Most people, without question, would say that the greatest female athlete of all time is Serena Williams, with her world-leading 23 Grand Slam titles. No other person—male or female—has accomplished what she has. Still, though, she’s not the “GOAT”—not because she’s not the Greatest Of All Time, but because her title always includes the qualifier of “female” in front of it.
When you turn on the TV, your options are ESPN and espnW (with the “W” standing for “women”). You watch the NHL or the NWHL and the NBA or the WNBA. At many high schools and colleges, the male athletes are called by their school’s mascots, while the female athletes are the “lady” mascots (think “Hawks” versus “Lady Hawks.” We wouldn’t call them the “Gentlemen Hawks” because it sounds silly, so why use “Lady Hawks?”)
I can see the argument for wanting to differentiate between men’s and women’s sports in order to not use men’s sports as a basis of comparing their accomplishments. The fact that Katie Ledecky’s 1500 meter freestyle world record is 49 seconds slower than Sun Yang’s on the men’s side doesn’t make Ledecky’s feat any less impressive, for example.
But there are ways to differentiate the two other than relying so heavily on the alienating qualifier of “women’s sports” and labeling those same sports played by men as just “sports” with no qualifier.
The placement of one word seems minor—and in terms of sentence structure it is—but in terms of the connotations associated with it, adding a qualifier for one gender and not another to our language about sports has done more harm than good.
The men’s and women’s basketball NCAA Tournaments recently came under a microscope after the circulation of a video comparing the men’s and women’s weight rooms. Ali Kershner, a performance coach for Stanford women’s basketball—the eventual national champion—tweeted out a photo of the women’s “weight room”—a single rack of dumbbells and a handful of yoga mats—comparing it to that of the men—a convention hall-sized room filled with Olympic weight racks as far as the eye can see.
The NCAA chalked it up to a lack of space, but Sedona Prince, a player for Oregon women’s basketball, posted a TikTok showing off an equally sized room adjacent to the women’s practice court that the NCAA had left empty.
Before the NCAA could even explain its reasoning for the weight room differences, private vendors such as Dick’s Sporting Goods had done more to right the ship than the tournament’s presiding organization by offering up weight room equipment.
The discrepancies in the weight rooms—and the NCAA’s lack of a response—are indicative of a larger pattern at the NCAA Tournaments. The men’s tournament hardwood proudly displays the words “March Madness.” The floors of the women’s venues, on the other hand, are emblazoned with “NCAA WOMEN’S BASKETBALL” in all caps—no indication that it’s on the same competition or excitement level as the men’s tournament.
Both tournaments take place mostly in March, and based on the fact that both of last Sunday’s games came down to a last-second shot, I’d say they’re both pretty full of madness. So why is one tournament a special event with a special name, and the other is just a collection of some women’s basketball games?
The language we use creates an insurmountable divide between men’s and women’s sports, and it prevents women’s sports from gaining the respect they deserve.
It’s probably not possible to completely remove the use of “women’s sports,” but perhaps the problem instead lies in not using a qualifier for men’s sports. By qualifying “women’s sports” as such and men’s sports as just “sports,” we’re using men’s sports as an arbitrary standard of what sports look like.
Since the tournaments’ differences gained significant traction on social media, I’ve seen a major uptick in the equal distribution of qualifiers between men’s and women’s sports. Recent tweets and graphics about the men’s tournament include a men’s qualifier to specify that they’re about the men’s tournament rather than assuming that the audience uses men’s sports as a basis of comparison.
Still, only 1.6 percent of sports news on Twitter as of last year pertained to sports played by women. And a lot of the time, as we saw in the case of Kershner and Prince, much of that 1.6 percent is work done by women in order to at least defend the little sense of legitimacy afforded to women’s sports.
The NCAA seemed to have not learned its lesson from the backlash over the inequalities in its basketball tournament weight rooms, and sports journalists—many of whom were women—recently took to Twitter once again to call the organization out for its inconsistencies.
The NCAA announced that the first three rounds of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament are set to take place in a convention hall in Omaha, Neb. Big Ten analyst Emily Ehman reported that eight of the tournament’s practice courts are layered over cement floors, which creates a high risk for injuries. The NCAA also announced that there would be no live commentary on the first two rounds of the tournament.
Twenty-four hours later, after facing criticism from journalists and sports fans—once again, many of whom were women—on Twitter, the NCAA turned around and announced it would offer live commentary on all of its games.
Although the NCAA eventually got its act together, it did not seem like the organization did so because it wanted to legitimize women’s sports. Instead, it seemed like the NCAA was just trying to save its own hide rather than making changes because it was the right thing to do.
Another significant portion of that 1.6 percent is hateful and ignorant comments about female athletes. As we’ve known practically since its inception, Twitter provides a veil of anonymity to its users by allowing them to hide behind their usernames and post harmful things without much consequence beyond some angry responses. There are plenty of people out there who love to share heinous opinions on women behind the shield of Twitter’s relative anonymity, so their responses should be taken with a grain of salt, but they give a nod to the larger problem at hand.
“It’s a hobbie not a sport, stop posting this shit,” Kevin Dennison, notably without a profile photo, tweeted in response to ESPN’s tweet about South Carolina women’s basketball making it to the Final Four.
In all seriousness, these types of comments are largely a result of the legitimacy which has been stripped from female athletes as a result of the exclusive reliance on the term “women’s sports” and rare use of “men’s sports” in the same capacity.
Until the sports world changes how it qualifies men’s sports, sports played by women will never get the respect and attention they deserve. I’m not advocating against espnW as an outlet to elevate women’s voices and accomplishments, but maybe ESPN—or, sorry, espnM—and other sports powerhouses should put more consideration into how their language surrounding gender in sports reinforces power structures that so many people have been trying to ditch for decades.
Featured Graphic by Liv Charbonneau / Heights Editor