The definition of an athlete, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” It does not mention whether male athletes are better than female athletes, in fact there is no mention of gender at all, although women have not been a part of the sports world for very long because it has been historically dominated by men.
Women’s sports have come a long way since the days that included rules like not being able to dribble in basketball, but the playing field is still not equal. Women still face unfair treatment in the coverage they receive, the opportunities available to them, the rules set in sports, and societal views on female athletes as a whole.
Being an avid sports fan, I am always combing through the TV guide looking for a basketball game to watch. Unfortunately, unless it is the Division I championship of any sport, the chances of a women’s game being broadcasted on TV are slim. Even throughout the summer when the WNBA is in season, you’re more likely to see a rerun of an NBA game or a preseason NFL game before seeing a WNBA game.
In a 2017 article written by Ian Chaffee for USC News, a research team at USC observed ESPN’s SportsCenter since 1999 and found that the show only spends 2% of its airtime discussing women’s sports. That’s long enough for maybe one quick highlight versus spending 98% of the show discussing anything to do with men’s sports. Katie Lou Samuelson of the UCONN women’s basketball team went 10 for 10 from the three-point line in a game for the Huskies in 2017. The coverage of this monumental achievement was dismal, and I did a quick google search to see if anyone from ESPN chose to cover the moment. Not surprisingly, the only link to ESPN about Samuelson’s shooting was a video, and the label underneath the video was “men’s basketball.” Ironic. Just for fun, I replaced “Katie Lou Samuelson 10 for 10 ESPN” with “Zion Williamson” in my search bar. Not only was an ESPN link the second result to appear, the article was about whether Williamson should continue playing college basketball after a minor knee injury. A seemingly uninteresting piece of news compared to a player going ten for ten from three. In addition, ESPN supplies a direct link to his Duke player profile on their website. For reference, there is no individual player profile on ESPN for women’s basketball players.
March Madness itself is geared towards the men’s tournament. It has relentless advertising, a raised court to play on and within the March Madness app itself, you can only make bracket selections for the men’s games. In Dave Zirin’s book, Game Over, he discusses how Candace Parker, who is one of the best women’s basketball players in the world, finally got on the cover of ESPN’s magazine, only to highlight her pregnancy and talk about her “flawless skin” and “C-cups.” To which he contrasted a dominant male athlete such as Peyton Manning who would never be described for his looks versus his athletic ability.
Sports Illustrated has also dropped the ball when it comes to how they choose their cover photos. Seemingly after every men’s championship of the main sports in America, basketball, football and baseball, the winner receives a cover on the magazine. This past season the WNBA’s Seattle Storm won the championship in style, but only received a minuscule photo and blurb on one of the inside pages. This idea that viewers would not be interested in news about women’s sports is rooted in the views of society.
The perception that women’s sports are not as valuable as mens has improved over the last few decades, but it is far from a true transformation. People don’t watch women’s sports because they believe they aren’t as skilled or that the game just isn’t as interesting. The most common comeback for not watching women’s basketball is the lack of dunks. Even though more women are beginning to dunk in games, if you are truly a fan of basketball then you would not be watching a game strictly for the dramatics. Some of the ignorant comments about women’s sports come from men hiding behind a screen in the form of adding their unnecessary two cents under an Instagram post or a Tweet. There are quite a few male professional athletes who have either spoken out in support of female athletes or have attended professional games. Even the male professional sports teams, such as the San Antonio Spurs, who have hired women as coaches, such as Becky Hammon, fully support and believe in their capabilities, but those examples are few and far between.
Women also do not receive the same amount of opportunity in coaching. Men can apply for head coaching jobs for male and female sports, while women are limited only to coaching their gender. The idea that boys would be distracted or couldn’t possibly learn from a woman is absurd. It relates back to the societal view that women don’t know as much about sports as men. It is an aggravating cycle of women not being given the opportunity because of stereotypical assumptions, but those assumptions cannot be proven wrong if the chance is never given to disprove them.
Lastly, but certainly not least, as there are never ending examples of unfair treatment towards female athletes, rules in sports themselves are demeaning. Again, while we have come a long way since the days of not being able to dribble in basketball, there are still some rules that are no longer necessary. For starters, women’s lacrosse and hockey are not allowed to hit, unlike their male counterparts. While the defense for this ruling is the fragility of women (which is totally not offensive, right?), and the higher risk of injury, it doesn’t hold up as a strong argument. Why is the risk of injury not applied in the men’s game? They endure major injuries all the time. The NFL and its players are aware of the possibility of CTE, yet they are still allowed to play. Why is society still so concerned with women’s injuries? It is likely less due to safety, but more about their ability to perform housewife duties.
Unless the societal view of women in sports is changed for the better, the battle will not be won. The standard for athletes needs to move away from only measuring the abilities of men. Until women’s sports are covered, talked about, promoted, and broadcasted as much as men’s sports, this cycle will never be broken.