Friday, March 16, 2007

It's all my fault

I have read a few articles recently that say how great women's sports are, if only more people would show up at games and contests so women's sports could get the recognition they deserve.
And whose fault is it that there are so many empty seats in the crowd? Mine apparently.
Two of the articles were by male columnists and both cite women as the reason why crowds are thin at women's events. (OK not my fault specifically, as I do indeed go to women's events--heck I plan whole vacations around women's sporting events. Of course this generalization is part of the problem with the male columnists.)
A Fairfield College columnist bemoaned the lack of attention the women's sports at her school receive from the community despite their overall success in recent years. She though starts to get at the reality of the situation--not the lack of female fans--the pervasive, antiquated stereotypes of women's sports:
We've all heard the common argument, that women's sports are slow, uncompetitive and lacking in the strength that men's programs offer. In some aspects this is true, but I know plenty of people who would not want to stand in front of a spike from the volleyball team.
I think she damages her own argument with the "some aspects this is true" line. I have never seen a noncompetitive women's event in my life; there may be differences in skill that result in slanted scores--this happens in men's sports too--but every athlete out there is competitive.
But the problem is that the belief is still there. Last summer I listened to a male fan complain about how long the women's tennis match we were watching at the Pilot Pen was taking because he wanted to see the men play. This was a match with rising star Anna Chakvetadze which was followed by a men's match with a French journeyman and a relative eastern European unknown (nationality matters in the United States as evidenced by the near exclusive television coverage of American players in Grand Slam events).
Why not women's hockey? Because it isn't as physical some say.
Why not women's basketball? Because they only shoot from the outside. (One of my male students a few years ago offered that rationale.)
Why not women's soccer? They just are not as skilled as the men. (That was from one of my female students who is a soccer player and said women's professional soccer was not as interesting to her because she looked at them and knew she could do everything they did. I stopped myself from pointing out that if that were really true she probably wouldn't be playing at a relatively unknown DIII school.)
The problem remains that we still judge women's sports in relation to men's. And some of those doing the judging--like my male student--admit to rarely even watching women's sports.
Still, according to columnist Mark Purdy:
Women's sports events do not draw larger crowds mostly because those events are not supported strongly enough by ... other women.
And from a student columnist, Frank Ram, at Citrus College, some pretty scathing comments for all us supporters of equal rights:
If women want equal rights in athletics, they should start by supporting the teams they fought hard to get.
Women who preach for equal right in athletics need to buy tickets and show up so that the empty seats don't outnumber the filled ones.
Where to start? First, we cannot be everywhere. When the WUSA was in existence I went to see the Boston Breakers. But I couldn't go to California where some teams were less supported than the Boston franchise. And secondly I would almost guarantee that all those who preached in the 70s and those of us who do so today DO go to events. For example, I am headed to the first round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament on Sunday.
But there won't just be women there. There will be men and children and probably even some people who don't conform to the gender binary at all.
Ram notes that "Since most people who watch male athletics are men, it would makes sense that women should support their teams and further their cause towards equality." But there are a lot of women who watch men's sports. A lot. And there are men who watch women's sports. And there men and women who watch both men's and women's sports. And there are some people who don't watch sports at all. Yes, even men.
The problem is that too many people--like Frank Ram--believe in this separatist model and/or that women's sports just aren't as good.
And they fail to see the larger picture which is that women's sports are not as supported because they are not as valued--by both men and women. Because being a female athlete casts doubt on your "femininity" and thus your sexuality. And the same is true of fandom. Avid female fans are often lesbians and those who are not often have to justify their fandom with things like pink baseball caps, or pink football jerseys.
In other words, there is still a lot of stigma around women's sports that will not be solved with more women showing up to games.

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