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Women's Sports and the Battle Against Sexism

A young girl sees her role model break the world record in track, or sees Megan Rapinoe score a game-winning goal. That little girl must be amazed to see the Las Vegas Aces win the 2022 WNBA Championships, or is inspired to be fierce like Serena Williams. Women's sports are exciting to watch. Seeing athletic, strong women battle to win is something that all can admire. Yet, women’s sports do not depict the “perfect life”. Women have endured sexism for a long time through the sport they love to play. Today, women are not getting paid enough to be an exceptional athlete. Too many female athletes witness their male counterparts get all the glory. 

Any segment about female athletes' emphasis on sex appeal over athleticism is an ongoing issue in modern-day coverage. For women of color, these athletes have to face the media constantly using racist and sexist comments that attack their physical power and mental strength. Therefore, racism and sexism in sports media have not disappeared; it has just become more secretive.


The USWNT and Equal Pay

Women's soccer has undoubtedly made remarkable progress over the years. The United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) is one of the most popular female teams in the world. Ever since the 1999 World Cup, the USWNT has flourished, winning game after game, including multiple World Cups for their country and gold medals from competing at the Olympics. However, for many years, the players on the USWNT earned less money than the players on the men’s national team (USMNT). Five top players on the USWNT accused U.S. Soccer of paying them and their teammates about a “quarter of what their counterparts on the men’s national team receive”

There are different pay structures for men and women in the US Soccer Federation. Men are paid per game, while women have a salary-based contract. For women, their salary adds up to “$72,000 a year and bonuses for wins of $1,350...they also get health insurance and maternity leave”. The men do not receive a fixed salary and have access to fewer personal benefits. However, “they can make as much as $17,625 for a win”. As stated by the USWNT lawyer Rich Nichols, “We want the same money that the men are making exactly”.  This is absolutely crucial. The USWNT players want nothing less than $5,000 for each game they played, and bonuses of $8,000 for a tie and $17,625 for a win. The USWNT took legal action against U.S. Soccer in 2019 to demand equal pay.

In 2022, U.S. Soccer reached an agreement with both the men's and women's national teams to increase salaries and share World Cup prize money.

Globally, men’s soccer is more popular than the women’s game. Overall, men’s sports are the most watched, which makes male athletes receive bigger paychecks. Yet, female athletes and women’s teams receive minimal media coverage, as well as paychecks. As stated by academics Emily A. Roper and Katherine M. Polasek, the “marginalization and objectification of female athletes sends a hegemonic message that female athletes’ accomplishments are not as important or impressive as those of male athletes”. The media is so silent about women's successes in sports, while the men get all the glory. Men’s sports are more appreciated for their athleticism and talent. Women, to the media, are not as athletic or as skilled as their male equivalents. If the media does not cover the successes of women’s sports, young girls who need a confident, strong, female athletic role model will not have anyone to look up to, nor see their worth as a girl in a patriarchy. Even though the USWNT fought for equal pay, showcasing women’s bodies on camera is not discussed enough in women’s sports.

Sexualization in Women's Sports

For many, when it comes to women’s sports, sex sells. To draw attention to their sports, female athletes have to add some sort of sex appeal to their athleticism. Female volleyball players wear tight shorts and wear bikinis in beach volleyball. Are these outfits supposed to catch the eye of male viewers, to make them seem more interested in women’s volleyball? Well, I have found a video on YouTube entitled, “Winifer Fernandez-Beautiful Indoor Volleyball Girl”. This video is about Winifer Fernandez, a volleyball player on the Dominican Republic team. In the video, Fernandez was diving on the floor to save a ball. However, the cameraman was giving a clear view of her behind as she slammed her body onto the floor. Throughout the whole video, the cameraman proceeded to show inappropriate angles that only showcased Fernandez’s body, not her athleticism. 

This video projected 15,027,596 views and was filled with comments written by men saying, “Cameraman you are the MVP”. Another male viewer wrote, “This video is the reason why I am watching the Olympic games”. Another male viewer commented, “God must be a man because he sculpted that body himself!” When women feel observed or judged only on their physical appearance by heterosexual men, “the gaze” represents “the realization of being seen and interpreted by others, and adjusting one’s conduct accordingly”. In the world of sports, players, like Fernandez, are all too frequently judged by their physical appearance rather than their abilities, creating a pervasive "male gaze". The media, including the cameraman filming Fernandez, often depicts women in a manner designed to appeal to others, particularly heterosexual men.

Caster Semenya

Female athletes are unstoppable forces who overcome numerous challenges and obstacles on their path to success at the highest levels. Women of color specifically face a multitude of challenges in pursuing their passion for sports, as they have to tackle obstacles related to their race and gender. This struggle is particularly intense for black female athletes who have to endure constant media messages that are filled with degrading and dehumanizing language. Sports media often resorts to racist and sexist stereotypes to criticize every aspect of black female athletes, despite their superb athletic abilities. One athlete who challenged racist and sexist stereotypes is Caster Semenya. She is a long-distance runner from South Africa who was constantly scrutinized for who she was and not conforming to ideas about womanhood. The media, the public, and her fellow competitors constantly speculated on her anatomy, misgendered her, and fought to not allow Semenya to race against other women. 

She was eighteen years old when she gained worldwide attention. Before competing in her first race, at the world championships in Berlin, many were concerned over the way she ran. Experts urged the South African athletics body to test her. The issue is that Semenya appeared “masculine” and that she was fast, meaning she was faster than her competitors. Even though she ended up winning the entire competition, she immediately was subjected to a battery of tests to determine if she would be allowed to race as a woman. Her tests were soon leaked to the press. Semenya had, “testosterone levels that are three times higher than those normally expected in a female” and that “it’s likely that she has some hermaphroditic or intersex condition”. Semenya was allowed to run again and went on to win the gold medal in the 800 meters in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Semenya identifies herself as a woman. Her story demonstrates the discrimination people face when they defy gender and racial norms.

Black female athletes, like Semenya, are threats to gender and racial hierarchies. Gender hierarchies are threatened whenever women’s bodies are deemed “excessive”. This means a woman's body is “too muscular” or “too fat” for the norms of gender representation. Yes, black women may not fit the societal norm, but black women are “2.5 times as likely to be satisfied with their weight” and “2.7 times more likely to consider themselves attractive” in comparison to white women. It's unfortunate that even in sports, the presence of a black woman can be seen as intimidating. This leads to the perception that black women are exotic objects, but inferior beings who are victimized by the white standards of beauty. Sports commentators have not been able to create a positive and sustainable conversation about black women. Instead, they often compare black female athletes to animals or attribute their athleticism to "alien strength". So, when Semenya entered the track and field world as a black woman, she was highly criticized for her physical appearance. Her body was out on display for the world to gawk and observe. At the same time, Semenya did not let the media define her. She said, “they laugh at me because I am different. I laugh at them because they’re all the same”

Sexism at the Olympics

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio was dominated by strong, athletic women. However, this did not prevent various complaints of sexist media coverage concerning many female athletes. For example, the Chicago Tribune faced widespread criticism for publishing a story about U.S. trapshooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein (who happens to be married to a Chicago Bears football player) winning bronze with this headline: “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics”. Many went on Twitter to argue that this headline was sexist. One tweet stated, “Wow @chicagotribune it’s a good thing she’s married to a Bears lineman otherwise you might not have cared”. The Tribune later apologized for this incident, but this wasn’t the only sexist comment that happened in the Rio games. 

NBC commentator, Rowdy Gaines, commented on Katie Ledecky, a U.S. swimmer, beating her record in the women’s 400-meter freestyle only to say, “People think she swims like a man”. Gaines, later, only meant this comment in a positive light. However, many were furious and went to Twitter to post, “No she swims like @KatieLedecky”. An NBC commentator was accused of sexism after saying the U.S. gymnastics team looked like they were "standing in a mall" while caught on camera laughing during a competition. It is a common belief that men are faster and stronger than women in sports, which often results in men receiving more appreciative comments than women. However, women have proven their talent in sports and have successfully shut down sexism. Therefore, commentators for any sporting event should attend workshops to learn how to comment correctly on women’s performance. It is crucial to ensure that female athletes receive the same level of respect and recognition as their male counterparts.

Women's sports have made significant progress in media coverage, but some sports, like the X-League, still rely on sexual objectification to attract larger audiences. Camera angles that exploit women athletes, like Fernandez, are also an issue. Additionally, Semenya, a successful athlete, faced discrimination based on her race and gender. Despite talented teams, like the USWNT winning world cups for their country, they were paid less than their male counterparts in the USMNT. These examples demonstrate that sexism and racism in sports media still exist and have become more covert.

This type of oppression in sports media is a pressing issue for women today, particularly female athletes. These women are role models for young girls, showing them to stand strong and pursue their passions, regardless of whether they choose to pursue sports or not. What if the roles were reversed? What if women made sexist comments about men during competitions or required men to wear less clothing when playing football or volleyball? More people need to understand the perspective of female athletes and appreciate the hard work they put in on and off the field to become who they are today.

Edited by: Anwen Venn

Photo credit: Filip Bossuyt/Wikicommons

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Tags: #Sexism #Women'sSports #Sport'sMedia


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