Women and Sports: How Stereotypes Permeate the Entire Culture
Stereotypes against women abound in sports. This isn’t just a sweeping generalization I’m making because I’m a woman. I’ve seen it first-hand. In fact, I’ve experienced it first-hand, on more than one occasion and in more than one context. Trying to survey stereotypes in sports would necessitate an entire series of books, let alone one article. However, drawing on my experience with sports, which I love dearly, there are three major facets of sports culture in which we as women confront stereotypes most often: as fans, as players, and as the professionals who cover sports.
I have been a lifelong fan of sports. I have been a lover of football, baseball, soccer, basketball, you name it. As a fan of sports, I’ve often been on the receiving end of a blase attitude toward my appreciation for sports. Unless you can rattle off Ty Cobb’s fielding percentage from 1916, you’re not considered a true fan, even if you’ve published work on game theory and pitching optimization.
When I was in college, my university hosted the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Men’s National Basketball Tournament, and anyone could volunteer for a number of roles. If you drove vans to and from the airport at least four times, you received a pass to the entire tournament. Any female who volunteered to drive was accused of only doing so to “get her M.R.S.” or meet her next date for the weekend.
I admit that the eye candy was not unappreciated, but I drove those vans back and forth, chucked stinky duffle bags, and dealt with tired and generally uncommunicative troupes of young men in order to have an all-tourney pass. I wanted to watch basketball anytime I could!
A nationally ranked college football team in my home state also used to put on a football “camp” for women. I attended it years ago, and I left feeling insulted. Terms were “dumbed-down” as if women were incapable of understanding a safety or even the line of scrimmage. Female football fans are instead encouraged to host tailgate parties and wear pink gear. I like pink gear, but that’s not what being a sports fan is all about!
Educating genuine fans of sports, especially those whose interest is in infancy, should never begin with dumbing-down of any kind, and it shouldn’t be all about the latest tailgating recipes. These are some of the most off-putting tactics any educated fan can do to someone who’s learning. And I was constantly defending my reasons for taking so many van trips until I simply quit doing so. It’s better to show people I knew basketball than tell them I wasn’t in it for the guys.
When Will We See More Women?
As a fan of sports, I want to see more women in sports. And I want to see women’s sports get more press. I also would like to see a little less misogyny in sports in general. Title IX was introduced to the Higher Education Act in 1972 in order to promote equality in all sports. Instead footballs teams are still made up entirely of male athletes. There have been only 10 female college football players, and the majority of them were kickers.
I obviously love Major League Baseball, but I don’t want to wait for Mo'ne’ Davis to be signed to a contract four years from now, though I have a feeling she very well could do it.. In my opinion, Jennie Finch has what it takes to play MLB baseball, yet she’s stereotyped as “just a softball player.” Because of her prowess, Finch’s skills intimidate even the biggest MLB sluggers. If this is the case, why isn’t she pitching on an MLB mound?
Another favorite sport that I don’t get to see often enough is soccer, period, to be honest. Most fans of all soccer, men’s or women’s are European. Point the mass media microscope at women’s soccer, and that microscope rebels. If you take the analogy of the equality of Title IX, it’s the women technically dominate in this case. As proved just this year when the U.S. women’s team won its third Fédération Internationale de Football Association World Cup. The U.S. men’s team has never made it past third place, and that was in 1930, when the first men’s World Cup was held. Even the video game culture was up in arms when EA’s newest FIFA release was designed to have 12 women’s teams.
Instead of focusing on us as objects for derision and sex jokes, sports journalism needs to refocus its methods. Female athletes are as skilled if not more so than their male counterparts. And female sports fans who truly engage in sports culture for the sake of it want to see more sisters playing sports on national television. Targeting the audience should be easier than pointing a camera at some unsuspecting woman in a bikini and pointing the proverbial finger at her.
Speaking of the Media
What happens when we’re members of the journalism club, and we’re targets of the stereotypes? I worked as a sports reporter for three years when I was in college. I was the only woman in the sports department and a bit younger than most of my colleagues.
Being taller than everyone but the 6-foot-8 principal when I was in fifth grade made being female challenging my whole life, but it wasn’t until I worked at the newspaper that I was questioned for my intelligence. I had the baseball box score memorized, yet one baseball coach insisted on explaining what bases-on-balls were each time I spoke with him. “Y’know. Walks,” I can still hear him say, and this was more than a decade ago. It didn’t matter to him that I was the consummate professional, double-checking scores with him and always treating him with respect. He didn’t respect me.
I knew I was good at my job, but this coach’s treatment of me still stung. Were my audience larger, like the one to which Erin Andrews caters, the stereotyping would hurt even more. The fact that her looks are even an issue is insulting. To her and to every other woman in sports journalism. She told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013 that she’s been dubbed “Sideline Barbie.” When Richard Sherman went off on a tangent during an Andrews interview, she was accused of provoking him.
Still, women sports journalist have role models like Andrews and Lesley Visser, the only female member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Visser, Andrews, and others like Hannah Storm are the women in media young fans should be emulating. Young female fans already have an uneasy relationship with the media, confronted with gender stereotypes from all angles, according to research done at Ohio University.
How to Fix It
With young women interacting with both sports and the media as early as middle school, or even elementary school, it’s up to journalists like Andrews and Storm to step up to the plate. That’s what Andrews was doing when pointed out in an interview that she’s often asked how much her and dresses cost her. She turned the tables on the interviewer: “Go ask Michael Strahan how much his suits cost.”
The more courageous we females continue to be when it comes to our love of sports, the fewer stereotypes we’ll encounter.