“Don’t lose to a girl.”
The male coach’s words echo as I walk onto the court with my partner. It was an ordinary afternoon for a high school boys’ varsity tennis match, except for the fact that I stand on the base line in a tennis skirt, a young female sophomore up against two male seniors.
The match went how almost every match went for the three years I played on my high school’s boys’ team. My partner and I played with as much effort and focus as we could for an unexpected pair, barely breathing out a “good job” every once in awhile.
Opposing teams, I found, also had some consistency. During that same match, one of the team’s players smacked a volley down, hitting my foot hard. I shook it off quickly, not wanting to cause a scene or overreact. The court was quiet until the other side of the net erupted with apologies.
“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. Does it hurt? Are you okay? I’ll go easier next time.”
I’m not sharing this memory to praise my opponents for their concern, although it was appreciated. Instead, their reactions demonstrate how we often perceive differences between female and male athletes. When my partner got hit by a ball, there was often slight worry, but never panic. I, on the other hand, was considered fragile. I played hard, yet often received weak returns despite strong skill level from opponents. But why?
These small examples are part of a bigger picture.
Gender inequity in sports is often more shocking than we may think. It starts at the entry level, like my high school’s failure to provide a girls’ tennis team until I advocated for one to the Board of Education. As high school students attempt to pursue sports on a collegiate level, women are given fewer opportunities. According to the National Collegiate Scholarship Association, only 43 percent of women are offered spots at NCAA schools while 57 percent of the college population is female. Even if a female does get an opportunity to play, athletic scholarship dollars are more likely to go to men: 55 percent of NCAA college athletic scholarship dollars for Division I and II teams go to male athletes and 45 percent are given to females athletes.
Even when female athletes rise to professional levels, there are still many forms of discrimination. The most notorious difference is that of winnings; although there have been improvements by enforcing equal prize money for both male and female champions, there are still many female sports teams and players that are left with the short end of the stick.
In 2015, the U.S. Women’s National Team took home $2 million for winning the Women’s World Cup. The year before, Germany’s men’s team won $35 million for winning the World Cup. Meanwhile, the U.S. men’s team finished in 11th place and collected $9 million. Even men’s teams that were eliminated in the first round of the 2014 World Cup received more than the U.S. women’s team. Four times more to be exact; they took home $8 million just for showing up.
These inequities are strides from recent years. According to CNN, women’s teams received no prize money from FIFA before 2007.
There are also other inequities. Despite the fact that they are not winning titles or celebrating victories, men in the lives of champion females are often the focus in media profiles. Last year, when Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú claimed a gold medal and a world record, NBC focused on her husband/coach in the stands, deeming him “the man responsible.” In the same Olympics, experienced trap shooter Corey Cogdell won her second bronze medal, but the headlines didn’t do her justice. Instead, the Chicago Tribune tweeted their article with the caption: “Wife of Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”
Even when females are interviewed and praised, there is a shift toward stereotypical “female” topics such as clothes and family. When Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard defeated her opponent during the 2015 Australian Open, Australian presenter Ian Cohen asked her to “give [the audience] a twirl” and show her outfit. Another tennis professional, Serena Williams, has quite an impressive resume: a slew of Grand Slam titles and Olympic medals in both singles and doubles. However, some of her most popular coverage has been during this past spring and summer, when she was pregnant.
Williams is no stranger to inequity in sports. When asked if she was one of the greatest female athletes of all time, she said, “I prefer the word ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’”
In a recent interview with NPR, John McEnroe, a former professional tennis player, commented on the idea of Williams as the “greatest athlete.” While he agreed that she was one of the best female athletes, he hesitated to say she was one of the greatest athletes of all time.
“If she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world,” said McEnroe.
Using the qualifier “female” attributes to a larger problem in the sports and outside world. We often think of females as weaker, less violent, and less aggressive. We tend to watch female athletes in more feminine sports like gymnastics or figure skating, while we prefer to view men compete in sports that the two genders play: men’s soccer and basketball over women’s soccer and basketball.
It’s time we think harder about our decisions when watching sports and making assumptions about athletes. The inequities do not just involve female athletes: race, sexuality, gender, and ability are also major factors in sports discrimination. We should focus on the strengths of a player instead of their physical weaknesses; why they love the game rather than their personal lives, and how they’re playing instead of what they’re wearing.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.