It might be hard to tell from reading my column, but I love sports. Too much, even. It’s why I spend so much of my time watching, thinking, writing about and critiquing them. But I take a tough love approach. Sports are a reflection of our greater culture and so, as with any part of our culture, they are rife with problems like racism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, classism, etc.
At the same time, the focus on sports in our society means they can be a site where we work on some of these problems. Changes on the field, court or pitch can reverberate back into society for the better. That is why it is important that those of us who love sports do not do so uncritically.
And so, at this time in the calendar year when we look ahead and make wishes for our lives that we then hope to implement, here is what I hope sports does better in 2019:
It’s Time To Pay College Players
It’s time to pay college athletes for their work. Amateurism does not create parity in sport. It is not a benefit to the student-athletes. It is exploitative at its core and so is not the feel-good moral or ethical position so many people wish it to be.
The NCAA rakes in over a billion dollars (that’s with a B!) every year. Coaches of big-time college sports make millions of dollars (with additional bonuses when their players do well on the field or in the classroom), which Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy called “immoral” late last year.
People who oppose the idea of paying student-athletes (a group that just so happens to be mainly white people) argue that these kids are getting free college educations and those are very expensive these days, so they don’t deserve any additional compensation. But this comes with caveats, too. Not only do some schools create “paper” classes (classes that exist only on paper) to keep student-athletes eligible to play, but black student-athletes, who make up the majority of the teams that actually generate revenue for their schools, are less likely than their white counterparts or other black students at their schools to obtain degrees.
So what exactly are they really getting out of their free labor?
Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University and a former NCAA champion runner, argues that giving student-athletes lifetime scholarships ― allowing them to complete their degree at any time ― would, in part, address this problem and would finally, finally, finally acknowledge that the current system of going to school while playing a sport on a professional level is a bad one.
Journalist Patrick Hruby has made a strong case that the answer is to simply pay the players. We live in a capitalistic society that has figured out how to pay people in a whole host of other scenarios. Certainly we can figure this one out, too.
But if you need incremental change, follow the Olympic model of allowing players to make money off their own likenesses, give them lifelong health insurance to compensate them for the long-term detriments to their bodies and brains, or put a salary cap on the whole thing.
There are a lot of ideas here. Let’s start implementing them.
It’s Time To Really Invest In Women’s Sports
My hope this year is that not only will more fans turn up in person and even more watch/stream women’s games, but that sports media will make more space for them. 2019 is the year of the Women’s World Cup, and so a perfect time to focus on embracing women’s sports.
We are already in the middle of an exciting women’s collegiate basketball season. There’s never been more parity in the game. The University of Connecticut looked mortal last week when they lost at Baylor 68-57, the Huskies’ first regular-season loss since November 2014, snapping a 126-game streak. And that parity feeds up to a stacked WNBA, which saw one of its strongest rookie classes ever last year, plus a season where postseason slots were decided in the final games of the regular season and where the semifinal matchups both went to five games in their best-of-five series. This can only mean great things for the 2019 season.
More sports fans like me must speak up and hold their favorite teams and players accountable. The more of us there are, the more rapidly things will change.
Unfortunately, the NCAA volleyball season is over but put it on your calendar now to check it out in the fall.
In better news, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the National Women’s Hockey League are in season. Qualifying rounds for the first tennis grand slam, the Australian Open, have begun. How can you not be hyped to watch Serena, Venus, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep, et al.? The National Women’s Soccer League will return for its record-setting seventh season and will pause in June for the Women’s World Cup. Did I mention the Women’s World Cup?! My body is ready.
I also want leagues and organizations to invest more resources throughout those communities and countries where girls and women have poor or simply less access to sport. I will die on this hill of pushing women’s sports and I invite you onto the hill with me in 2019.
It’s Time To Be Better Fans
While there are plenty of other things I could wish for this year (i.e., sports teams and related organizations improving their response to reports of gendered violence, or sports media diversifying who covers this beat and which teams or stories they follow), I have one last big hope ― this one directed at other fans. We, as a group, gotta do better.
Look, I know that sports would be more fun if you never had to think about its seedy underbelly of sexual abuse, domestic violence, wage disparity, racism, homophobic taunts, terrible team names, I could go on. But for so many of us, there’s no choice. The issues we face in our everyday lives also appear on the field, pitch or court.
The best way to deal with this is not to ignore it; these problems and those advocating for change are not going away. Ignoring them simply leaves you morally bankrupt in pursuit of selfish enjoyment.
So, for 2019, I propose that you embrace being the loud-mouth fan in the stands and in life. I want more sports fans like me to speak up and hold their favorite teams and players accountable. The more of us there are, the more rapidly things will change. Let’s make sports more and more enjoyable for more and more people, and let’s do it sooner rather than later.
Here’s to 2019 and loving sports even more than we do now!
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”