With the celebration of the 36th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) on February 2, I was inspired to reflect on my experiences as a girl who grew up playing and watching sports. The Women’s Sports Foundation, which sponsors NGWSD, says “the confidence, strength and character gained through sports participation are the very tools girls and women need to become strong leaders in sports and life.” While this is a great message, the reality is that female athletes do not receive the same benefits that male athletes do. From media coverage, to salaries, to equipment, there is almost always preferential treatment given to men. This NGSWD, and all days, let’s give our female athletes the same recognition and respect we give their male counterparts.
To earn the same appreciation as male athletes, female athletes must first be given the same attention. There is a chronic issue in the sports world of failing to highlight women in the same way that men are. In fact, in a 2019 study conducted by Sports Illustrated, it was discovered that 95 percent of sports television coverage was directed towards men’s sports. This astounding statistic demonstrates the root of the problem of gender disparities in sports: when sports broadcasting solely promotes men’s sports and ignores the incredible accomplishments of female athletes, they contribute to the idea that male athletes are superior no matter what. Even when a show like SportsCenter highlights women’s sports, it is usually very brief and overshadowed by stories from men’s sports. The first step to equality is mere attention.
Perhaps the largest obstacle to female athletes being held in the same regard as male athletes is the discrepancy in pay, which has become a widely discussed issue in recent years because of the U.S. Women’s National Team lawsuit. Even though the women’s national soccer team is far more successful than the male team (The USWNT has four FIFA World Cup wins while the USMNT remains winless), they are paid just a small fraction of what the men make.
This is not an issue unique to just soccer, or just female athletes, as women around the world are still struggling to overcome the pay gap. For example, professional female basketball players do not even make enough money to support themselves by playing in the WNBA. In the off-season, they must play overseas as well, which gives them less time for rest and therefore leads to an increased likelihood of injuries. The highest-paid WNBA player, superstar Diana Taurasi, gets paid roughly $228,000 per year. Meanwhile, the lowest-paid NBA players, usually rookies who barely leave the bench, have guaranteed starting contracts of $925,000 per year. Paying female athletes higher salaries will unlock the potential of women’s sports as a business and improve the quality of life for its athletes.
Female athletes have also continually been given inferior training supplies and equipment for their contests as opposed to men. An example of this striking difference in access to proper facilities and equipment came in the 2021 NCAA March Madness Tournament. Thanks to a Stanford University coach’s viral TikTok, the disparities in resources were brought to the attention of millions. The video showed a singular set of dumbbells (only up to 30 pounds) and a few yoga mats in the women’s gym. She then shifts the camera over to the men’s facility, where there are countless rows of weight benches, plates, sets of dumbbells, and other machines available for the clearly favored male athletes. The NCAA tried to claim that the blatant inequality was due to a lack of space, but they seemed to quickly find enough space for more appropriate equipment after a myriad of influential sports figures came to the defense of the female athletes. This incident called attention to the inequality that female athletes face on a daily basis as they are not provided with the same special treatment that the nation’s beloved male athletes experience.
I’ve grown up with sports my entire life. Granted, I’ve never played at such high levels as I have been discussing thus far. However, the effects of prioritizing male athletes were certainly felt even at a high school level. The boys’ teams were given the most attention and praised highly even when the girls’ teams were far more competitive and successful. The boys always had nicer, newer uniforms and apparel while the girls’ programs recycle uniforms year after year until the numbers are illegible because they are peeling off the back. The homecoming football game will draw the largest crowd while the girls’ soccer, volleyball, and field hockey teams compete in a county championship game in front of empty bleachers.
As a young girl interested in sports I did not idolize, or even recognize, many professional female athletes; this is a trap that many children fall into. The lack of exposure to women in sports discouraged me from thinking athletics could be a realistic part of my future. Due to the inferior lens female athletes were portrayed in, I felt (as I’m sure many other young girls did) that sports were just a fun hobby and could not actually be as beneficial as a “real” career. It is critical that we change the narrative around women’s sports so that young girls have the opportunity to idolize people who look like them.
So what can we, as a society, do to facilitate the appreciation of women’s sports? Firstly, you can make a habit of celebrating NGWSD every February 2nd. You can turn on a broadcast of any women’s sport (when you can find one). Despite common beliefs, female athletes are just as entertaining as their male counterparts. There is also a wealth of incredible social media accounts that illuminate the record-breaking accomplishments of female athletes, including HighlightHER and Just Women’s Sports on Instagram. At the end of the day, these women are simply asking for the same respect we so easily present to men. It has been long overdue, but with a shift in mindset, it is certainly achievable.