As league suspensions and the prohibition of large gatherings nixed revenue, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic that arose within it seemed to place a screeching halt on women’s sports.
In spite of these obstacles, a slew of historic firsts has ostensibly defied the dire straits of 2020. Becky Hammon was the first woman to serve as head coach of an NBA team. As a kicker for Vanderbilt, Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power Five football game. Kim Ng made history as the first female general manager of an MLB franchise. Heading the Miami Marlins, Ng has risen higher than any woman among the MLB’s 30 teams.
However, a closer look at the treatment of Fuller’s accomplishments means much to be desired. By no means do I intend to reject the history she has made — I’ll let Ben Shapiro do that. Fuller deserves all the accolades she received and more. However, while her achievements are cause for celebration, paying attention to only these firsts is the equivalent of patting ourselves on the back when there’s a whole game left to play. For casual fans, the outpouring of media attention creates a false positive: It masks the still harsh reality of women’s athletics.
In the case of Fuller, looking beyond the headlines reveals continued divisions in sports. Although major media outlets praised her, the criticisms she received are evidence of larger society’s continued reticence toward women in sport. Ignoring the comments of Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who said Fuller’s squib kick went “exactly where she needed to punch it,” some critics called the kick “pathetic.”
Although Vanderbilt’s kickers were sidelined due to COVID protocols and Fuller was one of the only student-athletes available to play, one verified journalist called her presence on the field “the height of absurdity” and a “charade.” While these remarks are often simply dismissed as internet trolls, they demonstrate the fractured opinions of the sports world.
Looking beyond the isolated cases of Fuller, Hammon and Ng, it’s evident that we are reluctant to recognize triumphs or tribulations across women’s sports. A disturbing pattern emerges; why do women in sports only seem to make headlining news when they participate in men’s sports?
“There are so many women who play tackle football,” said author and journalist Jessica W. Luther. “We just never think or talk about them.”
Indeed, several women’s football teams exist in leagues such as the Women’s Football Alliance, but they rarely receive media coverage or pay for that matter. Are they not breaking a glass ceiling in their own right?
Or how about women’s soccer? After American viewership for the championship match of the 2019 women’s World Cup eclipsed that of the most recent men’s World Cup final, women’s soccer seemed poised to take mainstream media by storm in 2020. Unfortunately, while coverage surrounding Alex Morgan’s COVID-19 diagnosis has seen a dramatic uptick, little has been said about the U.S. women’s national soccer team, or USNWT, and its Equal Pay Act Lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.
As of Dec. 3, USWNT reached a settlement resolving claims about unequal travel accommodations and playing conditions. However, issues related to unequal pay compared to the men’s national team have not been resolved as a federal district court dismissed them in May. The court has subsequently halted the appeals process due to COVID-19. However, with such details often obscured by other headlines, an average fan would probably not come across this information.
Why is this still the case? Luther claimed that a major problem is the lack of female sports journalists.
“The higher up you go in the chain of sports media, the more men there are,” Luther said. “(They) are the ones making editorial decisions and deciding who the audience is.”
However, while underrepresentation in the journalistic world is undoubtedly part of this complex issue, the hands of the audience are not clean. Until recently, some sports fans have not been accustomed to mixing news or the politics behind diversity and equity into their sports. More of us are guilty of deliberate ignorance than we think. I know I am: My main motivation in writing this column was the fact that I couldn’t remember the verdict of the USWNT’s lawsuit.
It’s easy to ignore problems in women’s sports when they aren’t headlining news. However, the very reason they aren’t is the crux of the issue. Hidden beneath multiple retweets is the complex ecology of inequity that demands our attention.
However, if there is any positive lesson to be learned from last year, it’s that sports can be an arena for change. We’ve seen athletes mount successful voting initiatives that have changed the political landscape outside of sports. Surely, we can step up and create change within them, too.