed, the choosing of one’s tees at Sable was key to maximizing the fun and strategy Silva created there. Too often, in my view, Sable-haters didn’t manage this aspect particularly well for themselves.

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It’s the Charisma, Stupid: Tiger Crosses Back Over

So my wife and I have a 12-year-old girl staying with us for a while and last Thursday evening she settled down beside me (armed with a big bag of magic markers and a sketch pad) as I watched a recording of The Masters first round. She wasn’t paying much attention. In that way she was a credible stand-in for the broader American public, which, let’s face it, doesn’t pay much attention to golf, even its majors. Indeed, when she did take notice, she playfully mocked the idea of watching golf altogether — that is, until she noticed Tiger Woods walking off a tee.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

That’s Tiger Woods, I told her. I swear to god, I did not prep her in any way; she picked him out of the crowd of players all on her own. The next afternoon, during the live broadcast of Round 2, she wandered back into the living room. Unbidden she asked, “How’s Tiger doing?”

He’s doing quite well, actually. You like him?

“Yeah.”

Why?

“He’s handsome.”

What else do you like about him?

“He’s cool. Look at the way he’s walking around. He’s very confident.”

What about that mock turtleneck? Is that cool?

“Oh yeah. Those are in.”

Watching golf with a 12-year-old, distaff, golfing neophyte is a fascinating exercise in its own right. This one in particular had strong opinions: She thought Jon Rahm looked like a fat punk; she didn’t like him at all and rode him without mercy throughout (“He should just go home”). She quickly remarked on the unusually lanky stature of both Tony Finau and Matt Kucher. Brooks Koepka was notably swaggy — but nothing like Tiger, in her opinion. Surprisingly, Ricky Fowler’s youthful mien did nothing for her — something about his eyebrows being too dark (“And I don’t like his shirt”). Norwegian amateur Victor Hovland was pilloried for his prominent schnozz, which, in fairness, was fair comment.

But these were all bit players in the drama so far as she was concerned. Tiger was the anointed one.

A lot has already been written about how Tiger’s victory on Sunday has introduced his phenomenon to an entirely new generation of golfers. I don’t anticipate this girl will suddenly want to play the game, or start wearing mock T’s. But it has been 11 years since Tiger won a major. This weekend’s performance reminded us all of what we’ve been missing.

Forget the 15 majors, the renewed Nicklaus chase. We’ve missed this man’s naked charisma most of all. No golfer in history has half the presence Tiger exhibits just walking down a fairway. Charisma is a hard thing to quantify, but it’s also one of the few things that readily spills over from a niche sport like golf into the larger culture. And that’s another thing golf has been missing these past 11 years.

I watched Sunday morning’s finale at Tomaso’s, a fashionably down-market, diner-sized canteen in Portland, Maine. At 10:30 a.m., when I showed up, there weren’t but 3 or 4 us there. An hour later, the brunch crowd had attracted a full house of young, bearded, IPA-swilling hipsters This was no sports bar, much less a golf bar (does such a thing even exist north of Pinehurst?). Even so, when Tiger birdied 15, the place went crazy. The barman quickly turned off the music (a pleasant alt-country playlist featuring the likes of Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell) and turned up the CBS television feed. Tiger had this place in the palm of his hand. When his tee shot on 16 came to rest 2 feet from the hole, the patrons inside Tomaso’s erupted.

About this time, I noticed a text had arrived. A friend of mine was down in Boston at the TD Garden watching the Celtics-Pacers playoff game, an inelegant affair he referred to as a “game/rock fight.” He reported there were “tons of people clustering around TVs on the concourse watching golf. It’s amazing how much love there is for Tiger.”

There’s really is something about this guy — something non-golfers can appreciate. Yes, he has battled back from considerable personal/physical adversity, but this obscures the larger point: He was stupidly charismatic when he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, when he won three straight U.S. Amateurs, when he debuted as Nike’s cross-over pitch man, when he claimed those 14 majors… Apparently, after a decade away, he remains stupidly charismatic, not just to core golfers but to casual fans and mere onlookers around the world.

Sunday night, my daughter sent me a text: “Is Tiger Woods good again?”

She’s 20 years old, a junior in college, and couldn’t care less about golf. But somehow the news had reached her via the broader cultural news drip. I asked exactly how she learned of his Masters victory.

“I saw him on the TV at this bar! Some people were watching.”

Do you find him charismatic?

“Not really. He’s cheated on a lot of women.”

My daughter is clearly not so forgiving of Tiger, in part because she’s a woke young woman, but also because she’s yet to make the mistakes that Tiger and the rest of us 40, 50 and 60somethings have made. But her admonition is well taken: Recognizing and appreciating anew Tiger’s ungodly magnetism doesn’t mean we should get all crazy (again) about what his charisma really means.

It doesn’t mean, for example, that we should start believing Tiger’s mere presence will bring millions of kids (or Millennials, or Baby Boomers) into the game. That never held in 2003; it doesn’t hold now. Nor does it mean we should start building new golf courses willy nilly to accommodate this chimerical wave of converts. It doesn’t mean Tiger has, on account of his victory, instantly become a particularly good man or father. It made no sense to ascribe him these qualities in 2007 frankly; knowing what we know, it makes even less sense now. Why we blithely attach these sterling personal traits to men (or women) who exhibit extraordinary sporting skill is beyond me. One hopes we’ve learned our lesson here.

But it does seem clear that Tiger and the professional game in which he competes have changed more than a little in the 11 years since he limped to his last major win. Today’s Tiger is 43 years old, his hairline in full retreat. He’s been through a world of shit, both physical and personal. The process of dealing and coming back from all that would change anyone. His swing and his outlook on life are forever altered.

And here we confront what might be the most interesting manifestation of all this change: Sunday’s victory was the first time Tiger has ever come from behind in the final round to win a major tournament. The greatest front-runner in history has learned how to come back.

Tiger won from the front so frequently because, from 1997 through 2008, his outsized aura truly cowed most all of his would-be competitors. Remember how they’d wilt when paired with him? Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau did not play well beside Tiger on Sunday but here, too, the game has changed a great deal in 11 years. Today’s PGA Tour is stocked to the gills with young, dynamic, swaggering talent. It will be fascinating to watch this generation of professionals compete with the man many of them grew up idolizing.

Because one thing has not changed: You can’t take your eyes off this Tiger Woods fellow. This was true over the weekend; it was true through 2008. If we’re honest with ourselves, it was true afterward, through his many struggles. We rather shamelessly rubbernecked the wounded, struggling Tiger like we ogle an accident on the side of the road. More than a decade has passed and we still can’t take our eyes off him. Why? Because he still has more charisma than anyone who has ever played this game, more perhaps than all the major winners in history, combined. Even a 12-year-old, non-golfing girl can see that.

‘You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built’

Roger Goettsch and his pride and joy, a ’49 Chevy pickup he restored.

[Ed. I once learned at an AP seminar that anyone, in the right hands, could be the subject of a prize-winning profile. This one may or may not qualify, but it’s pretty darned good and has been widely shared in golf circles these past few months. See here the published version in Golf Course Management magazine. See the slightly longer and more casually profane original draft below.]

By HAL PHILLIPS
I received the following email from Roger Goettsch, CGCS, in the spring of 2018: I recently designed and built two different wetting forks for applying wetting agents to the soil in our LDS (localized dry-spot areas). We have had issues getting wetting agents into the soil due to the thatch layer and this seems to have helped… He attached pictures of the wetting forks in action, along with shots of the “Plug Pushers” he also designed and built, to remove cores following aeration.

Goettsch is the head superintendent at Shanqin Bay Golf Club in the small town of Longgun, on the island of Hainan, in the People’s Republic of China. Like many American-trained supers working overseas, Goettsch can’t get his hands on every last piece of equipment his little heart desires. So he just builds what he can, himself, putting to work his AutoCAD skills, his welding and fabrication expertise, and a mechanical imagination born deep in the American heartland. Goettsch has worked all over North America, and now Asia, leaving behind him a trail of custom-designed and custom-built equipment — like breadcrumbs in the woods.

“You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built,” he says, upon compiling for GCM a list of Top 10 Greatest Hits. “Literally, what you’re seeing there are just the big items from the last decade or so. There’s at least another 20 big-ticket items I’ve leaving out and several hundred more I’ve just sort of forgotten.”

Like those sprig planters you built for all those contractors? Or the fairway aerifier you whipped up that one night?

“Well, not one night. We were growing in a Palmer course in Ft. Worth, Texas, working with Arnold’s project architect, Bob Walker. He’ll confirm this story. The soil was horrible there, dark heavy clay. We just had to aerify it. So I decided to build an aerifying machine with my head mechanic, Bill Hess. We had to get this done because I promised Bob Walker I’d have it ready for his next site visit. So me and Bill had been working on it several days, but we worked till 4 a.m. that last night and Bill — I had trained him how to weld — all of a sudden hollers over at me: Roger we gotta quit… I fell asleep welding.”

When pressed for why exactly he’s compelled to build so many things — while simultaneously working full time, taking care of first-class courses from the Gulf to the South China Sea — Goettsch chalks it up to self-reliance, a quality his dad embodied and passed along to young Roger in the farmlands of western Iowa.

“That’s the through line for all this stuff, based on my upbringing — being self-sufficient. You know what they say: The DNA precedes you.”

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NC Legislature Earns ‘Commendation’ for Self-Hating Political Mendacity

The term Jim Crow is rightly loaded down with racial connotations, but it’s important to recognize that, at its core, Jim Crow was a political system. Yes, a central byproduct was a social system that consigned black folk to second/third class citizenship. But this social construct was enabled and perpetuated by overarching political power. At its elemental core, Jim Crow was a system of voter suppression and nullification that allowed a political minority of white southerners to wield unchecked political power and maintain a culture of white supremacy in their respective states — not merely election to election but for a period of some 100 years.

With this in mind and the November elections behind us (pending a few recounts and lawsuits — you were always a rank choice, Bruce), Republican-controlled legislatures today are busy trying to similarly subvert the will of voting majorities while they still can, however they can. Accordingly, it’s high time we bestowed the next Harris Nightmare Award (HNA) for nakedly self-hating political mendacity.

Our choice for the 2018 post-electoral HNA: The GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature, which, in the face of U.S. Circuit Court rebukes and the failure of state and federal investigations to identify meaningful in-person voter fraud, have succeeded in amending the state constitution to permanently suppress the vote via strict voter ID requirements.

This effort alone would not distinguish the NC legislature from dozens of other Republican-controlled bodies across the nation, but for the fact that November’s election in North Carolina did manifest what appears to actual voter fraud — of a kind that 1) the newly ratified amendment would not begin to address; and 2) appears to have been perpetrated entirely by consultants directly employed by Republican Mark Harris, a U.S. Congressional candidate whose razor-thin victory over opponent Dan McCready was apparently enabled by brazenly illegal efforts centered on absentee ballot vote suppression.

Republicans generally and the North Carolina legislature in particular have cited rampant in-person voter fraud as foundational to their arguments for requiring photo ID. There’s still vanishingly little evidence of such fraud; these claims are rhetorical cover for efforts (in the shameful tradition of Jim Crow) to hold down or nullify the votes of Democrats and independents.

But lo and behold, we’ve finally identified actual voter fraud and it’s specific to NC Republicans themselves!

In a striking note of bipartisan resistance, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement — a body comprising four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent — has unanimously voted to postpone certification of the Harris election (which he won by 905 votes) pending an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Dec. 21, 2018.

Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The Harris Nightmare Awards call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations, like the HNAs.

Most folks will be familiar with the title of Harris’ book, which refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day-to-day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: For one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it. In short, right wing media have decided there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re fake; they must be fake.” Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

But this phenomenon extends well beyond right-wing media circles. Hence the need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, our humble attempt to shame the unshameable.

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When (Cartoon) Art Imitates Live (Action)

I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind, but the classic cartoon Go-Go Gophers is further evidence of a little acknowledged but fascinating trend in 1960s cartooning, whereby animators actively ripped off popular live-action television shows of the time, essentially mining/co-opting them for themes, plots and personalities.

These cartoons were the stuff of my childhood — on Saturday mornings, after school — and I expect much of my cohort will read this and nod knowingly. “Ah yes,” they will ruminate, mindfully stroking their gray beards, “The Flintstones.”

Yes, but it’s bigger than that.

The Flintstones are indeed the best-known example of this dynamic and the first cartoon ever to air on network television in prime time. Launched in 1960, the show was a blatant rip-off of The Honeymooners, then a vivid-but-still-a-mere memory; its 39 episodes had aired from 1955-56 (though star Jackie Gleason would reprise the role and the show intermittently for years). Fred and Wilma Flintstone were clear homages to the lead, live-action roles played by Gleason and Dorothy Meadows. Barney Rubble was even more distinctively based on Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton. I think everyone realized what was going on here, even at the time. It was part of the imprimatur that led to the featuring of The Flintstones in prime time, something unprecedented for an animated series at that time and frankly, still today, apart from The Simpsons.

But cartoonists would eventually prove some of the most facile and prolific rip-off artists in 20th century media history. They saw The Flintstones formula working and reprised the process without shame — to a degree we kids didn’t realize at the time and, I’d wager, few appreciate still today.

Exhibit A? The inimitable Go-Go Gophers, an under-appreciated cartoon and one based completely on another live action (and culturally tone-deaf) TV show from that era, F Troop. Indeed, Go-Go Gophers was the cartoon that decades ago tipped me off to and set me thinking on this weighty matter.

As a kid, I thought F Troop was sorta funny and, crucially, I liked the theme song. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great themes songs, followed by an uncanny homage to F-Troop’s fertile-if-untoward frontier theme. One wonders today how anyone could see the opportunity for such broad humor in the slow-moving genocide of an indigenous people… (We could include here a sitcom based in a German POW camp, with the Holocaust presumably taking place all around it. When Hogan’s Heroes was airing, perhaps folks were similarly dumbfounded by our bygone acceptability of black minstrel humor, like Amos & Andy, just 30 years prior. Thirty years from now, we may similarly come to grips with other such untoward manifestations of white supremacy and the patriarchy.)

Be all that as it may, the creators of Go-Go Gophers (ad guys from Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, apparently seeking to provide content during which their General Mills client’s cereals could be advertised) and their producers (Total Television then CBS, starting in 1967, as part of the brilliant Underdog Show) devised a cast of characters that does the live-action show one better. The two aboriginal characters (members of the Hakawi Tribe) are straight cribs from the TV show, but you’ll recall the cartoon Colonel inhabits a Teddy Roosevelt milieu, while the Sergeant (played by Forest Tucker on TV) is animatedly morphed into a laconic John Wayne-ish figure.

Larry Storch’s memorable TV character, “Agarn”, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Colonel’s live-action love interest, a sort or Annie Oakley figure clearly inspired by Ellie May from the Beverly Hillbillies. (In the 1960s, when in doubt, no matter how incongruous to the sitcom premise, producers were sure to write into the show some hot young blond. See The Munsters and, for that matter, The Jetsons). Television producers did a lot of shameless things, then and now. They borrowed from any genre or competing show that worked, and so they could hardly complain when cartoon producers did the same.

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So Provincial! Central European Art Claims, on Parade

I can’t remember any trip of mine so richly affected by so many formal art exhibits. In the space of five Central European days in October, my family took in shows featuring Gustav Klimt, Andy Warhol, Alfons Mucha, the Maine-trained Donna Huanca, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Only the Klimt, long a favorite of mine, had been planned. The others we happened upon more or less by chance, as apparently one does in Prague and Budapest. Observations include:

Ethnography Matters: Austrians naturally claim Klimt for their own; he headlined the Secessionist Movement based in his native Vienna, so it’s no surprise his most famous works remain permanently on show at the Belvedere, an 18th century palace built by the Habsburg Prinz Eugen. Sharon and I went there straight from our morning plane, checked our bags in the cloakroom, and gadded about the grounds before meeting our son Silas and his girlfriend Rene, who’d been backpacking about the Continent since Sept. 7. We treated them to lunch then went back across the strasse to see the Klimt, who didn’t disappoint. The Belvedere curators require tourists (and the place was teeming with them) to roam through 2.5 full floors of oversized Romantic Eras shite before getting to the Secession stuff (which included some Munch and Von Gogh I’d never seen). Our hosts knew exactly whom we’d come to see — the entire experience was built around it. There was even a special room where folks could take selfies with an oversized poster version of The Kiss — some 50 feet from the real thing.

We were further struck by the way Slovaks studiously maintain a different sort of claim (but still a legitimate one) on Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from Eastern Slovakia (in the various placard lit his mother was repeatedly referred to as Ruthenian, a reference to Greek Orthodox Slavs who live outside the Rus). This show, in Prague, occupied the third floor of GOAP Prague (Gallery of Art Prague). The more intimate, dormered fourth floor concentrated solely on Warhol’s young life and his parents’ early days in Pittsburgh where so many Slovaks and Poles landed (remember the wedding scene from The Deerhunter?). This was wholly appropriate — the attic is where old family stuff is meant to be stashed.

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A Man (in) Full: Headcheese, Jelly Sticks & my Dad’s Food Fetish

So, I try to write each August about my dad, the original Hal Phillips, who passed away seven years ago this month, all too soon. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him in some way, shape or form. Many times, that moment comes when I open the refrigerator door and see my collection of hot sauces.

My dad was an enthusiastic eater and devotee of exotic, spicy and otherwise full-flavored food. Growing up, we used to kid him that he had essentially deadened his taste buds — such was the relish with which he applied not just hot sauce but salt, butter, condiments and dressings of any kind. He took this ribbing as he took most efforts to curb his foundational behaviors — with good-natured indifference — then went ahead and treated his pig knuckle with another dollop of blazing-hot mustard.

My paternal, Jersey-based grandmother was not an enthusiastic or particularly skilled cook (whenever we went to visit, she would serve us the same thing, in great quantities: steak, corn and a black forest cake from Sara Lee). American cuisine in the 1940s and ’50s — in private homes, in restaurants — was pretty bland. My dad’s reaction to this cultural upbringing was to find himself a wife who, among other things, appreciated and was equipped to prepare a wide variety of food.

For her part, my mom, Lucy Dickinson Phillips, was raised on the West Coast, which, because it was still America in the ’40s and ’50s, was similarly staid on the food front. But Californians did have good Mexican, not to mention proper Chinese. What’s more, her mother occasionally cooked things like (gasp!) curry. In this and so many other ways, my mom proved the woman of my dad’s dreams.

Perhaps on account of their relatively white-bread American upbringings, older couples today are often satirized for this single-mindedness. How was your trip to New York? “Oh, we found the most wonderful northern Italian restaurant near Washington Square…” My parents routinely answered travel questions in this fashion; mom still does. As a good cook, she grew annoyed when my dad would salt or spice food before tasting it. But their 50 years together were a more or less uninterrupted, gleeful quest for good eats. As such, it has fallen to their children to react in kind — to try and restore some level of sanity and moderation to the food-intake process.

This remains a work in progress.

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