A Sinking Ship: Queers and Women in Sports

‘Mentally disturbed,’ ‘having a meltdown,’ ‘furiously ranted’ were only some of the biased phrases associated with Serena William’s clash with the umpire at the US Open finals in 2018. A woman standing her ground and defending her character after being accused of cheating was given a controversial spin, and tabloids had a field day branding Williams as ‘emotionally unstable’. It’s important to note, however, that the backlash she faced was in sharp contrast to the repeatedly aggravated nature of her predecessors and famous tennis players like John McEnroe and Andy Roddick.

The reason I bring this up is not just because most of us heard of it but to highlight that this was not an isolated incident. There have been countless incidents where women in sports have been at the receiving end of blatant sexism, double standards, and irrational shaming and labeling while their male counterparts have gone scot-free. This narrative has been plaguing not just the sports industry, but across any and all fields that women have entered. The association of a woman’s reaction to being ‘hysterical’ and that of men as ‘passionate’ actively feeds into this toxic nature. 

Not just women, but members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also constantly faced with queerphobia. This has an impact on the number of queer people taking up competitive sports and hence reduces representation. A study found that 73% of respondents from the community believed homophobia and transphobia to be a huge barrier keeping them out of sports. It’s also been actively noticed that while sports bodies are often ready to take action towards ‘equality’ when faced with a backlash, this action falls short when addressing sexual orientation and gender identities. 

We’ve all heard that women don’t get paid as much as men, because their sport ‘doesn’t make as much.’ But clearly, the problem doesn’t begin or end there. No matter how feminist they claim to be, sports bodies and corporate giants associated with any particular international sport simply don’t do enough to ensure equality, especially when promoting the sport for both men and women. The former are often overhyped, given deferential treatment, and have their sport marketed to a much wider audience than the latter. This doesn’t help and in fact increases the hyper-masculinity that accompanies not just the players, but also the spectators. For instance, a lot of the football fanbase is fuelled by angry men that actively indulge in hateful ‘trash talk’ which has wildly toxic connotations. This is simply brushed aside as playful or under the broad aspect of men’s confidence and ‘cockiness’ while women are shamed for so much as raising their voice. Simone Biles recalled that simply owning up to her standing in the world as the best gymnast was frowned upon. “It’s important to teach our female youth that it’s okay to say, ‘Yes, I am good at this,’ and you don’t hold back. You only see the men doing it. And they’re praised for it and the women are looked down upon for it,” she was quoted saying.

Instances like these are only a very small portion of those that even make it to public eyes. A lot that goes on behind the live telecasts, in the ‘locker rooms’ is what propels the rampant patriarchal nature of competitive sports. It actively normalizes patterns that alienate queer communities and oppress women. This systemic problem is direr than just discrimination. It manifests into assault and other offenses which are more often than not, overlooked. 

The presence of sexual abuse is extremely pervasive in these cases and is often a result of the exploitation of power by mentors, coaches, doctors, etc. At just about every stage, these horrifying occurrences and their strategic cover-up to avoid controversy have filled the space which so many players consider their haven. Various research projects have fielded a similar array of results when it comes to sexual harassment in sports. It obviously has a deeply detrimental effect on the athlete’s psyche, harming their performance and causes many to drop out. But more than that, the trauma results in unfathomable psychological distress, which data suggests leads to psychosomatic illnesses, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide. 

Reading about the infamous cases of Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar and their hedonistic exploits will fill anyone with rage, but that’s not enough. Although it brings matters to light, addressing instances individually only garners surface-level attention. And so, it fails to challenge the long-term impacts of the unhealthy environment that surrounds sports. The double standards and power dynamics are deeply embedded in every aspect of sports life, and they need to be addressed going up the ladder. Smaller changes in terms of our attitude towards outspoken and confident women, the need to make the world of sports more inclusive, and to condemn queerphobia at all stages are exigent.

While there are trailblazers all over the world trying their level best to bring about this change, for their mission to succeed we need to understand how deep the roots of systemic discrimination go. The 2nd World Conference on Women and Sport, Windhoek back in 1998 saw the participation of 74 countries and called for action throughout the world for the development of equal opportunities for women in sports. Major bodies like the European Union in 2005 and the United Nations Code of Sports Ethics have also laid down crucial ground rules to reverse this cycle. 

However, individual and massive attitudinal changes are the only way we can implement all that we envision. A harder look at the toxic arena of sports is what will eventually help this sportsperson-ship stay afloat, without having to throw queers and women overboard.