The Most Masculine of Places

The Most Masculine of Places

Sarah Ondak

Women’s Place in College Sports is Defined By Inequality and Discrimination, But We Can Change That

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” These are the words of Title IX, the federal law that is a cornerstone of equality in America. Any educational institution that receives federal funding (i.e., the vast majority of schools) must adhere to a code of sexual nondiscrimination. This piece of legislation has had an incredible impact on women’s role in college sports: before 1972, the year it was passed, the primary activities for girls were cheerleading or square-dancing; at the time only 294,000 girls played high school sports and fewer than 30,000 played in college (“Athletics Under Title IX” 1). Today, 3.1 million girls participate in high school sports and that growth has been mirrored in college athletics. Title IX has exponentially expanded the athletic opportunities for women in college, but the job is far from over.

Gender inequality in college sports is a deeply rooted issue. The world of college athletics is male-dominated, which is clear through the problematic perception of women athletes and teams, the lack of media attention they receive in comparison to men’s sports, and universities’ and colleges’ lack of dedication to Title IX guidelines. Women’s sports appear to be stigmatized and ignored, but there are ways to fight back against a tide of nuanced discrimination. By putting more women in leadership positions of teams and athletic programs and holding organizations like the NCAA and Department of Education accountable to enforcing standards, there is hope that we can tip the scales closer to equality.                                                                                                          

Institutionalized Inequality

I grew up playing sports. Maybe eight-year-old soccer leagues are not subject to the gender biases in our society, but I never felt unequal until high school. Freshman year, my women’s rowing team was the fourth best in the country, but the men’s team always got the newest equipment, more money, and the first pick of boats. We called ourselves strong independent women; they called us “fat cows.” Sometimes we would walk through the boathouse and hear jeers of  “moo moo moo” hurled in our direction. Unfortunately, my experience is not unique. In The Sport Journal, Joshua A. Shenne explained “studies indicated […] American boys who play sports enjoy high status from their peers, while female athletes are judged to be of lower social status, especially if they play masculine sports” (Shenne 12). There was further emphasis that young girls who play sports are subject to “direct, derogatory comments about their athleticism” (Shenne 13). More than three-fourths of these comments come from brothers or close male friends. I remember talking to my own boyfriend who rowed on the men’s team at my club about a race the previous weekend where the girls placed 7th and the men placed 23rd, and his explanation for why the guys did so poorly was that “women’s rowing just [wasn’t] as competitive.”                     

Sports can be a toxic breeding ground for gender stereotypes. To this day, women are often seen through characterizations as caregivers and nurturers. These descriptors alone are not inherently harmful. However, they can be used to undermine women’s athletic accomplishments, and often are invoked to support the idea that while women can achieve success, it will never be to the same extent as a man. A few years ago, tennis star John McEnroe claimed that Serena Williams—a woman who has a record 23 grand slam singles titles, has never lost a grand slam doubles final, and has no less than 4 Olympic gold medals—would not even be a top 700 men’s player. This particular instance can be accounted as “just one more example of how hard it continues to be for women’s sports to receive any attention at all, unless it is somehow filtered through a very dismissive male gaze” (University of Southern California 1). But the degradation of women’s accomplishments is commonplace. It was not so long ago that 2016 Olympic trap-shooter medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein was described as “the wife of a Chicago Bears linebacker” in national news. To me, this displays how blatant a role sexism plays at even the highest level of athletics. If the professionals don’t receive the recognition and respect they deserve and are instead viewed through a lense of femininity, is there any hope for collegiate amateurs?

Apparently not. Women do not seem to be participating in athletics, and it could be caused by the negative stereotypes surrounding female sports. Jessica Luther, for her investigative piece in The Atlantic, said that athletics is considered by many to be “the most masculine of places” (1). Shenne agreed, posing that women’s place in sports is an unwelcome intrusion into the realm of masculinity (4). A study by the Intramurals at Colleges and Universities found that women accounted for only 26% of registrations in intramural sports (Shenne 7). The low number of women who decide to join sports might be because they have different interests, but it could also indicate that they are not welcome. Ana Homayoun, a nationally recognized counselor for adolescents, wrote in the The New York Times that from a young age, sports are a critical tool to facilitate social and emotional interaction, but because they limit interactions to be mostly with teammates of the same gender, they may foster entitlement and a “rules don’t apply attitude” in boys (1). If a woman joins a team with mostly men, it can be a challenge to break into that “bro culture”. From man-caves, to sports bars, to watch parties, to intramurals, men dominate the sports scene. It is often intimidating and difficult to enter that world, so some women might not even try, leading to the levels of inequality we can observe today.

On top of the low participation numbers in women’s sports, there also appears to be a lack of interest from the general public. Television channels and school administrations promote the idea that there simply is not a large market for women’s sports. This is perhaps why women’s events are cheaper, get less promotion and recognition, and why they receive less airtime. If no market exists, there is no incentive for places like ESPN to dedicate their time to covering women’s events, or for schools to sell expensive tickets. However, the audience of women’s athletics is purposefully kept small by biases within schools and television programs.

Based on evidence, inequality is systematically implemented: there are examples of gender marking in women’s championships, like the Women’s NCAA Final Four or Women’s Soccer World Cup (Shenne 3).  In The Sport Journal, Shenne noted that this gender marking “occurred an average of 27.5 times in women’s sporting events, but none in men’s sports” (15). When looking at the same events for men, it is plain to see that they are never qualified with a gender moniker, which appears to imply that the male is the standard, and the female is the lesser, “other” event. This small nuance has huge repercussions in that it effectively reinforces gender inequality against female athletes.

It would seem however, that women are lucky to be on television at all. Gender discrimination has led to the shrinking coverage of women’s sports, even as there are more female athletes than ever. According to an ongoing, decades-long study by researchers at the University of Southern California  in the journal Gender & Society,  L.A.-based network affiliate stations devoted only 3.2% of airtime to women’s sports, which is less airtime than in 1989, the first year the study began ( 1). Over 28 years, television coverage of women has actually become worse. ESPN’s SportsCenter has devoted only 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports. Even off-season men’s events received more airtime than in-season women (University of Southern California 2). These statistics, combined with the gender monikers used by networks that was previously addressed, show that collegiate female athletes are at best stigmatized and at worst ignored, which potentially plays a major role in the intolerable levels of prejudice against women that are evident today.  

Sports media also reinforces the patriarchal system of male preference by focusing on female athletes’ femininity (that is, if they even focus on female athletes). Shenne stated,“While Title IX has created more opportunities in sport for women, it has done very little to reduce the stereotypical image of women in sports” (1). A Fox Sports article about Wimbledon recounted that “Serena Williams took to Centre Court Tuesday afternoon for the traditional opening match […] and it was Serena’s dress that, once again, stole the show” (Chase 1). Examples like this show how focusing on a woman’s clothes, hair, or body degrades her accomplishments and shifts the focus from her athleticism to her vulnerabilities. Often, when world championship-winning women are reduced to their fashion choices, it reinforces the idea that women belong to traditional realms of delicacy, rather than the world of athletics. Whether intentional or not, the way women are treated in sports coverage sends a clear message: “Hey, you don’t belong here.”

The media is not alone in mistreating female athletes. Schools participate in promoting the problematic perception of women’s sports by peddling of their events as inferior products.

Yale writer-in-residence Laura Pappano and research scientist Allison J. Tracy studied ticket prices at 292 Division I institutions for the 2008-2009 season. They explained that colleges are not professional franchises, but are actually non-profits. Because of this, a university’s decision about ticket prices doesn’t mirror any actual marketplace (Pappano and Tracy 1). Ticket prices are chosen by the specific institution, so they quite literally represent how much a university values an event. Pappano and Tracy saw disparities in ticket prices between men’s and women’s events and realized (based on previous research) that lower-priced events are perceived as lower quality. Their findings point to the conclusion that because women’s sporting events are less expensive, they are deemed less worth watching or attending (Pappano and Tracy 1). When women’s sports are sold for next to nothing, their hard work is cheapened.

This occurrence can be frustrating and discouraging to female athletes, but it also reveals a bias in favor of men’s sports. Even if a women’s team is just as, or even more, popular than a men’s team, the school won’t recognize their achievements. Generally, a school looks to media coverage and sponsorships to shape the desirability of attending an event, but the price differences shown between men and women’s events did not reflect the event’s actual popularity (Pappano and Tracy 3). Using Division I women’s basketball as an example, the study noted that even though the sport is incredibly popular, it is not marketed or promoted in the same way as men’s basketball. A University of Louisville women’s basketball game remains $5 a ticket, which is substantially less than the $19 the school charges for men’s tickets, even though the women have become so popular they sell out regular season games (Pappano and Tracy 6). This devaluing of women on the court has implications off the court: it reveals that schools hide institutional discrimination under the guise of economics.

Ignoring Title IX

The challenges female athletes face are shadowed in nuance. Aside from the sexism within our culture, which is further enforced by media coverage and universities’ undervaluing women’s sports, schools seem to make efforts to undermine Title IX. The law prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds, and is enforced by the Department of Education (ED), which mandates equal opportunity for each gender in activities. Universities are required to follow Title IX because it is a federal law, and they receive federal funding. The ED, however, has let systematic gender inequality persist on campuses, receiving  no support from the National Collegiate Athletic Association in combating inequality.

Without pressure from the NCAA or the Department of Education, equity has diminished in college athletics (Zimbalist 3). The NCAA regulates more than 480,000 student-athletes in over 1,000 institutions. It organizes individuals, athletic programs, and national conferences (like the Pac-12 or Big 10). Andrew S. Zimbalist, U.S. economist and professor of Economics at Smith College, explained that because the NCAA is a nonprofit that does not get federal funding, it  does not have to enforce the rules of Title IX, a federal law (Zimbalist 2). Ultimately, the Department of Education is charged with holding schools accountable to Title IX standards. However, the ED  does not have enough resources to properly address every complaint or violation that comes in. Achieving equality appears  to be, at best, a work in progress and, at worst, blatantly ignored.

Based on observations of the ways colleges treat women athletes, one can observe a problematic status quo. Vice Sports reporter Kevin Trahan explains that under Title IX, schools are required to have proportionate athletic aid for men and women (5). The NCAA frequently asked questions page explains that Title IX does not require each team to receive the same services and supplies, but instead it demands that men and women’s programs receive the same level of service, facilities, supplies, etc (“Title IX Frequently Asked Questions” 1). They present the example of a male football player and female soccer player; both need protective equipment such as pads, a helmet, and shin guards. Under Title IX, equipment doesn’t have to cost the same, but it does have to be the same quality. In theory, this system should work perfectly, but according to data from the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, 46% of the Power Five conference schools have an athletic aid gap of two percent or more—a gap considered non-compliant under Title IX (Trahan 2). Based on this number, it appears that almost half of the most academically and athletically prestigious schools in the NCAA do not support women’s sports in the same way that they do men’s. Obviously, not every sport will cost the same amount, but schools should follow the basic standard that Title IX presents. In not doing so, universities deny women equal athletic opportunities, which sends a message of preference to male athletes.

The undermining of Title IX does not stop with money. In Trahan’s reporting, Kristen Galles, a lawyer who has worked with the National Women’s Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union found “a number of university athletic programs [treat]  Title IX like a suggestion” (1). More data revealed 18% of schools in the largest conferences fail to come within 10% of matching their number of female athletes to the number of women enrolled at the university (Trahan 2). Participation has a problematic place in the conversation regarding athletic equality between the genders. Schools might want to keep levels of involvement similar, though it is not obvious whether that desire comes from genuinely wanting to include more females or from an attempt to avoid unwanted attention to the university. It is important to note that disproportionate participation in sports is not breaking Title IX, but the National Women’s Law Center considered the data a “red flag,” as the numbers indicate that schools do not appear dedicated to incorporating more women into sports.

When schools do try to advance the levels of female athletes, it is usually in an effort to balance out the resources that are poured into men’s teams. High levels of spending in basketball and football, combined with large rosters, push schools to find a balance with women’s sports. Trahan elaborated that“on one hand, [it] makes sense given that certain men’s sports […] require massive amounts of investment to continue to bring in massive amounts of revenue. On the other hand, it also allows schools to boost [women’s] participation numbers for a relatively low cost, by padding the rosters of their least expensive sports” (9). In an attempt to remain compliant to Title IX without allocating generous resources to support women, universities will sometimes fill the rosters of the cheapest sports they can find.

Universities, in their efforts to avoid being noncompliant with Title IX, engage in behavior that undermines female athletes. For example, Baylor lists 44 gymnasts, but the university doesn’t actually have a gymnastics program: it counts “acrobatics and tumbling” as gymnastics. This might not seem like a big issue, but at the school acrobatics is the second most inexpensive sport (Trahan 14). This indicates colleges crowd women into low-priced sports so as to avoid legitimately investing in their athletic endeavours. Thomas Newkirk, a former administrator currently suing the University Iowa on behalf of former coaches alleging discrimination, claimed the school was manipulating participation numbers by using the women’s rowing team, another low-cost activity. He explained that “there are so many people willing to row that you put them on the team and bump it up” (Trahan 15). The average rowing team has around 30 to 40 members, Iowa’s has 89. These women appear to be shoved into cheap sports only to fill a roster, not to actually compete.

Ironically, schools also boost female participation numbers by counting men. Baylor University claims that its women’s athletic participation rate matches women’s enrollment. In reality, 16% of Baylor’s “female athletes” are actually male practice players that are used as sparring partners in women’s sports. This can be an effective form of training: women have to compete constantly against individuals who are generally faster and stronger and it also gives the men an athletic outlet and a way to contribute to a team’s success. However, this practice can be easily abused. “[Baylor’s]’ women’s basketball team counts over twice as many men (27) as it does women (13)” (Trahan 16). All these underhanded ways to reach Title IX compliance can be interpreted as proof that schools are not truly committed to gender equality in the realm of athletics.

These shady practices do not occur at every school, but the fact that they happen at all is discouraging and disrespectful to the women who participate for and represent the universities. Look to the Baylor “gymnasts.” The Department of Education never ruled that acrobatics was a Title IX compliant sport, so the women are not considered student-athletes. Critics of their status said that “it’s insane […] they are some of the hardest working women on campus.” But, the focus of the argument should not be about whether their activity is or is not athletically challenging, it needs to address whether women receive the infrastructure from the government and from their schools to get opportunities to compete (Trahan 13). Right now, hard-working women are being denied that opportunity.

Can We Fix It?

Women in Power

In the case of sports, it may not always be possible to call out the sexist actions taken against women, but we can combat injustice with the inclusion of women in positions of power. At the collegiate level there are around 200,000 female student athletes, meaning that the number of women representing universities across the country has increased by more than 600 percent (Lee and Dusenbery 1). All this progress is incredible, but Atlantic contributors Linda Flanagan and Susan H. Greenberg wrote in 2012, “As Title IX prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary […] many women of our generation are ready to move beyond the comforting fiction that equality of opportunity […] is enough for female athletes.” They argue that the time has come to stop looking to data points as evidence for progress, and instead society must begin improving “the quality of women’s athletic experiences” (Ross 6). It is not enough that there are more women playing sports than there were before Title IX. True equality will not come from equal numbers, it will come from equal treatment.

As previously discussed, sexism in the forms of media and public perception are massive barriers women must continue to overcome. Dismantling the system of male-dominance on the field and in sports leadership (a.k.a “taking down the patriarchy”), combined with reversing centuries of gender discrimination would be an ideal answer to the misogyny that seems to surround women’s place in athletic endeavors. But, we can’t always have what we want. The search for feasible solutions to discrimination seems just as elusive and challenging as deconstructing the patriarchal society we live in. Juliene Brazinski Simpson, the athletics director at College of Saint Elizabeth, who coached women’s college basketball for 27 years, noted, “There is not one word or one scenario I can give and say, ‘This is going to help us move forward […] I think there’s just a lot of stereotypes that make this a very complicated situation” (Stark 1). She is correct in saying that gender stereotypes will not be reversed in a day, but Simpson herself is an answer to the discrimination found within college athletics. By putting more women in leadership positions, we can make sports more equal and accessible.   

It is a solution for media coverage and for percieved sexist practices at universities and athletic departments. Ian Chaffe, a media relations specialist who covered the previously mentioned study by the University of Southern California, reported on the low number of women in sports media. “[The researchers] found that 95% of anchors, co-anchors and analysts […] were male.” Slightly more than 90% of sports print editors were also male (Chaffe 1). This huge discrepancy can be disheartening to anyone seeking equality, but with the integration of more women into sports media, we can close the gap. Messner, the professor of sociology and gender studies at USC who uncovered these statistics, confirmed that the next move to greater equality would be getting more women into newspapers, sitting at sports desks, and talking on the radio and TV (Chaffe 2). In order for female athletes to get genuine media attention, women have to be in the room.

The same holds true for university athletic departments. Female coaches used to dominate women’s college sports. In 1972, women coached 90% of women’s college teams. Today, that number is only 43%, and it’s going down (Stark 1). Recently, Iowa athletic director Gary Barba fired five female coaches and replaced two of them with men whom he paid 25% more than their predecessors. For the other three, who he replaced with other women, he paid them 13% less (Brown 3). This mistreatment seems obviously sexist, and yet it persists: last year, the University of Minnesota Duluth told Shannon Miller, a hockey coach with five NCAA titles and the Division I national record for more wins secured faster than any coach in history, that her contract would be terminated due to financial constraints (Shira 1) . Meanwhile, the men’s hockey coach has only one national title, but is still paid $265,000 a year. Most importantly, he still has a job. It is important to note that when Title IX passed, more attention was given to women’s sports, and coaching jobs on female teams more than doubled (Brown 2). To combat the sexism female coaches face, universities and athletic departments could actively track their hiring practices to make sure qualified women are being given the same opportunities as men, and that they are given a platform on which to promote women’s sports.

Institutional Accountability

Both the NCAA and U.S. Department of Education seem to fail at their job of protecting women from unfair treatment. Ending discrimination against female athletes can come in the form of holding these institutions accountable to their own standards. As stated, the NCAA is an organization that ensures schools comply with Title IX requirements and the ED is charged with enforcing Title IX and taking action against schools that fail to follow the law. Today, when prejudices at schools are called to attention, it appears as if NCAA has no incentive to get involved (Trahan 9). The NCAA has no power other than to label schools noncompliant. It cannot level harsh repercussions against universities that break the rules. The Department of Education, on the other hand, can investigate schools and withhold federal funding from non-compliant institutions. But even after the egregious failures on the part of universities to comply with Title IX (recall the inauthentically stacked rosters, the gymnasts that aren’t officially gymnasts, the male training partners counted as female players), the ED has never in its history taken funding away from a school (Trahan 17). This sends a message that schools can get away with mistreating female athletes. When asked about the inaction by the NCAA and ED, the D.C.-based Title IX attorney Kristen Galles simply stated, “Nobody is watching.” (Trahan 2).

To counter the inactivity of feckless institutions, athletes and coaches can file complaints that can bring attention to gender inequality or sexist practices within college sports. Official complaints can spark action. But, people either may not be aware of mistreatment or are afraid of the consequences of shedding light on prejudices. According to former University of Texas women’s athletic director and Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Donna Lopiano, people inside college athletics are unlikely to acknowledge discrimination. She asked, “Who is going to bring the pressure? The coach is probably not going to bring it up, because the coach is afraid of losing their job. The athlete is probably not going to bring it up, because they’re afraid of retaliation” (Trahan 17). As long as the Department of Education and the NCAA ignore Title IX violations, the burden of holding schools accountable falls on college employees and students (Trahan 18).

The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women distributed a publication before the 2008 Beijing Olympics that stated “Women’s participation in sport has a long history. It is a history marked by division and discrimination but also one led with major accomplishments by female athletes and important advances for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls” (“Women, Gender Equality and Sport” 1). Thanks in large part to Title IX, women have fought their way into the world of sports, but the battle is far from over. Moving forward, progress might move in small steps, but that should not be reason to despair. In a paper on college students’ ability to bring us closer to gender equality, the Clinton Foundation wrote, “To help girls and women get ahead, it’s important to appreciate the moments when we get it right” (“College Students Can Bring Us Closer to Gender Equality” 1). Attending women’s sporting events at college campuses may not seem like a powerful gesture for social justice, but it is one way to support these incredible athletes. As students, we have the power to show that even if media and universities won’t invest in women’s sports, we will.

When we notice disparities between men’s and women’s representation, we should not be afraid to call attention to our university’s leaders. When I see football players plastered on a billboard in front of Stanford’s entrance, I wonder if a billboard can go up on the other side of the street, with images of our women’s water polo team or our soccer team, both of whom are NCAA champions. There is validity in saying that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In the case of gender discrimination, students can use advocacy to make the arc bend a little faster.

The fighting against sexual discrimination is moving forward. In 2016, more than 60% of presidents at NCAA schools signed a pledge to address the low representation of women and other minorities in athletic leadership roles (Stark 5). Division I conferences are also beginning to partner with the Alliance of Women Coaches to host leadership forums for their female coaches (Stark 8). There are numerous problems surrounding injustice against women in sports, but they have not gone completely unnoticed. These important steps in social progress, combined with recognition of the issue must continue so that women can eventually stand on equal footing and be valued for the hard-working athletes they are.


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