Women Athletes Deserve More Moments in the Sun

JADed Remarks

"Go ahead and talk to the other coach first, and then write another article about how we suck."

Which isn't what I did. Instead I talked to a couple of players and walked back alone across the river and sat upstairs in The Crimson sanctum. My editor came up and asked what had happened and I told him: the team had lost again, and the coach was still upset by last week's article.

It wasn't that the article had been overwhelmingly negative, but the team--which I'd covered for two years--had been losing, no chance for a repeat appearance in the NCAAs or even an Ivy League title.

So my editor told me not to worry, that after all I could cover the remaining few games without talking to the coach, and that it was time to move on anyways. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and I'd covered women's teams every semester. I could cover basketball that winter, my editor said, men's basketball.

The women's soccer team was a good team, he said, but not really professional enough for the coverage it got, and once I moved on to the bigger and better I wouldn't have to worry anymore about offending anyone with negative coverage.


I learned pretty early on what got play in the Crimson sports pages. Big crowds meant big coverage. And the correlation between gender and crowds was a given.

It turned out that covering men's basketball was fun. It was easy. You almost didn't have to take notes at all. You just sat there at a special table set up alongside the court, and Sports Information flunkeys brought you rosters and program notes and statistics to your heart's content.

It wasn't hard to get used to the free roast beef sandwiches and potato chips and soda at football games, either, although I'm not a big football fan and only watched from the press box two or three times.

But I never quite accepted the code that said, no question, these men's teams deserved the coverage they got. Sure, when women's basketball or women's swimming won Ivies they got banner headlines. And women athletes got profiled when they did something outstanding.

But there were still 80 fans in the stands at the baseball field with its P.A. system and official scorekeeper and electric scoreboard--and six fans sitting on blankets in foul territory at the softball field listening to the national anthem float over from the neighboring field. And even if attendance showed up as color commentary in an article, or in the tiny print at the bottom of a scoring box, we never cast judgment.

My editor used to tell me that column inches on the sports page reflected number of fans in the stands, and that if I thought about it, the so-called big teams probably deserved even more coverage, relative to minor sports, than we accorded them.

But the process runs in two directions. As reporters, we were trying to reflect a trend that, by reflecting, we helped to perpetuate. Stimulating and extensive crimson coverage is probably not enough to propel your average Harvard undergraduate down to Blodgett Pool to view a women's water polo contest. But why aren't spectators there already? What factors determine the popularity of various sports?

We at The Crimson never questioned the genderbiased rationale that permeates the sports world here, running from the Harvard admissions office to the Harvard athletic department to the Harvard playing fields. Every once in a while we'd write a cute story about women's team's fans, about how a small corps of enthusiasts would show up to root in virtual isolation, game after game. And then we'd get back to business and write previews and a game story and three columns and a notebook about some men's team.

It's clear that certain sports don't have what it takes to attract spectators. Whatever vital quality it is that they lack, it tends to be gender-blind. No matter how many Eastern titles the men's swimming team wins, the squad's season crowd total probably wouldn't fill Bright Center.

But when it comes to the major spectator sports--football, hockey and, to a lesser extent, basketball and baseball--gender is most definitely a factor in attendance patterns. In all of the above sports, except for football, Harvard features both women's and men's squads. The men's teams get the crowds and the coverage, the women's teams get a sprinkling of dedicated fans--roommates, parents, friends.

Some people say that the quality of play differential between men's and women's sports is enough to keep them away from the latter. Women's sports move slower, they argue, and the athletes aren't as strong.

As a reporter and as a fan, I've watched both sexes at play, and I don't agree. Yes, men's hockey is faster-paced than women's hockey. And yes, some of the men's hockey players are destined for the pros, whereas the same can't be said of the women. But every team plays teams of comparable abilities, and I've never noticed the level of competition to vary markedly from one sport to another, or one gender to another. I don't think that hard-fought, one-goal victory counts more if more people are watching.

In our society, the term professional is used to distinguish one achievement, or one achiever, from another. There are some people and some qualities we favor, time and again. We support our hand-picked favorites with money, or with attendance at college sporting events, or with newspaper coverage. We enjoy the positive reinforcement of shared values.

What rankled most, sophomore year, was my editor saying that the women's soccer team wasn't professional enough. By whose standards? If he meant Harvard's standards, then he implicity meant The Crimson's standards as well, and that's a problem.

Game stories report scores. But columns and editorials are subjective by definition. When we have the chance, as journalists, we've got to do more than reflect opinion--we've got to question and analyze opinion as well, especially when the society we cover displays problematic attitudes.

One hundred years from now, men's sports will probably still be drawing the big crowds. For the time being, women athletes at Harvard can derive some satisfaction from training and playing at some of the best facilities in the nation--but they deserve more. They deserve respect equal to their abilities, regardless of attendance figures.

Jessica Dorman was co-sports editor of The Crimson from February of 1986 until January of 1987.