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Spotlight: Associate professor reveals sport's dirty secrets

BY SETH ROBERTS | DECEMBER 02, 2010 7:20 AM

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Most sports fans know athletics isn't exactly fair.

Catriona Parratt takes that knowledge to the next level. A University of Iowa associate professor of American studies, she researches sport's ability to oppress and constrain members of certain genders and economic classes.

"Sport is a cultural institution that has so much potential for allowing us to be fully human and to explore every aspect of our humanness," she said. "But the institution of sport so often works against that."

Although athletics is generally seen as a leisure activity, her research details a phenomenon in which sport benefits some (generally the rich and men) while shutting out others (often the poor and women). Her primary area of expertise is sex inequality in 19th-century England, but she said the issues addressed in her research still exist — particularly around Thanks- giving.

"You look at the work that the women in the family do, and the guys can — [I'm] sounding like a dinosaur feminist — but the guys in the family can sit, and drink beer, and watch football,"Parratt said. And the disparity isn't limited to American households, she said. Sports institutions, such as FIFA and the International Olympics Committee, act as corporations that profit at the expense of others. The NCAA is particularly to blame, she said, for licensing its product while refusing to allow its athletes to collect compensation.

"There are people who suffer as a result of the way the NCAA does its business," the 54-year-old said. "I'm absolutely staggered that the NCAA can continue to profess to be in the business of amateur sport. How much [revenue] does the University of Iowa make off the bodies and the labor of, essentially, student-athletic laborers?"

As jaded as she may be by the business of sport, though, Parratt said she still harbors a soft spot for athletics. She began running middle-distance track events when she was a teenager in England and only stopped because her knees "collapsed" almost 15 years later.

A native of Crowle, a village in England's Lincolnshire County, Parratt received a Ph.D. from Ohio State in 1994. She fell in love with Iowa's fledgling sports studies program (which has now merged with the American studies department).

She admits she can sound "preachy" when lecturing about her passions, but she said it's important her students understand there is more to sport than the events themselves.

Her students seem to think she accomplishes her goal — they gave the associate professor glowing reviews. Graduate student Debra Shattuck, whose writing is about the inequity that 19th-century female baseball players faced, praised her mentor's dedication and selfless accessibility. Daniel Taradash, another graduate student, said Parratt taught him it's OK to take a stance on a given topic — something he said had been missing in his prior academic endeavors.

"[Parratt taught that] you can actually put your heart into your work," Taradash said. "You don't have to be detached [from it]."

And Parratt said she has just one simple ambition.

"I would like to think that the very few people who might read what I write would somehow take something from it that would make them try to pass it on," she said.


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