Serena Williams, the most dominant American athlete in the game today, won her sixth Wimbledon women’s singles championship this past Saturday. It was the 21st major title of her storied career. The previous day, a New York Times article described the lengths some of her competitors go to avoid emulating her. Maria Sharapova seemed prideful when admitting her lack of physical strength. “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” she said. “It’s just annoying, and it’s just too much hard work. And for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.” Though she continues to outpace Williams in off-the-court endorsement earnings, Sharapova bowed out in the Wimbledon semifinals, losing to Williams for the 17th consecutive time in what can no longer be called a rivalry with any seriousness.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the 13 seed in the tournament, is apparently “the smallest player in the top 10”—five feet, eight inches, 123 pounds—on purpose. Her coach, who you’d think would be most concerned with Radwanska’s success on the court, told the Times that the priority was not so much winning as gender presentation and idealized beauty: “Because, first of all she’s a woman,” he said, “and she wants to be a woman.”
The report underscored one of the biggest reasons Serena Williams inspires tears of anger when she wins: She looks like she could kick all of our asses. Moreover, being black, her athleticism and strength become even more exoticized and suspicious. Atlantic senior editor David Frum insulted Williams and ridiculed her thinner opponents when he tweeted the Times article with a header: “Steroids? Oh no, no, no. ‘Body image issues.’”
In America, sports have long since transcended the patriarchal lens through which we tend to view them. Mass media presents them them as filtered through a white, heterosexual gaze; that’s part of the reason many men are still not used to seeing women succeed in traditionally male arenas. Nowhere is this truer than in women’s sports. Despite the U.S. Women National Team’s 5-2 victory in the Women’s World Cup final—which drew 26.7 million viewers, more than Game 7 of last fall’s World Series—we’re barely seeing women athletes perform at all outside of the Olympics.
About a week after this year’s Women’s World Cup tournament, I joined host Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show for a discussion about women’s sports. He began with newly released statistics out of the University of Southern California that detail how poorly those sports are covered by mainstream American media. On local affiliates and shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter, they get measly percentages of all airtime. The June study Wilmore cited, fittingly titled It’s Dude Time!, offered that the “quantity of coverage of women’s sports in televised sports news and highlights shows remains dismally low,” and highlighted “a stark contrast between the exciting, amplified delivery of stories about men’s sports, and the often dull, matter-of-fact delivery of women’s sports stories.”
“Are women’s sports as exciting as men’s sports?” Wilmore asked me. “Be honest.” It wasn’t a particularly difficult question for me to answer “yes” to. Sure, it was a comedy show, and the whole thing was played for laughs. But the question reminded me of too many conversations I’ve had about women in sports that not only include the wrong questions, but center on those kinds of questions. And it’s ridiculous when you consider the athleticism involved in these women’s endeavors—as comedians Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler recently did in their late-night roasting of a Sports Illustrated writer who wrote on Twitter that women’s sports weren’t worth watching.
“Because sports are a form of entertainment, being called ‘boring’ is a particularly damning comment, again implying that there is no value in coverage of the sport,” said Katie Hnida, the first woman to play and to score in a Division I college football game. “We want our women's sports to be exactly like our male sports instead of appreciating some of the natural differences in games.”
Feminist writer Amanda Marcotte sees a double standard in the “boring” label. “Men can call women's sports ‘boring’ and that is an opinion treated with weight and merit,” she said. “But if a woman calls, say, football ‘boring,’ that is held out as evidence that she doesn't know what she's talking about.”
Whose fault is this? And who’s not helping? The questions almost answer themselves. Kate Goldwater, a New York-based clothing storeowner, publicly blasted ESPN, Fox Sports and other sports outlets for not offering the printable World Cup tournament brackets that so often draw in casual fans. And even though women are increasingly playing fantasy sports, it’s difficult to find a league for a women’s sport.
Former ESPN the Magazine executive editor Sue Hovey pointed to the lack of gender diversity in sports media, something she argued also hurts male sports. “When there is more diversity of thought, the dialogue is more robust, and decision-making is more informed,” Hovey said. “There are male journalists who do a wonderful job covering women's sports, and there are women who do a great job covering men's sports,” she told me. “But we need more diversity of thought at the top of the decision-making chain, because those are the folks who ultimately control what goes on the air and what kind of coverage we see online and in print, and a lot of them aren't nearly as receptive to new or different approaches as they like to think they are. Everyone has blind spots; that's why you need a collection of voices representing an array of perspectives.”
In American culture, sports are a primal and welcome forum for emotion: As fans, our fears and passions are all poured into something over which we have very little control.
“Lots of us watch sports because of how it makes us feel as part of a collective, an identity to latch onto that really has no risk of hurting our actual identities,” author and sportswriter Jessica Luther told me. “And for a lot of men, that has been for them a very masculine space.” Given how historically fragile the male ego is, this is unsurprising. But while the misogynist’s grasp on sports is tight, it’s not inescapable.
Hovey, who co-authored the book In My Skin with former top WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner, agreed. She credited Mariah Burton Nelson’s The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Footballwith examining, 20 years ago, how men feel threatened by the advances of women in society—especially in sports—and how that fear provokes them to devalue and denigrate the accomplishments of female athletes. She argued that this phenomenon is most present in women’s basketball.
“No matter how good a player or team is, we are always reminded that they will never be as good as the men. The big knock on women’s hoops is that the game is played below the rim, which supposedly makes it boring,” Hovey told me. “But then along came Brittney Griner, a woman who can dunk easily, so people had to find a different insult.”
“They called her a man,” Hovey continued. “They said stuff like, ‘Well, she’s six-foot-eight; she should be dunking all the time!’ And when her college team, Baylor, went 40-0 to win the national championship, the naysayers proclaimed, ‘Those girls would get embarrassed by a good high school boys team,’ as if that somehow lessens their accomplishment. ‘Yeah, you just won an NCAA title, but you couldn’t beat a bunch of boys!’ It’s just another way to put women in their place, to remind them that they are somehow less than men.” That this is often accomplished by likening women athletes to men is sadly ironic.
One of the most maddening effects of patriarchy and misogyny in sports is that many women athletes need a tireless, almost evangelical backing to get noticed and be celebrated. “If you’re a woman in sports, if you're a person of color, if you're a member of the LGBT community, and you speak up to advocate for change, you’re often perceived as having ‘an agenda,” Hovey said. “But what about the agenda of the straight white guys in charge? The sports editors and producers, college athletic directors, team owners, and anyone else who isn't particularly inclined to mess with the status quo? One of the ways to devalue the work of women in sports media is to use terms like ‘agenda’ and ‘advocacy’ while willfully ignoring the non-stop, 24/7, 365-days-a-year advocacy of men’s sports.”
Appreciating the athletic endeavors of half of the world’s population shouldn’t require an evangelist. If this problem is going to be fixed, men—particularly those in the media—are going to have to get over themselves. (And I’m not talking about only realizing the importance of women’s sports when their daughters are playing or cheering for a team like the U.S. women’s soccer squad; you don’t need to procreate to believe in gender equity.) It starts with being less dismissive of women. In the era of athletes like Williams, UFC champ Ronda Rousey, teen fireballer Mo'Ne Davis, and our nation’s newly crowned World Cup soccer champions, it’s boring to say that women’s sports are boring.