I want to say a few words about the problem with women’s sports. First, it has nothing to do with women. Second, it doesn’t have everything to do with men. When people ask “What’s wrong with women’s sports?”, or “Why aren’t women’s sports popular?”, we can instead consider how women’s sports and athletes are discussed. We should think about what language or lack of language, what care or lack of care, is put into conversations about female athletes.
When we discuss equality, the language of equality is rarely discussed. When Connor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather exchanged insults on their media tour, two of the derogatory terms they used were “bitch” and “faggot.”
We know that the average WNBA player makes $72,000 per year, while the average NBA player makes $7.12 million per year.
We also know that one out of every five women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
How we talk about women, how we treat women on and off the field and how we discuss women in public forums is vital to building equality for women everywhere. This is particularly true of LGBTQ athletes. If you are a female athlete that plays at a high level, your sexuality is immediately a topic of discussion.
The success of women’s sports is often tied to an athlete's’ sexual preference. In 2005, Sacramento reporter Mardeio Cannon commented that Sheryl Swoopes coming out “set the [WNBA] back to its infancy stage.” After Billie Jean King was outed by a former partner in a 1981 lawsuit, the New York Times noted that “Some people close to the sport…were concerned that because its image has been so important to its success that public acceptance might be slowed unfairly.” Only eight years earlier, Billie Jean King was viewed as a tenacious, top athlete who won not only women’s tennis tournaments, but beat Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match. Overnight, she went from feminist icon to putting the whole sport at risk.
If the success of a sport isn’t tied to a woman’s sexual preference, then some other irrelevant topic becomes the focus of discussion. Serena Williams body is an obvious example. For nearly 15 years, newspapers, media outlets, and even other players and coaches have courted primarily negative discussions about her muscular figure. A 2012 New York Times article noted, “Williams…has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.” If a female athlete isn’t gay, then her body isn’t female enough. Let’s also acknowledge one point; it isn’t as though other tennis stars don’t want to be as powerful or good as Serena, it is because they can’t. To continually focus on her figure is a method of deterring the conversation from her talent to how her body can be sexualized (or not).
This overarching pattern of how we talk about women, sexuality, and gender roles also extends to how women talk about women as well. In 2004, Andrea Zimbadri, a standout catcher on the University of Florida softball team, sued the school because her coach singled out players she believed were lesbian because it didn’t align with her strong Christian beliefs. Zimbardi eventually won the case, but only after losing her place on the team and an opportunity to play her entire senior year.
In a 2006 lawsuit, Penn State basketball player Jennifer Harris claimed that her coach Rene Portland had a policy of “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” To put the word lesbian in the same statement as two things that are detrimental to an athlete’s ability to perform perpetuates the myth that something is inherently wrong with LGBTQ people. Harris was dismissed from the team and Portland later resigned. Not only were these athletes discriminated against due to their perceived sexuality, these cases also reveal the way gender norms and patriarchy continue to dictate how LGBTQ athletes are received.
In other cases, it is an aspect of women’s socialization. As professional snowboarder Mary Rand told Witnessing Greatness, riding with women can often be a challenge because of their lack of confidence. “A negative is that [women] are going to sort of be feeding off one another’s fear while we are out there snowboarding. That’s a thing, [saying] ‘Don’t be a girl, just go, you can do it, be confident in yourself.’ With the guys that’s what I see all day long and they're better than me and I aspire to be better with them.” We are programmed to say “sorry” for things that we shouldn’t. We are taught that being scared is a feminine emotion. We are told that women are driven entirely by their emotions (or their menstrual cycles).
Yet, LGBTQ athletes and their allies find a way to speak their truth to power, come out and share their stories. Former college football player Michael Sam, WNBA All-Star Sue Bird, professional skateboarder Brian Anderson, and professional boxer Orlando Cruz are all recent examples. But coming out isn’t the whole story. It continues as people struggle to succeed in their sport and in society. It is former NFL tackle Ryan O’Callaghan’s admission that he intended to kill himself after his football career was over. It is WNBA guard Shavonte Zellous’ decision to come out after three of her friends were murdered in the Pulse nightclub shootings.
It can be something as simple as deciding that “I never wanted to be known as a follower.” Miami fitness trainer and martial artist Lisa Gaylord had her first black belt in karate by the age of 14. Gaylord never trained and rarely competed against women. In fact, it was her success in sports that triggered sexist reactions; “No one had an expectation on us, it was just you’re a girl, but when I started getting really good and beating all the boys then it became an issue…then it became a questioning of if I belong.”
Being an advocate can be as simple as saying the right words at the right time. After a reporter at the 2017 Wimbledon match described Sam Querrey as the “first U.S. player to reach a major semi-final since 2009”, star tennis player Andy Murray quickly interrupted him and said “male player.” During the 2016 Olympics games, BBC reporter John Inverdale called him the “first player to win two gold medals” in tennis. Murray wasted no time, reminding him that "Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each."
When we consider what the problem is with women’s sports, consider the language of inequality from which that question emerges. When we denigrate the abilities of another athlete, do we do so based on skill instead of arbitrary statements such as “he throws like a girl.”
Do we attend women’s sporting events and support their expertise on an equal footing with men? When an athlete comes out, do we talk to our kids openly and support those athletes. And how do we take this behavior beyond the playing field? Do we show support, do we offer fair pay? Do we treat everyone with respect? And call out other people when they don’t?
This is how equality starts, when each of us takes responsibility for everyone’s opportunity to succeed.
Leisl Veach is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Seattle, WA. She is the creator and co-host of the sports podcast Witnessing Greatness, which focuses on a balance between mainstream sports and stories that highlight LGBTQ athletes and issues. She is also an avid athlete, board game enthusiast, and holds a PhD in English from the University of Washington.