Last Friday, the 16th-seeded University of Maryland, Baltimore County beat the top-seeded University of Virginia in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. As a huge fan of underdogs, I was excited to see a 16-seed pull off such a big upset. My excitement quickly faded as I saw headlines referring to UMBC as the “first No. 16 seed [to] beat No. 1 seed” pop up on my TV, in the newspapers the next day, and all over my friends’ social media accounts. What I saw plastered all over the news was either a lie, or more likely, a complete disregard for women’s sports and female accomplishment. I, unlike many others, knew that 20 years earlier, Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s 16-seeded Harvard women’s basketball team defeated top-seeded Stanford. This was actually the first time a No. 16 seed ever beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, but because it was a women’s game, it has been forgotten and disregarded.
As a female athlete, I have always understood the massive inequality that exists between genders in sports. In high school, the stands at my basketball games were empty in comparison to those at the boys’ games. When I got to the collegiate level, nothing changed. I vividly remember being part of the Harvard women’s basketball team that matched the longest win-streak in the history of the program. Even at a place like Harvard, where gender equity is fought for, the team’s accomplishment went largely unrecognized.
I also remember men’s coach Tommy Amaker being recognized for hitting 179 wins, and being announced as the “winningest coach in Harvard [basketball] history.” In reality, Delaney-Smith, with 567 wins, is the “winningest coach in Harvard basketball history,” and Amaker is the winningest coach in Harvard men’s basketball history. Both coaches are incredible and have accomplished major milestones in their careers, but we need to be more careful with how we recognize those accomplishments. By saying “basketball” for men and “women’s basketball” for women, we implicitly acknowledge the men’s game as legitimate and the women’s game as an inferior derivative. Men and women are simply not portrayed equally. While some argue that there are greater problems to conquer when it comes to gender inequality, I believe that gender inequality in athletics publicly displays our society’s willingness to accept different treatment for men and women and is thus important to address.
Participating in athletics as both a young girl and young adult has been one of the most impactful and beneficial activities of my life. As a young girl who towered over all of my friends (both girls and boys), I often felt awkward and out of place. The basketball court made me not only feel normal but also accepted and valued. It connected me to other people my age, which built long-lasting social capital I did not appreciate until later in life. As I got older and sports became more serious, the court was where I developed the major intangible skills that I possess today, such as teamwork, leadership, and perseverance.
As a female, athletics have been a crucial part of my personal development, and I believe athletics play that same role for almost everyone who partakes in them. If we ignore the accomplishments of female athletics or act as if they are completely separate and lesser than those in male athletics, what kind of message are we sending to young female athletes? Are we telling them that even though they may practice just as hard as a male, their accomplishment will never been recognized in the same fashion? Is our immensely biased coverage of sports subconsciously discouraging girls from participating in a potentially life-changing experience? If it is, we are keeping young women from much more than a good workout.
While this issue will not be changed overnight, it is important for us to do what we can right now to make progress. Next time you overhear someone talking about how amazing UMBC’s upset was, remind him or her that Harvard women’s basketball did it first (I would like to credit UMBC for doing this). Next time you attend a men’s basketball game on a Friday night and the women are playing too, go 45 minutes earlier and support both teams. And before you start posting about an NCAA record or feat being the first of its kind, maybe check your facts beforehand, because a woman or a women’s team might have been the first to accomplish it. I do not mean to take anything away from the great accomplishments of UMBC or Amaker, but it is extremely important to recognize the accomplishments of men and women equally.
Hayley R. Isenberg ’19 is a Government concentrator in Kirkland House.