|Photo by Kathleen Clark|
Now, OffBeat is a ferocious soccer fan. We screamed our head off at the nail-biting U.S. win last Saturday in the Women’s World Cup, and we’re happy that the media have dubbed women’s soccer some of the Next Big Thing, if only for the moment. We especially appreciate the prominent coverage in our hometown paper, but we were taken aback by the salacious tone of some of the L.A. Times stories in the days before and after the U.S.-China showdown at the Rose Bowl.
Thursday’s sports section proclaimed, “Success of the ’99 Women’s World Cup Is . . . LOOKING GOOD.” Just in case we didn’t get the none-too-subtle turn of cliché, the story was subtitled “No matter how well U.S. team does, some will always look to sex appeal as the reason for the sudden groundswell of popularity.”
Apparently, “some” would be the L.A. Times. Sportswriter Mike Penner went on to devote eight paragraphs not to the skills and unmatched prowess of the now-champs, but to detailing Brandi Chastain’s nude-with-soccer-ball pose in the men’s magazine Gear with dick-in-hand detail (“No shorts. No jersey. No shinguards . . .”). He also imparted David Letterman’s nickname for the team — “Babe City” — and told us that the moniker has stuck — now we know who to blame.
Penner was baffled over why the heck men and boys would be passionate about women’s soccer if not for the titillation. OffBeat had presumed that guys liked watching these women compete because they’re great athletes who play damn good soccer. No doubt many of these men first tuned in out of curiosity (can these girls really play?), only to get hooked on watching tight, professional games. And national pride, breaking through the gender barrier, surely had some of the male fans rooting for an American victory in the world’s favorite sport, even if the championship was Girls Only. Surely Penner will get it now, OffBeat thought, when our team claimed the trophy two days later.
Instead, the L.A. Times ran not one, but two, pictures of Chastain in a sports bra after she spontaneously removed her jersey upon scoring the winning goal. Bill Plaschke wrote the cover story, going into a play-by-play of Chastain’s supposedly provocative gesture. Never mind that her performance during the game was the real story. Never mind that the ripping-off-your-shirt-and-doing-the-victory-lap has been a staple of soccer ever since it’s been played, and that Chastain in her unrevealing black top was about as provocative as a barefoot Zola Budd. Not that you would know that from reading Plaschke’s panting text (“Chastain stripped down to her shorts and sports bra . . .”), thick with nudge-nudge, wink-wink innuendo and a veritable fest of clichés (“Once again, they gave us the shirts off their backs”).
Not to be outdone, Mike Penner’s story in the sports section ran with the headline “Bare Facts Make These Two Heroes” and was yet another story about . . . stripping. That Briana Scurry is a phenomenal goalie and the engineer of the American victory seemed not nearly as newsworthy as the fact that she is said to have done a lap in the buff around Athens, Georgia, on a wager after the team garnered the gold medal in the ’96 Olympic Games.
Why all the leering? Beyond the obvious sexism, the Times, in the name of legitimizing women’s sports, displayed an unhealthy focus on women’s soccer as a potential commercial gold mine. Sex sells, ergo the Times’ take. This obsession with cashing in has sent fans streaming away from the major leagues to college basketball, extreme sports, anything but another report on big salaries and bigger owner profits. But no matter, the Times is leading the charge. It almost makes you hope that women’s soccer remains in the shadows so we can talk about smooth passes and bull’s-eye goals instead of a great pair of legs.
Standing Room Only
It’s never a walk in the park. And, for now, at the newly reopened La Brea Tar Pits, next door to the L.A. County Museum of Art, it isn’t much of a seat, either.
Seems that, even after months of delay, and a $10 million “redevelopment to rejuvenate, beautify and expand” the Ice Age landmark, there won’t be any park benches in Hancock Park until, at the earliest, mid-October. The trouble is, the Philadelphia foundry making the 18 park benches, along with new, ornate trash cans, is behind schedule. Way behind, considering that L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky led a band of public officials in a ribbon-cutting ceremony this Wednesday, July 14, and the soonest shipping date from the manufacturer is October 8. The park has been closed since September of last year, and as the deadline to re-inaugurate came and went, park planners realized they’d be opening sans the usual posterior accommodations.
“The architects and the art museum understandably wanted to stick with the design, but we have sort of said to ourselves, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t we get them closer to home?’” says a somewhat dismayed Jerry Smith, operations-and-finance manager of the Page Museum at Hancock Park.
So why not temporarily re-install the old benches — which for years served as, among other things, the bleachers for a covey of elderly practitioners of the duchgeredt, the Jewish art of street-corner discussion? “The old benches were still here,” Smith says, “but we could not disperse them, because of a directive from the county Parks and Recreation after a tragic accident in Laguna Niguel, where several children playing on a bench toppled it over and one of the little fellows was killed. Benches must be cemented to the ground, and the new benches are bigger than the old ones, so we didn’t want to have the extra expense of fastening them down and pouring concrete twice to accommodate the old benches and then the new benches.”
Of course, by the time the new benches finally arrive, it may be too late to revive the old meeting place for the neighborhood’s talkative cranks — not to mention the cranks themselves.
Rate Wars, Nothing But Rate Wars
Those wacky insurance-industry guys, whose big-ticket politicking and deceptively named front groups have kept California’s premiums near the national ceiling for a decade, are at it again. This time, it’s under the auspices of the so-called CalFAIR (Californians for Affordable Insurance Rates), which ran full-page ads over the last two weeks in, among others, the L.A. Times, attacking a consumer bill backed by the Ralph Nader–affiliated The Oaks Project in Santa Monica.
The bill, SB 1237, would restore so-called third-party lawsuits in which drivers sue the other guy’s insurance carrier for lowballing claims or deliberate foot-dragging. Hardly radical, yes? Not according to CalFAIR, which warns that the bill is a ploy by trial lawyers to increase frivolous lawsuits and jack up our insurance rates all at the same time. In its pricey (a full-page Times ad runs up to $70,000) campaign, CalFAIR also has charged that the bill would expand suing rights for drunk drivers.
Both arguments are preposterous, says Oaks organizer Paul Herzog: Proposition 213, the voter-approved insurance-rate rollback initiative, would prevent the industry from hiking rates just because they lose on the bill. And 1237 has a rider specifically prohibiting drunk drivers from benefiting, he adds.
“It’s high-level political deception,” charges Doug Heller, consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. (The Oaks is the foundation’s organizing and educational arm.) “What the insurance companies want to do is take away our day in court.”
CalFAIR claims to be a coalition of business, labor, health and education groups. But the only labor interest named in the group’s 800-number recording is the California Correctional Officers Association, which backed the GOP during much of former Governor Pete Wilson’s prison-construction bender. The real powers behind CalFAIR are the insurance companies, including Farmers, All-State and USAA, Herzog says. (An exception is Mercury, which signed off on 1237.)
CalFAIR spokeswoman Gina Stassi insists that the coalition is broader than that, although she concedes the correctional officers are CalFAIR’s only labor backers — and that the withdrawal of the state boards of education brought the committee’s education membership down to zero.
“Yes, the insurance industry is part of the coalition, and they do have a stake, but so do taxpayers. Latin and black business associations have a stake in this bill,” Stassi says. Mothers Against Drunk Driving also oppose 1237, she adds. Of course, the single-issue group has little expertise in incredibly baroque insurance-rate setting.
The kind of confusion created by the CalFAIR ads — “You’re screwing the little guy,” “No, you are . . . yadda, yadda” — is not new in California politics. In 1996, similar tactics were used to defeat an Oaks initiative that would have eliminated a $28 billion bailout of state utility investments in nuclear and coal-fired power plants. (The industry group that time was called Californians Against Higher Taxes and Higher Utility Rates.)
Third-party lawsuits used to be allowed, until the liberally cleansed California Supreme Court — after Chief Justice Rose Bird’s ouster — said they had to be authorized by the Legislature. (A little-known piece of California history is that the 1986 “Dump Bird” campaign, while pushing a pro-death-penalty line, was quietly funded by business interests angered by the Bird court’s support for consumer rights and environmental protections.) With the Governor’s Office finally in Democratic hands, The Oaks Project is hoping to win back a bit of lost ground. SB 1237 is on Governor Gray Davis’ desk. You’ll be seeing Oaks organizers outside your local grocery or farmer’s market.
EDITED BY GALE HOLLAND