If you’ve ever asked your English teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” you know the difference between permission and capability.
When it comes to women pursuing athletics, both are systematically denied. Like a sock clinging to the inside of a sweater, society has a static bond to certain ideas about gender, entertainment, good clean fun, and competition. Taken together, these ideas comprise a significant barrier to entry for women with any interest in sports; one that, even as women challenge it, the rest of us reinforce.
Women may comprise almost half all sports fans, but that doesn’t erase the line separating “watching” from “playing” the games they love. So rise for the national anthem, and read on to see why in the game of equality, the scoreboard is looking decidedly grim.
10. Sports are for Warriors
The phrase, “it’s just a game” has no place in competitive sports.
They aren’t mere games–for the competitors as well as for the spectators, sports are critical measures of identity whose roots go straight into our history of tribal warfare. On the field and in the stands, athletic contests have become proxies for the human instinct to compete for survival.
The gap between sports and the military has always been narrow; historically, it was non-existent. Athletes and soldiers were the same thing–training to peak physical fitness to prepare for combat, sparring at home as preparation for combat abroad. Even the Olympics were seen as a way to determine which states had the favor of the gods; rather than assert dominance through open warfare, athletes exhibited their warrior prowess through sport. It was something like the Cold War, but detente depended on wrestlers and sprinters, rather than nuclear warheads.
Because men have historically dominated the military, it follows that their wargames would be similarly male-dominated.
Most popular sports were developed by men, for men, as a way to both test and hone their manliness. And while participation has since been opened up to include women, the fundamentally gendered conception of sports persists.
The military is still the perfect example of this: America’s Department of Defense realized, upon changing its rules to allow female soldiers to serve in combat roles, that it had some catching up to do in terms of actually equipping them for combat–literally, their equipment had to be redesigned for women.
There is also a persistent question over whether military training and fitness will be compromised in order to accommodate female soldiers. The idea that women can fight, serve, and compete on the same level as men undermines the longstanding tradition of women being the “weaker” or the “fairer” sex, and violating tradition makes people generally uncomfortable.
Female athletes may not be short on appropriate gear, but the system and business of sports are still an utterly male legacy.
9. Women Are Injured More
That legacy of male dominance is especially important in light of the critical differences between male and female anatomy.
Because sports were designed to exemplify male fitness, they play to men’s natural strengths–literally. When they hit puberty, men’s bodies produce more testosterone, which triggers more muscle growth, as well as helping to fuel aggression and competitive instincts. Women’s bodies, in turn, produce more estrogen, which helps them naturally retain more fat.
While none of this biology means women are inherently unable to compete or perform on the same level as men, it does mean that they have to work harder to meet identical fitness standards.
And it isn’t just the pathway to fitness that differs between the sexes.
There is a larger sample size of football players receiving concussions, so in absolute terms, more male athletes are suffering from traumatic head injuries than females. This is probably why Will Smith starred in a movie about the issue, and the national media have designated concussions an “epidemic” in men’s sports.
But in terms of frequency, female athletes are concussed and otherwise injured at a much higher rate than men–anywhere from 50% to 500% depending on the sport. There is also evidence suggesting differences between how male and female bodies respond to concussions, further compounding the issue.
Outside the professional realm, there is a tendency to ignore the fact that different children (of both sexes) will mature and develop at different rates, and that athletic training should account for these developmental differences. Of course, the pressure on kids to specialize–choosing just one sport and training exclusively for that selection–doesn’t leave a lot of room for coaches and parents to accommodate individuality. Specialization directly correlates with increased risk and rates of injury in both sexes, but it also correlates with getting competing for limited college scholarship funds and a shot at going professional.
Girls especially draw the short straw here, though, because they have the double disadvantage of becoming more physically vulnerable to sports injuries (thanks to puberty) at the same time that the stakes are rising for participation and more intense training.
The net effect is that athletic girls are having their athletic careers cut short because they train too hard and compete too intensely at too young an age, and it isn’t sustainable long enough to go pro or have a lasting professional career.
Female athletes already have to take crap for playing the same sports with different rules–supposedly to shield them from the full risk of men’s sports. But men’s sports carry an outsized risk of injury and a culture of cartoonish machismo–they are an exaggeration of masculinity to begin with. So female athletes are both prone to higher rates of injury, and subject to criticism for playing watered-down versions of the real, aka men’s, sports.
Between ticket sales, attendance records, and broadcast viewership, there is a pretty clear void between men’s and women’s sports. History is part of the problem: sports fans love the histories of their teams, mascots, and sports in general–women’s sports just can’t compete with that, because they simply don’t have the same storied legacy.
Fans want to ask inane questions about who would win in fantasy matchups, which program’s legacy is more important, which roster shows the most promise in which element of the game, and otherwise dive into all manner of statistical minutiae to try to determine who is the underdog in any given matchup.
It isn’t a question of whether women can perform, make last-minute miracle plays, or achieve odds-defying comebacks–it is whether there is a clear underdog to begin with.
Without these dynamic, data-rich legacies, women’s sports come up with fewer organic rivalries, and give fans less opportunity to manufacture suspense. The narratives that aggrandize men’s sports and make every contest seem like a life-and-death struggle between good and evil are fed by trivia, and fan bases use this trivia to make their loyalty to a given team a key part of their identity. History allows “true” fans to distinguish themselves from the bandwagon; statistical recitations are the shibboleth that allow fans to bond.
Having more data makes it easier to produce more charts, so men’s sports win in every numbers contest by sheer inertia. As a result, upstart women’s teams are perpetually eclipsed by their male counterparts.
7. Lack of Promotion
Even absent hard data, viewers and broadcasters alike are quick to offer a number of (inaccurate) explanations as to why women’s sports get the short stick on television.
That the fan hooliganism of men’s sports hasn’t permeated among viewers of women’s sports doesn’t mean there isn’t interest and enthusiasm for both, yet the contrast is still used as evidence that people don’t want to watch women play sports.
Apparent demand imbalances are at least partly due to the fact that men’s sports were popular before broadcast television became ubiquitous, while women’s sports have had to edge in from the margins. And whenever women’s sports do get airtime, the broadcasts are heavily stereotyped and gendered for the duration.
Production values for broadcasts of men’s sports tend to be a lot higher–slow motion, instant replay, multiple angles, a computer-animated football robot named “Cleatus”–while women’s sport broadcasts tend to lag behind the cutting edge.
Of course, there is also the perception that women’s sports aren’t the “real” version of sports in which both sexes participate: WNBA vs NBA, Softball vs baseball, etc.
This argument parallels the concern over military training standards: if compromise is necessary to enable female participation, then what’s the point? Professional sports are supposed to represent athletes competing at the highest level; who wants to watch a watered-down version?
So rather than tune in to see what the best female athletes are truly capable of, viewers and fans assume that men are inherently better, stronger, and faster. Women’s teams aren’t just competing against one another, they are competing against all of men’s sports.
The lack of viewers/lack of promotion cycle is like a snake eating its tail, because the myths perpetuate the problem and defer responsibility for solving it.
6. Title IX
In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments–more commonly referred to as Title IX. The intent behind the law–signed by President Nixon–was to prevent inequality in sports by requiring equal financing. It became illegal for any educational or athletic program that received federal funding to discriminate based on sex. The law has been contested and amended repeatedly over the years, because “money” and “equality” are touchy subjects, and efforts to address either generally devolve into a zero-sum game.
Such has been the case with Title IX.
Since professional sports are technically private enterprises, Title IX doesn’t directly govern the amount of money or attention paid to women’s pro teams. But since college scholarships do generally fall under the purview of the law, Title IX’s biggest influence has been to tilt the scales so that more athletic scholarships and sports programs are available exclusively to female student-athletes.
In effect, schools fearful of federal penalties have substituted “proportionality” in place of equality. That means that funding and opportunity corresponds to institutional sex demographics, rather than demand. If a school is majority female, but interest in sports is majority male, the school must either waste money promoting the women’s teams, or cut the men’s team, to avoid a proportionality gap.
Because football is disproportionately large and expensive, women’s sports in all other categories need more scholarships to make up for the problem at major football schools–which pisses off the male athletes who see this as unfair treatment.
The cultural dominance of football, along with the cycle of promotion-fandom-viewership being used against nascent women’s programs, keeps them from reaching their full revenue and advertorial potential. College football, despite being a black hole swallowing money, student health, and academic standards in equal measure, comes out looking like a martyr to Title IX, and men’s rights activists have a feast on the apparent evidence of reverse-sexism.
Rather than doing something about the perverse relationship between the colleges, professional leagues, and student athletes, Title IX has essentially compounded and magnified the pre-existing problems and escalated the stakes for all athletes and fans.
5. The Pay Gap
The gender pay gap is difficult to measure precisely, because the cause of wage disparities is not always due to overt discrimination. What with women leaving work to raise children, or working part-time jobs more than men, or simply choosing to enter less lucrative fields, there is room for ambiguity. Are women systematically intimidated from entering STEM fields or negotiating salaries? Perhaps.
But that ambiguity is completely absent from sports, which clearly and measurably pay female athletes less than their male counterparts.
The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is an especially egregious example: the 2015 team won the FIFA World Cup while the men’s team lost in the first round. For their efforts, the women’s team got a $2 million bonus, while the men received $8 million. When you consider that soccer attracts viewers from around the world, unlike most other men’s sports in the U.S., and that the women’s team routinely attracts more viewers and fans than the men’s team, the disparity is even more jarring.
So while the World Champs sue for wage discrimination, the NFL is discussing whether its players are being paid enough… relative to the multi-million dollar average salaries of the other major, men-only sports in the U.S.
To be fair, part of the argument in the NFL is that its players take on more risk than other sports, as evidenced by the rate of concussions and other chronic injuries in American football. By that logic, female athletes are all due for a raise.
4. Missing from the Sidelines
The scope of Title IX is pretty narrow, compared to the full spectrum of occupations in athletics that aren’t “athlete.”
As the oceans of visors and headsets along the sidelines of any football game demonstrate, modern teams rely on a massive support staff: coaches, physical trainers, coordinators, medics, promoters, managers–not to mention the team-agnostic roles like commentators, sports journalists, or referees. Just like the military, sports are a microcosm of society, and have their own specialized version of virtually every occupation you can think of.
Title IX focuses exclusively giving women a chance to play, but doesn’t create a pathway to enter any of these parallel positions. That means women are massively underrepresented even in non-athletic positions. This pattern persists whether the team is collegiate, youth, or even in a women’s league.
This lack of visibility both on the field and the sidelines naturally mirrors the problems in every other industry that is dominated by men: women are reluctant to go where they don’t see themselves as welcome. The perception of inequality becomes self-fulfilling, as qualified women are diverted from pursuing fields they don’t expect to accept them.
3. Hot or Not
Even when they make the big leagues, women aren’t taken seriously as athletes. Whatever else they may be, female athletes are still female, and are alternatively expected to conceal or accentuate that fact.
A common argument is that if women in sport dressed more provocatively, they would get more viewers, fans, and money. After all, the rules are different for women–it isn’t as though they are real athletes, so they may as well take advantage of the fact that everyone is already sexualizing them, and play to their strengths.
In fact, because female athletes aren’t rail-thin like models, but manage to blend good looks with good health (thanks to all that training), some consider it progress for them to be featured in fashion magazines and held up as beauty icons. Playing to the (male) crowd, again, is imagined as their best shot at fame, fortune, and visibility for other girls who are considering an athletic career.
For other spectators, highly gendered sports apparel diminishes the status of female athletes, and by extension, women in general. If function were the first consideration, men and women would look far more similar sport to sport, and stand a better chance of being taken seriously and equally.
But regardless of the uniforms they wear to compete, female athletes still have to contend with a highly sexualized public image, and both a media and a fanbase that requires them to constantly explain and justify which identity comes first: woman or athlete? Whatever answer they provide, of course, the public has already made its own determination, and as per usual, consent has nothing to do with it.
The relative newness of women’s professional and collegiate sports means they have had fewer opportunities for star players to stand out. Sports are about hero-worship, after all, and fans need celebrities they can obsessively study, critique, and whose esoteric memorabilia–like “before they were famous” yearbook photos–they can accumulate.
You don’t have to follow basketball to recognize Michael Jordan’s name, or know anything about baseball for Babe Ruth to ring a bell. While men have a veritable pantheon of stand-outs for every sport going back generations, women haven’t had much chance to gain mainstream recognition and appeal.
Pretty much every other item on this list feeds into this one: the rate of injury–especially career-ending–prevents promising female athletes from reaching their potential, both as competitors and as role models. The reluctance of the public to allow women to act as gladiatorial avatars means we discount the statistics they put up as athletes, their performance less valid because they aren’t playing a “pure” version of the sport. Because we don’t expect a big audience, we don’t invest as much time constructing narratives for broadcast about rivalries, Cinderella stories, or polarizing personalities.
For those who do manage to earn some notoriety and celebrity, the lens of sexualization invariably goes up, so that rather than attracting sports fans to their games, they gain acclaim or criticism depending on what extracurriculars they can be coaxed into.
If this all sounds conspiratorial, relax, there is no secret patriarchy plan to oppress women through athletics–we do that on our own, through the gender role conditioning we reinforce starting with children, and continuing throughout their lives.
One of the key reasons female athletes are more prone to injury, is because we tend to give them less early instruction and correction in athletic operations. “Throw like a girl” or “run like a girl” are real phenomena, but only because girls are so frequently excluded from these activities early on, and are provided with less direct role modeling to overcome this exclusion.
Because we’ve raised the stakes of sports across the spectrum, attaching every level of competition into a continuum leading to college scholarships and expensive pay-to-play barriers, girls are compelled to train harder, do more to overcome their female bodies–which are a handicap when they haven’t been taught proper form or had sufficient reinforcement as they gravitated into athletics.
Parents, unfortunately are part of the problem. The high cost of sports participation means parents have to decide early on whether they are going to support their child’s interest or not. If they are conflicted, that mixed message can manifest as teaching their girls to be both feminine, and athletic, without helping them reconcile the anti-feminine nature of male-dominated activities.
Just through observation, girls learn to carry themselves differently than boys, even before their bodies begin to significantly change. This, by the way, is the difference between sex and gender: the former is biology, the latter is social. We make a habit of conflating the two, which is why girls get such conflicting messages about what is or isn’t acceptable behavior, and whether they are being feminine enough whenever they stray across the arbitrary line governing gender, and attaching it to sex.
Since we decided early on that war-making, sports, and competition were all inherently masculine activities–aided by the gentlest of nudges by biology in the form of testosterone–we’ve wound up with an entire unconscious social conditioning machine that makes it harder for girls to take an interest in sports, identify female role models, and safely participate at any age.
Girls who want to play sports are faced with an identity crisis–one which they will have to constantly confront as long as they play, because the only way society can reconcile a competent non-male athlete is to frame everything they do with assumptions about their sexuality.