As the semifinals of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup begin, it should be a time to celebrate the best female soccer players in the world. The tournament is the pinnacle of women’s athletics and should justly be the centerpiece of the sports world for a month as some of the planet’s most athletic women represent their countries and battle for the international soccer crown.
Instead, the tournament has merely illustrated the gender inequalities that still exist in the athletics world.
Since its inception in 1972, the Title IX amendment to the Higher Education Act has indisputably reshaped women’s athletics in the United States. The act, which affects high school athletics as well, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education activity. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, there were fewer than 32,000 female collegiate athletes before Title IX. As of 2011, that number had jumped to 191,000. In the same time span, athletic participation by high school girls has increased from 300,000 to over 3 million.
The law was a critical first step in achieving gender equality, but legal equivalence is not nearly enough. While participation nationwide is now essentially the same across gender lines, there continues to be a general disrespect paid toward women’s sports when compared to men’s.
The ongoing World Cup provides a perfect example of this issue. FIFA has allowed the tournament, hosted by Canada, to take place exclusively on artificial turf fields. Anyone that has played soccer before knows that turf pitches are their nemesis. Slide-tackling on turf can cause painful burns from the friction generated by skin’s contact with the turf’s rubber beads. The black rubber beads greatly absorb heat, causing field temperatures to skyrocket. Field temperatures able to reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which happened during a June 6 match in Edmonton. The nature of the turf discourages players from sliding for loose balls or diving to convert on a header. Overall, the turf deters players from playing as aggressively as they would play in optimal conditions, putting a limitation on the quality of soccer that FIFA would never place on men.
“I’m not going in for a diving header, no way,” United States veteran forward Abby Wambach told the New York Times last year. Wambach is known for her prolific head striking on set pieces.
Never in the history of the men’s World Cup has a match been played on turf. The 2018 and 2022 World Cups scheduled to be played in Russia and Qatar, respectively, will be played on grass as well.
“It’s a gender issue through and through,” Wambach added. This is a cost-related problem that would never exist for the men’s tournament. ESPN the Magazine reported that the estimated cost of installing natural grass at the six World Cup sites would be between $3 million and $6 million. This price is paltry when compared to the $15 billion that the 2014 Men’s World Cup in Brazil cost. In 1994, in preparation for the Men’s World Cup in the United States, FIFA paid $2 million to put in grass instead of the existing turf fields in New Jersey and Detroit. Time and time again, FIFA has proven that it prioritizes men when it comes to spending its money, treating the women as an afterthought.
How can we pretend that these women are treated equally when they are so clearly denied field conditions that world-class athletes are entitled to have? Treating women with this kind of inferiority is unacceptable and is clearly discrimination.
This idea that women are second-class athletes goes far beyond FIFA’s excuse of an organization. Just look at ESPN’s website. The most-visited sports website in the world launched an offshoot website in 2010, espnW, pandering to the female audience. If the site has done anything at all, it has given the company an excuse to take women’s sports off their main home page and to hide it away on a second site, hardly advertised from the home page.
Tucking away all the women’s sports on a site built for women suggests that the company is uninterested in marketing women’s athletics to their predominantly male audience, something that the nation’s top source of sports journalism should be obligated to do.
Anna Clark of the Columbia Journalism Review stated last week, “ESPN, for example, will be on-site for all 52 matches [of the Women’s World Cup]—but its digital coverage is kept under the umbrella of espnW, ‘ESPN’s brand for women who love sports,’ which effectively affirms a stereotype that women’s sports are not of general interest.”
There are other aspects of women’s athletics that demonstrate societies perceived female athletic inferiority, including the lack of game-length parity.
Collegiate baseball games last nine innings, while softball games last seven innings. In Grand Slam tennis tournaments, male players play best-of-5 set matches, while female players play best-of-3 set matches. WNBA quarters last ten minutes, while NBA quarters last twelve minutes. These are long-standing traditional rules that have been in place for, in some cases, several decades, but it’s worth reevaluating.
Why can women not play as long as the men? By having them play shorter games, are not we implicitly suggesting that they are not physically able to play as long? That they are inferior to their male counterparts and do not have the stamina to play a full nine innings, a full five sets, a full forty-eight minutes?
That is ridiculous.
Some of the rules, in softball particularly, are especially ridiculous. Originally, the idea behind women playing softball was that it was easier and less physically demanding. The ball is larger and easier to hit, the bases are closer together, pitching is done underhand and the games are shorter. It is a dated concept from an era that also would have scoffed at women in government, as scientists, or doing anything other than staying home all day maintaining the house.Why does the sports world lag behind and continue to treat women as second-class people, with less of an ability to perform than men? To be frank, there is no reason that women can not play the full, ordinary game of baseball.
Serena Williams, the No. 1 ranked women’s tennis player in the world, chimed in on playing five set matches last year.
“We women are strong, ready, willing and able [to play best-of-five set matches].” Williams said. “All the women players have agreed to it, but it’s not what they want at this time.”
Not what they want at this time? It is a disgrace that these sports continue to adhere to archaic, sexist rules that treat female athletes as subordinates to the men in the limelight. By having women play less, it suggests that they are less capable of playing the sport and that they are not as able-bodied as the men. Where is the evidence to support that?
Sure, women are biologically smaller on average than men and lack the genetics to build comparable muscle mass to the athletic male, but this doesn’t mean their stamina is also less than males.
According to The Atlantic, the ratio between world record 100 meter sprint times from male to females is 0.913. The ratio between world record marathon times is precisely the same: 0.913.
If the female body was less capable in regards to stamina in addition to speed, one would expect the difference between times to increase as the distance grows longer. That simply is not the case.
This is empirical evidence that women have relatively the same athletic stamina that men have. There is no legitimate reason that women cannot play the same length of time as men in these sports. There needs to be gender parity in athletics when it comes to playing time.
Women fight for equal pay, but female athletes should also be fighting for equal play.
The United States has come a long way toward accepting women’s sports. Participation is through the roof, viewership of the Women’s World Cup games are higher than they have ever been before, and there is an increased general interest in women’s athletics in general.
As sports fans, we should not disillusion ourselves by saying that women have achieved sports equality, because that is disappointingly far from the truth. It is time for these sports associations to treat them as the incredible athletes that they are and give them the equal treatment that they are entitled to.
Follow Skyler Gilbert on Twitter: @SkylerJGilbert.