When I give talks about the politics of sports, I try to end these lectures by speaking about how history continues to unfold today. Invariably over the last several months, I tell stories about athletes holding up the #BlackLivesMatter banner. And I describe the remarkable strides the LGBT community has made in organized sports.
But what about women? Where are the calls for equal pay, equal respect, and, most pointedly, equal coverage emanating from the world of women’s athletics? The answer is complicated.
On one hand, women and girls have never had more access to sports. Women make up 43 per- cent of college scholarship athletes. The ascension over the summer of Little League baseball phenom Mo’ne Davis electrified the country and produced record television ratings. In addition, a new generation of sportscasters and writers, such as Kate Fagan, Emma Span, and Jemele Hill, are proving that good sports writing and analysis by women will find a ready audience.
At the youth level, two in three girls play some form of organized sports. When we consider that forty years ago, before the passage of Title IX, only one out of thirty-four girls was on a team, this is progress writ large. According to research by the Women’s Sports Foundation, young girls who play sports are less likely to have eating disorders or be involved in abusive relationships. To look at the diference sports makes in the lives of women and girls is to be filled with awe over how far women have come in this traditionally male-dominated space.
And yet, while the number of women playing sports has never been higher, the major networks have for all intents and purposes stopped covering women’s sports.
Mentions of women’s sports on TV news and highlights shows have nearly evaporated since 1989—from a high of 9 percent of airtime devoted to women athletes in 1999 to an unbelievable 1.6 percent in 2009. When we consider the 24-7 sports news cycle, this disappearance is all the more remarkable. Yet unlike in the worlds of black and LGBT politics, women athletes are not using their stature and platform as players to speak about the problems they face as women.
One reason for this has to be that the very presence of women in the male-dominated sports world has always been a social question as much as an athletic question. In the 1920s and the 1970s, when women were raising hell in the streets and demanding equality, the same energy was reflected in the sports arena—a place where their power and strength could be accepted and respected. During periods when there was a backlash against women’s rights—the 1950s and the last twenty years—the presence of women as athletes with few exceptions has receded into the background. A very sexist mainstream media seems to publicize women athletes only when they are willing to be part of bikini photo shoots. Sports can operate as a machine of sexist disempowerment. Research shows that the more pornographic women’s sports coverage becomes, the less interest there is in the general public consuming it as sports.
But there is hope. Over the last several months, numerous women’s basketball teams—at both the high school and collegiate level—have taken part in the Black Lives Matter movement and worn “I Can’t Breathe” shirts on the court. In the 1960s, it was engagement with the black freedom struggle that helped spark the women’s liberation movement. Maybe #BlackLivesMatter can act as a similar transmission belt. When the young women of Uniontown high school wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, they said that they were inspired by LeBron James wearing the shirt. Hopefully that inspiration will extend to standing up for themselves in the face of a sexist sports culture.