The Power of Pink

The controversy over the University of Iowa's locker room for visiting football teams -- painted pink -- resurfaces.
December 4, 2007

Football traditions can take on lives of their own and they aren’t often easy to kill. But that’s not stopping one former University of Iowa law professor who knows that all too well from trying -- much to many a Hawkeye fan’s chagrin.

More than a quarter century ago at the University of Iowa, the legendary football coach Hayden Fry decided to paint the visiting locker room pink as a psychological strategy, so the story goes, intended to calm opponents and curb aggression. After the university rebuilt its pink locker room in 2005 as part of a $90 million stadium renovation project, two then-law professors who objected that the color scheme carries demeaning implications for women sparked an intense and often ugly national debate involving death threats and hate mail. It at last died down after the former president, David J. Skorton (now at Cornell University), determined that he would not take any action related to the pink room.

Today, one of those professors is revisiting the (until now) dormant debate. After protesting the pink locker room at a Hawkeye home game in November, Jill Gaulding plans to file a complaint under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions, now that a new Iowa presidential administration is in place.

“I don’t think this is about Hayden Fry or his intention in the 1980s; I think this is about how people understand the locker room in 2007,” said Gaulding, who has since left Iowa and now practices employment discrimination law in Minnesota. “This [is] understood as a funny version of the slur that goes on in athletics about playing like a girl, playing like a sissy" -- and worse, she said, the university has perpetuated the insult in "a very official, permanent way."

“It’s based on a concept of gender hierarchy that says not only are boys and girls different, but more important it’s better to be a boy than a girl; it’s shameful to be a girl,” said Gaulding, who is researching a book on cognitive bias and gender discrimination. “Anyone who’s not deeply in denial understands and acknowledges that the pink locker room taps into this very long tradition of using gender as a put-down.”

“If anything has changed, I would say that things are getting worse and not better,” Gaulding said, citing an initiation ritual in which rookie Seattle Mariner baseball players wore pink backpacks this season (which "beats most initiations, like wearing a dress," the paraphrased one player as saying).

“Once again, this idea trickles out like poison into the rest of the culture that it’s shameful to be female," Gaulding said.

But many Hawkeye fans aren’t buying it. Even several scholars who understand or share Gaulding’s concerns wonder if she’s picked a worthwhile battle. And for Iowa’s part, the new administration, in place since August, does not have any plans to reconsider the color. “President Sally Mason has said that she does not intend to revisit the issue of the pink locker room. If and when a Title IX complaint is filed, we will respond through the appropriate venue, especially if that venue is in the court system,” Steve Parrott, the university spokesman, said in a statement.

“I do see [Gaulding's] point of view. To me, it seems it would not be a very difficult remedy to repaint the locker room. On the other hand, I will say as not a long-term Iowan, I don't understand the depth of feeling about Hayden Fry as a football coach,” said Tung Yin, an Iowa law professor who wrote about the case on his blog in 2005 (as an academic focused on the War on Terror, however, he stressed Monday that he was speaking as an interested layperson and not through a scholarly lens). He recalled a large number of comments from readers who interpreted those campaigning against the locker room as “personally attacking Hayden Fry and accusing him of being a sexist or a homophobe," Yin said. Needless to say, that didn't go over well.

Indeed, the comments on a Daily Iowan article on the subject Monday attracted largely negative and sometimes personal responses to Gaulding’s plans (some more personal than those repeated here). “Ms. Gaulding obviously feels the need for attention. She can't quite grasp the concept that Coach Fry employed when decorating the original locker room in pink, i.e., it is a calming color and may affect the mindset of the visiting team,” one reader wrote. “I cannot believe with all the problems in this country and with the attacks on women at the University, the complete waste of time and money this issue brings,” wrote another. “It is Historic! Hayden Fry created it,” wrote a third.

One reader who defended Gaulding echoed many of her arguments. “Let's be honest ... the intended reaction of having a pink locker room is to intimidate. Pink is a girl color (why else are girls' nurseries painted pink?) and by having a pink locker room for the opposing team, we are insinuating that we are playing a bunch of girls. Whether or not it is a calming color is irrelevant (I am sure that there are other calming colors in the color wheel). In a locker room setting, the desired psychological reaction is inferiority as implied by having a girlie pink room. Apparently, it takes legal action to see that this is insulting and demeaning." The poster was promptly labeled an "idiot."

Ann Althouse, a University of Wisconsin Law School professor, said that while an interesting feminist argument can be crafted against the pink locker room, launching a legal fight over it doesn’t do any service to feminism. “It just seems to me that you’ve got a long tradition at a big football school and you’re picking on something that’s going to make people think that feminists are very prickly and touchy and have no sense of humor or they don’t respect the male tradition of sports. I just don’t think that that’s helpful to the feminist cause to pick that battle,” said Althouse, who also blogged on the issue in 2005.

Asked about the responsibility of an institution to do what it can to end a sports tradition perceived as harmful -- the Iowa tradition differs from a student and alumni-led tradition that's caused controversy at the University of Virginia this fall because the Iowa administration has more obvious control in this case over whether to perpetuate it -- Althouse said context is key. “If it’s the university’s speech, they should think about what they want to say. If they’re continuing a tradition and there’s something offensive about it, they should think it through. But I don’t know that the pink locker room amounts to it.”

“If Jill’s got the courage to go forward with this, I think that rebuilding institutional boundaries around that would be an important thing to do. But I don’t know that I would fight it that way,” added Chris Shelton, a professor in the department of exercise and sport studies and director of the Project on Women and Social Change at Smith College. Shelton also thought aloud about all the positive aspects of pink, in particular the role it has played in empowering breast cancer survivors (and their friends and families) and raising funds for research. “I think if you empower the color, then often it takes the power of the color away.”


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