Three events coincided this year that affected how I look at girls (and women) in sports: a coach recommending a sports movie to my children, a parent’s comment and the 2016 Olympics.
First, the movie. My kids (a girl and a boy, ages 7 and 10) loved watching Bad News Bears. They reveled in the underdog story and the camaraderie of the characters, including the female pitcher who was key to the team’s success. What they didn’t see, but which was starkly clear to me, was that there was only one girl in a sea of boys. And she had to be exceptional in order to be included. The message was strong: sure, girls can complete with boys, as long as they are twice as good.
Second, the comment. During warm-ups before a game, a parent remarked how letting my daughter (the only girl on the team) play baseball for a year was good for her confidence. Now this parent was well meaning and just quoting the oft-touted idea that sports are “good for girls.” It is undeniable that sports are good for learning physical skills, how to face challenges, how to navigate both the thrill of achievement and the disappointment of coming short of a goal, to say nothing of the myriad positive aspects of physical fitness. The fact that studies show sports are particularly good for girls (lower pregnancy rates, healthier life choices, higher self-esteem, etc.) itself is alarming. Are our non-athletically inclined girls simply out of luck? Are sports a kind of affirmative action because girls are so discouraged from blossoming in other arenas? Shouldn’t we be figuring out how to keep our girls from losing confidence in the first place?
And, back to the comment. The way it was phrased: “letting her do it for a year,” was so striking, as there was an underlying message that a year of baseball was sufficient for a girl. What would happen if we “let” her do it for another year, or maybe as long as she wanted, as long as she was good at it? As long as we’d “let” our boy do it?
Third, the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics offered the hope that we may be entering a turning point for sports coverage. We went in already having data that shows how male and female athletes are described differently in the media. According to a Cambridge University study which looked at the coverage of Olympians in the past, not only are women referred to much less frequently than men, they are described in terms of appearance and marital status, like “older” and “unmarried,” whereas men are described by athletic adjectives, like “fastest” and “strong.” While there didn’t seem to be any marked improvement in the 2016 Olympic coverage, there was a notable, and potentially radical, difference this year. When female athletes’ accomplishments were denigrated (as in the case of Katie Ledecky being called the “female Michael Phelps”), forgotten (as in the medal counts of Serena and Venus Williams), ignored (as in the Chicago Tribune’s tweet failing to include Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s own name, referring to her as a wife of a football player), not given the appropriate credit (as when Katinka Hosszu’s swimming gold was attributed to her husband’s coaching), and belittled (as when the celebrating women’s gymnastics team was compared to women in a mall), the negative response from athletes and spectators was swift and clear.
The advent of social media has been a double-edged sword—the anonymity and speed of postings has given voice to hurtful and often hateful speech, which was certainly seen during the Olympics (comments toward Gabby Douglas were not only sexist but also racist). At the same time, social media’s creation of an accessible and equalizing playing field for exchanging ideas and for commentary has ushered in a new era of social action that works toward accountability and equality.
Women have long been at a disadvantage in the sporting world. As late as 1966, women were kept out of marathons, due to the belief that they would not be able to finish. With Title IX’s passage in 1972, we now have four decades over which our schools have been pushed to include opportunities for girls in athletics and competition. Remarkable accomplishments of female athletes have chipped away at outdated and limited ideas, and created an arena where American women are more able to realize their potential on an internationally competitive scale in sports and beyond.
Yet there is still a long way to go. Women are still being sent the message that sports are a male bastion, as the harassment on twitter of female sports journalists Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro earlier this year made all too clear. We need to continue the demand for change in sports coverage. The pressure to hire more women in media and to portray female athletes as the fierce competitors they are has to come from us.
Ultimately an important aspect of the remarkable performances by women at the Olympics was that children were able to see multitudes of women thriving in sports, claiming their space. Though the media has obviously not caught up to them—and again, we need to keep the pressure on to make sure they do—these female athletes showed us that they are unstoppable, and the next generation will have the chance to be propelled forward in the wake of these role models.
So, though my 7-year-old daughter is facing the same challenges Tatum O’Neil’s fictitious character faced on the big screen, and though the media has a long way to go to recognize and address its longstanding bias, the fact that these issues are now being noted and challenged is to be celebrated. The Olympic athletes and spectators who, without hesitation, fear, or ambiguity, spoke up against bias, present a profound new vision of a possible future where athletes, regardless of sex, will get to shine on an equal playing field.
—Ursula Burton ’88, YaleWomen Council and YaleWomen LA Chapter Head