​Should We Be Depoliticizing Women’s Sports?

“...[W]omen in this program are an afterthought to the men. And as leaders of this group, we decided enough is enough.” —Meghan Duggan

Sticking to Sports

Two weeks ago, the U.S. men’s national soccer team lost a FIFA World Cup qualifier, and, with it, lost their chance to compete at the tournament in Russia next year. Naturally, the loss spurred an outpouring of frustration from fans, prompting complaints about the quality of international play and headlines like “United States Misses World Cup for First Time Since 1986.”

That isn’t true. The U.S. will have a national team—the women’s team—at the FIFA World Cup, defending their title. In fact, this squad has won three World Cups and four Olympic Games. For comparison, the last time the men’s team medaled at either of those events was a World Cup bronze in 1930.

Fans of the U.S. women’s team were quick to point out the team’s success. But, to me, this conversation also serves to highlight the fact that it takes a men’s team doing—or not doing—something for the analogous women’s team’s accomplishments to be celebrated. Or it takes a women’s team boycotting for fair pay for them to get attention. Boycotting, of course, takes courage and sacrifice, and by no means should that be understated. It’s also true that because of poor funding and support, even at the professional level, women’s sports can be a difficult realm. Nevertheless, the coverage that women’s sports receives, and the public perception of women’s sports, seems overwhelming compared to men’s sports, or focuses on the players first and foremost as women. Is this the way we should be talking about them?

Even outside of this phenomenon, studies show that coverage of women’s sports is flawed as is, and reinforces gender stereotypes in subtle ways. But we also have a tendency to speak of everything a female athlete does as revolutionary, empowering, brave—carrying the mantle of all women everywhere. Is it fair to expect female athletes to put so much on the line for greater causes? This past March, Meghan Duggan, captain of the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team, personally reached out to over 100 players in the prospect pool to encourage them to boycott for the same treatment as the men’s team. Some of those prospects were teenage girls, facing a difficult choice between joining Duggan and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for their country. They all ended up participating in the boycott.

Women who play at a national level already have to struggle to get there, which entails navigating a lack of resources at lower levels, facing all kinds of discouragement and difficulty as young players—and then rising to the top only to realize how little they will be compensated, even as Olympians or World Champions. And, on top of this success, we expect advocacy: We tell them to work more, struggle more, for the girls who are following in their footsteps. It isn’t an easy situation to be in. We don’t seem to expect male athletes to give more than lip service to equality in sports, even though they often have larger platforms and louder voices.

It seems that if female athletes at the peak of their sport aren’t using their voices to change the system, few others will. We hold them to high standards and celebrate their achievements, but it’s lonely at the top, and the rest of the sports world doesn’t do enough to change that. So, yes, we should expect the world champion to think of her Little League fans. But she should not be in her fight alone.

For now, the Serena Williamses and Megan Rapinoes of the world do stand for something greater. During the next few years, in which the U.S. women’s soccer team will be the only soccer team to play at that high a level in this country, perhaps we can reconsider how we see these women. After all, there is no excuse now not to unite behind them.

Stuti R. Telidevara ’20 is a Crimson Blog editor in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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