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Equality On and Off the Field

The California Women's Law Center honors Michael Messner with the 2011 Abby J. Leibman Pursuit of Justice Award for his work on behalf of girls and women in sports.

Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies in USC Dornsife and director of USC's Gender Studies Program, will receive the 2011 Abby J. Leibman Pursuit of Justice Award from the California Women’s Law Center on May 26. Photo by Eddie North-Hager.
Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies in USC Dornsife and director of USC's Gender Studies Program, will receive the 2011 Abby J. Leibman Pursuit of Justice Award from the California Women’s Law Center on May 26. Photo by Eddie North-Hager.

Michael Messner has spent the last 25 years studying the role gender plays in sports, and likewise how sports influence society’s views of gender.

In honor of Messner’s contributions to his field and his work for justice on behalf of girls and women in sports, the California Women’s Law Center (CWLC) will present him with the 2011 Abby J. Leibman Pursuit of Justice Award on May 26.

The CWLC, a civil rights advocacy group, annually selects one or more individuals for the honor.

The distinction came as a pleasant surprise to Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies in USC Dornsife and director of USC’s Gender Studies Program, who admitted that as a researcher, he often feels a step away from those affecting change.

“It’s an acknowledgement that scholarly research is useful to people out in the trenches like members of the CWLC, who are doing great legal work to support the rights of girls and women,” he said.

“The California Women’s Law Center is committed to eliminating gender inequality in all areas of society, including sports,” said Katie Buckland, CWLC’s executive director. “Dr. Messner’s often-cited research on the interaction of youth sports and gender dynamics has contributed greatly to the discussion of this issue, and we are pleased to present him with the Pursuit of Justice Award.”

Every five years since 1989, Messner has released a “Gender in Televised Sports” report, which chronicles the asymmetries in the quantity and quality of men’s and women’s sports coverage on three local news shows and ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

“The study mainly documents the lack of change, how little coverage has improved over the years,” he said. “But the information is useful for advocacy groups for girls and women to nudge at the mass media to get them to think about fair and equitable coverage of women in sports.”

Messner credits his interest in gender and sports to his experiences playing high school basketball and discovering feminism as an undergraduate in the ’70s, when gender began to enter discussions in his college sociology classes.

“I’ve always been interested in sports as a way of asking different questions about gender,” he said. “[The field of] sports has been such an important place for creating a dichotomous sense of women and men as not just different but unequal. Therefore it becomes a place to contest these ideas.”

Messner, who came to USC in 1987, has written and co-edited more than a dozen books, including his 2009 study of the role of gender in local youth sports titled It’s All For the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (University of California Press). His memoir, King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Guns (Plain View Press) was published in May 2011.

Currently, Messner is interviewing generations of men who were or are involved in anti-gender-violence work with men and boys for a study exploring how different historical periods create the possibility of various types of activism.

Messner’s recent honors and awards include the Choice Outstanding Academic Title for Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport (SUNY Press, 2007); a Career of Distinguished Service Award from the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in 2007; and the USC Dornsife Raubenheimer Outstanding Senior Faculty Award for Research, Teaching and Service in 2006. In 2007, Messner was named one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators” by the Institute for International Sports, and he is the past president of the Pacific Sociological Association.

In addition to Messner, the CWLC will present the Pursuit of Justice Award to four other recipients: Assistant Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Sandy Jo MacArthur; documentary filmmaker and writer Yoav Potash; and pro-bono attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, who were featured in a documentary by Potash. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Los Angeles on May 26.