In sports, you usually reflect after a season — not in lieu of one.
But that’s what fans and athletes are mostly left with after the sports world was shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nearly the entire country is under quarantine orders, leaving fans and athletes with replays of old games, virtual-skills challenges and social-media jokes to cope.
However, some of those jokes have served as a reminder that gender-based discrimination in sports has continued — even while the games are paused.
“Found a young lady sitting on my couch yesterday,” @IsoJoeJR tweeted in March after the sports world was shut down. “Apparently she’s my wife. She seems nice.”
The owner of the Twitter account declined to be interviewed for this story. But after the tweet drew nearly 300,000 likes and 51,000 retweets a follow-up tweet from the account said the initial post was intended to be a joke.
“It’s a tired joke,” said Mechelle Voepel, who covers women’s college basketball, the WNBA and volleyball for ESPN. “It goes back to this whole idea that sports is inherently male turf, and that’s the default. Where it’s an issue is it automatically puts women in the position of being interlopers either as participants or as spectators.”
This indefinite break from sports can be an opportunity to reconsider how we view women and sports. Huge steps have been taken toward creating equity in sports since the passing of Title IX in 1972, but the movement for women’s sports remains slowed by stereotypes of social roles based on gender.
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Some of the progress is evident. A person can breeze into a sports bar — or could when they were open — and spark a debate about Serena Williams being the greatest athlete of all time.
“And that conversation being more about what you consider athletic and less about, ‘Well, she’s a woman,’ (represents progress),” said Kavitha A. Davidson, who co-authored the upcoming book, “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan.”
“That’s different than even 20 years ago.”
Not long ago, the belief that women’s sports weren’t as interesting and that men are inherently more athletically talented than women wasn’t often challenged.
Nancy Lough, a UNLV professor who has spent decades researching sports marketing and gender equity, has found women are equally as engaged in sports. Her findings show that half the fans of women’s sports are men. And that women can be just as fanatical about men’s sports as their counterparts.
“It’s important, because what it shows is that women’s sports have the same appeal across the board … ” Lough said. “For too long the misnomer is that if you want to appeal to women, you could use women’s sports, and that’s about the only reason you would really use women’s sports. That’s absolutely false.”
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Before the virus outbreak, momentum was building toward equity and better pay for women athletes.
The U.S. women’s national team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in March 2019, seeking pay equity with the men’s national team. The players — a total of 50 dating to 2015 — were seeking more than $66 million in damages. A federal judge threw out the equal-pay claim Friday but ruled that USWNT’s allegation of discriminatory travel accommodations and medical support services can go to trial.
The women earned a groundswell of support as they tore through the bracket to win the World Cup in France last summer, as an estimated billion viewers tuned in to the tournament. Notable celebrities, athletes and politicians — including rapper Snoop Dogg, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — showed support online.
“You saw other national teams start to stand up for themselves as well,” Lynn Williams, a forward with North Carolina of the National Women’s Soccer League, said. “Then you look at Australia and how their men’s and women’s teams are now paid equally. People were starting to see us as equal, which we are.”
But U.S. Soccer drew the ire of many in March when it was reported that, in court documents related to the pay-equity case, it claimed “it is undisputed that the job of (USMNT) player requires materially more strength and speed than the job of (USWNT) player,” adding “the job of MNT players carries more responsibility than the job of a WNT player.”
U.S. Soccer retracted the statements in new filings after a public outcry, including from sponsors. USSF president Carlos Cordeiro also resigned.
“Unfortunately, it’s a narrative that all women’s athletes have to deal with,” USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn said.
Some professional leagues, meanwhile, have made strides:
- In January, the WNBA took a step forward with its eight-year collective bargaining agreement. Top-paid players could earn $500,000 per season; revenue sharing was upgraded to a 50-50 split for owners and players, the same as the NBA’s CBA; and massive gains were made regarding family planning, from breastfeeding accommodations to reimbursements for adoption costs.
- When the NBA season began in October, the league had a record 11 women as assistant coaches among its 30 teams and had other women, including former Storm forward Swin Cash, holding key front-office positions.
- The San Francisco Giants announced in January the hiring of Alyssa Nakken, who’ll be Major League Baseball’s first woman coach in the dugout. Mariners scout Amanda Hopkins is among the growing list of women in operations.
- In February, NFL fans saw San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant Katie Sowers become the first woman coach on a Super Bowl sideline.
- When the NHL debuts in Seattle, Cammi Granato — the first woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame — will be one of the team’s scout.
“There was a lot of energy, and I know that it’s sort of just grounding to a halt right now while we deal with this (coronavirus) crisis,” said Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
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But where sports once helped build community, the pandemic is showing signs of cultivating understanding as people are forced to adapt to a new way of life.
“This whole thing has brought up a lot of conversations about the hidden work women do,” Davidson said. “Suddenly you have a lot of husbands and fathers staying at home completely not knowing how to balance work and taking care of their kid and mothers are like, ‘This is what we do in normal times.’
“I hope, frankly, that enough people who before weren’t ever persuaded that women’s sports were worth it want sports so badly now that they would watch women’s sports.”
For the first time in the WNBA’s 23-year history, the league’s draft was held virtually on April 17 with cellphone cameras in players’ homes and commissioner Cathy Engelbert holding up their new jerseys from a setup in her New Jersey home.
ESPN, which hadn’t carried a live sporting event in nearly a month, aired all three rounds of the draft. An average of 387,000 viewers watched the telecast — up 123% from last year and a 33% increase from 2011, the previous time the network broadcast the draft.
Storm guard Sue Bird was an analyst on the ESPN draft telecast. She believes former NBA star Kobe Bryant might have been a factor in the draft’s viewership, and overall changes in views toward women in sports.
Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine killed in a helicopter crash in January. Before their deaths, Gigi and her father were regulars on WNBA sidelines. The 13-year-old played for Mamba Sports Academy with teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, both of whom also died in the crash.
“Kobe could see that his daughter loved the game the way he did or any little boy has, whether it’s LeBron James, James Harden,” Bird said. “Name every great player, they loved the game growing up.
“For (Kobe’s) daughter, I think he was starting to see that the path to a successful, lucrative professional career wasn’t the same (as it is for men). The drive is the same. The love is the same. But the path isn’t the same. He was trying to create a path for, yes, his little daughter, but it was going to (further) it for all women.
“That’s why you saw him trying to help players like (former Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, the top overall pick in the draft). And that’s where things can change. … When people start to recognize the love, the grind, all of it is the same. Being a female doesn’t matter.”
ESPN’s Bomani Jones, who hosts the podcast “The Right Time,” said he witnessed a similar shift following Bryant’s death.
During the pandemic he has done some reflecting himself, and has seen the same in those who follow his work. And he believes there is an opportunity for us all.
“We could be civil about these things,” Jones said. “We can treat each other and ourselves better within sports.”