Last summer, the United States women’s soccer team made a run for the Women’s World Cup championship title. They made it all the way to the final game, where they lost to Japan in a hotly contested match that went into overtime and eventually ended with Japan winning after a round of penalty kicks. This was the first World Cup win for Japan. However, despite the fact that the U.S. team had done so well, and despite the fact that the 1999 women’s championship game, where the U.S. triumphed over China in penalty kicks (and yes, this was the event with the infamous Brandi Chastain sports bra incident), still remains the highest attended women’s sporting event in history, no one in the United States was able to watch this final match (or any of the preceding 2011 matches) on network television. The games were exclusively broadcast on ESPN and its subsidiary networks. This was in direct contrast to the men’s world cup, which, although still not broadcast extensively, showcased all of the United States men’s games, as well as championship games, on network television.
This year marks the 40 year anniversary of Title IX, the education amendment that has become most associated with the rise in women’s sports at the high school and collegiate level. The amendment states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” Since 1970, the number of women playing collegiate sports has risen from 16,000 200,000. In high school, the number of girls participating in sports has risen from 294,015 to 3,173,549, compared to an increase from 3,666,917 to 4,494,406 boys. This is a substantial increase, that shows that women have made great strides in sports. But as the tale of the Women’s World Cup illustrates, women’s sports are certainly still not valued as highly as men’s sports.
At a lecture this week, University of Southern California professor Michael Messner traced the development of women’s sports, from their boom at the turn of the 20th century, to the 1930’s backlash against women and sports, which defined sports as anti-feminine and as bad for women’s future child-bearing potential, and through the post-World War II development of firm gender barriers, which resulted in the rise in popularity of football for men and cheerleading for women.
Out of the growing disenchantment with this gender essentialism came Title IX, which opened the door to many new opportunities for women with sports, which has been a liberating experience for many girls and women. I grew up playing soccer, from the time that I was 5 and up through the first two years of college. Playing sports allowed me to develop a healthy repertoire with my own body: my first focus was not on how attractive I was or how good my hair looked, but on how quickly I could run and how powerfully I could kick a ball. The camaraderie I developed with my teammates provided a safe space where I could develop secure friendships, a healthy sense of competition and self-esteem that wasn’t tied to what I was wearing. Getting to be a captain on my soccer team allowed me to practice leadership skills and to learn how to be constructively assertive within a group setting. So, when women’s soccer was given the shaft on network television, I noticed.
But according to Messner, it may not be women who are most hurt by the current disparity in gender myths that surrounds sports. Messner suggests that this liberation that Title IX brought to women like myself hasn’t necessarily been replicated for men. Whereas sports have been a site of gender empowerment for women, men’s sports haven’t been similarly deconstructed. Messner notes that men’s sports still serve as ”…a site of retrenchment for hegemonic masculinity and backlash against feminism and a locus for homophobia.” So even though they are broadcast widely, and male athletes are compensated at a level way beyond the dreams of female athletes, men’s sports perhaps still primarily serve as a highly public stage for men to enact stereotypical masculine spectacles, which aren’t helping them, or women, at all. And, as someone who loves football (ironic for a pacifist, I know), but watched with shock and awe during this year’s Super Bowl game when the sport was paired with sexist commercial after sexist commercial (see this article for more on this), I think Messner is right.
So, on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, what do you think about sports? Are women getting treated equally? Are current narratives about men in sports harmful? What’s your “sports story”?