Kinzah Khan responds to the perception of women’s sports in modern society, drawing from personal experience and feminist theory in the process.
Sport is paramount in our society. It has the ability to bring nations together in (relatively) healthy competition. The Olympics is the best example: for two weeks, the whole world’s attention is focused on the competition and little more. Athletes are a specific kind of celebrity: their reputation parallels those of soldiers and war heroes, bringing national pride through their successes. They yield economic benefit and even exercise social and political influence, acting as role models and holding a principal place as inspiration for the next generation. In short, sports, and those who play them, hold a privileged place in modern society, perhaps more than ever. But sadly, especially for women, sports are not born equal.
While the trivialisation of women in sport is still a problem, that is not the focus of this article; it would surely be ungrateful of me to dismiss the acknowledgement women in sport receive. Of course, the celebration of women in sport has expanded through female-focused ceremonies, such as UCL’s very own Women in Sport EoS Celebration. Having said that, the fact there is a need for women to be celebrated separately from men in the first place implies female athletes would not be acknowledged in the same way as men, had it not been for the separation. Furthermore, the respect that women in sport deserve remains out of reach – let’s not forget the Serena Williams “hysterical woman” scenario. But for argument’s sake, we should appreciate the increased acknowledgement of women in sports. It is the continuous belittling of female dominated sports that I wish to discuss because, quite frankly, I’m sick of it.
Perhaps I’m biased, but I believe netball bears the brunt of this effect. I’ve played netball for 11 seasons now: from school to uni, from district to county. I’ve dedicated a huge portion of my life to the sport, and have achieved within it. Before I continue, allow to make this clear: this is not a complaint or a cry for attention by any means; it would be incredibly ungrateful and a huge disservice to my friends and family to claim I have not been credited for my participation in the sport. Nevertheless, through these 11 seasons, I have continuously heard the same statement about netball over and over again, to the point where it sounds like a bad joke: “But it’s not even a real sport!” After the naïve individual stakes their claim, I ask why. To this they normally say a combination of the following:
“So, you can’t even contact?!” “You don’t even run!” “There’s so much standing around!” “You can’t even bounce the ball?” “It’s so easy, there’s no skill!” “You just have to be tall!” “The court is so small!” Honestly, the only reluctant credit we get is that there is no backboard to the hoop, and even then, that compliment is somehow twisted to criticise the fact that we can’t shoot from anywhere on court. I could spend the rest of this article disproving each of these statements with reference to individual rules, scenarios and players, but this is not meant to be a lecture on why netball is a lot more complex and intense at an advanced level than when you played it in year 6.
Instead, the discussion expands to question exactly what constitutes a sport: the basic assumption would be that it depends on how much physical contact there is, where rugby is apparently the benchmark. However, we acknowledge tennis to be a sport, where there is no contact whatsoever. So, perhaps speed and agility are the baseline? But rowing is hardly an exercise in agility. Then, it depends on raw physical strength and unrelenting stamina. Well, what about archery, where focus and practice are the essence? Or swimming, where physical strength and skill must be adapted to excelling in an entirely different medium? Or boxing, where psychological dominance equates the value of strength? What about hockey and lacrosse, where the player has to apply their ability to the manoeuvring of a separate object? Or table tennis, where reaction time is key. In football, a player has to refine the skill of engaging a typically secondary body part to carry out their play. The point I am trying to make is that there is a near infinite number of sports, all of which are credited for the particular skillset they require, each of which differs from the other. And yet, female dominated sports are still dismissed because there is something they could never capture: the somehow essential presence of men.
Sports associated with women are rarely taken as seriously: netball, cheerleading, dance of every variety, beach volleyball, yoga, softball and many more. Women who play these sports are constantly having to combat the notion that these aren’t sports and have their physical prowess belittled as a result. Additionally, female driven sports are grotesquely hypersexualised, in place simply for spectators to gawk at, rather than appreciating their athleticism. Furthermore, for the women that are part of male dominated sports, they are still criticised for having a ‘male physique’, and their apparent subsequent lack of femininity. The unfounded criticism of female dominated sports has no viable defence, yet those who criticise are too ashamed to admit their mind-set is reflective of the medieval assumption that men do sports and women do not, and if they do, they must be easy versions of those sports.
Women in sports are not allowed to be considered independently to men; female-led sports are belittled, and events such as women’s rugby and women’s football are inevitably linked to the men’s versions of those sports. Given the gravity sport is granted in our society, this implication may lead to the sweeping conclusion that women in themselves do not have an identity independent of men; it represents how women are marginalised in every sense. In Gender Makes the World Go Round, Cynthia Enol makes the excellent point that masculinity is not studied in the same way as feminism in the context of international relations. In political academia and society in general, men have an identity that is independent, while women tend to be studied only in reference to men. We consider the success of women based on the men in their lives, attaching the female identity to the male patriarch, casting ourselves as secondary for consideration.
This is a profoundly complex debate that 1000 words can never truly do justice. I understand there are other elements to the debate, such as viewership, advertising and other economic considerations, and the belittling of netball is not just about men and women. But my conclusion remains: it’s not reasonable to claim a sport isn’t a sport, just because it’s mainly women that play it. It perpetuates a toxic mindset that women do not meet the ambiguous standards men have outlined for what constitutes physical credibility, as well as perpetuating the idea that female identities are not valuable unless they are attached to those of men. It’s about time we evened the score on this one.