A New, Old Model of Sport

Since I returned from the espnW Summit a month or so ago, coupled with the WNBA Champions Minnesota Lynx win and the media treatment of their season, the conference the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport just hosted about creating change, the sport sociology conference (NASSS) which followed, and the breaking news of the Sundusky/Penn State/Paterno/Football scandal….I have a LOT of thoughts I’m going to try and put together coherently.

We are coming upon the 40 year anniversary of Title IX in 2012, landmark federal legislation which dramatically increased participation opportunities for female athletes in educational settings. Roughly 40% of all female sport participants at the high school and collegiate levels are female, yet female athletes receive only 2-4% of all sport media coverage and when they do they are often sexualized and portrayed in ways that minimize athletic talent, females are under-represented at all levels of sport in all positions of power, rampant homophobia exists in most sport climates which affects the sporting experiences of athletes and coaches regardless of sexual orientation, and in all sport settings boys and men outnumber girls and women.

How it is that after 40 years of participation progress for females males are the majority of participants, that females are covered LESS often in the media and are LESS often head coaches and athletic administrators than in previous decades?

As espnW is trying to find its way in marketing and drawing in female fans of sport, at the summit there was much discussion about a “new model” of sport for girls and women and not just replicating the dominant “male model” of sport which keynote presenter and former NFL player Don McPherson said “is broken.” Female athletes and those who run women’s sport do not have to aspire or replicate the male model. Some seem to forget or never knew that a different models in collegiate athletics did exist (i.e, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, AIAW, Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports, Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, CIAW). For the most part these groups were student-athlete focused, looked out for the interest of the female athletes first, and were not concerned with the big time and growing more popular “Beer & Circus” aka Sperber model that those men’s athletics were making popular. These female athlete centered, women-lead groups were (to my understanding) not about making money, corporate sponsorships, TV contracts, opportunistic conference alignments, skirting rules in order to win and satisfy alumni and fans, and figuring out how to brand their programs to increase relevancy and thus be more scalable and salable. However as the NCAA took over the AIAW, men were predominately assigned to run and coach women’s athletics, women’s collegiate sport began to resemble the men’s model (note: arguably there are some positive outcomes to imitating the male model).

My point and challenge to those who care about girls’ and women’s sport is to think about who benefits when “we” replicate, imitate, uphold and reproduce the male model of athletics? Is this what we want to aspire to? Can we do it better? What does “better” look like and mean? How can we take what was working in the days of the AIAW, DGWS and CIAW, and merge it with new innovative ideas, to create a “new-old” model of women’s sport?

Should we think about these questions? Does it matter? I think the answer is a resounding: YES. It does matter because if we want sustainability, growth, and respect for women’s sport I believe that is not only a good idea to think about how to do it differently than what the men are doing and from what is currently being done in women’s sport, but it is necessary and imperative. Right now there are many signs that indicate the male model is broken…look no further than big stories of this year alone including the Ohio State Football/Tressel NCAA violations, conference realignments which are all about football and fail to take into account how longer travel might affect all athletes, women’s athletics or men’s “non-revenue” sport, the University of Miami football violations scandal, or the Sandusky/Penn State/Paterno/Football sex abuse scandal.

I think “we” can do better. Participants at the Tucker Center conference discussed concrete action strategies about how to create change for girls and women in sport and move the needle on some key disparities and inequalities. I challenged them to report back in one year to tell us about what they have accomplished. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, we all should think about how to create broader change in the structure of (men’s) sport that allows and even encourages and permits the egregious behaviors of abuse and discrimination to flourish. (note: I’m not even touching upon the male professional model, which is a different discussion. Instead I’m focusing on sport programs situated in institutions of higher education).

So how do you think we can create structural changes in sport that move the needle that benefit girls and women in sport? I’d love to hear your concrete action strategies…big or small, grass roots or national, public or private.

One Reply to “A New, Old Model of Sport”

  1. I think this is an exceedingly important question.

    Men have historically been the predominant athletes based on having the freedom to pursue sports as a career. This ambition drove fathers to train their boys to be athletes younger and younger, driving up the competition so that everyone could achieve sport as a career. Who wouldn’t want to play a game for a living? With the widespread push by fathers to put sons into sports to live vicariously, whether they succeeded or not, anyone who has played any sport, can watch that sport and feel part of it. It’s what drives most fans to go to the games. Without that player/fan connection, there is no emotional investment which is the driving force behind all sport. Without emotion and heart, there is no interest. What I have seen with women is that is beginning to happen as women push more to be seen as athletes, and get into positions of managing those sports in ORDER to push more women into sports. Having watched the WNBA, I can already see the difference in skill and strategy that is taking place during the evolution of the existence of the pro women’s game. I also see it in women’s pro soccer internationally. The more opportunities that occur for women to make it a career, the more that young girls will look at it as something that could be achieved and something to strive for. Or if they don’t make it, they’ve still grown in love with that sport while they did it and continue to follow and support it.

    Unfortunately, it is still a minority of opportunities and those ingrained in their own sports is what helps self perpetuate, and trying to intro something different takes some effort. Most sports are far more complex than people give them credit for, because they happen to follow those sports over long periods of time; just look at someone taking their child of any age that can actually pay attention to the game and how much explanation is needed to make them understand what is going on. Sports get refs to explain calls over loud mics because sometimes even the people familiar with a sport will say “I don’t understand what just happened”. So the challenge faced by women is one that involves people growing up, raised ‘into’ a sport, mostly men because of their longstanding history of being the predominant sports players and watchers, and pulling them over to something new, usually is difficult.

    Also, a belief which is extremely hard to overcome is the idea of women being the sexy beings they are first and foremost, and persons second. It is so deeply ingrained, that women seem to think it true and cater to and support it. I’ve gone to many a sport function and in discussing the product of women’s sport, the first suggestion of every person I encounter is “why not sex it up just a bit”. If the sport itself does not attract someone, “sexing it up” may sell tickets in the short run, but it makes the sport secondary to how my teammates backsides look in their shorts, as opposed to the points they just scored on an opponent. It is only interesting for a short while before people find another alternative. Beauty fades, athleticism will fade with age, but the game will always remain the same as the players come and go. If we don’t continue to support our sports as sports, we are only selling out for a short term benefit and losing our souls, and eventually the fans will be bored of it and thus we lose the money to pay the rent. In catering to those long held beliefs that ‘sexing it up’ is what benefits us, we only perpetuate that belief for longer and longer. It doesn’t go away until we stop using it. Athletes are sexy as it is because they are athletes. As our daughters are raised into their own sports, to be athletes and fans, their opposite gender counterparts will support it or face being alone and vice versa. Unfortunately, it’s going to take longer than any of us really want because we want it now but, all I can say to all the women athletes is, keep on, keeping on.

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