Once upon a time, I was married to a basketball star — a woman who dribbled by age 4 and had been drafted, at 17, by one of the top three teams in college basketball. At 21, she quit the sport that was her life’s dream and motivating passion in life. Why? Because despite her excellence, she knew that she would never be able to make a living doing what she loved, have a family, or fit into the too-small Southern ideals of what it means to be a woman if she kept playing.
Unfortunately, the tale of my dearly beloved is absolutely the norm. Sure, we’ve been talking about gender inequality in sports for decades, but precious little has been done to ensure that women’s athletics ever become more than second-class sporting events. But now even experts are getting vocal on the issue. A new study, which was published this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, argues that a small shift in the way sporting events are scheduled could make a giant shift in our culture.
Before I go on, I have to note the obvious absurd to allow the gender binary to prevail at the highest levels of human performance, but that’s another story.
In case you aren’t aware, women’s games — even at the highest levels of competition — almost always precede men’s. That means that men get prime-time coverage and female athletes become the warm-up act. Researchers drew on data from hundreds of global reports to conclude that simply changing the order of events could act as an equalizer — and they are pleading with the governing bodies of sports to listen.
“We call on the International Olympic Committee and all major sports federations around the world who run events in which both men and women compete, such as tennis, to alternate the order of the men’s and women’s finals between tournaments,” the authors wrote. The researchers noted that there is no evidence that suggests that such a change would impact men’s sports in any way.
Even if you don’t know anything about sportsball, this makes good common sense — no one is going to stop watching NBA or men’s soccer games if they come on an hour later. But people would be more likely to watch more women’s games if they were presented at more accessible times. Win-win.
This could help change a lot of ideas we have about what women are worth and what they are capable of on a giant scale.
As the authors also noted, this could help change a lot of ideas we have about what women are worth and what they are capable of on a giant scale. Imagine a world in which little female-assigned people get to see grown-up versions of themselves on TV — we all know how much representation matters in helping us understand what is possible for our lives.
Importantly, airing women’s sports in prime time would also force big sponsors to take female athletes more seriously. In fact, women the world over have recently been publicly turning down sponsorship opportunities, in part because some of these giant sports labels don’t treat women fairly. Better sponsorship opportunities could play into a long-term culture shift, and all that money and attention could also change the lives of female athletes immediately.
Take, for example, the case of Brittney Griner. Despite the fact that she is a top athlete — Griner has been low-key famous since she was in high school — she was basically working a second job when she took that fateful trip to Russia. What professional male athlete has to work a second job?
Sure, Griner is sponsored by Nike, but there’s a really big difference between getting some free shirts and a bit of cash and getting billions to put your name on a shoe that makes you a household name. How different would her terrifyingly unjust imprisonment be going if Nike was really going to bat for her with their global team of corporate lawyers?
In other dumpster fire news, how different could things have been for our beloved Serena Williams if women’s sports actually took place on an equal playing field? Williams commented on this in her recent editorial in Vogue when she announced her retirement. “I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair,” Williams wrote. “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.”
There’s more than enough money to go around in the world of sports. Even the television industry wants fair play in women’s sports. Data from Nielsen, the TV ratings organization, supports the idea that small changes in scheduling and sponsorship would be good for female athletes and sponsors.
None of what the authors are proposing would hurt male sports, and the positive impact it could have on young female-assigned people from now until forever is monumental. Following these experts’ recommendations could simultaneously move us closer to gender equity, change the lives of thousands of professional female athletes right now, help close the gender pay gap in sports, and it might also encourage universities to change their policies on women’s athletics — which are atrocious.