Recently, ESPN has been flooded with playoff basketball and hockey. Men’s playoff basketball and hockey. And the idea of it got me thinking about the lack of respect afforded to women’s sports. Being a female athlete is tough. No one considers you as athletic or skilled as the boys and, probably worst of all, much fewer people attend to women’s sports. The only women’s sports that get a decent amount of coverage is college basketball and tennis, but even that pales in comparison to the hubbub around Federer/Nadal (men’s tennis) or March Madness.
The question is, why don’t we care as much about women’s sports? The UConn women’s team went on an amazing run, setting a women’s basketball record for most consecutive wins in March 2010, but the crickets were heard all around until they broke the overall record (referred to erroneously by media types as a “men’s record” when the only thing male about it was that it happened to be held by John Wooden’s 1971-74 UCLA Bruins, a men’s team) in December 2010. Geno Auriemma’s talent as a coach is still called into question because he coaches women. He can never really prove himself as a coach until he “steps up a level” and coaches the men.
But the UConn women’s team, despite all the downplaying of their success and pot shots at the competitiveness of women’s college basketball compared to men’s, is almost lucky. At least someone cares about them. Same goes for Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova. Most female athletes are fortunate enough to have fans year round, instead of just when the Olympics emerge and America suddenly cares about gymnastics and swimming.
Lindsey Vonn (photo from the U.S. Ski Team)
And even when female athletes manage to break the mold into being accepted as legitimate athletes, they never manage to do so without cashing in a bit on their sexuality. Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn appeared on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, a coup for a female athlete especially, but as Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Vonn admits that her favorite movie is Gladiator, and wouldn’t that movie have fit in better with the narrative of Vonn as a tough cookie?
Other female athletes haven’t escaped the scrutiny, either. Williams has been heavily criticized for not appearing more feminine and swimmer Amanda Beard posed nude for Playboy in 2007. She was a gold medalist just three years prior. Leryn Franco, a Paraguayan javelin thrower, hit the big time on the internet simply for being hot during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Franco failed to advance past the preliminaries, finishing second to last. But that didn’t hurt her internet popularity one bit, because as far as most men are concerned, being a female athlete isn’t about having skill. It’s about how attractive you look doing it.
It’s hard to say if female athletes will ever demand the kind of respect male athletes get. It would be nice to not have to celebrate small victories like Vonn’s cover of ESPN, only to see the same irritating pattern of elite female athletes having to “perform” some sort of sexuality tango. Eventually women like Vonn will be on the cover doing what the men do: showing off their skill in their particular sport. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to accept that the only thing that has the potential to be feminine about the sports highlights on ESPN is the anchor reading them.