Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reflecting on Gender Parity in Sports

While watching the Women’s World Cup in soccer today, I decided yet again to raise a familiar question. Why don’t people follow women’s sports like men’s sports? Before I even started thinking about formulating something of an answer, I decided I would not make arguments that cast the distinction in strictly biological terms. I think they exist, but I don’t think they’re nearly as integral to the issue as we might think. Our visceral reaction to the action going on before us may provide information that is far more helpful.

Women’s sports tend to emphasize teamwork and basic fundamentals. Men’s sports are usually focused on skill players and a deliberately flashier style of play. The eye of the bystander has been trained to expect and follow dramatic action. Whether it is a star receiver who never drops a catch or a baseball pitcher with a 100 mph fastball, sports fans expect to be wowed, thrilled, and entertained. Superstars are supposed to stand out from the rest of the pack and win either our adoration or our derision. Greater attention on the playing field means more money and increased fame. So, because of all this, there’s a great incentive present to be in the public eye and stay there.

With women athletes, the stakes are not quite so high. With no financial advantage in the form of multi-million dollar salaries, coveted awards, or even appearances in film and television, women athletes see no compelling need to showboat. However, this means women’s sports are often perceived as much less visually exciting by an audience accustomed to men’s sports. Men’s sports have been marketed for decades to appeal to the widest possible audience. The rules are routinely tweaked to increase, maintain, and grow audience interest. In a massive understatement, men’s sports are a very lucrative business.

Advertising techniques have also been actively introduced to sell the game. I should state here that I’m not suggesting female athletes should consider resorting to the same tactics. If I were wise enough to propose a solution, I’d try to find a way that preserves a unique female standard of play and ethos while making a few reforms here and there to be more in line with their male counterparts.

Above all, the commercialization of men’s sports is one reason why women’s sports do not enjoy the same popularity. Reversing the lengthy trend of commercialism in any area is extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the beginning, men’s sports focused more on teamwork and less on individual grandstanding. Early styles of football focused on the ground game and the brute strength needed to cross the goal line. The forward pass was an invention not embraced fully until the Twenties. The shape of the ball was modified from the large, oval, rugby shape designed for quick sideways pitches to one more favorable to forward throwing.

Passing the ball is more exciting to the viewing audience than running the ball. The same paradigm shift was also true with baseball. The early days of the game were those of hard-hit singles and doubles, which necessitated a strong infield and cooperation between players. When players like Babe Ruth started hitting home runs instead, the audience was thrilled by the change, and the entire strategy of the game quickly became very different.

In men’s soccer, particularly at its most competitive levels, players often fake injuries to draw penalties. This is less prevalent in women’s soccer and may simply be an aspect of hyper-competitiveness. Wealth is a powerful incentive. Men draw much larger salaries and can compete for longer in their lives. The pay for women’s sports is much lower and as a result, women can’t afford to subsist on it. Women’s players tend to be much younger and have much shorter careers. In men’s sports, it’s possible to follow the progress of a favorite player for years. This is not always the case with women’s sports.

Ultimately, to greater parity, fans will have to change a little and the game will need to be modified, too. There may be no way to preserve the purity that exists when big money does not infiltrate sports. To obtain gender equality within sports, one might have to make a Faustian bargain or two. Instead of asking Why can’t women’s sports be more like men’s sports, I might pose something else entirely. Why would you want them to be?

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