“No One Wants To Watch It” : The Year of Women in Sports

Originally posted at Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sport and Society 

If had a nickel for every headline this past year that claimed 2012 was the “Year of Women’s Sport” I would be able to buy a hefty bag of candies from Seven Eleven. This has even come from heavy hitters such as NPRTimeCNN, and The Advocate among others. Many of these proclamations were sparked by the 2012 London Olympics for its various milestones. All countries represented had female and male competitors for the first time; the US even had more female than male athletes in attendance. Women’s boxing made its debut as an Olympic sport. In Canada, we voted national soccer team captain Christine Sinclair as Canada’s Athlete of the Year. Those of you who caught Sinclair’s performance in the recent summer Olympics will not be surprised by this award selection. Her performance was simply mesmerizing. CBCSports.ca soccer writer Ben Rycroft has said, “For Sinclair, it was the best year by the best player Canada has ever produced — on the men or women’s side.”

I have, indeed, swooned over Sinclair’s moves and swooned over Canada’s swooning over this deserving soccer player. I had goose bumps when hearing 17-year-old boxing gold medalist Claressa Shields explain that she was “so mad” when she was told as a little kid that girls couldn’t box. And, I’m not the only one. That story won the best radio documentary of the year at the esteemed Third Coast Festival. The public are rooting for these women. I mean actually rooting – there’s no paternal “ain’t that sweet” sentimentality surrounding these athletes.

I do think the excitement around these stories is a marker in a cultural shift, of sorts, in North America. These female athletes are legitimate athletic role models.

However, this shift (as pleasing as it is to this sporty feminist’s eye) seems to be merely a chip in the facade of a greater and firmly rooted patriarchal foundation. I was thinking about this recently when my news alerts brought me to an article which rightfully pointed out that considering all the recent athletic achievements of women in sport it is pretty appalling to witness the stats associated with its media coverage. A 20 year study (1989-2009) by University of Southern California found that “women’s sports accounted for less than 2% of network news and ESPN’s SportsCenter.” I’ve seen these stats before so I don’t find them shocking any longer. What I am increasingly having a hard time digesting is how ordinary and banal people seem to find these facts. As one commenter under the above mentioned article wrote, “It is simple really. No one wants to watch it.”

It’s become a kind of cognitive dissonance. We can adore and give the highest acclaim to Christine Sinclair and at the same time we understand that it’s perfectly natural that she should never be able to make a living at soccer nor enjoy a supportive viewership year round.

How did we get here? To an era that seems to celebrate women in sport at the same time we expect it to remain second class. Well, I have some theories (with a little help from some wise sports scholars).

Theory 1: We keep putting all our equality eggs in the Olympic basket. 

It’s no secret that I find much about the International Olympic Committee and its reign to be problematic to say the least. But, this does not mean every person involved in every level of Olympic organizing consciously believes that women’s sport should remain a substandard spectacle. It does mean that any progress around gender equality will never be led by the IOC unless it happens to coincide with a presumed increase in profits or a benefit to the Olympic brand.

At the London Olympics opening ceremony IOC president Jacques Rogge said that the participation of at least one female athlete per participating country was “a major boost for gender equality.” As I mentioned above, this is one of the main cited reasons for 2012 being the Year of Women’s Sport. Last summer I asked Kathleen Lahey, a law professor and sport equity expert, about these declarations of equality in the Olympics. She responded, “I have likened that to saying: Oh well then women in Canada must be equal now because we have at least one woman MP sitting in the Canadian parliament from each province and territory. That is a very superficial definition of equality.”

To give further perspective, the first female IOC member was not accepted until 1981. Not exactly trailblazers of women’s inclusion. According to a recent IOC fact sheet, “more than 18.8%” of the current membership include women (4 of which are “honorary” members). Pardon me if I don’t rejoice in the apparent brag-worthy percentage of 18.8679 as marking some sort of dawning age of equality.

The IOC is not a democracy. It does not have internal laws like Canada’s Charter, the U.K.’s Human Rights Act 2010, or other non-discrimination provisions. In the words of acclaimed sport journalist Laura Robinson, the IOC is “powerful men who answer to no one [who] decide whether women can participate.” However, due to the hard work of canoeist Samantha Rippington and her legal team we may yet see some movement in the IOC’s and host country’s human rights accountability in the near future.

Theory 2: Ending homophobia in sport is seen as unrelated to ending sexism

“The usual way the people are taught to think in amerika is that each subject is in a little compartment and has no relation to any other subject.  For the most part, we receive fragments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no logical format or pattern.  It is exactly this kind of education that produces people who don’t have the ability to think for themselves and who are easily manipulated.” – Assata Shakur

A happy thing has occurred over the last couple years in men’s professional sport – homophobia against men (lesbian/queer women are largely ignored as all women in professional sport) is slowly becoming unacceptable. A few NFL players have come out in support of gay marriage and Patrick Burke’s You Can Play Project, dedicated to “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation” has seen much press and support.  

A couple months ago I attended a small workshop on the topic of homophobia in men’s professional sports. There were a few very young women in attendance who made it obvious that their participation was contingent on an extra credit for a first year undergraduate course at the host University. However, as the workshop progressed I could tell that the topic was exciting their interest. The facilitator took us through some examples of instances of homophobia in men’s sports – most notably Blue Jays player Yunel Escobar’s anti-gay slur written on his eye black – as well as acknowledging that derogatory terms used against gay men are often synonymous with slurs that have been used to put down women.

During the discussion period one of the young women offered that rejection of homophobia is much easier to embrace when one knows a gay person. She admitted to saying things like “that’s so gay” before two of her close cousins ‘came out.’ I thought this the perfect opportunity to tease out some of the issues for this young woman who initially seemed entirely bored by the subject. I said to her that surely she has women in her life that she is close with; she’s a woman herself. Homophobia against men is rooted in a devaluation or hatred, even, of what we understand to be feminine traits: sensitive, physically weak, superficial, materialistic etc. So, you’re a “fag” and therefore not a ‘real man’ because you’re behaving like a ‘woman’ which is the ultimate insult for a boy or man. This is entirely related to society’s devaluation of women. She gave me a blank stare. I looked to the facilitator for help and when it didn’t arrive I tried to get him to talk about the significance of Escobar’s defenders who said that the Spanish slur written under his eyes actually translated to “pussy” not “faggot” and therefore was obviously more acceptable. He acknowledged that that was interesting but could not help me break down the significance for the young woman. Too bad Hudson Taylor wasn’t there.

I have thought about that moment a lot and what it says about how we’ve come to understand sexism in contemporary times. It’s important to stop using anti-gay slurs in the fight to end homophobia but if we’re unwilling to talk about why gay men so wholly offend the status quo, especially in a uber masculine environment like men’s professional sport, then we’re at best simply treating the symptoms instead of the cause. The resultant disease is that sexism remains unscrutinized, difficult to challenge, and largely invisible.

Theory 3: The sex binary myth has been replaced by ‘mutant women’ myth

Sport is organized around the celebration of masculinity (i.e. traits we socially prescribe to men). Due to this, female athletes occupy an uncomfortable social space because their very existence confuses traditional notions of femininity and masculinity.  What this means is that the treatment of female athletes is a useful barometer for the status of women in society as a whole.

As elite female athletes continue to push the gender expectations the last several years has seen a pushback against this challenging of the status quo. Only this time around the conversation has changed.

Last summer I interviewed sport scholar Sandy Wells about recent developments in the language around gender in sport and continued debates in sport about sex testing. An important fight in feminism has been pointing out that the sex binary is a myth. To quote the linked article by Melissa McEwan, “Every time one sex has assigned to it a particular trait or behavior or emotion, then the other is assigned its opposite, or merely its absence—and a failure to demonstrate its opposite or absence, as prescribed by one’s own gender, thus results in a deviation of which our gender-obsessed, binary-obsessed, gender role-enforcing patriarchy will not approve.” Fortunately, as mentioned, female athletes by mere existence have busted many of these binaries. This makes me think of people like Kathrine Switzer (first woman to run the Boston Marathon) whose own track coach didn’t believe women had the physiological capability to run a marathon until she proved him wrong one day at practice.

When controversy exploded over the gender/sex of South African athlete Castor Semenya, Sandy Wells analyzed reactions on a track and field listserv on which she is a subscriber. She made some interesting observations. She noted that, “people were very knowledgeable about biological myths about the sex binary.” So, unlike more sensationalist headlines concluding that Semenya must be a “man” because she competed so well, these track experts believe that her biology merely gives her an ‘unfair’ advantage over other women (this accusation was thrown on basketball player Brittney Griner more recently – read linked post to see why I believe it’s no coincidence that these two high profile cases were centred around women of colour). This unfair advantage being her “abnormal” testosterone levels. As Sandy Wells points out, this is no less sexist as “the result is that women are still compared against a standard of athleticism that is defined always as being outside of their capacity.”

In other words, the dialogue, in the institution of sport (Wells noted these conversations in the IOC level as well), has changed from blatant refusal to believe that any woman could compete at a high level at all (and therefore must be a man if they actually did) to a proposed desire to ‘protect’ female athletes from abnormal outliers that make the playing field “unfair.” Sandy Wells reiterates why the latter is still problematic by explaining that the demand for anatomically and hormonally equivalence in sport is only demanded in women’s sport because “men who play sports are just exhibiting maleness.” Standing at 7 ft 6 inches, Yao Ming’s hasn’t been barred from basketball in order to level the playing field. He is just using his ‘natural’ characteristics to his advantage as is expected from any male athlete.

Theory 4: Sex segregation in sport cements notion that women are worse than men at sport

Dividing sport based on sex relies on a lot of assumptions on sex differences in performance. It seems like a useful marker because it is believed that men are generally better than women in sport. I can’t think of any other institution where blatant proclamations of women’s inferiority are taken so wholly for granted.

Despite this ingrained sense of female inferiority, progressive sport experts have been questioning the usefulness of sex segregation for years. As early as 1985, Bruce Kidd (former Olympian and current University of Toronto professor) was reported to have said that, “there are little or no physiological reasons to exclude women from participating with men in most sports. Given the same training, time and resources women could learn to play most sports as well as men.” In 1988, after battling for 3 years in court, young Justine Blainey won the right to play in the boy’s Metro Toronto Hockey League. In a Globe and Mail article from 1993, sport journalist Laura Robinson explains that Blainey’s win, unfortunatlely, has not been enough to change attitudes. She ends the article by writing: “1947, Jackie Robinson bravely challenged the colour barrier in sports. Today it would be unthinkable to segregate people by race in sports. Isn’t it time we took the same attitude toward segregation by sex?”

Some of you may be thinking, well, race is different. We know that the fastest man is faster than the fastest woman; the strongest weight lifting man is stronger than the strongest weight lifting woman etc. To begin, these kinds of stats are pulled from a tiny minority of the all ready tiny minority of elite competitors based in a world that does not make it easy for women to live and train solely as an athlete. Additionally, most sex segregated sports have stats that are not so easily comparable. Rules in women’s sports tend to be ‘lighter’ than men’s (e.g. best of 3 sets in women’s tennis vs. best of 5 sets in men’s). Even so, any results we have deemed comparable do not prove that this will be the way things are forever or that these differences are based solely on inherent ‘man genetics’ and not cultural expectations.

Cordelia Fin writes about how sensitive our mind and performance is to the social environment in her illuminating book Delusions of Gender. Through simple manipulations of social context social psychologists are disproving many long held beliefs on gender differences of cognition and at the same time showing the power of ingrained stereotypes. Historically, mental rotation performance – a type of test linked to spatial intelligence – has been the most consistently measured aspect of cognition that invokes male superiority. Higher levels of testosterone in boys and men have been a popular explanation for the results. This 2010 study in Physiological Science journal supported this theory by hypothesizing that female twins from opposite-sex pairs will “show a large and robust male advantage, such as the mental rotation task” due to their prenatal testosterone exposure. So how big exactly is this large and robust male advantage? In her book Fin points out several social cues that adjusted these results. The most staggering involved 3 groups; the first was told that men perform better in this test, “probably for genetic reasons,” the control group was given no information about gender and the last group was told the blatant lie that women perform better in this test. In the first two groups the men outperformed women in the usual way but the last group, the “women are better” group, the women performed just as well as the men.

This does not prove exactly what biology is behind success in the mental rotation performance but it does prove that our social expectations, especially when triggered, appear to greatly affect performance. If our social expectations are strong enough to change actual performance then it’s a safe assumption that dividing all sports by sex (as a way to mark general skill level) will reinforce the societal expectation that women’s sports are lower status.

Anybody remember this poster?

Writers and scholars Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pannano explore the sex segregation issue more deeply in their book Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport. They do a convincing job of explaining why these assumptions create a near impenetrable cycle, “…the initial assumption that women are inferior to men in sports gets institutionalized not only by the way sports is coercively organized on a sex-segregated principle, including sex segregation in the monetary rewards for playing sports, but also in the way these principles reproduce the initial assumption of women’s inferiority in the first place.” That’s a bit of a mouth full but it explains the catch-22 of “little demand for women’s sports = low monetary investment/low monetary investment confirms women’s sports as low-grade = little demand” reinforced by the assumptions for dividing sexes in the first place.

I do not have room in this piece to discuss the various forms and ramifications of taking away the sex dividing line in sport (e.g religious requirements, maintenance of safe trans/women’s/girl’s only spaces etc). I do not think any feminist minded sport enthusiast is advocating to do away with this division in every circumstance. Women/trans sport spaces will remain important fixtures in our communities as will discussions led by Muslim feminists on Right To Wear campaigns. Conversations on how to change the sport institution to be more fair and equitable have been going on for years and what better time to bring them to the forefront than in the post-Year of Women’s Sports era.

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