There’s no lack of discussion of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, but that’s about what activists have turned Title IX into, not what it was or was meant to be. Now that it’s reached its 50th birthday, there’s some discussion of how it worked out.
But in some ways, Title IX was a Pyrrhic victory. For all its successes, the groundbreaking legislation has failed to allow girls and women to excel on terms independent of boys and men. Like so much in our culture, sports are still based on a male model — a man’s body, a man’s interests. Current models of success in mainstream sport leave women competing on standards that exclude us, where in most cases we are not set up to thrive.
Fifty years after Title IX’s enactment, we have an opportunity to reimagine women’s sports altogether. If we accept that women’s bodies are not holistically inferior to men’s but rather fundamentally different, we have to value female athletes and women’s sports on their own terms.
If you’re initial reaction to this heresy about women’s bodies, which we’re reliably informed, are nothing but social constructs, raises a question, don’t waste your angst. There’s more than enough ideology in there to ignore the fashionable elevation of transgender hegemony over “biological” women to give one pause.
What would this look like? I propose a New Deal for women’s sports — with a women-first approach. This must go beyond creating entitlements and enforcing parity, as Title IX does. We must dismantle the grandfathered-in systemic advantages that male athletes and male-dominated sports infrastructures continue to enjoy. We must cultivate tastes for other sports, the ones that women excel in and even dominate. And we must broaden our definition of what athletic prowess looks like.
While the initial assertion of reimagining sports using a “women-first approach” sounds potentially interesting, the closing assertions give away the game. Cultivate tastes for other sports in which women excel or dominate? Is that how it works, that our interest in sports isn’t organic, but a by-product of what we’re fed by the tube?
So let’s start with a paradigm shift. The reason a slam dunk is better than a triple axel or a home run is more thrilling than a sprint at the end of a mile comes down to one thing: Our culture has told us so. Women’s sports have only a fraction of the overall viewership and revenue of men’s sports, but men’s sports are not inherently more exciting or fun to watch than women’s are. The joy or beauty of one sport or another is subjective, not an objective truth.
It’s certainly true that the interest in sports is subjective, but does that support the argument, that if every Sunday had a few hours of women doing triple axels, would be become devoted fans and watchers? If there is a large enough viewership for women’s sports, would it not find a place somewhere on cable TV, catch at least Squid Games momentum and make the broadcast network chiefs heads spin for ignoring the fabulous sports programming? Yet, it hasn’t happened and while heads may spin, this isn’t the reason why.
In 2017 more than a third of Americans said football was their favorite sport to watch, for example, and each fall, Americans glue themselves to their screens to watch it. But is the male-dominated sport of football really that much more compelling than the less gendered game of soccer? That’s a sport the rest of the world seems to enjoy much more than Americans do, and it’s one in which American professional women’s teams win more on the international stage than our men’s teams.
Soccer, or futbol as the rest of the world calls it, offers a fair example. It’s true that it’s the favorite sport elsewhere, but not here. It’s true that American women’s soccer does better internationally than American men’s soccer, and yet our nationalistic tendencies don’t seem to kick in and cause us to embrace it as a sport American’s care about. Why?
Part of the problem is the way we think about sports is a vestige of our fixation on nationalism and military strength — spheres that men also have dominated. Traditional American public school physical education, with the pull-ups and push-ups of the Presidential Fitness Test, began amid Cold War fears that we were not producing enough combat-ready American men. The sports events we stage today continue to pantomime militarism and war — complete with societally enforced adherence to prescribed behavior during the national anthem. Our sports showcase our strength, and Americans generally see strength as a male trait.
An interesting point. But does this prevent women from coming up with their own sports that favor their strengths and interest? Does this prevent other women from attending women’s sporting events and watching them on television so that they are broadcast more frequently? Does this prevent men from being interested in women’s sports too?
“Mainstream sports media works to actively build and maintain audience knowledge, interest and excitement for these men’s sports,” the study authors wrote. One of the authors put it bluntly: “Our analysis shows men’s sports are the appetizer, the main course and the dessert, and if there’s any mention of women’s sports, it comes across as begrudging ‘eat your vegetables’ without the kind of bells and whistles and excitement with which they describe men’s sports and athletes.”
It would seem obvious that there is a cause and effect relationship between what sports receive attention and what athletes are paid. But is that because women’s sports aren’t given the opportunity to gain our interest and devotion? Certainly women tennis players like the Williams sisters have enjoyed a good deal of public interest and prominence, as have their predecessors, Billy Jean King and Martina Navratolova, but why not Megan Rapinoe, the US soccer team’s whupping by the Dallas FC under-15 squad notwithstanding? Do we need to “reimagine” women’s sports to get the public to care or is the problem that women’s sports are deprived of the opportunity to gain public interest and, accordingly, big money?