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Tickled Pink By Iowa's Locker Room

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, October 1, 2005

I'm sure I should be more upset about the pink decor in the visitors' dressing room at Iowa. But as it happens, my violent knee-jerk reaction is that it's merely funny. If the armies of feminism want to change my thinking on that, they're going to have to slap electrodes to my pretty little forehead and zap me until I stop giggling.

An Iowa law professor has deconstructed those pink walls in Kinnick Stadium, and, instead of seeing them as a joke, has found semiotic messages of misogyny and homophobia there. "The pink locker room is a subtle way of painting the words 'sissy,' 'girlie man' . . . on the walls," Erin Buzuvis charges. She is suggesting that the locker room be redone, presumably in a more serious-minded and gender-neutral taupe, gunmetal or ochre.

Until this very moment, you probably thought pink was a fairly harmless and ornamental if insipid color. Didn't you? Didn't you?

That pink has such grim cultural connotations is going to come as a heck of a surprise to the makers of Pepto-Bismol. Also, to several million women who, unbeknownst to them, are walking around with hate speech painted on their toenails. The consequences of the discovery are potentially far-reaching. Death to polo shirts.

Until recently, the pink locker room at Kinnick Stadium was simply an amusing tradition, half prank and half ploy. For three decades, visiting football teams at Kinnick Stadium have dressed themselves in it, in varying states of juvenile humor or irritation. It was originally painted "innocence pink" by former Iowa coach Hayden Fry, a psychology major who read that pink had a pacifying effect. Among other things, jail cells and drunk tanks are sometimes painted pink because studies have suggested the color can be calming.

Fry, for those who don't remember him at Iowa, was a cagey good old boy who enjoyed teasing the opposition, as the title of his autobiography, "A High Porch Picnic," suggests. Fry's attitude was, if some opponents considered those walls a "sissy" color and it bothered them, that was their own fault. The whole point was to discomfit people who were insecure enough or dumb enough to take it seriously.

"It's been fun to get the reaction of visiting coaches to the color of their locker room," Fry wrote. "Most don't notice it, but those that do are in trouble. . . . When I talk to an opposing coach before a game and he mentions the pink walls, I know I've got him. I can't recall a coach who has stirred up a fuss about the color and then beat us."

The locker room drove Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, um, up the wall. Schembechler hated that room so much, he ordered his assistants to cover it with white paper whenever his teams played there.

Sometimes opponents had fun with it and turned the tables, at Iowa's expense. In 1989, Illinois assistants wore pink hats on the sidelines, and the Illini won, 31-7. Former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett painted his own home locker room pink the week before the Iowa game in 1996. The Wildcats won at Kinnick for the first time in 25 years.

The locker room got even pinker this August, with the completion of a two-year, $88 million makeover project. During remodeling, Iowa athletic department officials decided to play havoc with the pink theme. They not only painted the walls pink. They also gleefully installed pink shower curtains. Pink carpet. Pink metal lockers. Pink sinks. And pink urinals.

Well actually, the urinals are "dusty rose" according to the Kohler catalogue.

It wasn't until this week that anyone thought to interpret the room as cultural hieroglyph, whereupon Buzuvis, joined by some fellow faculty and students, decided it was a grave insult to women and homosexuals. Buzuvis wrote a blog deploring pinkness as a color associated with women, and then formally took her protest to a university committee studying NCAA compliance.

"In this context, putting your opponent in a pink locker room is saying, 'You are weak like a girl,' or 'You are weak like a gay man,' " Buzuvis wrote in her blog.

Now, I'd hate to think we have to start painting over or dyeing anything pink. What would happen to carnations? Or Cadillacs, or cardigan sweaters? Or Barbie Band-Aids? Bubblegum? Birthday cake? The effects of a proposed ban on pink are especially depressing to contemplate when it comes to alcohol. No pink champagne? No cosmopolitians?

You have to try awfully hard to take offense at what's implied in a color. But it's not hard to take offense at what Buzuvis implies, or her insulting line of reasoning. She buys into the very sort of discrimination she alleges. What she implies is that locker rooms are full of large unfeeling men who can bench press a refrigerator and hammer nails with their fists, and therefore they must really be ashamed to be naked in a pink room, because pink, after all, is a girly color, even a queer one. And therefore putting those men in such a room for a couple of hours is a dire insult to girls and homosexuals, who can't help it that they have closets full of pink bathrobes, a color that no real man would ever like.

You better know who you are if you walk into that room. Otherwise, the pink could shatter you.

It's so 1968. What's missing from the picture is merely 40 years. What's also missing is the recognition that male and female athletes alike have been deconstructing and subverting pinkness for years quite cleverly. Joe Namath put on panty hose. Roosevelt Grier did needlepoint. Herschel Walker took ballet and used moisturizers. Fry understood something Buzuvis apparently doesn't: The people most likely to be undone by pink walls are not straight men, women or gays, but misogynists and homophobes.

No man is scared of pink today, or woman, either. Grier had a girly hobby, and he could also snap the head off a fire hydrant. Namath wore white cleats, because he enjoyed proving that it doesn't matter what color your shoes are if you can fire a ball 70 yards and land it on a salad plate. The Princeton women's rugby team won a national championship a few years ago, and then wore their black eyes to a formal campus ball. Pink was merely the color of their bruises. The great thing about a playing field is that stereotypes tend to melt away on it. Accomplishment trumps sexism, bigotry, or any other lousy generality.

If you are not offended by Iowa's pink locker room, it may be because you recognize a joke, a tease, and a riff. You realize that contact with the dread color pink does not actually make a man weak, or a woman, either.

And if any of the opposing teams visiting Kinnick have a problem with their locker room decor, I have a suggestion for them. Tape up with pink tape. And every time one of your players lays a guy out with a forearm hammer, lean down and whisper, "Think pink!"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company