I’ve recently become a fan of pro basketball. I watch it often with my boyfriend and a couple of our other friends (all male). And more often than not, I’m struck and annoyed by the casual sexism that is…well everywhere, even in this sport that hasn’t been in any high profile cases of abuse or assault. Who is allowed to report or speak on the action, the cheerleaders and dancers, and the inability of anyone to even consider that women could be integrated with the men’s teams or be as interesting as men’s sports (a view often espoused by the same people I watch basketball with, who in many other areas are big proponents of gender egalitarianism).
More often than not I just hear that women aren’t as good, their bodies don’t allow them to be as powerful, as strong, or excel to the extent that men do. So it’s not interesting to watch them.
This often leads to me yelling about how women are just as athletic and impressive as men, and that we need a better system for differentiating leagues in sports than “men” and “women”. Especially with trans and intersex athletes becoming more and more common, the categories we’re using today just aren’t going to cut it, but for some reason most people are 100% ok with the idea that gender is the only or best way to organize sports.
There are a few things that might lead sports to being a serious holdout when it comes to sexism: it’s a fairly insular culture that tends to kick out people who rock the boat. It is obviously physical and men and women do have generally different bodies. But perhaps more than that is the cult of sports that says sports=masculinity.
Because there’s no absolute value that says being bigger or stronger is always better in sports. There are sports in which female athletes do beat male athletes (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, and many of the top rock climbers in the world are women), and even some sports that favor women overall, such as gymnastics and volleyball. The problem is that people don’t take those sports as seriously.
The popular sports are the ones that statistically are going to favor men, especially at an elite level. In the NBA for example, height is such a high predictor of success that almost 17% of all men over 7 feet tall are in the NBA (this is so ridiculous I can’t even process it, as the league as a whole is one of the smallest professional sports leagues, with only 15 members per team). The tallest woman in the world today measures in at 7 ft 3 inches, whereas the tallest man is over 8 ft, with the next few trailing in the inches behind them, making it far less likely that women will physically be able to compete against the taller men.
There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. But the sports that take advantage of women’s abilities like gymnastics, open water swimming, figure skating, or shooting, are not pushed on the media, supported, or even really considered sports in the way that the big male sports are.
While there’s no surefire way to change the attitudes of people towards these sports, media coverage of them would go a long way towards showing people that they are actually interesting (also note that gymnastics and figure skating get huge numbers of views during the Olympics when they are broadcast widely).
There’s some good evidence that the cultures that make up male dominated sports are harmful both to the people who engage in them and the people who interact with them, pushing men to view women as objects and socialize exclusively with other men, giving them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they’re capable of. That means there’s good reason to consider integrating sports, especially as the sports that are integrated (for example cheerleading) show good evidence of being healthier for everyone involved and bestowing benefits like teamwork, understanding, and respect for women’s leadership abilities. So why don’t we integrate sports, and if we do, how should we go about doing it?
The first and most obvious way to integrate would be to simply have one league in which everyone plays, potentially with an A and B league so that we get the same number of athletes playing and so that we get the same set of less powerful athletes playing at the B league (something that many people find more interesting for the different styles of play it encourages). Of course the problem with this is that it would make some sports entirely male and probably end up with predominantly male leagues simply because power is still prioritized in many sports.
Another possibly more helpful way to integrate by gender but keep the playing field relatively even would be weight classes. Of course this won’t work for every sport, but it would be a start and could be instituted in sports where weight is a significant factor. For team sports that require a variety of body types and skills this is not an adequate solution, but it would certainly help with individual sports.
It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? We have rules against using steroids or against sticking a trampoline under the basket, both of which mean that players aren’t being as outstanding in their abilities as they could be. I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.
Of course a lot of the work when it comes to gender integration of sports is going to be convincing fans that women are both athletic and interesting to watch. It’s convincing people that sheer power is not the most interesting athletic attribute (or at least not always). It might even be shifting the massive amount of time and effort that certain leagues put into maintaining a masculine image towards one that’s more inclusive and accepting of people who don’t just want to commit exclusively to sports and only sports all the time by proving that they’re men, manly men, the manliest men.
There are so many interwoven cultural signifiers that take up residence within our conceptions of sports, both in the way they’re coached and presented to boys and men, as well as the way they’re consumed (typically by men and in coded male settings). Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.
So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work to do at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things. We have to choose as a society to care about other sports and other skills.
tl;dr I don’t see gender equality in sports happening any time in the near future unless we do a lot of seriously hard work to reconfigure who we think of as athletic and to respect the strength and ability of women.