How Women Are Changing Sports and Why It Matters

Earlier this week, 15-year-old CiCi Bellis defeated Dominika Cibulkova in her first round US Open tennis match, making Bellis the youngest player to win a US Open match since 1996. Unsurprisingly, Bellis’ victory gave a boost to the women’s US Open, capping off what has been an excellent month for women in sports.

On August 5th, former WNBA player Becky Hammon made history when she was hired as an assistant coach for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, making her the first female coach in NBA history. Later this month, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis contributed some dominating pitching performances during this year’s Little League World Series, earning herself a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Bellis, Hammon, and Davis represent glimmers of hope to female sports fans worldwide, and very likely find themselves inspiring countless young athletes. While Hammon and Davis have proven that the days of sex-segregated sports may be nearing its end, Bellis represents tennis, a sport that has traditionally found itself ahead of the social curve in terms of women’s rights and LGBT inclusion.

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, which granted women and girls equal opportunities in scholastic athletic programs. As a result, grade schools, high schools, and colleges nationwide began to expand their women’s athletic departments, and the NCAA began to finally show interest in women’s sports from a funding point of view.

Just a year later, in September 1973, women’s tennis pro Billie Jean King defeated former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in what had come to be known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” Though the match was only an exhibition, King’s victory gave hope to young female athletes everywhere.

It is also important to note how women’s tennis led the way in LGBT rights and acceptance. In 1977, transgender woman Renée Richards won a court battle which granted her the right to compete in that year’s US Open. Though Richards was attacked by members of the media and even some of her opponents, she was buoyed with support by tennis stars like King and Martina Navratilova. Four years later, King became the first prominent athlete to come out as gay. By comparison, it wasn’t until last year that an openly gay NBA player (and not until this season that an openly gay NFL player) came out.

Some might say that women’s sports tend to be socially and culturally ahead of the curve as a result of decades of fighting against sexism. Austin, Texas-based freelance sports journalist Jessica Luther recently took some time to chat with us about the state of women in sports, the victories, the struggles, and the path forward.

As one of only a handful of girls competing in this year’s Little League World Series, Mo’ne Davis made a huge splash, landing a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated. What impact do you think Davis has had on the world of sex-split sports, and do you think happens from here?

I think the impact of a moment like one we just saw—the nation being captivated by Mo’Ne Davis, her awesome play, and her kick-ass personality—is hard to measure. I have no doubt that there will be girls who suddenly imagine themselves as baseball players that wouldn’t have before. I definitely believe that there were plenty of people who, maybe for the first time in their lives, really wondered about why mainly boys play baseball and girls play softball. Emma Span wrote a great piece about why girls play softball for the New York Times earlier this year:

But issues of masculinity and sport are so intertwined that “throw like a girl” probably isn’t going anywhere for a long time. I think the flip side of people really considering the sexism that causes girls (and women) to almost never play baseball beyond hitting a ball in their yard, is people imagining Davis or [Kayla] Roncin as anomalies. Exceptions that prove the rule.

It matters, though, that a whole lot of people now understand that baseball can be for girls and that girls can play baseball. All of sports would be better if we divided players by skill level and not by some arbitrary biological standard.

You’ve done some great work on the topic of college football and sexual assault, and now you’re working on a book on the topic. Can you tell me a bit about your book, what you hope it will accomplish, and what these atrocities say about society as a whole?

The book will be a thematic look at the issue of college football and sexual assault. It will cover how sports media discusses the topic (for good and bad), the ineffectual role of the NCAA, the failure of athletic departments to do anything, the role that race plays in this discussion, and will attempt to offer some solutions for starting to fix this problem.

I hope it will offer nuance to a topic that is often dismissed as tangential to what happens on the field. I hope it will force some kind of conversation among sports media as to how always viewing the issue from the side of the player, team, or administration is damaging. I hope it will make feminists care more about this problem and to pay more attention to the impact of sports on our culture. I hope it will give some ideas for how we could make things better if we tried.

Sports are popular. Football is the most popular of them in this country. It is incredibly lucrative. Most of us, in same way, are paying into this system (either directly or through taxes).

At the same time, these cases are microcosms into what we know to be a bigger problem in society. The way people defend players and victim blame and attempt to move the narrative away from the crime as much as possible, that may be more severe in these cases but it certainly is not rare when it comes to how society at large tends to handle any case of sexual assault.

Who are some of your favorite women in sports (writers, athletes, etc.), and what makes them so awesome?

Brittney Griner, who plays basketball for the Phoenix Mercury. I love how she plays ball but I also love that she is such a righteous advocate for the LGBT community.

Kate Fagan writes for ESPN (she has written excellent pieces on Brittney Griner, in fact) and I find her work on sports and gender to be endlessly valuable. Emma Span, who I mentioned earlier, is a writer and editor at Sports Illustrated. I wrote for her when she was an editor at Sports On Earth and I will cherish that experience forever.

I love to watch Serena Williams play tennis. I’m excited about the Women’s World Cup in soccer that will be played in Canada next summer—the US team is made up of a lot of great women. Becky Hammon just got hired as the first full-time female coach in NBA history; she’ll be on the Spurs’ sidelines next year.

There are a lot of poorly constructed attempts at marketing sports to women (pink jerseys, stadium salon nights, etc.). What don’t sports marketers understand about women, and how can they avoid coming off as condescending?

I believe sports marketers don’t get that a lot of women like sports for the exact same reasons that men do. I think they don’t really comprehend, though, what it’s like to consume sports as a female fan and the amount of sexism you have to be willing to put up with to do so.

Like almost anything in sports, I think marketing could be fixed (and the condescension would be lessened) if there were just a whole bunch more women involved in it. I don’t know for a fact that there aren’t a bunch of women creating marketing for female sports fans but I feel confident guessing that that’s the case.

Follow Jessica Luther on Twitter @scatx.

(Featured image via)

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