The spotlight of the Olympic Games provides an opportunity to glimpse the world’s most accomplished athletes competing at the height of their athletic careers. For the past two weeks, we have bared witness to a wide variety of feats of power, strength, and endurance from athletes around the world. We have celebrated their victories and lamented their defeats as we collectively do during each Olympic cycle. In the afterglow of the Games, however, the attention paid to women’s sport will inevitably retreat. Amidst the momentum of the #TimesUp movement and the reignited conversation surrounding gender equality, I would like to urge a conversation around the importance of supporting and respecting women in sport on a consistent, year round basis.
It has been argued that perhaps more than any other industry, sport propagates male superiority and female inferiority. Professor Emeritus Gary Whannel once labeled sport, “a deeply entrenched bastion of patriarchy”. Indeed, sexism exists across all levels from the earliest ways in which we introduce our children to sport, to the professional sporting ranks, and careers in the sport industry. Women in sport are viewed as “other”. Little girls are not groomed to participate in sport in the same ways young boys are. We bring our baby girls home from the hospital in pretty pink outfits and gift them dolls; baby boys traditionally sport hues of blue and find themselves immediately linked with their father’s favourite sport team. While young girls are often directed toward “gender appropriate” sports, young boys are commonly encouraged to participate in a wide variety of physical activity and exposed to an endless supply of male role models in sport to emulate. It’s a rite of passage to teach little boys how to play catch. When girls who have not had the same training attempt a pitch, they are chastised for “throwing like a girl”.
I fell in love with the game of golf as an adolescent. It consumed much of my time as a teenager. Despite the fact that I spent endless hours on the driving range and often played more than one round of golf a day during the summer months, it was not uncommon to show up to the first tee and overhear the group of men scheduled to play behind me ask the starter if they might go out ahead of me—they didn’t want to be slowed down by a girl. It was not uncommon when I bested my male playing partners to have them joke about what it was like to be “beaten by a girl”. It was not even uncommon for grown men to walk off the course in disgust after playing a few holes with me, unable to square the fact that a young girl who practiced the game for hours on end might possibly be able to out play a weekend warrior. How could a “girl” be better at a sport than a grown man?
My experiences are not unique. They are relatively benign in nature and merely the tip of an iceberg that is representative of a much broader societal ill. Last year John McEnroe casually suggested that Serena Williams, one of the most dominant athletes of all time, would rank 700th in the world if she were a man. Think about the subtle lessons this instills in an impressionable audience. Think about the power dynamic in sport that this reinforces.
It seems that being a female sport enthusiast is only magnified with age. Opportunities become increasingly limited and societal expectations further perpetuate sport as a male domain. There is a significant drop off rate in sport participation among female adolescent youth. Among Canadian’s aged 15 and over, just one sixth of women report regular sport participation compared to a third of all men.
When female athletes do receive media attention, research indicates that it is often exceedingly gendered.
Female athletes tend to be framed around stories that focus on their femininity as opposed to their athletic ability and achievement.
They also tend to be covered in a manner that conforms to conventional gender norms.
Of critical importance is the fact that significantly less money is put into the promotion of women’s sport. This generates less revenue and reinforces a common perception that women’s sports are inherently less interesting and exciting, resulting in a frustrating cycle of self-perpetuation.
Just imagine if there were similar practices in place for men’s sport. Consider the potential implications if football for example, were not consistently available on Sundays with hours of lead up coverage and hype. What if the NFL had not branded the catch phrase “Monday Night Football” and instead sent in second-tier staff to cover random games on a tight production budget? What if the colour commentators casually joined games already in progress and discussed the marital status of players as opposed to the records they were breaking and the rivalries that were unfolding?
Sponsorship and pay inequities among the professional ranks in sport speak even louder volumes when it comes to inequality in sport. The most recent Forbes’ ranking of the World’s 100 Highest Paid Athletes saw Serena Williams ranked 51st with a combined annual income of $27 million. She was the only female to make the list. The top earning male athlete was Ronaldo with $58 million in salary for the 2017 calendar year and an additional $35 million in endorsements. The creator of the list, Kurt Badenhausen, noted that, “the Top 100 athletes are a boys club more than ever”. Between 2011-2013, women’s sports accounted for a mere 0.4% of total sport sponsorship spending.
In practice, elite level sportswomen largely struggle to make a living in sport with stark pay inequities and slim sponsorship opportunities. The 2015 Women’s World Cup championship team received a $2 million dollar reward; the 2014 Men’s’ World Cup Champions were awarded $35 million. In golf, Brooks Koepka, the U.S. Open men’s champion was awarded $2.16 million; the female U.S. Open champion, Sung Hyun Park, took home $900, 000. The highest paid player in the WNBA earns a salary that is roughly one-fifth of the NBA’s lowest paid player according to calculations conducted by Newsweek. Adding insult to injury, retired women athletes are generally left without a pension and sometimes housing. Options to continue their craft when the competitive aspect of their career is over are exceedingly sparse. Female representation on National Olympic Committees, for example, is just 16%. It is little wonder there are not more aspiring young athletes clamouring for the financial insecurity linked with women’s professional sport. The dearth of visible female sport role models under this light becomes less of a mystery as well.
As I have I have grown into my role as a sport scholar, I have wondered how my experiences in sport might play out if I were male. Would it be assumed that I know what I am doing when I arrive at the first tee? Would the male golfers I get paired up with be impressed by my athletic ability and knowledge of sport if my femininity did not threaten their manhood? The obvious answer is likely yes and I believe this is the root of sport’s biggest problem. Our culture exists upon the premise that sport is a male domain. Women that excel in sport as athletes are exceptions to this unwritten rule. Women who attempt to pursue careers in the sport industry run against the grain.
Sports are something that people should be equally entitled to. What’s more, female success in sport deserves to be celebrated—not treated as a threat to the institution. I was fortunate to be raised in a family that supported my passion for sport. I readily attribute values like my work ethic and competitive drive to my upbringing in sport and my sporting experiences paved the way for numerous opportunities in my life. I don’t know a single woman in sport, however, that doesn’t have a story to tell around how they were in some way belittled or trivialized as a result of their association with sport. We should demand better than this as a society. We should want more for our next generation of little girls. We should want to enable elite sportswomen to sustain livelihoods as professional athletes and provide opportunities for women to exist in a greater number of sport leadership roles and careers. We should demand that women in sport are given the respect they deserve.
At the end of the day, recognizing women in sport is simply good business strategy. It’s an untapped market—and the push for gender equality has never been more en vogue. As we move beyond this Olympic cycle and slip back into our everyday lives, I encourage everyone to re-consider the taken-for-granted nature of women’s place in sport. Be mindful of the well-established, deeply engrained preconceptions that we have become so accustomed to as a society and dare to imagine a world in which women and men are equally integrated into the sporting sphere and supported in their passions with similar enthusiasm. Join together and agree #TimesUp in sport, too.
*A version of this piece originally appeared on February 7, 2018 in the Globe and Mail